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8.55 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): Tonight's debate is a classic example of why Parliament is held in contempt by the electorate and hon. Members. Seven Labour Members will not be able to contribute to it, which clearly demonstrates why we need a 10-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches and a 15-minute limit on Front-Bench speeches. Those hon. Members who cannot contribute to this important debate should be allowed to place their contribution on the record or give it to the Clerk at the end of the day as they do in Congress. We have had a frustrating experience of what should have been an interesting exchange across the Floor of the House. Labour Members in particular have ripped up their speeches in order to squeeze in their remarks, and I shall confine my comments to the forthcoming European constitution for the EU.

A few days ago the EU was savagely attacked for being too bossy, remote, secretive and undemocratic; for failing all its peoples; and because its critics are growing daily, its priorities are wrong and its procedures are inadequate. That attack did not come from The Sun, the Daily Mail or The Daily Telegraph, but from the Prime Minister of Belgium, which holds the EU presidency. He is a convinced integrationist and his opinion was endorsed by a committee of wise people of eminent Europeans, including Jacques Delors.

The Belgian Prime Minister's report urges the EU to reform and reinvent itself, and it is right. Those of us who care about Europe, and I include all hon. Members in the Chamber in that, know that it is time to move on and for Europe to grow up. At the Laeken summit next week, the EU must begin to create a new democratic settlement between its institutions and the citizens of Europe. The United Kingdom needs to be at that table, helping to set the agenda. The British experience of constitution making—our experience of creating the rule of law and of civil liberties, and our distrust of state power—would be useful.

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The Prime Minister pointed out in Birmingham the other week that our history in Europe is one of missed opportunities. Another big juggernaut is coming over the brow of the hill; will we miss this opportunity, too? The 2004 intergovernmental conference will follow Laeken and it will commit the EU to a written constitution. People in the House and the UK have nothing to fear and everything to gain from the process. The opportunity should be welcomed by Europhiles and Europhobes alike. Uncertainty and mystery feeds the paranoia of both those groups, as well as the fears of the wider public. A written constitution will reassure everyone.

The EU needs a written constitution, and it is going to get one. Barely a fortnight ago, France and Germany committed themselves to that. It is also a personal project of the German Chancellor. As has so often happened in the history of the EU, a fundamental project is under way and the British Government are faced with a choice between positive engagement and grudging acquiescence. We have seen the results of half-heartedness: our European partners create institutions that do not suit our national needs, and we join them years later, having lost the ability to influence the agenda and the design of the project.

A constitution is part of the answer to reconnecting with our citizens—a plain, honest statement of where we are, rather than an obscure text that requires elite translators to teach us how we are governed. It also presents an opportunity to place an insurmountable roadblock in the way of that tiny minority who want a European superstate. Hon. Members are right to demand assurances on that issue, and it is precisely because we oppose a centralised state that it should be baldly stated on the face of a constitution. Only a written constitution will set clear boundaries to the power of the EU and underpin the authority of national and devolved institutions within the nation states. It can check any appetite, real or imagined, for regulation and interference in our daily lives.

Limiting the tendency to centralise will also require the beefing up of that much abused word "subsidiarity". It will be a key test that the principle of subsidiarity is made clearer and more meaningful in the coming European constitution. It is unacceptable that no regulation, no directive, no act of power by any European institution has been challenged successfully on the grounds of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity must be placed at the head and at the heart of the new European constitution.

I should alert the House to the fact that if that principle is made as clear as I want it to be, it will be rapidly and rightly employed by local and regional government in the United Kingdom. Far from abetting centralisation, such a European constitution will halt it and become the tool whereby citizens are able to reverse the process that has concentrated power in Brussels and in Westminster. Subsidiarity is the antithesis of the catch-all phrase, "ever closer union"—it has become the antidote to executive licence to go further and deeper without specific consent. The phrase "ever closer union" must be struck out of all the drafts, wherever it appears.

Incidentally, it will be of great assistance to the EU if its constitution is written in elegant and inspiring language, not Eurobabble—and briefly, not bureaucratically. To be helpful, I intend to draw up such a constitution and present

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it to the House as a Bill, although I am not confident of out-doing the excellent 300-word distillation achieved by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe.

