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House of Lords

Thursday, 13th July 1995.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

France: Restriction on UK Auctioneers

Lord Astor of Hever asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action they are taking to enable United Kingdom auctioneers to sell in France.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie): My Lords, in France all auctioneering must be undertaken by state-appointed commissaires priseurs. This is an unacceptable restriction on the ability of British auction houses to operate in France. The Government have made repeated representations on this to both the European Commission and the French authorities. The Commission has now begun proceedings under Article 169 of the Treaty of Rome against the French Government.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that robust and very satisfactory Answer. Given that for the past five years British auction houses have been pressing for their rights under the Treaty of Rome, what further delay can they expect before being able to operate in France as they do elsewhere on the Continent?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reaction to the proceedings that have been commenced. He will appreciate that under Article 169, the French Government were given a period of time in which to reply to the Commission. I understand that they must do so within the next few weeks. After that, it will be seen whether further proceedings must be taken including, ultimately, action before the courts. Clearly, the United Kingdom Government hope that the matter can be resolved and that the French market can be properly opened up to British auction houses without that step being taken.

Lord Strabolgi: My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that the French system of commissaires priseurs works extremely well throughout France and the French are unlikely to agree to dismantle it? Is there any reason why our own auction houses should not be enabled to work alongside it?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I understand that a number of proposals have been made by the French Government. One of them would allow for a system of minority partnerships. However, such an approach would be deemed unacceptable by the British auction houses and, if necessary, the United Kingdom Government would continue to press the Commission to take action before the courts.

Lord Boardman: My Lords, what is the position of the French auctioneers selling in the United Kingdom?

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Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, we have an open market.

Lord Peston: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that, whatever else the Community is, it certainly starts as a free trade area? It is more than that but it must start at that position. Therefore, as the Minister says, the situation is quite unacceptable. Will he tell the House whether there are other examples of the invention of alleged qualifications as a prerequisite of entry to a market which the French or others are using as an attempt to get round the free trade provisions of the Treaty of Rome?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I cannot freely indicate where that might be a device which is being followed. However, as regards this particular area of auction, where British auction houses have sought to establish a presence in other member states, they have to date encountered no difficulties.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, this question was touched on in March by my noble friend Lord Ferrers. He told the House that the Commission would be taking legal action against the French Government. Under Article 169 they are allowed two months. Even my arithmetic tells me that it is now four months since this has happened. Will my noble and learned friend tell the House how far the Commission has progressed in proceedings against the French Government?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, not only is my noble friend knowledgeable in these matters but her arithmetic is also accurate. In respect of the proceedings under Article 169, a period of two months is generally allowed. However, extensions are not unknown. My understanding is that the Commission has given the French Government until September to provide it with a satisfactory reply. If that fails, we shall continue to press the Commission to take the matter further.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how many British auctioneers speak French?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, non!

Heathrow Airport: Fifth Terminal

3.6 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether at the public inquiry on a fifth terminal at Heathrow they will oppose proposals for its construction.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers): No, my Lords. The planning applications for the construction of a fifth terminal at Heathrow were called in for a public inquiry by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment in March 1993. He is therefore in the quasi-judicial position of being an adjudicator on the applications.

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Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that Answer. I realise that the Question is not worded quite as it should be. I meant to alter it but I forgot. However, putting that matter on one side, is the Minister aware that the proposal has been somewhat misunderstood? It is believed that because this is the fifth terminal its effect will be to increase the movements of aircraft by one-fifth? On the contrary, it is intended that the movements shall be up to double.

Does the noble Earl appreciate that living under a Heathrow flightpath can be unfortunate and that many people are suffering a lack of quiet enjoyment? If aircraft movements were to be doubled the situation would become unendurable. Having regard to that, will the Government take a sceptical view of the inquiry, which I know is taking place but which will not reach a conclusion for a considerable time? Will the Minister nevertheless keep a very beady eye on it?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, surprised me when he said that he had not worded the Question as it should have been. I thought that that was quite unusual. Naturally, I answered the Question as it was worded, which seemed to be perfectly simple.

Of course, the Government will keep an eye on all such matters but it would be wrong for my right honourable friend to take any view about this matter because, as I said in my Answer, he is an adjudicator.

The noble Lord referred to the number of movements being doubled. The purpose of the new terminal is to take advantage of the existing two runways. Whether more traffic is allowed and whether the aircraft which use the runways make less noise are totally separate matters from the inquiry.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that it is believed that there will be fewer, but larger planes? Is he further aware that the London Tourist Board considers the fifth terminal to be absolutely essential if London is to maintain its valuable tourist earnings, which are increasing at a rate slower than in any other European capital?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, that is one of the matters that will come out in the inquiry. My noble friend is right in saying that the likelihood is that aeroplanes will be larger and will make less noise.

Baroness Platt of Writtle: My Lords, is my noble friend also aware that if we do not allow an increase in air traffic at Heathrow we shall lose that traffic to other European airports, because people need transfers? However, the new noise regulations should make the situation more acceptable to people who live around the airport.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, my noble friend makes a useful addition to the matters which no doubt the inquiry will take into account.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, perhaps I may take this opportunity to congratulate the noble Earl on his appointment. Is he aware that I believe that by the time the report lands on the ministerial desk he and his

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colleagues will have no cause for worrying about quasi-judicial responsibilities, or any political responsibilities whatever?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am deeply grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, for the courteous observation with which he began his question. When I moved from the Department of Trade to the Department of the Environment I thought that I had lost the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. I am glad that I have not. It enables me to answer his perfectly absurd questions, which are of no relevance.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, is the Minister aware that he can run but he cannot hide?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, this is interesting. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, would stick to his normal briefs, but I understand that he cannot run at all.

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