Examination of Witness(Questions 1-19)|
TUESDAY 5 NOVEMBER 2002
1. Can I say what a pleasure it is to have the
Leader of the House with us this morning?
(Mr Cook) It is a pleasure to be here.
2. This is the first occasion on which the Leader
of the House has attended a meeting of the European Scrutiny Committee.
So much is the novelty that we had some discussions on how we
should address the Leader of the House, whether it should be "Leader"
or "Mr President". Do you have any preferences?
(Mr Cook) Personally, I am very happy with Robin.
If I have to choose between those two options, it is Leader, because
that is most appropriate.
3. Could you start by giving us your own views
on how the attention paid by the House to European matters could
be increased and the House's handling of EU matters could be made
more interesting to members, the media and the public?
(Mr Cook) The report of your Committee was a very
thoughtful result of some very serious thought on your part and
had some very interesting innovations which it proposed and I
welcome that. It would be fair to draw out from your report the
fact that we both have a common problem which is that unfortunately,
within the House, there is not the interest in European affairs
that the matters really deserve. Broadly speaking, most vital
departments are now spending about a fifth or a quarter of their
time relating to Europe coping with the consequence of initiatives
taken in Europe, trying to influence the projects that may be
passing through Europe. That reflects the reality and extent to
which our trade, our law enforcement services, our environment
requirements now have very much a continental, not just a domestic,
dimension. That is reality. I do not think in the House we have
yet achieved that quantum leap, that gear shift, to recognise
the extent to which what happens in Europe has such a big bearing
on what happens in our domestic politics. When we debate Europe,
we do tend to go for the grand theatre and the grand positions
on the principles of whether we are in or out or on what structure
the future architecture of Europe might have. We tend not to be
so good at paying attention to the nitty gritty, the detailed
issues, the way in which this affects a whole range of detailed
policy considerations. I do not have an easy solution to this.
In your report several times you yourselves stumble across the
fact that there is no sign of a great, overwhelming interest on
the part of the broad mass of the membership in taking part in
those nitty gritty exchanges and the detail of European legislation.
I have just carried through the experiment and innovation of creating
the new Committee on the Convention on the future of Europe and
it is something of an innovation in general terms under the procedure
of the House because it is not set up to find a committee to hold
the government to account or to listen to government ministers.
In this instance, it is a committee set up to hear from the representatives
of the House on that Convention. It is very much a back-bench
driven committee. As you may be aware, Gisela Stewart has written
to me suggesting that we reduce the quorum on that Committee on
the Convention precisely because of the problems of securing attendance
at that Convention. That I find very disappointing. I looked with
great interest at the proposals in your report and I am sure that
you will wish to explore them one by one with me. I come back
to that fundamental problem: unless the members of the House themselves
are exercised and interested in looking at the detail of European
legislation, any mechanisms that you propose or I set up are not
going to meet that problem. I do not have a simple solution as
to what we do to attract that interest.
Chairman: On the Standing Committee on the Convention,
the attendance of the European scrutiny members is exceptional.
4. Welcome, Robin. It is very pleasant to have
you here. Gisela Stewart probably commented based upon one meeting.
At the last meeting, they ran out of time and all the members
who wished to get in could not get their questions in or their
(Mr Cook) That is a sign of encouragement.
5. It was a very thorough meeting the last time,
so she maybe jumped the gun on that. It might sound odd but when
I sought to be a member of this Committee after having served
as a member of a standing committee in the last Parliament, which
I found extremely interesting, as the Chairman said, I like to
read my papers. What disappoints me is that most members of the
Commons do not appear to know what is going through in Europe.
The best example and the one most criticised by the public and
the business community is the fridge mountain, where a very important
directive went through Europe. The importance of it appeared to
be missed entirely by Members of Parliament and when I have been
to the Industry Parliament Trust we have got this quite serious
criticism for the effect of that and they ask, "Who is looking
after the interests of the British public and the British business
community?" That should be obviously the role of the ministers
and also of the Members of Parliament. Do you think it might be
possible to do something through your offices to engage the members
of the Commons in the importance of European matters? We are having
this general discussion. Have you given any thought as to how
you might do that, because it does seem that we could do a lot
more if we were given the mechanisms to do so, but the Commons
in general could do more if it were focused more on this 25 per
cent of business you say that comes from Europe.
