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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: At the risk of again being described as paranoid, I want to support what has just been said about co-decision and qualified majority voting. Before I do so, I am pleased to be able to support the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, in her plea for the European Parliament to be allowed to sit in one place, Brussels. It is completely ludicrous and a waste of taxpayers' money that the Parliament should be moving
I am of course--my noble friend would expect me to be--against further qualified majority voting and co-decision. I have already said that I object to further erosion of British parliamentary sovereignty. I believe that the British Parliament represents the British people. That has been our constitution over a very long period of time. I object to it being undermined. Every time we agree to some measure of new qualified voting or co-decision we undermine another piece of sovereignty, because once qualified majority voting has applied and the co-decision procedure ended, that is the end of the matter. Apart from giving its opinion, the British Parliament then has no further say. That is my objection.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, criticised me in our previous debate. She said that we are extending democracy, but I do not believe that we are. I shall tell her why. As far as I am concerned, democracy lies in the House of Commons. There they are elected to appoint a government to govern the country; to hold that government to account; to check on what they are doing and to raise supply. That is our parliamentary democracy. All the people there are elected by the British people. But when one goes across to the European Parliament that is not so, because out of 626 members we in this country elect only 87. Therefore, on every occasion we can be outvoted by people who have not been elected by the British people. That is my objection. I hope that the noble Baroness will agree that it is a reasonable one and a reasonable point of view to take. She takes a different point of view and I understand that. But that is where I am coming from and I hope that I have been able to explain to her the difference that we bring to European democracy.
With those words, I ask my noble friend to believe that when we discuss these matters in detail we are not being paranoid but we are being good parliamentarians because the essence of real parliamentary democracy for parliamentarians, whether they are in another place or here, is to understand what is being put before them; to object, if necessary, and to make those objections heard, however bizarre they may seem to the government, and to have those objections considered seriously and, if necessary, at length. I hope that my noble friend will understand that and take those objections into account when he replies.
Lord Monson: Before the noble Lord sits down, will he agree that people the world over will accept laws that they dislike, albeit grudgingly, made by their fellow countrymen, but that they will not accept laws that they dislike made by strangers?
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: Before the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, answers that, and in amplification of what he was saying about the lack of democratic legitimacy of the European Parliament, it is interesting
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I concur with those two points. It is right that, as the noble Lord, Lord Monson, said, people are prepared to take a lot from their own countrymen; they are not always prepared to take the same from people who live abroad. I hesitate to call them "foreigners", or I shall be criticised--
The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, is right that support for the European Parliament has continued to decline. I cannot tell the reasons for that. It may very well be that MEPs are ineffective or that the public do not notice them because they do not do the sort of jobs done by local councillors or MPs. At the last European elections, turnout was 36 per cent. in this country and in the last European by-election, in Liverpool it was down to 11 per cent. It is true that the European Parliament is not held in great regard or is perhaps not properly understood by people in this country and, increasingly, in other countries.
Lord Whitty: I am gratified that this is, I hope, the last debate of the evening and that it has been a measured one in which noble Lords have expressed expected but nevertheless important views. When I perhaps provoked my noble friend Lord Stoddart to say that I should not accuse him of paranoia for raising these issues, I must point out that I was not doing that. I have great respect for my noble friend's views and for all other views expressed this evening. It is just that on some issues a construction is built which does not bear a reading of the text and, on other points, important issues of principle clearly arise. There have been differences over both QMV and the role of the European Parliament. On QMV, it has been unfortunate that at the back end of the previous administration it became such a totemic issue. It was not during the earlier stages of the Conservative regime. Under the Single European Act and the Maastricht treaty, successive Conservative Prime Ministers rightly judged the issue on whether it would be in Britain's interests to go along or whether the only way of getting something, even if they were
This treaty is far more minor with regard to the extension of QMV, as was clear from the list that the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, rightly read out. We are not unhappy about that extension of QMV. Indeed, we would even have been prepared in certain circumstances to have gone slightly further. Nevertheless, that seemed sensible progress at this point in the development of the EU.
We have a view of QMV which is not informed, as my noble friend Lord Grenfell said, by the expectation what we will always be in a minority, that we will never be able to build a blocking minority or that we will always be in a minority of one. At Amsterdam, we argued strongly that some extension of QMV was necessary to allow the Council to push through effective measures in important areas. Those areas included fraud. If we allow measures against fraud to continue to be subject to unanimity, we can expect a veto from one country or another. Fraud is rightly an issue of serious concern which we shall be debating at some unearthly hour tomorrow, but if we are serious about expecting to do something about fraud in the Community--it is a serious problem--we must accept that decisions will have to be made through QMV. We argued also for QMV on transparency, so that some member states which are less keen on openness in government would not be able to block those measures.
