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European Union (Information, etc.) Bill [HL]

Volume 687: debated on Friday 15 December 2006

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. We have just had a most important and lengthy debate on a crucial subject, to be followed by an important but comparatively very modest Bill. If I timidly suggest to noble Lords that the debate need not take too long, it is not because the subject is unimportant but because it is relatively uncontroversial. I say that as I gaze at the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, who has recently arrived in the Chamber, maybe to take part in the debate. He nods in affirmation. He is very welcome.

I hope that the Bill is uncontroversial. I remind the House that we have been members of the European Union for three decades and three years. There will be a major series of celebrations next year for the anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, to which we adhered in 1973. In those days it was a much less elaborate Community than it is now as a European Union.

Disturbingly and partly because of the often very negative newspapers in this country, which sometimes seem to have a disease of chauvinism that is very distressing to the thinking reader, the public—that includes all members of the public, not just those who follow European subjects per se—are often unaware of the many complicated details of our membership of the European Union. Under the Bill the information would be freely available in public libraries, town halls and similar public buildings, as well as in central and regional government buildings. If this legislation were enacted, access both to the paper media and to the electronic media would be enormously increased, and the learning curve would be accelerated and enhanced. I say that not as a criticism of the public, who often lead busy lives with their busy families, and who do not have the opportunity for access that should have been created and which is, I believe, available in some member states.

The Bill is modest and brief, as befits the subject. Clause 1 allows for information to be provided in lobbies, foyers or similar areas of public buildings—it would be for managers to choose. This information should be entirely objective and factual, including not only statistics but aspects, for example, where there are differences of opinion among the political processes of EU member states, where member Governments take exception to EU decisions, and where there are lobbies in different countries or collective European-wide lobbies for campaigns and issues. All that information should be freely available. As we know, the internet makes available the vast scope of all that information at the press of a button.

I am especially keen that the explanation of subsidiarity, for example, should be properly handled, as well as the emphasis that many policy areas remain the principal or sole preserve of the sovereign member states, which is as it should be. All too often, those who may be a little more hesitant about our membership of the European Union tend to suggest that everything eventually redounds to Europe. That is far from the case.

Clause 2 is not light-hearted—it would be impossible to make such a provision in a properly drafted Bill in this House. It deals with the demonstration of the European Union flag wherever appropriate, an issue that may be highlighted if the Bill is further discussed, as I hope. We see the European flag flown far more often in continental member states. The original six founder members, in particular, often display the European flag, sometimes alongside the national flag, sometimes on its own, sometimes on private buildings, as in this country. Understandably among the new 10 member states, including the two islands, there is a very strong proclivity to display the European flag. I have recently made quite a few visits to Paris, where the flag flies proudly over the French Senate and the Assemblée Nationale alongside the national French tricolour, as the Minister will acknowledge. It is regarded as perfectly normal there.

I was sent quite a few messages about the Bill both from outside this House and from noble Lords, most of them overwhelmingly, I am glad to say, in strong support. I was particularly grateful to receive such a message from one of our colleagues here—I need not mention his name, but if I say that he used to be the head of the Met Office, everyone will immediately know to whom I refer—who said that he was sad that he could not speak in the debate but that he had always been very keen on this notion of a prominent, frequent and fairly pervasive display of the European flag alongside our union jack. In his letter, he says:

“When I was head of the Met Office, we had 2 flagpoles … But I was told that we could not fly the EU flag even on Europe day. I noted that the UK High Commission in Ghana flew the EU flag as well as the Union Jack while the UK had the EU presidency. But I was told this would cease when our presidency ended! Good luck … Lord Hunt of Chesterton”.

I was grateful to receive that. Although it may seem a matter of relatively small importance compared with many other pressing European issues, it is quite important in psychological national public terms that we acknowledge our membership of the European Union with some enthusiasm and do not simply leave it to the many hotels that fly the European flag, often self-evidently for commercial convenience as well.

Clause 3 explains the all-important matter of town twinning. Although the Bill does not provide for the financing of any of the matters it recommends, public money might be available for town twinning through the European Union’s own town-twinning support scheme. Town twinning is a growing part of the European Union in general, although perhaps not so much in this country, where town twinning is mostly bilateral. Bilateral town twinning is also very precious, of course; I have been involved in it myself. This would be one of the best ways in which ordinary members of the public could learn practically about the town twinning in which they or their communities might be involved, the country it is in and the European Union, not only from visits but from information about it.

In recent years, two-, three- or even four-way twinning has become a growing reality, aided and abetted by the European Commission town-twinning support schemes. Tempted though I am to go into enormous detail about how applicants, be they municipalities, individual entities or collective private efforts, can secure these schemes, I will resist because of time and the need to make some progress in the debate, save to read two quotations from the official documents of the European Commission on town twinning, which sum up the important priorities:

“Town-twinning is characterised by large citizen involvement and can therefore make an important contribution towards the development of European citizenship”.

That would be alongside national citizenship, as we are citizens of the United Kingdom but also signatories to the Maastricht Treaty. To continue:

“To this end the European Commission awards grants to Twinning events which include educational programmes on topical European issues. Priority is given to events involving towns and municipalities in the candidate countries, to new twinning arrangements, to projects involving small municipalities or municipalities in geographically disadvantaged areas, to multilateral events and to projects involving young people or disadvantaged groups”.

That would therefore be a very important priority.

Another illustration of how this can be developed is made in the following model example of the European Commission, which does not refer to any particular localities:

“Town X in country Y is reflecting on the development of tourist facilities to attract sustainable and environmentally friendly tourism based on recently issued EU guidelines. Town X representatives are interested in the experience of their twinned counterparts from countries Z and W with similar projects. To this end they organise a thematic conference attended by the town representatives as well as interest groups from all three towns. Optionally town X can also involve in the project its neighbouring town with its twinned towns”.

