HL Deb 10 June 1992 vol 537 cc1262-5

2.50 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will upgrade the Ministerial Sub-Committee on European Questions (OPD (E1)) to a full Ministerial Committee of the Cabinet under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Wakeham)

No, my Lords. It is appropriate that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs should chair the Cabinet sub-committee concerned specifically with European Community issues. European Community matters may also be considered in other ways; for example, by OPD or by the Cabinet under the chairmanship of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. He will doubtless be aware that the terms of reference of that particular ministerial sub-committee, under the chairmanship of his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, are merely to report as necessary to the Ministerial Committee on Defence and Overseas Policy, of which the Prime Minister is himself chairman. Does the noble Lord agree that, regrettably, he himself, who represents this House, is not a member of either the ministerial sub-committee or of the ministerial committee? Does not the noble Lord agree that in view of the fact that the Prime Minister will assume the presidency of the European Council on 1st July it is entirely fitting that the Prime Minister should be seen to be fully in control of European Community policy and Britain's place within Europe rather than it being dealt with as a matter of Foreign Office concern?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I believe that these are matters which are most appropriately left to the judgment of the Prime Minister. As I indicated to the noble Lord in my original Answer, major matters of policy are discussed in Cabinet or in the committee chaired by the Prime Minister. I believe that that is the best way to proceed. As for myself, I have a way of getting to the meetings if I really think that your Lordships would like me to be there.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, am I not right in thinking—and will my noble friend put me right if I am wrong—that the constitution and chairmanship of Cabinet committees is not a matter of government responsibility but the personal responsibility of the Prime Minister of the day?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, my noble and learned friend would have put me right if I had got it wrong. He is absolutely right and that is why I said that such matters are best left to the Prime Minister.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that his reply seems to indicate that the Government still regard European matters as foreign affairs?

Lord Wakeham

No, my Lords. These are matters which are dealt by the Cabinet, by OPD and, as appropriate, by a sub-committee. European affairs feature rather largely in our discussions at the present time.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, does not the noble Lord the Leader of the House agree that this is a committee of the first importance, especially at so critical a moment for the Government? Will he tell the House how often the committee meets and, in view of the importance of economic issues and the fact that we are on the threshold of the single market, whether there is a Treasury Minister on the committee?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, the list of those who are members of the committee has been published, but I do not have it to hand. I believe that the Treasury is almost certainly represented; I cannot conceive of the Treasury not being represented. However, I do not believe that I should be tempted to give the noble Lord the information he requires because the Prime Minister has made it quite clear that he does not propose to give details of the topics discussed by individual committees, the timings of meetings or their proceedings.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Leader of the House aware that my noble friend is seeking to assist the Government?

Lord Mason of Barnsley

As always, my Lords.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, that is particularly so on matters European. My noble friend has great expertise in the matter. Would it not be useful to listen to what my noble friend said and uprate that particular committee, especially bearing in mind the mess that has been created in Europe recently? Would it not be as well for the Prime Minister in his cabbage patch contemplating the Maastricht Treaty also to contemplate whether he should take the chair of that particular sub-committee?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, it never crossed my mind that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, was trying to be anything other than helpful in his Question. I am surprised that his noble friend felt it necessary to remind me of that fact. I had taken the noble Lord's instructions to heart. I listened very carefully to his Question. I hope that he will forgive me if I feel that it is the Prime Minister's judgment on which I am most likely to rely in these matters.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, will my noble friend reflect for a moment upon the awful fate which might await anybody who was unwise enough to accept assistance from the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, or the originator of the Question? Does he agree that intrusion into such delicate matters is quite improper and indecent and that they are far better left unprobed and unrevealed?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, my noble friend will know that I shall listen carefully to his advice. Indeed, I am not so proud that I shall not listen to advice from wherever it may come. However, over the years my noble friend has been a wiser counsellor than perhaps some of the noble Lords opposite, if they do not mind me saying so.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, will the Minister inform the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, that there is no machinery by which a Question can be addressed to the Prime Minister personally in this House and one can only address a Question to the Government? Will the noble Lord please accept my assurance that in this instance, as in many others, I am seeking to be helpful to Her Majesty's Government in relation to European matters? Does he agree that at the moment there is considerable disagreement in the Government's own ranks, as publicised in the press, and on the Government Back Benches? Does he agree that it would be in the interests of the nation as a whole if the Prime Minister could be seen to be speaking on this subject for his entire Cabinet, united under his chairmanship?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, up to this moment the noble Lord had conducted this exchange in a way with which I could find no criticism. However, I thought that his last question was perhaps a little excessive. The noble Lord should not believe everything that he reads in the newspapers. I have no anxieties about disunity in the Cabinet. I was present at the meetings of which details appear to have been leaked, and the reports do not appear to bear much resemblance to what happened.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, will the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal, in the spirit of open government which I know the Government accept, tell the House whether among the membership of the committee are Mr. Lilley and Mr. Portillo?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I am not sure to which committee the noble Lord is referring. We have moved fairly freely from one committee to another. If it is the committee which is the subject of the original Question, neither of my right honourable friends appears to be a member of that committee.