HL Deb 05 November 1997 vol 582 cc1371-4

2.55 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they propose to take to ensure that the meetings of the European Parliament Committee on Budgets take place in public.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the European Parliament's policy of openness is not a matter for the UK Government. As I understand it, the European Parliament Committee on Budgets generally meets in public except when deciding its negotiating strategy. To me, that seems entirely reasonable.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. As he is aware, since I notified him in advance, I hold in my possession a calender of meetings for the European Parliament, reference 25/B of 1997 and 21/B of 1997. In those documents there are set out, under the authority of the Secretary General, who is a distinguished Briton—incidentally, he was a member of the permanent staff of the budget committee and knows exactly what happens—three categories relating to attendance. They are public, public hearing and blank—

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone


Lord Bruce of Donington

Blank! That implies that the hearings are not public or for public hearing. Therefore, as regards the Budget Committee of the European Parliament—and I have in my possession the agenda of the budget committee, which does not comprise confidential matters—its meetings were not held in public for the whole of October. There was an additional meeting in the case of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament which came into the "blank" category. Is it not clear that it is high time that somebody, preferably the United Kingdom if necessary, is able to discover what actually happens at these meetings and relays it to the British Parliament?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving me some notice of that question. It is very difficult for us to get hold of the kinds of lists which he has access to. We have always recognised that he is better informed than other noble Lords, and also most officials. My understanding is that the meetings of the budget committee between 7th and 9th October were held in public, although it may have entered a closed session to discuss particular points relating to the handling of other institutions. As regards my noble friend's second question about pressure from the British Government, we do give openness in the European Union high priority. We welcome the decision of the Intergovernmental Conference—that we pressed for—to improve access to documents and to publish Council votes.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, should not all these meetings be held in public?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not believe that is possible. There are meetings at which the European Parliament discusses its negotiating strategy in relation to the Commission and the Council of Ministers. Under those circumstances a degree of mutual confidentiality is probably desirable.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, while acknowledging the deep commitment of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, to the European Parliament, can the Government say what they intend to do to encourage consultations with the British Parliament on the Commission's proposals for the future of the European budget in its Agenda 2000 paper?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, no doubt these are matters that can be raised during the presidency of the United Kingdom in the first half of next year.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the committee which I had the honour to chair, and of which my distinguished noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington was previously a member, held all its deliberative sessions in private?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that information.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that his statement that my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington knows more about this subject than officials tells us two things: first, that my noble friend Lord Bruce is a remarkable person particularly on this subject and, secondly, that the officials must be peculiarly unremarkable bearing in mind the huge resources that they have at their disposal which are not available to my noble friend? Will the Minister do something about that to make sure that officials become better informed than my noble friend because perhaps then they would understand exactly what damage the European Union does to this country?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I agree with the first part of my noble friend's question, but not with the second or third parts. As I said earlier, the question of openness in the European Parliament is not a matter for the UK Government or for this House; and I cannot accept that officials here are derelict in their duty.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I am slightly surprised that he defends the privacy of the budget committee of the European Parliament? I notice that he grasped the Barnett formula on this issue to his chest very quickly. If the Government are really keen on openness and think that the European Parliament and, indeed, this House should be open, may I ask whether such openness will extend to Labour Members of the European Parliament?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, our commitment to openness extends very widely indeed. As I indicated earlier, it was the United Kingdom which put forward proposals on openness in the common foreign and security policy and in relation to justice and home affairs. We shall follow up those initiatives during the UK presidency. I welcome the fact that the Amsterdam Treaty will include the first provision for treaty-based access to documents. That has never been provided before. As to Labour Members of the European Parliament, I do not think that that is any more a matter for this House than is the subject of committees of the European Parliament.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that an examination of the documents that emanate as reports from the budget committee of the European Parliament shows that they are distinctly uninformative and do not add generally to the store of knowledge available to the general public? In this case, and allowing for the Minister's defence of the position that the European Parliament and what it does is no particular concern of ours, and in view of the stance taken by the European Parliament on matters of vital interest to the United Kingdom, will the Minister take steps in future (through his civil servants or by other means) to make sure that the British Parliament is acquainted with what happens?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I welcome the development in my noble friend's thinking. It was clear from the question asked by my noble friend Lord Barnett that my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington has changed his views since he was involved in these matters and agreed to meetings in private. The whole thrust of our policy has been for greater openness. One of the most effective ways of achieving that has been the extension of qualified majority voting to issues of openness so that a minority of member states who are opposed to further openness initiatives are brought out into the open, so to speak.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, may I ask why this should not be a matter of legitimate concern for your Lordships' House?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the European Parliament, like another place, is a democratically elected body and makes its own rules. I do not think that we would be very pleased if the European Parliament started to demand that committees of your Lordships' House, for example, must hold their deliberations in public rather than in private.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, but should it not be of interest to this House if Members of the European Parliament act against the national interest?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, there is no evidence that Members of the European Parliament have been acting against the national interest or against the interests of Europe as a whole.