The EU has already achieved a semi-constitution of sorts, albeit by accident rather than by design. In late-night hurried deals struck in an atmosphere of acrimony and exhaustion, European leaders have often appeared less concerned to establish a wise and happy government for the EU than to satisfy the transient demands of their domestic electorates and media. Their debates are largely secret, unreported and ignored. That semi-official constitution is the playground of cognoscenti of all parties who think that their being involved in the process means that the electorate and citizenship of Europe are also involved.

The result of such methods is clear—the stark report of the Belgian Prime Minister who pointed out that, for all its real achievements, the EU's current governance inspires little loyalty or affection among its citizens. The EU has had ample warning of that alienation in opinion polls, turnouts for elections, the referendums in Denmark and the Irish Republic, and the growth of extremist parties throughout the Union, but all too often the Euro-executive dismiss it as a failure of the people to understand, or the mendacity of the media. That alienation could easily turn into outright hostility as the EU launches its two big projects, the euro and enlargement.

Against that background, any losers and those who fear losing in the EU will not accept decisions that they feel are imposed upon them by remote, unaccountable European institutions.

Without consensus and without citizens feeling ownership, the EU will stagnate. It might even dissolve in bitterness and secession. We will not get such consensus and such ownership across the EU without a contract with our people and without a constitution to provide legitimacy and democracy for the decisions that affect our citizens. To those who formed the current Union, from Schuman to Thatcher, we say thank you. Now, as the Union approaches maturity, we need a new set of people and a new structure. Otherwise, as Jefferson said,

A constitution is not a panacea, but it gives an open framework in which conflict can be peacefully reconciled. By the United Kingdom engaging in the process of creating a constitution, we will not only serve British interests but safeguard the future of Europe on a basis that is acceptable to our citizens.

I ask the House and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister not to add to the UK's list of lost opportunities, but starting next week in Laeken to seize the opportunity of a written constitution with both hands for the benefit of the people of our country.

9.6 pm

Angus Robertson (Moray): I am pleased to take part in the debate of behalf of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru. I commend the brevity and consideration of Labour and Liberal Democrat Members, to try to ensure that as many Members as possible are able to contribute to the debate. I, too, shall try to be brief.

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I thank the Minister for remaining in his place throughout the debate to listen to us all. I am sure that all Members on both sides of the House are grateful to him for that.

I agree with the Minister on some of his key points. His argument in favour of pooling sovereignty both in terms of the European Union and the United Nations was compelling. Perhaps he did not intend that it should sound like a compelling argument for Scotland's direct representation in those bodies. I endorse the views that he propounded regarding security and defence policy, especially in fulfilling the Petersberg principles, and in terms of the eastward enlargement of Europe and the treaty of Nice, which is why both the SNP and Plaid Cymru supported the Government and the passing of legislation earlier in the Session in that regard.

The recent Liege conference was attended by 51 devolved Governments throughout Europe, including those of Scotland and Wales. I commend its findings to Members on both sides of the House. Part of the resolution reads:

I endorse that view.

I shall restrict my comments to matters of accountability and scrutiny, especially with regard to the reality that we live within a state with four nations and a devolved system of government in three of them. Members will be aware that there are many areas, especially in Scotland, where legislation is passed that involves justice, the environment, transport, agriculture and fisheries matters, which are also decided at an important level at the EU. Indeed 14 of the 22 areas that the Council of Ministers meet to consider are devolved matters. For that reason I want to highlight some concerns in the hope that even within current UK structures, these areas can be improved.

My concerns include establishing key facts to help in arriving at good governance and transparency, the ability to scrutinise Ministers and EU measures and the ability to hold Governments to account. In terms of key facts with regard to decision making, I go back to my previous occupation as a journalist. The first questions that one is always supposed to ask are the hows, the whens, the wheres and the whos. Against the background of both the Council of Ministers and working group representation, unfortunately we have very few answers.

I have tabled a number of questions, as have colleagues from other parties. The answers tend to be along the lines of one given by the Minister, in which he said that the UK Government are working in partnership with the Scottish Executive. Unfortunately, we do not get specific details about how, when and where; we sometimes get details about who is involved, but that is not enough to hold Governments—the UK Government, the Scottish Executive, the Welsh Administration or the Northern Irish Administration—to account.

