HL Deb 10 May 1999 vol 600 cc957-60

2.45 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

Further to the Answer by the Lord McIntosh of Haringey on 14th April (HL Deb, col.767) concerning the question of the United Kingdom joining the single European currency, whether they will publish a White Paper setting out the political and economic arguments, as they now see them, both for and against joining.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, government policy on membership of the single currency was set out clearly by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Statement to the House of Commons in October 1997 and was restated by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons on 23rd February 1999.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, will the Minister kindly read the Question and consider what he is now being asked? He is not being asked for a statement of government policy. We have hints galore as to what government policy is and we are not looking for any more. The issue is one of the most complicated and important that this country has ever faced. Do the Government not realise that in a referendum, which they have promised, it is very important indeed that the public should be familiar with the economic and political arguments for and against and that, based on those arguments, they can begin to form a proper judgment? I remind the noble Lord that this is the second time that he has been asked the same Question without bothering even to read it.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, if the noble Lord asks me the same Question again, he will receive the same Answer. I was entirely satisfied with the Answer that I gave him and with the subsequent exchanges. Of course I read the Question with great care, as I always do.

The noble Lord posits a situation in the future when we have a referendum and a decision as to whether to enter the single currency. Such a referendum would be meaningless if it were carried out long before a decision had to be taken and if it were long after the necessary informed consent of the British people had been obtained. I assure the noble Lord that the Government take very seriously their responsibilities for informing the British public, but it would not be meaningful to do it a long time in advance of the referendum and the decision.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the noble Lord not accept that when the referendum comes, the Government will be, quite rightly, partisan in that? The Government's policy is very clear and it will be stated, as they are perfectly entitled to state it. But there is a case that can be made on both sides. Given the £7 million or so which has been spent so far on the softening-up process, what conceivable argument can there be against engaging a group of people to produce an authoritative statement of the arguments on both sides? Nobody will believe that the Government can be independent when the referendum comes.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I reject entirely the noble Lord's statement that £7 million has been spent on a softening-up process. What is happening is that we are seeking to ensure that when the time comes, British industry and commerce and, indeed, the British people as a whole, have made such preparations as are necessary in order to make a serious choice.

Of course, the Government accept that there will be arguments on both sides and those arguments will have to be put to the British people. Indeed, we already did so by publishing last year an excellent volume entitled The Pros and Cons of EMU by my noble friend Lord Currie, which I commend to the noble Lord and the House.

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, I share the disappointment of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, regarding the reply he has received. That is tempered a little by the fact that I do not believe, given the Government's commitment to the euro, that they can present a genuinely objective assessment of the case for and against economical and political membership. However, things are moving on. Is it not now sensible to ask the Government to produce a White Paper outlining the pros and cons of the case for accepting the proposals of Senor Prodi for a European army and discussing the German Government's scheme for a European Union military and defence union? We should hear something about that also.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, as my noble friend stated, things are moving on and will continue to do so. However, they are not moving on so far as to put the question of a European army within the scope of this Question.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, in his loveable, if somewhat mischievous, usual way, perhaps has a serious point. Does my noble friend accept that while it would not be possible to convince people such as the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, and my noble friend Lord Shore of Stepney, it might be possible to convince genuinely open-minded people—I deliberately exclude my noble friend—because the facts clearly show the advantages of our joining a single currency?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Prime Minister has made the issues absolutely clear. As he stated in February, it is essential that convergence is settled and sustainable. We cannot say that yet. Under those circumstances, of course things will continue to move on, as stated by my noble friend Lord Shore, and we will continue to sustain our responsibility for informing the British people as and when appropriate.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that as a Minister in this House no one would possibly accuse him of arrogance, but that the Answer drafted for him, and which he read, reeked of the arrogance of this Government? Noble Lords are entitled to ask this Question. They will probably ask it again and again. It is about time Her Majesty's Government got it into their heads that there is a desire on the part of the people of this country to have the information set out as fairly as possible by an authoritative source on which they can begin to make up their minds on this issue. Why are the Government afraid to let them have the facts?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government have never been afraid to let anybody have the facts, nor indeed have they been afraid to do more than just hint, as we were accused of doing, about our attitude. We have set out the economic convergence criteria and the basis upon which a decision will ultimately be made. Perhaps I may say that we have gone a great deal further than the noble Lord's government in setting out our position on the European single currency, and we will continue to do so.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the debate about the single currency has been going on for some years? Does he not accept that the objective of the Government, and, I suspect, of every corner of this House, would be to extend the scope of that debate to embrace a much greater proportion of the population than currently feels equipped to take any part in it? Does he not also agree that the recent election results, the turn-out in the local elections and in the Welsh Assembly and Scottish elections have proved that there is a serious disillusionment in the country with the extent to which Parliament legislates and deliberates above the heads of the electorate?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I agree with the first point raised by the noble Lord. As regards the second point, he is entitled to his opinion.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the changeover plan makes little reference to the cost of entry? Does he also accept that he owes it to the British public to have early indications of that cost, which has been estimated at five times that of putting right the millennium bug?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Viscount compares two "unknowable" statistics. I do not believe there is any point in making such a comparison.