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House of Lords

Monday, 7 March 2005.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Portsmouth.

EU Constitutional Treaty: Explanatory Documents

Lord Blackwell asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Triesman: My Lords, there are existing guidelines and procedures which civil servants must follow in communicating with the public which ensure that information provided is objective, explanatory and not biased. The same guidelines also apply to all work that external agencies undertake under contract with government departments. Civil servants will, of course, adhere to any future guidance that is produced in advance of the referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty.

Lord Blackwell: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his response but confess that I am not fully satisfied. Does he accept that, even given the trust we have in our civil servants, this is an area where it is very difficult for people to produce a purely factual explanation of the European Constitution without portraying some of their views in the document? Given that, will the noble Lord consider that while the Government are entitled to publish White Papers, for public information—for leaflets and pamphlets distributed at large—it might be sensible to set up a committee of senior Cross-Bench Members to ensure that the content is fair and properly represents both sides of the argument?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, knowing that this Question would be asked today, I reread the document, and the shorter document. Aside from my fear of dropping them on my foot, in general I think it would be hard to fault their factual quality. They provide solid background information and, I think on the most objective reading, could cause no one to take exception.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, does my noble friend agree—

Lord Barnett: My Lords—

Noble Lords: Order!

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that an exercise such as this, relating to the
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rules of any organisation, whether it is the MCC or the TUC, requires some reasons to be given for the exercise being carried out? That must be part of what any reasonable person would call factual information. If the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, does not see that as factual information, it means that he does not really want factual information. He would rather that the information was given only by the Rothermere press, the Murdoch press and the Telegraph group while the rest of the people were left in ignorance.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, it is vital that the information provided is widely disseminated, objective and has solid reasoning behind it. Otherwise, why would we be engaged in this exercise at all? It is extremely important that nobody should feel, in trying to achieve balance, that they were being driven into silence. I hope that our broadcast media, let alone our print media, feel that.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has gone to great lengths at all levels, with legal advisers to HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office, to meet the criteria that are set for the civil servants. I believe that they have done so.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords—

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords—

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, does the noble Lord recall Ministers saying the other day that not a penny would be spent on pro-constitution propaganda in this country by the European Commission? The European Commission is, of course, using taxpayers' money—that is where it eventually comes from—yet it seems that it is continuing to spend money in this country, directly and indirectly. How will this be stopped? How will the Ministers' undertaking be fulfilled? Will all the institutions that receive these very large sums have to pay them back?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, in advance of the referendum process, I have no doubt that all sorts of bodies will campaign for what they believe is right. Noble Lords on the opposition Benches are at the forefront of doing so. The Government have no wish to see any money spent inappropriately. The full list of legitimate expenditures during the course of the referendum campaign—the purposes for which money can be spent during the campaign—have been set out very clearly in the definition of referendum expenses. That will have to be the template with which the independent organisations that argue for a "Yes" or a "No" vote will have to proceed.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords—

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords—

Noble Lords: Cross Bench!

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, there really will be enough time for both questions. I suggest that we hear from the Liberal Democrat Benches and then the Cross Benches.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, will the noble Lord acknowledge that the facts of the European Union,
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like all facts, are, by definition, true, and that the defensive Question of the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, reveals fear of those truths? The big truths about the Union are that its members, whether new or long standing, enjoy prosperity and more security, and are more capable of exercising beneficent influence when they act together than when they stand alone.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. Not only have we managed to achieve those benefits but I believe we have achieved them while remaining independent nation states. The Government's position throughout the process will be to ensure that we are a successful nation state. That is our great strength in Europe, and the combination of European nation states is the great and additional strength that we enjoy.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, does the Minister not agree that all the evidence is that the people of this country are very far from having enough information yet to make an informed choice? Does he therefore agree that it is the duty of the Government to fill that gap? Will he reject the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, that civil servants are incapable of writing objective prose?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I hope that I have said that I believe that the civil servants have written extremely objective documents. It is important that they should do so because it is plain from most of the polling evidence that people remain, unfortunately, without a lot of key information, and we have to fill that gap in information and knowledge. The brief guide to the European Union—the smaller document—produces a rather straightforward account of the European Union and of the benefits that we have received from membership, all of which I fully accept are key facts in people's decisions.

Lord Barnett: My Lords—

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords—

Baroness Amos: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, should speak next.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, would my noble friend join with me in welcoming all unbiased reports on the European Union constitution in due course? Does he think it would be helpful if everyone issuing statements and reports should indicate that they have read all 511 pages of the treaty and 493 pages of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Explanatory Notes?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, if anybody made such a declaration I would probably be the first to disbelieve them. Having said that, it is important that there is good, strong, factual information and I genuinely believe that, if you look at the documents, that is what you find. The Civil Service has done us proud in the work that it has done. Of course, after that there will be strongly held views: people will engage in the most
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vigorous debate, and make the most preposterous and inciteful allegations. That is the nature of a political debate of this kind and we will enjoy it all.


2.44 p.m.

Lord Tebbit asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, neither the records of the relevant debates in Hansard during the passage of the Crime and Disorder Bill nor Bill papers held in the Home Office explain fully why the 1795 Act was repealed in its entirety. It is, however, evident from the Hansard records that the repeal was considered to be a necessary consequence of the decision to repeal the death penalty for treason.

The substantive offences that were contained in the 1795 Act are covered by other parts of the criminal law including the Treason Act 1351 relating to conspiracy and incitement.

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