TUESDAY 5 NOVEMBER 2002

__________

Members present:

Mr Jimmy Hood, in the Chair
Roger Casale
Mr William Cash
Mr Michael Connarty
Mr Wayne David
Jim Dobbin
Mr Mark Hendrick
Miss Anne McIntosh
Mr Jim Marshall
Angus Robertson

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THE RT HON ROBIN COOK, MP, Leader of the House of Commons, examined.

Chairman

  1. Can I say what a pleasure it is to have the Leader of the House with us this morning?
  2. (Mr Cook) It is a pleasure to be here.

  3. This is the first occasion on which the Leader of the House has attended a meeting of the European Scrutiny Committee. So much is the novelty that we had some discussions on how we should address the Leader of the House, whether it should be "Leader" or "Mr President". Do you have any preferences?
  4. (Mr Cook) Personally, I am very happy with Robin. If I have to choose between those two options, it is Leader, because that is most appropriate.

  5. Could you start by giving us your own views on how the attention paid by the House to European matters could be increased and the House's handling of EU matters could be made more interesting to members, the media and the public?
  6. (Mr Cook) The report of your Committee was a very thoughtful result of some very serious thought on your part and had some very interesting innovations which it proposed and I welcome that. It would be fair to draw out from your report the fact that we both have a common problem which is that unfortunately, within the House, there is not the interest in European affairs that the matters really deserve. Broadly speaking, most vital departments are now spending about a fifth or a quarter of their time relating to Europe coping with the consequence of initiatives taken in Europe, trying to influence the projects that may be passing through Europe. That reflects the reality and extent to which our trade, our law enforcement services, our environment requirements now have very much a continental, not just a domestic, dimension. That is reality. I do not think in the House we have yet achieved that quantum leap, that gear shift, to recognise the extent to which what happens in Europe has such a big bearing on what happens in our domestic politics. When we debate Europe, we do tend to go for the grand theatre and the grand positions on the principles of whether we are in or out or on what structure the future architecture of Europe might have. We tend not to be so good at paying attention to the nitty gritty, the detailed issues, the way in which this affects a whole range of detailed policy considerations. I do not have an easy solution to this. In your report several times you yourselves stumble across the fact that there is no sign of a great, overwhelming interest on the part of the broad mass of the membership in taking part in those nitty gritty exchanges and the detail of European legislation. I have just carried through the experiment and innovation of creating the new Committee on the Convention on the future of Europe and it is something of an innovation in general terms under the procedure of the House because it is not set up to find a committee to hold the government to account or to listen to government ministers. In this instance, it is a committee set up to hear from the representatives of the House on that Convention. It is very much a back-bench driven committee. As you may be aware, Gisela Stewart has written to me suggesting that we reduce the quorum on that Committee on the Convention precisely because of the problems of securing attendance at that Convention. That I find very disappointing. I looked with great interest at the proposals in your report and I am sure that you will wish to explore them one by one with me. I come back to that fundamental problem: unless the members of the House themselves are exercised and interested in looking at the detail of European legislation, any mechanisms that you propose or I set up are not going to meet that problem. I do not have a simple solution as to what we do to attract that interest.

    Chairman: On the Standing Committee on the Convention, the attendance of the European scrutiny members is exceptional.

    Mr Connarty

  7. Welcome, Robin. It is very pleasant to have you here. Gisela Stewart probably commented based upon one meeting. At the last meeting, they ran out of time and all the members who wished to get in could not get their questions in or their speeches made.
  8. (Mr Cook) That is a sign of encouragement.

  9. It was a very thorough meeting the last time, so she maybe jumped the gun on that. It might sound odd but when I sought to be a member of this Committee after having served as a member of a standing committee in the last Parliament, which I found extremely interesting, as the Chairman said, I like to read my papers. What disappoints me is that most members of the Commons do not appear to know what is going through in Europe. The best example and the one most criticised by the public and the business community is the fridge mountain, where a very important directive went through Europe. The importance of it appeared to be missed entirely by Members of Parliament and when I have been to the Industry Parliament Trust we have got this quite serious criticism for the effect of that and they ask, "Who is looking after the interests of the British public and the British business community?" That should be obviously the role of the ministers and also of the Members of Parliament. Do you think it might be possible to do something through your offices to engage the members of the Commons in the importance of European matters? We are having this general discussion. Have you given any thought as to how you might do that, because it does seem that we could do a lot more if we were given the mechanisms to do so, but the Commons in general could do more if it were focused more on this 25 per cent of business you say that comes from Europe.
  10. (Mr Cook) Your comments on the fridge mountain are apposite, without getting into the substance of the issue. It is certainly fair to say that if there was any failure on the part of Britain to perceive the difficulties that were coming it is a failure that is shared by the Commons as well because the directive did not come out of the blue. It has been around for a long time. I understand that there was regret on the part of DEFRA that the advice they got from the Commission turned out at the end of the day not to be borne out by the interpretation of the directive, but it was there for comment, debate and exploration for several months before we ended up in the crisis. Your paper makes a number of proposals on the way in which we can widen the opportunity for debate. You have put a lot of effort and imagination into that and there are some interesting ideas there. It will only work if there is that interest in the membership of the Commons in which they want to make a success of those opportunities. If I am candid with the Committee, I spend a large amount of my waking hours and all of my Thursday mornings batting away persistent demands by members of the Commons for time to debate something about which an element of the Commons cares passionately and on which they want a debate. Typically on the Thursday business statement I will announce the business for the two weeks ahead and by the end of an hour's questioning I will have collected enough bids to fill up another two weeks of the House which I do not have time for. Therefore, realistically, until the House itself wants to have that time and that debate, there is always going to be the difficulty that other, competing issues are likely to squeeze it out of the debating time. That is not a statement that is necessarily a rational order of priorities that are put to me on Thursday mornings, or indeed that we are making the best use of the time that we have in terms of the political priorities. I would tend to share the view of the Committee that we should be giving some more priority to some of these European issues, but I can only do that if that is what the House itself is demanding and wants and will take the advantage and opportunity to do it if it gets it.