Those are parts of the configuration of possibilities, which I hope will be developed and will involve many people in this country.

Bilateral twinning, even if it has already started, can be supplemented and augmented by a new participation in the European Union context. It is a remarkable way for not just council representatives or elected representatives on local councils, but also members of the public who follow these things in detail—football teams, musical groups, and school and educational groups—to get to know our European neighbours.

I shall recount an extraordinary story from my constituency about the twinning of Harrow with Douai, the judicial capital of north-west France. It was one of only a couple of significant, fairly large towns left in north-west France that were not twinned with other English or Spanish, but mainly German, towns—a very interesting development. A coach of representatives was sent for the inaugural meeting in Douai. By contrast with England, where French visitors are offered a cup of tea and a sausage roll in the town hall, in France on those occasions there is usually a glass of champagne and a proper meal—be that as it may, it was not the most important aspect.

The inaugural coach party included people who were not very keen on the twinning. The 86 year-old mother of an enthusiastic pro-European lady in Harrow went with her daughter rather grudgingly and reluctantly, partly because she had never been abroad before, coming from a poor family in north Yorkshire. It was also partly because she was interested in the history of the area and had lost three brothers and a cousin in the First World War. The woman grumbled all the way and even more as the coach approached Douai, and was very fed up at giving in to her daughter’s pressing plea. However, mysteriously, just after the mayor finished making his speech at the inaugural ceremony, officials approached her and asked her whether she would like to accompany them for about two hours. As a result of journalistic contact between Harrow and Douai, the officials had located the graves where her brothers were buried, but had not found the grave of her cousin, and wanted to take her to see them. In a very short time, at 86 years old, this woman incurred a damascene conversion from being a British nationalist and an anti-European chauvinist. As an official limousine took her to the graves and back to the town hall—at the graveside, a military band played on her behalf—she became a fanatical pro-French, pro-European, determined worker for international understanding. This is an amazing story of a lady who is now deceased, but we all remember it as a way in which these things can help people to get to know and work with each other in the united European Union.

To sum up, the provisions that I have emphasised are designed to be permissive, not mandatory, and to fill a gap in our citizens’ knowledge about the EU, through information found in town halls, libraries and other appropriate public buildings. I can reassure the Government that no extra funding of any kind is required or desirable. The modest expenditure involved will be met from the existing, discretionary spending of local authorities, official public budgets and central government. The only aspect where new money might be needed is town twinning, but that, too, would be very modest, carefully controlled and very adequately and fully explained.

The Bill would address the reality that the EU flag, sadly, is not on display here so much—if you look around London you will see that to be so—except sometimes on Europe Day, which is a pity.

This is a classic case where a short Bill can be improved in Committee if the House is generous enough to give it a Second Reading. It goes without saying, of course, that I would be happy and delighted to accept government help on any parts of it. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Dykes.)

My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to support the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, in the promotion of his Bill. It is an admirable project but I am afraid that it faces an uphill struggle.

The European institutions are not famous for their public relations skills. Indeed, it is almost axiomatic that the European institutions, and the European Commission in particular, are opaque and unfriendly organisations that serve only to issue tiresome regulations, such as forbidding the sale of vegetables by ounces or pounds. Therefore, any initiative that tries to counter this reputation and make the European institutions more user-friendly is to be welcomed.

The Bill proposes that information should be made available at public libraries and local government buildings and, more significantly, on the internet. This is all very well in principle, but somehow the information has got to be made interesting and worth chasing. To make this project successful would, it seems to me, require a major public relations campaign on the part of the European institutions, with cost implications related to the intensity of the project. It would involve outside professional consultants and the active support of member Governments. But is this too much to hope for?

One area not mentioned in the Bill is the provision of educational materials to schools. A campaign to interest secondary school pupils in the role and potential of the European institutions might be productive.

This brings me to the Bill’s other main heading—namely, twinning arrangements between towns in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the European Union. Here, I declare an interest as chairman of my local twinning association. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, that twinning is an excellent feature, as it creates friendships and opportunities for all ages from different parts of the Union. We have regular exchanges with our French twin town. These have included tennis, golf, football and theatrical exchanges. In April next, we are expecting a group of 35 people to come to England. They have expressed a special wish for a tour of your Lordships’ House.

Among the most important features of twinning are the links that are made between schools, which give the young the possibility of pen friends, exchange visits and genuine long-term friendships. I strongly endorse the Bill’s support for twinning arrangements, including financial support from the European Union for such schemes.

As for the Bill as a whole, I wish it well, but, as I have said, I feel that it faces a steep road ahead.

My Lords, I confess to a moment’s hesitation before putting my name forward to participate in this debate, despite my strong support for the Bill and for the cause that my noble friend Lord Dykes has long advocated. The reason for this is that there has been a strong agreement—maybe even a consensus—in British politics over the past couple of years that Europe is best not talked about. Whether this is because of the English trait of reticence—just as we are reluctant to talk too much about religion because people feel strongly about religion, perhaps we think that we should not talk too much about Europe because people feel strongly about Europe—I do not know. However, I strongly support the Bill having thought it through.

I question why there is this reluctance. There are several reasons and they are worth looking at as a necessary background to the Bill. Let us take one or two inconsistencies. I travel abroad a great deal, in continental Europe, Asia, Africa and elsewhere, largely in support of the English-Speaking Union. Sometimes I have had the opportunity to work with our embassy or stay at the residence and have got to know the ambassadors and the high commissioners quite well. I am struck by the number of British embassies that display the European Union flag as well as our union flag in front of the embassy or the residence. It is not at all uncommon. So why is this perfectly acceptable abroad but somehow rather difficult with public buildings in this country?

