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House of Lords

Tuesday, 24th April 2001.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells.

EU: Future Structure

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How they intend to promote the broad public debate on the future institutional structure of the European Union agreed at the Nice European Council in December 2000.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, the Government welcome the debate on the future of the European Union called for in the Treaty of Nice. It will offer an opportunity for all European citizens to help shape the Europe of tomorrow. We need to ensure that the EU is in a position to adapt to suit changing circumstances and changing needs. We also need to ensure that it has popular support. That is why a debate which touches as many of the people as possible is so important. We intend to have such a debate in the UK and we shall announce the details as soon as practically possible.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that interesting Answer. I am interested to know in a little more detail what the words "as soon as practically possible" mean. I suspect that they might mean "any time after 8th June". Does the Minister accept that the commitment given at Nice clearly implied that national governments would lead and encourage a debate within each of their own countries during the course of 2001? We are now four months into 2001 and the Government have not provided a lead on this matter. Will the Minister further accept that this is the second British government, of a different party, who have called for Britain to be at the heart of Europe, and that it is rather difficult for Britain to be at the heart of Europe unless the Government provide a lead for an intelligent domestic debate on the large questions about the future structure of Europe? The Government might wish to take a more active role as soon as possible, and not just "perhaps a couple of months before next winter".

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that eloquent speech--with much of which I agree. "As soon as possible" means just that. The noble Lord will know that the Prime Minister has already started such a debate. Mention has been made by him of a speech on the European website, as was requested. We are hopeful that there will be a proper debate before the end of this year. We are energetically

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looking at how that debate should be brought forward and we shall obviously include all of those whom we know to have an interest in this subject, including many Members of this House.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I welcome what my noble friend has said and it is clear that in this country the wish to enlarge Europe is almost universally accepted. However, does my noble friend agree that there are fainter hearts in some of the other European countries? What can the Government do to ensure that this debate takes place not just in Britain but across all European Union countries in order to speed up the process of European enlargement?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I can reassure my noble friend that this issue has been taken up by all our European partners. At Nice there was a request that that should be done and it has been accepted. The debate will take place throughout Europe. It is important that such a debate takes place and that it is deep and wide-ranging; and it must obviously be completed by 2004. I can reassure my noble friend that everything possible is being done to encourage that deep debate.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, will the Minister tell the House a little more about what this wide-ranging debate will involve? Does she agree that, although one or two matters were decided at Nice, a great deal about the future structure of the European Union was not decided at all? Will she tell the House whether the debate will focus on such issues as the entire future governance of the European Union; the need to change its antique and centralised systems of law-making, which have been much criticised; the proposition that we have reached the end of the mantra of "ever closer union", and that the Commission should cease to be the motor and driving force of European unity; and the removal of real obstacles to enlargement, of which Poland is finding agriculture the most serious? Are those the issues that will be debated, or are we merely going to repeat some of the old cliches of the past?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I am not quite sure what the noble Lord means by "the old cliches of the past". If he means the aspirations for the betterment of Europe that we hold jointly, those are inherent in our aspirations and they will be repeated--and indeed should be. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister started this debate in his Warsaw speech in October 2000. He set out many of the issues in that speech, which has been well publicised, as regards the important questions that we need to debate. Those remain the issues which we believe need to be debated today.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, will the Minister tell the House how the Government have the nerve to pretend that they wish to encourage discussion about the future of the European Union when they so stubbornly refuse to debate the now

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unanswerable case for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union altogether? If the Minister is minded to answer that there is no point in discussing what life might be like outside the European Union because the advantages of membership are so obvious and overwhelming, will she be so good as to admit to your Lordships that she will have proved the point of my question?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, no.

Lord Carter: Leave the answer at that!

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I hear the temptation to my right! The issues, as the noble Lord rightly knows, will be broad. There will be plenty of time for the noble Lord to have his voice heard, along with many others, when this debate takes place.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, does my noble friend recall that part of the Maastricht Treaty in which we were encouraged to develop a liaison between national parliaments? Should not this House take the lead in accomplishing that greater liaison with the peoples of Europe?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I know that many noble Lords have been most active in that field. I hope that that long tradition of co-operation will continue.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on resisting the temptation presented by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. My understanding is that the great speech made by the Prime Minister was in Warsaw, but that another great speech was previously made in Brussels. Does the noble Baroness think that now is the time for the Prime Minister to speak out in Britain, given the fact that all the polls indicate--especially on the issue of the euro--that British people say over and again that they do not know enough about the question and badly want more information in that respect? Will the Government please respond a little more quickly to such requests than they have up until now?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I understand what the noble Baroness says. I can assure her that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has spoken out and that he is continuing to do so. If noble Lords read the speeches that have been put on the European website and also, I suggest, on the FCO website (which is an award-winning website of extreme excellence), they will find that many very positive statements have been made. That will continue. We are considering with real care how this debate can best be expanded to include everyone, so that everyone feels that he or she has a voice and can participate. I reassure the noble Baroness that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister will be most strongly in support of all those efforts.

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Children Act 1989

2.44 p.m.

Lord Northbourne asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will amend Section 2(2) of the Children Act 1989 with a view to providing (a) that every natural father is responsible jointly with the mother for the financial support of any child of his and for using his best endeavours to ensure that the child receives the love, care, guidance and education which it needs from birth to maturity; and (b) that fathers who fulfil these responsibilities shall have joint parental responsibility for the child and appropriate access arrangements in cases where the parents do not live in the same household.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, I have acknowledged the noble Lord's commitment in this area before, and I do so again. His concern, which is very well founded, is about the adverse effect of absent fathers on boys and young men. But, with the best will in the world, there is no point in putting every natural father under a legal obligation to use his best endeavours to provide love, care, guidance and education for his child, when the father may have no--or no committed--relationship with the mother, nor, sadly, any feelings of love or responsibility towards the child: love cannot be compelled.

Conversely, attending to the other part of the noble Lord's Question, nor should natural fathers have contact with a child only if they fulfil their financial responsibilities to the child. A child may crave contact with a father who has not fulfilled those responsibilities, and can actually benefit from it sometimes. So the child's welfare is the paramount consideration. The courts will consider the wishes, and the feelings, of the child. I have the greatest respect, which I repeat, for the noble Lord's ideals and intentions; indeed, I believe that he has shared his ideas with my officials both in detail and most helpfully on at least two occasions. However, I just cannot think that this particular proposal could work.


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