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EU: UK Contribution

Volume 748: debated on Wednesday 30 October 2013

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to raise public awareness of the United Kingdom’s net contribution to the European Union’s budget over the last six years exceeding £53 billion, as set out in the HM Treasury Pink Book 2013, and the effect that has on the United Kingdom’s public sector borrowing requirement.

My Lords, to ensure transparency and increase public awareness, HM Treasury publishes details of UK contributions to the EU in its European Union finances and public expenditure statistical analyses publications. The previous Government gave up a significant portion of our abatement, and consequently our net contributions were always likely to increase. Following the real-terms cut to the 2014 to 2020 payment ceilings negotiated by the Prime Minister in February, they will now be going up by less.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his considered reply. Perhaps I may illustrate my point. Recently, the Chancellor returned from China, pleased that he had raised £13 billion to build the new nuclear power station so desperately needed for our energy security. Is it not paradoxical that over the past six years our net contribution to the EU, which is substantially used for infrastructure, has been over £50 billion? That is enough to build at least three nuclear power stations. How is it that we can find the money to build other people’s infrastructure but not our own?

My Lords, by looking at the net contribution to the EU, the noble Lord is concentrating on only one dimension of our relationship with the Union. He is ignoring the very substantial economic benefits that we enjoy through increased internal trade via the single market, increased external trade via, for example, the recently concluded EU-Canada trade agreement, and increased investment in the UK by companies such as Nissan. He is also ignoring the non-economic benefits of membership in the fields of the environment, justice and external affairs.

Will the Minister take urgent steps to gain control of expenditure in the European budget? That can best be done by introducing a system of zero-based budgeting, such as my noble friend Lord Kinnock sought to introduce when he was a Commissioner. The Government have always said yes to this in principle but done nothing in practice.

My Lords, the first thing that we sought to do on the European budget was to ensure that it was not increasing in real terms. As the noble Lord knows, the agreement made by the Prime Minister at the European Council in February will result in €80 billion less expenditure over the next budgetary period than the Commission proposed. The first step in getting the budget dealt with appropriately was to cap it.

Could the Minister say how many nuclear power stations the Government could have built with the rebates that we have received since 1975 under Mrs Thatcher’s arrangements?

Does the Minister agree with two things about the net payment to Brussels of £12.2 billion for the past year alone? First, that it equates to the £30,000 per annum salaries of 1,100 nurses, policemen or any other public servant per day. Secondly, that there is no such thing as EU aid to us, because for every £1 they now send us back we have sent them £2.56.

My Lords, I am not going to get into a statistical analysis with the noble Lord, but I revert to my earlier point. Our membership of the EU brings with it a whole raft of benefits which do not simply relate to the EU budget. One area of expenditure that we incurred some time ago was dealing with a war in the Balkans, which cost this country more than £1 billion. Since the Balkan wars finished, Croatia has joined the EU and other Balkan states will join. We will not fight other Balkan wars. That does not fit into the noble Lord’s narrow formula.

My Lords, following the good point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, about the need to control the EU budget, does the Minister recognise that in the 1970s, when government spending in Britain got totally out of control, it was brought under control to a considerable extent by the noble Lord, Lord Healey, when he was Chancellor? Helped by Sir Leo Pliatzky, the Second Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, he introduced cash limits. At the moment, the Commission constantly argues that more money is needed to fulfil the obligations of earlier policy undertakings. Cash limits would do it, or help do it. Will the Government try to get the EU to introduce cash limits?

My Lords, there is a cash limit. There is an overall payment ceiling of €908.4 billion over the next budget period. That is a cash limit.

Regarding my noble friend’s last answer, I do not know how much the European Union spent on creating a sustainable peace and a functional state in Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, I wonder if my noble friend would accept from me that, however much was spent, the figure amounted to tens of times less than it would have cost everybody, including British taxpayers, if there had been a return to conflict.

Will the noble Lord confirm that the gross cost to the taxpayer is not £55 million per day but £18 billion every year? If we were not paying that amount in exchanges, would not the Government be able to reduce the deficit on expenditure very much more quickly than they intend to at the present time?

My Lords, the net payment over the past six years has been about £34.8 billion. This equates to less than 1% of our total public expenditure over that period. It is a very substantial amount, but, as I have now said several times, you have to set against that amount all the economic and other benefits, including those mentioned by my noble friend Lord Ashdown, that the UK derives.