(Mr Cook) Your comments on the fridge mountain are
apposite, without getting into the substance of the issue. It
is certainly fair to say that if there was any failure on the
part of Britain to perceive the difficulties that were coming
it is a failure that is shared by the Commons as well because
the directive did not come out of the blue. It has been around
for a long time. I understand that there was regret on the part
of DEFRA that the advice they got from the Commission turned out
at the end of the day not to be borne out by the interpretation
of the directive, but it was there for comment, debate and exploration
for several months before we ended up in the crisis. Your paper
makes a number of proposals on the way in which we can widen the
opportunity for debate. You have put a lot of effort and imagination
into that and there are some interesting ideas there. It will
only work if there is that interest in the membership of the Commons
in which they want to make a success of those opportunities. If
I am candid with the Committee, I spend a large amount of my waking
hours and all of my Thursday mornings batting away persistent
demands by members of the Commons for time to debate something
about which an element of the Commons cares passionately and on
which they want a debate. Typically on the Thursday business statement
I will announce the business for the two weeks ahead and by the
end of an hour's questioning I will have collected enough bids
to fill up another two weeks of the House which I do not have
time for. Therefore, realistically, until the House itself wants
to have that time and that debate, there is always going to be
the difficulty that other, competing issues are likely to squeeze
it out of the debating time. That is not a statement that is necessarily
a rational order of priorities that are put to me on Thursday
mornings, or indeed that we are making the best use of the time
that we have in terms of the political priorities. I would tend
to share the view of the Committee that we should be giving some
more priority to some of these European issues, but I can only
do that if that is what the House itself is demanding and wants
and will take the advantage and opportunity to do it if it gets
6. What concerns me is the same point: partly
lack of interest but also the reasons for it. I think you and
I debated this in a debate on the strengthening of Parliament
a few months ago. The question is related to the powerlessness
of Members of Parliament to be able to do anything about the European
legislation, whether it is in the European Standing Committee
or in any other arena. You know perfectly well that, as Leader
of the House, you have rejected our proposals that if a standing
committee document is changed in the course of the debate it would
not then go to the floor of the House for a decision of Parliament
as a whole. Effectively, you are contributing to that lack of
interest and powerlessness. I would like to ask you one simple,
direct question on that: do you agree that is it open to Parliament
as a whole to amend or to repeal European legislation once it
has gone through the course of the Council of Ministers and then
is referred back to this House in standing committee or on the
floor of the House, because that is the key question. Otherwise,
it is all increasingly a waste of time.
(Mr Cook) First of all, the question is once it has
gone through the legal procedures of the European Union and has
been legally adopted by the European Union we are bound by it.
Thank you very much. I do not want to change that because I want
the other 14 members to be bound by the directives that we agree
to. The moment we pick and choose and opt out, believe me, others
will do the same in a way that you will not then like. On the
specific case of the European standing committees, the reality
is that in putting a motion down before the floor of the House
the government is going to put down a motion with which it agrees.
If you do go down the line recommended by the Committee of taking
the motion as it comes out of the Committee and putting it before
the House you will then find that the consequence of that is that
the government will put it much more ferociously under its European
standing committees and you would then find us removing from the
provision the attendance of any other members, but we would want
to make sure that those standing committees operated like any
other standing committee if they were going to become the rules.
I am not sure that that would be a step for the better. I suppose
the more general response to Mr Cash's question is that other
European parliaments do not seem to have quite the same problem
as we do, perhaps because they are more European in their orientations.
7. Or do not have scrutiny?
(Mr Cook) They do. Believe me, other European national
parliaments do have European forms of scrutiny. Indeed, I think
the Danish system is rather more ferocious than ours.
