HL Deb 09 March 1993 vol 543 cc919-22

2.54 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington asked Her Majesty's Government:

On what legal advice was Baroness Chalker of Wallasey able to state on 17th February 1993 (HL Deb, cols. 1205–6) that "Maastricht itself introduces no constitutional innovation."

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, as the context of my remark quoted by the noble Lord shows, I was referring to the principle of primacy of Community law over United Kingdom law. Parliament accepted that innovative constitutional principle when it approved the accession of the United Kingdom to the European Community in 1972. That was not changed at Maastricht.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the Maastricht Treaty itself contains many constitutional innovations, even within the context with which the noble Baroness dealt, and notably in Article 104c, where the Commission, composed of people without any conspicuous qualifications and who are completely independent, is given the right under the treaty to monitor the economic performance of the country and to report on where the country has fallen down and made gross errors? Does not the Minister consider that to be a constitutional innovation?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, given the number of bodies outside these Houses of Parliament throughout the country and the Community which spend much time monitoring what other people do, reporting upon it and giving spurious recognition to it, I do not believe that this is a constitutional innovation. It is certainly not, remembering what the primacy of Community law is all about. I remind the noble Lord that the primacy accepted in 1972 was subsequently endorsed by the 1975 referendum.

Lord Acton

My Lords, in accordance with the Question, did the Minister take legal advice for the Statement? If she did, is she aware that there are precedents for the Government disclosing the law officers' opinions in accordance with the book by Professor Edwards: The Law Officers of the Crown? Given the importance of the matter, will she publish that legal opinion?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, like all Ministers, so far as possible I take the appropriate advice, including legal advice, before coming to the House. It is neither normal nor desirable that Ministers, or other Members for that matter, should be faced constantly with questions about the source and nature of their advice. On rare occasions, as in the Statement I made to the House on 15th February, with my noble and learned friend the Lord Advocate sitting beside me, I was repeating the Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend. Reference was then made to legal advice, but that is wholly exceptional procedure, taken for the reasons that I explained at the time and it is not the norm.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, will my noble friend agree that the expression "constitutional innovation" is not a term of art and is therefore not a suitable subject on which to obtain the opinion of law officers? Is that not rather obvious?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, as ever, my noble and learned friend is absolutely right.

Lord Richard

My Lords, can the noble Baroness help the House and perhaps the country? Will she tell us what are the intentions of the Government following their humiliation last night?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, that is not a question for me or for this House. What happened last night was that a vote was taken for delay. The passing of Amendment No. 28 succeeds in that purpose, but it does not weaken the Government's determination to ratify the treaty, nor our ability to do so. The amendment passed last night is not a matter of major significance.

Lord Monson

My Lords, the noble Baroness has on at least two occasions assured the House that Article 8 of the Maastricht Treaty imposes no specific obligations upon British subjects in their capacity as citizens of the new European union. That, of course, we accept. However, is she aware that a number of eminent lawyers are of the opinion that Article 8 nevertheless imposes a general duty upon us to act as good citizens of the new union and to behave loyally towards it, even on the inevitable occasions when its broad interests conflict with our own narrower interests? If so, that would certainly amount to a constitutional innovation. Is the noble Baroness in a position to state categorically that that interpretation is incorrect?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the reference to "duty" is not a reference to specific duties. Neither the Maastricht Treaty nor any previous Community treaties impose specific duties on individuals. I believe that that is an unnecessary and empty reference. Looking carefully again today at Articles 8 to 8e, what is being done there is to give Community nationals the right to add to their national duties by voting and standing in local elections and European parliamentary elections or entitling them to diplomatic and consular protection by representatives of other Community governments. Citizens of the union will have the right to petition the European Parliament. None of those things are constitutional innovations; they are, I should have thought, an extension of individual citizens' rights.

