Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400
WEDNESDAY 20 MARCH 2002
WALL KCMG, LVO, MR
400. You regret the publicity but not the sentiment.
(Sir Stephen Wall) I stand by the sentiment for the
reason I gave. I said it, it is what I think and it would be foolish
of me to come here now and say that I did not mean what I said
because it would imply that I was not in control of my own mouth.
I think that the role of a civil servant is to be in the background
and to that extent I do regret it.
Mr Connarty: I think you have made a very good
attempt to try to explain it. It was a very good analogy but slightly
misunderstood. I think I understood what you were trying to say
when I read your words. I would not have taken it from the headlines
in the press.
401. All of the members of the Committee have
read the joint letter from Prime Minister Blair and Chancellor
Schröder to Prime Minister Aznar with great interest and
obviously we have a lot of queries about ideas for reforming the
Council in particular. May I ask you about co-ordination between
different councils and ensuring that council business makes progress
between meetings and finding a way to make that possible post-enlargement
when it will be much more difficult? Is there any sign of consensus
among Member States on whether reform is needed and what form
that should take?
(Sir Stephen Wall) On the first point, that there
is a need for reform, yes. On what form it should take, there
is not at this juncture. The Foreign Secretary put forward some
ideas in a speech in The Hague just before Barcelona which included
a way of changing the six-monthly presidency, and I think there
is a growing feeling among our partners that the six-monthly presidency
does not really work. If you sat down with a blank sheet of paper
you would not devise a system which changed the chair every six
months. In addition to putting a very great burden on individual
countries, it also means you get rather artificial peaks in the
business. At the same time, most Member States attach a lot of
importance to the commitment to the work of the European Union
that having the presidency gives them, hence the ideas that the
Foreign Secretary put forward which were based really on giving
Member States a longer period in the chair in individual councils
and then possibly setting up a group of the chairs of those individual
councils to try to ensure that there was better co-ordination
across the range of business. So if you get an issue like sustainable
development, there can be discussions which would involve the
chair of the Environment Council, the chair of the Agriculture
Council and other relevant councils to make sure that the business
is being done. One other thing we need to look at in that context
is the role of the Council Secretariat because the extent to which
it has been used or not used has been a matter of choice largely
from individual presidencies. Some countries use the Secretariat
more than others, but most people would agree that whatever the
Council formation, there is greater scope for the provision of
information to Ministers, so that when, take the General Affairs
Council as an example because it is the one I know best, the General
Affairs Council is, say, dealing with Macedonia in one month and
Macedonia in the next month, it is quite useful for them to have
shortly before the meeting a note from the Council Secretariat
to say that "Last month you took X and Y decision. This is
what has been done in the meantime to implement it. This is what
we think you now need to focus on when you meet next week".
To an extent that happens but it is a bit hit and miss at the
moment and there is scope for what I would call introducing greater
consistency and professionalism in the way we as Member States
in the Council work with the Secretariat which services us to
organise our business.
402. You will be aware that one of the big ideas
being floated is about the Council meeting in public and legislating.
Has the Government thought through the practical implications
of the Council meeting in public when legislating? How much of
the discussion about legislation would be on the record in practice?
(Sir Stephen Wall) We are starting to. We have not
reached a view yet and we shall have to talk to our partners about
it. The breakthrough is that even two years ago this was considered
a pretty controversial idea and certainly when I was working in
Brussels and we discussed it in the Committee of Permanent Representatives,
there was a group, probably a majority of countries, including
ourselves, who supported it, but quite a few countries which did
not. I do not think there is a single country now which does not
support it, so that in itself is a breakthrough. We already have
a system of public debates at the start of a presidency, for example
in the General Affairs Council and in other Councils. One possibility
obviously is to have a second reading debate on each item of legislation
which could be public. There clearly does need to be the ability
for Ministers to negotiate privately as in any setup but then
when it actually comes to the point of legislation, and I agree
that what the point of legislation is is a slightly flexible concept,
then there clearly should be a meeting in public with it clear
to the public how Member States are voting. When people in Brussels
come to look at the way they actually arrange meeting rooms in
the building for enlargement, we ought to go for something which
does not just depend on the debate being televised, but actually
has a public gallery so people can be there and see what happens.
