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Currently, we deposit information in Parliament. We provide an explanatory memorandum on any European Union document that is published on the development of the common foreign and security policy, as we do for the annual report from the Council to the European Parliament on the main aspects and basic choices of the policy. Ministers and senior European Union officials appear regularly before the parliamentary committees of both your Lordships House and another place, at the invitation of the relevant committees. As noble Lords will be aware, the Foreign Secretary, my right honourable friend David Miliband, appears before the Foreign Affairs Committee before every European Council. His next appearance is on 11 June. The Minister for Europe gives evidence to the Lords European Union Select Committee and Sub-Committee C after the European Council. Just for completeness, I should add that since November 2007 there have been two Foreign Affairs Committee evidence sessions on Europe, eight House of Lords European Union Committee sessions, including the sub-committee, and one Commons European Scrutiny Committee evidence session.
Our scrutiny arrangements work extremely well. As I indicated, they include other figures appearing before the committees. High Representative Javier Solana is keen to work with the national parliaments and makes great efforts to accommodate parliamentary calendars. My argument against another report is that I believe that the current procedures already work effectively and should remain. The scrutiny position is clear and I do not believe that there is anything to be added by providing yet another report in this context.
The heart of much of the discussion was the role of the External Action Service. I should like to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Park, who I know could not be with us for much of our Committee debate. She raised an important issue, which is in a sense at the core of her concerns. I quote Article 4.2 of the treaty of the European Union, which will come into force as the Lisbon treaty:
The Union shall respect the equality of Member States before the Treaties as well as their national identities, inherent in their fundamental structures, political and constitutional, inclusive of regional and local self-government. It shall respect their essential State functions, including ensuring the territorial integrity of the State, maintaining law and order and safeguarding national security. In particular, national security remains the sole responsibility of each Member State.
In other words, it does not become part of any External Action Service. I hope that the noble Baroness will look carefully at that reference and come back to me if she has any further queries. She need have no fear of anything within the External Action Service.
When we discussed this in Committee, we talked at great length about what the role and function of the service would be. I made it clear that its purpose is to
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The purpose, as I indicated in Committee, is to try to improve the coherence of the delivery on the ground so that, for example, we can bring together the support of the European Union to help areas around the world that are emerging from conflict with peacekeeping and policing missions and so on and try to deal with longer-term issues such as development. If we are to help in some of the most difficult areas of the world, we need coherence and it makes sense to try to bring this together.
Noble Lords need not fear that this takes anything away from the Diplomatic Service of this country. I know from questions that have been raised by noble Lords in the House that they are concerned about the role of embassies, but in 2007 we had more embassies open than we did in 1997. It is important to see the External Action Service not as a rival but as helping to support coherence in European Union activity in parts of the world where the European Union has a genuine and proper role to play.
There has been much speculation about what discussions have taken place and when. Of course, there was the Daily Telegraph article on that point. Nothing alleged in that article or in what has been said contradicts anything that the Foreign Secretary has already said. Noble Lords who have been involved in Europe or in any organisation of any kind will know that, when proposals are on the ground, it is common to have preliminary conversations about what the outcome might look like. Those conversations are not binding and do not have any force or weight; they are simply discussions that we would expect officials to have in all circumstances, every time one considers any form of legislation of any kind in any parliament anywhere. We ensure that discussions take place about how, if we were to do this, it would be implemented. That is completely normal, rational and to be expected. That would be the basis of any discussions that took place.
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I was trying to give the Foreign Secretary the benefit of the doubt. He said in February that no discussions at ministerial or working level on the detailed organisational funding and functioning of the External Action Service had taken place. I do not doubt his integrity and good faith in saying that. Surely the noble Baroness must confirm to us that since then such discussions have taken place. Given the vital and central role that she describes for this service in the shaping of our foreign policy, it would be interesting for Parliament to be kept fully informed about these discussions.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, if the noble Lord had not interrupted me, I would have done exactly that. I was coming on to say exactly what
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The first discussion took place on 10 AprilI can give him the exact date, although I cannot give him the time, but I would if I could. That was a COREPER meeting. For noble Lords who are not familiar with that term, let me explain that COREPER is when ambassadors of all the 27 European Union countries come together for discussions. It is often a way of having preliminary conversations, particularly before Ministers come together, so that the positions of different nations can be set in place. It is quite common for COREPER to have informal discussions about issues that it sees coming and it is right to do that. They are not discussions at official level on which we would deposit information before Parliament. However, we are committed to keeping Parliament up to speed with what happens on the External Action Service. For example, if a matter were debated or discussed at any of the Council meetings, it would be included in a report given by the Foreign Secretary or by whomever or in a Prime Ministerial Statement. We intend to keep Parliament fully informed of any discussions that take place on that.
