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I do not think that I indicated otherwise in my remarks. All I would say to the noble Lord is that I do not see why you have to have the absurdity of the European Union to reach that excellent collaboration.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, of course I am one of those who does not regard the European Union as absurd. If one starts from that premise, obviously the conclusions will be vitally different. The point I emphasise is that transnational co-operation within the European Union and beyond is essential in the modern world.
We are delighted that in the Government's initial response the Home Secretary emphasised the Government's commitment to the principle of greater openness. Mr. Straw also said that he wanted to give Parliament the fullest possible opportunity to examine in detail draft European Union legislation on justice and home affairs matters before it was adopted by the Council of Ministers. We greatly welcome this. We are also glad that the Government have agreed to treat all Third Pillar documents as documents depositable for scrutiny. They have given an assurance that exceptions to this rule will be rare. It is enormously encouraging when compared with the ice age that was broken on 1st May two years ago.
It is vastly encouraging to note that the Government have refrained from making distinctions between the various types of documents that will be subject to scrutiny, particularly because Third Pillar documents take several forms--that is, conventions, agreements, joint actions, joint positions, decisions and recommendations. We are pleased that the Government have made a commitment to interpret the exceptions for confidentiality and secrecy narrowly.
We also welcome the Government's commitment to providing a detailed and speedy report on the activities of the Justice and Home Affairs Councils. It will provide Parliament and the public with a very useful way of staying abreast of new developments.
Looking beyond the European Union--and I am very glad to see the noble Lords, Lord Grenfell and Lord Bridges, in their places as I know that both of them are particularly interested in this subject--there is a need for broader parliamentary scrutiny of the treaty-making function. International treaties, with both European Union and non-Union countries, cover a multitude of subjects--from air transport to the environment, from human rights standards to defence obligations--and many have a knock-on effect for our domestic legislation.
I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, that one cannot change private rights or obligations under our legal and constitutional system except through legislation approved by both Houses of Parliament. I see, therefore, no menace in the Third Pillar or in the treaty-making function provided that that principle is always adhered to, which I believe it is.
While the making of an international treaty is done by the executive under prerogative powers, there has been concern in many countries about democratic accountability. Many countries in the European Union and the Commonwealth have adopted much better procedures than we have for working in partnership with government when they make treaties. Under the European Union we now have a very good system--which is getting better as a result of the response of the present Government--of scrutinising what is being done in public international law by governments under the
I introduced a Private Member's Bill a couple of years ago--the Treaties (Parliamentary Approval) Bill--which the previous Government were kind enough to treat benevolently. As a result, we have an explanatory memorandum procedure under what is called the Ponsonby Rule. But we still have no treaty scrutiny committee in this House or another place. We have explanatory memoranda but that is not good enough. Australia is well ahead. The Australian Senate has a well developed treaty scrutiny committee. I very much hope that the Government will build on the work of their predecessors and support the idea of a treaty scrutiny committee that can work in the wider field.
In short, we welcome the Government's response both to this report and to that of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons. Further work needs to be done on how best to tailor the scrutiny procedures of this House to those of another place to ensure the effective co-ordination of scrutiny activities and greater accountability in treaty-making activity both within and beyond the European Union. But without reservation we welcome the general approach and commitment of the Government to enhancing parliamentary scrutiny.
Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Kingsland and the members of his committee on this excellent report and thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate today. We on these Benches give a very warm welcome to the report with its emphasis on transparency. As the noble Lord, Lord Lester, rightfully pointed out, the United Kingdom gives as great a scrutiny to European Union legislation as any other member with its Select Committee and six sub-committees. Having served on Sub-Committee C I am aware from witnesses of the respect in which the reports of the Select Committee are held within the European Union. The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, has also made reference to this.
In its consideration of Third Pillar matters Sub-Committee F is particularly close to the legislative process of the Union. It is all the more important that it is afforded every facility to do its job as effectively as possible. Predictably, we have heard a wide spectrum of views on the state and future of the European Union. But the recommendations of this committee are very largely of housekeeping. It is pleasing to note the remarks by several speakers about the co-operation of the Home Secretary and his department, although I do not necessarily agree with the geological interpretation of the events of 1st May put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. However, we look forward to hearing from the Minister further confirmation of the progress of the assistance that is being received.
The recommendations include a suggestion that the Government should provide explanatory notes to the committee at the early stages of legislation. My noble friend Lord Howell has taken this a little further and
We appreciate that there are aspects to do with such matters as policing that must remain confidential but, as paragraph 76 of the report of the committee makes clear, exceptions for confidentiality and secrecy must be strictly interpreted. In the light of that, we urge the Government to bear in mind continually the need for a presumption in favour of transparency. We very much welcome the proposal for an ombudsman and the valuable role to be played by non-governmental organisations.
Therefore, we are very much in agreement with the recommendations of the committee for an even more effective role for itself and hence for Parliament. I again congratulate my noble friend Lord Kingsland and his committee.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, this is a masterly report and I hope that the Government have responded fully and generously, as most noble Lords have indicated. I congratulate both chairmen of the committee that has produced this excellent report. I hope that we have demonstrated fully by our response that we believe in strong and effective parliamentary scrutiny which is essential for the proper conduct of government business. This is true of all government business, European as well as domestic matters. I am grateful for the tributes to the Home Secretary. I am just as grateful, if not more grateful, for the tribute paid to the work of the officials which is laborious, unsung and generally done outside the public eye.
The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, I believe partly to tease me, asked whether the officials would have been better occupied attending to domestic matters. It is very rarely that I can tease the noble Lord back by suggesting that that is a shade over-simplistic in these days. As regards the appropriate conduct of our affairs perhaps I may cite a few examples: asylum; immigration; law and order; international crime; money-laundering; and drug dealing. All of those matters must be dealt with in the wider European context. We would fail hopelessly in our domestic duties if we did not encourage and empower officials to deal with their European colleagues. I shall say no more about the noble Lord's point.
