Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness(Questions 1-19)




  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.

Mr Connarty

  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 speeches made.
  (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 it.

Mr Cash

  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 of that.

Angus Robertson

  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.

Jim Dobbin

  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 members—European directives and European legislation—the 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.

Mr Cash

  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 occasions—and we can think, for example, of the stability pact and a number of other matters—where 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.

Mr Connarty

  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 scrutiny—the 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 people—for 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 bodies—for instance, the Scottish Parliament—which are basically a committee structure with a plenary session there to take the responses of the committees.

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