The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, before business begins, I take the opportunity to inform the House that I am to make an official visit to the Crown and county courts in Bristol tomorrow, Friday 6th November. I shall also be attending the opening of the new Public Record Office Data Archive at the University of London with Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal on Monday 9th November when the House will sit. Accordingly, I trust that the House will grant me leave of absence.
Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for her reply. However, is the noble Baroness aware that, first, UCLAF--I believe that it is the unit to which she referred; namely, the anti-fraud unit--is itself the subject of a deeply critical report by the European Court of Auditors which was published in July of this year? First, I do not believe that the Government can rely on UCLAF to safeguard funds distributed through ECHO, which has been shown to be deeply flawed. Secondly, is the Minister aware that the British taxpayer in 1997 contributed £46 million to the ECHO pot? Does the Minister agree that that money might be better spent and more wisely accounted for if it were distributed unilaterally rather than through the highly dubious channel of ECHO, or any other European agency?
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I welcome the statement by the Minister that the Government are determined to tackle financial irregularity in the European Union. However, can my noble friend tell us whether the Government believe that ECHO is making a positive contribution to international humanitarian work?
Baroness Amos: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her question. As I said, the Government are keen for fraud to be dealt with both promptly and effectively. But, yes, ECHO is a major provider of humanitarian assistance and has made an effective contribution to humanitarian programmes in many parts of the world. We believe that considerable progress has been made in the past year to ensure that ECHO's assistance is provided in a well-targeted and principled manner. We shall continue to support and encourage that process.
Lord Swinfen: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether immunity from prosecution will be lifted from Commission employees who may be implicated in either irregularities or fraud, so that they can be prosecuted in one of the EC countries?
Baroness Amos: My Lords, a criminal investigation into the missing ecus is being separately undertaken by the Public Prosecutor's Office in Luxembourg. There has also been a call for the establishment of an anti-fraud office which is independent of the Commission. We await the outcome of both processes with interest.
Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister take into account not only the recent reports which point to a considerable amount of fraud and irregularity within the Commission's structure itself, but also the necessity for an immediate overhaul of the financial regulations by virtue of which an endeavour is made at Commission level to control such matters? Will my noble friend emphasise to the Government the necessity for an urgent examination--and I mean "urgent"--of the financial regulations, which are at present in a form which facilitates fraud rather than preventing it?
Baroness Amos: My Lords, as I said earlier, the Government have consistently supported measures to improve financial management within the EC. This was one of the areas in which we took a lead during our presidency of the European Union.
Baroness Ludford: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that much of the fraud in the use of European money occurs, sadly, in national administrations, unfortunately particularly in the farming sector, but that in those cases the requirement for unanimous voting in the Council of Ministers has often blocked serious anti-fraud measures? It is therefore inconsistent for those who want to tackle fraud in the use of European Union money to resist the use of majority voting to get anti-fraud measures accepted.
Baroness Amos: My Lords, the noble Baroness has widened the Question considerably. I am unable to address the specific area of farming that she mentioned. We are not aware of fraud in any other European development programmes other than the ones that I have already mentioned. If I can assist the noble Baroness further I shall write to her.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on the first occasion she has answered Questions at the Dispatch Box. With regard to the question about humanitarian aid asked by the noble Baroness on the Benches opposite, is the Minister aware that at present NGOs which are applying to the European Commission for funding for humanitarian aid are not receiving a reply either in the affirmative or the negative? There is something wrong; the whole system seems to be rather bogged down. Is the Minister aware of that problem, and if she is able to do so will she try to obtain responses with regard to this badly needed humanitarian aid?
Baroness Amos: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her kind words of welcome. I am not aware of NGOs experiencing particular problems in the area that she identified. However, I shall investigate the matter and write to the noble Baroness.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend on her elevation to answering Questions in this House. I am particularly pleased to hear that the Government wish to strengthen the hand of the Court of Auditors. Is the Minister aware that Mr. Bernhard Friedmann, the President of the Court of Auditors, has recently criticised M. Santer and the Commission for delaying for four years information which would have enabled the Court of Auditors to examine this fraud in the ECHO system? Do the Government have any plans to make representation to the Commission to be more open and more honest in its dealings in the future?
Baroness Amos: My Lords, as far as I am aware the Commission agreed to release the documents relating to this matter for European parliamentary scrutiny. We have supported the measures to increase transparency. However, it is important to recognise that nothing can be done at this stage which would prejudice the early completion of the present investigations.
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