I have the same sort of question about the Prime Minister’s speeches on Europe. There have been one or two exceptions in recent years but, by and large, all the Prime Minister’s most pro-European speeches—he makes them, and he can even make them in French—are nearly always made abroad. Why are they made abroad rather than here?

If we start to look at the reasons for this reticence, it starts to become obvious. It is rooted in the predicament of the parties. Let us look at that, because it will colour their reaction to the Bill. The Conservatives view Europe as a minefield. If they stray from a most conservative and prudent path, the rather fragile new leadership of liberal conservatism might explode on one of those mines. For that reason, David Cameron has been extremely careful not to address any issues of substance on the European Union because of the damage that it might do to his party or the leverage it is calculated it might give to the UK ostrich party, UKIP.

The Government also find Europe difficult. I asked a Question only last week about the five economic tests for the euro. It seemed to me that if Mr Brown was to move from No. 11 to No. 10, and as he owns the five tests, we might gain greater clarity. There might even be a new sense of urgency about the matter. But the Answer I received was somewhat ambiguous and certainly not infused with any sense of urgency. I was told that all this would be looked at in several years’ time.

There are even Liberal Democrats who feel that maybe it is better not to talk too much about Europe because it is not always understood by voters. Of course, that simply will not do, for two reasons. First, there is a woeful level of ignorance about Europe and the European Union and the sort of information that my noble friend is advocating should be easily available by computer and in public buildings, libraries and schools. All the polls—MORI, Ipsos, endless Euro-barometers—show the same thing. Unfortunately, we are among the most ignorant about the European Union within the European Union. We are ignorant about how it is governed, how it works, what the institutions do, what its benefits are, and what its problems and challenges are. People really do not know and that makes them extraordinarily vulnerable to malignant journalism. I am afraid that Euro-phobic journalism has become an aspect of British public life.

I had an extraordinary experience last month when I was in Bulgaria for the English-Speaking Union. When I got there, the ambassador said, “We have two or three lectures laid on for you, but there is something much more urgent”. The much more urgent matter was a report in the Sun newspaper that morning that, from 1 January the United Kingdom had to brace itself for an invasion of HIV/AIDS. The evidence for that alarmist story in the Sun was a report from a UK health authority, which said that the United Kingdom faced a higher incidence of HIV/AIDS from immigration, especially illegal immigration—a comma was inserted here, which I know because I looked at the original document— from sub-Saharan Africa. The words “from sub-Saharan Africa” had been removed and instead we were to brace ourselves for the invasion of Romanian HIV/AIDS and Bulgarian HIV/AIDS from 1 January.

I tell that story because it is symptomatic of something that is now so common in our journalism that we no longer notice it and nobody complains about it. We have all become passive victims of this sort of prejudice. It is deeply shocking and very upsetting, as it has been to public opinion in Romania and Bulgaria. That is what has happened and it is the reason why there is this very strange reticence.

The other reason why it will not do is that too much is happening. There is the strange idea that a lot of us seem to have that if we stop thinking about Europe, it will stop moving. Somehow it will vanish, disappear or recede. The Channel will miraculously widen until it is thousands of miles wide, and we can all forget about it. The French shot the fox over the constitution; the Dutch do not want it; and as for the euro thing, the sky did not fall in when we did not join.

But there will be a new president in France. There are important signs of economic recovery in Germany. The euro is in a strong competitive position with the dollar. Europe is attracting enormous quantities of investment. Make no mistake that, with a new French president, whoever that is, there will be a renewed attempt to try to establish Franco-German leadership of the European Union. Europe will not stand still simply because we do not want to talk about it. For reasons of our own ignorance, and because of its urgency, we should take this matter very seriously.

I shall end on a different, connected thought. People who object to flying the European flag or acknowledging our membership of the European Union, for example, do so because deep down they fear it. They see it as some sort of external menace representing a fundamental threat to our way of life. I see the issue fundamentally differently. I see our membership of the European Union as an aspect of our diversity. The flag is an illustration of that diversity. Coming to the House this afternoon, I was thinking of the identities that I feel that I have. I was born in South Africa. I have worked all my life in London. My home is in Richmond. I am international by instinct and experience. My patriotism, which I feel strongly, is British. I feel European by geography and interest, and English by language.

I see none of these identities as contradictory. Churchill had three circles. I would be happy with six or seven. We are perfectly capable of dealing with these identities, but if we deliberately try to mask or hide one—the European one—we distort our own identity. We distort it not only for ourselves; we distort it for our children, which is perhaps more serious. I am concerned about children in our schools. A modern foreign language is no longer a compulsory subject at GCSE. I very much regret that, and I think that the Government regret that decision as well. They will probably reverse it. Also, in the teaching of citizenship in our schools, the European dimension is inadequate.

I ask the House to support this, and to start thinking sincerely and seriously about that aspect of our identity in which we are citizens of the European Union. It is by no means the only aspect, but it is one that, were we not to have it, we would be much the poorer, and our lives, and those of our children, would be at much greater risk.

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I would like to put one question to him. He says that he feels European, among other things. There is nothing wrong with that. But does he feel closer to a Swede than to a Norwegian, or to a Belgian rather than a Swiss, merely because the first in each case is a member of the EU and the second is not?

