Examination of Witness (Questions 40 -
WEDNESDAY 7 NOVEMBER 2001
40. And on into the powers of the Member States?
(Lord Norton of Louth) Yes. People have a perception
that it is encroaching. It is the perception that is extremely
important and, given that perception, you are quite right. I share
your view that the most important point is to establish its limitation
and say that it may not go into these areas. That would be reinforcing
a greater connection or assuring people, knowing this is an area
into which it is not going to go. Clearly, it is going to be extremely
difficult to achieve that and join that up but that is the direction
in which to go.
41. The impression I got from my visit in Belgium
was that they are not too keen on subsidiarity. Are we the only
country that is really concerned to limit the powers of the European
Union? How do we stand? Are we a minority country? Is it the press
or is it the general view that Europe needs to go so far and call
it a day?
(Lord Norton of Louth) It is difficult to answer that
in precise, quantitative terms. Are you talking about national
governments, national parliaments or national electorates? It
depends at which level you answer the question. I suspect you
may get a different response because the problem in some countries
is the divide between governments and voters is wider than in
some other countries. We are not alone in feeling there should
be some limits. My suspicion is the feeling that there should
be some limitation is growing and that seems to be borne out by
what is happening in a number of countries. If you look at the
debate that took place when the members of national parliaments
and members of the European Parliament met earlier this year to
discuss arrangements for the Convention, you could see the tension
there between those who wanted it to be a statement of limitations
and those who wanted to move more in the direction of a statement
that would lead to a European constitution. There is a very real
debate going on there and the feeling across here would tend towards
a statement of limitations rather than moving in the direction
of a constitution. It is very important that we are central to
that debate and the sooner we do it the better because there is
the danger that, as a national parliament, we may be left behind
by other national parliaments who are way ahead of the game in
terms of having debates about the future of Europe.
42. We could start by strengthening the relationship
between the Scrutiny Committee of the House of Commons and the
one in the House of Lords. Your presence here is extremely welcome.
Perhaps we can use this meeting as a further incentive. There
is a paradox in relation to the British system of Scrutiny. On
the one hand, our methods of scrutiny are very well developed
in comparison to other national parliaments. On the other hand,
our links with other parliaments are very under-developed. It
is not just a question of sharing information, it is also a question
of collaborating with other committees. I am thinking in particular
of the collaboration that took place between the French European
Affairs Committee and the German Committee on the Bundestag in
the period leading up to the Treaty of Nice. They had regular
meetings and reciprocal visits and helped shape the negotiatiin
positions of their respective governments in the run up to and
throughout the Inter-Governmental Conference.
(Lord Norton of Louth) You are quite right. To some
extent, I would take the contact between the French and German
parliaments as an exemplar of the sort of contact I had in mind,
because that is continuing. They have already agreed their proposals
for the Convention and so on which gives them a tremendous advantage.
There is a lot to be done, both unilaterallytoday and tomorrow
the National Assembly is hosting a two day major conference on
the future of Europeand then there is the contact between
parliaments. The example of French/German is a very good example
of bilateral contact in a physical sense, not just sharing information.
That is the way forward because not all the committees may want
to meet with other committees. I suspect quite a few would find
it extremely valuable. Building up that sort of contact performs
a number of valuable purposes. One is obviously discussion but
mere contact in itselfin other words, you know who the
members of other committees are and you make contact with themis
invaluable for building up trust and so on.
43. How would we go about doing that?
(Lord Norton of Louth) By just approaching other parliaments
and saying, "Can we organise a meeting?" It is relatively
straightforward. The whole point of my paper was to try and avoid
trying to do it in too much of an institutionalised way, imposing
a straitjacket, because you will find some do not want to be in
a straitjacket. Why not contact the relevant committee in each
parliament? There is already some degree of contact. You could
build on that and suggest meetings. If one has a range of bilateral
meetings, some could be multilateral, that would be all to the
44. The more I hearthat is the whole
of this morning, not just your evidencethe more worried
I get because it seems to me that over and over again we come
back to the question: would it not be better if? The real truth
is it is about the exercise of power, the making of laws, the
question of who is responsible to whom, where does the authority
come from. These are pretty simple propositions; it is not exactly
rocket science to ask these issues particularly as a parliamentarian.
