Debate Europe and Communicating Europe in Partnership

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Caroline Flint: I shall look into the availability of the documents. They are obviously public documents and are available. They have already been discussed in the Scrutiny Committees concerned, but I will certainly look into that matter and consider whether that usually happens. If things have happened incorrectly, I will put it right for the next time.
Mr. Francois: I am sorry to pursue the point with the Minister, but I am not sure that she understands how the system works. The documents were discussed in the European Scrutiny Committee and were then forwarded to this Committee for debate. For two weeks, I have been asking for copies of all the documentation—not just the two documents themselves, but all the exchanges of correspondence between her, her predecessor and the Committee—so that we could read it all in good time to debate it this afternoon. It is not correct to say that all the documentation was publicly available. That is the point of my question. The documents for debate on Monday were made publicly available on Thursday afternoon. I ask her seriously that if we are to improve the scrutiny of European business in the House, can we please ensure that that does not happen again?
Caroline Flint: In terms of public availability, I was talking about the two documents. On the bundle of documents, I will look into that and find out what has happened in the past. If things have not happened correctly this time, I will try to ensure it does not happen again in the way that the hon. Gentleman has outlined.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Key. I echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for Rayleigh about the scrutiny of the documents. It is somewhat ironic that, in a debate about better communication between Europe, this Parliament and the people, even the communication channels in the corridors of Westminster seem to have been clogged up. In my case, I had left for my constituency by the time the documents were available, so I hope that the Minister agrees that it is clearly unacceptable to suddenly be landed with 200 pages on a Monday morning for a Committee in the afternoon. That situation does not enable Members to do their job well. However, I accept and welcome the Minister’s assurances that she will look into the matter.
I have a question on the Commission’s plan for going “even more local”, which is an interesting form of words. The wording suggests that it has already been going local quite effectively and that it will be going even more local. As for Europe engaging with citizens, the Commission’s plan implies that acting beyond the capital cities is some kind of bonus in the proposals, rather than a necessity. Can the Minister give us a guarantee that the proposals will go a lot more local than capital cities and that they will go beyond that and definitely include the capital cities of all nations in the UK?
Caroline Flint: Part of my newness to the job involves my considering how communications are currently provided for and, for example, who is applying for funds. One of my questions to officials was about which organisations had applied for funds in 2007-08. The Commission in London is evaluating those organisations to see where they have come from, as well as the content of those proposals and what they wanted. I am keen to establish how aware people across the United Kingdom are of what funding is available and how they might make best use of it. For example, I have had a brief look at the European contact centres to find out where they are, and I have also asked questions about how they operate. Again, one of the issues in relation to access is whether people know how to access information—on the internet or by phone—and who to talk to and so on. I will consider that matter in terms of how local the process can be.
The hon. Lady will be aware that there are particular criteria concerning the sort of organisations that can apply for the funding. That is to ensure that they are bona fide organisations and can do what they are bidding to do. I am keen to consider how that works out outside the capitals of this country and elsewhere in Europe. I am open to receive any ideas the hon. Lady has on that.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I am glad to serve on the Committee with you in the Chair, Mr. Key. I welcome the Minister and I wonder what she has done wrong to end up with one of the least exciting of subjects. Allowing for that, what can she do to examine debate and engagement with MEPs, because the biggest failing is that, under a regional system, people do not understand who their MEP is or the electoral system? Moreover, that electoral system works against the Westminster system because, unfortunately, MEPs are not accountable, they do not have the responsibility that they used to have and I wonder how we can put that right. The Minister mentioned terrorism and how a united Europe can fight it. Will she ensure that Spain takes that issue seriously when it comes to Gibraltar, because the links are not there?
Caroline Flint: I must say to my hon. Friend that I am delighted to have this particular position. I must also say that, as a former Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), I know only too well how important it is to look at the context of how we live today. The fact is that, although there is a considerable amount of work that national Governments can do, are doing and will continue to do, there are areas where we are stronger if we can work together.
