|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I have just listened to the extraordinary statement that Euroscepticism drives out reason. That presumably means that any scepticism drives out reason. I have always believed that it was scepticism which brought reason, not drove it out. If parliamentarians, whether they are Eurosceptical or Eurofanatical, cease to be sceptical and to discuss all these matters, I do not know where we are going and what our purpose is.
I have been serving on the European Communities Committee for a short time. I note that the Government do not always very quickly manage to get documents received from the Commission through to the National Committee for scrutiny. That is something on which we would like some assurance from the Minister, either now or at Report stage.
I welcome the developing co-operation between National Parliament Scrutiny Committee, which is fostered by COSAC although it does not only come through COSAC. We have begun to exchange information about how much each national committee has got out of its government and what documents have been provided. That is a welcome step forward. The next meeting of COSAC, which will be in London in a month's time, will enable us to talk about how we may improve parliamentary scrutiny of the third pillar. We intend to do that now with the British presidency.
It is important that this protocol is not only carried into effect in the treaty but that we have every possible assurance from Her Majesty's Government that they will make it work in practice as well as they can.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: We have had a remarkable and unusual degree of agreement in Committee this afternoon on these amendments. In speaking to Amendment No. 26C I will speak also to Amendments Nos. 36 and 38 which are grouped with it.
The Government are determined to build a European Union that is more open and more democratic. The Council of Ministers, the European Parliament and, in particular, national parliaments all have a part to play in this effort.
We argued successfully in the IGC for more openness: a treaty-based public right of access to documents, including in the second and third pillars; publication of Council votes on legislation; and publication of new third pillar proposals. As presidency, we have now tabled further, follow-up proposals.
The requirement for greater democratic oversight is very strong. It is a requirement that has been espoused by all sides of the Committee this afternoon. Again we made some progress in the IGC by providing for co-decision with the European Parliament in legislative areas that are subject to majority vote in the Council.
As the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, said, the principal source of democratic legitimacy in the European Union is national parliaments. It is to national parliaments that governments are answerable; it is to national parliaments that people most readily identify. That is true in all member states. We must therefore reinforce the role of national parliaments too.
I am pleased to say that here too the IGC recorded real progress, including on proposals made by the Government, which are reflected in the treaty we are discussing today. For the first time the role of national parliaments is now recognised in proper, legally-binding form in the treaty.
Before Amsterdam the treaty said nothing about national parliaments. Maastricht achieved no more than a declaration on the need to send documents to national parliaments in good time. A Conference of European Affairs Committees was set up in 1989 to bring together national parliamentarians. The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, is one of its most distinguished contributors. Yet COSAC has gone unmentioned in the treaties.
The protocol agreed at Amsterdam changes that. The protocol's main feature is to create a legally-binding minimum period of six weeks between the circulation of a proposal and a Council decision on it, except in genuinely urgent cases. This will greatly facilitate scrutiny by national parliaments.
The protocol also provides for an enhanced role for COSAC. The role will be non-binding and consultative. That is sensible because, as COSAC has recognised, COSAC cannot formally represent the views of national parliaments but it is the best specialist source of a collective view. It is right that the treaty should acknowledge this expertise.
The Government strongly supported the protocol. We pay tribute to those in this House and another place, including the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, and his committee, whose thinking and reports first inspired the protocol.
We successfully proposed extending the protocol. First, at our suggestion, its provisions apply to third as well as first pillar documents. We recognise the great interest of this House in justice and home affairs issues. The protocol will help this House to pursue those issues.
We sought this extension because of the time it takes from a proposal being sent to the Council Secretariat for it to reach member states in Brussels and then arrive in capitals. Two years ago it took an average of 40 days. That period is now much reduced but it can still take up to a fortnight. The effect of our proposal is to ensure that national parliaments will still have four clear weeks to study draft legislation. We hope that an electronic transmission pilot project now under way will help further in that respect.
I wish to be clear on this point because the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked me to be specific. The six-week scrutiny period begins when the document is received by the Council Secretariat. It is then translated and distributed to member states. It is exactly because of that provision that member states decided to extend the period in the national parliaments' protocol from the four weeks proposed by the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, to the six weeks that now appears in the protocol. I remind the Committee that the Government are already committed not to agree proposals until they clear national scrutiny, however long that takes. That commitment will remain.
But existing parliamentary rules rightly allow the Government to agree urgent confidential or trivial proposals before they clear scrutiny. That reflects the fact that business can arise at short notice and may, on occasions, require urgent attention.
The Earl of Onslow: Will the noble Baroness give an example of something which will be so urgent that it need not come back to Parliament? That would help everybody. It is easy to use words like "urgent" and "trivial", and examples would help.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: For example, it may be that urgent sanction measures were needed in respect of a particular country, or that there had been an ecological disaster which needed urgent action. There may be an outbreak of an epidemic on which nations in the EU feel that there should be urgent action. I hope that provides a flavour. I do not wish to go too far into the matter, but I hope that I have provided examples where urgency may require that clause to be invoked.
The point is that the provisions of the new protocol will strengthen national parliaments' role in ensuring democratic legitimacy. They will help to rectify weaknesses in our national scrutiny system and we shall build on the new provisions in our separate proposals to update and strengthen our national arrangements.
My right honourable friend the President of the Council published a memorandum in January setting out our broad proposals. The memorandum takes account of proposals made by the relevant committee of this House and another place. It has been sent to the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, whose views on its contents we very much look forward to receiving.
Our plans include giving Parliament a strengthened formal role in the scrutiny of second and third pillar business. Detailed arrangements must reflect the specific characters of those pillars. For example, in the second pillar, the nature of business means that confidentiality is vital and decisions are often needed at short notice. That may require explanatory memoranda to be submitted after adoption of a proposal.
Our plans include also extending the scope of the scrutiny reserve to cover documents subject to scrutiny under the inter-governmental pillars and to cover legislative proposals on which agreement is reached at the European Council. We propose also to strengthen arrangements for reporting to Parliament on meetings of the Council of Ministers.
As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, said, we already report on all such meetings orally or in writing. We consider that more detailed reports in the form of letters to Select Committee chairmen will ensure that Parliament is better informed on the detailed outcome of more important issues, particularly those which have been the subject of special interest and debate in Parliament.
The national proposals that I have outlined will reinforce the EU-wide provisions laid down in the Treaty of Amsterdam. The treaty rightly provides for a stronger role and a clearer voice for national parliaments. I believe that those provisions should be welcomed and I commend them to the Committee, particularly as reinforced by the additional provisions which I have been able to outline to the Committee.
My noble friend raised a number of questions in relation to the Comptroller and Auditor General and his reports. We certainly agree that there should be as much transparency as possible in the European Community's financial affairs. We agree also that the British Parliament must be entitled to as much information as can be made available. I shall certainly draw the detailed comments of my noble friend to the attention of my colleagues who are responsible for Community finance.
I indicated that I should like to address also the specific concerns raised on Amendments Nos. 36 and 38. Before each meeting of the European Council, the Foreign Secretary sends to the Foreign Affairs Committee of another place a memorandum detailing subjects for discussion and listing the main documents to be discussed. That memorandum is made available to both Houses. Each month, the Government give details, by means of Written Parliamentary Questions, of the agenda of the following month's councils. All proposals for legislation and other important documents are submitted for formal parliamentary scrutiny within two days of their receipt in London. They are then the subject of detailed explanatory memoranda provided by the Government.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|