Lord Rippon of Hexham

My Lords, while accepting and warmly endorsing what my noble friend had to say about the Maastricht Bill, does she agree that the constitutional innovation that worries many people is the consistent undermining of local democracy? Can we have as soon as possible an assurance from the Government that they will not seek to overturn the vote that was taken, possibly for the wrong reasons, in the other place yesterday?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I believe that it would be wrong to interpret any of the changes brought about by the Maastricht Treaty as undermining local democracy or any other democracy. The important point is that the Maastricht Treaty makes clearer than ever before what should be done and what may be done, if member states agree, by the Community. It also makes sure that there is an opportunity for greater investigation of what goes on. That is why there is a package of non-legislative powers for the European Parliament. I do not believe that extending the right to vote to citizens of Europe in another European country where they are living and registered will in any way undermine the local government of that area.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, following on the last question, does the noble Baroness agree on reflection that although last night's vote may have resulted in delay, it was not a vote for delay but a vote for democracy?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I find it very difficult to understand why parties who say they are in favour of the passing of the Bill to ratify the Maastricht Treaty with all possible speed are seeking to make such delay. The delay that will be accorded by that vote is one which will rest with their consciences and be made known to the country.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I should like to ask my noble friend, not for the first time: is it not rash for this House to try to interpret the motives and actions of another place before the legislation reaches this House?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. But perhaps I should have said earlier that the Government have no fundamental objection to elected local government representatives sitting on the committee, which was the effect of the amendment last night. What is to be done about it is yet to be decided.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that when the Government get themselves into a position which is dependent upon Opposition parties to get legislation through it would behove them, on a matter which has nothing to do with the essence of the treaty but would, as the noble Lord, Lord Rippon said, somewhat extend local democracy, to show a little sense of striving for consensus and not consistently to display the stiff-necked arrogance which is the characteristic of weak men?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, as I said some moments ago, there is no fundamental objection to elected local government representatives sitting on the committee. It was, however, felt better that there should be a mix of elected representatives and others —for instance, from the development agencies—which would be more practical. The amendment passed last night, if it remains in the Bill, will not allow others from, for instance, development agencies to sit on that particular committee. It is not quite the simple and rather strident suggestion just made by the noble Lord.

Noble Lords

Next Question!

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, there is no next question. Somebody shouted out "Next Question". I merely point out that there is no next Question.

Is the noble Baroness aware that some of us are puzzled that she does not think that there is any constitutional innovation in the Maastricht Treaty? Are there not certainly two such innovations? Is it not a fact that under Article 8 Her Majesty will become a citizen of the European Union? That is certainly an innovation, since no monarch since Henry VIII has been a citizen of any organisation who has been the Sovereign of this great nation. Secondly, is it not a constitutional innovation that a state, and in particular this state, can be fined by an outside body for not doing what that outside body thinks that it should do?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Lord's question was a little intricate. I remind him of what I said when we had the debate in this House on 17th February. It was to the effect that the fact that the Sovereign may have duties under Article 8 does not alter the Sovereign's position. I said it in rather better words then, but from memory that was exactly the interpretation which had been provided to me. I shall look again at what the noble Lord said because I would not wish to mislead him or other noble Lords in this House.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, pursuing the original Question on the Order Paper, if the Treaty of Maastricht imposes no innovation at all and is not innovative, why does it impose unspecified duties in Article 8? If the noble Baroness is unable to specify what the duties are, or they are not spelt out in the treaty, why put the word "duties" in the article at all? Is she aware that under Article F of the treaty paragraph 3 states: The union shall provide itself with the means necessary to attain its objectives and carry through its policies". Does she agree that, if its policies are to put into operation unspecified duties, it needs very little imagination to think of the monstrosities that will emanate from the committee?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I believe that we went through this matter very carefully on 17th February. I shall certainly look very carefully at what the noble Lord said, as I always do with his questions. I do not believe either that it extends the Community competence, nor do I believe that the unsubstantiated, non-specific duties to which the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, frequently refers are the ogre that he paints them to be. I will go through what he said again, write to him and put a copy of the letter in the Library of the House.

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