HL Deb 13 July 2004 vol 663 cc1128-31

3.5 p.m.

Lord Harrison

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to ensure accurate reporting of the European Union constitutional treaty, in the light of recent newspaper coverage.

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

My Lords, the Government have no power to ensure accurate reporting of the constitutional treaty, as some recent press coverage clearly indicates. The Foreign Office will produce a short and clear guide to the treaty and an analysis of the treaty indicating the provenance of the text in terms of previous treaties, together with other material as necessary to inform a free and frank debate on the merits of the treaty.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, given the moonshine issuing from newspapers such as the Sun, suggesting that Brussels dictates the size of our Army, our taxes and even our bananas, does the Minister recognise that it is welcome news that a pamphlet will be produced detailing the elements of the constitutional treaty and thereby rebutting some of the Euro myths? Will the Government also consider encouraging the use of correction columns in newspapers, such as those in the Guardian and the Mirror, so that such Euro myths can be rebutted quickly and effectively at the time of publication?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, sadly, the Sunis not in a class of its own in the respect that the noble Lord has drawn to your Lordships' attention. A great number of inaccuracies are littered around our newspapers. We have written to the editors of several national newspapers to correct inaccuracies, but if we were to do it for every inaccuracy that occurs, the staff of the Foreign Office would be doing little else.

The Foreign Secretary wrote to the Times on 21 April; the Minister for Europe wrote to the Telegraph on 21 May, to the Times on 25 June, to the Independent on 25 June and to a whole range of other newspapers as well. Officials have also been engaging in this correspondence.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, do the Government agree that this is precisely the conundrum that was faced over student debt prior to the Higher Education Bill? The Government are unduly constrained in the communication of issues prior to the debate of legislation, and that is an unfair position to be in, regardless of which party is in power.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the debate about the way in which the press covers a number of issues is one where the Government could look sorrowful and say how unfair things are in that respect; but that would not command a great deal of sympathy. What the Government must do in the circumstances is set out as clearly as possible why we believe that this treaty is a good treaty and deserves support. The point about analysing the treaty properly and indicating that many of the things that are complained about were in fact signed up to in the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty should be a salutary lesson for one and all.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, does the Minister agree that since within 24 hours from now we will have read the Butler report, her criticisms of the accuracy of articles in the press might sound just a little like the kettle calling the pot black?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

No, my Lords, because I already have the evidence for what I am talking about in relation to the European Union. Had the noble Lord been in the House yesterday when I was answering questions related to WMD and the Butler report, he would know that I was scrupulously careful not to do anything such as he has suggested.

Lord Russell-Johnston

My Lords, while entirely agreeing with the Minister that ensuring accuracy on this question is practically impossible, not least when the love affair between the Prime Minister and Rupert Murdoch seems to have withered on the vine, I would encourage the Government to continue to raise specific outstanding examples of inaccuracy. Could the Minister perhaps also encourage both the British Broadcasting Corporation and ITV to increase the number of programmes devoted to discussing and educating on the proposed European treaty?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not know how great their audiences would be. It is one thing to broadcast programmes, but it is another thing to make people watch a channel engaging in such a debate. It is enormously important that a range of activities should be undertaken to give the British people the opportunity to look at the facts about the constitution. I have mentioned publications, but there will also be ministerial visits, meetings with UK regional audiences and a regularly updated website.

Baroness Billingham: My Lords—

Earl Ferrers: My Lords—

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I think that we should hear from my noble friend Lady Billingham.

Baroness Billingham

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that if literature is produced it will be in a suitably wide range of languages? My grandson is in a class at a London primary school where 40 languages are spoken. I do not expect the Foreign Office to respond in quite such measures, but it is imperative that the information should be available in a wide range of languages so that all our citizens can read the information fully and clearly.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, my noble friend has made a very important point, which, I am sure, has already been taken on board in the Foreign Office. I shall certainly ensure that officials are aware that that is exactly what should happen.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, is not one of the most serious inaccuracies about reporting the treaty the description that it was just a tidying up of existing texts? That view was not only uttered in another place but appears to have been endorsed by the noble Baroness both last week and just a few moments ago. Surely she must agree that placing all previous texts as well as many new provisions into a new, written, legal, constitutional document, encased in a higher legal order for the whole of the European Union, presents the British people with a fundamentally new proposition that is quite different from anything in previous treaties. Is that not an accuracy that should be made very clear? Is that not the reason why the Government now agree—I am glad to say—that there should be a referendum so that the British people can make a judgment on this totally new set of propositions?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is being uncharacteristically rather unfair about that. From this Dispatch Box, over and over again, I have never used the phrase to which he has referred—not once. I have said throughout that there is much in the treaty that brings together the four—or, indeed, five, if one includes the Treaty of Accession—previous treaties. Indeed, there are new matters in this treaty; for example, the very important power being given to parliaments for the first time.

Much of what is being complained of is already in the treaties. Perhaps I may take the issue of fishing, about which I understand the party opposite is very exercised. The provisions in the treaty, for example, on fisheries bring forward the competencies first agreed by the noble Lord's party when it was in government and signed up to our accession. That is my point. Many of the difficulties made about this constitutional treaty arise from points that are already in treaties; but not exclusively. I have never said that from this Dispatch Box, and the noble Lord knows that.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, said that myths are a bad thing. Does the noble Baroness not agree that Brussels determining the size above which a rocking horse may not be built is absurd? Why does Brussels involve itself in that kind of thing? Why should we sign up to that kind of thing?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree that some of the issues covered by the single market provisions look very silly when taken out of context. But when they are looked at as safety provisions—I am sure that the noble Earl would not wish his grandchildren to be riding on unsafe rocking horses—perhaps they look a little different.