HL Deb 15 February 1993 vol 542 cc920-31

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, with leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the process of ratification of the Maastricht Treaty.

"As the House knows, the purpose of the Bill before the House is to ensure that UK law where necessary conforms with the provisions of the Maastricht Treaty.

"My right honourable friend the Minister of State said in this House on 20th January that if Amendment No. 27 were carried, United Kingdom law would not conform to the provisions of the Treaty on European Union and that the United Kingdom would therefore be unable to ratify the Treaty.

"Those remarks were, of course, based on legal advice. However, in the light of discussion in this House and elsewhere, further careful and detailed consideration was given to the matter, and the Attorney-General and the Lord Advocate were asked for their advice. I think it right, with the agreement and on the authority of the Law Officers, to inform the House of the advice at the earliest practicable opportunity, and to explain the Government's position in the light of that advice.

"Madam Speaker, in accordance with our usual practice when legislating, Clause 1 of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill has been drafted to incorporate in our domestic law all amendments and protocols to the Treaty of Rome which were included in the Treaty on European Union.

"The House will recall that the protocol on social policy authorises the other eleven member states of the Community to have recourse to the institutions, procedures and mechanisms of the Treaty of Rome for the purposes of implementing their agreement on cooperation in the social area—the Social Chapter. Most significantly, it specifies that acts adopted by the Council under the terms of the protocol shall not be applicable to the United Kingdom.

"Amendment No. 27 would exclude from the scope of Clause 1 of the Bill the protocol on social policy. That is all that Amendment No. 27 would do. The amendment would not have any effect on the Treaty itself. It would not change the agreement among eleven into an agreement among twelve. It would not bring the Social Chapter into effect in this country. The amendment would simply exclude the protocol from incorporation in domestic law under the European Communities Act. The legal question is therefore whether the United Kingdom could ratify the Treaty even if the protocol were not incorporated into domestic law.

"The Law Officers advise that, if the amendment were carried, acts adopted under the Protocol would still not apply to the United Kingdom. This is because it is of the very nature of the protocol that acts adopted under it should not be applicable to the United Kingdom. It follows that no rights and obligations arise from those acts which need to be given effect in our domestic law.

"In summary, Madam Speaker, the Law Officers consider that, while incorporation of the protocol in domestic law is desirable, it is not necessary for ratification or implementation of the Maastricht Treaty. In other words, there would be no impediment to ratification if the amendment were carried because acts adopted under the protocol would still not apply to the United Kingdom.

"Madam Speaker, there can be no question of the United Kingdom ratifying the Treaty except through the normal parliamentary procedures. The House will have the opportunity at Third Reading, after detailed consideration of all aspects of the Bill, to decide whether the Bill should pass into law. The United Kingdom will not ratify the Treaty unless the Bill is approved by Parliament. But Amendment No. 27 is not a proposal to adhere to the Social Chapter and its passage would not be a decision that this country should do so. The Government will continue to oppose the amendment because, as I have said, incorporation of the protocol in domestic law would be desirable. But, in the light of the Law Officers' advice, if the amendment were carried it would have no effect on our ability to ratify the Treaty.

"Madam Speaker, this constitutes a different situation from that implied by the honourable Member for Copeland when he moved the amendment and my right honourable friend's remarks in the House on 20th and 27th January. I regret that the legal advice then given to the House was not correct.

"Madam Speaker, the Government's position on the substance of the matter remains unchanged. We continue to believe the Social Chapter will harm growth and jobs in this country. We intend to press forward with the Bill so that we can ratify the Treaty which I, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer negotiated at Maastricht, and which won an overwhelming majority on Second Reading in this House."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.20 p.m.

Lord Richard

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement which was made in another place this afternoon. It is a most extraordinary Statement and is yet another twist in the saga of how the Government are trying to pass the Bill through Parliament.

It is understandable that the Government should wish to make a Statement on the subject this afternoon. We on this side of the House are grateful for any scraps of information which the Government can throw at us which cast some light on their intentions for today. Tomorrow their intentions may be different but this afternoon we have received a certain clarity from the noble Baroness. That is so in particular after the weekend, when heavy government briefing gave the firm impression that the bypassing of Parliament and the use of the Royal Prerogative were being seriously considered. That was a daft idea and am delighted that the Government appear to have rejected it.

It is a strange Statement about a strange episode which started with the unfortunate Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones, Minister of State at the Foreign Office. On 20th January he told the House of Commons in unmistakable terms that if Labour's Amendment No. 27 were carried, United Kingdom law would not conform to the treaty's provisions, so it would be impossible for the United Kingdom to ratify the treaty".—[Official Report, Commons, 20/1/93; col. 403.] That was a clear and unambiguous statement. We thought that we knew where we stood, the Euro-sceptics thought that they knew where they stood and even the Government thought that they knew where they stood—at least on 20th January.

In addition to being told that on 20th January, we were also then told that, if Amendment No. 27 were carried, fresh ratifications would be needed by the other 11 countries which have signed the treaty. I assume that the idea of fresh ratification has disappeared like snow as a result of the Law Officers' advice, as has Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones' firm and unequivocal statement.

We are now told that, if the amendment were carried, it would have little effect on the ratification process. If that is so, what on earth has the argument been about? For six or eight weeks, Parliament, the chattering classes, the press and those who follow the intricacies of our parliamentary procedure have been obsessed with the effect that Amendment No. 27 will have on the ratification procedure. We are now told that acceptance will have no effect whatever and that, after consulting the Law Officers, it appears that Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones was wrong.

The Government will know that there is more than one view of the matter; there is that held by the Euro-sceptics, and by Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones on 20th January, and there is the somewhat belated view set out in the Statement. I have even heard the suggestion that, as a way out, we should call a halt to the proceedings and consult the European Court on the correct interpretation. But to be serious, what a farce this has all become—

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Richard

My Lords, having negotiated an opt-out—which was absurd and ill-advised action to take because the other 11 countries with governments of different shades of opinion had accepted the treaty—the Government have sunk themselves into a parliamentary procedural mess which is unique in my limited experience. I recognise that some Members of this House have far more experience than I, but I suspect that not even they could have devised a situation such as that into which the Government have sunk themselves.

In order to get out of that mess the first thing the Government did was to float the idea of bypassing Parliament on the basis that Amendment No. 27 mattered. If Amendment No. 27 does not matter, why on earth should the Government go out of their way—as clearly they did before yesterday's press coverage—to float the idea that all they have to do is to ignore what is happening in the House of Commons and to use the Royal Prerogative to ratify the treaty? Now they have produced fresh legal advice to show that in any event the amendment is of no consequence. No doubt the Government anticipate that that opinion will undermine the strength of the opposition to Maastricht which exists on their own Benches.

I must say—and I do not say it with any joy because the situation affects the standing of the country just as much as it affects that of the Government—that in this matter they have elevated drift to a political principle and vacillation to the first rule of parliamentary survival. It is the politics of panic, chaos and confusion. Perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness one serious question—

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

Hear, hear!

Lord Richard

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord should wait because I hope that, when he hears the question, he will lend his weight and authority to obtaining an answer from the Government. When did the Government consult the Law Officers? When, in this extraordinary process, were the Attorney General and the Lord Advocate consulted? Was it as long ago as 20th January when Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones made his now apparently erroneous statement? Did the forensic alarm bells start to ring as long ago as 20th January? They do not appear to have done so—or, if they did, no one listened. Only when it became clear that the Government were in serious trouble in holding their majority in another place was the fresh opinion of two Government Ministers—that is, the Law Officers—trotted out. The Minister will forgive us if we approach this latest twist with deep scepticism. Such political manoeuvring will be neither understood nor appreciated by the country. It reduces Parliament to a laughing stock. The Government should be ashamed of the way in which they have handled this important piece of legislation.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement made by her right honourable friend in another place. I congratulate her on the elegance and sangfroid with which she stood on her head. She did it very well indeed. I expected that the Statement would be an attempt to "tidy up the battlefield", in the words of Field Marshal Montgomery. The battlefield was indeed in a mess. The confusion about the status of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill was widespread in inner circles of the Government, among the Law Officers and in the Palace of Westminster. Outside the great British public must be bewildered as to what the hell is happening. As to the position of our colleagues in the European Community, I suspect that many of them have come to the conclusion that General de Gaulle was right.

It is a most humiliating episode. I have been trying to make up my mind about precisely what this Statement means. It makes three points, as I understand it. The first is that the Government had no intention of using the Royal Prerogative to ratify the treaty without the approval of Parliament. It is an extraordinary state of affairs that that must be said. Secondly, it is stated that whatever happens the Government will stick to their guns on the Social Charter. Perhaps we shall return to that matter.

Thirdly, it is stated that Amendment No 27, on which the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition did not touch, does not do what it is intended to do—that is, that it does not affect the treaty and does not bind us into the Social Charter, which is what I understood it was meant to do.

