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Lord Judd: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that her reference to legal personality illustrates in just one way the relationship between the future of European institutions as a whole? Can she assure the House that before we enter those essential deliberations, the Government will clarify their position on the future of the Council of Europe and its conventions?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the Government will need to clarify our position on a number of issues. If I may say so, that is the sort of debate to which your Lordships are peculiarly well placed to contribute. The fact is that we have worked extremely well with our European partners in the convention, but they, too, will be considering the convention conclusions before the IGC.
Your Lordships and the Government may take one view, but we must acknowledge that entirely different views may come from our partners elsewhere in the EU. The important thing is to have those discussions
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, is it not wishful thinking to assume that in present circumstancesmy noble friend Lord Onslow has drawn attention to themthe convention can possibly reach agreement by June, in six weeks' time? Has not the draft constitution been bombarded with hundreds, if not thousands, of amendments? Is not the draft of the praesidium miles away from the view of the rank and file?
Would it not be better to give up the attempt to have a new Treaty of Romeon which, I gather, our Italian friends are so keenand to aim more sensibly for the end of the year, when, one hopes, there will be a little more agreement? By this time next year, the new applicant countries, which, after all, will have to live inside the changed Union and new constitution, will have a chance to consider it. Why the rush?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I do not believe that there is a rush. Many amendments to the convention are being put forward, but we expected no less than that. As I indicated, at a working level the convention is working very well together. After all, three of our own Members are involved on the convention. My noble friend Lady Scotland, who is sitting beside me, is the Government's alternate on the convention, but noble Lords are also very ably represented by the noble Lords, Lord Maclennan and Lord Tomlinson. They are sensible people who can discuss with their colleagues from the other European countries the conclusions that they wish to reach over the convention. I am assured that the convention is still on track to reach its final conclusion by the end of June as originally mandated. There is no rush. The convention is working sensibly and properly together, as noble Lords would expect.
Lord Kilclooney: My Lords, having just returned from last week's session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and witnessed the overwhelming animosity towards the United Kingdom by most European parliamentarians, does the Minister not agree that it would be better to postpone the conclusions of the convention until present divisions in Europe have receded and there is a more friendly atmosphere?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we have our differences with our colleagues in Europe. That is absolutely clear. Nobody has tried to hide any of those differences. We all know that they centre on the very, very difficult question of the military conflict in Iraq.
The noble Lord refers to "animosity"; I refer to it as differences. I assure noble Lords that differences are not marring the discussions in the convention. My noble friend Lady Scotland assures me that the discussions in the convention are continuing in a constructive way that noble Lords would expect. Noble
I remind noble Lords that the convention conclusions bind us to nothingthat is the pointand not only your Lordships but colleagues in another place will be able to discuss the convention before we return to the IGC, where the real intergovernmental negotiations will have to take place.
Lord Livsey of Talgarth asked Her Majesty's Government:
Whether they plan to intervene in the negotiations among Corus, the LNM Group and Brazilian companies to take over Corus's steel-making plants.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, Corus is in discussion with bankers to renegotiate long-term funding and is developing plans to enable it to return to profitability. The Government are in regular contact with Corus at the highest levels and have been given assurances by the company that it is planning for a viable future in the UK. Any commercial negotiations would be a matter for the company.
Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, does the Minister recognise that steel-making is likely to be terminated in the UK if the interest shown by the LNM Group, headed by Lakshmi Mittal, and CSN Brazil results in the takeover of Corus's UK steel-making plants? That would put 26,000 employees in Port Talbot, Teesside and Scunthorpe out of work, with a huge knock-on effect on local employment. It would be catastrophic. The financial pages of the newspapers show that that interest exists. Will the Government, therefore, purchase the British arm of Corus and restructure it as with MG Rover or temporarily take it into the public sector? After all, steel is fundamental to the security of the manufacturing industry in the UK. UK Corus's shares are worth only 8pa total of £260 millionwhich is surely a snip at present.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I know that Corus is criticised for failing to respond to media speculation. Sometimes it is a little tight-lipped, but we can see why. The sort of media speculation with which the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, now regales the House is enormously damaging to Corus's suppliers, customers and employees. I do not think that we should take part in that kind of speculation.
Lord Brookman: My Lords, I declare an interest as the ex-general-secretary of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation community union. Bearing in mind the reply that the Minister has just given, but nevertheless taking account of Corus's annual report, in which the
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Brookman, that it is essential that the Government keep in close contact with both the management and the unions in Corus. I can assure him that that is the case. Patricia Hewitt has met Sir Brian Moffat and Michael Leahy of the ISTC on a number of occasions recently and will continue to do so.
Lord Morris of Aberavon: My Lords, at present, have the Government any powers to prevent an asset-stripper from purchasing Corus or any part of it for the purpose of disposal?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not think that there is any adequate definition of what is meant by an asset-stripper. Clearly, Corus is a commercial company. It can conduct any negotiations it chooses, and it is doing so. We are concerned about the assurance that Corus has given to us about the plans for a viable future in the United Kingdom. Subject to that assurance, if I were the management of Corus, I would be talking to anybody who could help.
Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, given the perilous state of the British steel industry, can the Minister confirm that, contrary to a European Commission recommendation, the British Government in a fairly recent meeting of the Council of Ministers opposed the application for anti-dumping measures against unfairly traded imports of hot-rolled coil from Egypt, Slovakia and Turkey? If that was their stance, what is the explanation for it?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I understand that, strictly speaking, we opposed it only in relation to Egypt. The position of the accession states, principally Slovakia and Poland, is quite different. There is an issue there of the possibility of state aid, but it would be only for the purposes of reducing capacity. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Davies, agrees that, from the United Kingdom's point of view, a reduction in capacity elsewhere in Europe is very desirable.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, if the worst scenario did arise and steel-making in the United Kingdom came virtually to an endpresumably, the Government do not want that resultare the Government prepared to do something to prevent the closure of our steel industry? If so, what are they prepared to do?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, if I were to start to respond to such hypothetical questions, not
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