HL Deb 03 April 1995 vol 563 cc4-7

2.46 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will ensure that the agenda of the Inter-Governmental Conference includes the discussion of whether Article 189 of the Treaty of Maastricht should be augmented by a provision that directives shall have no legal consequences except in so far as they are implemented in national legislation.

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

My Lords, a number of issues are already on the agenda for next year's IGC. Others may be added. The Prime Minister has set out clearly the broad framework of our approach, but our detailed objectives are still under discussion.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I find that Answer slightly unsatisfactory? According to Article 189, there is a difference in the legal treatment of a regulation and a directive. A regulation issued on behalf of the Community becomes immediately enforceable throughout member states, including our own. A directive does not fall into quite the same category; it has already been the subject of some disputed judgment in which one is informed that the Home Office took one line and the Foreign Office took another—such as with the Van Duyn case. Does the Minister think that, in order to clear up the ambiguity, it would be far better that the matter should be raised for discussion and further clarification at the Inter-Governmental Conference? The consequences for the British legal system—which one hopes are still not to be ignored—ought to be raised on that occasion.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. There is a difference between Community regulations which apply directly under the European Communities Act 1972 and directives which leave to member states the form and implementation of legislation under Section 2.2 of the Act.

The important point is that we have real anxieties about some ECJ judgments, particularly where they have had unforeseen or disproportionate cost implications. We are considering ways of addressing those anxieties but have not yet reached any decisions. I should advise the House that not all judgments go against us. A number of recent cases show perfectly well that the European Court of Justice is now more sensitive to member states' anxieties. I shall be happy to acquaint the noble Lord with those cases, should he wish.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, despite the subsidiarity rule, the Commission is still putting forward too many directives? Is she further aware that some countries have no intention of implementing all of them?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am well aware of what my noble friend says. That is why we are examining how well subsidiarity is working—where it is working—and where it is failing. Only by a careful examination of that can we put right the points which my noble friend mentioned.

However, there have been judgments where the Court has ruled in favour of member states and against the Commission, where that has been necessary: for example, in the recent WTO/GATT agreement. It is clear that the proper use of the European Court of Justice can be very much a benefit for member states. That also means that the Court must be used against member states when they refuse to comply. The British Government have been to the fore in bringing forward the wherewithal to do it.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, my noble friend used an interesting turn of phrase. She said that the Court was becoming more sensitive to member states' interest. Surely a court of law should be concerned with implementing the law and not fluctuate one way and the other over whose interests it is sensitive to.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, in no way did I intend to imply, as my noble friend seems to have misunderstood, that the Court was fluctuating; nor should it do so. The Court, which at one time seemed to be ruling against member states, has at least taken the law properly into account; otherwise, the inter-governmental arrangements in the EDF case would not have been upheld. For instance, the Court would not have given weight to national rules and legislation on Sunday trading. There are a number of cases in this very difficult area where the Court is looking at and dealing with the law, as it should do. We must make sure that it continues to do so.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, what is the Government's attitude towards the proposed ending of 700 years of British hallmarking of gold and silver, so that in future no one will know what is genuinely gold and what is genuinely silver?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am informed that that is not happening, and that the consumer council at its meeting last Thursday did not agree to it.

Lord Annan

My Lords, further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, will the Minister confirm that the European Court is governed by Roman law? Will she further confirm that Roman law asks: what is the principle of the law? Sometimes it will adjudicate one way and sometimes another, but it is not governed, as is English law, by precedent. Will the Minister suggest to her right honourable friend the Secretary of State that, because of the drip, drip, drip of anti-European Union propaganda, the time has come for the Government to issue a clearly worded statement to the general public on the advantages of belonging to the European Union?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, certainly I personally agree with the last point made by the noble Lord. I have just been listening to businessmen saying exactly what a great and positive difference our membership of the European Union has made to this country. I shall not go into detail about that today. With regard to the specific question, we must be clear that the principle of direct effect—which is what the Question is all about—does not apply to all provisions of directives. It applies only where certain specific provisions are clear. I shall write to the noble Lord about this matter, so that there is no difference of opinion between us.

Lord Richard

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that it is not the intention of Her Majesty's Government at the IGC next year to try to interfere with what is in the treaties in terms of the decision-making process in relation to directives?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, it has not as yet been decided what will or will not be on the agenda at the IGC. I stand by what I said. We need a strong rule of law in the Community to ensure, as my noble friend Lord Renton asked, that all member states comply with their obligations. We went over this matter on 8th March both in a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, and in debate. I can say to the House that we are quite clear that any changes to the treaty articles that relate to the European Court of Justice should maintain or strengthen the rule of law in the Community. We must aim for that.