    Mr Cash

  11. What concerns me is the same point: partly lack of interest but also the reasons for it. I think you and I debated this in a debate on the strengthening of Parliament a few months ago. The question is related to the powerlessness of Members of Parliament to be able to do anything about the European legislation, whether it is in the European Standing Committee or in any other arena. You know perfectly well that, as Leader of the House, you have rejected our proposals that if a standing committee document is changed in the course of the debate it would not then go to the floor of the House for a decision of Parliament as a whole. Effectively, you are contributing to that lack of interest and powerlessness. I would like to ask you one simple, direct question on that: do you agree that is it open to Parliament as a whole to amend or to repeal European legislation once it has gone through the course of the Council of Ministers and then is referred back to this House in standing committee or on the floor of the House, because that is the key question. Otherwise, it is all increasingly a waste of time.
  12. (Mr Cook) First of all, the question is once it has gone through the legal procedures of the European Union and has been legally adopted by the European Union we are bound by it. Thank you very much. I do not want to change that because I want the other 14 members to be bound by the directives that we agree to. The moment we pick and choose and opt out, believe me, others will do the same in a way that you will not then like. On the specific case of the European standing committees, the reality is that in putting a motion down before the floor of the House the government is going to put down a motion with which it agrees. If you do go down the line recommended by the Committee of taking the motion as it comes out of the Committee and putting it before the House you will then find that the consequence of that is that the government will put it much more ferociously under its European standing committees and you would then find us removing from the provision the attendance of any other members, but we would want to make sure that those standing committees operated like any other standing committee if they were going to become the rules. I am not sure that that would be a step for the better. I suppose the more general response to Mr Cash's question is that other European parliaments do not seem to have quite the same problem as we do, perhaps because they are more European in their orientations.

  13. Or do not have scrutiny?
  14. (Mr Cook) They do. Believe me, other European national parliaments do have European forms of scrutiny. Indeed, I think the Danish system is rather more ferocious than ours.

  15. Not generally.
  16. (Mr Cook) I think you will find that the other European national parliaments are very involved in what proceeds in the European arena and that their representatives there are very conscious of that.

    Angus Robertson

  17. Could I ask what the government's view is on the principle of having questions to ministers on EU documents on the floor of the House and whether the government is only concerned about the extra time which might be required for this?
  18. (Mr Cook) First of all, it is open to members to raise questions on European directives policy to any department within the departmental question time for each of them. Secondly, let us be clear: concern with time on the floor is not the unique property of the government; it is the property of the House and I am well aware from my exchange on Thursday that the House offers very firm views on how the time should be used. At the moment, we provide just under an hour's questioning time on four out of the five week days. Those four hours are heavily subscribed by the departments. I have a number of bids at the moment for expansion of certain parts of my business statement, particularly for instance in the case of Northern Ireland where direct rules involve new questions of scrutiny; and also in relation to the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which, as a result of the last reshuffle, has changed and contains two issues of local government and transport of very acute interest to members in the House. I cannot increase within that time envelope without reducing somebody else. At the moment, I am not overwhelmed with bids by people wanting that space to be reduced. In that context, it is not that I am necessarily resistant to it as a desirable thing in itself; I do not see the scope for a separate set of European questions. Nor am I sure that I necessarily would want to fillet out questions about the European dimension of the department from the general departmental question time because I think it is important for the House and for ministers to regard the European dimension of the work as a normal part of their work, not as a thing that is pigeon holed and separate from the rest. One thought I would leave with you is that we have proposed in the Modernisation Committee and got approval of the House last week that at Westminster Hall we should introduce a new question session on cross-cutting issues. There is a specific proposal for a question session on youth policy involving junior ministers from the Home Office, the Health Department and the Education Department and I will be discussing with the chairman of ways and means how we go about bringing that into reality. Logically one would want something like a rota on a four week cycle which, if we manage to get this off the ground, will open up the opportunities for other similar sessions in Westminster Hall. You might want to consider whether there may be scope within your own area for using that new opportunity.

    Jim Dobbin

  19. The point I was going to make the Leader of the House has covered adequately about the time on the floor of the House for debate. I would like to stress the point that Mr Connarty made about the effect that the business community may well have on Members of Parliament based on how European directives affect their business. I have a number of cases at the present time where businesses in my constituency are affected by the European Community, but that same business elsewhere in Europe is not. That sends the wrong messages entirely. As that pressure builds up, it may well become more important to get more time for the European issues on the floor of the House but I think he would be repeating himself if I asked that same question.
  20. (Mr Cook) It is certainly the case that constituency pressures do surface in terms of what members demand to consider on the floor of the House and the more that business is raised with members -- European directives and European legislation -- the more likely it is that members will be active in that area on the floor and want more opportunities to explore it.

