Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320 - 339)

WEDNESDAY 6 MARCH 2002

THE RT HON PETER HAIN MP, MR NICK BAIRD AND MS CATHERINE ROYLE

Mr Connarty

  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.

Mr Tynan

  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 that is.
  (Mr Hain) I understand that and I respect that as well.

  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.

Mr Cash

  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?

Chairman

  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.

Mr Cash

  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.

  326. Protection.
  (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.

Angus Robertson

  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.

  328. Three.
  (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 that—and I am not sure whether you would manage to assemble a parliamentary majority for doing so—if 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 somewhere.

Jim Dobbin

  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 level.

  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 states—a minority happily—really 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 Minister—it could be Europe Ministers or some other species—because 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.

Mr Davis

  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 governments—

  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 with that.

  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?


 
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