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House of Lords

Thursday, 24 February 2005.

The House met at eleven of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Coventry): The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

European Council, 22–23 March 2005

Lord Dykes asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Triesman: My Lords, it is customary for the spring European Councils to focus on economic reform. The 22 and 23 March Council should give new impetus to the EU's Lisbon economic reform programme and in particular to the immediate priorities of jobs and growth, building on the Commission's spring report published on 2 February. Heads of State and Government may also discuss the stability and growth pact, sustainable development and international issues.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. The British press, and occasionally even members of the British Government, like to use the argument that all our companies are competitive, open, deregulated, efficient and good for consumers. That is the myth which we often entertain in comparison with wicked continental companies.

Bearing in mind that, alas, that is not always the case, and with Lisbon Mark II coming on 22 and 23 March in a long economic agenda, will Her Majesty's Government make every effort to look at the areas of British financial sectors where cartel operations, restrictive practices and excessive charges to customers still apply? One example is the mostly UK-bank-owned UK credit card companies.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, makes a valuable point. As we urge greater social and economic reform under the Lisbon programme, we have to recall that the goal is greater competitiveness. That is the purpose. Others will judge us on the transparency and extent to which we have the vitality of competition in our regimes.

Anti-competitive behaviour by those in the credit card business would be quite unacceptable and evidence of collusion or cartel behaviour would have to be confronted first and foremost in the interests of the consumers and also in the interests of our reputation internationally. The point is very well made.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, assuming that the European Council looks at the uncertain progress of the draft constitution, does the noble Lord agree that the remarks made last night by the Trade and
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Industry Secretary that Britain would be weakened and isolated if the constitution were dropped are nonsense and should be refuted? Does he further agree that the attempt to link the propaganda for the constitution to VE Day and to those who really did make the ultimate sacrifice—many of them from families we know—in preserving the genuine freedom and democracy of Europe will be regarded as deeply distasteful? Will he discourage his colleagues from any such proposal?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, it will probably surprise no one in the House to know that I share the view of my right honourable friend that the constitution being damaged will make it extremely hard to make further progress on any rational basis in the enlarged Europe. I say so straightforwardly.

I share the noble Lord's view that those who made great sacrifices in the Second World War should not be offended, but I suspect that they will be more encouraged by the notion of a Europe content with itself and at peace than by anything else that could be done.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, in recognising the importance of economic reform in order to achieve the Lisbon goals, will my noble friend nevertheless recognise and press for the completion of the education and training programmes like Erasmus, Leonardo, Socrates and Comenius as an essential part of that economic reform of Europe?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, that is absolutely right. The competitiveness of Europe depends on the skills of its people above any other single factor. Those programmes add to that platform of skills and they develop them as time goes by. Therefore, under the Lisbon rubric we will most certainly be pressing for all of those things, which are central to both social and economic reform. I can give that assurance.

Lord Biffen: My Lords, does the Minister believe that the present performance of the stabilisation pact will be under consideration at the prospective Council meeting? Does he expect that we shall have some information that there may be a fundamental reconsideration of its effects?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, although the final agenda has not been drawn up, I suspect that there is likely to be a discussion of the stabilisation pact. As has been widely debated in the media and in both Houses of Parliament, there has been discussion of ways in which the stabilisation pact could be improved. It is my understanding—I am afraid that I am unable to go further than that this morning—that the Commission is looking at a variety of proposals and believes that progress could be made were the discussion to take place.

Baroness Greengross: My Lords, as an aspect of internal economic reform, will the Government support
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the cross-party European Parliament initiative for the Parliament to meet in only one location in Brussels? That needs the unanimous vote of all member states.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I have frequently heard canvassed the suggestion that the Parliament should meet in one place. While those of us who like going only to one place can understand the strength of the argument, I also understand that there are many parliamentarians who, for various reasons, believe that moving backwards and forwards brings benefits which are not perhaps instantly apparent to me. However, I will ensure that the noble Baroness's point is conveyed to my ministerial colleagues.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, may we hope that Her Majesty's Government, in discussing European competitiveness, will be vigorous in pointing out that a number of other governments do not fulfil their commitments? I refer in particular to the Italian Government who are deeply reluctant to open up their banking sector, and to the reluctance of several other governments, including the Germans and the Italians, to open up their university sectors. There is fairly blatant protectionism in favour of nationals and that is bad for Europe's future competitiveness, given the importance of European-level research.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, those restrictions are bad for competitiveness in Europe and for the overall performance of the European economy and I would not want to deny that for a second. But it is also true, as I suspect the noble Lord will agree, that there have been a number of important developments and achievements under the Lisbon programme in the first five years which will be reviewed at the forthcoming meeting. Six million jobs have been created since 1999. The telecommunications industry, by contrast with some of the industries that the noble Lord mentioned, has generated a huge amount of beneficial economic activity. There has also been the liberalisation of the energy markets and the opening up of transport markets. There are real problems to overcome—it would be foolish to deny that—but there are also real achievements as well. I believe that this meeting can build on those achievements and eradicate the problems.

Democracy and the Rule of Law

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, the Government will continue their work to strengthen democracy throughout the world. The promotion of democracy, the rule of law, human rights and good governance underpin our foreign policy. Her Majesty's Government promote
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these issues for two reasons: because we have a firm conviction that it is the right thing to do and because we have a direct interest in building the conditions for sustainable global security and prosperity, while fostering reliable and responsible international partners.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her positive Answer. Will she agree that a whole series of recent elections around the world have shown that people want to determine their own future under accountable governments? In that situation, will the Government use every possible means of information and communications technology to strengthen civil and political groups so that lasting, permanent, democratic institutions emerge?

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