    Chairman

  21. There is a general consensus, I feel, that the time allocated to EU matters on the floor of the House is not used to best effect. Do you have any plans to use the existing time for more specific, maybe shorter, debates?
  22. (Mr Cook) We did propose in the Modernisation Committee report that we would welcome shorter debates and more of them. The key here is that I think the public out there would welcome it if we were covering a broader range of issues than we do at the present time. For instance, there are lots of lobby groups, campaigning groups, out there which have a particular issue which they are frustrated about because they cannot get heard on the floor. If we had more half day debates it might be possible for us to accommodate more of those issues. It is quite interesting that when the Opposition decides on its opposition day almost invariably these days it divides it into two half days because you can cover more subjects. I think it works well for the House. At the moment, the government has been inhibited from doing that because quite often when we might wish to offer a half day it is accompanied by a demand that there should be a full day. I would like to escape from that. Frankly, I did think it was a pity that before we rose for the summer there were a couple of occasions when we had a second reading debate which went on for a very short period of time. There was one second reading debate which lasted for 55 minutes for which a whole day had been budgeted. In that particular case it is not surprising that the debate folded relatively early and I think members were entirely proper not to believe that this required the treatment of a full day. It is unfortunate that we were pressurised to allocate a whole day of government time for that issue when we could have done something else as well.

    Mr Cash

  23. Going back to what we were discussing earlier and this question of the European standing committees, I have asked you already whether you think that Parliament should be regarded as having the power to amend or repeal legislation on the floor of the House and we dealt with the question and you answered my question about whether or not that opportunity should be given. I happen to disagree with you. Are you in effect saying that legislative changes in the Council of Ministers are the democratic justification for ignoring our recommendation about this question of matters being taken to the floor of the House from standing committee if a directive, for example, had been amended on a motion there, despite the fact that with more and more qualified majority voting into ever increasing areas and spheres of our domestic affairs such as fridges and other matters which affect people sometimes at a very practical level, sometimes at a governmental level, that ultimately is the justification which takes you to the point of saying that you do not accept our recommendation?
  24. (Mr Cook) No. What I said about that is that if you go down that road you will find that the European standing committees will be whipped with the same rigour as any other standing committee. I am not sure that personally I would welcome that as the outcome. On the question of where we stand in relation to legislation carried within Europe, the question you posed to me earlier was about what happens at the end of that process. At the end of that process, we are legally bound, as is every Member State, and we want every Member State to be legally bound to directives that we have negotiated. That is not to say that in what is quite often a long and tortuous process leading up to that there are not opportunities there for the House of Commons, as other national parliaments, to express a view to influence the negotiating position and therefore to have an impact on the final outcome. That is really where we should focus the input of the House of Commons.

  25. Do you not think that there are no doubt occasions - and we can think, for example, of the stability pact and a number of other matters -- where things have gone seriously wrong? If we were to follow your principle to its logical conclusion, there would never be an opportunity, once it had gone through the process of European legislative procedures, for the British Parliament to be able to say, "We are going to change this because it is adversely affecting the day to day lives of our own citizens." What is your response to that?
  26. (Mr Cook) I am not quite sure what the problem is that you see with the stability pact.

  27. I use that as an example of something that has patently gone wrong recently.
  28. (Mr Cook) I am not quite sure I follow the example.

  29. If we can deal, for example, with the fridges question, it is clear that there is a very great deal of concern about that at a practical level. If it has gone wrong and there is a need to amend that legislation and you cannot get the agreement of all the other Member States on the principle you put forward, why should not the British Parliament be recognised as having the power to be able to repeal or amend that legislation in its impact on our own people?
  30. (Mr Cook) Because it is inconceivable that the British Parliament could have that power without 14 other national parliaments having that power. In those circumstances that would cumulatively have quite a significant effect on our own exports and our own trade. There would be an enormous number of gains for British business by a situation in which other countries are obliged to follow European law. I would not wish to give them the bolt hole of saying, "All they have to do is to pass a resolution through our Parliament and we have set aside our obligations to British business." You simply cannot pick and choose in this. You are either in the European Union and wanting to have the rules on trade common across the single market or you are not.

    Mr Connarty

  31. I also want to pursue the European standing committee question. I did not allude to it the last time because in a sense your reply was mainly focused on the House. Do you regard the standing committee process as part of the scrutiny process or part of the government's legislative process?
  32. (Mr Cook) I am not sure that those two are opposing poles. After all, Parliament provides a process of scrutiny for government legislation, let alone European legislation and the European standing committee is an opportunity for any member of the House to take part in the debate on the European directives. At the point where you are debating it if you have come to the end of the road, the opportunity for further change must be very limited. Do not underrate the extent to which the knowledge a minister may have to go to a standing committee with, stand up in that standing committee and defend what that minister has done. It concentrates the mind of the minister on negotiating the directive at the time, because the minister knows that he or she will be accountable for it on a future date.

  33. Let me give two other examples that are not about fridges, although fridges are costing the UK 40 million at the moment.
  34. (Mr Cook) I think everybody would concede that the fridges story is not a happy story.