My Lords, that is a very interesting question. I will have to think about it. My first reaction is that I do not think that we prioritise by nationality the cultural influences that we feel, and I guess that that is true of most Members of the House. To do so would be odd. I certainly find, because I can speak, for example, German, that I have access to that culture that I would not have if I did not speak the language, and I am sure that that is true for the noble Lord with the languages that he speaks. You do not prioritise like that; this is all part of the mix that is you. I am arguing that we should rejoice in that; we should not fear it.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, intimated, I am happy to support most of this Bill, although I imagine that the noble Lord and his supporters may not agree with me on what information and statistics should be published. Indeed, I must ask the noble Lord, and, perhaps, the Minister, how and by whom that information would be compiled.

I do not agree that the European flag should be compulsorily flown on public buildings and elsewhere. Will the Minister remind the House of the current status of the European flag? Is it still regarded merely as advertising, requiring a local authority licence, or has some order gone through that now makes the circle of stars official, to be flown on our buildings?

The information that the Euro-sceptic movement would like to see result from this Bill would start with the claim that the fundamental principle of our democracy—that is, the hard-won right of the British people to elect and dismiss those who make their laws—has already been betrayed by our membership of the European Union. We want to put it in front of the people that the majority of our law is now imposed by Brussels under an innately undemocratic system. We think it important to explain that system: how the unelected and corrupt bureaucracy, the Commission, has the monopoly to propose new laws, with the process taking place in secret. Then the Commission’s legislative proposals are negotiated, also in secret, by the shadowy Committee of Permanent Representatives—COREPER—bureaucrats from the nation states. Decisions are then taken in the Council of Ministers from the member states, again by secret vote, where the UK now has about 8 per cent of those votes. The treaties ordain that the resultant laws must be enacted by Parliament here, often on pain of unlimited fines in the Luxembourg court. Finally, the Commission then executes all EU legislation.

We would put at least three other features of this unfortunate system in front of the people: there is no appeal against the judgments of the Luxembourg court; once an area of national life has been ceded to control from Brussels, it cannot be returned to national parliaments; and no changes can be made to the treaties unless they are unanimously agreed by all the member states in the Council of Ministers, so renegotiation of the treaties to reclaim our democracy is not realistic—the only way out is the door.

We would also want the public to know that membership of the EU is a heavy and increasing drain on our economy. Independent analyses put that cost at anything between 4 per cent and 10 per cent of GDP. I am aware that the Government refuse to conduct a cost benefit analysis of our membership, but that situation can happily be set straight soon by a Bill that I have tabled, which I trust the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, and his friends will support in the same way that I have supported his Bill.

Finally, I want the people to be told that only 9 per cent of our economy trades with the European Union, that another 11 per cent is involved with trade with the rest of the world and that 80 per cent stays right here in the domestic economy. Yet the diktats from Brussels have to be obeyed by 100 per cent of our economy. Those are the sort of things that we would wish to be put in front of the people. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Watson, that we would also want an honest appraisal of how the constitution is moving forward illegally.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Dykes on the Bill and on enabling us to debate it in a robust and informed environment. He ably set out the way that the Bill would provide information and statistics relating to the European Union in public buildings and on the internet, and would permit the European Union flag to be flown on public buildings alongside the British union flag—or the union jack, as some would have it, even when it is not on the jack post of a Royal Navy vessel. However, as my noble friend stressed, it is important that we should publicise the European Union’s town-twinning support facilities, their scope and their benefits. I shall return to that later.

Before speaking to the Bill, I wish to mention some of the contributions made by noble Lords in what has in the main been an informed and informative debate. In introducing the Second Reading debate, the noble Lord referred to the Bill as modest and relatively uncontroversial. He pointed out, as did other noble Lords, the disease of chauvinism in the public unawareness of the complexities of the European Union brought about by the media. Whether one is pro or con, the question of information remains and that is sadly lacking in any depth. He pointed out the differences of opinions and the different lobby groups in various member states, of which we should be better informed in our public libraries and on the internet. He talked of the need to have an explanation of the realities of subsidiarity within the European Union and the need to display the EU flag on public buildings, where appropriate.

I am pleased that my noble friend emphasised the all-important matter of town twinning, which has been mostly bilateral in the United Kingdom, and informed us of the movement toward trilateral, even multiple, twinning. The noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, supported the Bill as flagging up—or putting a sign up for, if you like—an admirable project, but he recognised the difficulties of the bureaucratic process in enabling progress. Any such measures aimed at making the EU administration more user-friendly have my support. I noted also his comments on the benefits of providing more materials in our schools and learning establishments to demonstrate better the depths and complexities of our membership of the European Union. I also congratulate the noble Lord on his avid and robust support for the twinning process.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson of Richmond, got to the nub of this debate by stating that we do not talk about Europe enough. How could one disagree? Mind you, we are now discussing it at some length. As the noble Lord said, there seems to be a consensus that Europe is best not talked about and that it might go away if we do not do so. That admirably felt the pulse of the debate in this country in terms of our position in and relations with the counterpart states of the continent to which we belong. The fact that our embassies overseas invariably fly the EU flag beside our national flag, while it is hardly ever seen on public buildings in the United Kingdom, needs to be addressed. That is somewhat odd and bizarre. We have also heard a great deal in this country, and in this Chamber, about the political positioning over Europe by other political parties, including my own, and how it is difficult to get a sensible and reasoned debate on Europe among the public at large, because of the way that the media, in the main, treats the subject.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that, although the majority of the written media is Euro-sceptic, the BBC is strongly Euro-phile, as was found by its own recent independent inquiry?

My Lords, the admirable issue the noble Lord raises could be better and more fully covered by the information that could be provided in our public buildings and libraries. I see the noble Lord agrees with me.

