HL Deb 26 October 1992 vol 539 cc904-6

3.8 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, whatever the eventual fate of the Maastricht Treaty, they will seek the inclusion of culture in the area of competence of the European Commission.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the Government are committed to securing the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. Article 128 in that treaty formalises and puts on a clear legal base the co-operation in the cultural area which is already taking place. Without Maastricht ratification there would be no legal basis for any extension of Community competence to this area.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for that Answer in so far as I understand it. Will he give a commitment that the future activities of British arts associations, which, after all, contribute some £8 billion to the nation's balance of payments, will be vigorously promoted and fully protected by Her Majesty's Government in any future European Community arrangements?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we certainly hope so, but we must wait and see when the Maastricht Treaty arrives in this House.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, has my noble friend seen the letter in today's Times from the heads of a number of leading art firms in this country pointing out the folly of the latest set of directives from Brussels and the likelihood that they will ruin London's position as a leading place for arts sales? Does that not suggest that the further we keep culture away from Brussels the better?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I have indeed read the letter that appears in The Times today. We appreciate the anxiety about the proposed directive and regulation. We have been involved in negotiations to achieve movement away from the originally overly-restrictive proposals. Much has been achieved both in the legal requirements in the body of the instrument and in the composition of the annex.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, my question arises from that put by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. Is the noble Viscount aware that the proposal to impose VAT on imports of works of art and antiques into the Community from outside the Community will have an adverse effect on our art trade since over half the imports come from outside the Community? Will the Government take up that issue?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, yes, we are aware of the worries about the seventh VAT directive. It is a matter for my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, the Secretary of State for National Heritage will meet with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Paymaster General this week to discuss the future of the proposal.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, would it not be far more productive for Her Majesty's Government to encourage the Commission to do the work that it is already supposed to have in hand? Is the noble Viscount aware that in particular since the departure of the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, from the Commission, it has nothing to offer in the cultural field?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we are today discussing Article 128 of the treaty which means that, at this country's insistence, action can be taken only on the basis of unanimity. Article 128 also lists a limited number of specific areas for Community cultural action and therefore excludes many others. I am sure that the noble Lord will welcome that.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the noble Viscount agree that the various nations and peoples of Europe have successfully managed to produce countless magnificent examples of art, architecture, literature and music over many centuries without feeling the need for assistance or interference from bureaucrats or Eurocrats? Moreover, does he agree that the principle of subsidiarity, which his right honourable friend the Prime Minister supports so strongly, must effectively remove perhaps 98 per cent. of what might loosely be described as culture from the competence of the European Community?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the Community has been increasingly involved in cultural activity. Article 128 of the Maastricht Treaty establishes that position for the first time on a clear legal basis. The text underlines the importance and respect for national and regional cultural diversity. It makes clear that Community action is to support and supplement action by the member states.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, as the Minister pointed out, under the Maastricht Treaty the promotion of culture and heritage conservation is spelt out clearly in Articles 92 and 128. However, if the Maastricht Treaty falls, does not come before Parliament, or disappears, does the Minister agree that the Council of Ministers can take action on culture under Article 235 of the Treaty of Rome if acting unanimously on a proposal from the Commission? Will the Government vigorously pursue that route if it becomes necessary?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right. Culture is covered by Article 235 of the Treaty of Rome, and action by the Commission by Article 36 for national treasures. The important factor about Article 128, about which we speak, is that it provides a legal framework for what already happens and an appropriate framework as to what should be pursued at European level rather than member state level.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that an increasing number of people in this country are anxious about the competence that the Commission already has in this country over many areas? They are worried that that competence may be increased. Is he further aware that Community competence has caused disaster to the farming industry, the fishing industry, our balance of payments and to our public sector borrowing requirement? Who on earth would want the Commission's competence to stray now into cultural matters?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord has read Article 128.5. The last sentence states that the Commission shall adopt only recommendations that have been unanimously approved.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that in informing the House about Article 128 of the treaty, he has just enunciated a powerful argument against ratifying that treaty?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, that is an intriguing question. I shall have to consider it before I answer.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, if I understood the Minister correctly, Article 128 makes legal what has occurred until now. Does that mean that the previous position has been illegal?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, no, the proposal defines the area of competence that the regulation will cover in future. It will be restricted to matters that are important at a European level rather than member state level. That is what matters.