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House of Lords

Tuesday, 11 March 2008.

The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Rochester.

EU: Constitutional Treaty

Lord Lyell asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, a constitution is a founding document of an organisation. The constitutional treaty would have repealed the existing European Union treaties and refounded the EU under a new, single constitutional order. The Lisbon treaty amends the existing treaties, as did the single European Act, Maastricht, Nice and Amsterdam.

Lord Lyell: My Lords, I am very grateful for and fascinated by the noble Baroness’s Answer, but will she be kind enough to enlighten me on why the Foreign Affairs Committee of another place pointed out to people such as me that there is no material difference between the constitutional treaty and the Lisbon treaty? The Foreign Secretary, no less, thought there should be a referendum to approve the first, but on the second he has apparently changed his mind. What caused him to change his mind?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am delighted to fascinate the noble Lord. I shall make clear what was said in another place, by quoting the chairman of the committee in another place, who said that what was in the report was different from what the noble Lord said—that what matters is whether the new treaty produces an effect which is substantially different from the constitutional treaty.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, will my noble friend the Lord President agree that the report that came from the House of Commons is empirical proof that democratic elections do not necessarily produce all the wisdom that is available in a Parliament? Furthermore, will she have great confidence in the report being produced by your Lordships’ European Union Select Committee, which I am sure all Members of the House, including the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, will find of great value when it is published?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I very much look forward to the publication of the report and hesitate to pre-empt it, for I have no idea what will be in it. I am quite sure that the debates in your Lordships’ House thus far and to come will demonstrate the expertise and experience of your Lordships.

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Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, does the Minister not agree that there is a perfectly common-sense answer to the Question, which is that the only treaty that has ever, on the face of it, been called a constitutional treaty was defeated in the French and Dutch referendums? That is surely the answer.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: Indeed, my Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, put the matter extremely well.

Lord McNally: My Lords, does the Minister recall the words of Aneurin Bevan: “Why look into the crystal ball when you can read the book?”? Would it not be better if the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, talked to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, or another of the many former Conservative Ministers who saw the treaty of Maastricht through the Commons and sat in their places in government? They could explain to him why Maastricht—a far more powerful transfer of power than the Lisbon treaty—was handled by Parliament. Would he not think that good advice?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I trust all noble Lords will have the benefit, as indeed I have, of talking to former Ministers who had the privilege of steering through an important piece of legislation to put the Maastricht treaty on the statute book. I hope noble Lords will take advantage of that in the same way.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, did not the Foreign Secretary say in the other place the other day that a referendum was promised, not because of the constitutional nature of the constitutional treaty but because there was a need to clear the air? If there was a need to clear the air before the 2005 general election, why is there not a similar need now?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, we need to be very clear. The other place has now passed the treaty. The reform treaty comes to your Lordships’ House. We will have great opportunities to do some air-clearing ourselves, as we debate and deliberate, but I am very clear on what the role and function of Parliament should be. It is absolutely right and proper that this comes before both Houses of Parliament to be debated and ratified appropriately.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, cast great doubt on the wisdom of the Select Committee of the House of Commons which declared that the Lisbon treaty was virtually the same as the constitution. If he is so concerned and has so little confidence in the House of Commons, would it not perhaps be better to test the wisdom of the people by going for a referendum?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, was addressing his question not to me but to my noble friend. I am sure that outside your Lordships’ Chamber my noble friend will be able to answer him.

