Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, it may not meet my noble friend's requirements for this Parliament to supervise those accounts and the auditing processes within the Commission, but I am sure he will be pleased to hear of the proposal put forward by the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the beginning of this year for an independent person to head the internal organisation of the Commission's fraud arrangements. I suppose one could call him an independent fraud-buster. He would be someone very senior. He would have powers independent of the Commission and would report directly to the Council of Ministers. That initiative was supported yesterday by ECOFIN and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is confident that it will now go ahead.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, perhaps the Minister will answer the following question. An Augean stable has been disclosed--an Augean stable which runs a common agricultural policy which we know to be fatuous and a fisheries policy which we know depletes the North Sea of fish. All these matters are agreed by the Government. If the Augean stable is not cleansed; if the common agriculture policy is not completely changed; and if the fisheries policy is not made completely sound, will we still go on belonging to an institution which runs a rotten and Augean policy? Is there any situation in which the Government will say "Up with this we will not put" or will they go along with anything?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, in his usual robust fashion the noble Earl identified the division of principle to which I referred in my initial response to the two Front Bench contributions. It is absolutely clear that there needs to be a systemic review, revision and reform of what is happening. That is something which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who is not known for shirking radical reform, will, I am sure, take forward in line with his colleagues. As I said in my initial response to the two Front Bench contributions,

16 Mar 1999 : Column 636

the Government's position is that it is in the interests of this country to stay in Europe. We believe that being pro-Europe is being pro-reform in Europe.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that if there had been a problem on this basis with a British public company its entire board would have had some very serious questions to answer from the Department of Trade and Industry and that on some aspects criminal charges might have been considered? Does she accept also that this is not something which was suddenly discovered? We have joked with the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, but this has been commonly discussed in every business newspaper in Europe over a period of years. How can the Minister justify, against the background of collective responsibility, an immediate reassurance that two of the members of that body are immediately eligible for reappointment?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, all that my right honourable friend has done in supporting the two British commissioners is to identify the fact that they were in no way, either explicitly or implicitly, implicated in the report of the organisation set up to investigate the matter. My right honourable friend the former Commissioner for Transport, Mr. Kinnock, explicitly expressed today in on-the-record statements that he saw it as part of his training--presumably in British politics--to accept collective responsibility for what had been uncovered and to move on that basis.

I draw the attention of the House to the actions that the Government have taken since May 1997 to combat fraud and irregularities in the European Commission. I have mentioned already, in response to my noble friend Lord Shore, the proposal of my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the question of the independent fraud-buster. We also took steps to secure a legal base in the Amsterdam Treaty to combat fraud. We have taken steps in the context of the agriculture structural reforms to impose tougher penalties on member states which misuse Community funds. We have seconded our own expert staff to the Commission's financial control. We have taken a series of practical steps which underline our seriousness in responding to the gravity of the situation which, as the noble Lord rightly identifies, has gone on for a long time.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, I have had the honour of serving in your Lordships' House for 25 years. I am bound to say that the results of a report that I have not yet read in detail comprise the most shocking revelations about public life that I have ever heard during my entire political life. They are not to be brushed aside lightly. They are matters of the utmost importance in which no one concerned--whether at governmental level, Commission level, Council level or even (dare I say it?) in this place and in another place--is free from blame. I sincerely hope that we shall have an opportunity to debate the report in detail.

There are lessons in it for all of us. There are lessons in it for every democrat, not only in the United Kingdom but in Europe as a whole. I sincerely hope that, before

16 Mar 1999 : Column 637

finally replying to the various responses to the Statement, the Government will give the House an assurance that a full opportunity--not time-limited to two-and-a-half hours--will be given to discuss the contents of the report and its implications for the United Kingdom.

I have only two questions to ask. First, will the Government give the House an assurance that, through the Council of Ministers, the European Council or acting as an independent member state, protection will be given forthwith to the very courageous servant of the European Commission, M. Paul van Buitenen, who blew the whistle on the whole affair and who was the subject of immediate threats thereafter at the hands of the Commission itself and at the hands of its servants? Can the Minister assure the House that the Government will proceed vigorously in that matter? Can my noble friend give an assurance that in future some regard may be had to the actions that are supposed to be taken under the Treaty of Maastricht, where it was laid down that the Court of Auditors should provide a statement certifying the reliability of the accounts of the Commission?

After four years of ignored requests that a discharge at any rate be discussed at Council level and action taken thereon, can we have an assurance that, in future, such matters will be acted on explicitly and quickly? Will the Government bear in mind one of the most damning parts of the report by the independent committee? With the leave of the House I shall read it to your Lordships. It goes to the root of the whole business. It says:

    "The responsibility of individual Commissioners, or of the Commission as a body, cannot be a vague idea, a concept which in practice proves unrealistic ... It is becoming difficult to find anyone who has even the slightest sense of responsibility".
That thought might remain in all our minds.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, perhaps I may quickly draw the attention of the House to the necessity of keeping interventions as brief as possible so that as many noble Lords as possible can intervene.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I say without hesitation that I am sure the whole House joins me in recognising the extraordinary assiduousness with which he has pursued this subject over many years. It is right that we should pay tribute to the work that my noble friend has done. I hope that he will accept, as was mentioned in the Statement, the seriousness with which the Government take these overall suggestions and recommendations and the way in which we intend to lead the debate in seeing that they are implemented in the most rigorous way.

My noble friend asked specific questions about the member of the Commission staff who was the initial whistle-blower. I understand that his case for employment is now under appeal and is therefore subject to relative understandings about an industrial tribunal. I am sure that the matter will be examined by the requisite authorities. Whether it is an appropriate matter for discussion by the Council of Ministers will depend on legal status.

16 Mar 1999 : Column 638

My noble friend also asked me about the oversight of auditing and accounts management within the European Commission. I hope that he was assured by my remarks about the way in which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister intends to pursue greater clarity and strictures on that financial audit and management and that this will now be taken forward. Perhaps I may briefly quote the conclusion of the Statement, which I hope will reassure him:

    "It is our responsibility now to use this crisis to ensure that standards of management and public administration in the European institutions are as high as we expect them to be in national ... government(s)".
I am sure my noble friend will accept that my right honourable friend and his colleagues will pursue that course with vigour.

Lord Hooson: My Lords, will the Leader of the House tell us when printed copies of the report will be available for Members of this House to read?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am informed that they are available.

Lord Renton: My Lords, will the Government bear in mind that the Treaty of Rome should now be completely re-negotiated so that, instead of having a Commission that aims at economic and financial cohesion and harmonisation of laws, we have an alliance of independent states in a free trade area, giving each other mutual help when necessary but remaining independent instead of being governed from Brussels?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page