HL Deb 13 December 1993 vol 550 cc1115-8

2.47 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will state the nature and extent of the United Kingdom's parliamentary control over the amounts paid or payable from the Exchequer to meet the expenditure of the European Community as detailed in the annual budgets, prior to their establishment by the Council of Ministers concerned.

The Minister of State, Department of Transport (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, the Government deposit documentation and submit explanatory memoranda on the Community budget for consideration under the arrangements for scrutiny of European Community proposals. The explanatory memoranda set out the implications for the UK's contribution to the Community budget.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, in bringing something into the public domain rather than allowing it to remain private, can the noble Earl explain why he is unable to answer the Question on the Order Paper? It asks what parliamentary control exists over the expenses. Is the noble Earl aware that it is no use citing to me the various appendices and parts of the Edinburgh conference? I want a definite answer. Is there any parliamentary responsibility or not? Are the Government answerable to Parliament or not for those expenses?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I answered the noble Lord's Question. Explanatory memoranda are available. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, was at the forefront in ensuring parliamentary Questions and scrutiny.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does Parliament have the opportunity, through the procedures, to refuse finance to the organs and institutions of the EC? That is what we want to know. What parliamentary control exists over the financing of the EC?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that when we joined the European Community there was an agreement as to the amount of the budget increase provided that it stayed within the limit. We make certain that it does; that is our responsibility.

Lord Finsberg

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether or not any Answer that he gives would satisfy the noble Lords, Lord Bruce of Donington and Lord Stoddart of Swindon?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I can inform my noble friend that on certain issues the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, and I have been very much in agreement.

Viscount Tonypandy

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the House owes a great debt to the noble Lords, Lord Bruce of Donington and Lord Stoddart of Swindon, for the research that they carry out and the way in which they keep us all aware of what the Government are doing?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, there are times when I think that the noble Lords, Lord Bruce of Donington and Lord Stoddart of Swindon, are the Opposition Front Bench.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I certainly wish they were, particularly on these matters. I have learnt more about financing the European Community from listening to the questions and the answers than in any other way. I wish to help the noble Earl to clarify his answer. Am I right that essentially Parliament votes money for the Government in the normal way without voting it specifically for the Community? Or are there also examples of where one is actually voting in a separate way in terms of finance for the Community? I know the commitment under the various pieces of European legislation, but am I right that essentially the control of public expenditure here is the same as for the control of finance in other ways?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, provided the budget complies with the legislation, including the legally binding ceilings on revenue from own resources, which is 1.2 per cent. of EC GNP, further specific authority for the annual contribution is not required because of the European Communities Act 1972.

Lord Peston

My Lords, is my noble friend Lord Bruce therefore right? Are there examples of a method or principle of control that is different from that applying to public finance within the United Kingdom economy? Is the noble Earl confirming that what my noble friend says is correct?

The Earl of Caithness

No, my Lords. There is parliamentary scrutiny because all the documents are laid before Parliament. But provided the budget is within the own resources agreement and within the legislation that is laid down for it, no further specific authority is required.

Lord Cockfield

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the budgetary procedures in the European Community are significantly different from those in the United Kingdom and that, in particular, the budget is the arithmetical result of decisions already taken in the appropriate Council of Ministers or by the European Council? If those sums are to be challenged the appropriate place to challenge them is at the point when the policy is agreed. If one waits until the budget appears the horse has long since bolted.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I certainly agree with my noble friend that there is a different procedure for the European budget as opposed to our own Budget. There are the strict criteria by which the budget has to abide, and the Court of Auditors checks the European Parliament's budget, as indeed it checks our own.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, the noble Earl has acknowledged that the procedure is different. Of course, it is! But is it not very incongruous that when the Chancellor of the Exchequer talks about a public sector borrowing requirement of something in the region of £50 billion and takes it out, or proposes to take it out, on the poorer sections of the community, there is expenditure amounting to some £3.5 billion net going out of the same funds? Should not the Government, at the intergovernmental conferences, insist on some amendment being made to the limits already concurred with?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord knows full well that it was entirely due to the actions of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister at the Edinburgh summit that the increases in the budget were kept to the level that they were. Others in the Community wished to push them higher. The noble Lord will be aware too that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister achieved last weekend a reduction of the borrowing which would have affected our children's and our children's children's taxes.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that if what his noble friend Lord Cockfield says is correct it reveals an appalling state of affairs? Is it really the case that every time a decision is made in the European Union that automatically goes into the budget without any further ado?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, provided it is within the limits, yes.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I ask the Minister once again to remind the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, that the authority for contributions to the European Community budget is that of the European Communities Act 1972 and therefore by Act of the British Parliament? Will he further remind him that, although many weak reasons have been given for disobeying particular Acts of Parliament, a defence of parliamentary sovereignty cannot be among them?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the European Communities Act 1972 controls what happens. We will take action if it is outside that.

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