Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I wish to speak briefly in support of my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington, who so ably moved the amendment. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, that I am well-known for disliking the European Parliament, and I voted against its establishment. However, my concern is with British taxpayers' money and, for that matter, taxpayers' money throughout the European Union. There is no doubt that the peripatetic nature of the European Parliament causes huge logistic and administrative difficulties, and those impose far higher costs on taxpayers. That cannot be right.

There is a new parliament building in Brussels which is not fully and economically used because it is not the permanent seat of the parliament. That has been built at a cost of £670 million, of which British taxpayers have had to find some £120 million. So no wonder I am concerned about the way in which the parliament is, as I have to grant, forced to arrange its business and its meetings.

It really is time that this matter was confronted and put right. It does not matter how offended the French may be as a result. Britain is often accused of being the odd man out in Europe. But it is the French, with their intolerable arrogance--or inferiority complex; I do not know which--who so often cause the problems, as we saw in the world trade talks and more recently over the appointment of the first president of the European Central Bank. French tantrums not only cause difficulties but bring about decisions which are harmful to the European Union. Noble Lords may think that I am in favour of that, and in normal circumstances I am; but this involves taxpayers' money and therefore I am not in favour.

I believe that the problem of the siting of the European Parliament is one of the long-term problems that the French have caused. It is time that they were brought to book. There is no reason why everyone should keep giving in to the French. France is not the largest country in population or economic terms. Indeed, its population is no greater than our own. Certainly its world importance is no greater than ours or that of Germany, and its achievements are not equal to those of other European countries, including our own, over a long period of time.

I believe that the time has come for the French to be confronted with firmness and vigour. We should therefore agree to this amendment so that the House of Commons, which has not dealt with this matter properly, as my noble friend pointed out, can have another look at it and see whether there is some way in which the Commons, and indeed the Government, can revisit the issue, put some pressure on the French and achieve agreement on a proper meeting place for the European Parliament, thus saving the taxpayers a great deal of money.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, I was keen to have this opportunity to return to an area of grave concern, which

21 May 1998 : Column 1809

was not sufficiently addressed by the Government in Committee; namely, the reasons for the enshrinement in treaty form of the dual location of the European Parliament.

Up until now, decisions about the seat of each institution have been made by the Council or European Council. For example, the current pattern of sittings of the European Parliament as between Strasbourg and Brussels was determined by the European Council in Edinburgh in December 1992. However, the new protocol legally binds the current dual sitting arrangements.

I appreciated the sincerity of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who accepted that the dual location of the European Parliament was an unnecessary cost for the taxpayer, which he described as "irksome". His explanation for the inclusion of Protocol 12 to the treaty, which specifies the locations of the various European institutions, was that the status quo predates UK accession; that the provision is consistent with the existing agreement on dual sites reached at Edinburgh in 1992; and that in October 1997 the ECJ ruled that the European Parliament was legally obliged to hold 12 plenary sessions a year in Strasbourg, thanks to a legal provision after the protocol agreed at Edinburgh and signed by the previous government. In short, the Government do not like it, but their hands were bound and there was nothing they could do, because agreement on a single European site requires unanimity.

However, the Government have yet to explain why, in the course of their negotiations, they not only failed to press the case for a single European site but also brought back a treaty which enshrined the dual location of the European Parliament in treaty form for the very first time, something that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has admitted that the Government do not support.

Let me outline exactly what this will mean for the European Parliament and for British and European taxpayers. The Parliament will continue to be divided between Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg, considerably adding to the expense of maintaining and administering the parliament. It will be based in Strasbourg for all monthly sessions and will be in Brussels for extra sessions, while committees of the parliament will also be based in Brussels and its General Secretariat will continue to be based in Luxembourg.

Clearly there are strong arguments, not least financial ones, for all the parliamentary sessions, the committees and the secretariat to be based, if not under the same roof, then at least in the same city; if not in the same city, then surely in the same country.

In this House your Lordships have heard that the European Parliament itself estimated that the additional costs involved in its being located in Luxembourg, Strasbourg and Brussels add approximately 15 per cent. to the parliament's overall budget. The cost of investments in immovable property, rental of buildings and associated costs for the European Parliament's Strasbourg site has been estimated at a total cost of about £17 million, while the costs of fitting out premises and other expenditures on buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg in 1996 and 1997 have been estimated at

21 May 1998 : Column 1810

around £14 million. Those are just the costs associated with the buildings, without taking into account the additional travel costs, hotel costs and daily allowances.

