Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I have not often interrupted the noble Lord. I need to now. It was made clear in the exchange following my noble friend's intervention yesterday that my noble friend the Minister is carrying out important business in Canada and the US. It may have escaped the notice of some noble Lords that she is responsible in the Foreign Office for relations with Canada and the US. There was no earlier objection to her not dealing with this final stage of the Bill, which has been down in my name for at least one week and probably longer.

11 Jun 1998 : Column 1164

The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, on that occasion, rightly directed his criticism not to my noble friend but to the business managers. His procedural Motion was defeated by the House at that stage. Having taken account of views expressed during the debate, my noble friend participated fully in the debates on the Bill. She was present throughout the Committee and Report stages. She dealt with the central issues of common foreign and security policy, defence, sovereignty, human rights and many other issues. During those stages I dealt with quota hopping. There was no objection from the Official Opposition or any other quarter of this House to my doing that. My noble friend dealt with Third Reading in this House.

As I said yesterday, in my experience of this House no Minister has shown greater diligence in fulfilling her duties to this House. However, she has other duties which are vitally important to this country and to our relations with two of our greatest allies. It is trivial for the noble Lord to raise this issue, in this way, at this time. I hope that he will not persist in it, but will let us get on with debating the substance of the amendment.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, that is a wholly unacceptable response from the Government Front Bench. The first duty of any Minister in either House is to the House. That is a fundamental priority. Last night my noble friend Lady Young raised an important debate. The Minister was absent. Today, we have another important debate on a constitutional measure, and the Minister is absent. It is not unreasonable to point out that the Minister may, in any case, have felt compelled to return from the US to make a personal statement to the House in relation to her answers to your Lordships' House on the arms to Africa affair.

We have had three important foreign affairs issues this week. It has not been an average week in your Lordships' House for matters relating to foreign affairs. That warrants the presence of a Minister in your Lordships' House. It warrants it, as was proved on Tuesday night, when another House felt that it warranted two Ministers to appear at the Dispatch Box--two Ministers to answer in detail the points that were raised. I shall be more than happy to give way again if the noble Lord can say why it was necessary for two Ministers to be accountable to the other place where this issue had been rehearsed significantly during earlier stages of the Bill, and rightly so, whereas there is no Minister present in your Lordships' House today?

4.15 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, it may have escaped the noble Lord that this place operates differently from another place. It has long been recognised that Whips take on what, in another place, would be regarded as ministerial duties. We did not object to that when the noble Lord's party was in power. I am amazed that he does so now. If he objects to my dealing with the substance of the amendment, why did he not do so in Committee, on Report or at any other stage? If it was proper for me to deal with it then, why is it suddenly not proper for me to deal with it now? The noble Lord is making a meal of this. I hope that we can get on

11 Jun 1998 : Column 1165

with the substance of the Bill, not just for the fishing communities of this country but for our future relations with Europe. None of this will be understood outside this House, and precious few people within the House will understand it.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, the noble Lord cannot lightly dismiss the importance of ministerial accountability. We will return to that point time and time again. I have made my point. I hope that I have made it clearly. I echoed the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff. I highlighted the fact that on Second Reading this was a subject of considerable importance which was debated in full across the Chamber. I merely restate that point. I am not for a minute questioning the ability of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, to respond to parts of this legislation. I have praised his ability on many occasions. Indeed I have done more than that.

As noble Lords will be aware, I have argued strongly that due to his regular presence at the Dispatch Box on matters regarding foreign affairs he should be made Minister in the Foreign Office and should be given the backing he deserves for his eloquence and attention to detail. It is a pity that he has had so many opportunities because his noble friend the Minister is so frequently absent from the House on important constitutional matters as at Second Reading and today.

I thank the noble Lord for his brief response. Having read the proceedings in the other place on Tuesday night, his response was disappointing, although predictable. I regret the fact that the Government used their majority in the other place to overturn the amendment. I shall not rehearse all the key points. There were some interesting developments on Tuesday night which are worthy of further consideration in your Lordships' House.

