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Business Of The House: Eu Debate, 7Th February

Volume 621: debated on Tuesday 6 February 2001

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3.8 p.m.

My Lords, I trust that the House will forgive me if I draw its attention to some administrative difficulties—I put it no more strongly than that—which arise in relation to tomorrow's business. I refer to the Motion in the name of my noble friend Lord Tomlinson. The Motion calls

"attention to the Nice Treaty and the case for European Union enlargement"
and it moves for Papers. As is customary when participating in such debates, one finds it necessary to refer, often in detail, to the documents that are mentioned. In this case, we need to examine the Treaty of Nice. Regrettably, I have to inform the House that until the time at which I came into the Chamber this afternoon, an up-to-date copy of the Treaty of Nice had not come into the possession of Members of this House or of the Library. However, I am given to understand that a copy was delivered to the House of Commons Library.

My Lords, that places in a difficult position those of us who take seriously events in the European Community. Documents should be readily available and provided in time for one to be able to participate in a debate on them. The latest copy of the Treaty of Nice that I have is dated 12th December. Its reference number is 533/00, and it is 197 pages long. I assure your Lordships that it is not free from ambiguity. I suspect that your Lordships will agree that that characteristic is fairly often typical of some emanations from the European Commission and other European bodies.

I gave notice to my noble friend Lord Tomlinson of the situation. I have the document dated 12th December before me. However, although a later edition was published on 22nd December, we have been unable to see it. Before participating in tomorrow's debate—if indeed I do—I would like to be familiar with the treaty to which I may refer.

Past experience has shown that when the Commission amends documents which are dubious to begin with—such documents are numerous the ambiguities often appear in a more general and sometimes more obtuse form in the revised version. I should be glad to have the guidance of the House as to whether, in the circumstances, we wish to proceed with the debate. I warn noble Lords that I believe that, if they study the Treaty of Nice in its revised form, it will take well over a day simply to read it. I shall be glad to receive guidance on the matter, and I am sorry that I have had to raise it.

My Lords, I hope that I can reassure my noble friend and the House that his dilemma will be resolved quickly. I am sorry that the other place appears to have received a benefit not given to this House. However, the final version of the Nice Treaty, to be signed in Nice on 26th February, will be sent to the House Library this afternoon. Earlier versions have been available to the Library of the House and remain so. I cannot assist your Lordships as to whether the copy currently placed in the Library of the other place is the final or the earlier version. However, I can assure noble Lords that the final version will be available.

My Lords, can the Minister advise us whether photocopying facilities will be made available in sufficient quantity to allow those of us—I know that this applies to several noble Lords—who wish to peruse this lengthy document before tomorrow afternoon to do so?

My Lords, I am confident that arrangements can be made. I am sure that the experience of all Members of the House is that the Library is increasingly energetic in providing assistance.

My Lords, can the Minister account for the delay? The document will be produced only a short time before the debate.

My Lords, the treaty is to be signed on 26th February. I know that the debate is to take place tomorrow, but the appropriate date is 26th February. I can assure your Lordships that the final version was made available as swiftly as was reasonably practicable.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the Nice Treaty is easily available to anyone who wishes to download it from the Internet?

My Lords, that is certainly the case. However, I know that Members of this House like to have documentation in their hands, and not all noble Lords are as conversant with the Internet as they would like to be. Therefore, I can reassure the House that this document can now be delivered through many vehicles.

My Lords, in the circumstances outlined by the Minister, would it not have been possible to delay a little before holding the debate?

My Lords, that is certainly not a matter for me. However, I emphasise that earlier versions of the treaty have been made available in the Library of the House. I hope that those versions have been of some little use to Members who have wished to look at them.

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether the Government intend to publish a White Paper on this complicated treaty and whether, at a later stage, they will hold a further debate in government time?

My Lords, I am sure that those matters will be addressed through the usual channels.

My Lords, is not the last point that was raised one of the best to have been made this afternoon? Only recently, the House asserted its right to hold debates on Wednesday afternoons, and I commend the Labour Party for having chosen this subject. However, the debate is to be held during the second part of the day and it will be limited probably only to two-and-a-half hours. Should there not have been a proper, full day's debate in government time starting immediately after Question Time? Can the Government give a rather stronger assurance on that point? We on this side of the usual channels would very much welcome a proper debate on the White Paper when it is published.

My Lords, I know that noble Lords opposite always get a ready ear from these Benches. I am sure that in their usual amicable way the usual channels will be able to sort out this minor difficulty.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness reassure us that the occasion tomorrow will not be the one on which we were told that we, as Parliament, would be able to scrutinise the treaty before it was brought into force? Can she reassure us that a full debate will be held in government time before it is brought into force?

My Lords, there will of course be a Bill. I am confident that, during the process of that Bill through both Houses, there will be active and vigorous, if not contentious, debate.