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Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am tempted to ask why, in that case, it did not--particularly under the previous government's 18 years of administration. The NHS drugs budget is currently about £4 billion; that is, 13 per cent. of the total spend of the NHS. But it is rising faster than other areas of expenditure. There are anomalies within the prescription charge with which we have dealt many times in this House. That is the reason why it is appropriate that it should be examined under the comprehensive spending review.

Earl Howe: My Lords, bearing in mind that over 80 per cent. of items on prescription are currently dispensed free, compared to 60 per cent. in 1979, do the Government propose to re-examine the current structure of exemptions?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I do not wish to appear discourteous, but I believe that 80 per cent. of prescription items are--I am sorry, I misunderstood the noble Earl--about 50 per cent. of prescriptions are exempt. As the noble Earl will know, we are concerned about the number of exemptions,

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which may reveal something of an exploitation of that system. The matter is being examined under the comprehensive spending review.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that part of the reason for the increase in the percentage of exempted prescriptions is the massive increase in poverty that took place during the past 18 years of the previous administration?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, that may well be an element in the numbers of exemptions. However, as I said in answer to the previous question, there are definite anomalies in the ways in which exemptions are currently registered. That is being examined closely.

EU Member States and the European Commission

3.19 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the President of the European Commission or any European commissioner is permitted publicly or privately to instruct member states of the European Union, either individually or collectively, as to the actions they should take, or should not take, in regard to any proposals made by the Commission, or other matters which are of significant political controversy within those states.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, neither the President of the European Commission nor any European commissioner has the right to instruct member states as to the actions they should take in regard to a proposal made by the Commission or anyone else. In respect of existing Community law, of course the Commission has the right to take action to ensure enforcement, ultimately including referral to the European Court of Justice, if a member state is not in compliance with its obligations.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, I am grateful for that reply and I would not for a moment query the Commission's right to enforce Community law. Moreover, the Minister will probably agree with me when I say that the Commission has the right and a duty to explain its own proposals and advance the arguments in favour of them. However, I trust that the Minister will also agree that, under the terms of their appointment as commissioners under Article 157 of the Treaty of Rome, they have a duty of impartiality. Will the Minister agree that, over the past few years, notably during the prime ministership of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, and ever since Maastricht, there has been a tendency on the part of the Commission to differentiate between the views of one state and those of another and very often by name?

Will the Minister agree, for example, that it was grossly improper the week before last for the Commission to denounce the policy of my right

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honourable friend the Prime Minister towards tobacco advertising and for the commissioner to describe his explanation as a "disaster", a complete U-turn? Furthermore, would it not be far better for the Commission to look once again at Article 157? Is it not time that the Commission was told, quietly but firmly, that it is not the boss of Europe but its servant?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am not sure which questions the noble Lord expects me to answer. The general point is that the Commission is appointed by the elected governments of Europe. It acts to reflect the views of the Council of Ministers. In some cases, this country and others are occasionally in the minority. It is the job of the Commission to explain the view of the Council of Ministers as a whole. That probably explains the bulk of the instances to which the noble Lord has referred. There are other matters which he has mentioned and which I shall definitely not get drawn into.

Lord Beloff: My Lords, will the Minister inform the House whether it is correct that the Commission is subscribing £5 million to making propaganda in favour of British membership of the EMU? Since that expenditure would otherwise fall on the Labour Party, is that not a form of foreign subsidy for a political party to which one understood the Minister's right honourable friend the Prime Minister was very much opposed?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I have never been in favour of costs falling on the Labour Party and I do not believe the noble Lord is right in that respect. The Commission is spending a certain amount of money to explain the Council of Ministers' policies in relation to Europe. Any money that is expended within this country will be on information provided by Her Majesty's Treasury and other government departments. It will therefore be the responsibility of the British Government and not of the Commission.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, will the Minister accept that those of us who have been nominated to this House by a remarkably secretive process are not always best placed to criticise the questionable democratic credentials of nominated members of the European Commission?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I absolutely agree with the noble Lord. I find it bizarre that in this House of all places there is an inability on the part of certain noble Lords to grasp the concept of an appointed politician. We are all appointed politicians and the Commission is appointed by 15 governments.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, is the Minister aware that I am not an appointed politician? No one would appoint me! It is as simple as that.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I regret that I probably have to agree with the noble Earl. At some stage in our ancestries we were all appointed.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, perhaps I may press the noble Lord on one of the supplementary

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questions put to him by his noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington to which I did not detect an answer. Can he tell the House clearly whether the Labour Government, the Government of this country, regard the Commission as the servant of the Council of Ministers or its master?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the Commission is the servant of the Council of Ministers. It can propose to the Council of Ministers, but it is the Council of Ministers which decides in certain treaty-obliged instances but also with the concurrence of the European Parliament. That is the position and the Commission is often blamed for matters which are decisions of the Council of Ministers.

Lord Cockfield: My Lords, will the Minister check the answer that he has just given? The Commission is an institution of the Community specifically under the terms of the Treaty of Rome, as subsequently amended. It is not and never has been the servant of the Council of Ministers.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Lord has some considerable experience of these matters, as do other noble Lords in the House. However, that was not the point. It is indeed an institution of the Community and commissioners are required by treaty and by obligation to act independently as an institution. However, the decisions under which they act are the decisions of the Council of Ministers.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, with the leave of the House, further to the reply which the Minister has just given, if the interpretation of my noble friend Lord Cockfield is correct, can the Minister tell the House of any clauses in the Treaty of Rome which permit the Commission to act in the manner envisaged by the Question?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I indicated in my first reply that the Commission cannot act in the way described in the general terms of the original Question of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. Therefore, there is no clause in the Treaty of Rome which would apply.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, in regard to my noble friend's statement that the Commission always speaks with the authority of the Council, may I apply that to the announcement of the Commission that the attitude of the British Prime Minister towards the tobacco regime was a criticism by the Council of the United Kingdom rather than a criticism by the Commission? Perhaps my noble friend will clarify the point.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, perhaps I may remind the noble Lord of his original Question. It was whether the Commission could instruct the Government to act on a proposal. The Commission is always in a position to try to persuade governments, and as I understand it that is probably what was said in this context. However,

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I repeat that the Commission has no powers to instruct the Government, unless and until a Council decision and due process turn that into Community law.


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