As I indicated, those discussions are clearly designed to ensure that people have a feel for what is being thought about and the views of the different nations. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Jay, said about the importance of our role in that. As I said in Committee, when I was in Brussels for a few days I talked to Robert Cooper, the director-general for external and politico-military affairs at the General Secretariat of the Council, about the External Action Service. He would endorse everything that the noble Lord said about the value and importance of the role of the UK. He would say that we have a tremendously important role to play. He was also very clear with meI have tried to make this clear to your Lordships Houseabout the value of coherence in bringing the service together and ensuring that in some parts of the world we are able to provide the necessary support.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that the only way in which the External Action Service can be set up is through unanimity. It is true that, if the Council asks the high representative to bring forward proposals, they could be determined by QMV, but they are only proposals on a decision that has already been taken by unanimity, so if the External Action Service were determined to be brought into being, it would be because 27 nation states decided that that was what they wanted. They would then perhaps invite the high representative to go away and work up proposals within tight and clear guidelines and those proposals would come back and be determined through QMV. I hope that that allays the fears of the noble Lord, Lord Howell, on that.
Finally, I shall address the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell. I thought that I had answered it, so I got the officials to look up what I said. It relates to whether, if we sign up to something, we can get out
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I think that I have said enough without going back into all the detail on the External Action Service and the reasons why we do not accept the amendment. I hope that the present way in which the Government keep Parliament up to date and up to speed with what is happening and our commitments to do so on the External Action Service will mean that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. I think that we have learnt one or two things from this short debate. We have learnt that discussions have been going on about the shaping of this new diplomatic service. I am not sure even now that we are clear about its precise location and structure and about how the lines of authority will work, but the Minister has given her views. Some of us have perhaps learnt that, if you intervene in other peoples speeches, it tends to lengthen rather than shorten them. That is an old lesson that those of us who are long in the tooth and spent some time in the other place learnt long ago. We have learnt that the Lib-Dem Front Bench is turning its fire on the Conservative Party. That is very flattering; thank you very much. We shall answer the questions in due course and will do so politely and nicely as well.
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I fear that there is a tendency to try to move away from the middle ground of sensible discussion on how we move forward as good Europeans in the European region, the European Community and the European Union. That is one sensible discussion that this Chamber ought to be ideally suited to have. There is also the rather dottier exchange of a pendulum debate in which everybody who doubts the perfection of this treaty or the actions of Brussels is accused of being an anti-European and so on and so forth. That is a waste of time for us all and I beg that we try to concentrate on the real issue of how we fit together our foreign policy in the new world conditions. Europe has a part in that, but not the whole part.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, reminded us of old days with the Foreign Affairs Committee in another place. He did sterling work during his time. In an earlier period, I struggled to travel around the world with the committee. I remember going to some
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The Minister had a good deal to say on scrutiny procedures. What she said is very interesting and the scrutiny system rolls ahead. She sent round a letter showing that the Government have disregarded scrutiny reserves fewer times than in the past. That is all to the good, but having participated in this process myself in the past I know that none of us can be blind to the fact that there is enormous difficulty in scrutinising the steady flow of instruments, regulations, directives and so on. The first difficulty lies in matching the sheer volumea lot of these things simply do not get examined because there are too many of them. Secondly, it is difficult to have the time in committeesin addition to the profound studies that the European Union Committee undertakes with excellent resultsto go into the full implications, consequences, aspects and side effects of all those instruments. In fact, I would say that to cover all instruments thoroughly and completely is very nearly impossible.
That is all very interesting, but it is not quite what we are talking about. We are talking about issues where there is a transfer of powers, where previous veto provisions will not exist and where arrangements will come forward where it was not clear under the treaty that we had surrendered power but it turns out that we have. That is why Parliament as a whole, despite the excellence of its committee system, some of which has been in existence only for the past 30 years or so, needs to be apprised of changes that involve a potential or real transfer of powers.
I am not sure that I succeeded in getting that point over to the noble Baroness, because she comes back to scrutiny and arrangements with our excellent committees under their excellent Lord Chairmen and the very good committees in the Commons. That is all very valuable, but it is not the point. The point is about the powers of Parliament. There is a struggle going on today to regain for Parliament powers from the Executive that have somehow drifted away during the past 200 to 300 years. The Prime Minister articulates the feeling that Parliament should have more say; even government legislation reflects that feeling. We, too, reflect that feeling. We say that the balance of power should to some sensible degree be readjusted in favour of Parliament being fully and regularly apprised, not just learning either by reports to committees or by a side wind, that certain things have happened that affect its powers.
That is the issue before us in this amendment and in many other amendments. We in oppositionand, I hope, soon in governmentbelieve in the parliamentary system, which is under attack today. We believe in the position of national parliaments in supporting the
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