Continuing with my own contribution, the provisions are designed to be permissive and not mandatory. The more regular flying of the EU flag alongside our own on public buildings could help raise public awareness and interest in the European Union and our key role within it. The provisions in the Bill fill a gap in knowledge about the EU for the average citizen through information and statistics in town halls, libraries and other public buildings.

Apparently, no extra funding is called for, or even desired, as only marginal costs within existing local authority budgets are incurred. As my noble friend Lord Dykes has explained, the only new money source envisaged is EU funding under the Town Twinning Support Scheme, on which I shall concentrate my remarks. I, too, must declare an interest—in fact, two. First, I am a freeman of the Borough of Eastleigh, twinned with Villeneuve-Saint-George and Kornwestheim. Secondly, I am a founder member of the Alresford Twinning Association, from a small town in mid-Hampshire twinned with Bricquebec in Normandy since 1981. In their separate ways, both interests illustrate the best in twinning and in the benefits of the EU town-twinning support.

It is interesting that the small Georgian town of Alresford—where I happen to live, tucked away in the middle of Hampshire—has a churchyard with some rather quaint graves of French prisoners of war from the Napoleonic wars, who were held, lived and in due course died in the town. Bricquebec, the French twinned town, is just a few miles from the Utah Beach of the Normandy D-Day landings. The American cemetery at Bricquebec is a sombre memorial to the thousands of young men who died in the cause of freedom. What a contrast to the little churchyard in the town where I live.

My other declared twinning interest, in Eastleigh, whose parliamentary constituency I represented for some years, was first approached by Villeneuve-Saint-George—about 10 miles south of Paris—as long ago as 1961 with a view to forming what was then called a “twinnage”. With similar social and economic features, forming like interests between the towns was straightforward and a twinning charter was signed in 1963. This is where the point of my noble friend Lord Dykes is so strong. It just so happened that a few years earlier, Villeneuve-Saint-George had twinned with the German town of Kornwestheim, fairly close to Stuttgart. Like Eastleigh, Kornwestheim has good road and rail connections and a strong manufacturing heritage, but with ready access to extensive open spaces.

The initiative was taken to forge links with Eastleigh and, in due course, a formal treaty of friendship was entered into in 1987. I mention these dates to illustrate how strong and long-lived these connections and developments have become. The point is that Kornwestheim’s twinning arrangements with Villeneuve-Saint-George enabled those two towns to set up what was then an unusual tripartite link, where each town was twinned with the other two—a sort of mutually incluse arrangement.

To coincide with the 20th anniversary of the twinning with Villeneuve-Saint-George, the Borough of Eastleigh’s efforts in promoting European relationships were recognised by the Council of Europe. The European flag of honour was presented by the Commission’s representative in Eastleigh Town Hall Centre, and has hung proudly in the council chamber next to the British flag and the borough’s coat of arms ever since.

As is often the case, the success of a twinning owes a great deal to a small group or even to just one person, as the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, indicated in his opening remarks. Eastleigh is no different. It owes a great deal to Mr Gordon Cox, who taught languages at a local school. Gordon was a major influence in setting up Eastleigh's twinning, first with our French and then our German twin. He started the first school exchanges and offered his services as translator and interpreter to successive mayors on their annual visits to and from the twin towns.

Gordon Cox has continued to be a leading light in the twinning association since it started and, at 94 years old, is unchallenged as the borough and twinning historian. Over the past decade, Gordon has been made an honorary citizen of Villeneuve-Saint-George and received two memorial medals for special merit from Kornwestheim for his work in promoting and consolidating friendship between the twinned towns. Eastleigh is recognised as a beacon council and in Gordon Cox we have a beacon twinning representative.

On a more serious point, and one that will be at the very heart of the Bill in its progress through later stages, on Remembrance Sunday in November each year, the mayors and civic parties from the three towns gather at the Eastleigh war memorials. They remember together those who have lost their lives in war, and pledge together their determination to prevent future conflict. Eastleigh provides overwhelming proof, if ever proof were needed, of the importance of remembering the benefits that EU membership brings—of the importance of friendships between communities forged through twinning in particular.

Like many towns, Eastleigh has several war memorials, located in different villages around the community. But the one where Eastleigh's afternoon Remembrance Sunday ceremony is held is different and more poignant by some degree. The ceremony is held in the military cemetery, close to the site of Netley Military Hospital—once the longest brick building in the country. The hospital was built under Florence Nightingale's direction, initially to care for the injured and all-too-often dying servicemen shipped home from the Crimean War.

The hospital and the cemetery remained in use up to and beyond World War Two, as row upon row of neat, plain, uniform, military headstones bear witness. But in this Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery are not just the last remains of British troops. They lie side by side with the bones of soldiers from countries throughout Europe; soldiers who were caught up in conflicts through the centuries and brought to England, but who do not recover from their wounds. Here, on the outskirts of a Hampshire town, close by the English Channel, lies proof positive of the importance of holding true to the European Union's objective of replacing aggression with friendship among the peoples of Europe. The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, may help to guide us towards that aim.

My Lords, this has been a select debate. Perhaps that is no surprise on the last Friday before the Christmas Recess. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for enabling the House to have this short debate on Europe with regard to the proposals in his Private Member’s Bill, although the debate has at times wandered beyond the Bill's confines.

I commend the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for the work that he does with the English-Speaking Union, but I take exception to his description of my party’s leadership as fragile. My leader has excellent relations with our MEPs and is riding high in the polls, unlike his, whose leadership could much more readily be described as fragile.