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Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, we will all be trading quotations frequently in the coming weeks as to whether the Lisbon treaty is the same as the constitutional treaty or different and therefore whether it should have, as promised in the Government’s manifesto, a referendum to decide whether the British people want it. Since the Times tells us this morning that 70 per cent of the population want a referendum, since another poll tells us that 89 per cent of those polled believe that the Lisbon treaty is the constitution, since it contains 240 out of 242 of the provisions which were in the constitutional treaty, and since every European leader bar the leaders in the other place in Britain say that it is identical to the constitutional treaty—including the father of the whole thing, Valéry Giscard D’Estaing—would it not be much better to save ourselves enormous trouble and have a referendum straightaway on it? If it is such a marvellous thing for the British people, surely the Government can trust the British people to come to the right answer on it.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Lord had a number of points. Of course the Government trust the British people, but the British people also trust the Government and Parliament to do their job.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: No, my Lords, you cannot have it both ways. I will not have figures bandied around about referendums. I am sure that the noble Lord has studied the figures, as I did. If he looks at the 88.8 per cent from the referendums that took place in the 10 marginals, he will know that of those voting less than one-fifth of the electorate—19.8 per cent of people—were actually in favour of a referendum. That is a substantial difference from the 88.8 per cent being bandied around. Equally, I will be able to quote—indeed, I look forward to it—figures about referendums over the past 20, 30 and 40 years. When invited, the population indeed enjoy the opportunity to talk about the use of referendums, but we are absolutely crystal clear that this is a reform treaty and, as with other reform treaties, it is Parliament’s job to ratify it. That is what we are here to do.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, will the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council explain, as a result of the large majorities in the Commons, why the Eurosceptics and the anti-Europeans—mainly on these Benches, I suppose—are so nervous and apprehensive about these matters? Would she not agree that two of the principal benefits of the reform treaty are that it enhances the working-together of the national Governments in the European Council and the scrutiny functions of the national parliaments?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, if one examines the reform treaty—or what Giscard d’Estaing said about the nine points he specifically refers to as similar or the same in the constitution and the treaty—it is obvious that one of its great benefits is the opportunity for greater scrutiny by Parliament. Noble Lords should welcome that.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords—

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Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Forgive me, my Lords, but we are in the ninth minute.

Construction Industry: Capacity and Skills

2.45 pm

Lord Chidgey: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as a fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

The Question was as follows:

Lord Bach: My Lords, the skills challenges facing engineering are well known. The Government support the drive to encourage students to take up engineering careers, working with the sector skills councils and professional institutions. Programmes include Science and Engineering Ambassadors, the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology and other activities. The Office of Government Commerce has established systems providing information about future government demand and the interrelationship of major programmes. Departments undertake assessments of demand and capacity to inform their budget decisions and their risk analyses.

Lord Chidgey: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. As he is probably aware, however, the stop-start approach to infrastructure projects cost the country £1.8 billion last year, and with the skills and capacity shortages driving construction inflation rates even higher, that figure could reach £8 billion a year by 2015. That means that by 2015 we will need each year an extra 12,000 or so engineering professionals to cope with the increasing demand and to bridge the skills gap. It also means that we need thousands more engineering undergraduates to be enrolling and starting their courses now, whereas admissions are falling.

Will the Government commit to working closely with industry leaders to create the conditions that will attract the investment levels we need to create the skills innovations that are essential to achieving stability and dampening down spiralling construction costs? Finally, will the Government support the institution’s call for a strategic infrastructure planning body to work alongside the planning commission to achieve the sort of efficiencies that we need now?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, who has a lifetime’s experience and expertise in this industry both at home and abroad. The Government work very closely with the industry. It is the most exciting time for the industry in a very long time because of the large number of projects in the pipeline. Years and years ago there was stop-start all

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the while but things have got much better. Indeed, the document from the institution of which the noble Lord is a distinguished director said:

The Government want to play their part in ensuring that these construction projects are a success.

Baroness Platt of Writtle: My Lords, I declare an interest as an honorary fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers and also as the patron of the WISE campaign. The Minister mentioned the UK Resource Centre for Women but I hope that he will also back the WISE campaign. More than anything, we need more scientists and engineers as careers advisers. Does the Minister agree?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Baroness also speaks with huge knowledge of the subject. We certainly do need many more scientists and engineers. One rather depressing figure is that women currently make up only 10 per cent of those going into civil engineering whereas they make up 49 per cent of the workforce. The Government are working very hard, with help from organisations such as ICE, to try to break that particular tradition.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, does the Minister applaud the work of the department of engineering science at Oxford University—I declare an interest as the patron of its centenary celebrations—which is making a very determined effort to increase the number of postgraduate studentships in all branches of engineering, which is one of the things that this report specifically calls for?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I certainly praise Oxford University in that respect because this is very important for the country’s future. Earlier it was said that applications for civil engineering graduate courses were on a downward path. In fact, at the moment they are on an upward path. However, I am the first to concede that they need to go on an upward path faster than they are at the moment.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Cambridge University is pressing for more engineering students? I declare an interest as an honorary fellow of Clare College, which is pressing particularly hard in that direction subsequent to the noble Baroness’s great campaign and honourable life in pressing for women engineers.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am delighted to praise both Oxford and Cambridge universities, although I have a slight preference for one of them. Having said that, I must also say that many other universities in this country do sterling work in this field, as do many schools and colleges of further education.

