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House of Lords

Thursday, 22 November 2007.

The House met at eleven o'clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Newcastle.

Message from the Queen

Earl Peel: My Lords, I have the honour to present to your Lordships a message from Her Majesty the Queen, signed by her own hand. The message is as follows:

EU: Reform Treaty

11.06 am

Lord Blackwell asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, rather than considering comparisons with a treaty that never came into force, the European Union Select Committee of your Lordships’ House has proposed to conduct its assessment of the impact of the reform treaty on the basis of the changes that it makes to the treaties that are currently in force. That is a sensible approach, which the Government support. We will provide the committee with a comparison of the reform treaty with the existing treaties.

Lord Blackwell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response, although I am disappointed that it did not better address my Question. Has she seen, and does she agree with, the report of the scrutiny committee in another place, which suggests that only one article of the previous constitutional treaty is not reflected in the new treaty and that only one article has been added to the new treaty?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I have seen and read the report from another place. I refer the noble Lord—as I always do—to paragraph 76 of that estimable report, which is an interesting part of the analysis of the UK Government’s position. However, I understand that the Government have not yet formally responded to the report. The noble Lord will know that the important aspect of our deliberations on the new treaty is to understand the changes to our current treaty obligations that will be in the new treaty. That is the right way to continue.

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Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, is not the important thing about the proposed reform treaty that every single position regarded as imperative by the British Government and by the overwhelming majority of Members of Parliament has been secured? That being the case, what we need to do now is to get on with ratification. That process will show that there is no need for further nonsense talk about referendums.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I agree entirely with my noble friend.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, does the Leader of the House agree that one of the greatest assets in the revised text remains the scrutiny and participation by both the European Parliament and the national parliaments? Is that not particularly suitable for the small number of member states where these procedures are regarded feverishly and, indeed, semi-hysterically?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I hesitate to describe anything as semi-hysterical. However, it is important to recognise that the considerations by national parliaments, which are very important, as the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, said, are a fundamental part of the process by which we will go forward in the European Union.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, is the failure on the part of the Minister to answer my noble friend’s Question owing to the fact that it would reveal that the promise in the manifesto to give the people a say on this matter through a referendum is being reneged on? What exactly did the Government mean in the gracious Speech when they talked about making Parliament more accountable, given that they propose to give the powers of this Parliament to a supranational body without the consent of the people and on a whipped vote on their side of the House?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I completely disagree with the noble Lord. I do not accept for one moment that what we are discussing in the reform treaty is the constitutional treaty. It is very simple: there was a proposal, which was abandoned, for a new constitution for the European Union. Had that proposal been taken forward, it would have been right, as we said in our manifesto, to have a referendum. This is not the same thing, however many times noble Lords try to pretend that it is.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Professor Chalmers of the LSE, in his evidence to the European Union Select Committee this Tuesday, said that, compared with the Maastricht treaty and indeed the Single European Act, the current reform treaty is of relatively little significance in altering the powers of the Government of this country?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I did not know about that, but I am sure that my noble friend is correct in his report of the analysis that has been made. This is an important reform treaty. It is

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important for Parliament to debate it, as Parliament has always debated such matters. It is important for us to have full debates on the ratification process. That is an appropriate mechanism by which we should take this forward and that is what we should do.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, it would be useful to have an answer to the Question asked by my noble friend Lord Blackwell. Regardless of whether we have a referendum—I suspect that we probably will in the end, now that 12 heads of member states, all the authors of the previous treaty and some authors of the present treaty concede that this is 90 or 95 per cent similar to the constitution and contains all the European constitution treaty provisions—is it still government policy to go on denying that this is a constitutional treaty? That might be rather a waste of time when everyone agrees that it is.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I do not know how much clearer I can be. This is a reform treaty, which reforms the existing treaties. There is little point in debating something that will never be—in other words, the abandoned constitutional treaty—and trying to refer back to it in order, I guess, to make the political point that the noble Lord’s party wishes to make: that somehow this is still the same thing, which we declare it is not. The interesting thing, when we have gone through the ratification process of Parliament, will be to see whether the noble Lord’s party will then say that that is insufficient and no longer appropriate and that, instead of agreeing that Parliament is the right forum in which to debate this, they want a referendum. We wait with great interest.

