Monday, May 9, 2011

Questions asked in the Lords

It is time to catch up with some of what has been going on in the Lords. On Thursday, April 28 there were two Starred Questions that are of some relevance to the subjects this blog discusses.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch asked:
Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the contribution by the European Union and its predecessors to peace in Europe compared with that of NATO.
A fair question, given the number of times we have been told that the EU and its various predecessors have been crucial to the keeping of the peace in "Europe". Of course, even that is disingenuous: in the eastern and south-eastern parts of Europe peace was conspicuously absent in the decades after the Second World War. But let that pass.

Lord Howell's reply was also disingenous:
My Lords, both the European Union and NATO have made invaluable and complementary contributions to peace in Europe. We do not consider it appropriate to compare the two as they serve different functions. While NATO has ensured, and continues to ensure, our security, there is more to peace than just security. It requires stability, shared values, economic development and political co-operation. The European Union has contributed that. We firmly intend to remain an active and committed member of both.
The subsequent debate covered all the usual points, including role of NATO troops, specifically of American ones, the EU's helplessness when it comes to military matters and its lack of that democracy it is supposed to support in member states.

One has to feel some admiration for Lord Howell who is rather knowledgeable but has to navigate all those shoals, be courteous to everyone (this is not the Lower House, after all) and not step beyond government policy. In fact, the only speaker he seems to have been annoyed by was Lord Dykes, who has appeared on this blog a few times in the past. One cannot really blame Lord Howell.

A few minutes afterwards Lord Campbell of Alloway asked
Her Majesty's Government what proportion of the United Kingdom contribution to the European Union Budget has been signed off by the Court of Auditors over the last 16 years.
Indeed, we all know the answer to that and it is a round number. Lord Campbell asks questions about this periodically, hoping, one assumes, to get some kind of a sensible answer out of whichever governmen happens to be around. He has failed again. This was Lord Sassoon's reply:
My Lords, the UK contributes to the EU budget as a whole, not to individual spending programmes. Therefore, data on UK contributions to the EU budget not signed off by the Court of Auditors are unavailable. However, the recurrent failure to achieve a positive audit opinion from the court on EU's accounts is unacceptable. The Government set out recommendations to improve EU financial management and transparency at ECOFIN in February this year.
Well now, isn't that exciting news? More recommendations. One wonders whether they will be taken up and what will happen with the next EU budget.

To be fair to noble peers, this is a subject they can get quite angry about, presumbly because many of them are businessmen and well aware of the anomaly of a budget that is routinely, year after year, is thrown out by the auditors. What would be the fate of a business of any size to whom this happened?

The most interesting question came from the Countess of Mar, who rarely gets involved in debates on matters European:
My Lords, I recall some 20 years ago the late Lord Bruce of Donington asking very much the same questions repeatedly. Can the Minister say why it is taking so long to resolve this problem?
How very true. We all recall Lord Bruce of Donington, who always had more information in his hands than whichever Minister was replying, asking those questions and, no, nothing much has been done about it since.

According to Lord Sassoon, this is all because of the previous government giving "away a substantial part of the UK's abatement and signed on to a financial perspective that set a course of significantly increasing EU expenditure". That's as may be but the debate was about the Court of Auditors and the EU budget not being signed off, which has been going on for a slightly longer period than the previous government had been in office. Indeed, Lord Bruce's questions go back, to my certain knowledge to John Major's government and, quite possibly, beyond.

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