The issue of quota hopping to which the amendment refers is a grievous example of a promise made and a promise broken. Before the election the Prime Minister told the country that the one thing he would ensure he delivered at Amsterdam--the top priority for British negotiators--was the resolution of this issue. He said that he would hold up IGC business to get the right changes to fishing policy in British interests.

The amendment clearly puts on the face of the Bill the Prime Minister's apparent intent when he made that promise. He did not say that about any other issue. He said it about fishing policy. He said it about British fishermen's interests. Yet the Government failed. They failed to achieve indisputable legal protection for British fishermen at Amsterdam. The Prime Minister returned with barely more than a confirmation of the status quo. At Second Reading, in Committee and on Report, despite our best efforts, we have been given no satisfactory explanation for that, let alone a compelling one.

Instead, we have had trotted out, time and time again, the same empty rhetoric in this House, and, two days ago, in another place while the Government attempt to hijack the high moral ground by savaging the previous

11 Jun 1998 : Column 1166

administration's record. The logic of the argument seems to be that the provenance of any criticism is more relevant and more important than the objective validity of that criticism. In that way, attention can be neatly diverted from any governmental shortcomings.

For all the righteous sound and fury, the defence by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, of the Government's record was flimsy to the point of threadbare. The intended effectiveness of his attack on the previous government's record throughout discussions on this issue was in inverse proportion to the weak defence of his Government's own record. As a result, we still do not know why the crucial opportunity to ensure that British fishermen were afforded legal protection--it is what they would have received--which was there to be grasped at Amsterdam, was lost.

It is with great interest that I note what the Minister responsible for quotas stated in another place. He argued surprisingly that when in government he realised that life was a little different from what it was when he was in Opposition; and because it was tough he simply did not push it, and that was that. On the one key issue on which the Prime Minister had said that they would hold up the IGC in order to get a deal, the junior Minister concerned suddenly realised the day after he was in government that life was different. And that despite the comprehensive and assiduous as ever contribution by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, before the election which he told us on many occasions was a key mark to the work he was doing, and the effect of that work after the election.

It is fascinating to me now to question whether the whole manifesto, by virtue of being drawn up in Opposition, holds the same importance as we are regularly told it should once in government. It was a paltry excuse from the Front Bench in another House for failure to protect British fishermen's interests.

I make these comments because I see it as vital to recognise that, unless the Government go ahead, unless they push hard for changes on behalf of British fishermen, they will lose. The Government ducked this issue at the IGC because they did not have support; they saw opposition coming. We heard today about new initiatives that the Government were taking in this context. It is interesting to note what Patrick Nicholls, Member of Parliament, stated on those very proposals on Tuesday night. He asked:

    "Where are we now? We have been told that some new proposals have been worked out, so where are they? Aficionados of such matters will have to find an obscure parliamentary question of 12 May saying in effect, 'These things are in the pipeline. We are waiting for Europe to tell us whether we can do what we want'".--[Official Report, Commons, 2/6/98; col. 971.]

Europe has since spoken. The Spaniards have already said what they think about that. They have raised grave reservations and doubts about the revised version of the United Kingdom proposals. That is the status of those proposals for British fishermen and for the British Government in their attempt to get changes. I predict they will fail. I predict that they will not have the heart to fight for them, as was clearly displayed at the IGC and which led to the tabling of this amendment. From these Benches we have made our feelings very clear.

11 Jun 1998 : Column 1167

The Government's approach to the whole subject has been regrettable; and I sincerely hope that it is not a harbinger of disappointments to come.

But it is not my intention to press the point today. We shall not oppose the decision of another place to remove the amendment from the Bill, but we shall leave on record our complete disappointment at the failure of the ministerial team to deliver what the Prime Minister said he would fight for; namely, the interests of British fishermen--interests which have been jettisoned, interests which were thrown away by this Government in their negotiations at the IGC.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page