We have a very good system in your Lordships' House--it is probably the best--of scrutinising European business, but I agree that historically the system has not always kept up with new demands and changing circumstances, as the noble Lords, Lord Inglewood and Lord Howell pointed out. We must be constantly alert to the fact that we are dealing with shifting circumstances and therefore must alter our procedures accordingly. That indicates the timeliness of this report and the Government's response to it. It was our manifesto pledge to overhaul the system of parliamentary scrutiny of European business, and I am grateful for the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that we have delivered on that. The report makes a number of very important recommendations, virtually all of which we have accepted. Many relate to the scrutiny of the Third Pillar. Those were implemented in 1997 and we believe that they are working well. Some recommendations had implications for business outside the Third Pillar, which is why our response was dual: one in 1997 and one in November 1998.
There has been debate in another place. Relevant changes to the system were put in place at the end of the previous parliamentary Session. I shall deal with a few of them in a moment or two. An important one is that the European Scrutiny Committee in another place (recently renamed) now has the remit and work of scrutinising all European business including Third Pillar business. I concede that this was essential to remove the anomaly that the elected Chamber had no role in scrutinising the Second or Third Pillars. A scrutiny reserve resolution now applies to all three pillars of European business. Subject to very narrowly defined exceptions, that prevents Ministers from agreeing in Council to any measure on which parliamentary scrutiny has not been completed. That gives the parliamentary scrutiny body an extremely important power.
The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, asked, with particular reference to paragraph 59, what was the Government's response. That is set out fully in Jack Straw's letter of November 1998, but perhaps I may quote from it to assist your Lordships. It states:
The scrutiny reserve resolution--and this topic has been raised by several noble Lords--now applies to all three pillars. Therefore, we cannot agree in council with any measure until scrutiny has been completed.
An improved system of reporting to Parliament on the preparations for and outcomes of justice and home affairs Councils is now in place. Those are extremely important changes, some of them quite fundamental. I am happy to reiterate that the Government have excellent relations with the committee and that we intend to maintain and build upon them. I entirely agree that one achieves a better product, to use the jargon, if one fully co-operates and listens to other views. Obviously the obtaining of the views of others depends on the provision of information to them at as early a stage as possible and in as full a manner as possible.
We wish to continue our excellent relations. We are extremely grateful for the work that the committee has already done. The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, invited me to set my reply in the context of the Amsterdam Treaty. I am happy to do that. We welcome unreservedly the treaty's provisions on openness. We look forward to ratification by all member states. At the moment of course, in the nature of things, we cannot unilaterally implement the provisions but we are extremely keen on two aspects: to encourage openness among some of our European partners who have not perhaps the same two-year tradition of openness that we have; and I undertake that in so far as is sensibly possible, we shall keep the committee and/or your Lordships' House fully informed on progress there.
The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, asked further whether or not all proposals that were ever tabled would be put to Sub-Committee F, including proposals relating to secondary legislation. Yes, we undertook to supply all proposals to the sub-committee in our reply to it. I know that the noble Lord knew that and simply wished me to inform your Lordships of it.
The noble Lord asked also about agendas. We are committed to sending agendas of JHA Councils in advance. There is a difficulty--and this is not a fudge--in sending the agendas of supporting committees. There are so many of them; they meet so regularly; I could not undertake to be able to provide them all in time for proper scrutiny.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, asked about the agenda for the Tampere Heads of Government Council in Finland in October. It is early days. We do not yet know what is being proposed. We intend to contribute fully to the discussions leading to decisions about the agenda, which should be useful. However, I cannot give any further detail at this stage. Your Lordships may not find that surprising as October is a little way away.
My noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis asked also for guidelines about deposited material. We have amended Standing Order No. 143 in another place and that therefore, applying to your Lordships' House with similar effect, gives that clear definition.
The question was raised also by my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis about the minimum period for parliamentary scrutiny. The Treaty of Amsterdam provides that. The scrutiny reserve resolution gives the Scrutiny Committee a good deal of power.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, referred to paragraph 115 of the Select Committee's report. I believe that it is conclusion 29 but it is not identified as such. However, I understand the point which she made. The response to that is found in Jack Straw's letter of November 1997:
The noble Baroness raised a further question which related to the minimum period for parliamentary scrutiny and whether or not that would apply to proposals by member states, the Commission or third parties. We believe that the minimum period should apply to all proposals from the Commission and from member states. The question of third parties may be a matter of legal interpretation under the Amsterdam Treaty. However, that is our plain stance.
The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, observed that having Council meetings in camera as a general practice is not desirable. He recognised the obvious need for secrecy in some circumstances. That is entirely consistent with our approach. Some meetings will have to be kept confidential. Some do not need to be. We support greater openness in Council meetings wherever possible. I welcome the recent development that the first ever open debate held at a JHA Council was held under the United Kingdom presidency. So it can be done, given goodwill and a certain amount of persuasive effort.
I hope that I have dealt with at least all the themes which have been enunciated if not every specific question. The Government are very grateful for the report. I hope that we have demonstrated that by action and not simply by words. Personally, I was extremely grateful for the quality of the debate which your Lordships have provided.
Lord Kingsland: My Lords, I should like to say for the first, but I hope not the last, time in the life of this Government that I am entirely satisfied with the Minister's reply to this debate. I should also like to thank all noble Lords who have contributed this afternoon. Your Lordships' contributions have greatly enhanced the usefulness of the report. I commend the Motion to the House.