HL Deb 13 July 1995 vol 565 cc1829-30

Lord Astor of Hever asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to enable United Kingdom auctioneers to sell in France.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie)

My Lords, in France all auctioneering must be undertaken by state-appointed commissaires priseurs. This is an unacceptable restriction on the ability of British auction houses to operate in France. The Government have made repeated representations on this to both the European Commission and the French authorities. The Commission has now begun proceedings under Article 169 of the Treaty of Rome against the French Government.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that robust and very satisfactory Answer. Given that for the past five years British auction houses have been pressing for their rights under the Treaty of Rome, what further delay can they expect before being able to operate in France as they do elsewhere on the Continent?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reaction to the proceedings that have been commenced. He will appreciate that under Article 169, the French Government were given a period of time in which to reply to the Commission. I understand that they must do so within the next few weeks. After that, it will be seen whether further proceedings must be taken including, ultimately, action before the courts. Clearly, the United Kingdom Government hope that the matter can be resolved and that the French market can be properly opened up to British auction houses without that step being taken.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that the French system of commissaires priseurs works extremely well throughout France and the French are unlikely to agree to dismantle it? Is there any reason why our own auction houses should not be enabled to work alongside it?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I understand that a number of proposals have been made by the French Government. One of them would allow for a system of minority partnerships. However, such an approach would be deemed unacceptable by the British auction houses and, if necessary, the United Kingdom Government would continue to press the Commission to take action before the courts.

Lord Boardman

My Lords, what is the position of the French auctioneers selling in the United Kingdom?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, we have an open market.

Lord Peston

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that, whatever else the Community is, it certainly starts as a free trade area? It is more than that but it must start at that position. Therefore, as the Minister says, the situation is quite unacceptable. Will he tell the House whether there are other examples of the invention of alleged qualifications as a prerequisite of entry to a market which the French or others are using as an attempt to get round the free trade provisions of the Treaty of Rome?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I cannot freely indicate where that might be a device which is being followed. However, as regards this particular area of auction, where British auction houses have sought to establish a presence in other member states, they have to date encountered no difficulties.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, this question was touched on in March by my noble friend Lord Ferrers. He told the House that the Commission would be taking legal action against the French Government. Under Article 169 they are allowed two months. Even my arithmetic tells me that it is now four months since this has happened. Will my noble and learned friend tell the House how far the Commission has progressed in proceedings against the French Government?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, not only is my noble friend knowledgeable in these matters but her arithmetic is also accurate. In respect of the proceedings under Article 169, a period of two months is generally allowed. However, extensions are not unknown. My understanding is that the Commission has given the French Government until September to provide it with a satisfactory reply. If that fails, we shall continue to press the Commission to take the matter further.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how many British auctioneers speak French?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, non!

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