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New clause 18

Enhancement of role of Parliament

'.--Pursuant to the Protocol on the Role of National Parliaments in the European Union annexed to the Treaty of Amsterdam, Her Majesty's Government shall--
(a) make available to both Houses of Parliament all legislative proposals or proposals for measures within one working day after transmission to the Government, and
(b) not agree to such proposals in the Council until six weeks have elapsed from their transmission to both Houses of Parliament.'.--[Mr. David Heath.]
Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. David Heath: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Second Deputy Chairman: With this, it will be convenient to discuss new clause 23--Council meetings: information for Parliament--

'.--Pursuant to the protocol on Role of National Parliaments in the European Union annexed to the Treaty of Amsterdam, Ministers of the Crown shall, following each meeting of the Council of Ministers, make available to both Houses a synopsis of the meeting, with a statement on the position of Her Majesty's Government.'.

Mr. Heath: Both the new clauses stand in my name and that of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell). These are important new clauses, although I hope a brief debate on them will suffice. They will do what the Government have professed themselves willing to do in other circumstances, which is to lay before the House at the earliest possible opportunity proposals that are to be discussed in Europe, and to ensure that proper scrutiny takes place.

At the moment, there is a gap in the provision, which is why we tabled new clause 18. The treaty of Amsterdam requires that all proposed measures should be submitted to the European Parliament and Council, and that no decisions should be taken in the Council until six weeks have elapsed. The gap is that, if the matter is a third-pillar proposal--an intergovernmental decision--it is not subject to the six-week rule--or it may be, as there is some ambiguity in the rules. Our amendment requires all proposals to be subject to the six-week rule.

moment, the scrutiny reserve, as it is called, does not apply in that area. There is a good reason why the proposal should be incorporated, and we are

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backed in that belief by the Select Committee on European Legislation, which concluded on 18 July 1996, in its 27th report on the scrutiny of European business, that

    "the extension of the 1990 resolution to inter-governmental business need cause the Government no difficulty".

I entirely agree with that proposition and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively.

New clause 18 would also tackle two potential difficulties with the supply of documentation. The treaty of Amsterdam requires that European Commission Green and White Papers and communications shall be transmitted "promptly" to national Parliaments and that proposals for legislation should be

to member Governments, so that they may transmit them to their national Parliaments. It seems entirely appropriate that we should use the speed suggested in those proposals to ensure that the documents are also available to us as Members of Parliament. The new clause would ensure that the Government supplied proposals in their possession to hon. Members within one working day. Again, there seems to be no difficulty in that.

6.45 pm

New clause 23 would ensure that, following each meeting of the Council of Ministers, a Minister would provide a synopsis of the meeting with a statement to the House of the Government's position. Again, that is important for transparency, as has been recognised by Ministers: when the Home Secretary gave evidence to the Lords Select Committee on the European Communities in July, he said:

That does not happen uniformly throughout Government Departments.

I hope that the Minister will be able to assure me that good practice will be extended to all Departments, that we will have the benefit of knowing what is being done in the name of the House, this country and Europe, that such actions will be open to the widest possible scrutiny, and that accountability will be enhanced. Perhaps that will also underline the fact that Ministers are accountable to the House and that there is a proper role for hon. Members in scrutinising what Ministers do in our name.

I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively to two new clauses which seem to accord with the Government's position and that we will not have to press them to a vote because he will satisfy the Committee that proposals are in train to enable that proper scrutiny to take place.

Mr. Doug Henderson: It is nice to see the season ticket holders here, or some of them--they have paid their money, anyway.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): There are more people on our terraces than there are in the official Opposition's grandstand.

Mr. Henderson: I am afraid that the private boxes are empty.

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I have a lot of sympathy with what has been said about new clause 18, but it is not practical. As hon. Members will know, those matters were reviewed recently and there have been substantial improvements. We cannot accept a reduction to one working day. The present commitment is two working days, which allows a useful practical margin, reflecting the fact that we receive about 300 documents a week and it can be unclear which are subject to scrutiny. Without seriously diminishing Parliament's capacity to scrutinise proposals, shortening the period would be unworkable and disproportionate.

The Government cannot agree to the proposal for a six-week period. The present commitment is stronger, and we do not agree proposals until they have cleared scrutiny, however long that takes. Emergency procedures are sometimes invoked. That is crucial in foreign policy: sometimes an initiative has to be taken--as with Algeria--when a matter is pressing. When the emergency procedures are invoked, that fact is relayed to the relevant Committees.

I hope that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and his colleagues will accept that there is an intention to improve procedure. The new procedure is only weeks old, and I hope that it will be recognised that we need a little more time to see whether it works properly: one day would not be too practical.

New clause 23 is about providing to Parliament a synopsis of Council of Ministers' meetings. As I understand it, there are different practices for different Departments. Many of those practices were inherited from the previous Government, and Ministers are examining them all to determine whether change is needed. I believe that there is a need for a review. I am fairly satisfied with the procedures adopted in relation to the Councils of Ministers on which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I sit, but I am happy to consider suggestions for improvements.

I want to review what is happening in other Departments, to see whether there are strengths in different practices that can be extended elsewhere. I hope that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome will accept that we intend to provide information and not to be secretive, and that he will withdraw the motion and await the review, which I will publish as soon as I can.

Mr. Menzies Campbell: Can the Minister give us a time scale for the conduct of the review and the announcement of its results? That might be persuasive in determining whether we should ask the Committee to vote on the motion.

Mr. Henderson: I should like to be able to help the hon. and learned Gentleman, but I have found--as he would find if he were in government--that the co-ordination of all the Departments involved is always a little more tricky than one would hope, and timetables are not always honoured. I assure him that I will use my best endeavours to ensure that the information is received quickly and the practices are reviewed as speedily as possible, so that best practice can be extended across all Departments.

Mr. David Heath: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, some of which has been extremely helpful. I hope that he will take seriously the point that there is a need

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for uniformity of practice across the Government and that as much information should be given to the House, and on as many occasions, as possible.

If I have one piece of advice for the Minister, it is not to inherit practices from the previous Government. We look to the new Government to produce better, new practices.

Mr. Henderson: I want to make it clear that I was referring to administrative practices that have been established in the Departments for a long time. Not all the previous Government's administrative practices should be rejected; some are of long standing and have served the country well. We are conducting a review. The political aim is to ensure that information on the discussions of Councils of Ministers and the other appropriate bodies is made available to the House.

Mr. Heath: There are some administrative practices that it is better to reform, just as it would be better not to pursue certain policy directions for much longer. In the light of the Minister's assurances, on the assumption that there will be other opportunities to test the efficacy of the new procedures that he intends to put in place, and on the understanding that the Bill is not the only place in which we can ensure that new practices come into force in the United Kingdom, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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