HL Deb 05 July 2004 vol 663 cc512-5

3.4 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Swynnerton

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will commission a revised version of the draft European constitution in plain English.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is currently in the process of producing a short and clear guide to the Constitutional Treaty, setting out its main points in plain English, as promised by the Prime Minister on 4 May.

Lord Thomas of Swynnerton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Speaking as a "human person", as defined in the preamble to the treaty, does she realise how this badly written, badly translated, often vacuous and repetitious document damages the European cause? Would it not be wise to have not just a guide, but a completely rewritten document in plain English, to serve as a kind of unofficial, but authorised, substitute?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am not sure what kind of person one might be other than a human person, but answering as a human person, I think that that there has been a great deal of misinformation about what the treaty says, particularly in some sections of the media. It is important that the British public is provided with the facts. A plain-speaking guide will enable an informed decision on what the treaty really means. There is, however, a process still to be followed. In a week's time, representatives of each member state will run through the treaty with the juris linguis. All amendments will then be agreed by consensus, so we will not receive a final text, agreed by all 25 countries, until about the end of October, but we would hope to publish something by the end of the year.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is right in saying that there is a good deal of room for misinformation on the whole of the project. However, will she clarify one matter? Do the Government regard the document on offer as a proper written constitution, in which every word in the text therefore has legal validity and is justiciable in the European Court of Justice, or do they regard it as just another broad set of aspirations? If the former, is it not difficult to see how it can be shortened or how a guide can be developed which does not end up being misleading and undermining the guidance of the view taken by the courts, which will be very strictly according to the precise text and what is in it?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I can well understand the noble Lord's point. One has to be enormously careful about any document that is a guide to a treaty, particularly when treaty language is so important. That is why I stressed my point about the juris linguis to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton. We need to see the documents that are produced together—the final version as it has been agreed across the 25 languages—and the guide at the same time. However, I assure noble Lords that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is sensitive to the point that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, has raised and that Ministers will be careful in the language used.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, when the Foreign Office has finished producing a summary in simple English, will it turn its attention to producing an annotated version of the treaty so that we can see quite clearly how many of the clauses in the new treaty are completely unchanged from existing texts? We could therefore determine where the original liability for those words actually lay.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords, we shall certainly be doing that. The Foreign Office is going to publish a wide range of material to accompany the Constitutional Treaty in addition to the lay person's guide, including—my noble friend will he pleased to hear it—a comprehensive analysis and comparison of the existing treaties and the new Constitutional Treaty. I look forward to that very much.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart

My Lords, while the lapidary clarity of the United States may not have given legal certainty, will the Minister agree that those scholars who have gone beyond the age of reading Janet and John might find the draft constitution quite a good read? It will be further embellished by the simplicity of the Government's guide, which will be strongly welcomed. It would be highly desirable if it were delivered to the households of all those who will have ultimately to make up their minds whether to accept the extravagancies of much of our British press.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it is certainly an informative read. It will be even more informative when the British people are able to look at what is in the Constitutional Treaty and compare it to the four preceding treaties. There is an incredible amount of nonsense around claiming that the treaty is breaking new ground in all sorts of areas where it is in fact reiterating ground that has been well covered in the past. Of course no one would deny that there are some new areas, but much of what we have heard is pure sensationalism.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, is the Minister suggesting that the British people are aware of what is in the present treaty, up to and including the Treaty of Nice? If so, how did they become aware of it when there has been no national debate about the present situation?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, many people on reading our national newspapers will think that the treaty is breaking new ground in all sorts of areas when, as the noble Lord himself has said many times in this House, some of the issues complained about in the press have been part and parcel of the current European Union since the signing of the accession treaty. We have been over this ground before. The noble Lord has been frank in his view that he believes that what is wrong with the European Union goes back to the treaty of accession through the Single European Act, Maastricht and everything else. We need to understand where all those issues begin.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that the text of the lay version to which she referred is not contentious and therefore it is widely accepted as being a fair reflection of the constitution? Will she therefore consult the other parties and interests to that end and, as my noble friend Lord Maclennan requested, distribute a copy to every house in the land?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I fear that it will be impossible to write a document on the European Union that is not contentious somewhere. We all know, even discussing issues in the most neutral terms in your Lordships' House where there could be no fairer jury, that there will be contention in whatever is said.

This will not be part of the referendum exercise, which of course will come under the aegis of the Electoral Commission. Whether it will be delivered to every house is exactly the sort of issue on which my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is currently consulting Ministers and elsewhere. I shall certainly convey to him the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips.