Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320
WEDNESDAY 6 MARCH 2002
HAIN MP, MR
320. Having jumped in on an earlier question
I did not welcome you, Peter. It is good to see you in the job.
It is a breath of fresh air and it is good to see someone taking
a dynamic stand on matters to do with Europe because that may
bridge the gap between the public and the process because they
are a bit disengaged. I am going to continue on the scrutiny reserve
theme because I noted again in the speech to which I referred
that was given by the Foreign Secretary that he did not give any
time to the question of scrutiny and whether it fitted in with
people's perception of Europe as detached from their country.
Some of your own answers and some of your own writings are quite
lengthy but you do not give a great deal of time to looking at
scrutiny as one of the problems. The word that was used in one
of our evidence sessions to do with some of the departments was
actually not "cavalier" but "contempt". It
was felt that the process of using provisional agreements and
political agreements and all sorts of other devices to agree long
before the scrutiny process was finished was in fact a way of
treating the scrutiny process with contempt. What can be done
short of legislative measures, do you think, to ensure greater
respect by the Council for parliamentary scrutiny reserves? In
particular, following on the point made by Mr Hendrick, is there
any reason why national scrutiny reserves should not be given
more force through written Council's procedures, the Council of
Ministers' procedures, so that except in urgent cases, which you
mentioned in relation to September 11, or where parliamentary
clearance had been unreasonably delayed, in other words where
the fault was on our side as a parliament, decisions could not
be taken until those reserves had been lifted?
(Mr Hain) I would like to hear the Committee's ideas
on this because there is clearly a problem here. I am very keen
to bridge the gap between the citizens of Europe and the institutions
of Europe and between this Parliament and the decision-making
bodies of Europe, whether that is the Council or where they are
acting in an executive role that is the Commission or indeed the
European Parliament. I think if that is not done then the whole
legitimacy of the European Union is in peril. I am with you in
spirit on many of those ideas and if we think that we can better
secure national parliamentary rights through changing Council
procedures or through putting things in any new treaty, I would
happily look at that.
321. The second point is that the Norton Commission
proposed that the only way to do this is by putting it into legislation.
Would you also consider that seriously?
(Mr Hain) Yes, I will.
322. I really think that is the crux of the
matter. The problem we see is that there is a mind set among different
departments that they can take a decision and say, "Okay;
we can go back and say, `Sorry; we had to take that decision'."
If we put a scrutiny reserve on something it is for a very good
reason and we would like departments to recognise how justified
(Mr Hain) I understand that and I respect that as
Mr Steen: I would like to turn the question
round. I have been one of the spokes who has been saying that
there is no point in this Committee existing, there is no point
turning up, although we enjoy having Jimmy as Chairman and having
the gathering and all the services we get and the papers we get,
but if the scrutiny reserve does not actually work we are just
whistling in the wind and really we should disband. I think there
is a much bigger problem than has been very kindly suggested.
I think that if you are running a department, just as the Home
Office, you have got an executive job to do and we are just sitting
round here being helpful and making comments, but you have got
to do a job. You are running a business, the Government business,
and we get in the way. I think you are being very charitable in
saying, "We will do better and look at this", but I
am wondering whether this Committee does get in the way and whether
the scrutiny reserve should go and whether the Committee should
be disbanded and you just get on with the job.
Chairman: This is where you need diplomacy.
323. Perhaps some of us might dissociate ourselves
from those suggestions.
(Mr Hain) Or even all of it. I have got enough on
my plate at the present time, Chairman, without considering any
ideas to abolish the European Scrutiny Committee. Seriously, I
do think the job you do is important. I am not just saying this
because I am being grilled by you. I genuinely do think it is
important. Where I think we might need to be a bit more creative
is finding ways in which important developments in Europe can
be better discussed by Parliament as a whole, because there are
big issues. Of course we have parliamentary debates and there
are statements, people ask questions, but, to be frank, I would
guess that the ordinary Member of Parliament is not that engaged
in European business and is not following it very closely. I think
that is worrying because it is such an important part of our lives
and will remain so. If there are any innovative ideas for improving
the scrutiny process, which I am genuinely up for; I do not think
it is a question of getting in our way, I think it is a question
of ensuring that we are not an obstacle to Parliament. I think
it is really important that we are not an obstacle to Parliament
and that other Member States have the same attitude and policies,
but if there is a way of getting the big debates on Europe, such
as the matter that was raised on asylum policy, and just discussing
it in a practical fashion, I think it would be better for us all.
