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Viscount Astor: The Minister has given an interesting answer about the European Union. If I heard him rightly, he said that the institutions of the Commission probably would not go up to £10,000. They would be unwise if they did; but however they could if they wanted to. The problem with all these institutions is that, for one reason or another and whichever side they are on, they always feel the case is not being adequately explained. Therefore, they feel that they should intervene, not because they are on one side, but because the facts are not exposed. They always find a reason for intervening. So the answer is that there are many small institutions in Europe that between them could spend quite a lot of money.
Lord Shore of Stepney: There really are difficulties with this issue and they arise not wholly because of the Bill itself. As matters stand, the European institutions are free to intervene in our referendum campaigns, particularly in the sensitive one, as it is bound to be, on the euro itself. Only a few hundreds yards away from
Before the founding 11 joined the single currency less than two years ago, the European Commission spent millions. A Commissioner was given the special task of proselytising in the different countries of the European Union the case for membership. Are we really to sit back and allow this to happen in our own country? The answers I have had previously from my noble friend, in so far as I can sum them up, have been embarrassed avoidance of the difficulties of answering the questions. After all, it is rather humiliating to have to say that we have no power; that the European Court of Justice has ruled; that we are the helpless dependent state in relation to the management of our own affairs, the conduct of referendums and the finance of political parties in the UK. It is shaming.
This is one of the worst Parliaments I have ever heard of or been in. We are inflicting an act of humiliation on ourselves, for which I shall never forgive the Government and for which I believe the country will never forgive them either. That is incidental to the major case against European intervention, but there is ongoing propaganda on these very matters. The immediate question is whether we can order the European Commission to stop its ongoing propaganda in our schools and universities and through all these business schools and Jean Monnet professorships up and down the land. Are we not entitled to say "Stop!" even for a mere few weeks while we have our referendum? My noble friend must find some answers. Otherwise, frankly, it is not much use speaking from the Front Bench on these issues.
Lord Norton of Louth: Perhaps I may follow that intervention but in a slightly more specific way in relation to Clause 120 and the Minister's response to my noble friend Lord Lamont on Amendment No. 242M. I am not concerned with the possibility of a referendum on any specific issue. I want to follow the Minister's point, which is that the measure sets down rules that will apply to all referendums. As he said, they are meant to be generic rules.
Clause 120 sets down rules that will apply in any context. They will apply a prohibition in terms of publication on both national and local government, whatever the topic of the referendum. But I cannot see that, in logic, one can then say that one should not also add a prohibition on supranational governmental institutions. That is quite logical; it is all-encompassing. The logic is completely on my noble
If one cannot add the EU in the way suggested by my noble friend Lord Lamont, the logic would be to remove the prohibition on national and local government. One has either to allow all levels of government to publish or one must put a prohibition on them all. One cannot allow the present situation to be maintained because the problems that will be created, not only practically but politically, are extraordinarily severe.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: I support my noble friend's amendment, which the Minister seemed to find acceptable in general but unnecessary. The Minister said that EU institutions will be allowed to spend a mere £10,000 each on the eventual exercise--we are concentrating at the moment on the question of EMU--but can he say how many institutions he has in mind? Is he just thinking of the Parliament, Commission, Council and Court? Is he aware of the colossal number of bodies under the European umbrella that could be classified as institutions? That throw away line needs some quantification from the Minister.
Can he also explain what he went on to say in a little more detail? He seemed to think that European Union interference in any referendum on our joining EMU was not very acceptable but was not much of a problem. But he then went on, rightly of course, to point out that the Bill covers other kinds of referenda that we might have--on proportional representation, elected regional government, and goodness knows what else. How does he justify that? If he is unhappy with the European Union interfering in a referendum on the single currency, surely he must be more worried about it interfering in more extraneous matters; or is he not? The noble Lord looks puzzled. But it is a perfectly sensible question and Hansard will bear me out. I shall be very interested in his reply. How many institutions are we talking about? If he is worried about EMU, why does he think it all right for the provisions of the Bill as drafted to apply to matters which concern the European Union even less than the single currency?