The European Union provides a forum and framework for that collective working. We owe about 10 per cent. of British jobs either directly or indirectly to investment from the EU. We have seen many benefits from membership. For example, in telecommunications, the price of mobile telephone calls is coming down, and we can also avail ourselves of access to health treatment should we visit other parts of the EU.
It is important is to look at where the EU adds value to what national Governments can do rather than seeing it, as it is sometimes seen, as being in competition with national Governments. Beyond the EU level, we are clearly seeing the importance of how 27 member states can agree some principles of engagement to take forward their arguments on the global stage, where the financial situation is being examined. I am not in the business of hyping different institutions or organisations, but the fact that the EU can add value is important.
Regarding Gibraltar and Spain, I was very pleased in the past few weeks to hear about the trilateral talks that are under way. They are a step forward and I was pleased to attend the Gibraltar day at the Guildhall recently, where I reacquainted myself with the First Minister of Gibraltar, Peter Caruana.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: One of the avowed aims of the communications initiative is to gauge public opinion. One of the questions raised in the European Scrutiny Committee was whether or not those wishing to hold referendums could apply for funding and whether they should be looked on favourably by the Government and the European Commission. Indeed, that question was explicitly asked by the European Scrutiny Committee, and I mentioned it in my initial remarks. I do not think that the Minister responded to that point. Would it be in order and would encouragement be given to the making of an application for funding to hold such national referendums on behalf of a private organisation? Can she now answer that question, which exercised the European Scrutiny Committee?
Caroline Flint: In my earlier contribution, I tried to establish the fact that there is lots of work that the EU does, and is tasked to do, on climate change issues, supporting employment and skills initiatives, and some issues about tackling crime. The EU enables, through those communication lines, an opportunity for people to question and debate how those areas of work are being tackled, what the outcomes are and what they mean to communities and citizens.
In that sense, when one looks at the criteria, one sees that the EU is looking for a diverse range of views and for something that will interact with the work streams that already exist and which the EU is legally required to undertake. I do not think that a referendum would quite fall into that category, but I am informed that every case that is presented is judged on a case-by-case basis. I would not necessarily rule out a referendum, but I am not sure that it fits within the criteria. That is what I was trying to say earlier. It would almost be like saying that we should provide funding from Parliament to have a debate about the abolition of Parliament, and I think that that is quite different—
Mr. Francois: Sorry?
Caroline Flint: Let me make my point. If Members are saying that these lines should be used for a debate about whether we are in the EU, that is somewhat different. The work of the EU and how it is presented, how it helps families, and what form it takes are open to discussion, but, as I said, things would be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
The EU is open to variety of voice and diversity of the means of communication, whether online, in public meetings, through pamphlets or other documentation. At the end, if people want to have a vote, that might be something to look at—I do not necessarily rule it out—but this debate must be within the criteria and confines of what is provided in the documents.
Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Key. I came expecting to be wholly excited by this debate, which is missing only one element: the presence of the hon. Member for Stone to complement that of the right hon. Member for Wells. I am in a heightened state and anxious that we should drive the debate forward, and I give ground to no one in my belief that we must have a progressive policy on working co-operatively with nations around the world, and that Europe is but a stepping stone in that direction. “Co-operation” should be the buzz word.
I have fundamental doubts, however, about the wisdom of allocating funds for the purpose of communicating. It seems that minds are made up, and it is most unlikely that the mind of the right hon. Member for Wells or, indeed, my own, are likely to be changed substantially. I ask the Minister how much money might be involved, and whether, if a considerable amount will be spent, any portion of it will be directed at combating the lies, slurs, slanders and misrepresentations in the Murdoch press, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph and all those publications that do their best to ensure that there is not balanced reporting of the pros and cons of the EU.
Caroline Flint: I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. The documents that we are discussing today and the associated budget lines are only part of what is available to the EU to communicate a better Europe. Funding is available through the European Parliament, MEPs have access to funding, and I believe that my Department has some £140,000.