I am totally incapable of judging whether that is correct. I received the new information only a short time ago and have received different information at different times on different days since early January. If the new interpretation is correct, it is an interesting and important fact. It means that those who had three objectives in mind, as did we on these Benches—that is, to have the United Kingdom ratify the Treaty of Maastricht, to bring the treaty into force as soon as possible and to end the exclusion of the United Kingdom from the Social Chapter—must look at the amendment again and, if necessary, table a new amendment which produces the effect that we want.

I do not think there are any questions we can possibly ask the noble Baroness. The question that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, has asked is an interesting and relevant one that historians will puzzle over. Who told Mr. Garel-Jones to say what he said? Why did he say it if he was not told? Why did the Attorney-General not notice that it was a gross misinterpretation of the law? All of those questions are fascinating but I do not believe that the noble Baroness can be expected to answer them. They are probably unanswerable. However, what is a pity is that this country should have been put into a humiliating and ridiculous position.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that there was never any intention to bypass Parliament. He should refrain from believing all that he reads in his Sunday newspapers. Since noble Lords may have gained a wrong impression from the noble Lord, Lord Richard, I should say that it was not Mr. Garel-Jones who started the confusion; it started with the drafting and moving of Amendment No. 27 by the noble Lord's honourable friend in another place, Mr. Jack Cunningham.

The noble Lord asked me when the Government consulted the Law Officers. Your Lordships know that in any government department it is normal practice always to seek the advice of departmental legal advisers in the first instance. The problem arises solely from the effect of the Opposition amendment, not the terms of the Bill as presented to the House. It was in the light of the discussion in the House —as it emerged from the reading of Hansard—and elsewhere that careful and detailed consideration was given to what had been said. Surely, that is a purpose of the Committee stage. That was how the Law Officers were brought in and their advice sought early last week. I agree that it is very easy to be wise after the event. I believe there can be no Front-Bencher in either House of Parliament who can honestly say that there have not been times when the legal advice first given has later been changed.

In response to the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, I must say that some may be answerable but the confusion arose from many of the speeches made on 20th and 27th January in another place by Liberal and Labour Members of Parliament. The confusion that has reigned has been due partly to the massive speculation about what would happen to Amendment No. 27. The Government intend to use Parliament. They do not intend to incorporate the Social Chapter. Amendment No. 27 will be resisted. If Members care to move another amendment it will be for the Chairman of Ways and Means in another place, or for the Chairman of Committees in this place when the Bill comes before this House, to say whether that amendment is in order.

4.33 p.m.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, when I saw the word "Maastricht" on the television screen I had the fleeting hope that the Government would come to the House and tell us that the whole thing had been dropped and the Government would get on with their proper job of governing the country. That not being the case, we have to pursue what we are offered. Like other noble Lords I am left in considerable doubt. I have not had the advantage of studying the text, but, as I understand the Minister, the reason why there is no worry about it affecting ratification is that Amendment No. 27 makes no difference to the treaty or the Bill. If it makes no difference, why do the Government resist it? Why do the Government not say, "If you want to have a silly amendment, have it"? Because the Government are resisting the amendment they must believe that it has some effect. The question I ask my noble friend is: what effect do the Government think that the amendment will have?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I well understand the question that my noble friend Lord Beloff puts but I am sorry to disappoint him. He may still be in doubt. He has posed exactly the question that I posed when I first saw this coming. The point is that the Government wish to have a sensible situation as between our domestic law and international and Community law. Were Amendment No. 27 to be passed there would be no reason why it could not be dealt with in a different way. It would simply be tidier and cause less confusion in the future. I think that the less confusion we have in both Houses and in the country the better.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, the noble Baroness simply cannot get away with blaming this on the Opposition, the pundits, the national press, local press and anybody else they may wish to name. The fact of the matter is that, as the Statement says, her right honourable friend the Minister of State said in the House of Commons on 20th January that if Amendment No. 27 were carried United Kingdom law would not conform to the provisions of the Treaty of European Union and therefore the United Kingdom would not be able to ratify the treaty. That was the advice given at that time. Is the noble Baroness saying that that advice was not given after consultation with the Law Officers? If it was given with the advice of the Law Officers when did they change their minds? Why did they not consider the matter in depth so that proper advice was given to the House of Commons in the first instance?

