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Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. But, even so, it must be clear to anyone who reads the convention's current proposals that they amount to a new European legal order with Brussels at its centre and the nation states in a largely subservient position. If the new constitution comes to be embodied in a new treaty, would it be right for the Government to use the treaty-making powers of the Royal prerogative to force it on the British people without free votes on its detail in Parliament, and without a referendum?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, is reading too much into the quite specific point he raised in the Question. The specific point under discussion is the grant of legal personality. At the moment, some legal personality is granted to the European Community under the treaties of the European Community, to which all 15 current members belong. The European Union, established under the Treaty of Maastricht, is different. We need to be clear that what we are talking about would not necessarily mean a huge extension of powers provided that the kinds of safeguard that I pinpointed in my initial Answer were negotiated. I believe that those are the areas where we ought to concentrate our negotiating strength.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am very pleased that my noble friend pointed that out. I have in front of me a copy of the report, and I fully concur with what he has said. I would add that our own noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, was on the committee. No doubt he will say what he thinks is appropriate. However, as I understand it from reading the committee's report, there were very few dissenters from the working group's conclusion that a legal personality was the right way to proceed.
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, there is plenty of time, and of course we are going to be debating these matters for many months and years ahead. I, too, have been reading this working group report, as well as communiques in which Ministers indicate not only that they are considering this idea but that they have agreed to it. It is important to make that clear. However, has not the time come for Ministers to reveal to your Lordships' House and indeed to the general public that the rather innocent-sounding proposal in Article 4 to grant legal personality is in fact of far greater significance than people have been told?
Is it not a fact that the legal personality provision gives the Union the right to conclude treaties and to do so without any need for ratification by the nation states? That is a considerable advance in centralisation on past arrangements. It also gives the Union itself, as an entity, the right to become a member of international organisations including the United Nations. Ought we not to be told a little more about these ideas before Ministers say that they have agreed them?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we will have a full opportunity to debate not only this working group report but all the working group reports. As many noble Lords have said, we very much look forward to the robust exchanges which I am sure we can expect. Conferring a single personality on the Union would give it the capacity to act within the legal system distinctly from the states that are its members. The noble Lord is quite right. In practice that would mean that the EU would have the capacity to make treaties, to sue and be sued, and to become a member of international organisations to the extent that the rules of those international organisations allow. I hope that I have made clear the position which we would take on our own membership of some of the international organisations where we would want to preserve our position. We are currently making agreements through the European Union, certainly where there are competencies on issues such as trade, with a number of countries. We concluded a free trade agreement only very recently with a Latin American country.
Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the near unanimous view of the working groupthere were two exceptions, I think, in a working group of 40was based upon the near unanimous view of the lawyers that the European Union already had legal personality and that that in a sense was not the issue? Rather, it was thought that if the Union were to operate in future under one treaty, bringing together with different forms and procedures the operation of the foreign policy aspect with the community aspects, it made sense openly to attribute what was already commonly accepted to be the case.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, that very ably explains the position as I understand it. As I hoped I had already made clear, the fact is that the European Community already has legal personality in the way that the noble Lord describes.
Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, the Minister inadvertently omitted to reply to the question from my noble friend Lord Pearson about a referendum. May I give her the opportunity to repair that omission? Is she aware that the Government of France, whatever their other shortcomings, have promised the French people that any proposed treaty changes and constitutional changes arising out of the Convention on the Future of Europe will be put to the people of France in a referendum? Why are the Government so frightened of giving the same undertaking to the people of this country?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I did not omit it in any sense of not wanting to answer the question. It was merely that I did not wish to detain your Lordships on a subject that we have already discussed in your Lordships' Housewhen I was able to point out that I did not really understand why the Opposition were so keen to press on with a referendum when they had overlooked the possibility of having one when they were in government and had the chance.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the great advantages of giving legal personality to the European Union is that it could then accede to the European Convention on Human Rightswhich would mean that Eurocrats would be directly bound if they abused their powers and that there would be effective remedies for the citizens of this country before the Strasbourg court against the Eurocrats of the European Union? Is that not a great advantage referred to by the Select Committee?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: Yes, my Lords, I think that that is one of the points that ought to be considered. The ECJ would then extend its coverage into the EU and beyond the EC which it currently covers. I agree with the noble Lord that that would be one of the outcomes.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister asked for responses by 3rd March from the South East and the other English regions outside London on the level of interest in holding a referendum about an elected regional assembly. We are now evaluating the responses. The soundings exercise did not ask whether people were in favour of an elected regional assembly. That will be the question asked in any referendum on the issue.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, perhaps I may help the noble Lord in the Answer to my Question. A recent poll by Mori showed that in the South and South East of England fewer people were in support of a referendum on a regional assembly than were in favour of a referendum on elected Peersa rather odd choice perhaps. It also showed that only 27 per cent of those in the south of England knew in which region they were located; the rest did not know.
On that basis, does the Minister agree that the idea of an elected regional assembly in the South or South East of England, where we have no Newcastle, no Manchester and no obvious city, is based far more on ideology than on practicality? Does he also agree that the more people hear about a regional assembly there, the less they like it because they see it as meaning more remoteness from governmental decision, a higher council tax and a further reorganisation of local authorities, which will lead to a requirement for more money?
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