Lord Broers: My Lords, does the Minister think it would be a good thing for the Government to turn more to the learned bodies—the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the institutions—when

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matters of science and technology face the nation, to get the collective wisdom of the nation’s experts rather than turning to individuals to prepare these reports? I declare my interests as a fellow of the Royal Society, the Royal Academy and the institution.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, who I think was a past president of ICE. I do not disagree with anything that he said.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of these major infrastructure projects are public sector projects? Have the employers involved been asked to sign the skills pledge?

Lord Bach: My Lords, many are indeed public infrastructure projects. Infrastructure is due to grow by 5.8 per cent annually between now and 2012. I cannot answer the noble Baroness’s question directly, but I am pretty certain that the skills pledge will have been signed. However, I shall of course write to her.

EU: Parliamentary Scrutiny

2.52 pm

Lord Eden of Winton asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, the Government work closely with the European Union Committee to ensure that the scrutiny process continues to develop and meets the needs of Parliament. While it is up to both Houses to decide how to scrutinise EU legislation, the Government are also committed to ensuring that the new provisions in relation to national parliaments in the Lisbon treaty operate effectively, and will work with both Houses of Parliament and scrutiny committees to achieve this.

Lord Eden of Winton: My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that I mean absolutely no criticism whatever of the EU scrutiny committees in either House, having been chairman of the one in the other place, and that I recognise what is well known throughout Europe; that is, the quality and standing of our own scrutiny committee in this House? But why, having promised full and detailed examination of the Lisbon treaty, did the Government contrive to curtail debates in the other place? In that way they reneged on that undertaking in the same way that they broke their promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, it is completely wrong to say that we tried to curtail debate. Noble Lords can see the statistics for themselves if they look at the comparators between the different treaties. They can look at the number of interventions, which was more than 1,000, and the number of amendments, of which I think 274 were tabled by

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representatives of the opposition parties. There was a lot of debate. It was interesting that the debate in the other place concerned what the treaty would do on issues such as climate change. For the first time children were discussed within a treaty. That is to the benefit of the House.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, surely the noble Baroness must concede that it is a matter of record that the Government pushed through a Motion preventing proper scrutiny, demanding that most of each day should be taken up with what was described by a journalist recently as vapid debates on subjects such as climate change, some of which were hardly touched on in the treaty. Is it not correct that no time at all was allowed for any discussion on asylum or immigration, and only half a day for the whole of justice and home affairs? How on earth can the noble Baroness say with a straight face that the Government allowed proper scrutiny?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the programme Motions of the other place are for the other place. I am in absolutely no doubt that Members of the other place had the opportunity to discuss the issues before them. The noble Lord need worry not, for I am sure that we in your Lordships’ House will have the opportunity to debate and discuss issues such as asylum, immigration, justice and home affairs and other issues of great concern. I do not always listen to what journalists say in relation to debates; I believe that the quality of some of the debates in the other place was extremely high.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, will my noble friend ignore the selective memory of those who forget the precedent of Maastricht in the Single European Act and look instead at the fact that we in the UK are held as a model by our European partners in terms of scrutiny of EU legislation? Now there are new opportunities under the Lisbon treaty in terms of the necessary consultation of national parliaments, the right to be consulted and the right to comment. Given these new, exciting challenges, is my noble friend confident that we are ready to meet them and remain a model for our partner parliaments?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I completely agree with my noble friend about the opportunity that is now presented. There are seven sub-committees in your Lordships’ House, involving 75 Members. As my noble friend has said and as other noble Lords have commented, they are renowned across Europe for the work that they do. What is important both in your Lordships’ House and in the other place is the opportunity that Parliament will have to review and look at further opportunities in the light of the exciting and challenging opportunities to consider further European legislation.

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