My hon. Friend’s point is pertinent to this debate. It is one thing to have diverse views about, for example, how the EU should tackle climate change, and whether it is more appropriate to do it at the EU level or the national level, but putting clear misinformation in the public domain is not helpful. Some of the myths that are put around do not inform the process at all. Very often, they undermine the good contribution that the EU makes in different ways—the added value I talk about that the EU can give over and above what national Governments can do.
In the months ahead, I will be looking with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other Government Departments that lead on certain policy areas at how we can ensure that we explain more clearly what we have achieved as a member of the EU, and balance that against healthy debate and criticisms, where appropriate. Discussions must be factual, informed and based on giving people real and true information so that they can make up their own mind.
Mr. Francois: There was some discussion in the correspondence between the European Scrutiny Committee and the Minister’s predecessor, who is now the Secretary of State for Scotland, as to whether the inter-institutional agreement that was originally proposed to underpin such projects had any legal basis in EU law. It now seems from the previous Minister’s letter of September 2008, which is on page 197 of the bundle, that a way has been found to use the inter-institutional group on information—the IIGI as opposed to the IIA—to fulfil the same purpose without the need for a new agreement. Will the Minister explain the difference between the original agreement and the new one, and tell us why one was potentially illegal, but we are led to believe that the second is not?
Caroline Flint: I am happy to look into the matter that the hon. Gentleman raises. [Interruption.] May I finish?
Mr. Francois: If you tell me something.
Caroline Flint: I am happy, in particular, to look closely at the page to which the hon. Gentleman refers. We constantly examine the constitutional base to decide what is legal and what is not. My predecessor looked into the matter, and we were satisfied that the two documents did not lead to a contradiction between the roles of individual member states and the EU’s role in communicating better on EU policy and the engagement of our citizens. I am happy to look into that in more detail and I shall give the hon. Gentleman a specific answer shortly.
Mr. Francois: It is very good of the Minister to offer to look into that, but we are here this afternoon to debate it. Rather than go away and look into it, will she answer the question that I asked her? I even gave her the page reference. Will she explain why those things are different—why one agreement was supposed to be illegal and the other is not? Perhaps she could just answer the question.
Caroline Flint: I have said that I will come back to that in the course of the debate, and I will be very happy to do so. There will be plenty of opportunity for me to do that in the time that we have.
Jo Swinson: I want to bring to the Minister’s attention the issue of the Europe Direct centres. One proposal before us is for the scheme to be expanded, with perhaps as many as 32 additional centres. I note that some areas of the country seem to be well served, with Scotland having three, although obviously it has a rural population, yet the east midlands seems to have none and just one serves all of London. We read in our papers that three of the centres closed down in the past funding cycle. Will the Minister explain why those centres closed and tell us whether there is a danger that the money might be used to set up centres that will ultimately close down in a couple of years, thus giving no real continuity? Will she also give us her thoughts on the spread of the centres and try to ensure that they are within reasonable distance of people, no matter where in the country they live?
Caroline Flint: We believe that Europe Direct centres are a useful way of relaying information to the public in the European Union. As the hon. Lady says, they are provided in local venues. The previous corporate proposals and the grants for the existing centres will expire in March 2009, and the new corporate proposals will run from April 2009 to March 2013. Part of the process will be reviewing the operation of the current centres.
As the hon. Lady said, there are a number of centres across the UK—there are 28—and I am keen to examine the form that they take. I understand that some are in libraries and piggybacking other organisations, and I will be interested to examine the review of what they are offering and how well they are used. It is always worth doing that to ensure that we are reaching people, particularly those of different generations, in the way that best enables them to access information. I am open to hearing views on the centres from Members of all parties, such as whether they think that they could be improved, whether the current dispersal is the right geographical spread, or whether they should be in other places. Such a debate would be useful.
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