Select Committee on European Communities Twelfth Report

Examination of witnesses (Questions 40 - 48)



  40.  Which is the more important?

  (Mr Edwards)  Well, I do not know that I can answer that. Both are important in their different roles.

  41.  I meant closer to heads of government whereas the European machinery was important and significant but not so close to the people who were actually in charge of government?

  (Ms Quin)  No, my Lord Chairman, I do not think that I would put it that way. The European Union, particularly through the Council meeting, and obviously through the summit meetings too, does involve ministers and then at the highest level prime ministers and heads of government and I have to say that in the Justice and Home Affairs Council there are a lot of Ministers to facilitate discussion, and that can be very useful in terms of the exchange of ideas and in terms of comparing our approaches on issues which are not actually always formally on the agenda but where we will discuss the developments in our different countries and exchange ideas for how best to make progress on a lot of the common problems that we face.

  42.  Tell us about greater transparency, a very difficult area, and we would appreciate the need for secrecy on a lot of these but when one is pushing forward proposals, as you have seen in Sub-Committee F's report, we are concerned where possible to enhance greater transparency in this whole field. Can you tell us what initiatives the United Kingdom Presidency may want to take on that account?

  (Ms Quin)  Certainly we greatly support greater transparency. You are right that there are difficulties in that area simply because occasionally transparency would perhaps give publicity to some proposal that is not actually going to get anywhere and then eventually something which really does represent the consensus and solid agreement of the members concerned then comes through, and also obviously, of course, because of the negotiations which take place at Council meetings which are a necessary exchange of views before formal agreement is achieved. Nonetheless the Amsterdam Treaty does contain a chapter on transparency which we strongly support which will give European Union citizens enhanced right of access to documents. Certainly during our Presidency we will look at ways of improving transparency within the existing rules prior to Amsterdam. We will also as far as Parliament and the European Parliament is concerned very much operate within the spirit of Amsterdam in the way that the Luxembourg Presidency, I am glad to say, has already done. On individual cases my understanding is that the Government has generally supported access, but, as you know, these are decisions which are taken collectively by Member States within the current Council Decision and the views of ourselves do not always prevail in those circumstances.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton

  43.  My Lord Chairman, may I just ask a footnote question to that. The Minister interestingly refers to transparency and access to documents. I wondered whether our Government on becoming President had got a little item somewhere in one of the documents about transparency and the galloping developments of information technology, that is to say, perhaps somewhere should there be a group of people who are looking at, not the internet, because that is too fashionable, but at the new technology and the possibilities of transparency which that has already put into doubt and will continue to more every day?

  (Ms Quin)  That is an extremely interesting question, my Lord Chairman. I think that anything that has the potential to reduce the size of the European paper mountain would be very attractive to ministers and to governments. I do not know that we have any specific proposals on that. I am not aware of them. However, I think that it is an important area upon which I will certainly reflect. I do not know whether Mr Edwards has anything to add on that.

  (Mr Edwards)  Not very much, my Lord Chairman. I was just glancing to find amongst my papers a copy of the United Kingdom Presidency's work programme across the whole of the European Union just to check what we had said there about openness and transparency. I do find in the draft I have, which I think is up to date, that as well as talking about improving transparency and openness, and preparing for the implementation of the new transparency provisions agreed at Amsterdam, the Presidency hope to improve public access to Council documents, including the establishment of a public register, and it intends also to hold better and more widely accessible Council open debates and to make co-operation between European Union justice and home affairs ministers more transparent, so we have been given our marching orders in the Justice and Home Affairs Council.


  44.  That, if I may say so, is very encouraging. We have had evidence on a number of occasions from Mr Tony Bunyan, of whom you will know, who has just made a strike, via the Ombudsman, to stop council officials from burning the agendas after the meetings were over, which would seem to be a fairly minor step forward, but at least it is a straw in the wind - or, one might say, a smoke in the wind. It is encouraging to know that this is part of the work plan. How far do you intend to go along the Luxembourg path of keeping the draft proposals in front of the European Parliament as well?

