Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness(Questions 20-39)



Miss McIntosh

  20. It is a pleasure to see you. If there is a coalition around the benefits of both this committee and, more importantly, the standing committees, does the Leader not think that the role that the standing committees play will be jeopardised by them meeting, most vitally, at the same time that the House is sitting? Like Mr Connarty I had the good fortune to sit on one of these and I was loth to be taken off it because I fully enjoyed both entering into the arguments but also being able to participate in the vote. Any future member now is going to have a conflict between whether they should stay for the duration of that committee meeting, which they would probably like to do, or be drawn towards participating in a major debate of the day in the House. We have never faced this conflict before. Some of us on the Committee very seriously voted against the hours last week. I do not know how you see these two roles of a back-bencher fitting together.
  (Mr Cook) On the issue of standing committees, we have recommended that standing committees should not meet during question time or the time that you would normally expect to have the first and therefore the major statement of the day—namely, between 11.30 and two o'clock. We have not said that to select committees. Select committees remain free to decide themselves when they are going to sit, though in practice they would all avoid the same interval, partly because they themselves wish press attention and they cannot get press attention in competition with question time. Outwith that band of time, I am not sure I would wish to exaggerate the pull of the chamber. As Leader, I frequently drop into the chamber during a debate and I am fortunate in that I have the office probably closest to the Speaker's chair and sometimes I have to go in there. For most of the time outside that interval of question time and statements, you have a chamber which is attended by fewer than 40 people. That still leaves another 610 MPs around to staff committees. Also, if standing committees really want to meet outwith the period when the House of Commons is sitting, it is perfectly possible to have an hour and a half's sitting before 11.30. Although we have tended not to have very early starts in the Commons, which reflect ten o'clock voting or indeed midnight departures, in circumstances in which the House will be rising at seven to seven thirty with some votes, it is not unreasonable to expect some standing committees to sit at ten or even 9.30.

Mr Connarty

  21. I hope the Leader will look at the way I phrased my last question because I think there are some solutions in that. We recommended, as the previous committee had recommended, five European standing committees. Would you not think that if members were willing to serve on European standing committees that had a narrow remit and met less often you could then tailor their interests to their timetable in a much better way? Would you undertake to continue to look at the suggestion from the Committee that there should be five European standing committees?
  (Mr Cook) My mind is not closed on any issue and I am always happy to revisit questions if they offer a way forward. I am familiar with the argument that is made in your report that, if there were five committees, each member is more likely to be on a committee covering issues in which that member is interested by virtue of the badge of being on an appropriate select committee. I can see the logic of that. There is a degree of gulping among some of my colleagues, particularly those who are responsible for providing a quorum for the standing committee or finding a membership for a standing committee. In circumstances in which they find it hard to scrape together an attendance of three, they are not terribly enthusiastic with the idea of trying to scrape together an attendance of five. I understand the point you are making about interest and motivation but I suspect those who have been responsible for administering the system would wish to see some evidence of motivation before they embarked on a further commitment to have even more committees.

  22. Might they ask members in advance, which I do not think has ever been done in the time I have been here with the whips I deal with, what their interests are in Europe before they put them on a committee?
  (Mr Cook) I think that is a very fair point. It is a matter not for me as Leader of the House or a matter for the House but a matter for the parties and possibly the parties including our own, to do more to identify a data bank of members who are interested in subsets of the European dimension.

Mr Cash

  23. I am particularly interested in Mr Connarty's question and your answer to it, because it comes back to this question of why is there this lack of interest. Is it not perhaps because there is a failure within government or indeed from other parts of the political spectrum to explain the relevance of European issues to the domestic issues of our time; and that that is one of the reasons why people shy away perhaps from taking an interest in these matters in the way in which, certainly in this room, most people recognise we should improve?
  (Mr Cook) It is in the nature of politics or most professions that you can always do more. Maybe the government should do more but I would acquit this government of any charge that it has been in any way negligent or reticent about European issues. Indeed, from the Prime Minister down, it has been a repeated message of this government that Europe is our destiny and the European dimension is very important to our political structures and our political decision making. If I am candid with the Committee, I do tend to find in the business statement that the interest of members has a tendency to track the interest of the press. I am expressing this as delicately as it is possible to do. I think there is a problem. You mentioned other actors in the political sphere. I think there is a problem here in that the British press—and here perhaps it is different from some of the continental press—still sees Europe as a matter of grand drama and grand conflict. It does not see Europe as an issue in which there is detailed, serious impact on our domestic affairs from European decision making, which they should pursue. Indeed, it is a well known complaint of colleagues who go to Europe that the best way you can assure total secrecy on what you are doing is to give a press conference in Brussels, because you know perfectly well that the report will definitely be getting back into the British press. We have a distinguished member of the press here. Possibly you should take evidence from him.