  35. A much more important and, I think a more unhappy story is the government's attitude, for example, to the Information and Consultation Directive or to the Equality Directive, where the European proposal was much stronger than our government ministers would wish to accept in the Council. Of nine sections that the European Parliament wished to see strengthened, the British government position was not to take about seven of those on board. In that situation, it is certainly my view that when we as a Committee hold the scrutiny reserve and refer the matter to the standing committee we are part of the scrutiny process because the scrutiny reserve has not been lifted if the rules by which the government says it operates the scrutiny -- the minister could not go to the Council and agree that position until the scrutiny reserve was fully lifted. That is only lifted after the debate in the standing committee. It seems to me that that is a very important role and it is part of scrutiny. It is one where many people -- for example, the two examples I gave where I can think of hundreds of members of this House, mainly on our side would wish to have a view on those matters. Somehow, we cannot engage them in the standing committee process. Is it, do you think, because the government regards the standing committees as part of the legislative process and therefore sticks people on them, through the whip system, who have no interest in the standing committee business, instead of getting people to go on who express an interest? Nobody ever asked me would I like to go on a standing committee when I was here before and I was just stuck on by chance by a whip. I thank that whip for it, but most people do not go on in that spirit and therefore do not see themselves as part of the Commons scrutiny process. Could you think of a way through the usual channels for making that a committee that people go on because they know the business of the committees and wish to participate in them?
  36. (Mr Cook) Nobody of any common sense could dispute that it is better if a committee is drawn from willing volunteers who have a knowledge of the subject, rather than conscripts who are there to make up the numbers. I totally agree with you on that. In fairness to my colleagues in the whips' office, I do think that they, by temperament, would wish to find colleagues who are interested in it. I am not aware, in the context of the European standing committees, of any cause celebre of a colleague who wished to be on it who was prevented from being on it. That is half the problem. Your own report does rather tellingly set out the problem of attendance at some of the European standing committees. The problem that my colleagues in the whips' office tend to find is not that they are keeping out somebody who might be knowledgeable or troublesome; they will probably find somebody who will turn up and take part in it. I regret that but that is where they are at. If there were colleagues out there who wanted to play a part, whips would jump at the chance of putting them on in the knowledge that it is somebody who will turn up.

    Chairman

  37. It is about changing the culture in the House by making members more interested in Europe. I can say from my own experience that when I came here in 1987 some of us were shanghai-ed on to this committee and there was not a great demand for it. Things are moving on thankfully because there is a great demand to be on this committee now and that is a good sign. What we are now seeking to address collectively is how you improve that interest and use that interest to achieve better scrutiny and better government.
  38. (Mr Cook) The whips have a wonderful way of selling a proposition. I remember when I was first selected in 1974 Jimmy Hamilton, a Scottish whip, took me aside and said he had a very important role for me to play and a very prestigious committee to go on which turned out to be the committee considering the private Bill on the then proposal for a Channel tunnel. I was locked up in a committee room for three days, for two months, listening to barristers, who only had in common the fact that they were all paid five times more than me, over the different aspects of the private Bill. We had a whole session devoted to the question of when is a lagoon not a lagoon within the meaning of the Safety of Reservoirs Act. Since then, I have had a healthy sense of scepticism when approached by a whip. This place functions partly because the whips do keep the committee sessions working. Ultimately, in the long term, the future of the House of Commons is going to be much more committee based than it has been historically. We are still basically a plenary House of Commons with some committees bolted on. We are a long way away from the situation of some of the newer bodies -- for instance, the Scottish Parliament -- which are basically a committee structure with a plenary session there to take the responses of the committees.

    Miss McIntosh

  39. It is a pleasure to see you. If there is a coalition around the benefits of both this committee and, more importantly, the standing committees, does the Leader not think that the role that the standing committees play will be jeopardised by them meeting, most vitally, at the same time that the House is sitting? Like Mr Connarty I had the good fortune to sit on one of these and I was loth to be taken off it because I fully enjoyed both entering into the arguments but also being able to participate in the vote. Any future member now is going to have a conflict between whether they should stay for the duration of that committee meeting, which they would probably like to do, or be drawn towards participating in a major debate of the day in the House. We have never faced this conflict before. Some of us on the Committee very seriously voted against the hours last week. I do not know how you see these two roles of a back-bencher fitting together.
  40. (Mr Cook) On the issue of standing committees, we have recommended that standing committees should not meet during question time or the time that you would normally expect to have the first and therefore the major statement of the day -- namely, between 11.30 and two o'clock. We have not said that to select committees. Select committees remain free to decide themselves when they are going to sit, though in practice they would all avoid the same interval, partly because they themselves wish press attention and they cannot get press attention in competition with question time. Outwith that band of time, I am not sure I would wish to exaggerate the pull of the chamber. As Leader, I frequently drop into the chamber during a debate and I am fortunate in that I have the office probably closest to the Speaker's chair and sometimes I have to go in there. For most of the time outside that interval of question time and statements, you have a chamber which is attended by fewer than 40 people. That still leaves another 610 MPs around to staff committees. Also, if standing committees really want to meet outwith the period when the House of Commons is sitting, it is perfectly possible to have an hour and a half's sitting before 11.30. Although we have tended not to have very early starts in the Commons, which reflect ten o'clock voting or indeed midnight departures, in circumstances in which the House will be rising at seven to seven thirty with some votes, it is not unreasonable to expect some standing committees to sit at ten or even 9.30.

    Mr Connarty

  41. I hope the Leader will look at the way I phrased my last question because I think there are some solutions in that. We recommended, as the previous committee had recommended, five European standing committees. Would you not think that if members were willing to serve on European standing committees that had a narrow remit and met less often you could then tailor their interests to their timetable in a much better way? Would you undertake to continue to look at the suggestion from the Committee that there should be five European standing committees?
  42. (Mr Cook) My mind is not closed on any issue and I am always happy to revisit questions if they offer a way forward. I am familiar with the argument that is made in your report that, if there were five committees, each member is more likely to be on a committee covering issues in which that member is interested by virtue of the badge of being on an appropriate select committee. I can see the logic of that. There is a degree of gulping among some of my colleagues, particularly those who are responsible for providing a quorum for the standing committee or finding a membership for a standing committee. In circumstances in which they find it hard to scrape together an attendance of three, they are not terribly enthusiastic with the idea of trying to scrape together an attendance of five. I understand the point you are making about interest and motivation but I suspect those who have been responsible for administering the system would wish to see some evidence of motivation before they embarked on a further commitment to have even more committees.