Mr Cash: I think you have raised an incredibly
important point and we have debated these matters every number
of years, but the question whether or not debates are taken on
the floor of the House is an important part of the scrutiny process
and I would just like quickly to say that under not only this
Government but previous governments there have been difficulties.
When this Committee has recommended that there should be a debate
on the floor of the House, which is certainly consistent with
the line you have just taken, and that we should have a proper,
wide-ranging discussion, whether it is on fisheries or matters
of very important questions of foreign policy, etc, the Leader
of the House has consistently ruled that the matter should be
referred to Standing Committee although this Committee has said
that it should be on the floor of the House. Could you look at
that please because that is a very serious breach of the principle
that you have quite rightly enunciated?
324. I do not know if that is within your responsibilities.
(Mr Hain) I am not sure it is, Chairman.
Chairman: You are not the Leader of the House.
325. But you did mention the point.
(Mr Hain) I am not sure that it is, Chairman, and
I am grateful for your assistance in this matter.
(Mr Hain) No, I do not need protection from you, Bill.
I was not necessarily saying that it was debates on the floor
of the House because, as we both know, through you, Chairman,
when we have debates on the floor of the House, with respect to
everybody, the same group of people turn up on the Conservative
benches and the same group of people turn up on the Labour benches
and they are a fairly small group that take an informed interest
in Parliament, and I am not sure that that advances clarity to
any great extent in dealing with the problem that we are discussing.
We just have a problem of ensuring that the average Member of
Parliament is aware of what is going on in Europe, how crucial
it is, and that therefore their constituents could be aware of
what is going on in Europe. That is at the heart of the gap that
is opening up between the voters of Europe and the institutions
of Europe, I feel, right across the European Union.
327. Can I add my welcome to the Minister this
morning. The Minister will be aware that I have a close interest
in how devolved parliaments and authorities are involved within
the European Union and the process of European governance. I know
the Minister gave evidence to the European Committee of the Scottish
Parliament not that long ago. Can I start by asking you what the
Government's view is on Mr Lamassoure's proposal in terms of partners
of the Union status for sub-Member State authorities with legislative
powers? Is the UK Government in favour of that?
(Mr Hain) I have not studied the proposal but I guess
this is one of the things that the European Convention will look
at the practicalities of. Our own position is very clear. European
policy is a reserved matter for this Parliament and for the UK
Government. Within that context, as you know, devolved administration
ministers have led for the UK (one on the education and one on
the health Council) even where British Government ministers were
not present at these councils and this has been the case for two
separate Scottish ministers, in fact.
(Mr Hain) And devolved administration ministers have
spoken, where there is a minister present, but they have not led
delegations and Scottish Executive officials have attended council
working groups and so on. I think the best way to approach this,
and I was in Northern Ireland last week discussing this with the
Northern Ireland Executive and the Deputy First Minister, is to
work on the basis of partnership. Yes, the concordats set out
the exact arrangements and that is the agreement and we will abide
by that, but we can nevertheless work on the basis of partnership
which I sought to do when I gave evidence to the Scottish European
committee to which you kindly referred, and thereby overcome perhaps
some of the irritations or sensitivities that there could otherwise
be on both sides.
329. You bring up the issue of the concordats
which I think is quite important. Do you not think that there
is a certain irony that this morning's evidence has been about
the watchwords "scrutiny", "transparency",
"accountability", "subsidiarity", yet, when
it comes to the interaction between the UK Government and the
administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, all of
the materials covering those inter-relationships are expressly
confidential, the UK Government is not in favour of publishing
minutes from joint ministerial committees which discuss the inter-relationship
between the devolved administrations and the UK Government; yet
on the other hand one is arguing for scrutiny, transparency, accountability
and subsidiarity at a European level? Do you not think there is
a certain inconsistency there?
(Mr Hain) No, I do not, because I think the business
of government can only really be conducted on the basis of privacy
until there is an obligation, a necessity and a duty to report
to the relevant legislature. In the case of the Scottish Executive
they would report to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish
European Committee when appropriate, as indeed we do. We are committed
as a government to providing devolved administrations with full
and comprehensive information as soon as possible on all business
within the framework of the European Union which appears to be
of likely interest to them. I think that is the way it works;
that is the way it is laid down in the concordat and you would
have to change thatand I am not sure whether you would
manage to assemble a parliamentary majority for doing soif
you were to go down that road.