The picture I have always had in my own mind is rather like the
UN Security Council. Quite a lot of the negotiation on a difficult
resolution goes on in the corridors, but there is nonetheless
a substantive public debate. It is not just for form's sake and
people see the voting. At the moment a lot of issues which have
effectively been negotiated and do not need to be negotiated at
ministerial level go through the so-called A points; they are
simply listed at the start of the Council and effectively nodded
through. Now we shall have to look again at that system because
if you are going to have votes on legislation then clearly you
have to have a system where things are not just nodded through
without the public knowing what it is that is being voted on at
any one time.
403. Do you think this might give a push for
governments of all Member States to be a little more open about
the positions they took in Council meetings and perhaps be a little
more open about the position they are trying to take before they
go into Council meetings?
(Sir Stephen Wall) I guess that would be almost an
inevitable consequence of it.
404. We do not meet in public, except when you
are here. So if we are talking about governments meeting in public,
even the Select Committee does not meet in public, so we are going
to have to look at that as well.
(Sir Stephen Wall) Yes; sure.
405. Some people call me a euro-sceptic, but
it is not true: I am a euro-realist. As a euro-realist, may I
ask you about the Commission, because that seems to me to be part
of the bogeyman of Europe? It is seen as a collection of faceless
bureaucrats who initiate laws which are out of control of politicians
and they have their own agenda. They are scheming in Brussels
and ruining our way of life in Britain. That is the concept of
the real euro-sceptic. It is the difference between the idea that
politicians here in theory set the ball going, but in Brussels
and Europe it is the officials who set the ball going and all
the politicians do in Europe is to halt the ball, whereas in Britain
we do not even start the ball moving if the politicians do not
want it. I think the reform of the Commission is critical in terms
of getting more people on side, certainly in this country. Could
you say something about that and what the British Government's
position is? Could you also say something that an awful lot of
things would have had to have happened in Britain with regard
to changing laws if the Commission did not exist because they
cover an awful lot of things we have to do anyway. I am just wondering
what your view is about repatriation of those powers back to Britain,
other than the bits which are beneficial to Britain and all the
other countries involved?
(Sir Stephen Wall) We are not seeking to change the
basis on which the treaties were written, including the Commission's
right of initiative and the Commission's role as guardian of the
treaties and ensuring that the treaties are enforced. Obviously
there is a balance to be struck but the reason the treaties were
devised in that way was to avoid what those who wrote the treaties
feared would otherwise be the lowest common denominator of inter-governmental
agreement. We believe that even if you keep, as you should, that
basic institutional balance, there are better ways of running
things. The role of the European Council, the role of the heads
of government in actually setting the strategic agenda of the
European Union has grown over the years and by and large it is
within that framework that the Commission brings forward its proposals.
We think you can strengthen that by having more of what I would
call a Queen's Speech approach, so that it would be absolutely
clear what the agenda of the European Union was going to be and
you would not as individual citizen or a government be taken by
surprise by what the Commission brings forward. Interestingly,
at the European Council last week, the new President of the European
Parliament, Pat Cox, suggested a new approach in which he would
like the European Parliament, which has very considerable powers
of co-decision, to be much more engaged on what he saw as a common
agenda with the Council, so that there is much more of a sense
that without undermining the role of Parliament vis-a"-vis
the Commission or the Council, there is a much greater sense of
the strategic direction of the European Union so that we know
what we are trying to do over a two-year period and get on and
do it. One of the things we think should also happen as part of
the reform, and the Nice Treaty foresees it, is that we should
get back to a rather smaller Commission than the one we have now.
We think that would be more effective in terms of doing what the
Commission has to do and get away from what otherwise is a risk,
in a sense in the opposite direction from the one you mentioned,
but a risk that if you have a situation where 27 countries each
have their Commissioner, the danger of the Commission being another
forum for the pursuit of national interests rather than the Commission
being able to do its job as set down by the treaties is there.
We hope over time that we can get back to the idea of a smaller
Commission. One of the things the Convention gives us an opportunity
to do is to argue this through but the position I have described
is basically where the Government is coming from.