We on these Benches believe that the Bill is not necessary. Clause 1, as the noble Lord explained, would require information and statistics relating to the European Union to be provided free of charge in public buildings and on the internet. On what basis does the noble Lord feel that there is great public desire for that provision? What survey has he carried out that conclusively shows that this requirement is not already being satisfactorily met? Most public libraries and other public as well as private schemes already allow free access to the internet.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. On the specific question that he raises, the opinion polls to which I referred also show that there is a widespread desire to know more and that, sadly, there is a high level of ignorance.

My Lords, that may be so, but I was specifically taking up his point about my party’s leadership, which he described as fragile.

There is always a fine line between information and propaganda. Is the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, asking for greater transparency and accountability in the European Union? If so, I fear that these are changes that need to be made to the workings of the European Union, not simply to ensuring access to the current information and statistics. Moreover, there are many different views within the EU about its role and future shape. Is the idea that all these should be communicated?

Subsection (4) requires that the information and statistics shall be provided in “written” and “electronic” form. Am I to take the use of the word “written” literally? Is the noble Lord expecting employees to write out the reams of information that the very wide definition of information and statistics in subsection (3) would require, or does he mean “printed”? Would he expect hard copies to be kept at all times or printed only on request? We must think environmentally of the potential waste of paper proposed here as reports or statistics become outdated.

In subsection (3), does the noble Lord intend the definition to encompass only material produced by the European Union? My reading of it suggests that it could include all material ever written about the European Union, as per the issues in paragraphs (a) to (c), regardless of the source. I am sure that that is not what the noble Lord has in mind, but it would in fact be the consequence.

Clause 2 would legislate that the flag of the EU shall be,

“flown on Government and public buildings alongside the union flag”.

What about the Commonwealth flag? Once this precedent is set, where will it stop? It is absurd to suggest that we give the same status to the European flag as we do to our own national one.

Clause 3 is on town twinning. I have already highlighted my concerns about the term “information”, about how the noble Lord envisages it being “made available” in public buildings, and about the fact that there is already provision for free access to this information on the internet, in some public buildings and via other schemes. As your Lordships are well aware, town twinning is a concept whereby towns or cities in geographically and politically distinct areas are paired with the goal of fostering human contact and cultural links. Town twinning is by no means a modern or exclusively a European Union concept. There are other projects, such as Sister Cities International, the Brother Cities Programme and Partnership 2000, just to mention a few. There are historical suggestions that twinning took place long before the current processes started in the 1960s. By comparison, the EU scheme was set up only in 1989.

The EU's own website states that its scheme has been well received by towns and municipalities in Europe. The EU received more than 2,450 grant applications this year. It appears that people are already well aware of the EU twinning scheme and do not need prompting. We are a party of choice. I believe that twinning should be a local decision, taken at a local level. It is clear that people already have access to the information that they need. I would not wish a system to favour one scheme over another through an attempt to legislate just for information on the European twinning scheme.

I hope that the Minister will agree with me that this Bill is unnecessary and would have implications that we do not wish to be set as precedents. We oppose the Bill.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for giving the House a chance to discuss the important issues raised today. The Government welcome the contribution that he continues to make in the debate on EU affairs. I personally am delighted to have an opportunity to talk about the European Union. Although we often have the opportunity to discuss European issues and policies in your Lordships' House, it is usually when we are discussing specific issues such as the environment, climate change and food standards, to name but a few.

I should also declare an interest. For nearly 10 years I worked for the European Commission, for the past three and a half years on issues in information and communication and lastly as the head of the Commission office in Wales. Throughout that time, I worked to ensure improved provision of factual information about the European Union, to combat what the noble Lord, Lord Watson, called “woeful ignorance”. However, I recognise the point rightly raised by the noble Lord, Lord Astor—that there is a fine line between information and propaganda which must be respected.

The noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, is correct about the historical lack of communication skills in the European institutions. However, I pay tribute to the increasing improvement in the institution’s skills, particularly in the websites. The Government are committed to making information on the EU freely and widely available to members of the public in order to increase their understanding of how the EU functions and to give them information on how they can influence decisions on issues that affect them. We feel that that is the only way in which sensible and reasoned debate on the EU can take place. As the noble Lord, Lord Watson, pointed out, people certainly cannot have an informed debate on these issues if they receive their information only from the press, many parts of which seem to delight in twisting the facts, emphasising the negatives and forgetting the positives. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with its colleagues across government, therefore continues to support and initiate various activities to generate public awareness of EU issues and a more mature debate about them.

I am glad to say that much information is already freely and widely available to the public. Many websites already provide information free of charge, including, which provides access to information about the European Union including press releases, legislation and fact sheets published by the EU and its institutions. The website is an accessible UK-specific site provided by the European Commission in London, and of course the Foreign Office's own Europe website——also provides easy-to-use information about the EU, including a one-minute animated guide that is designed to explain simply the essential facts about the European Union; it also encourages active discussion about topical EU issues.

In addition, the European Commission has supported the opening of 25 Europe Direct centres across the UK. These are a new phase of public information centres which are designed to provide easily accessible information about the EU in places that are close to where people live. The centres are hosted by a wide range of organisations in the UK, including libraries, chambers of commerce and local government offices. HMG fully support the new Europe Direct centres and are working closely with the European Union representation in the UK to ensure the success of the service.

The centres can provide any information about the EU required by the public, but some of them focus on specific parts of the community that they serve. For example, the excellent centre in Gloucester, run by Penny Krucker and Mary Wormington, does a huge amount of work with schools and young people where the schools desire it, whereas the equally excellent centre in Carmarthen run by Neville Davies works with the rural community. As the noble Lord, Lord Astor, reminded us, we should not forget libraries. In some libraries there is a well resourced section with information about the European Union and a member of staff responsible for the provision of information, but, thanks to the People's Network, which the Government introduced in 1998, all libraries have access to the internet, from which people can download information and statistics about the European Union.