8. Not generally.
(Mr Cook) I think you will find that the other European
national parliaments are very involved in what proceeds in the
European arena and that their representatives there are very conscious
9. Could I ask what the government's view is
on the principle of having questions to ministers on EU documents
on the floor of the House and whether the government is only concerned
about the extra time which might be required for this?
(Mr Cook) First of all, it is open to members to raise
questions on European directives policy to any department within
the departmental question time for each of them. Secondly, let
us be clear: concern with time on the floor is not the unique
property of the government; it is the property of the House and
I am well aware from my exchange on Thursday that the House offers
very firm views on how the time should be used. At the moment,
we provide just under an hour's questioning time on four out of
the five week days. Those four hours are heavily subscribed by
the departments. I have a number of bids at the moment for expansion
of certain parts of my business statement, particularly for instance
in the case of Northern Ireland where direct rules involve new
questions of scrutiny; and also in relation to the office of the
Deputy Prime Minister, which, as a result of the last reshuffle,
has changed and contains two issues of local government and transport
of very acute interest to members in the House. I cannot increase
within that time envelope without reducing somebody else. At the
moment, I am not overwhelmed with bids by people wanting that
space to be reduced. In that context, it is not that I am necessarily
resistant to it as a desirable thing in itself; I do not see the
scope for a separate set of European questions. Nor am I sure
that I necessarily would want to fillet out questions about the
European dimension of the department from the general departmental
question time because I think it is important for the House and
for ministers to regard the European dimension of the work as
a normal part of their work, not as a thing that is pigeon holed
and separate from the rest. One thought I would leave with you
is that we have proposed in the Modernisation Committee and got
approval of the House last week that at Westminster Hall we should
introduce a new question session on cross-cutting issues. There
is a specific proposal for a question session on youth policy
involving junior ministers from the Home Office, the Health Department
and the Education Department and I will be discussing with the
chairman of ways and means how we go about bringing that into
reality. Logically one would want something like a rota on a four
week cycle which, if we manage to get this off the ground, will
open up the opportunities for other similar sessions in Westminster
Hall. You might want to consider whether there may be scope within
your own area for using that new opportunity.
10. The point I was going to make the Leader
of the House has covered adequately about the time on the floor
of the House for debate. I would like to stress the point that
Mr Connarty made about the effect that the business community
may well have on Members of Parliament based on how European directives
affect their business. I have a number of cases at the present
time where businesses in my constituency are affected by the European
Community, but that same business elsewhere in Europe is not.
That sends the wrong messages entirely. As that pressure builds
up, it may well become more important to get more time for the
European issues on the floor of the House but I think he would
be repeating himself if I asked that same question.
(Mr Cook) It is certainly the case that constituency
pressures do surface in terms of what members demand to consider
on the floor of the House and the more that business is raised
with membersEuropean directives and European legislationthe
more likely it is that members will be active in that area on
the floor and want more opportunities to explore it.
11. There is a general consensus, I feel, that
the time allocated to EU matters on the floor of the House is
not used to best effect. Do you have any plans to use the existing
time for more specific, maybe shorter, debates?
(Mr Cook) We did propose in the Modernisation Committee
report that we would welcome shorter debates and more of them.
The key here is that I think the public out there would welcome
it if we were covering a broader range of issues than we do at
the present time. For instance, there are lots of lobby groups,
campaigning groups, out there which have a particular issue which
they are frustrated about because they cannot get heard on the
floor. If we had more half day debates it might be possible for
us to accommodate more of those issues. It is quite interesting
that when the Opposition decides on its opposition day almost
invariably these days it divides it into two half days because
you can cover more subjects. I think it works well for the House.
At the moment, the government has been inhibited from doing that
because quite often when we might wish to offer a half day it
is accompanied by a demand that there should be a full day. I
would like to escape from that. Frankly, I did think it was a
pity that before we rose for the summer there were a couple of
occasions when we had a second reading debate which went on for
a very short period of time. There was one second reading debate
which lasted for 55 minutes for which a whole day had been budgeted.