  43. Might they ask members in advance, which I do not think has ever been done in the time I have been here with the whips I deal with, what their interests are in Europe before they put them on a committee?
  44. (Mr Cook) I think that is a very fair point. It is a matter not for me as Leader of the House or a matter for the House but a matter for the parties and possibly the parties including our own, to do more to identify a data bank of members who are interested in subsets of the European dimension.

    Mr Cash

  45. I am particularly interested in Mr Connarty's question and your answer to it, because it comes back to this question of why is there this lack of interest. Is it not perhaps because there is a failure within government or indeed from other parts of the political spectrum to explain the relevance of European issues to the domestic issues of our time; and that that is one of the reasons why people shy away perhaps from taking an interest in these matters in the way in which, certainly in this room, most people recognise we should improve?
  46. (Mr Cook) It is in the nature of politics or most professions that you can always do more. Maybe the government should do more but I would acquit this government of any charge that it has been in any way negligent or reticent about European issues. Indeed, from the Prime Minister down, it has been a repeated message of this government that Europe is our destiny and the European dimension is very important to our political structures and our political decision making. If I am candid with the Committee, I do tend to find in the business statement that the interest of members has a tendency to track the interest of the press. I am expressing this as delicately as it is possible to do. I think there is a problem. You mentioned other actors in the political sphere. I think there is a problem here in that the British press -- and here perhaps it is different from some of the continental press -- still sees Europe as a matter of grand drama and grand conflict. It does not see Europe as an issue in which there is detailed, serious impact on our domestic affairs from European decision making, which they should pursue. Indeed, it is a well known complaint of colleagues who go to Europe that the best way you can assure total secrecy on what you are doing is to give a press conference in Brussels, because you know perfectly well that the report will definitely be getting back into the British press. We have a distinguished member of the press here. Possibly you should take evidence from him.

    Mr Marshall

  47. Could I point out to Robin that I did not move to this side of the room to get nearer to you; nor to move away from my colleagues. I was having difficulty in hearing. I suspect that is more a problem with my sinuses than your voice. Could I move on to Westminster Hall? You will remember in our document that we did ask for the power to be able to refer documents for discussion and questions in Westminster Hall. The government's position, as you have outlined here, is that it would be inappropriate to consider further changes to the operations in Westminster Hall at this particular point in time. Could I firstly ask you why you think it is inappropriate and, secondly, our report was issued on 11 June and the Modernisation Committee finalised its discussion on Westminster Hall on 24 July. Could you explain, secondly, why in those intervening weeks our proposal was not discussed in detail in the Modernisation Committee?
  48. (Mr Cook) The Modernisation Committee produced what is a very ambitious package covering a very broad range. I have never pretended it was intended to be comprehensive. There are a number of issues that are not adequately covered in the modernisation report and we do not pretend they were. We simply got to the point where we had such an enormous amount of material and proposals that at some point we had to pull up the drawbridge and get the thing finished. That is without reaching a judgment on other proposals such as your own. Westminster Hall has proved an extremely good, successful experiment and that is why, in the changes last Tuesday, we finally put to rest the experiment and introduced the long, detailed standing orders to make Westminster Hall a permanent feature of our structures in the Commons. It is very popular with members and does attract enormous interest. Interestingly, there are more applications for adjournments for Westminster Hall than there are for adjournment debates on the floor of the House. There are ways in which one can expand that asset to the House and I have already mentioned one which we did put in the modernisation report which is to provide for a question session in Westminster Hall, distinct from the question time we have on the floor, by pursuing cross-cutting themes. I think that could be helpful. In our response to the proposal of the Committee, I would not think it would be fair to say that we were totally negative about that. On the contrary. We recognise that European matters are perfectly competent for Westminster Hall and the Liaison Committee has quite a big say in what issues are debated there by way, for instance, of reports of the select committees. Personally, I am not at all hostile to Westminster Hall having the opportunity to debate European issues. There would be two caveats I would add. The first of those is that, as always, we have to bear in mind the competing interests of different issues for debate. Secondly, there is quite a strong resistance -- and I understand why -- on the part of the Opposition for anything of a legislative character to go to Westminster Hall because they believe that Westminster Hall should retain its deliberative character rather than a legislative character and that obviously has a bearing on what European issues can be taken there.

  49. My second question was to ask what your own personal view is about our proposal to refer these matters for discussion in Westminster Hall. I do not know whether you are allowed to have personal, as opposed to Leader of the House, views. You have indicated that your personal view is that you are not hostile to our proposal. Could I ask further whether you might at a future date be prepared to embrace the idea and perhaps get it discussed in the Modernisation Committee and push it further up the parliamentary agenda?
  50. (Mr Cook) The Modernisation Committee will continue to meet this year and indeed we are meeting in a couple of weeks' time to finalise our programme for the next session. This is a matter which we can consider in the overall totality of Westminster Hall. To summarise my position, I am perfectly sympathetic to the idea that European matters should be debated within Westminster Hall. I think I would probably take some persuading that we need a new, specific mechanism for this because the more new mechanisms we have to determine what happens in Westminster Hall the less flexibility we have over what may be debated there and the greater the pressure on the time that is available for Westminster Hall. The biggest single regret and pressure of my job is that unfortunately time is finite and we cannot please everybody.