My second point is a very serious one. Here we have a bit of advice that was given to Members of the House of Commons on one particular amendment. But advice has been given on many other amendments, and legal advice will be given on many more, not only in the House of Commons but in the House of Lords. How can we rely on the legal advice we are now receiving from the Law Officers? This is a very serious matter that has to be addressed by the Government, because it is incumbent upon the other place and this House in a serious matter such as this that affects the Constitution of this country, to ensure that all Members in both Houses are given legal advice that is correct and will stand up to scrutiny not only by British courts but by the European Court as well.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, that the earlier advice taken by Mr. Garel-Jones in another place came from departmental legal advisers, not from the Law Officers. We have sought the agreement of the Law Officers and their wisdom on this matter in the light of the discussions that took place in another place on 20th and 27th January. For all the noble Lord's protestations, I have to say that I have been a Member first of another place and now this House for quite long enough to remember when Labour Government Ministers—in those far-off days—came to the House to explain that the departmental legal advisers had not advised the Minister correctly. I see the Chief Whip of the Labour Party nodding his head; he remembers it, too. This situation is not unique. However, it is an uncomfortable situation which none of us would have wished to occur. It has occurred and we have put it right. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, asks how we can now have confidence in the Law Officers. I have first-class confidence in our Law Officers. I can assure your Lordships that they will be consulted whenever I have the slightest doubt. I am sure that that is true for all my honourable friends in another place.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, I hope I may put forward a rather different point of view from my noble friend. Must it not be assumed, now that the Law Officers' opinion has been given—two Law Officers of different jurisdictions have given their opinion —that that is correct, it is wholly improper to suggest, as it was suggested, that that advice was actuated by political considerations? The disreputable conspiracy between the official Labour Party and a few Conservative disloyalists has not merely proved totally unprincipled but also totally ineffective.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble and learned friend for those comments. He is, of course, correct. I wish to emphasise one comment my noble and learned friend made. This matter is not the result of political consideration but of legal consideration by the Law Officers. There is no way in which it should be interpreted otherwise.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, is the noble Baroness, whom we all like and respect, really proud of the fact that after 14 years of her party's government, they should be ready to enter into these legal contortions to prevent Britain, alone of the 12 members of the European Community, adhering to a treaty to offer employment protection rights? Would she like to argue that case with the workers of Leyland Daf at the moment?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I respect the noble Lord and his previous experience in the European Commission. However, I should recount the comments made by staff employed at factories in my former constituency. The workers and the management told me that the Social Chapter—or the Social Charter, if one prefers to call it that—would be the death of their industry. That is why we oppose the Social Chapter and why we do not wish to incorporate it in our law.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, most people outside the House will have concluded that the time has come when Members on both Front Benches should stop their clever-Dick tactical manoeuvring and really face up to this important matter in a serious manner. The Opposition clearly tabled Amendment No. 27 with the idea of pushing through a particular part of the Maastricht Treaty they wish to have adopted. The Opposition did that although they pretend to be in favour of the Maastricht Treaty as it stands. The Government delayed giving an answer revealing the true position. They gave the impression, or allowed an impression to gather, that the amendment could achieve things that it is now clear it could never have achieved. If there is a vote in another place on Amendment No. 27, or anything like it, I hope that the Government will take on board the message behind the result of that vote. I admire my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham greatly, but I should tell him that those of us who feel differently to him consider that disloyalty to the country is embodied in allowing Maastricht to go through in its present form. Let us be serious and adult about the matter and give it the serious attention that its importance truly demands.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I hesitate to say this, but I must tell my noble friend Lord Harmar-Nicholls that I believe he is wrong. Mr. Garel-Jones did not in any way intend to mislead another place. He was acting on the legal advice then given to him by the departmental legal officers. I will not repeat what I said about the process that then followed. However, I am serious about this issue and I hope I am being adult when I consider the future and the needs of this country and what has to be done. While I understand that many noble Lords may have doubts about various aspects of the European Community, there is no doubt that for the future of this nation we should at least be prepared to go along with a treaty which has been carefully negotiated at Maastricht, excluding those matters which are not right for Britain and ensuring that any considerations of economic and monetary union must come before Parliament before we take any action towards that union. That is the way to do things and it is the way we have done them. It will be right and good for the country for us to ratify the Maastricht Treaty.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement in this House. Until this moment one might have imagined that Parliament consisted only of another place and not also of this place. At some stage we will have to consider the amendments that will be brought before us. Therefore it is good that we are taken into the Government's confidence at this stage. I am also grateful to the Minister for repeating a Statement which enabled me to cheer to the rafters as my noble friend Lord Stoddart and the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, combined in a united force against what she said.

