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Lord Bruce of Donington: I am happy to endorse and agree with practically everything that the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, has put forward on behalf of himself and the Opposition. There can be no doubt as to the accuracy with which he has presented the whole question to the Committee. I support him warmly.
That is a tepid expression of the real position in this matter of national parliaments. Members of the Council of Ministers are responsible to their respective parliaments and to the members of parliaments. It is not merely in order that members of parliaments may express their views, but in order that they may be able to exercise such powers as they may have over their own Ministers before their Ministers, in the Council of Ministers, come to decisions on proposals put forward by the Commission. It is a vital part of British national life that Members of Parliament should be informed fully of Commission proposals and other important documents in good time for them to be able to consider them.
I hope that your Lordships will forgive me when I say that I have studied European bureaucracy for a long time. In general terms, I know how it works. It is not unique to Europe; it applies to all bureaucracies. Bureaucracies can easily establish their ascendancy over politicians by flooding them with paper so that they have no real chance to read through documents in detail, and still less time to present them to their Ministers. It must be said immediately that we have had a surfeit of paper flooding in from Brussels and elsewhere. Sooner or later, that must give rise to the corresponding ways in which the British Parliament, through its Ministers, makes its ideas known to its public when, as a specific condition of the Commission's proposals, a directive, draft regulation or whatever is required.
We must face the fact that our own bureaucracy, to whom I offer my warmest support, finds it difficult to deal with the flood of paper. The Council of Ministers, whether at Ecofin or wherever, is fully sensible of the position. That is why COREPER reveals most matters which go before the Council of Ministers. It has before it proposals, decisions, draft regulations and so forth. COREPER, which members of the Commission attend, arrives at its own decisions--presumably after consultation, if necessary, with London in the case of the United Kingdom--as to what needs to be considered and decided upon by the Council of Ministers. It decides and puts on List A what can be signed and agreed by the Council of Ministers without any particular discussion or deliberation at Council level. That makes it more practical to deal with the flood of paper, and I have no objection to that.
However, it must be admitted that even after that, and even on the assumption that the document is delivered in the United Kingdom giving six weeks' notice under the protocol, it takes some time to go before the various Select Committees. In the House of Lords, there is the Select Committee on European legislation or one of its sub-committees, and there is a Standing Committee and a Select Committee in the other place. It is clear that some documents do not go through the committees because only the most important of those which arrive--or what the civil servants of the House decide are the most important--are considered by the Committees. That does not apply only to unimportant documents, or to items which are deemed to be unimportant.
However, the fact must be faced that some legislation which is prepared at Commission level, the importance of which is a matter of opinion--it is not always universally agreed--can go on to the statute book without it having official governmental approval purely because at some level it has been decided that there are not the facilities or the time to deal with it. We must face that fact.
I wish to touch on one of the most important documents. One of the most important proposals which comes from the European Commission is the Community budget. It is an important proposal. As your Lordships are fully aware, and as I have previously indicated, we are the third largest net contributor. In the current year, we will contribute more than £1.5 billion net out of the Consolidated Fund and therefore we have an interest in such matters. I was perturbed, therefore, to read in confirmation of a matter that has long been conveyed to me unofficially and verbally, the observations of our own Comptroller and Auditor General in his report published last Friday. At paragraph 2.18, he states:
It is the case that there are delays. I will not say that they are deliberate--far be it for me to impute motives in these matters, save where they are obvious on the face of it. It is remarkable, for example, that Sub-committee A of the House of Lords' Select Committee on European legislation was unable to obtain a copy of the 1998 budget in time for it to be given consideration. Therefore, there is no examination this year of that very important document, the Community budget. It shows not only the total income and expenditure, the proportionment, the abatements and so forth, but it shows the individual items of expense all through the titles. It also enables detailed questions to be asked and enables English Members of Parliament to become aware of exactly what is happening in Europe.
I do not need to tell businessmen and companies that life is about money and that money makes the whole thing run. Therefore, I hope and assume that the Government will be forthright about the issue. During years in opposition one cannot have the resources to enable even a large and well financed party to study all such questions in detail. I know that as a result of personal experience, cost and time during the past 25 years. It is not possible for any government to do everything at once and I am satisfied that the Government will do their best. Perhaps I might respectfully suggest that they must not only do their very best, but that they must stick their neck out and insist that we receive the documents to which we are entitled. I am sure that even those most preferred supporters of a federal state in Europe will agree with that. I sincerely trust that I shall receive support from the Liberal Democrat Benches for such a mild proposition.
In the belief that they will do something about this, I ask Her Majesty's Government to insist on our proper rights. There is no reason why, in this respect, we should lag behind Germany and France who have their own special arrangements under the Elysee Treaty of 1963. It is time that we asserted ourselves. The House may feel constrained to agree that something has to be done.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: I shall be brief. I welcome the protocol that strengthens the role of national parliaments. It is clear that national parliaments need to have greater and more rapid access to Community documents and more time to consider them. We have to make it work.
Last Thursday evening, when I took part in a debate on the report on the convergence criteria which joined the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, I noted that there had been carried in the Commons an amendment
With the greatest of respect to some of my colleagues, there is a Gresham's Law of parliamentary scrutiny, that Euroscepticism drives out reasoned criticism. That is one of the reasons why on those occasions the Benches of the House are so often very thinly occupied.
The Government already provide agendas for future council meetings and reports them in Written Answers in Hansard. I hope noble Lords are aware of that. I tear them out each month. I sometimes even look at them.
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