330. That was the conclusion of the European
Committee's findings on the future of Europe which my party does
not have a majority on but there was cross-party consensus in
favour of re-working the concordat.
(Mr Hain) I am just making the point that this is
for our national Parliament to decide.
331. Following up on some of the evidence that
you gave to the European Committee in the Scottish Parliament,
I am intrigued that when you were questioned by my colleague Margaret
Macdonald on that Committee you argued very strongly and very
persuasively why you should not and would not be the UK Government's
representative on the Convention. I wonder what has happened to
change that position and whether you have informed the European
Committee of the Scottish Parliament why you have changed your
mind, and, as a last point, whether the UK Government has replied
to the Scottish Executive and CoSLA paper on the future of government
which was brought up repeatedly by MSPs of all parties last week
because there has not been a reply from the UK Government.
(Mr Hain) I will certainly look at that matter of
a reply. The Prime Minister changed my mind. He is quite persuasive
at doing this from time to time. When I gave evidence, which I
think, and you will correct me if I am wrong, was in October,
we were still at the stage when the Convention had not been established.
Frankly we were still in the position where we would have preferred
that it had not been established and that there was just an IGC,
although it looked like being established, and we thought then,
and I think that is what I argued, that it would be very difficult
for a minister to do it. It is very difficult because I have had
to double my workload, which was heavy enough, and re-allocate
some responsibilities. Since the Convention has assumed the importance
that it has at the Laeken Summit and it became very evident that
not only other governments, including the French, were putting
their Europe Minister on it, that the Prime Minister took the
view that we had to treat it with the utmost seriousness as a
Government. Of course we would treat it seriously, but it was
that we had to be right at the heart of the decision making and
agenda setting for the Convention because otherwise there would
be a danger that our argument about the European Union resting
on the firm foundation of independent nation states rather than
being some kind of federal superstate ambition, could have been
challenged. One of my objectives in being there is to make sure
that the federal superstate idea remains very deeply in the sand
332. I have a number of questions for you, Minister,
on the reform of the Council. Following enlargement, will the
increase in the size of the Council from 15 to perhaps 25 mean
a qualitative change in its character, and do you think that qualitative
change might make consensus much harder and might probably lead
to more voting?
(Mr Hain) I think that it calls into question the
whole way the Council has been operating and indeed its relationship
with the other European Union institutions. Effectively it was
designed at a time when the European Union was six Member States.
Now it is 15 and soon within a couple of years, if things go as
expected, it will be 25, and I think you are right to ask whether
it is workable in its present form. It is right to ask that because
we doubt that even now the Council is operating as effectively
as it should be in providing the necessary strategic leadership
and agenda setting for the work of the European Union and driving
the policy forward. We do not think it is doing its job effectively
now but the Foreign Secretary put forward a series of ideas and
last week the Prime Minister and Chancellor Schröder put
a common letter to the Spanish Presidency putting this very clearly
on the agenda. Essentially what we think is necessary is that
the Council should be better led, that a Presidency system on
a six monthly basis, a rotation basis, is not a sensible way to
run a European Union of 15, let alone 25. We ought to look at
a longer team Presidency approach going over a couple of years.
It could be two and a half years so you have two for each length
of term. I think that idea is meeting with wide support across
the European Union. The essential principle is that governments
should remain in the driving seat of policy direction and elected
ministers and accountable ministers should be doing that whether
at European Council level or at the different Councils of Ministers
333. On the election of the Presidency I have
heard a number of people concerned about that and Commissioner
Patten at the conference I attended alluded to that as well. As
regards the other nation states, has any other nation state come
forward with an alternative model?
(Mr Hain) Some nation statesa minority happilyreally
want the essential decision-making made by the Commission and
by the European Parliament. That is not our view. In our view,
the Council of Ministers is the representative of sovereign nation
states, accountable to their Parliaments, which should be in the
driving seat of the European Union, with of course a strong Commission
enforcing the rules impartially and taking initiatives where necessary,
and of course a European Parliament that is as lively and influential
as it is now. We are not suggesting that there should not be any
changes on the margin there but the Council of Ministers has got
to assume a much more powerful role than it has now. We have put
forward a whole agenda for that which I will happily go into.
334. What is your view of the proposal for the
Ministers of Europe to spend more time in Europe? I am not saying
that because we want to see less of you here. So that you might
be able to offer a more coherent role for the future, a more coherent
role for the Council itself.
