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Angus Robertson: As the only member of the European Scrutiny Committee in the Chamber, may I ask whether the hon. Lady agrees with me and other Committee members that the House's position would be greatly enhanced if the scrutiny reserve was not breached by the UK Government so often? The UK Government should not enter into so-called provisional or political agreements, thus circumventing the scrutiny role that the Committee is supposed to have.
Ms Stuart: I am not a member of the European Scrutiny Committee; I am a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. I do not necessarily agree with the hon. Gentleman's basic assertion. However, time scales for decisions are sometimes so short that the European Scrutiny Committee does not have enough time, which again raises the need for the Council of Ministers to work in a far more strategic way. At the moment, six-monthly breaks mean that there is a sudden hurry at the end and things are rushed through, which is not helpful. I would not blame any single institution, but the co-ordination between them must be improved tremendously to allow proper scrutiny at various levels. However, I shall deal later with more far-reaching problems to do with scrutiny.
Mr. Walter: I note what the hon. Lady says about comparing our scrutiny procedures with those of other national Parliaments. Earlier in the debate, we talked about transparency. Does she think that the European Scrutiny Committee would be a more transparent body if it conducted its affairs in public rather than in private?
My real argument concerns not so much procedure as the fact that scrutiny often occurs after the event. To put it at its bluntest, national Parliaments rank pretty low in the food chain of political decision making. One official recently told me that the system is an excellent burglar alarmit tells one that one has been robbed, but there is nothing one can do about it. National Parliaments should be involved at a much earlier stage. One of the problems that we face is that on the European level we are fairly unusual in recognising Parliament as an institution in its own right which needs to be defended as such. In some ways that is our strength, but our weakness is that the House, unlike the political parties and the Government, has no way of arriving at an opinion. The European Parliament has methods of doing that, but we do not.
Mr. Hopkins: I am most interested in my hon. Friend's thoughtful speech. Will she comment on the Commission's recent suggestion that it would wish to see national Parliaments' Budgets to vet them before they are seen by the Parliaments themselves?
When the working group on national Parliaments was first set up, several voices in the convention said that it was a pretty pointless exercisewhy should we discuss the role of national Parliaments in the EU architecture, as national Parliaments are represented by their Governments? That demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding. Although the two things are sometimes the same, Parliaments have a voice to be heard. Laeken made a tremendous break with tradition, in that the convention represents the first time national parliamentarians have been drawn into a process of drawing up proposals for treaty changes. There has been consensus, and the working group made a significant contribution to that.
Some people expressed concern that establishing a working group on national Parliaments would set us up in competition with the European Parliament. I do not want this to be a competitionit should be a constructive relationship that allows national Parliaments to fill some of the gaps in the powers of the European Parliament. One of my Italian colleagues in the convention put it succinctly when he said:
In this House, changes will be required if we are to reach a point where we can arrive at a view. The House authorities have made changes, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for amending Standing Orders so as to allow for convention representatives to be questioned in public hearings by Members of both
Mr. Moore: I take the hon. Lady's point. It reinforces her earlier comments about the difficulty of achieving consensus in this place. My point was that the debate in the country as a whole needs to be kick-started, and that is where the Government have a key responsibility.
Ms Stuart: It is always easy to say, "What are the Government going to do about it?" When I went to a church service in Aachen for the Charlemagne prize, which took place on one of the Catholic high feast days, I was struck by the fact that the main speech was devoted to wishing the members of the convention on the future of Europe well. That showed the extraordinary difference between public perception and the debate that goes on in mainland Europe and the extent to which the media, for example, are interested in the convention's work. I regularly get phone calls asking me what I think about Giscard d'Estaing's hotel bills, but no one wants to know anything about the details of our work. That is one example of an area in which the Government can try to do something, and not be able to do it.
I want to turn to two specific proposals that I hope the working groups will consider. First, rather than focusing solely on legislation that has already been decided on, national parliamentarians should be involved at a much earlier stage. I see no reason why it should not be possible for the Commission to come to national Parliaments to outline its proposals. That would give an early indication of the kind of legislation that is being planned and allow national Parliaments to respond at the formative stages. I want to stress that the Commission should come to us: we should not have to go to Brussels.
Angus Robertson: The hon. Lady will be aware that about 80 per cent. of the remit of the European Union involves shared competencies with devolved institutions, notably that of Scotland, which has legislative rights. Is she in favour of the Commission undertaking pre-legislative consultation with parliamentarians in Edinburgh, as well as those in the UK parliament?
Ms Stuart: That is one of the interesting questions that will be addressed not only by the working group on national Parliaments, but by the working group on subsidiarity. We must be clear about how we deal with bodies that have legislative power. I look forward to Members of the devolved Administrations contributing to that process. However, the main point is that the Commission should come to Parliaments to close the circle, because at the moment it is a line that goes straight down. I am delighted that the European Scrutiny Committee intends to make scrutiny of the Commission's annual work programme an important part of its own programme.
My second point comes back to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) about the Commission's scrutiny of budgets. The process should be two-way, not one-way, traffic. I would find it difficult to be persuaded of the merits of my hon. Friend's case, but I am prepared to listen.
If we accept that the problem is one of a lack of clear delineation of responsibilities within the EU architecture, the question of who should police subsidiarity becomes increasingly important. Subsidiarity should be determined neither by the courts alone nor by politicians alone. There will always be issues where reference to the courts is right and proper, but in respect of many, if not most, subsidiarity is a political question, and national Parliaments should play a much more significant role in making decisions. I do not propose for one moment that we should give individual Parliaments the power of veto. However, if several Parliaments conclude that a certain EU-level proposal breaches subsidiarity, it should be taken to the Council of Ministers for a clear and open decision on whether it should be determined at national or European level.
Those are just two aspects of the working group's deliberations. All background papers for the groups are available on the convention website, and any Member who would like details can obtain them from the regular reports to the House that are issued by the two representatives of the House and are available in the Vote Office. I should be grateful for any comments from colleagues, which I will feed into the groups.
We face the paradox that all institutions in the EU architecture need to be strengthened. They need to be clear about their functions and to focus on implementing their mandate. Strengthening one institution is not enough. It would be possible to reorganise the functions of the Council of Ministers, yet continue to do too much at EU level. We can learn from history. We should consider the reason for the success of the Coal and Steel Community: it had a clear mandate, which it pursued.
The convention will be successful if our proposals allow citizens to obtain an answer to the following questions. Who does what in the EU? To whom are those who make the decisions democratically accountable? I would also argue that we must sometimes ask how we can get rid of those who made the decisions.