In that particular case it is not surprising that the debate folded
relatively early and I think members were entirely proper not
to believe that this required the treatment of a full day. It
is unfortunate that we were pressurised to allocate a whole day
of government time for that issue when we could have done something
else as well.
12. Going back to what we were discussing earlier
and this question of the European standing committees, I have
asked you already whether you think that Parliament should be
regarded as having the power to amend or repeal legislation on
the floor of the House and we dealt with the question and you
answered my question about whether or not that opportunity should
be given. I happen to disagree with you. Are you in effect saying
that legislative changes in the Council of Ministers are the democratic
justification for ignoring our recommendation about this question
of matters being taken to the floor of the House from standing
committee if a directive, for example, had been amended on a motion
there, despite the fact that with more and more qualified majority
voting into ever increasing areas and spheres of our domestic
affairs such as fridges and other matters which affect people
sometimes at a very practical level, sometimes at a governmental
level, that ultimately is the justification which takes you to
the point of saying that you do not accept our recommendation?
(Mr Cook) No. What I said about that is that if you
go down that road you will find that the European standing committees
will be whipped with the same rigour as any other standing committee.
I am not sure that personally I would welcome that as the outcome.
On the question of where we stand in relation to legislation carried
within Europe, the question you posed to me earlier was about
what happens at the end of that process. At the end of that process,
we are legally bound, as is every Member State, and we want every
Member State to be legally bound to directives that we have negotiated.
That is not to say that in what is quite often a long and tortuous
process leading up to that there are not opportunities there for
the House of Commons, as other national parliaments, to express
a view to influence the negotiating position and therefore to
have an impact on the final outcome. That is really where we should
focus the input of the House of Commons.
13. Do you not think that there are no doubt
occasionsand we can think, for example, of the stability
pact and a number of other matterswhere things have gone
seriously wrong? If we were to follow your principle to its logical
conclusion, there would never be an opportunity, once it had gone
through the process of European legislative procedures, for the
British Parliament to be able to say, "We are going to change
this because it is adversely affecting the day to day lives of
our own citizens." What is your response to that?
(Mr Cook) I am not quite sure what the problem is
that you see with the stability pact.
14. I use that as an example of something that
has patently gone wrong recently.
(Mr Cook) I am not quite sure I follow the example.
15. If we can deal, for example, with the fridges
question, it is clear that there is a very great deal of concern
about that at a practical level. If it has gone wrong and there
is a need to amend that legislation and you cannot get the agreement
of all the other Member States on the principle you put forward,
why should not the British Parliament be recognised as having
the power to be able to repeal or amend that legislation in its
impact on our own people?
(Mr Cook) Because it is inconceivable that the British
Parliament could have that power without 14 other national parliaments
having that power. In those circumstances that would cumulatively
have quite a significant effect on our own exports and our own
trade. There would be an enormous number of gains for British
business by a situation in which other countries are obliged to
follow European law. I would not wish to give them the bolt hole
of saying, "All they have to do is to pass a resolution through
our Parliament and we have set aside our obligations to British
business." You simply cannot pick and choose in this. You
are either in the European Union and wanting to have the rules
on trade common across the single market or you are not.
16. I also want to pursue the European standing
committee question. I did not allude to it the last time because
in a sense your reply was mainly focused on the House. Do you
regard the standing committee process as part of the scrutiny
process or part of the government's legislative process?
(Mr Cook) I am not sure that those two are opposing
poles. After all, Parliament provides a process of scrutiny for
government legislation, let alone European legislation and the
European standing committee is an opportunity for any member of
the House to take part in the debate on the European directives.
At the point where you are debating it if you have come to the
end of the road, the opportunity for further change must be very
limited. Do not underrate the extent to which the knowledge a
minister may have to go to a standing committee with, stand up
in that standing committee and defend what that minister has done.
It concentrates the mind of the minister on negotiating the directive
at the time, because the minister knows that he or she will be
accountable for it on a future date.
