HL Deb 12 March 1998 vol 587 cc304-6

3.19 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry asked Her Majesty's Government:

At what date they expect HM Customs and Excise to be able to handle transactions in euros.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise will be in a position to receive VAT payments and to handle invoiced amounts for imported goods in euros from 1st January 1999.

Lord Renton of 1Vrount Harry

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer, which I find encouraging, particularly on this day of the first ever European conference when 26 European nations are gathered together to discuss key policies of the European Union. Does he agree that the question of the introduction of a single currency—the euro—is by far and away the most difficult decision that has ever faced the European Union since it started? For that reason, when will the Government consider publishing a simple, readable pamphlet, which would set out the pros and cons of joining the single currency and in the process demolish some of the myths?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I rather think that I agree with the noble Lord in his first suggestion that it is the most important issue that has occurred within the European Community. On his second question, we have published two guides: one on the pros and cons of EMU; a more detailed report by my noble friend Lord Currie; and one on the practical implications for business. We shall be updating those shortly. We have also set up, under my noble friend Lord Simon of Highbury, business advisory groups and standing committees to co-ordinate work in the public and private sectors and to facilitate our readiness for EMU.

Lord Newby

My Lords, in the light of that answer, will the Government reconsider their decision not to apply for funds which might be available from the EU in order to publicise the consequences of the introduction of a single European currency?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government's position on funding is that we have to be very careful not to accept funding which would put the case for one side or another where there is disagreement. That is the principle on which we have looked at European funding in this matter.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I am delighted to hear what he has just said, that there should not be a one-sided argument about this? Under those circumstances, may I have his assurance that if and when we have a referendum on the subject that will certainly be taken into consideration and that the Government will be even-handed and allow those who are opposed to a single currency to have money from public funds equal to the amount which is available to the Government and other organisations?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am sure that when that day comes the Government will take into account my noble friend's views. But no decision has been taken on the matter at this time.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the business committees set up by the noble Lord, Lord Simon of Highbury. Can he assure us that, as part of their remit, they will be paying particular regard to the position of small firms, many of which will be trading with our Community partners?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Yes, my Lords.

Lord Randall of St. Budeaux

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on the information services and other support services to which my noble friend referred. However, does he not agree that the key in all of this is to ensure that British business remains competitive with those countries in the euro zone, as Britain will be on the outside of EMU during the initial phase?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Yes, my Lords, we are aware that those countries which join EMU on 1st January next year will have a considerable advantage in terms of reduced transactional costs. We shall certainly have to remain competitive in order to counter that. I also recognise that almost half of our total trade in goods and services is with the 11 countries which are likely to join EMU next year.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, reverting to the original Question about tax collecting, can the noble Lord assure me that his noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington will be able to fill in his self-assessment form in euros?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend will certainly be able to do that. I do not know whether my noble friend or the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, have the advantage I have of a French bank account.

Noble Lords


Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my latest statement has at the bottom the phrase, "To enable us to get used to the euro, we have presented your solde [final statement] in euros as well as in francs".

Lord Annan

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord, in his reply to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, did not imply that the Government, when they came to the point, would be entirely neutral? It is one thing to produce papers for the public to introduce them to the pros and cons of the matter. But when it comes to the point, surely the Government will have to come to a decision to recommend or not to recommend.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government have always made it clear that the first stage will be a decision by the Cabinet and by Parliament. Only after that will there be a referendum. Of course the Government will consider it their responsibility to make their position clear to the country. I thought that as far as that was concerned I stone-walled in my answer to my noble friend Lord Stoddart.