    Miss McIntosh

  51. I think you would agree that part of the success of Westminster Hall has been it has never sat at the same time as proceedings in the chamber. Wednesday morning in the chamber -- it was quite controversial at the time -- for an experimental period it was moved that, instead of having an adjournment in Westminster Hall, particularly for somebody who was there for the first time, it was a very good opportunity to find your feet in less formal surroundings than the chamber. That has now moved to Westminster Hall. It has now been put on a permanent footing with permanent standing orders, but what if a minister is due to be winding up a debate in Westminster Hall while he or she is also meant to be responding to departmental questions, now that you have moved the business of the House forward? Where does that leave both ministers and back-benchers who wish to be involved in Westminster Hall activities but would also like to be involved in what you have described as the main business of the House between 11.30 and two o'clock, which have been the traditional meeting hours of Westminster Hall activities?
  52. (Mr Cook) Subject to correction, I think I am right in saying that on Thursdays Westminster Hall does coincide with the sitting hours of the House. It is not a new principle.

  53. It is the afternoon from 2.30 to 5.30.
  54. (Mr Cook) Indeed. We specifically recommended, from memory, in our modernisation report that Westminster Hall also should not be sitting during question time or statements so that, as on the Thursday, we meet up until 11.25 and meet thereafter again after two o'clock. I do not think with the generality of Members of Parliament that will necessarily cause too great a conflict. I cannot guarantee that there will never be an occasion when one member may find a conflicting pull on where they wish to be and what they want to contribute to, but that is not a new dilemma for Members of Parliament.

    Mr David

  55. Could I begin by saying that when I was elected first of all to this House I remember being approached by one of the whips who said to me, "We realise you have some knowledge of European issues but we are going to do you a favour and not put you on a European standing committee." One of the things that is needed, in response partly to Mr Cash's points, is a determined effort to Europeanise the work of the House and not to see Europe and European matters as being separate and divorced from everything else; for all of us, collectively and individually, to make an effort to make sure that there is a European dimension brought to virtually every issue that we discuss in this place. It is a long term project, but one that is of tremendous importance. The question I want to ask is with regard to the success which I think you have in part alluded to of the standing committee on the Convention of the future of Europe. Admittedly, in the first meeting, there was some difficulty in securing a quorum but, in the second committee, as Mr Connarty said, it was very well attended. The debate on both occasions was of an exemplary, high standard. I was wondering if you thought that that success gave grounds for taking forward the idea of having a European Grand Committee established?
  56. (Mr Cook) I am very pleased to hear of the success of the second meeting of the committee on the Convention because I was very keen that we should get there because it is innovative and breaks the mould of the traditional committee structures within the House. I think we were right to do that in the unusual and different situation in which the House itself has two representatives accountable to the House on the Convention. I would make two observations on the question of a European Grand Committee. The first is I would be slightly hesitant about going down that road while we still have the committee on the Convention because, almost by definition, virtually everybody on the committee on the Convention are the people that you would expect to play an active part on a European Grand Committee, so I think there would need to be a sequential issue there. That takes us through the next couple of years because the IGC will be some time away before we necessarily wind up. It might be logical to think of the committee on the Convention becoming something else after the Convention itself has necessarily wound up. For instance, I would want the House to be fully engaged in the IGC and the outcome of the Convention because the Convention is not an end in itself. The Convention is a preparatory phase. Whether at the end of all of that -- and one may by then be looking at the next Parliament rather than this Parliament -- you set up a European Grand Committee would have to be a judgment on whether there was sufficient interest among members to support such a European Grand Committee. That takes me back to the discussion we have had for much of the past hour, which is how do we motivate members? How do we get members interested? I suppose the judgment we have to make is I can see a case for a European Grand Committee if it provides a forum for an interest in the House, an opportunity for members to express their view and to hold ministers to account. Fine. If, however, the judgment was that it might rather reveal a lack of interest in Europe and a reluctance to attend, we might be wise not to expose ourselves to the criticism that would flow from that.

  57. That is encouraging. I agree very much with the points you have made. One of the points which is made in our report is the need to have a better relationship between Parliament and the European Parliament. I know that is something which the government supports. Do you think that this suggestion of a European Grand Committee might be one way in which that better relationship could be developed by perhaps from time to time allowing MEPs to sit and participate in some way?
  58. (Mr Cook) Possibly, but I would not want the participation of MEPs to be dependent on the creation of a grand committee. Indeed, I welcomed the reference in your report that, from time to time, you may want to involve MEPs in discussions about European legislation. I think that is entirely sensible because, after all, the legislative dimension of the European Parliament is a very large element of their work. I myself would be very supportive of more select committees inviting MEPs to join them from time to time to discuss matters of common interest. I think that could be extremely healthy. We in turn are willing to look at ways of making sure that it is easy for MEPs to access the premises and to attend those meetings, if invited to do so. We do need to have a sane, adult, grown up dialogue with our colleagues who are elected from Britain to represent Britain's interests in the European Parliament.

