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House of Lords

Tuesday, 25th May 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Hereford.

European Communities Commission

Lord Clinton-Davis asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will use their influence in the European Union to install a new Commission of the European Communities before the autumn of 1999.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, we would like to see a new Commission in place as soon as possible. The European Council acted quickly in nominating Mr. Prodi as President and we are pleased that the European Parliament has now approved the nomination.

The new Commission cannot take office until it has been approved as a whole by the European Parliament. We hope that this process will begin shortly after the European Parliament reconvenes in July. Taking into account the summer break, we hope that the process will be completed in September.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, with respect, it now looks as though the Danish Government will be unable to nominate their commissioner. That being so, is it not possible to have an appropriate quorum of commissioners to enable the Commission properly to set about its business as soon as possible? The probability of delay until October is completely unsatisfactory. Therefore do not the Government think it prudent to use their best endeavours to ensure that other member states take the view that at least part of the Commission should be established in post by September at the very latest?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the existing European Parliament has discussed the timetable for approving the college. The timetable could change if the new European Parliament wanted. However, perhaps I may indicate to my noble friend some of the signposts on the way.

On 20th July the new European Parliament meets and starts to elect its president and committees. In the first week of September the European Parliament committees hold hearings with nominees for the new Commission. In its 13th to 17th September plenary session the European Parliament approves the new Commission; and it is hoped that the new Commission will take office on 1st October. That timetable has been set out by the European Parliament. It is the timetable that we expect to be abided by.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, it is highly desirable that the European Parliament should have

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hearings of commissioners. Many of us greatly applaud that decision, which enables the European Parliament more closely to scrutinise the work of the Commission.

Can the Minister assure us that the timetable will not slip? It is about the longest timetable that could be accepted in view of the large number of issues which now confront the Commission.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, as I indicated in my initial Answer, Her Majesty's Government would like to see the new Commission in place as quickly as possible. In wishing that, we have to abide by such matters as the approval of Mr. Prodi--we have had that. There will then be the elections of the President of the Parliament and the committees, following the new Parliament taking office.

In informing your Lordships of the timetable which has been set, I hope that I have also made clear that the incoming European Parliament might also want to make some adjustments and changes. I cannot commit the new Parliament in the way that the noble Baroness suggests. It is important that the new Parliament has the opportunity to interview the commissioners in the way that the noble Baroness also believes is an important improvement.

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, following the report of the committee of independent experts on the total failure of the Commission to govern its own area of responsibility, is it not both farcical and disgraceful that commissioners should continue to cling on to office until September at the earliest? Is it not a fact that we have no power whatever to influence the matter?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I do not believe that it is farcical and disgraceful, as the noble Lord indicates he believes. The Committee of the Wise made its views very clear. As noble Lords have discussed on a number of occasions, although there were some criticisms of individual commissioners, those criticisms did not involve allegations of fraud, corruption or anything of the kind.

The Commission has found itself in an unprecedented position. I believe that the European Parliament has taken responsible action in trying to map out the way forward for us. While we would have wished it to be accelerated, let us hope that this timetable does not slip.

Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the longer we go on without commissioners the more likely it is that there will be disputes about what is and what is not current business, which is still being handled by the present Commission? Is it not inherently unsatisfactory that the Commission should continue to decide what is and what is not current business? Should not that point be monitored closely by the member states?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I hope that I have made it clear to your Lordships

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that the timetable is not as fast as Her Majesty's Government would have liked, but we are acting with our partners in this respect. I believe that the emphasis is shifting from the timetable to the more important issue of getting the right quality people on to the Commission. The Prime Minister has made it clear that he wishes to agree with Mr. Prodi high-quality UK nominations. We can all take satisfaction from the fact that all the nominees will be interviewed by the European Parliament, so we must not sacrifice quality for speed.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the people already on the Commission, who failed so abysmally, were selected top people--so we are told? What credibility does she believe there will be for a new Commission if it contains any of the commissioners who were so greatly criticised?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, as I have indicated, not all the commissioners were subject to such criticisms. The noble Baroness does her argument no service at all by over-exaggerating the position. That simply was not so. I have indicated the safeguards which have been put in place for the new Commission and I have said how important it will be that the people are of high quality. I hope that the noble Baroness feels that there are some safeguards in the fact that those nominated for the Commission will be interviewed by the European Parliament.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords--

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, irrespective of--

Noble Lords: This side!

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, as we are seven minutes into Question Time and the Opposition Front Bench spokesperson has risen we should listen to his question.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, as a spokesman for foreign affairs, I am most grateful to the Leader of the House for the courtesy which she has shown. Pursuant to the questions raised by noble Lords today, what specific message does the Minister believe is being sent to the people of Europe by the fact that the disgraced commissioner, Edith Cresson, is still in post and drawing a salary?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, that is of course a matter for the French government. We want to see a clear message going out from the Cologne Summit on 3rd and 4th June about the modernising of the Commission, improved financial controls and the guiding principles which will be in place for that new Commission of transparency, accountability and efficiency. I believe that we ought to concentrate on those positive messages, about which I hope we can all agree on 3rd and 4th June.

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Fuel Poverty: Government Assistance

2.45 p.m.

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What are their plans for dealing with fuel poverty.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the Government have already cut VAT on fuel, which the previous government imposed; increased the winter fuel payment for pensioner households from £20 to £100; and allocated an additional £150 million to fuel poverty programmes in the comprehensive spending review. On 11th May, the Deputy Prime Minister detailed the Government's proposals to tackle poor home energy efficiency more effectively through the New Home Energy Efficiency Scheme, which will move households substantially out of fuel poverty.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, as someone who for many years has been involved in the charity NEA, which has campaigned for warmer homes particularly for the elderly on low incomes, I very much welcome the paper issued by the Government on fuel poverty and on the allocation of additional funds to deal with this important social issue.

I also welcome the fact that it has been recognised that a large part of the problem arises in the private rented and owner-occupied sectors. In view of the fact that the proposed additional assistance will be limited to those receiving qualifying social benefits, will the Government consider those who are marginally outside the benefit area, many of whom still suffer from a substantial degree of fuel poverty? That would be recognised as a substantial additional benefit in the Government's present proposals.

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