5 Apr 1995 : Column 171

House of Lords

Wednesday, 5th April 1995.

The House met at half-past two of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Birmingham.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

EU: Single Currency

Lord Barnett asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend to keep their options open on joining a European single currency on 1st January 1999.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, under the UK opt-out to the Maastricht Treaty, the Government have kept open the option of whether or not to seek to join any future European single currency. That remains our policy. We shall judge, in the light of the circumstances of the time, whether participation would or would not be in the best interests of the United Kingdom.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I am obliged to the Minister. Can I assume that he is not willing, or would not agree, to go beyond what the Prime Minister said on Monday night about the single currency, when, in fact, he said nothing and took a long time doing so? Can he also say whether or not a single currency would have the same effect as destroying a nation state? More importantly, would the Minister accept that, if the options are to be kept open, it would be necessary under Article 109j.1 of the Maastricht Treaty to be within the exchange rate mechanism from 1st July next year for two years? Is that the Government's intention?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right in his assumption that I would not go beyond the statements already made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. So far as concerns the ERM, the Prime Minister made it very clear that Britain will not join the ERM in 1996 or 1997.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, whatever the ultimate result on this particular issue, from the nation's point of view it would be politically healthier for the overwhelming number in the Labour Party who disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, to place on the record how they feel, even at this stage?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, my noble friend tempts me into the realms of speculation about what is or is not the Labour Party's policy with regard to either the ERM or a single currency. I believe that it is far too early for us to make a judgment about the situation in 1999. When we reach that point, we as a government intend to take any decision necessary, in the light of what is in the best interests of Britain, the British people and the British economy.

5 Apr 1995 : Column 172

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone: My Lords, would it surprise my noble friend to know that the earlier part of my life was spent under a single currency which had lasted for 100 years? It was called the gold standard. It ended only with the First World War. Nobody suggested that it interfered with our independence.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I shall not go back quite so far as that. But my point about the single currency is valid. If we decide some time in the future that the situation is such that we ought to consider joining it, quite clearly any government—certainly a Conservative Government—would take into account what was in the best interests of the British people and the British economy. That has to be the right way to treat this issue.

Lord Richard: My Lords, can we take it from what the Minister said—without going any further than the Prime Minister did, which I fully understand—that, if the conditions are right, the Government's policy is that they will join?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the situation is as I said. We will look at the conditions. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said on 3rd February, unless the economic conditions are right, a single currency would tear apart the European Union. It is not just consideration of the interests of the United Kingdom; it is also in the interests of the European Union itself that, when we are presented with the option of joining or not, we then decide whether or not that is in our interests.

Lord Richard: My Lords, if, in the opinion of the Government, the conditions are right, then the Government will join—is that right?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, if the conditions are judged to be right—if it is in the interests of the British people—then the issue will have to be decided by the government of the day and indeed by Parliament, because it is a decision of very considerable importance.

Lord Boardman: My Lords, does my noble friend assume, from the Question put by the former Chief Secretary, and indeed others, that the Labour Party would now agree to a single currency if it should be in a position ever to exercise that authority?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, that may well be the conclusion that one must draw from the exchanges this afternoon, and indeed from other remarks made outside the House and in another place. But I cannot believe that even the Labour Party would be so irresponsible as to decide now that they should join a single currency in 1999, 1997 or whenever, not knowing what the circumstances would be at that time. Not even the Labour Party could be that irresponsible.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, does the Minister agree that his noble and learned friend Lord

5 Apr 1995 : Column 173

Hailsham is completely wrong in likening a single currency and economic monetary union to the gold standard? Does he further agree that far more than that is involved in a single currency and that loss of sovereignty could be involved? Will he tell the House whether the Government will agree to a referendum before we embark upon such a course?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am always glad to welcome the authentic voice of the Labour Party to any European Union debates that we have on matters of that nature. The noble Lord is indeed right to say that a single currency raises serious economic, political and constitutional issues. On the issue of constitutional change, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made clear on a number of occasions, a referendum cannot be ruled out. It would be for the Government at the time to decide whether, in the circumstances, it was sensible to recommend to Parliament that a referendum ought to be carried out.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if a German Minister were currently to be asked the kind of flat-footed question which was just addressed to him by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, he would in no circumstances give a straight answer?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am not entirely sure whether I should thank my noble friend for what was implied towards the end of that question. He makes a valid point. Ministers of other European countries also take largely the same view as we do and will do on the day on which a decision has to be made on behalf of their own countries; namely, they will take those decisions in the best interests of their own countrymen, whether they be French, German or in our case British.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, inadvertently, the Minister did not answer my supplementary question. I asked him, if the Government are to keep open their options about joining a single currency, whether, under Article 109 of the Maastricht Treaty, they would need to keep within the normal range of the ERM. I did not ask whether they would join it. I asked whether they would need to keep within that range. He simply replied that they do not intend to join it. Could he now perhaps try to answer my question?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I thought I had answered the question by saying that we do not intend to join it in 1997. However, the exchange rate criteria in the treaty was written at a time when the ERM operated under different rules. For example, there were narrow bands in the ERM which do not now exist. It is not clear now how the requirements would be measured. There is no legal or practical need for a formal interpretation of the treaty, nor for us to decide to join the ERM before 1997.

5 Apr 1995 : Column 174

BBC Charter and Agreement

2.40 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether either House of Parliament will be able to amend the proposed new BBC Charter and Agreement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Viscount Astor): My Lords, the Royal Charter is granted by Her Majesty and the Agreement is a contract between my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the BBC. However, we intend that both documents should be laid before Parliament and debated together by both Houses before they come into force. Should either House of Parliament indicate that the documents as drafted were unacceptable, then the Government would carefully consider whether changes were necessary.

Lord Orr-Ewing: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that this is a big constitutional point? We are about to introduce a new Charter and Agreement and it is only right—I am glad to have it confirmed in Hansard—that it should be discussed in both Houses. I am sure that we have something to contribute. Recent events in connection with "Panorama" and Channel 4—sorry, Clause 4, that is more important—underline the need for us to look at these matters carefully. I draw my noble friend's attention to today's Daily Telegraph where Simon Heffer has an interview indirectly with Tony Hall from which it emerges that the current Producer Guidelines—

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page