Lord Prior: Before the Minister replies, I wonder whether he would like to consider this further point. I really feel quite sorry for him because I know what happens on these occasions. The Minister goes through the list of amendments with civil servants, with an occasional input from the Home Secretary or the Minister of State, and then against all amendments, with very few exceptions, is put the word "resist". The pure chap is then left to resist what appear to be the very reasonable cases put to him.
This is a small amendment. In itself, it is not of overriding importance. However, it has served to demonstrate once more the inadequacy of our parliamentary system and how, day after day, it is being brought into disrepute. I have not been able to attend all the debates in Committee on this Bill, but I have listened to many of them. I believe that we have given the Minister an impossible task to perform. I cannot see how he has been able fully to take on board the vast number of amendments which he has needed to argue against and resist, bearing in mind the equally vast number of amendments tabled by his own Government.
This kind of atmosphere is now beginning to make people despair of Parliament. The Minister needs to think carefully about that when he is asked to reply on behalf of the Government and to resist what would appear to be perfectly reasonable suggestions and amendments. The amendment before us, which deals with what level of funding the Commission or its agents should be able to subscribe to a referendum held in the United Kingdom, covers perhaps only a minor point. However, if in this House we are not able to take a decision even on such a small matter, how on earth are we to be allowed to take decisions on matters of much greater importance which may come before us over the next few years? This exchange has provided a classic example of a Parliament that is beginning already to lose any sovereignty and any say over its own affairs.
Throughout my political career I have been a staunch supporter of the European Union. I do not support monetary union, but I remain a firm supporter of the European Union itself and the fact that Great Britain should be a part of that Union. However, I wonder whether this is not the kind of issue that is beginning to damage the whole concept of the European Union, thus bringing it into disrepute and turning the British public against it. If the Government are sincere in their wish to promote European unity, they would be well advised to think far more deeply about these affairs and not allow civil servants simply to write against an amendment the word, "Resist".
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Prior, for his interesting intervention. Perhaps it went rather wider than the issue we are debating here, but it did appear to bring a little sanity to the argument, which I felt was beginning to run away with itself. On occasion, I have the impression that any matter connected with the European Union attracts a degree of paranoia that it does not deserve. While I understand entirely the sincerity and integrity which lies behind some of the Euro-sceptic arguments, I believe that it is possible to overstate the case.
The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, said that he thought that the Government should be worried that the institutions of the European Commission might wish to interfere in some fashion with other referendums conducted within the United Kingdom; namely, referendums on issues other than whether we should
I rather despair of the arguments that have been lobbed against the Government's position on this. I have tried to point out to the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, as helpfully as possible, that I have had very little difficulty in resisting his amendments because they are defective. They would not achieve their objective. Furthermore--I believe that some noble Lords will not want to hear this--so far as concerns the institutions of the European Commission, territorial constraints are in place on the application of the Bill. We cannot attempt to influence affairs outwith the United Kingdom in the way in which my noble friend Lord Shore of Stepney--I say this with the greatest respect--attempted to encourage us.
That is the position as regards these amendments. This is, finally, a question of the difference between the theoretical and the practical. The Government seek to deal with these matters in the most practical way possible. To that end, I do not believe that the European Commission wishes in any way, shape or form to become involved in any attempt to slant the debate in this country.
It is perhaps worth adding a final reflection in support of my argument. During the entire course of the campaign leading up to the Danish referendum, Mr Prodi made only one visit to Denmark. I doubt whether that visit made any difference at all. Indeed, if it swayed opinion even marginally, it probably helped the "No" campaign. The Commission is intelligent enough to understand that point. What we need to do is to ensure that the sensible provisions contained in the Bill, which are generic in their effect on referendums held in the United Kingdom, make their way on to the statute book. Extraneous matters that may arise as a by-product of a referendum campaign on the euro at some point in the future can of course be dealt with in the detail of the legislation which will relate to that particular referendum. That is the correct and failsafe procedure which we should all welcome.
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