Every time I look at the situation, I find that there are no answers;
there is just another movement in a circular fashion. For example,
you say here, "National parliaments have therefore to look
at their relationships with their governments." Fine, but
the reality is that the impact that is created by the decisions
that are taken by any one government or parliament in the context
of this legal framework which has been created automatically has
an impact on the others, whether it is by qualified majority voting
or by regulation of the Commission or whatever. Therefore, it
seems to me astonishing that we are allowing Rome to burn, as
it were, or at any rate we are allowing events to take place without
any coherent idea as to what the relationship in very simple terms
should be between the voter and government in matters of increasing
complexity in the modern world. We are only, for example, going
to have one member of the whole of the British Parliament, as
I understand it, at this Convention. How on earth is that supposed
to contribute to what you were describing as an attempt to arrive
at sensible arrangements as to the shape and form of the future
of Europe and the European constitutional arrangements that would
flow from it? You say that the core question for each national
legislature therefore is not what should national parliaments
be doing but rather what should this national parliament be doing.
Mr Casale made a very interesting aside earlier where he saidI
think I am paraphrasing correctlyeach parliament or each
nation has a different idea, a different culture and different
traditions as to how it should be governed. This is a very fundamental
question because if, taking the issue of scrutiny to the point,
other countries do not want to have scrutiny, they do not want
public accounts committees because they do not want people to
dig into the public finances, and we simply say, "We will
take an isolated view of this" and we will simply say, "We
take our view as to doing this but we know that the other countries
are not going to, but we also assume that what they do will have
an impact on us and on the European Union as a whole, that is
a council of despair. What is the solution to this? I am all in
favour of European cooperation. It is no good talking about embodying
scrutiny reservations in statute if other countries are not really
scrutinising at all for the most part.
(Lord Norton of Louth) Your premise is absolutely
right, that what you are dealing with here is the exercise of
power. You are dealing with the real and one has to accept and
respond to the existing situation, not what you think should be
the situation. That is the reality. Various changes have taken
place which may not be desirable but they are real. You have a
ratchet effect in many respects, so you cannot de-ratchet what
has happened. All you can do is create new or parallel structures
to accommodate or deal with the situation that has been created.
45. Do you mean negotiate?
(Lord Norton of Louth) You can try, or you can move
on and negotiate a new Treaty. You are dealing with different
bodies and the exercise of power, so formally, yes, you could;
whether that is achievable is another, rather fundamental question.
It is because one is dealing with this situation which may not
be the ideal, but it is the real, that you look to see how can
parliaments exercise a greater role than at present. I think there
is a case for moving forward quite substantially. The point I
was making about different cultures was not to say that the British
one is isolated within the European Union. A belief that the national
parliament should play a greater role in scrutiny is not peculiar
to this country. There are some countries that may not take quite
such an enthusiastic view, but there are quite a lot of others
that do, to a greater or lesser extent. There is a way of moving
forward across the board on this. There is an incentive for national
parliaments to get involved if they can know that they can affect
what their own national governments are doing. The proposed Convention
may help clarify matters, may push things further forward, but
you have put your finger on one of the fundamental problems about
the idea of a convention, which is how representative can you
make it? You have said you might only have one representative.
I know the French and German proposal is to have two members of
each national parliament and perhaps an additional two as non-voting
members to try and ensure some degree of balance. Even under their
proposals, on my calculations, you would end up with a convention
of about 91 members including the MEPs, representatives of national
government, and the members of the Commission. That is rather
a small body relative to the size of national parliaments in the
European Union. How do you ensure a body that is representative?
The other problem with the Convention I foresee is what incentive
will there be for people serving to go and be on this Commission?
It is likely to be extremely time consuming and it is going to
require a lot of work to be involved in a body that is essentially
going to identify options. There are problems to be addressed
in relation to the Convention that need to be thought through
if it is to be that fundamental in bringing things further forward.
Coming back to my central point, I do not disagree with the premises
that informs your question. The only way you can respond to the
situation in which we are now is by pursuing some of the ideas
I have advanced in the paper, but they will never solve the problem
because of the reasons I touched upon earlier. I think it is an
46. This is a nebulous statement but one of
the ways to take things forward is not simply to scrutinise legislation
and so on but to increase contact between parliamentarians.
(Lord Norton of Louth) Absolutely.
47. The more there is greater dialogue and exchange
of ideas, the more commonality is established. Many MPs might
be surprised to see some of the views expressed in other legislatures.
We need to pull people together to create a sense of forward looking.