Lord Slynn of Hadley: My Lords, will the Government now explain, as I have asked them to do before, that not only is 90 or 95 per cent of the new draft in the constitution treaty, but it has been there since Maastricht, since Amsterdam and so on? Most of it is simply a collation of what we have been living with and applying in the Community for 50 years and less.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: Indeed, my Lords. When we come on to the debates, one of the interesting aspects that noble Lords will be particularly concerned to look at is the red lines that the UK has secured, which are important as we move forward. Let me say just one thing in a positive vein. It is very important that we are part of the European Union and, as we now have 27 members, that we find better ways of working together in the future.

Lord Morgan: My Lords, is there not something quite illogical in the Opposition’s position whereby they complain that powers are being taken away from our Parliament by Brussels, yet they themselves want to substitute government by Parliament with government by referendum?

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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I hesitate to comment on the illogicality of the Opposition.

Lord Elton: My Lords, can the Leader of the House tell us whether the protection of the British position referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, is contingent on any changes in the present system of voting in the European Union?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am not entirely sure whether the noble Lord is referring to qualified majority voting. There are issues about QMV and the way in which it is used within the Union and, again, I am sure that we will debate these in great detail. There are proposals to use the system known as passerelle, a mechanism by which one can deal sometimes with technical points and at other times with more important issues than the technicalities of agreed lines that look at whether it is better to move from unanimity to qualified majority voting. But the critical factor in this is that one can move from unanimity to qualified majority voting only by unanimous agreement.

Missile Defence

11.16 am

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, first, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of two service personnel who died in Iraq on Tuesday when the RAF Puma helicopter in which they were travelling crashed near Baghdad. Our thoughts go out to those families.

The bilateral discussions between Russia and the United States over co-operation on ballistic missile defence are not for the UK to comment on, although we welcome the progress being made. Parliament will be informed of any outcome of the discussions that affects the United Kingdom.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, we on these Benches share in the condolences expressed for the two soldiers killed in the helicopter crash. I should declare a geographical interest in that Menwith Hill is an American enclave on British soil and is very close to Saltaire. I pass by it frequently.

In the past two weeks I had an interesting discussion with a visiting Czech Minister about the Czech Government’s regular involvement in, or at least briefing by the Americans on, the bilateral negotiations. Similarly, I have read about the Polish Government’s comments on them. Are the British

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Government not being well informed about these negotiations, or are they being informed but are not telling the British Parliament? In February, the last Prime Minister promised the then Leader of my party that the Government would “regularly keep Parliament informed” of developments in missile defence. On 25 July, just as we broke for the summer, they issued a Written Statement. The Government are not keeping Parliament informed about this important issue.

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I reject the suggestion that Parliament is not being kept informed, or indeed that we have reneged on any of the promises given by the then Prime Minister in February. The siting of ballistic missile defence assets in Poland or the Czech Republic is a bilateral issue between the United States with each of those two nations. Obviously they will have internal discussions themselves about the way forward, but the decisions on that are not for the United Kingdom. As I said, if there were issues which affected this country, we would of course inform the House. Further, on keeping the House informed, there have been Parliamentary Questions and Written Statements. Although the noble Lord quotes the former Prime Minister, he should remember what he actually said about holding discussions in the House:

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I find the Minister’s reply quite puzzling, because Menwith Hill is on British soil and is the result of a direct discussion between the United States Government and that of the United Kingdom. It is without any doubt part of the missile defence system of which the proposed installations in Poland and the Czech Republic are further parts. The Minister will recognise that the issue of nuclear proliferation is crucial to the United Kingdom and the world, and that it is deeply affected by Russia’s willingness to co-operate. That co-operation is now dwindling in the face of what it regards as a dangerous level of encirclement. Will the Minister consider whether there should not be some discussion in Parliament, the last debate on this crucial issue having been held four years ago?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, nothing of substance has changed in the intervening period and Ministers have kept the House informed in terms of developments at both Fylingdales and Menwith Hill. However, the decisions debated in 2003 did envisage those future developments. I reiterate the fact that Ministers will keep the House informed. Debates are not a matter for Ministers, but for the usual channels as well as other parties. I am sure that there will be debates in the future, but the Government’s commitment is for when there is a proposition to be put to Parliament.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, I find the Minister’s attitude puzzling. The Russians are clearly extremely agitated by all this. They are threatening to abrogate treaties, the general tension is rising and there is talk of a