My Lords, before the noble Baroness leaves the websites, and so on, supported by the Foreign Office and Brussels, could she tell us whether those reveal some of the disadvantages of the European Union—a few of which I alluded to in my remarks?

My Lords, these websites provide factual information. Whether people looking at them perceive that information to be positive or negative is up to them, but they provide purely factual information.

I go back to the People’s Network. All libraries have access to the internet, from which people can download information. There are more than 30,000 computers in our libraries and in the vast majority of cases access is free. There are also sources of information such as European documentation centres in some universities and European information centres, usually located in chambers of commerce.

As the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, pointed out, next year is the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome. We see this as an opportunity to look forward and to promote wider awareness and discussion of the role of the European Union. We are supporting a number of activities related to this. In particular, we are planning to support an interactive schools event, which will encourage British schools to link up with other schools across Europe to discuss issues that matter to young people.

More broadly, the Government believe that the European Union has a role in helping to tackle many key issues of public concern, such as security, development and environmental protection. Citizenship classes, which noble Lords mentioned, can help to raise awareness of how individuals can influence decisions at the EU level on issues that matter to them, including through participation in European Union elections.

The European Parliament also launched in November a new resource for citizenship teachers about the European Parliament and other EU institutions and EU countries, which comprises a teaching pack containing an interactive CD-ROM with video clips, teachers’ note and student activities. I am also pleased to say that next year, under its lifelong learning programme, the DfES will relaunch the Leonardo, Erasmus, Comenius and other Socrates programmes. These are first-rate EU-wide programmes, which will be well known to noble Lords. However, while children, students and young people in other member states readily take up the opportunities afforded by these initiatives, we in the UK are rather slow on the uptake. We are not benefiting as much as we should. The noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, informed us of the benefits of the Comenius programme, which links primary schools throughout the European Union.

Her Majesty’s Government are actively engaging with young people on EU-related issues. Indeed, next Monday the FCO is hosting an outreach event to try to encourage more schools to take part in the European Youth Parliament, an educational foundation that organises events at which people can debate contemporary European issues. They may be in favour or against the European Union, but it is very good that they have an opportunity to debate these issues. Geoff Hoon will take part in an online discussion in the new year, along with a range of opinion formers, to discuss EU issues with young people. I hope that noble Lords will therefore agree that the Government and EU institutions are already taking action to promote the wide availability of information, free of charge, about the European Union and its institutions.

I must take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, about the “undemocratic” system. European legislation has to be agreed by both the European Council, made up of the Ministers of member states, and the European Parliament, whose members are elected. Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, believes, I think that, if people do not have information about the European system of governance in which they live, they are not empowered to use that democratic system to the best advantage.

As I stated, the Government wholeheartedly support many activities to ensure that information about the European Union is freely and widely available to people in the UK. This is an ongoing task and we will continue to improve awareness and to try to encourage a well informed and mature discussion about the European Union and its role, and the part that we play as a member. We work closely on this task with the European Union institutions and their representatives in the UK. We very much welcome the contribution that this House makes through its work on scrutiny of EU legislation and through debates such as these to raise the profile of the European Union and to underline its relevance and importance.

We also support the idea of town twinning. We particularly welcome the fact that the legal framework is such that it enables local government to co-operate and form partnerships with local authorities overseas. Such partnerships nurture mutual understanding, enable work on issues of mutual interest and can be of economic benefit. Many interesting examples have been cited by noble Lords today, and I note the beacon of Eastleigh, which was cited by the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey. However, we do not support the idea that public buildings should be forced to provide such information or that government and public buildings should be compelled to fly the European Union flag. With regard to flag flying on other buildings, individuals, local authorities and other organisations may fly the flag whenever they wish, subject to compliance with any local planning requirement.

My Lords, I emphasised most strongly that the provisions in the Bill are in no way mandatory, only permissive.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, the flag of the European Union is not classed as a national flag under current town and country planning regulations. It therefore requires advertisement consent from the relevant local planning authority before it can be flown. That includes government buildings.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. Could she tell us now, or write to me on, how far the order has got that would alter that situation and in effect give the European Union flag the same status as the national flag?

My Lords, the Department for Communities and Local Government is proposing to revise the regulations to extend the list of flags exempt from advertisement consent to include those of the European Union, the Commonwealth and the United Nations, as those are international organisations of which the United Kingdom is a member. I realise that that does not answer absolutely the question raised by the noble Lord, and I will write to him on that issue.

While the Government support the broad thrusts of initiatives to encourage information about the European Union, familiarity with its work, and partnerships such as twinning, we have strong reservations about the elements of compulsion contained in the Bill—although I recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, has said that there is no element of compulsion. We still have some strong reservations about the Bill, because what the Government are doing already makes the Bill not absolutely necessary. The Government are fulfilling our obligations in relation to the provision of information about the European Union to the public. The Bill is full of interesting ideas, which will be looked at in detail. I again pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for initiating this debate. I look forward to the continuing, valuable contribution of this House to the discussion about the vital task of communicating with the British public about the European Union.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister, not only for coming today, with her very busy schedule but for spending time on this important but, for obvious reasons, fairly brief debate. She has added a great deal of important argument to the background to this proposal for legislation. It is precisely because people in this country, who are not in any way fanatical about Europe one way or the other, feel strongly—I have had quite a lot of mail on this subject—that the Government hesitate all too often in the face of a difficult press, and that further institutional and legislative arrangements to provide more information on a regular basis, more prevalent and in more places but entirely permissive and definitely not mandatory, would serve this country well.

