HL Deb 08 July 1996 vol 574 cc1-5

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has so far been made in preparations for the next British presidency of the European Union in January 1998.

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

My Lords, preliminary consultations have already taken place with Whitehall departments on planning for the next presidency. Detailed preparations will begin in the autumn.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Government have approached a number of private companies to help to subscribe to the cost of the British presidency in 1998? Will she explain to us why the Government have done that because it seems to me to be a form of voluntary taxation? I assume that the Government have not offered any privileges or assurances on policy to companies in return for subscribing. Will she tell the House whether only British companies have been approached or whether American, Japanese and German companies with substantial premises in the United Kingdom have also been approached?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, first, we are only considering the possibility of commercial sponsorship for events during the British presidency. I assure your Lordships that any sponsorship would have to be compatible with the proper management and dignity of the presidency. There is no question of anybody who might come forward having any privilege or policy influence during the presidency.

I should point out to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that commercial sponsorship for such events is not new. Some sponsorship was offered in 1992. There was sponsorship for the Canadian G7 summit in Halifax last year and also significant sponsorship for the recent G7 summit in Lyon. There is no negotiation taking place at present. I have no idea who may come forward. But if companies are willing, then that is one way in which to defray the costs. I would describe it as willing taxation.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the approach being considered to business does not relate solely to the British presidency of the European Union but also to other major international meetings which we shall be hosting at about the same time?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, is absolutely correct. In recent years, major meetings have repeatedly been offered such sponsorship, whether they be European Union or any other sort of meetings. If companies are so willing, because they believe it is right, that we should have those discussions then I do not believe it is a bad way to defray the costs.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, will my noble friend not push aside those rather narrow-minded and dark xenophobic mutterings suggesting that it would be wrong to accept help from companies in Britain merely because they are foreign? More to the point, fonctionnaires in Brussels are reported to have said that it would be unacceptable for the Prime Minister to pursue his policy of blocking progress at the IGC unless we have an agreement on matters such as the 48-hour working week directive. Does the Minister not agree that if that is not brushed aside from Brussels, it may be that the IGC will still be going on in January 1998 when the British presidency takes over?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, both in your Lordships' House and long before that in another place, I have become quite used—as I know my noble friend did—to putting mutterings aside. It is a very useful habit to be able to put mutterings aside. I assure my noble friend that we shall put firmly in their place any fonctionnaires. There is no way in which we shall be dictated to in that regard. It does not matter what is the issue: we shall stand up for Britain. It is as straightforward and as simple as that.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, will the noble Baroness answer two questions? First, since 1st January 1998 will be running very close to decision-making time on a single currency, by that time will Parliament have had the opportunity to declare its will on whether or not we should enter the third stage of EMU and the single currency? Secondly, are reports correct which appeared in yesterday's press that the Attorney-General has advised the Prime Minister and other Ministers that if they do not implement European law on the 48-hour week they will be liable to prosecution and, indeed, they may be in gaol when we next have the presidency?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, first, I have no idea what will be the parliamentary programme for 1997. Therefore, I cannot answer the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, as to whether Parliament will have taken that decision. To a large extent, it depends on my noble friend's earlier question as to whether by that time matters are in a state of completeness at which the British Parliament will be asked—and it will be asked—to make a decision. The Attorney-General may have given such advice but he has not told me about it. Certainly, I do not believe everything that I read in the newspapers.

Lord Barnett

My Lords—

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, whatever happens—

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, I am sure we have time for both noble Lords. I wonder whether the House might think that perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, might come before the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, but not of course as a matter of general precedence.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, whatever may or may not happen in 1997, does the Minister recall that in 1998, during the British presidency, it will be up to those at the heads of government meeting to take the final decision about economic and monetary union? If by any chance the present Government were still in office at that time, would not their pathetic opt-out on the single currency mean that their presidency of those meetings would result in our lacking all influence in looking after one of our most important interests; namely, our financial interest?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I have never said this to the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, before, but that was a load of nonsense. I say that because it is perfectly likely that there will be another Conservative Government in 1998. Whatever decisions are to be made, we shall not only do what is right for this country but we shall also certainly examine all these matters in the proper way. I must point out to the noble Lord that even if a decision is made about a single currency, there are 11 other countries besides ourselves who at this moment do not meet the criteria. There will probably still be a large number of others by 1998.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, will the Minister ignore the xenophobic views of her noble friend Lord Tebbit, or my noble friend Lord Stoddart, and tell us whether, even if by some miracle the present Government are in office in 1998, they will not make any plans before then that would exclude the possibility of joining an economic and monetary union?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, knows full well that we have not excluded any possibility; neither have we made any plans. We are working to see what is best for Britain.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, when the United Kingdom takes over the presidency will it be able to insist that all the other member states start to obey European legislation as well as we do? By way of example of our good behaviour in that respect, can my noble friend confirm that the Government will obey the Public Services Contracts Regulations of 1993 which implemented EC directive 92/50, and therefore put the contracts for slaughtering our cattle out to tender, thus saving hundreds of related businesses from bankruptcy?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, that question is a long way away from the original. I shall consider it in detail and write to my noble friend.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that this Question is somewhat academic as regards her Government? However, she will be glad to know that the Opposition—soon to be the government—are well advanced in making preparations for the British presidency as from 1st January 1998. Will the Minister be a little more specific as to what sponsorship is intended to cover? Presumably it cannot possibly cover any questions of policy. Presumably, also, the Government will not give any assurances to those providing the sponsorship of any promises in return for that sponsorship.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, what happens next year is not academic. It is extremely important for the British people. It is interesting that I have heard the noble Lord say three times before that he thought this might be the outcome after the next election. He has been wrong three times; I hope he will be wrong a fourth time. He asked about the influence of any sponsor on questions of policy. I made it quite clear to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that there will be no such influence, but sponsorship would help to defray the costs, certainly of feeding people.

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