14 Dec 1995 : Column 1367

House of Lords

Thursday, 14th December 1995.

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

Lord Sempill--Sat first in Parliament after the death of his mother.

European Commission: Discipline

Lord Buxton of Alsa asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How they would respond to any action by the European Commission to dismiss or diminish the career prospects of any senior official within the Commission who had expressed disagreement with European Commission policies; and what they consider to be the legal position of an official in such circumstances.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey): My Lords, the Commission should ensure that its disciplinary procedures are followed fairly. The legal position of an official who breached staff regulations would depend on the terms of his or her contract and the alleged breach.

Lord Buxton of Alsa: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her reply, which, of course, would apply in almost any circumstance in any organisation. I should be very grateful to my noble friend and to your Lordships if I were allowed to frame my further question very carefully because it is complicated. I want to cite four cases--

Noble Lords: Question!

Lord Buxton of Alsa: My Lords, I should like to ask a question covering four cases. Two distinguished employees have been sacked or are about to be sacked. There is the case of a Danish Commissioner, Mrs. Bjerregaard, who published a book which has been pulped, and there is the case of the former Leader of the Opposition, Neil Kinnock, a notable Commissioner who has apparently been silenced. Will my noble friend confirm that the President of the European Commission has the power to sack employees such as Mr. Connolly and Mr. Wilmott but does not have the power to sack commissioners, although I understand that he can take away their portfolio which is the same? Will she kindly tell us the Government's position and say whether she agrees that these manifestations add up to the emergence of a very ugly authoritarian regime?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, under Articles 11, 12 and 17 of Title 2 of staff regulations, the rights and obligations of officials are clearly set out. That covers the case of Mr. Connolly, which is sub judice, to which my noble friend referred. He is right that it is not possible for the President of the Commission to sack commissioners. Only the European

14 Dec 1995 : Column 1368

Parliament can do that and the Commission has to be sacked as a whole. So he would be sacking himself plus all the others should he do it. The whole question of staff is a very sensitive one. I would not want to comment either on the case which is sub judice or on the other case at this time. The best thing to do is for me to write to my noble friend; otherwise the House will be delayed in a way which I think is unacceptable at Question Time.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead: My Lords, in relation to the case of Mr. Connolly, on which the Question appears to be primarily pegged, will the noble Baroness be a little sceptical of the phrase "senior official" which was bandied about by The Times in particular as though Mr. Connolly were a permanent secretary? He is in fact an A4, which means he is somewhere between a principal and an assistant secretary in old Whitehall parlance. Secondly, can the noble Baroness tell us what she thinks would have been the promotion prospects of a middle grade Treasury or Foreign Office official in, shall we say, the heyday of Lady Thatcher's power, who had taken time off without permission to write a book totally opposed to the policies of the then government? Having said that, perhaps I may finally add that I would urge my successors in the Commission to appreciate the virtue of tolerance. Martyrs, even if not very saintly ones, are rarely worth making.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to say that Mr. Connolly, who worked for the European Commission, was a medium ranking official. But please let us not start throwing aspersions on people of principal and assistant secretary level. They are of excellent value in briefing Ministers so I shall not go along with the noble Lord's slightly negative views. As to what he said about people working for governments, of any hue, under any leader, they are, just as officials of the European Commission are, bound by the staff regulations. I shall refrain from reading out Articles 11, 12 and 17, but it is all down there!

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, is the Minister aware that Mr. Bernard Connolly, who is the author of the book The Rotten Heart of Europe, which I commend to your Lordships, yesterday obtained an injunction against the Commission and is quite capable of looking after himself? The court instructed the Commission to take all necessary measures to ensure that no further information on Mr. Connolly's career, personality, opinions, health or reputation reaches the media. Is the Minister aware that people who differ from Mr. Connolly, who is a quite high ranking official, would do far better to reply to his arguments? Is she further aware that so far no refutation has been put forward to any of the contentions he made?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, it would be easy in a debate, but not at Question Time, to put forward such a refutation. I have been extremely careful, in view of the injunction issued by the European Court yesterday, not to go into the detail. I have no doubt, having read parts of the book, that Mr. Connolly is perfectly able to look after himself. But I say to the noble Lord that it is important that staff regulations, whether applying to our own national Civil Service or

14 Dec 1995 : Column 1369

in the Commission, should be regarded as the rule and those who breach those obligations must expect some retribution.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, although the Commission has the most unfortunate monopoly to propose legislation, can my noble friend tell the House when it was given the power to decide the interests of the Communities, to which I understand it pretends in the case of Mr. Connolly?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I do not believe that my noble friend is right about that. The Commission is going purely by the rules in Articles 11, 12 and 17.

Lord Richard: My Lords, is the Minister aware that I find the prospect of a silenced Mr. Kinnock somewhat bizarre? Does she agree that if anyone is capable of looking after himself it is the former leader of my party? Does the Minister also agree that a principal or anyone verging on being an under-secretary of the Treasury who wrote a book saying that its organisation was corrupt, that it was a fraud and that its policies were deeply damaging to the British people would find that his feet hardly touched the ground before he was out of Whitehall?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I should so agree.

Lord Buxton of Alsa: My Lords, is my noble friend aware of what Mr. Santer said? He said that there can be no room in the Commission for anyone who holds Mr. Connolly's views, and that included two commissioners?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I believe that we are getting a long way from the Question. This is a matter of discipline. I stand by what I said in my earlier answer to my noble friend.

Public Sector Borrowing Requirement

3.11 p.m.

Lord Barnett asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their estimate of the public sector borrowing requirement for 1996-97 and 1997-98.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, the Budget forecast of the PSBR for 1996-97 was £22.5 billion. That will represent a halving of the PSBR over the previous three years. In 1997-98 it is projected to fall even further, down to a level of £15 billion.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, the Minister overlooked telling the House that there was a £7 billion underestimate for both 1995-96 and 1996-97. I understand that because I am very much aware of what was said in Paragraph 3.58 in the Red Book--that errors and uncertainties and risks in making forecasts can apply. I am sure that the Minister will agree that, at the

14 Dec 1995 : Column 1370

same time, these are fairly large errors, especially as the Chancellor has also forecast that by the end of the century he is hoping to have a zero PSBR.

A Noble Lord: Hear, hear!

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I am glad to hear somebody opposite saying "Hear, hear!". Can we take what I have said to mean that that is a firm forecast or is it a firm but flexible forecast in order to allow for any other changes that the Chancellor has in mind for November next year?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, as I explained to the noble Lord the last time we had a Question similar to this one, we hope to move the PSBR towards balance towards the end of the decade. But as the noble Lord knows, the PSBR is actually the difference between two significantly large figures; namely, what the Government spend and what they take in. In fact, the errors as regards those two significantly large figures are not very great when one looks at the mathematics of error. Indeed, over a 10-year period the errors in the PSBR have run out at something like three-quarters of 1 per cent. of GDP, which comes to about £4.5 billion. That is large in comparison to the sort of figure of £22 billion which we are talking about, but it is not large when one considers the two very much larger figures which, when taken together, make up the PSBR.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page