HL Deb 05 June 1995 vol 564 cc1175-8

2.45 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

What was the total annual cost of the Brussels offices of the European Union for the last year for which figures are available; and what was the corresponding figure for five years prior to that date.

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

My Lords, the total cost in 1993 was £416 million. The total cost in 1988 was £213 million. At 1988 prices, the figure for 1993 would be £318 million, which represents an average increase of 8 per cent. per annum, which was within the expenditure ceilings for the period.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Can she say whether Her Majesty's Government are exerting themselves to restrain that growth of expenditure which costs the British taxpayer a substantial amount?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

Yes, my Lords. It is largely as a result of UK pressure that we have succeeded in improving the financial management in a number of ways, including making better use of the budget discharge procedures and the work of the European Court of Auditors. So we are certainly working in the direction that my noble friend wishes and so is the new commissioner in charge of that area of expenditure.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, the Treasury has a permanent representative or permanent staff in the budget department of the European Commission. Will the Minister confirm that the figures that she has given include all capital expenditure on new buildings, whether obtained by loan from the EIB or by virtue of guarantees? Will she confirm that the entire expenditure is accounted for in the European budget? For the year 1994, that budget contained a number of blanks against expenditure on new buildings. As the noble Baroness knows, some of that was incurred illegally and in breach of the financial regulations applicable to the institutions.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord knows that illegal expenditure is being investigated at present. The point is that since the Community has increased from six members—for whose Council the Charlemagne building was built—to 15 members, it obviously needs additional houseroom. In order that that new building should not be found too small with further expansion to the east, provision has been made for more than 15 members. Therefore, at the moment the building may seem a little large but I am confident that the new Council building has been properly built. I am also confident that the contract was on terms favourable to the Council: there is only a peppercorn rent of one Belgian franc, the equivalent of 2p, to be paid on the land which is available; the Council will become the owner of the land and there will be no rent. The parliament buildings are another matter which is under close control and will remain so.

Lord Peston

My Lords, the noble Baroness said that the figures were within the agreed limits. Can she clarify that? Is it the nominal figure that is within the agreed limit or is it the real figure? Is the 8 per cent. per annum the real agreed limit? For how long has the figure been agreed? Within that, can the noble Baroness assure us that the value of what the office does is increasing at least at 8 per cent. per annum in real terms?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am afraid that it is not for me to answer yes to the noble Lord's last question. I can, however, assure him that the figures are real. They have been calculated in real terms, and I believe that they cover all the costs involved.

Lord Peston

My Lords, can the noble Baroness repeat for how long that growth path has been agreed? Will the real figure be 8 per cent. indefinitely?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, we would hope that it is not so. It certainly comes within the Edinburgh ceilings and is therefore limited until 1998.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, apart from office accommodation, do we now have to envisage expenditure on interpreters into 15 languages and the translation of all documents into 15 languages; or is there a limited area of language choice, for instance into five languages?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I find that, now, with not 15 but 11 languages used in the Community, there are something over 100 manners of translation. Documents have to be in all 11 languages, and that is obviously one of the increased costs with which we have to cope.

Lord Walpole

My Lords, can the noble Baroness give the same figures for a similar multifunctional organisation; namely, the Scottish Office?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I cannot give that information without notice, but I will let the noble Lord have the figures and place them in the Library.

Lord Shaw of Northstead

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether the reflection group is considering how far the Commission and others are seeking to bring greater responsibility to national governments to look after the grants, and the proper application of grants, within their own countries?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, there is no reason why the reflection group, which began its processes only on Saturday, should not so look. There is a very long way to go. One thing, with the help of the new commissioner, we have been able to do is to make many other countries as aware of the need for tight budgeting and the proper auditing of all expenditure; and we shall continue to do so.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, can the noble Baroness clarify this matter for me? When I was in Brussels with the IGC sub-committee, I saw the enormous edifice that was being built for the Parliament, the Council and the Commission. Obviously, it will cost hundreds of millions of pounds. Did the figures that the Minister gave at the outset include a projection of the costs of that great edifice; and, if not, are there any estimates of what the new offices will cost the taxpayers of Europe?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the figures gave at the beginning were in answer to my noble friend's Question about the costs of the buildings of the European Union in Brussels on an annual basis. I gave the figure for five years ago and the figures for 1993. The figures that we have for the 19 buildings that the European Parliament rents are not included so far as I know beyond that for 1998. As I gave an annual figure, I am obviously not giving a total for the next five years or for any other single period.

As regards the building for the Council in Brussels—the matter that has attracted most comment, some of it critical—the cost is £237 million at 1989 prices but at current exchange rates.

Lord Whaddon

My Lords, will the noble Baroness clarify this point? I believe that she said earlier that the buildings were being constructed with more accommodation than is needed for the present membership. For how many members are they being constructed?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, certainly, to be flexible, the number is between another three or four and another seven or eight.