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Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, it is often saidand has now been said by the noble Lordthat it is well known that Whitehall gold plates everything from Brussels. Is the noble Lord aware of any objective examination of whether that is the case? It may be a good idea, but has it been done?
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I do not believe that there has been an overall study. That is one thing that I should like to see, although I am not at all sure who would take on such an onerous task. Perhaps it is an ongoing task. I rely on endless anecdotes, endless complaints, endless debates in another place and a good many questions in your Lordships' House on the matter. Various regulations that appear to be applied in a mild form in other member states are applied in this country with ferocious, padded ingenuity and vigour. Many people feel that we are being overloaded and are doing more than Brussels originally intended. That is a view I have also heard often in the European Parliament.
I turn to the question, which many noble Lords have asked, about where we go from here. How can the scrutiny process and scrutiny reserve be toughened up? Should it be statutory as the Norton committee suggested? I made such a suggestion when I had the privilege of giving evidence to the committee. Perhaps that is going too far. But if we do not have that, can we at least press for the whole scrutiny procedure to be officially incorporated in EU procedures and given a formal standing, which I do not believe it has at the moment? Should there beas the committee proposes in paragraph 71a requirement for an affirmative resolution before a reserve is lifted? I warm to that.
How on earth do we get a grip on the comitology issue? The committee talks of "vast amounts of legislation" passing "unseen and unscrutinised" into our law. It may be unimportant, but who knows? Of course the Government say that it is not controversial but that in itself is a political view.
Then there is the question of how we get a better entreé to texts being passed straight from the Commission to the various committees of the European Parliament under the co-decision procedure. Again, much of the bargaining and negotiation take place behind closed doors. I do not think that we get an adequate opportunity to see all of that.
I refer to the question that your Lordships have raised again and again with regard to how to bring all this superb work by the committees to the Floor of the House. My noble friend Lady Park said that we should have one EU debate every four weeks. That is a very good and simple idea. We should do that. We are governed by this huge range of legislation and it is quite improper that we do not have regular opportunities to look at the whole range of EU activity.
All this is part of an age-old battleto which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scott, rightly referred in his learned summing-upbetween bureaucratic efficiency, or governmental efficiency, if you like, and democratic accountability. As my noble friend Lord Marlesford rightly reminded us, we know where the instincts of a high servant of a state naturally lie. That must be in favour of getting business through and efficiency. The instincts of parliamentary bodies lie in a different place. That age old battle is carrying on. I refer also to the battle between those who say, "Democracy can be centralised in some continental body" and those who say, "Nearer to the people really means not just passing commentary but bringing more power and influence back to the national parliaments". It also incidentally is part of the ever growing battle between those who are happy to see more and more political decisions settled in the courts and those who want those matters kept in the parliamentary environment. I do not see an end to that battle. It will go on.
The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, noble Lords have participated once again enthusiastically in an informed and very valuable debate. There have been many insightful and well-informed contributions, as many noble Lords have noted. I too would like to pay particular tribute to the hard work and commitment of the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, who opened the debate so very persuasively and comprehensively on behalf of his committee. His extraordinarily well-crafted speech set the scene for what has been a very thoughtful and interesting debate.
The noble Lord was right: scrutiny is vital, on two levels. First, all of usthe House, the European Union Committee and the Governmenthave an interest in scrutiny procedures that work efficiently and can adapt to changing circumstances, such as the enlarged EU or the practices of this House. Secondly, we all have an interest in a scrutiny system that is purposeful and effective, and that can hold to account before Parliament those responsible for negotiating in the Council of Ministers on behalf of the UK.
The rigorous examination and analysis of EU legislative proposals undertaken by the noble Lord's committee is one way of addressing the so-called democratic deficit which is so often referred to when discussing the European Union. It is in the Government's interests to have an efficient and effective system for scrutinising European legislation. As the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, pointed out, that is no easy task given the huge flow of documentsthere were more than 1,200 last year alonewhich the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, referred to as an unceasing blizzard. Our objective is to give full scrutiny to those documents.
My noble and learned friend the Leader of House, who very much regrets his unavoidable absence today, responded in writing in early March to the far-reaching report produced by the European Union Committee. I thank the committee for producing such a comprehensive report, which included no fewer than 70 focused and pertinent conclusions. I want to say to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, that I do not think that the Government are ambivalent or resentful about the committee. We may not always agree with its conclusions, but we believe that our committeeand indeed that in the other Houseundertakes vital work, work that is very valuable to the Government themselves.
Let me pay tribute, as did the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, to the personal commitment of his distinguished predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, for initiating the lengthy inquiry on scrutiny procedures. I strongly endorse the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, about the excellence of the House of Lords committees, as exemplified in the work that they have undertaken on the matter.
The Government are grateful to the committee for the innovative way in which it has responded to the growing volume of documents deposited for scrutiny. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, that the
The Government welcome the committee's decision to introduce streamlined procedures for reporting budget transfers and budget developments. That is linked to the committee's recognition that certain categories of documents need not be deposited individually, but can instead be reported through consolidated lists.
Many of the report's conclusions are addressed primarily to the House, to the House authorities or to the committee itself. The Government broadly support those conclusions, and wish to encourage moves towards more efficient procedures and a higher profile for the committee's work. My thanks go to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, for acknowledging that the Government have indeed tried very hard to be positive in our response to the report.
