HL Deb 19 February 1996 vol 569 cc855-7

Lord Bruce of Donington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the light of an article by Sir Leon Brittan, a European Commissioner, in The Times of 7th February, headed "Rifkind should beware", in which demands are made for them to behave in a specific manner within the ambit of British political controversy, they propose to make any rejoinder.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Lord Inglewood): My Lords, no.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that in that article Sir Leon Brittan is presuming to criticise a Minister of the Government and to tell him what line he ought or ought not to take in a matter which is subject to British political controversy? Does the Minister believe that that is appropriate or does he wish to minimise his sense of solidarity with his colleague in the Foreign Office?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, if Sir Leon Brittan criticised my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, the criticism is not to be found in the article of 7th February this year, which succinctly lays out a case close to the British Government's approach to these matters and is very much supportive of it.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, does not my noble friend agree that the supplementary which came from the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, was of extremely liberal construction, even in these days when such things are popular?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. It was so liberal that it appears to have no basis in the document from which it is alleged to be derived.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the article to which I referred, under the authorship of Sir Leon Brittan, says, Don't pander to the sceptics".? It continues, This Government must show that such fears are unfounded, and must highlight the benefits of EU membership. It has chosen to do so in its reaction to the new era in Euro-American relations, and wisely so. It must apply the same approach elsewhere".

Since when has any government in the United Kingdom been responsible to a Eurocrat for the line they take in regard to their policies? Would it not be better if the Eurocrats kept themselves within their own business and for once criticised the Government of Germany for being well behind in their legislation dealing with the single market?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the remarks by Sir Leon Brittan quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, from the article in The Times underscore precisely the Government's policy in this respect. In speaking of the attitude to the European Union, Sir Leon Brittan says, It must apply the same approach elsewhere, weighing up every issue in the balance of British interests". That is the Government's policy. We believe it to be the right policy for this country and intend to continue in that respect.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that on this exceptional occasion the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, has gone right over the top? Anybody is free to criticise or support this Government as they wish.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. Whether or not the Government would normally use the words "over the top" to describe the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, they are appropriate in these circumstances.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, perhaps I may squeeze in a word on this occasion. Is the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, aware that many of us believe that freedom of speech should be applied even in the case of Sir Leon Brittan?

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I am most reassured.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I believe I heard the noble Lord refer to this matter as one of government policy. Can he say whether there are any guidelines in connection with it?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, this is long-established policy. In respect of the European Union, this Government approach issues on their merits, putting in the balance whether or not the policies, whichever way they go, are in the best interests of the people.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, will the Minister please note that we on these Benches object to the use of the word "liberal" in connection with the question of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, particularly bearing in mind that our stand in relation to the European Union is rather different from his?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I find the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, most helpful. However, I am reluctant to enter into an inter-Opposition dispute on the matter.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House how a member of the European Commission who is also a Privy Counsellor reconciles his oath as a Privy Counsellor and that which he takes as a European Commissioner when the subject under consideration is in conflict with one of the two positions?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, there is no conflict, as was clear from the extracts I read out to your Lordships.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, far from going over the top as was suggested by his noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway, my noble friend was entirely reasonable? Indeed, I think he was uncharacteristically mild. Does he not agree that there is an increasing tendency for members of the European Commission to act, behave and speak as if they were the European Government? Perhaps it is about time that the British Government, who consist of elected people, told the European Commission to keep in its place.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the European Commission is not now, never has been, and never will be, if this party has anything to do with it, a European Government. With regard to the other part of the noble Lord's question, I suspect that the noble Lord was being as reasonable as he was previously liberal.

Lord Richard

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington is always uncharacteristically mild—thank heavens? Is he further aware that my noble friend has a very basic view, which is that British Commissioners should not criticise British politics but that British Commissioners should criticise the politics of every other member of the EU?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for explaining the position so succinctly.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that that is not my position at all? Is he further aware that on the question of free speech, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hams of Greenwich, when I ventured to criticise M. Jacques Delors for criticising the British Prime Minister at that time, he retorted to me, "Well, it's a free country, isn't it?"?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, it is not for me to come between the Leader of the Opposition and one of his battalions.

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