    Roger Casale

  59. I entirely understand that the Leader would want to see better use made of the existing committees in the House of Commons for European scrutiny before we invent a new one and, in particular, to see how the standing committee on the Convention gets on. Let us hope that plenty of members will take the opportunity that they have to participate. The standing committee on the Convention came about because there was a very specific job that needed to be done. We did not have an adequate means of doing that job. Therefore, that committee was invented. I want to put to the Leader that what lies behind the suggestion from our Committee to have a European Grand Committee is that there are a number of important jobs that need to be done now and are simply not being done. For example, when the Prime Minister attends a Council meeting, he comes back to the House of Commons and makes a statement on the floor of the House and members have the opportunity to question him; but when other government ministers attend Council meetings there is no such opportunity because there simply would not be time. There is so much European business and so many such meetings that there is not time to take a statement about that on the floor of the House. Such a statement could be made before a European Grand Committee but if we want to wait before we think about having a European Grand Committee where can we do it now? Similarly, there are very important things that are discussed and debated perhaps every year in the European Union such as the Commission's annual work programme, which in a sense could be seen in some ways as analogous to a kind of Queen's Speech, and similarly the European budget. Again, these are matters which have enormous implications for people in this country and yet we do not get a chance in this House of Commons to give those documents a proper airing and have a proper debate. While I understand that we need to take things one step at a time -- that has been the tradition with this Committee; we have taken things one step at a time and things have gone well. We have acquired the powers; we have shown they were needed and we have used them well -- if those are the jobs that we have identified that we think a Grand Committee could do, if we are not going to have a Grand Committee in this Parliament, how do those jobs get done in the meantime?
  60. (Mr Cook) We had an extended discussion this morning about the degree of interest among members in European detailed matters. I have to be very careful that I set up structures that respond to the interests of members and release the enthusiasm of members and that we do not end up with a situation in which we set up a structure for which the whips have to dragoon members to attend by the kind of entertaining promises and tricks that we have discussed during the course of our session. There needs to be a felt need for it as well as a job to be done. Secondly, in terms of the accountability of ministers, I would very much welcome a stronger interest by the departmental select committees in the role of holding ministers to account for what they do in Europe. Indeed, I am pleased to say that in their report, in response to the modernisation proposals for select committees, the Liaison Committee has produced a template of core tasks for select committees, in the course of which it does stress the importance of the European dimension of those departments. There is absolutely no reason why departmental select committees should not hear from the departmental minister who has been to Europe about how matters are progressing there over any issue of controversy. Consistent with what I said earlier, about 20/25 per cent of all departmental work now being European driven or European directed, I think there should be more interest shown in Europe by those departmental select committees.

    Mr Hendrick

  61. I wonder if the Leader would agree with me that the nitty gritty issues and individual directives are not particularly interesting, one, to members of this House and, two, to members of the public? Most people, unlike the people present in this meeting who I would call European anoraks, are not really interested in anything other than the big issues -- i.e., enlargement, the euro or things of that nature. Reflecting the Leader's point earlier about members following press interests and the press invariably being obsessed with bad news which sells newspapers and makes people watch TV programmes, much of the nitty gritty stuff that we engage in, in committees like this, and would do obviously in a European Grand Committee does not capture the imagination, no matter how you dress it up. Is it not perhaps better to make what we have work better, rather than trying to create new fora which may attract even less interest?
  62. (Mr Cook) That is a very complex contribution with lots of thoughts I want to chase. I am not necessarily convinced that bad news does sell newspapers. In fact, it is striking that virtually all the national newspapers are facing a decline in circulation. The one exception is represented here and I think it is probably fair to say that the FT focuses less on bad news than the other press and there may be a lesson for the rest in that. On the question you raise, it is true that nitty gritty, detailed issues are never going to be matters of mass public concern but that is true of an awful lot of things we do in the Commons necessarily. We are sent here as representatives by constituents to hold the government to account, to pass legislation, and that does involve us in doing lots of things that effectively our constituents subcontract to us, quite rightly, to do. We do not necessarily have the same problem of lack of interest in some of these other areas. To some extent, the word "European" becomes a turn off even although if you say to people, "This is going to be something that will have a real effect on business in your constituency", in the same way as some piece of other secondary legislation in which members might be exercised, possibly we might get the message across. I do not disagree with your bottom line which is that the problem is that lack of interest and enthusiasm and engagement. The problem is not the absence of the structures.

    Mr Cash

  63. This series of questions turns on the issue of relations with members of the European Parliament and in the government's reply to our report it is clear that the government agrees that closer links between national parliaments and the European Parliament are desirable. It then speaks about more contact. Really, I am sure you would accept that that sort of atmospheric approach is not what we are talking about. It is about legislative power making. The real question surely is that you should not just, however desirable it is to have discussions, avoid the fact that there are times when, for example, a national parliament might wish to say, "We do not agree with what has been said." I am not just talking about the government; I am talking about the Parliament. Do you not agree that there ought to be an opportunity for a national parliament to exercise a veto against proposals that are being put forward by the European Council, for example? Do you think that is acceptable as a matter of principle?
  64. (Mr Cook) I have answered this question twice already and I am running out of new lines.

  65. I think there is a difference between amending or repealing legislation and exercising a veto which would take place at an earlier date.
  66. (Mr Cook) On those matters for which there is a requirement for unanimity, any minister casting their veto or indeed, for that matter, choosing not to exercise their veto is accountable to the House of Commons and can be held to account on the floor, in the select committees and elsewhere for the way in which the minister either exercises or fails to exercise that veto. To put it in perspective, even now, never mind what may come out of the Convention of Europe, 80 per cent of decision making within the Council of Ministers is by majority voting. That is not a statement of the balance within the Treaty where it is very different and more Treaty articles require unanimity by much higher proportions -- still a majority of them, I think. In practice, the issues that come before ministers come before ministers on articles of the Treaty which require majority voting in cases like the single market. My own broad experience is that the veto has never been as much help to Britain as it has been an obstacle to Britain, in that it becomes the basis on which we fail to get the reforms that we want. We saw this two or three times in Nice where, for instance, we sought to secure right of recognition in Germany for qualifications granted in Britain, to which Schroeder applied a veto at Nice, a clear example of the veto getting in the way. We had great difficulty and did not secure as much progress as we would have wished on a common agreement on changes to the trade articles in the Treaty because of French objection on grounds of protectionism which we do not share. On the whole therefore, I am not terribly enthusiastic about more talk of vetos as opposed to trying to find a constructive outcome which will involve compromise. At the end of the day, in my experience, Britain comes out of that well.