An article in the Sunday Express last year probed into this matter. It found that,

    "Euro MPs are spending almost £4 million on showers for their offices in the new Brussels parliament".

And on 12th February this year the final part of the multi-million pound parliament building in Brussels was inaugurated, aptly nicknamed Caprice des Dieux. That is the part which houses the offices of the MEPs, each of which is indeed equipped with a £6,000 shower room.

Of course, governments are to blame for this ridiculous situation. Ten years ago the Belgian Government secretly started the new parliament building in Brussels, claiming it was to be an international conference centre. The French Government have subsequently trounced the Belgian Government. In Strasbourg, MEPs are soon to leave the building they have shared with the Council of Europe for a new palace which, when completed later this year, will be of a similar size and price to the one in Brussels.

The MEP for Essex North and Suffolk South-- Anne McIntosh--rightly criticised such lavish spending. She was quoted in the article as saying,

    "The problem is that there's a contest going on between Strasbourg and Brussels over where MEPs meet. Each is wooing MEPs by offering better facilities".

Anne McIntosh is now the MEP for the Vale of York. But it is a contest fuelled by national rivalry and funded by taxpayers' money. The Amsterdam Treaty actually makes provision for this ludicrously inefficient and expensive contest to continue. How did that get into the treaty text? Let me quote from The Times of 26th June last year. It said,

    "In the most glaring sleight-of-hand, President Chirac managed to introduce a treaty guarantee keeping Strasbourg as the seat of the Parliament, although officials at the summit do not recall the issue being discussed. 'Chirac must have mumbled something and no one objected, so that was taken as assent', a senior Belgian official said".

Where were the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary when that happened? Did they stand up against the conceits of individual governments for the interests of British and European taxpayers? Apparently not. Were they even there? We do not know. How can the parliament and the institutions of the European Union expect to be taken seriously when they demonstrate such extravagance and blind stupidity in this case?

Can the Minister say what steps, if any, were taken to attempt to prevent this expensive and absurd state of affairs at Amsterdam? I know that my comments in Committee had a lot of support and understanding from the Liberal Democrat Benches--I hope that that continues today after what I have said. These arguments are so compelling that even the Minister would be lauded by all right-minded noble Lords for entering the Lobby with us on this issue on the grounds of her wisdom and perception and our clearly argued case.

It is in that spirit that I strongly support the amendment standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. Here is the first chance that the Government Benches have to demonstrate that they are not New Labour Lobby fodder committed to excessive public

21 May 1998 : Column 1811

expenditure, but are ready to accept a well argued case and ready to reject unnecessary costs for the taxpayer which they themselves describe as "irksome".

Lord Whitty: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington may be right that another place has not debated this matter for three years. I have not checked Hansard, but it feels as though this place has debated it several times within the past few days.

I am tempted to cut my remarks to say that there is great consensus in this House; we all think that this position is nonsense. But there was nothing we could do about it before the treaty and nothing we can do about it after. However, I will be slightly more elaborate.

First, I take up the questions raised at the beginning of my noble friend's remarks both about the process of the protocol arising in the negotiations and the apparent contradiction as he sees it. He is quite right to suggest that the protocol was included in the text of the treaty at a late stage of the negotiations and at the behest of President Chirac. But he is quite wrong to suggest that it appeared after the negotiations had finished or that the British Government had not seen it. The text of the protocol was seen, despite what an unknown Belgian official may say, and was agreed clearly at the Amsterdam Summit. But its incorporation into the treaty in no sense altered the pre-existing legally-binding position.

As far as concerns the contradiction between Clause 289 and the protocol, in their effects they are not contradictory. Both before and after Amsterdam any change in the seat of the parliament would require unanimity. A common accord means unanimity of all states. Therefore, there is not operationally a contradiction.

When we discussed this matter in Committee speakers on all sides expressed their frustration. Former and existing MEPs frequently expressed that frustration. We have total sympathy with that frustration regarding the inconvenience and cost that is incurred. However, the amendment before us would serve no useful purpose. Paragraph (a) of the protocol has no additional financial implications for the United Kingdom or any other member state over what happens at the moment, and the costs pointed to by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, which I have not had the opportunity to verify, if correct, existed before the treaty. The legal position and the financial implications of that position have not changed. In other words, the protocol did nothing to change the present position. The EP site is not new.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page