Some of the report's recommendations bear directly on issues under discussion in the Convention on the Future of Europe. Of course, the House has its own representatives on the convention. I thank again the noble Lords, Lord Tomlinson and Lord Maclennan of Rogart, for the valuable work that they do in that respect. However, the largest chunk of the report's conclusions addresses directly various aspects of the Government's role in the scrutiny process. It is those elements of the report on which I, like many noble Lords, would like to focus. I shall of course try to deal with some of the other issues that noble Lords have raised, particularly in relation to debates in the House.
The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, was right in that there is much on which the Government and the committee agree in relation to scrutiny. We agree on the need for the committee to be involved as early as possible in considering EU legislative proposals. I agree with the points made on the importance of that by my noble friend Lady Billingham. The earlier your Lordships are able to get involved, the more chance there is of being able to influence the consultations and discussions, as is self-evident.
The Government take their scrutiny commitments very seriously indeed, so we agree wholeheartedly with the committee on the need to avoid overriding the scrutiny reserve, except where absolutely necessary. It is also desirable for explanatory memorandums to draw attention to any human rights implications to proposals for EU legislation, a point to which I shall return shortly. Naturally, many of your Lordships, including the noble Lords, Lord Grenfell, Lord Marlesford, Lord Williamson of Horton and Lord Howell of Guildford, the noble Baroness, Lady Park, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scott of Foscote, concentrated on the scrutiny procedures.
I thank my noble friend Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe for his remarks on the fast-track procedure. Our suggestion for such a procedure is intended for those very rare occasionsI stress that it would be rarewhen the House was in Recess and negotiations on important dossiers were proceeding at a rapid pace. Such a procedure would be used for genuinely deserving cases, to avoid the Government being forced to override the scrutiny reserve to secure agreement in the UK's best interests. My noble friend put forward one idea on the matter; let me put forward another. Perhaps for a procedure, the chairman of the relevant sub-committee would be able to clear a matter on behalf of his or her committee without requiring the full membership to meet and discuss the matter. We could examine that.
Let me turn to another issue that has caused noble Lords some concern, which is the resolution on the Floor to clear scrutiny, touched on by the noble Lords, Lord Grenfell and Lord Williamson of Horton, the noble Baroness, Lady Park, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scott. The committee's recommendation that the Government should be required to secure a positive resolution in this respect is indeed a difficult one for us. In pointing out the undoubted virtues of such a procedure most of your Lordships did not deal with what we regard as the disadvantages of the system.
Most of your Lordships have acknowledged that the purpose of scrutiny is to inform and explain. It is to analyse, to bring matters to parliamentary and public attention as well as to influence Ministers and to hold Ministers to account. It is not the purpose of scrutiny to hold Ministers to ransom until they accept the views of the committee. I am sure that all noble Lords would agree with that.
I did not feel that noble Lords who discussed this point gave sufficient weight to the effect that this would have on the Government's negotiating position in Europe. That is a real problem. The Government are not convinced that such a procedure would achieve anything other than weakening the United Kingdom's position in the Union. If the dossier in question were agreed by qualified majority voting, for example, then requiring a resolution in the House would not delay or prevent agreement. But it would damage the United Kingdom's negotiating hand in Brussels. For issues agreed by unanimity, such a requirement on the Government could well delay a decision in Brussels. But if, after listening carefully to the views of the committee, the Government remained convinced that their legislation was the right way to proceed, it could
I turn to the issues relating to subsidiarity raised by the noble Lords, Lord Marlesford, Lord Pearson of Rannoch and Lord Howell of Guildford. We all agree that national parliaments must play a greater role in shaping EU decisions. I do not think that there has been any substantive agreement on the Floor of the House on the principle embodied thereby. This will help to address those who call for the enhancing of the Union's democratic legitimacy and transparency. So I have sympathy with some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, on subsidiarity.
The Government fully support the establishment of a mechanism for national parliaments to monitor the subsidiarity principle. Securing a new mechanism for national parliaments to enforce this principle would be a major achievement. For the first time, national parliaments would have the right directly to influence the European legislator.
I turn to another point which caused your Lordships some concern. I refer to the issues around what has been called the general approachother noble Lords referred to it as the provisional agreement. The point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, and by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scott. This remains an important negotiating tool. Without it, presidencies and member states would be severely constrained in making any progress in negotiations in the Council of Ministers.
The Government have repeatedly made clear that all member states, including the United Kingdom, reserve the right to return to any text on which a general approach or a provisional agreement has been reached if new and significant points need to be raised. We have also sought to ensure that the Council uses consistent terminology when reporting the outcome of negotiations. As I understand it, the committee's concern relates to the language that is used in the Councilthe committee does not like the terms "agree" or "adopt", as they imply that a point of final agreement has been reached. I understand the committee's concerns on this point.
In recent correspondence at official level, all departments agreed to press the Council to use the terms "reach" or "conclude" a general approach in the Council of Ministers. The Government have made it clear in their exchanges with the committee that the reaching of a general approach describes the position of a text before the EU's legislative preconditions for a vote in the Council have been concluded. This generally happens when a presidency is keen to claim credit for whatever consensus may have been reached but where the European Parliament's opinion has not
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