    Chairman

  67. You describe our proposal in respect of deferred divisions on European documents as unnecessary. That was in your reply, paragraph 30. Does that mean that the possibility of deferred divisions will never be cited as a reason why an EU document cannot be cleared in time and that the government will always be willing when necessary to take motions on EU documents at the start of public business?
  68. (Mr Cook) You would not necessarily have to take the documents out of public business but what you could do is switch off the requirement for a deferred division. The deferred division rule is one that can be put off like the light switch if you wish to and you can vote there and then. You would not have, because it comes on after ten, to defer the vote until the subsequent Wednesday, so if you did find yourself in a tight hole in which you needed a decision that day, there are ways in which you can secure that decision even if you are still debating it, in those days after ten o'clock, the next session after seven.

    Jim Dobbin

  69. I have a question about the creation of yet another committee which I understand that you are supporting this time, and that is the possibility of having a secondary legislation scrutiny committee. The question is quite simple: when will the Modernisation Committee look at this or give it some consideration? How much of a priority do you feel it is?
  70. (Mr Cook) We were not able to reach a final view on that in our last report and we did say in our last report that we would be returning to this issue in the next session. I am very conscious that there is a very large volume of secondary legislation which requires a more systematic approach to scrutiny. The vast majority of it is pretty trivial stuff, important and valuable but not particularly contentious. Indeed, about a third of it relates to speed limits in local areas which was undergoing very exceptional problems. However, we do need some mechanism by which we can reassure ourselves that the small proportion of those which are strategic, controversial, can be adequately scrutinised and the Modernisation Committee at some point in the next year will be returning to this topic.

    Mr Connarty

  71. Given our previous discussion about the role of the Standing Committee debates in the scrutiny process would it be your view that, when this Committee has recommended a debate, if a minister then breaches the scrutiny reserve resolution before the debate takes place that greatly increases the seriousness of that scrutiny breach?
  72. (Mr Cook) Obviously the more serious the issue and the more this Committee has demonstrated that it attaches seriousness to the question, the more important it is that we do not get into the position of breaching the security of the scrutiny reserve. As we say quite firmly in our response, we recognise the importance of the scrutiny reserve and we wish to observe the scrutiny reserve in all circumstances and give a full explanation in the exceptional circumstances where it cannot be done. Unfortunately, and this is the difficulty, sometimes the timetable on Europe is not in our own hands but we always seek to try and reach a decision within the scrutiny reserve.

  73. This Committee is always conscious if the timetable is driven by the Commission or someone else, but I hope you share our concern that we have two ministers coming for evidence sessions tomorrow who ignored scrutiny reserve debates when we thought there was adequate time to have them.
  74. (Mr Cook) We certainly would wish to make sure that there is proper opportunity for the House to reach a view within the time available wherever it can be done, and where it cannot be done we accept that there is an obligation on us to provide a full explanation of why.

    Angus Robertson

  75. I am advised that announcements about European Standing Committee debates used to be made as part of the business statement and that that is no longer the case. Within the context of what we were talking about earlier about engaging more MPs to be involved in European business is it not perhaps a regressive step to not announce these Standing Committee meetings or does it not at least imply a downgrading of their importance?
  76. (Mr Cook) I cannot pretend to strong feelings either way. If the Committee feels strongly on it we can revert to the previous practice but as the guy who is there every week I would not want the Committee to imagine that when I announced them there was rapt attention in the Chamber. We are all professional public speakers. We all can sense when we are carrying our audience with us and when our audience is finding better things to do. I am not sure that I can put my hand on my heart and say that from any of the ones that I have announced there was ever a Member who entered it in his diary in order to go and attend it.

    Roger Casale

  77. I share the Leader's concern about the lack of engagement on European issues in this place and outside this place, but I wonder if he can comment on whether he thinks that is partly to do with the fact that a lot of the work that we do in terms of European scrutiny is very detailed and that if there was a forum for more strategic discussion about where Europe is going or indeed a European Affairs Committee, as is the case in other parliaments, we might get more interest and engagement from other Members.
  78. (Mr Cook) There are opportunities of course for those strategic exchanges and indeed we do have in the House every six months a full day's debate on European matters, quite apart from what may be happening in other forums. I think that the strategic debates on Europe are well catered for. What we are trying to grapple with here is something which has been more difficult for the House to come to terms with, namely, the legislative impact of detail from Europe and that we do need to address. We have discussed at some length whether a new structure as a grand committee would help here. I would much rather be appointing a new structure if I felt there was a perceived demand for it rather than trying to put a structure to stimulate a demand.

    Mr Connarty

  79. Given all the discussion we have had and the shared view I think we have that we want to engage more people in the work of Europe and see the role of scrutiny as being important, does the Leader accept that I certainly still maintain a sense of disappointment, whatever method was used, that members of this European Scrutiny Committee were not put on the Convention, as this Committee suggested, thereby downgrading Europe in a sense and the work of this Committee in the eyes of this House?
  80. (Mr Cook) I would certainly regret it if members of the Committee felt that they had been downgraded and I am conscious that there was a degree of controversy about it at the time on which there was discussion. It is plainly an issue which has been sensitive and which by its exploration has perhaps sensitised us should such an issue ever arise again.

    Chairman

  81. Leader, there may have been some controversy but where there is not any controversy will be in the value of your evidence session this morning. Thank you very much. I know it is the first time you have appeared in front of our Committee and I know that to get quality we should do it sparingly but maybe at some time in the future we will be able to have you before us again to discuss any progress that we have both achieved. Thank you very much; it has been very interesting this morning. We really appreciate it.

(Mr Cook) Thank you very much, Chairman, and if I can help the Committee on a future occasion I am always available.