(Lord Norton of Louth) One could see Parliament not
just reaching out to other parliaments but acting as the pivot
between the European Union and groups out there in society. My
understanding is that today the National Assembly conference in
Paris is bringing together 2,000 or 3,000 people, drawn from civil
society, representatives of different organisations as well as
parliamentarians, civil servants, former ministers and academics.
There, the parliament is acting much more as a catalyst. One looks
out to the other national parliaments but one looks to one's own
nation as well in terms of drawing those groups in because that
gives Parliament an important role and a role that it is seen
to be fulfilling, which I think is quite valuable.
48. Hopefully, to some extent, in this inquiry
we are conducting we are beginning that process. Much of the discussion
earlier was about the relationship between the Commission and
the Council. In a nutshell, how do you see the Commission developing
in the future?
(Lord Norton of Louth) I am slightly sceptical in
relation to the Commission because, if one is trying to inject
anything into the process, the emphasis has to be on the Council
as the representative of the legitimate governments of the Member
States. Therefore, the ideal is that the role of the Commission
should be that of being on tap rather than on top. I would place
far more stress on the role of the Council and ideally I would
like to see the Council being given an initiating role, rather
than responding to what is placed before it by the Commission.
49. You say the links between MEPs and constituents
are not well developed. The low turn out at the last European
elections was due to a proportional system. How much effect do
you think that had on the turn out? Do you think it is moving
the MEPs away from the electorate, further than they were before?
(Lord Norton of Louth) The change in the electoral
system probably exacerbated a low turn out. Since there has been
a drop in turn out across the Union, the decline in turn out cannot
be explained through a change in the electoral system as such.
You have the prior, underlying problem that people are not quite
sure what they are voting for. They are not faced with a candidate
representative of their area. The important point in the British
context is the relative one: the system you are moving to means
you are moving from another system, and people have been quite
well used to the constituency based system. It is not as if you
are starting from scratch. You are moving from a constituency
based system to one which is not constituency based. In the context
of British culture, that is something of a shock that people do
not quite understand or relate to. There is a difficulty there
because, under the parliamentary system, there is someone that
you think is your Member of Parliament. Once you move to a list
system, you move away from that There is no connection with those
names that appear on the list. Given the size of regions, if you
are in one part of a region, who speaks for your locality? That
can be affected by the make up of the region in terms of whether
there is a very large urban centre which predominates relative
to a rural one, rather than a fairly well balanced region. That
exacerbates the situation as well. I do not think it is necessarily
the cause of a low turn out but it contributed. There are other
reasons. It was a campaign that simply did not resonate with the
electors. That is part and only part of the reason for that.
50. Would it make a difference if the scrutiny
reserve that the parliaments observed was embodied in a statute?
If it was, how could it be enforced?
(Lord Norton of Louth) I do think it should be embodied
in a statute. That was one of the recommendations of the Commission
for Strengthening Parliament last year. You have raised what I
think is the fundamental question about enforcement. The main
impact would be educative, though I do not believe the law should
primarily be used for that purpose, but it would make clear to
departments that there was a statutory requirement to fulfil it
because sometimes the failure is not deliberate; sometimes departments
are not that well versed in what is required of them as far as
the reserve is concerned. If it was embodied in statute, formally,
the recourse would be judicial in relation to departments. My
presumption is that would probably not be necessary because once
you embody it in a statute you impose a discipline on departments
and ministers, because the last thing they want to be seen to
be doing is breaking the law. I would hope the case would not
then arise where you would need to pursue them, given what I think
is the cause of the problem at the moment.
51. Do you think it could be made a precondition
for agreeing a proposal in Council that the document or proposal
concerned has been scrutinised by the national parliament and
the scrutiny reserve removed, because we have come across arrangements,
political agreements, conditional agreements, that do not ignore
the scrutiny reserve but agree among the ministers that they are
not likely to get any proposals coming back from their parliaments
that will stop the agreement becoming final. It seems to have
been a growing arrangement among ministers to conditionally or
politically agree a position that has not been properly cleared
(Lord Norton of Louth) That is a very important role
to explore further. The concept of the scrutiny reserve is not
peculiar to this country and if one can move further forward and
get political agreement on that I would regard that as a massive
Mr Connarty: Thank you for your evidence. It
has been very useful both in your written submission and in answer
to questions. I am sorry we have taken so much of your time.