Inside Parliament: Lords grapple with insubstantial powers

Peers debate EU Finance BIll
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John Major was accused yesterday of handing control of Britain's negotiating stance in Europe to the sceptical wing of the Tory Party by his promise to veto constitutional change at the 1996 summit.

Why on earth should other member states pay any attention to what Britain said at the inter-governmental conference, wondered Lord Richard as peers debated the Bill to increase payments to the European Union.

"They know in advance now that the Prime Minister's negotiating position is at all costs to avoid trouble at home. This is one more step in the increasing marginalisation of Britain in its relations with the EU.''

Peers returned to Westminster a day earlier than MPs to start work on the European Communities (Finance) Bill which caused the Government so much anxiety in the Commons. Mr Major's decision to make its passage an issue of confidence led to eight backbenchers being stripped of the whip after they refused to support the measure. A ninth voluntary resigned the whip in disgust. Lord Tebbit, former chairman of the Conservative Party took the opportunity to air his arch-scepticism, but as the Speaker of the Commons has declared the measure a "money Bill" peers cannot alter it.

As Lord Richard observed, there was a "certain unreality" about yesterday's Second Reading and today's concluding stages. "No amendment that is carried in committee will have any effect. For all practical purposes our powers in respect of this piece of legislation are insubstantial."

That peers were discussing it at all was not due to anything intrinsic in the Bill - it increases the UK's contribution to the union by up to £250m by 1999 - but to "the extraordinary political tangle'' the Government enmeshed itself in, he said.

"If Mr Major is to go to the inter-governmental conference with his mind set on vetoing anything which might give rise to renewed Eurosceptic calls for a referendum, he is handing control of the British negotiating position at that conference to the verygroup he has so recently deprived of the whip. Either that or he goes quite determined to make the inter-governmental conference a failure," Lord Richard concluded.

Introducing the Bill, Baroness Chalker of Wallasey, the Foreign Office minister, lauded the deal secured by Mr Major at Edinburgh in December 1992. The Commission had wanted a much bigger increase, she said.

Honouring the commitment given at Edinburgh was a matter of the highest importance, Lady Chalker told peers in an echo of appeals to Tory Euro-rebels. "The UK's international reputation would be severely damaged if we broke our word and our effectivenessin future negotiations would be substantially undermined."

But Lord Tebbit found it an "unusual constitutional dictum that if a prime minister undertakes an agreement with foreigners it is absolutely binding upon Parliament". The Prime Minister could only be an agent. The power to tax and make agreements must surely reside with Parliament, he said.

Lord Tebbit cited the violent protests at Shoreham, West Sussex, against the export of calves as vindication of his warning of "serious consequences" if Parliament was not able to redress the public's grievances. Most British people wanted the veal tradestopped but the Government did not have the power to act, he said.

For the Liberal Democrats, Lord Thomson of Monifieth said Mr Major seemed to be "surrendering" to the anti-EU faction in his party.

Lord Thomson and Lord Richard are former Brussels commissioners. So too is the Tory Lord Cockfield, an ex-Treasury minister, who reiterated his belief in a single currency and looked forward, apparently more in hope than expectation, for a statement of policy for the IGC. "The Government policy, I regret to say, reminds one very much of the story of the blindfolded man in the darkened room searching for something that isn't there.''

The Europe of the past cast a shadow at Question Time as Lady Chalker indicated the Government is set to step up requests to Russia for information about the murder in London of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident and broadcaster. Representations may have to be made at a higher level unless a response is not soon forthcoming, she said.

Russia promised a year ago to co-operate in the investigation into the killing of Mr Markov, stabbed with a poisoned umbrella on Waterloo Bridge in 1978. Raising the issue, Lord Bethell, a Tory, said the anti-terrorist squad in London had a list of 15 previous and present KGB agents they would like to interview.