My Lords, on the issue of compulsion, one of my colleagues has quite rightly pointed out to me that while the noble Lord may say that the Bill does not imply compulsion, the fact is that it is couched in terms such as “shall be” and not “may be”, hence the element of compulsion.

My Lords, as the Minister is well aware, there are always those equivocations that come inevitably from the way in which a Bill is drafted. I cast no aspersions on the expert advice that I received from the Public Bill Office and so on. That is why it is so much more helpful—if there is a reasonable response at least and perhaps more than that on Second Reading—for us to get a Bill into Committee and discuss those issues in more detail.

I return to the point I was making before. There is a definite, unequivocal emphasis here that this is what people would decide to do if they wished to, as managers of town halls, central government public buildings, and so on. That definitely applies to the demonstration of the flag and to all the other matters in the Bill. It would be absolutely ludicrous for anyone to seek to bring compulsion to an area such as this. There is no financial provision in the Bill, and there is no need to have a financial outlet or penalties if people do not subscribe to its provisions. This is just a matter of increasing—at the margin to start with and then on a broader basis—the corpus of legitimate, neutral and public objective information on the European Union and our membership of it in public places where people access information.

We understand that, undoubtedly on most occasions, this information will be provided free to the managers of the buildings—the people organising the displays in the foyers of town halls, public libraries and other public buildings. We know from Google and the way that the internet and websites have developed—for example, Bloomberg with its stock exchange and quotations—that all the information is provided free if people wish to look at it by pressing a series of buttons. No complexity is involved. I also emphasise that providing masses of irrelevant and unnecessary information as a service would be crazy. The idea is to provide basic information on the background of our membership of the European Union.

I do not wish to take up too much time because a very important debate on assistance for the disabled follows this one. Therefore, I shall try to be brief in my remarks without being discourteous to colleagues, who made important and worthwhile points.

I was very impressed by, and grateful to, the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, for emphasising what town-twinning achieves in terms of personal, individual and group relationships. It has been extraordinary to witness that in the development of the twinning between Harrow and Douai. It happens to such an extent that official entities can recede from the scene and leave it to private initiative. My noble friend Lord Chidgey mentioned how well it works in his area.

I thank my noble friend Lord Watson for making some very important points. He mentioned how extraordinary it is that the European flag is seen on UK government and public buildings abroad but rarely here, although on some occasions the display increases somewhat. In many cases, it is almost as though people are ashamed to mention that they are members, and people are mystified about that in this country.

Of course, there are bound to be lots of party battles about the EU in the UK. They may be more pronounced than in some other member states, which is distressing for those who want to move on to the next stage of the agenda. We have been a member for 33 years but some people still couch the debate in terms of existential commencement rather than moving on to other subjects. We should bear in mind that the British public overwhelmingly seem to accept our membership of the EU.

The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, rightly asked what kind of information would be involved. I repeat that I believe that you would find brief and succinct information on the website cited by the Minister. It is simply a case of increasing the information’s physical availability, spread and presence in more obvious public buildings, centres and libraries.

My Lords, what provision would there be for the Euro-sceptic case to be presented alongside the kind of information to which the Minister referred? In other words, how and by whom are the information and statistics envisaged by the Bill to be compiled?

My Lords, without making it too complicated, the obvious point is that, if the owners and administrators of the public buildings decided to have some kind of European display—it might be very small, middling in size or more extensive, depending on their inclinations—they themselves would decide on the information that they wanted from the available official public websites, including the respectable leading news agencies and other sources. That is the only answer that one can give. I should be distressed and disappointed if it did not include neutral, objective information on people’s severe doubts about policies in the EU. That is also an essential part of the process.

None the less, I suppose that it would mainly involve giving background, statistical and other information for students and so on. The details of the administration would be worked out once the scheme had started. People would make changes, having seen how the scheme was received. If, in a public library, no one paid any attention to the EU display, it might be decided to discontinue it, to have it on a much smaller scale or to change the content.

I was extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Chidgey. This is a dry-as-dust Bill but he made a very moving speech about the human aspects of town-twinning, what it means for Europe and what it means for the UK as a leading European as well as an international country. We have moved away from the terrible history of what good Europeans like myself would describe as European civil wars, as well as national wars, and peace has now come with human contact. His references to town-twinning were telling on a bigger scale than our modest arrangements in Harrow.

I was not disappointed by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and agreed with a lot of what he said, which does not necessarily mean that I will support his Bill if it makes progress in this House or elsewhere, but we shall see. I doubt it, but perhaps he might change the Bill or its title.

Without wishing to be unkind, I was disappointed by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Astor. They were reactionary and lugubrious in the traditional flavour of the Conservative Party as it faces the European issue. The public constantly see that, and it is one reason why the Conservative Party is under test and examination for its anti-European chauvinism, and it is a pity that the noble Lord is not prepared to give such a modest, almost technical, measure more support. If he wishes to display other flags, that would be very good idea. I would love to see the flag of the Commonwealth—if there is a single flag, but I am not sure that there is—or the United Nations flag, which is displayed on UN day, but ought to be displayed regularly as well. We are an international country set in an international universe, so that would be all to the good, but it is nothing directly to do with the Bill.

I repeat my thanks to the Minister, whose credentials in this field are impeccable. She knows more about this subject than anybody else, so if the House gives the Bill a Second Reading and it goes into Committee, if she were there—in spite of her work schedule, which I know to be very heavy—she could elaborate some of the Government’s ideas about extending the information matrix to the public in these matters, particularly next year with the celebrations for the treaty of Rome, but also on all the other aspects, because people continually say that it is not possible to read anything objective in the newspapers about Europe and ask where they can get such information from.

I thank the House for listening patiently to those who took part in this debate, and I hope that it will give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.