17. Let me give two other examples that are
not about fridges, although fridges are costing the UK £40
million at the moment.
(Mr Cook) I think everybody would concede that the
fridges story is not a happy story.
18. A much more important and, I think a more
unhappy story is the government's attitude, for example, to the
Information and Consultation Directive or to the Equality Directive,
where the European proposal was much stronger than our government
ministers would wish to accept in the Council. Of nine sections
that the European Parliament wished to see strengthened, the British
government position was not to take about seven of those on board.
In that situation, it is certainly my view that when we as a Committee
hold the scrutiny reserve and refer the matter to the standing
committee we are part of the scrutiny process because the scrutiny
reserve has not been lifted if the rules by which the government
says it operates the scrutinythe minister could not go
to the Council and agree that position until the scrutiny reserve
was fully lifted. That is only lifted after the debate in the
standing committee. It seems to me that that is a very important
role and it is part of scrutiny. It is one where many peoplefor
example, the two examples I gave where I can think of hundreds
of members of this House, mainly on our side would wish to have
a view on those matters. Somehow, we cannot engage them in the
standing committee process. Is it, do you think, because the government
regards the standing committees as part of the legislative process
and therefore sticks people on them, through the whip system,
who have no interest in the standing committee business, instead
of getting people to go on who express an interest? Nobody ever
asked me would I like to go on a standing committee when I was
here before and I was just stuck on by chance by a whip. I thank
that whip for it, but most people do not go on in that spirit
and therefore do not see themselves as part of the Commons scrutiny
process. Could you think of a way through the usual channels for
making that a committee that people go on because they know the
business of the committees and wish to participate in them?
(Mr Cook) Nobody of any common sense could dispute
that it is better if a committee is drawn from willing volunteers
who have a knowledge of the subject, rather than conscripts who
are there to make up the numbers. I totally agree with you on
that. In fairness to my colleagues in the whips' office, I do
think that they, by temperament, would wish to find colleagues
who are interested in it. I am not aware, in the context of the
European standing committees, of any cause celebre of a
colleague who wished to be on it who was prevented from being
on it. That is half the problem. Your own report does rather tellingly
set out the problem of attendance at some of the European standing
committees. The problem that my colleagues in the whips' office
tend to find is not that they are keeping out somebody who might
be knowledgeable or troublesome; they will probably find somebody
who will turn up and take part in it. I regret that but that is
where they are at. If there were colleagues out there who wanted
to play a part, whips would jump at the chance of putting them
on in the knowledge that it is somebody who will turn up.
19. It is about changing the culture in the
House by making members more interested in Europe. I can say from
my own experience that when I came here in 1987 some of us were
shanghai-ed on to this committee and there was not a great demand
for it. Things are moving on thankfully because there is a great
demand to be on this committee now and that is a good sign. What
we are now seeking to address collectively is how you improve
that interest and use that interest to achieve better scrutiny
and better government.
(Mr Cook) The whips have a wonderful way of selling
a proposition. I remember when I was first selected in 1974 Jimmy
Hamilton, a Scottish whip, took me aside and said he had a very
important role for me to play and a very prestigious committee
to go on which turned out to be the committee considering the
private Bill on the then proposal for a Channel tunnel. I was
locked up in a committee room for three days, for two months,
listening to barristers, who only had in common the fact that
they were all paid five times more than me, over the different
aspects of the private Bill. We had a whole session devoted to
the question of when is a lagoon not a lagoon within the meaning
of the Safety of Reservoirs Act. Since then, I have had a healthy
sense of scepticism when approached by a whip. This place functions
partly because the whips do keep the committee sessions working.
Ultimately, in the long term, the future of the House of Commons
is going to be much more committee based than it has been historically.
We are still basically a plenary House of Commons with some committees
bolted on. We are a long way away from the situation of some of
the newer bodiesfor instance, the Scottish Parliamentwhich
are basically a committee structure with a plenary session there
to take the responses of the committees.