406. You have not dealt with the question of
whether the Commission should change its role and whether the
Government would like to see them being the sole group that initiates
legislation? Is the thinking of the Government that in an enlargement
the Commission should cease to be the initiator but should be
part of the process?
(Sir Stephen Wall) No. Our view is that the Commission
would still be the initiator and one reason I argue that is that
apart from our own view that is a view very strongly held by a
majority of our partners and in particular those Member States
who are not large Member States who do see the Commission as a
vital safeguard of their interests, because otherwise they would
see a European Union de facto dominated by the large Member
States. If you have a situation in which the Commission is bringing
forward their proposals within a policy framework set by the European
Council, then in our perspective that would meet the kind of aim
we have of knowing clearly what the political agenda is and therefore
not being taken by surprise by initiatives for legislation outside
407. What you are describing sounds very much
like an increasing emphasis on inter-governmental co-operation.
(Sir Stephen Wall) Part of it may be. If you look
at the Barcelona summit and the so-called economic reform process,
it is a mixture. Some of what we are doing, if you take the financial
services agenda, translates into European law in the traditional
form. Equally energy liberalisation. We have now secured agreement
that the non-domestic sector will be opened up by 2004 but the
means of delivering that will be through two directives which
hopefully will be adopted this year by a qualified majority vote.
We are not saying that should change. At the same time, there
is an awful lot which can be done in terms of improving our economic
performance which is inter-governmental in the sense that it is
a matter of consultation, co-ordination, peer pressure, benchmarking,
all these things. The same is true of the social agenda. We have
some aspects which are part of Community law; there are others
now, as you know better than I, which are a matter of negotiation
between management and unions and do not take the form of formal
legislation. One of the things which is happening anyway and enlargement
will bring more of, is that kind of flexibility. The essential
thing for us is to try to have that flexibility while maintaining
the kind of equality of rights and obligations which are at the
heart of the European Union which I think have made it a success.
408. Interestingly enough, you just made reference
to the European Parliament and Pat Cox's suggestions. Would you
like to see the powers of the European Parliament further enhanced?
For example, co-decision is an important facet of European decision
making now. Do you think there is a case for extending co-decision
and/or do you see the European Parliament having a greater scrutiny
role over the European Commission?
(Sir Stephen Wall) On the first point, this is a subject
for debate in the Convention and subsequently the inter-governmental
conference and by and large, where majority voting has been introduced,
co-decision has tended to follow. The Government has not taken
a view on possible extensions of co-decision, but it is an issue
on which the Government has an open mind and we shall discuss
it in the Convention. The European Parliament's scrutiny of the
Commission is increasing and that must be right. In so far as
the Commission is the bureaucracy of the European Union it is
right that it should be subject to close parliamentary scrutiny
at the same time. It is important that the Commission feels able
to assert its own independence in the areas where it is required
by the Treaty to exercise it. The implementation of competition
policy is one example where we strongly support the role the Commission
has. It is also important that the Commission should be under
scrutiny but not feel itself intimidated either by the Council
on the one hand or by the Parliament on the other. It is quite
a difficult balance to strike.
409. Do you think that the new electoral arrangements
which have been adopted for the European parliamentary elections
actually help the credibility of the European Parliament and its
(Sir Stephen Wall) That is probably beyond my competence
as a civil servant.
Mr Connarty: It would appear that no-one wants
to take the blame for that one. It has certainly disconnected
the public from the European Union in one fell swoop. I do note
that in fact some flexibility is being discussed in the methodology
for electing people to the Parliament. As a politician, I feel
that democratic deficit needs to be re-addressed, but it is perhaps
not for this particular inquiry.
410. May I welcome Sir Stephen to the Committee
and say it is nice to see Michael again? Michael may not recall
but he helped me out of a tight situation when I had forgotten
my passport and I was being interrogated, along with a British
Labour colleague and an Austrian researcher, at a meeting without
coffee two floors below the Gare du Midi, so I am very grateful.
(Mr Roberts) One of the joys of being a Member of
the European Parliament.