  (Ms Quin)  We will certainly continue the practice which has been begun by the Luxembourg Presidency and we are keen to have a relationship with the European Parliament that is in the spirit of Amsterdam. The only difficulty is that we do not want for countries who are at present ratifying Amsterdam to feel that in any way the new arrangements are being bounced through before they have legally taken effect, but my understanding is that most countries - indeed, I have not heard anyone complain about this - feel that it is sensible to involve the European Parliament along the lines of the arrangements that will legally come into force. Ministers across departments, and certainly in the Home Office, have been building up links with the European Parliament to emphasise our commitment to consulting them and operating in an open and transparent way. I visited the European Parliament in October and had meetings with particularly the members of the Civil Liberties Committee, which is the committee that most obviously relates to Home Office business; and members of that committee also visited London, as I am sure you are aware.

  45.  Indeed, yes.

  (Ms Quin)  And I and the Home Secretary met them and had good discussions with them. We have been very keen to show ourselves open to discussion with the key people and the key committees in the European Parliament. During the Presidency as well there will, of course, be appearances by home affairs ministers at relevant European Parliament debates speaking on behalf of the Council and, indeed, Home Office ministers appearing before European Parliament committees.

  46.  There has been a lot of talk about involving the citizen. This is but the first step. How do you think the citizens of Gateshead East would respond to this greater transparency, or is it a subject on which they do not speak very often in the shopping malls of Gateshead East?

  (Ms Quin)  My Lord Chairman, I have to be concerned not only about the people in Gateshead East but also Washington West, because my constituency is called Gateshead East and Washington West. I think that one of the factors that motivate me in approaching the Presidency is the fact that I was mentioning at the beginning, that justice and home affairs issues and co-operation in the European Union on these issues have not had the public profile that they might merit, so our Presidency is very much aimed at trying to make our domestic audience also aware of the importance of this work. It is not easy, and Euro jargon does not help. Many of the questions and answers today have involved the use of such jargon, and I think that the Presidency does have a public relations responsibility to express these issues in as straightforward a way as possible, to say to people that it is about crime and drugs and the fight against them, it is about co-operation to ensure that the citizens of Europe get a better deal. Much was made in the negotiations towards Amsterdam of an area of freedom and justice for the citizen, and it is those important principles and ideas that we need to give public prominence to during our Presidency.

Lord Inglewood

  47.  Minister, I am delighted that you mentioned the citizens of Washington West because I was an unsuccessful candidate in Washington once upon a time; they clearly found you rather more to their liking than they found me. Minister, what I want to ask you about is really a parallel point about transparency vis-aÁ-vis the wider public because when you wrote to the Lord Chairman on 25 November referring to the draft Resolution you said that you had not been aware of it for some time. I assume that that was a particular document rather than the work that was going on in the Council identifying the priorities because, if that had been the case, that you had not been aware of that, then something would have been seriously awry?

  (Ms Quin)  No, you are absolutely right. We were referring to the particular document which certainly had been mooted at an earlier stage, but did not actually appear in an English version until quite late on in the Home Office, but the contents of the document in terms of the issues involved were already clear, partly because these are issues that are in the pipeline and partly because they had already become clear at the time of the negotiations over the Amsterdam Treaty where our priorities were very clear and partly because of the statements that the Home Secretary and I made at our first Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting in May. Therefore, the themes have been around and, indeed, have appeared in various speeches and in various documents, but in terms of that precise document for some reason - and I must say that I do not understand why it was such a slow process in arriving in English in the Home Office - it did arrive at a rather late stage.


  48.  Thank you very much indeed, Minister. That was most helpful. I think that on behalf of the Committee I should wish you well during the Presidency. It is obviously going to be very hard work for the next six months on top of your normal workload. I think that we are reassured by many of the things that you have said, but we will be watching from our lofty peak in the House of Lords here. I do wish you well, and I hope that perhaps towards the end of the Presidency we could talk to you again to see how far along the track you have managed to get in the course of that Presidency. Thank you very much, both of you, for coming.

  (Ms Quin)  Thank you.

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