HL Deb 01 July 1999 vol 603 cc426-8

3.20 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they intend to consult Parliament on the United Kingdom's preferred agenda for the European Union Intergovernmental Conference now planned for next year.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the agenda for the next intergovernmental conference was agreed at the Cologne European Council. It builds on the agreement at the Amsterdam negotiations that the Union should prepare for enlargement by looking at the size of the Commission and the weighting of votes in the Council. The IGC will also look at the possible extension of qualified majority voting and other institutional issues arising from this agenda.

It is too early to say exactly how the UK will approach this IGC, but it will be a priority for the Government to ensure that Parliament is kept thoroughly informed.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does she agree that some of the difficulties that this country faced in becoming a comparable member of the European Union arose from the fact that there has often been a wide gap between what those inside government accept as being on the agenda for negotiation and what those outside government are aware of as being under discussion? Does she accept also that it was helpful when the Government published a White Paper for Parliament in advance of the intergovernmental conference, though only in response to demands from committees of both Houses? Is it possible for the Government to give an undertaking at this time that they will publish such a consultative paper at an early stage to make sure that Members of both Houses are well informed of the issues on the agenda and of the Government's approach to them?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, since the IGC there have been some improvements as a result of the Amsterdam Treaty about the flow of information to the United Kingdom. I hope, too, that the White Paper which the Government published in November last year—The scrutiny of European Union business—has given both your Lordships and Members of another place an opportunity to look at the agenda in a more structured way. The noble Lord is quite right:, it has been the usual practice for the government of the day to publish a White Paper setting out the approach to the IGC. The Government undertake to address that in due course. But for the moment we do not know how the work on the IGC will be taken forward or what the precise timetable will be. The expectation is that the IGC will begin formally in the first half of next year under the Portuguese presidency. Then we ought to know precisely the scope of the negotiations and more about the positions of member states.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that it is government policy to agree to give up our second commissioner only if we are compensated by vote re-weighting in the Council of Ministers?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it was agreed at Amsterdam that in the interests of a more effective Commission the larger member states would be prepared to give up their second commissioner when the European Union expands, provided that a satisfactory agreement was achieved on the re-weighting of the votes in the Council.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that it is the intention of your Lordships' Select Committee to investigate the IGC? The Select Committee will take on that task in the autumn of this year. Can we look forward to the usual co-operation from government departments in reaching conclusions that we can put before the House? Without wishing to pre-judge the outcome of that investigation, the call for a White Paper might well come from both Houses again.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am delighted to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, says. We look forward to the outcome of the Select Committee's deliberations. During the progress of our discussions on the Amsterdam Treaty the whole House acknowledged the valuable work that the noble Lord's committee undertakes. I note what the noble Lord says about the White Paper. I hope that he understood the points that I made to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire; that is, that the Government cannot make a hard and fast undertaking at this time, but it is my expectation that such a paper will be published.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, can the Minister say that Parliament will be consulted on the possibility of an early and wide enlargement of the European Union, perhaps linked with variable periods of adjustment for individual countries according to their needs and situations?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, perhaps I can remind the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that the Government deposit with Parliament all proposals for Community first pillar legislation coming from the Council of Ministers, as well as the legislative business under the second and third pillars. Certain other documents dealing with major policy, legislative or budgetary implications are also deposited. I hope that the undertakings made in the White Paper published in November last year assure the noble Lord and the whole House that the Government will seek to consult properly on the issues covered in that paper.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, can my noble friend give the House an assurance that at the forthcoming intergovernmental conference the momentum established by the Prime Minister in his terse observations on fraud and irregularity in European finances will be fully maintained and explained to the intergovernmental conference in order to ensure that the new Commission adopts different standards as regards the administration of public finances from those it has adopted in the past?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I can give my noble friend the absolute assurance that Her Majesty's Government will continue to be in the forefront of the arguments that the Commission should be more effective, more efficient, more accountable and more transparent in its business. We believe that it must operate by the highest standards of honesty, integrity and accountability. That will be our stance not only during the IGC, but also before it as well.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, can the noble Baroness assure the House that her right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will take care in developing the policies in the conference to make sure that communication is not only with the Westminster Parliament but also through the proper channels for the devolved Parliaments? Noble Lords who this morning saw the opening of the Scots Parliament on television will realise that there are high expectations in Scotland as regards its political future within the Union. There are so many Scottish interests in Europe that are being handled through Westminster that it is vital that roads of communication are constantly open. Can the noble Baroness assure the House that that will be done?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I can assure the noble Baroness that not only will my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary be extremely vigilant, but also his right honourable friends the Secretaries of State in all the departments concerned, in making sure that matters appropriate for discussion—possibly also in relation to the Welsh Assembly—go to the appropriate quarters.