The Conservative Government gave Scottish Office Ministers the right to attend meetings of the Council of Ministers; the present UK Government are continuing that policy. More than half of the debates held by the Council of Ministers are directly related to devolved matters,

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but at the moment only 12 per cent. of meetings are attended by Ministers from the Scottish Executive, so I am concerned that there is a gap. The Minister and his Government have had a regular opportunity, in responding to written and oral questions from me, to explain exactly how the system works; that could shed light on the matter and I might not have any more concerns, although I doubt it. For the sake of transparency and good governance, I invite the Minister to shine more light on the way in which the system works.

By contrast, having worked both in Austria and Germany, I know their systems well; for example, the concept of Bundestreue relates to the ability of the lander to influence and bind central Government, who effectively represent their views. The Austrian system of governance involves the provinces through the Verbindungstelle, an office in which various policy positions are brought together and developed. We have had no idea from the Government how that would operate in practice in the United Kingdom. However, a joint ministerial committee, meeting once or twice a year to co-ordinate policy before meetings of the Council of Ministers is not, as I am sure even the Minister would concede, the most effective means of co-ordination.

I know that officials talk to each other, but we do not know how the structure works or how often Ministers meet and discuss issues. That concern has been expressed not just by the SNP, but recently by Jim Walker, the president of the National Farmers Union in Scotland, when giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament's Rural Development Committee; he was anxious about the way in which Scottish agriculture policy was being pursued in Europe.

I am concerned about the scrutiny of Ministers. I do not know whether Members know that there have been at least three instances in which a Minister from the Scottish Executive has represented the UK at a European level without any other UK Minister being part of the delegation. If one wants to scrutinise such Ministers, are they answerable to the UK Parliament? Nicol Stephen, the Deputy Minister for Education, Europe and External Affairs, has not, so far as I am aware, given any pre or post-Council evidence to the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee, of which I am a newly selected member. Conversely, no UK Minister who has attended Council of Ministers meetings to discuss devolved Scottish matters has ever given evidence to the European Committee of the Scottish Parliament either before or after such meetings.

That is not good or transparent governance. I have a modicum of experience, having advised members of the European Committee of the Scottish Parliament for the first two years after devolution. The problems of the European Scrutiny Committee are mirrored and amplified in those of its Scottish counterpart. That has a lot to do with the way in which UK Departments and the UK Government disseminate European regulations and directives through the system so that, in Scotland, one cannot achieve effective influence.

Finally, bearing in mind what I have said about the inability to scrutinise Ministers, the inability effectively to scrutinise European Union proposals and the lack of key basic facts to do so, how can we hold Governments to account, whether in the UK, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland? That is simply not possible.

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I give a great example. In today's European Scrutiny Committee meeting, we were discussing European arrest warrants and the lack of information that we need. If such information is not available to us a number of days before a key meeting, what is the position of the Scottish Minister for Justice? He probably has as little information as we have had. That is not an effective way to deal with a serious matter. Similarly, the Commission's proposals on fish catches for 2002 came out only two days ago. How can the Scottish Executive even be informed? The Commission cannot work effectively, it is not accountable and there is a lack of scrutiny.

The contributions from the hon. Members for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) and for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on the subject of a constitution were extremely well reasoned, balanced and irrefutable. Regardless of anybody's position on further integration or in favour of more disengagement from Europe, the argument for a constitution is intellectually unassailable. The Scottish National party fully endorses it.

The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), who is no longer in his place, touched on the issue of the euro. My party is in favour of a single European currency, pending a referendum. As the official Opposition in Scotland, our support is unlikely to be overlooked anywhere as being useful in progressing that argument. A single currency would be to everyone's benefit in Europe, Scotland, the rest of the UK and elsewhere.

In summary, none of the improvements that I suggest in the genuine hope of better governance, scrutiny and accountability in the UK compares in importance with direct representation for Scotland at a European level. At a time of enlargement, the countries of central and eastern Europe are knocking at the door. They want the same rights that other small and medium-sized member states enjoy. I would like Scotland to have that as well. There is no substitute for being at the top table, but any progress would be gratefully received.

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