HL Deb 01 February 1996 vol 568 cc1549-51

Lord Willoughby de Broke asked Her Majesty's Government:

What functions are performed by the 126 foreign missions set up by the EU, and whether they support the establishment of these missions.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, the European Commission maintains missions overseas to carry out the functions ascribed to it under the European Community treaties. These include the distribution of aid under community programmes, monitoring and lobbying against barriers to trade, offering economic and technical assistance and disseminating information. Her Majesty's Government recognise the need for the Commission to maintain missions overseas, but we continually encourage the Commission to make them more efficient.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that mildly encouraging Answer. Is he aware that there are 126 such missions around the world, usually in sunlit spots, and that in some cases the cost of their maintenance is more than the amount of aid that they distribute? Is it not possible for the aid to be distributed through the present embassies, delegations or consulates which are maintained in these countries rather than establishing a whole new semi-diplomatic bureaucracy?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I am aware of the number of missions. My noble friend may be encouraged to hear that the budget for the external delegations for 1996 is £152 million, which is down from £160 million last year. There is some encouragement that the budget is reducing. The member states have an important role both through local missions and management committees in Brussels, but not all member states have wide networks of overseas missions, which are necessary to ensure the proper administration of aid.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the so-called offices or missions were operating for many years until 1993 without any legal backing whatever? Legislation had to be introduced by the Council in order to give retrospective approval to these particular establishments. Is he further aware that they are costing some £120 million a year and that in certain sections in Brussels they are widely regarded as being embryo embassies waiting for the Commission to become the European Government?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, knows, I am aware that my noble friend Lady Chalker of Wallasey wrote to him on 1st May 1995 with regard to the network of offices and how they were created. As regards the noble Lord's suggestion that these offices are waiting to become embassies, I must inform him that Commission delegations do not have formal diplomatic status but host states have been prepared to grant them privileges and immunities similar to those granted to diplomatic missions.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House what proportion of the cost of these missions falls on British taxpayers?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, no, not directly, because it comes out of the Commission budget.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the European Union represents the interests of all member states, including those of the United Kingdom, in important matters particularly in world trade? Is it not in the interests of us all that there should be effective European Union representation in the external world?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Lord. One thing that we are trying to do is to make it as effective as possible at the least possible cost.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is a duplication of public expenditure when, on average, each mission costs £1¼ million a year, of which British taxpayers pay a considerable amount? Surely it is a complete and utter waste of public money to duplicate expenditure in order that the European Union is represented in countries which already have embassies and high commissioners.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I do not agree with my noble friend. The missions are involved with, for example, managing multilateral European aid, not just British aid. As regards trade barriers, the Commission is dealing with their removal in respect of the European Union and not just Britain. Therefore, there must be representatives of the European Union.

Lord Richard

My Lords, returning to the question put with his customary moderation by my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington, would the Minister agree that, if ever there were a case of duplication, it would occur if each of the embassies or High Commissions of member states in a given country had to perform the task individually which is undertaken at present by the European Union representative?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that the missions perform a very useful two-way function? If we take, for example, the mission in Japan, it will be seen that the inward investment to the European Community—much of which finds its way to this country—is much helped by the European Union's mission office.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I certainly agree with my noble friend. It is most important to realise the effect on trade and on the distribution of multilateral aid which such missions can have.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, would it be possible in some smaller countries to have a European Union interest section in the embassy of the country which holds the presidency at any one time, instead of having separate premises and accommodation costs?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I believe that that would be most difficult to do. Indeed, it would be highly expensive to have all those people travelling to and fro every six months, without knowing the local area. I should also point out that, while we make representations, it is a matter for the European Commission and not the British Government.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are at least as many missions from countries outside the European Community which are maintained in Brussels? That clearly shows that this is not a one-way extravagance; and, indeed that it is something valued by those with whom the Community has, above all, trade relations.

Lord Chesham

Yes, my Lords; I repeat, again, that we do believe that there is great value in such missions so far as concerns trade, the negotiation of trade agreements and, most importantly, the distribution of multilateral aid.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the Minister agree that not only has the European Court of Auditors and Members of both Houses of Parliament been criticising the proliferation of such embassies, but so also have MEPs, including Conservative MEPs in particular? They have been saying that spending on such missions has grown quite out of control.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I have been endeavouring to point out that what we have been trying to do is to make the missions more efficient and reduce the costs wherever possible. We are doing what we can; but it is a matter for the MEPs, the European Parliament and the European Commission.

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