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House of Lords

Monday, 11th November 1996.

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

Franco-German Memorandum on Flexibility

Lord Bruce of Donington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will report on any further developments concerning the joint Franco-German memorandum of 18th October 1996 (Annex to CONF/1955/94), including any developments at the meeting of personal representatives on 21st and 22nd October; and what are their views on these developments.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey): My Lords, the Franco-German paper on flexibility (Annex to CONF/3395/96) was circulated in the Intergovernmental Conference Personal Representatives' meeting of 21st/22nd October. It was discussed at the meeting on 29th October. The debate on flexibility is still in its early stages.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Bearing in mind that the Economic and Financial Council of the Community is meeting in Brussels while we are deliberating on this matter--that is, on the assumption that it has finished lunch--will the Minister assure the House that the question of an economic stability pact, to which Her Majesty's Government will be invited to give sympathetic agreement at today's ECOFIN meeting, has not in any way been approved by the other place or discussed in this House? Will the Minister bear in mind that reaching any such agreement, however unofficial, would be wholly out of order and will she assure the House that Her Majesty's Government will not commit this House in advance?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I am well aware of the excellent role played by the Select Committees which scrutinise these matters. I am sure that my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is similarly aware, and I am certain that until there has been adequate discussion, no decisions will be taken.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, but could not my noble friend go a little further than that? Is she aware that the Select Committee of your Lordships' House will consider the report of Sub-Committee A of your Lordships' European Committee on the 26th of this month and that I am informed by Her Majesty's Treasury this morning that a decision will actually be

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taken in ECOFIN on 2nd December on the so-called "stability pact"? Can my noble friend give your Lordships' House the assurance that that stability pact will not be nodded through by the Chancellor without a full debate in your Lordships' House and the other place?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, my noble friend knows that the business of this House is not for me to decide, but I can assure him and the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, with whom he has so much in common, that no final decisions are expected until probably the European Council on 13th and 14th December. There will undoubtedly be a discussion of these matters, probably on 2nd December as my noble friend said. I believe that it is right that such matters are discussed, but today's meeting is a monthly ECOFIN meeting and the stability pact is on the agenda--as it has been on the agenda of most meetings in the past few months. On a previous occasion the House seemed very much to agree with me that it is crucial that we remain at the heart of the negotiations. We have a clear interest in ensuring that EMU works well. Whether we are in it or out of it, it must work properly. It is important that British interests are represented at all times--and that means discussing the issues while not coming to a final decision today.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a great deal of puzzlement about this whole issue? We have been assured by Her Majesty's Government on many occasions that if a Conservative Government are elected after the next election, which is most unlikely, there will be a referendum on whether or not we join a single currency, but at the same time discussions are going on month after month about what will happen once there is a single currency and how it will affect us whether we are in or out. It really is time that the British people had an opportunity to know exactly what goes on at the ECOFIN meetings as opposed to those meetings taking place in complete secrecy, perhaps reaching decisions which are not then reversible by Parliament.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I must point out that this is the third supplementary question which has nothing whatever to do with the original Question. However, as I always try to answer noble Lords' questions, perhaps I may repeat what I said to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, a few moments ago. The United Kingdom has a clear interest in ensuring that whether we are in or out of it, economic and monetary union works properly. If we remain out, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, clearly wishes us to do--he wishes to be out of everything--it will have an impact on what happens in this country. We must be in the discussions that are taking place now so that we may do what is right for Britain--and that we shall do.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many Members of your Lordships' House

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warmly agree with her that merely to distance ourselves from things which some people may like while others do not is not an alternative to a policy?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend. We have made it quite clear that we have to be in those discussions. In an Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, a fortnight ago, I made it clear that flexibility means that we have to be involved in the discussions. My noble friend is absolutely right.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the observation of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, that there are those who disagree with the thrust of the earlier questions applies not only to his Benches but also to these Benches? If the Minister is right in saying that we should be involved in these discussions as they proceed without commitment to the final outcome, does not that apply also to the social chapter?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I wondered how long it would be before we got to that. I think that it is right to discuss these matters until we come to the time to take a decision. Perhaps I may welcome the conversion of the Opposition as announced by Mr. Gordon Brown this morning that they will now sign up to the social chapter only as it now is. The Opposition have already done the first of what will no doubt be many U-turns. They are no longer going to support the extension of majority voting although in The Road to the Manifesto they clearly stated that they would do so.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the questions that I have ventured to put to her today have nothing whatever to do with the ultimate decision on whether or not to join economic and monetary union? My questions were limited, and relevant, to the steps that are being taken now (which will come into force before any question of EMU arises) and which relate to the Community's control of British fiscal and taxation policy, as envisaged in the so-called "stability pact". The whole question of that "stability pact" has not yet received the consideration of either the other place or this place. We want an assurance that no decision will be made until after Parliament's views are known.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, first, as I have said to other noble Lords, I am sure that these matters will be debated in your Lordships' House. However, I am not responsible for business and I cannot tell the noble Lord when that will be. Secondly, the noble Lord asked me about developments concerning the joint Franco-German memorandum. That was the point that I sought to answer. That is not the matter with which he has proceeded since putting his initial Question.

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Sterling Exchange Rates

2.40 p.m.

Lord Spens asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the recent rise in the relative value of sterling was foreseen and whether there are any consequences for their future monetary and fiscal policies from a continued and sustained increase in the value of sterling.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, exchange rates are volatile and notoriously difficult to predict. If the rise in sterling is sustained, it could have a temporary effect on domestic inflation. The exchange rate is only one of many factors that has to be taken into account. Monetary policy is, and will continue to be, aimed at achieving the Government's inflation target of 2.5 per cent. or less. The Government recognise the value of a stable exchange rate but do not have a target for sterling.

Lord Spens: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his answer. Is the Minister aware that twice in the life of the present administration sterling exchange rates have been at a historical high, particularly in relation to the dollar, and that afterwards there has been a period of recession? Are we heading again into those depths, or will this country do something to prevent exchange rates from going even higher?

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