(Mr Hain) It depends what is meant by that. There
is one idea coming forward which I have very severe doubts about
and I want to see it tested and explored which is that you have
effectively a permanent Council of European Ministers there so
that presumably me, or whoever is doing my job at the time, would
be based in Brussels, not a prospect I find attractive and not
something that I think would be easy for Ministers who are accountable
to this Parliament to do. That goes for other European Ministers
in my position. Some governments in the European Union have effectively
senior officials described as European Ministers, so it would
be easy for them to go and live in Brussels, but I am accountable
to this Parliament and I have my own constituency to look after
as well. I do not know that that would work in that bald form.
An alternative formulation put to me recently by one government
was that the General Affairs Council should be re-organised, that
the Foreign Ministers should have a Foreign Ministers Council
and there should be a General Affairs Council dealing with the
cross-cutting business of the European Union and effectively preparing
for each European Council, and that could well be inhabited by
Prime Ministers' representatives who clearly were acting with
the authority of the Prime Ministerit could be Europe Ministers
or some other speciesbecause that would enable the day-to-day
running of the European Union to be given much more clear political
and democratically accountable direction. It is not envisaged
that that would be permanently sitting. It may be sitting two
or three times a month as opposed to the General Affairs Council
which sits about once a month at the present time.
335. Could I ask you why you are against the
idea that the President of the Commission should be elected by
the European Parliament or the people of Europe?
(Mr Hain) It is interesting to note when discussing
this idea with those who are in favour of it, as I have done networking
around in preparation for the European Convention, that neither
camp agrees with each other . The camp that favours the European
Parliament doing this is bitterly opposed to the idea of the peoples
of Europe doing it. I am opposed to both because I think that
if you had the Commission President elected, it gives that person
an authority that could rival the authority of the Council of
Ministers, first and foremost. Secondly, I think it misrepresents
the role of the Commission. The role of the Commission should
primarily be as an executive body, not as a politically constituted
body, ensuring that the rules of the European Union and its policies
develop in the interests of the whole of the European Union, not
in the interests of the particular political formation that will
in the case of the European Parliament have propelled that individual
into power were the Parliament to elect that person. That is the
argument against the European Parliament doing it. The argument
against every voter in Europe doing it is again it is a wrong
job to consider doing that, any more than Sir Richard Wilson should
be elected by the voters of Britain. It is also a question of
in a Europe of 25, let's be practical about this, the turn out
for European elections was 24 per cent last time in the UK and
in many other European countries pretty bad as well. I cannot
imagine the residents of Latvia and Cyprus and Portugal and Scotland
having collectively the faintest clue who a set of European presidential
candidates might be. I therefore think the legitimacy of the whole
thing, besides it being the wrong idea in principle and the wrong
job to do to be elected, would collapse.
336. I must tell you, Minister, that similar
arguments were put forward against the extension of the franchise
in this country. We were all told that we were not able to exercise
this function and that it was for our seniors and betters to do
it. You do come across in that rather patrician way. Can I come
back to the other point you made. You said the Commission is not
politically constituted. Do you really mean that?
(Mr Hain) Clearly there are Commissioners there representing
337. Political parties indeed. We have a Labour
and Conservative Commissioner, we always have had.
(Mr Hain) I will happily discuss Commission reform
separately if the Chairman wants me to. We are looking to the
future of Europe and I think we should be designing the future
of Europe in which the Commission's role is clearly defined as
having a strong role but being a role of the executive body of
Europe, not the political driver of Europe.
338. If you believe they should be political
eunuchs do you think they should stop attending meetings of political
groups in the European Parliament?
(Mr Hain) Not necessarily.
339. They tend to attend the meetings of their
friends, do they not?
(Mr Hain) Before we get on to that let's just discuss
what we think the Commission should be doing as opposed to what
a Council of Ministers should be doing in a Europe of 25 rather
than a Europe of six. That leads us down the road of defining
their roles rather differently. I am not going to put a ban on
somebody attending a political meeting or not attending a political
meeting. In terms of being patrician, we are trying to look at
the political architecture of Europe for the foreseeable future
and I do not think that electing Presidents of the Commission
is where we should be at. Where we should be at is delivering
the policies and benefits of the European Union membership more
effectively to the citizens of Europe. I honestly do not think
that electing a Commission President has anything at all to do
Chairman: We have loads of questions we would
love to have had the time to ask you. There are some issues we
may want to write to you for answers on. There is one, the Convention,
which we would obviously want to cover for a short period before
we bring this evidence session to a close. Mr Connarty?