But seriously—not that I have not been serious in the points I have made so far—will the Minister illuminate us further as regards the legal advice that was given to Mr. Garel-Jones when he made his Statement? I ask that question as one who was a Minister for many years in another place and as one who has sat on the Front Bench in this place. Was Mr. Hurd saying that Mr. Garel-Jones made a Statement to the House of Commons of great importance without the views of the Law Officers having been ascertained in advance? I find that impossible to believe. Will the Minister explain how it was that that Statement was made only on the advice of civil servants and not on the advice of Ministers? We may then perhaps understand what is going on.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am glad I have helped the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, to make friends across the Chamber. However, in his long experience as Secretary of State for Social Services I am sure there were times when the legal advice available to him changed from the time when it was first given to him. I wish to repeat something I said earlier. In the light of discussion we took the Law Officers' advice because of what had been said in debate. However the problem only arose out of the effect of the Opposition amendment. It does not arise out of the terms of the Bill as it was presented to the House.

There is no more that I can tell noble Lords, willing as I am to be questioned on these matters. The legal advice generally available to Ministers is, I believe, second to none, but it cannot be perfect. That is the very reason why in both another place and in this House we have experienced legal officers. As I said earlier, we can all be wise after the event and declare it would have been better if the Law Officers' advice had been sought in the first place. The fact that it was not is now in the past. That fact cannot be changed. The advice has now been sought and I am grateful to the Law Officers.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that despite the fun being had at her expense the Statement that she has repeated clarifies what has been a rather confusing weekend? I hope it allows us to see the main target here which is to ratify the Treaty and get on with the business of running a sensible European Community. Does my noble friend agree that the real confusion that surrounds the whole issue is the fact that the party opposite which claims to support the Maastricht Bill will vote against it and the rump in this party who claim they agree with opting out of the Social Chapter now appear to wish to vote for opting in? That is the confusion; it is not a confusion in the Government's mind.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, my noble friend has expressed the position far better than I could. Indeed it was my intention this afternoon to clarify the situation. The legal advice that the Law Officers have given us is advice on which we can fully depend. I remember with clarity all the debates in the past on Bills that concerned the European Community and I have never known a situation like this before. It is sad for the country that the Opposition are so prepared to play cat and mouse with something which the large majority of them say they believe in.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the amendment to which the Statement refers has been on the Order Paper in the other place for six calendar months? It has taken until this time for the Government to come forward with a Statement seeking legally to define the net result if the amendment were passed. Is the Minister aware that there are many thousands of people in this country today pursuing litigation who will heave a sigh of relief that they are not buying their legal advice from the Government's legal advisers?

If the amendment is not important, will the Minister give a guarantee that the Government will not apply a three-line Whip when the vote comes to be taken?

Finally, why are the Government so determined to avoid implementing the Social Chapter? Over a year ago the present Government introduced an arrangement whereby when a Government Minister lost his or her job for whatever reason the ministerial salary continued for three calendar months. Why is that arrangement not good enough for the workers of Leyland Daf?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am well aware that the amendment has been on the Order Paper for some time. So have some 500-plus others. It is probably because departmental legal officers have been wading through the implications that they may have seen the matter in a different light. I have made the point to the House this afternoon, and I repeat, that it was when the subject of Amendment No. 27 was debated a number of aspects became clear. On reading the report of those debates, particularly of the debate on 27th January, we sought the advice of the Law Officers. I cannot and will not give the noble Lord any guarantees about whipping in this or another place. It is not my place to do so. I believe that his own Front Bench would respond similarly.

Lord Elton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the repetition of the Statement has been greeted with great relief as reducing to simplicity what was a very complex problem? Secondly, is she aware that I have listened with grave anxiety to the way in which we have been discussing and criticising the conduct of Law Officers and other Members of another place which I should have thought was privileged to that other place? Does the Minister agree that the time to discuss the contents of the Bill is when the Bill comes to this House, and that it may be quite different and the clause in question will probably not be in it?

Finally, since noble Lords opposite seem to consider it quite proper to criticise the conduct of Members in another place, does my noble friend agree with me that the Opposition Front Bench in this House set aside very lightly, with a laugh or two, the important fact that Amendment No. 27 was tabled by their party, which plainly did not know what it meant either?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Elton makes exceedingly important points. I believe that he has his finger on the pulse as regards what has been happening. The Labour Party in another place is very divided. I used to think that it was perhaps rather more divided than in this House, although having watched noble Lords on the Benches opposite I sometimes now wonder whether that is the case.

We shall see what comes of the many debates in your Lordships' House as well as the debates in another place. I conclude by saying that I believe that it is right for Britain that the Treaty of Maastricht should be ratified.