411. Indeed. It is nice to see you this morning.
May I briefly refer to the Prime Minister's letter to the Spanish
Prime Minister? I know you touched on this earlier very briefly.
The Prime Ministers asked that serious consideration be given
to ending the tour de table tradition. Is there any realistic
prospect that that will be ended in time for the next enlargement?
(Sir Stephen Wall) At one of the summits under the
French PresidencyI think the one at BiarritzPresident
Chirac limited all interventions to a maximum of two minutes.
He did not quite do what they do in the European Parliament and
cut off the microphone at that point but he did actually manage
to enforce the discipline. At that level it does depend upon people's
goodwill in doing it, but when we are 25 and 27 and if the European
Council is still going to meet, as now, for only a day and a half,
it becomes absolutely vital to have some kind of discipline.
412. We took evidence when we were in Brussels
on the attitude of the Council towards scrutiny reserves. Would
you like to comment on that and whether you would agree that the
main problem is that there is sometimes a genuine urgency to agree
a measure or that many Member States attach little importance
to them? How do you see the use of the scrutiny reserve by other
(Sir Stephen Wall) I know that there has been a particular
issue which you have raised and that Ministers are looking at.
One of the things we take very seriously is your concern about
the way some agreements have been reached on a provisional basis.
We have already been talking to people in the Council Secretariat
in Brussels about that and there are certainly ways in which we
could tighten up the way we in the Council operate so that we
do not have that kind of rather loose terminology and therefore
the appearance that agreement has been reached before scrutiny
has been completed. I am not sure myself, looking at this, whether
we have yet got the arrangements in a form which is wholly satisfactory,
given the development of co-decision and the importance of co-decision.
It strikes me that the six-week rule which was introduced at Amsterdam
is helpful but is in a way largely irrelevant because when a proposal
comes forward it is very rarely adopted within six weeks. The
first six weeks are in one sense the least important part of the
legislative timetable and what happens between that initial period
and the final outcome of conciliation, which may be years, certainly
months later is more important. I am not sure we have the procedures
entirely working in a way which is satisfactory and I know that
Ministers with whom I have discussed this and ourselves as those
who are responsible for actually making the system work on a day-to-day
basis are very open to trying to get improvements. It may be that
the Convention and the subsequent inter-governmental conference
will give us an opportunity for that. It is true to say that we
and a few other Member States have the strictest scrutiny, but
my sense is that this is an area which is of growing importance
to all Member States and I suspect that when they come in it will
be for new Member States as well. I do think there is some scope
413. I should like to record that we do find
it immensely difficult to get the documents with the deadline
pressing enabling us to look at them. Do you think it makes much
difference that some national parliaments give closer scrutiny
and some do virtually no scrutiny whatsoever?
(Sir Stephen Wall) Yes, I think it does. On the question
of the speed, I agree, it is unsatisfactory and there are still
delays as between the Commission and the Secretariat. I do not
think they have yet cracked the question of electronic transmission
between the two of them. I certainly think that electronic transmission
between the Secretariat and us in Whitehall would also help speed
things up. If there were a kind of equal perception of the importance
of parliamentary scrutiny across the European Union that would
help. If you are in a situation where the UK, Denmark, one or
two others, are the ones who most often have scrutiny reserves,
it is frankly easier for a presidency, whose interest is clearly
getting the business done, to put the pressure on you, than if
14 Member States were saying, sorry, they cannot agree because
they have not completed the parliamentary scrutiny.
414. On this question of delay, are you familiar
with this draft Council decision authorising the Commission to
negotiate a convention with the United Nations Relief and Works
Agency for Palestinian Refugees?
(Sir Stephen Wall) No, I am not, I am afraid.
(Mr Roberts) No.
415. This document originated on 13 February.
It was forwarded to the Council on 14 February and was not deposited
in Parliament until 7 March, a Thursday. It was then discussed
in Council last Monday. We have received a letter from the Secretary
of State for International Development blaming it on a bureaucratic
error. I appreciate that you are not familiar with it, but could
you look into that specific example and then write to the Committee
and tell us where this bureaucratic error occurred? It may have
occurred in the Department for International Development, or it
may have occurred somewhere else. Just to say "a bureaucratic
error" is not really a very full explanation.