The noble Lord raised queries in relation to research and development. It is true that the British Government, the British economy, British industry and British universities have had a good deal out of the R&D framework programmes over the years. But that depends in future on other member governments not vetoing the excellent criteria on which we gain those resources. If unanimity were required we would face that prospect. Earlier this year there was an excellent example of it. Spain threatened to block the R&D framework until she got satisfaction over her future receipts under the structural and cohesion funds. In the event we were able to agree the framework, but had we not been able to do so after long and difficult negotiation we would have faced a veto which would not have been in the interests of this country, yet a European framework for R&D is for the benefit of Europe and Britain has differentially benefited from it.
On the other hand, at Amsterdam we rightly insisted that many major areas should remain subject to unanimity, as we said in our manifesto. We retain the veto in key national interest areas such as taxation, the budget, foreign policy--subject to discussions that we have had in previous debate--defence, immigration and border controls. We are not a government that is in the business of extending QMV left, right and centre for dogmatic, ideological, federalist reasons--any more than we are in the business of resisting it for equally static reasons. There are some areas where QMV is simply inappropriate, but those areas to which the Treaty of Amsterdam extends QMV will greatly benefit
I turn to co-decision and the role of the European Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, cited the list of areas to which co-decision would henceforth apply. I did not quite understand the argument put forward by the noble Lord and others that somehow it represented a loss of sovereignty. Those areas are already subject to decision by the Council of Ministers. In most cases such decisions are subject to qualified majority voting and can lead to legislation at European level. The issue here is not the balance of sovereignty between Britain and Brussels or Strasbourg but the balance between the powers of the executive and a degree of democratic accountability. I am aware that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and others almost deny that the European Parliament has, or should have, democratic credentials. I am also aware that the legitimacy and importance of the European Parliament in this respect has suffered over recent years, particularly here but in other member states, by some denigration and failure on its part to put its own house in order and to ensure that the citizens of Europe understand what the European Parliament is about.
The Committee is aware that co-decision means that the agreement of the European Parliament and Council is required for Community legislation. It does not enable the European Parliament to propose an Act or to insist upon a proposal or a provision that is in any sense opposed by the Council, but it makes the Council's decisions subject to the agreement of the European Parliament. The European Parliament is therefore able directly to exercise democracy within the European institutions, which we welcome. Co-decision was introduced under the Treaty of Maastricht signed by the previous government. Therefore, there can be no objection in principle to co-decision by the Opposition Front Benches. I assume that they, like us, supported co-decision because they believed that, despite its difficulties and set-backs, the European Parliament had an important oversight role to play in the European Union's legislative process, particularly in areas subject to majority vote in the Council. It is an important democratic check which needs to be further developed. We also realised before Amsterdam that the co-decision procedure laid down in Maastricht needed to be streamlined. That has also been done under the Amsterdam procedure.
The anxiety expressed here, that giving the European Parliament greater oversight of European legislation somehow takes away the role of national parliaments, is misplaced. We believe, as the principles laid out in the new treaty indicate, that there are complementary roles for national parliaments and the European Parliament. We strongly welcome the new national parliaments protocol. It gives a new and legally binding minimum period for national parliaments to scrutinise new legislative proposals.
I should emphasise that there is no contradiction in wishing to extend the role of the European Parliament on European legislation and extending the role of national parliaments in scrutinising and controlling the European decisions of their national governments. We wish to see improved scrutiny at both ends of that process.
Finally, I suppose that I have to respond to an issue with which I have considerable sympathy--that relating to the dual location of the European Parliament, which has proved irksome to me as it has to other Members of this place and MEPs and which is an unnecessary cost for the European taxpayer.
Although we did not seek in any sense to include this provision in the treaty, it is consistent with the existing agreement on dual sites which had been reached in Edinburgh in 1992. In October l997 the ECJ ruled that the European Parliament is legally obliged to hold 12 plenary sessions a year in Strasbourg. That ruling was based on the existing legal provision after the protocol agreed at Edinburgh, signed by the previous government, and not on any new agreement.
There are enormous problems with that, but the status quo pre-dates even UK accession. It can be changed only by unanimity, irrespective of whether it is in the Edinburgh decision or the treaty. There is no greater prospect now of unanimous agreement to a single European site than there was in l992. Unfortunately there is no prospect in sight in the future. We therefore agreed with some reluctance to that provision which merely carried over into the new treaty the Edinburgh provision. I hope that with those remarks the noble Lord can withdraw the amendment.
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