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return to Cold War attitudes. None of this is in Britain’s interest. Even if we do not have a direct, physical and specific involvement in this issue, is not this a time when our diplomacy should be deployed in skilful ways? Perhaps we should, to coin a phrase, be a little less joined hip to hip with Washington’s strategy.

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, nothing I have said detracts from the suggestion that diplomacy should be employed in normal ways. That is what is happening. There have been some worrying developments within Russia and some of what has been said about the conventional forces in Europe treaty is causing concern. Those matters are discussed both between the United States and the Russians and in the NATO context, and Britain will continue to play its part in diplomacy on issues such as that.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the missile defence issue is being dealt with bilaterally—US to Czech, US to Poles, US to Britain and US to Russia—and not as a very important multilateral issue for NATO and in East-West relations? Would it not be more appropriate for this to be properly handled as a multilateral security matter?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lord, NATO has a role to play and plays it. Holding bilateral discussions on certain aspects does not exclude that.

Mobile Phone Charges

11.21 am

Baroness Miller of Hendon asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bach: My Lords, our view was that roaming prices were higher than could be justified. The question was how, not whether, to address the problem. We had misgivings about the original Commission proposal, which could have reduced charges further but at the expense of reducing existing beneficial terms for UK users in the United Kingdom. We successfully sought to strike a balance that would benefit mobile phone users without stifling competition and innovation in the UK mobile phone industry. We are delighted with the result, which has lowered prices by up to 60 per cent.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I am glad that he is obviously delighted with what happened. What comment does he have to make on the data that the Times newspaper obtained under the Freedom of Information Act which indicated that the former Industry Minister was acting

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in close connection with the phone companies via one of her officials? Is there any connection between the negotiations that the Government carried out on roaming charges and the substantial £22 billion that came to the Government through licence fees from the operators?

Lord Bach: My Lords, let me deal first with the noble Baroness’s second question and state categorically that there was no deal of any kind. There has been no deal with the operators at all and the suggestion which appeared in the newspaper was false. As to her first question about our conversations with the network companies, of course, to make sure that we got details right, we had to understand the companies’ issues and take account of their concerns where we felt they were justified. We make no apology for that. We never took our eye off the ball in achieving a good deal for customers. All the companies with which we dealt understood from the beginning that our goal was to achieve the best deal for UK consumers, and we were talking to them in exactly that context.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, does the Minister accept, whatever the merits of this decision, that the appearance was given—we saw it all in the Times—that his department was more on the side of the mobile phone operators than of the consumer? Is he aware that we have long argued from these Benches that there is a fundamental conflict of interest in his department between representing the interests of business and, at the same time, representing the interests of the consumer? Does he not agree that this demonstrates how right we have been?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I do not agree. The lowest price proposed by the European Parliament was actually below the cost of providing the service and was therefore uneconomic. We believed in a practical solution and were concerned that the earlier proposals would mean the operators would have to raise UK call charges and reduce the subsidy on handsets, thus increasing the cost for domestic users. Everyone, including the European Parliament, believes that the agreement that was finally reached has been a great success. By listening to business and to consumers, we helped each of them.

Lord Maxton: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Skype, a company that uses the internet to provide telephone services, has recently provided mobile phones to subscribers? That means anyone who uses its service will be able to phone another Skype customer for nothing and will be able to use normal telephone lines at very low prices from anywhere in the world. As services such as this develop, will normal mobile telephone companies not be forced to reduce their prices?

Lord Bach: My Lords, we feel that competition has an important part to play in the process. Innovation is occurring all the time, and that is good for the consumer.

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