(Sir Stephen Wall) No; I absolutely accept that. We
in the Secretariat do try to track the progress of documents very
carefully through our electronic database and through constant
telephone contact with the departments to ensure that things like
this do not happen. If it has happened because of a failing of
someone somewhere in our system, I apologise for that, but I do
not know the facts and I shall look into them.
416. The way to find out is to look at specific
examples, is it not? Do you ever get to know about such examples
other than by coming before a Committee and someone asking you?
(Sir Stephen Wall) Certainly when I was in Brussels
there were some particular problems which were at that stage failures
at the London end, if I recall rightly, and I got very much involved.
Since I have been back in the European Secretariat I have not
personally been involved in more than one or two, but Michael
Roberts and Les Saunders who works under him supervising the work
of Ellen Lawrence in our Secretariat, whose full-time job this
is, get involved on a pretty regular basis in terms of sorting
out bottlenecks, quite often having to sort out between departments
who is responsible, if it is not absolutely clear who is responsible,
for writing the explanatory memorandum, things of that kind. On
the whole the system works pretty well, given that we are receiving
something like 10,000 documents a year, but I should be the last
to claim that it is foolproof. I think we have the systems in
417. May I pursue you on that point? You did
make reference earlier to the fact that Ministers clearly are
talking about scrutiny. It might be Anthony Steen's view that
this Committee is now becoming annoying to them because we keep
rapping their knuckles for a practice which we find could be judged,
it may not be their attitude, to be holding this Committee's scrutiny
reserves in contempt and that is the process of reaching provisional
agreements and political agreements long before the scrutiny reserve
has been lifted which means that the reserve is in a sense just
seen as some kind of formality that they brush aside later on.
Is it possible to define some sort of common understanding or
agreed approach within the Council that would make it clear that
any outstanding issues raised by national parliaments would have
to be dealt with before political agreement was reached? You know
that in fact a view has been put forward that the scrutiny reserves
should be put into legislation and therefore it could not be broken
by anyone going to a Council meeting. We are not necessarily looking
for that level of inflexibility but you will be aware that we
are becoming increasingly annoyed by departments who do deals
and basically say with a nod and a wink that this is all right,
they will get the scrutiny reserves lifted some time later, just
go ahead with the directive or the proposal. That is not treating
the parliamentary scrutiny reserves in a proper manner.
(Sir Stephen Wall) The responsibility for decisions
on a particular issue is the responsibility of the department
and the Minister concerned.
418. Surely not. Surely there is a government
attitude to the scrutiny this Parliament has custody of?
(Sir Stephen Wall) You take the words out of my mouth.
I was about to say that as far as we are concerned, government
as a whole, certainly the European Secretariat in our role in
the process do take it very seriously and try to carry out our
obligations as efficiently as we can. The point I was making was
that on any particular issue at any one time it is the decision
of the Minister concerned. In the light of the concerns you have
already expressed, Ministers are looking at this and in particular
the issue of provisional agreement, which I know has caused you
particular concern. I am not in a position to say very much more
about it than that at the moment. I do know that Ministers would
welcome the chance to work out with you a system which on the
one hand allows for the fact that there will be occasions when
legislation is needed urgently and on the other, the fact that
the scrutiny requirements have to be respected. That will be a
matter for discussion with your Committee. If that basic framework
of agreement is reached, then there are other things we can improve
on in terms of the process and in particular helping the Committee
through its clerks to track the progress of legislation. There
are already some mechanisms in place but my sense is that they
could be improved and self-evidently I am keen to help improve
419. Would it not be a good idea to have somebody
in your department to whom all failures should be reported, so
that at least you know whether it is one or two or three departments
or the whole government? We suspect it is one or two departments
which frequently fail. Sometimes an investigation could be made
to see why there was a failure, but at the moment I get the impression
that it is just left to departments and although you, with great
respect, tut-tut about it, as does everybody, that does not actually
find out what is going wrong in particular cases and where to
stop it happening in future.
(Sir Stephen Wall) We do track.