Mr Marshall

  24. Could I point out to Robin that I did not move to this side of the room to get nearer to you; nor to move away from my colleagues. I was having difficulty in hearing. I suspect that is more a problem with my sinuses than your voice. Could I move on to Westminster Hall? You will remember in our document that we did ask for the power to be able to refer documents for discussion and questions in Westminster Hall. The government's position, as you have outlined here, is that it would be inappropriate to consider further changes to the operations in Westminster Hall at this particular point in time. Could I firstly ask you why you think it is inappropriate and, secondly, our report was issued on 11 June and the Modernisation Committee finalised its discussion on Westminster Hall on 24 July. Could you explain, secondly, why in those intervening weeks our proposal was not discussed in detail in the Modernisation Committee?
  (Mr Cook) The Modernisation Committee produced what is a very ambitious package covering a very broad range. I have never pretended it was intended to be comprehensive. There are a number of issues that are not adequately covered in the modernisation report and we do not pretend they were. We simply got to the point where we had such an enormous amount of material and proposals that at some point we had to pull up the drawbridge and get the thing finished. That is without reaching a judgment on other proposals such as your own. Westminster Hall has proved an extremely good, successful experiment and that is why, in the changes last Tuesday, we finally put to rest the experiment and introduced the long, detailed standing orders to make Westminster Hall a permanent feature of our structures in the Commons. It is very popular with members and does attract enormous interest. Interestingly, there are more applications for adjournments for Westminster Hall than there are for adjournment debates on the floor of the House. There are ways in which one can expand that asset to the House and I have already mentioned one which we did put in the modernisation report which is to provide for a question session in Westminster Hall, distinct from the question time we have on the floor, by pursuing cross-cutting themes. I think that could be helpful. In our response to the proposal of the Committee, I would not think it would be fair to say that we were totally negative about that. On the contrary. We recognise that European matters are perfectly competent for Westminster Hall and the Liaison Committee has quite a big say in what issues are debated there by way, for instance, of reports of the select committees. Personally, I am not at all hostile to Westminster Hall having the opportunity to debate European issues. There would be two caveats I would add. The first of those is that, as always, we have to bear in mind the competing interests of different issues for debate. Secondly, there is quite a strong resistance—and I understand why—on the part of the Opposition for anything of a legislative character to go to Westminster Hall because they believe that Westminster Hall should retain its deliberative character rather than a legislative character and that obviously has a bearing on what European issues can be taken there.

  25. My second question was to ask what your own personal view is about our proposal to refer these matters for discussion in Westminster Hall. I do not know whether you are allowed to have personal, as opposed to Leader of the House, views. You have indicated that your personal view is that you are not hostile to our proposal. Could I ask further whether you might at a future date be prepared to embrace the idea and perhaps get it discussed in the Modernisation Committee and push it further up the parliamentary agenda?
  (Mr Cook) The Modernisation Committee will continue to meet this year and indeed we are meeting in a couple of weeks' time to finalise our programme for the next session. This is a matter which we can consider in the overall totality of Westminster Hall. To summarise my position, I am perfectly sympathetic to the idea that European matters should be debated within Westminster Hall. I think I would probably take some persuading that we need a new, specific mechanism for this because the more new mechanisms we have to determine what happens in Westminster Hall the less flexibility we have over what may be debated there and the greater the pressure on the time that is available for Westminster Hall. The biggest single regret and pressure of my job is that unfortunately time is finite and we cannot please everybody.

Miss McIntosh

  26. I think you would agree that part of the success of Westminster Hall has been it has never sat at the same time as proceedings in the chamber. Wednesday morning in the chamber—it was quite controversial at the time—for an experimental period it was moved that, instead of having an adjournment in Westminster Hall, particularly for somebody who was there for the first time, it was a very good opportunity to find your feet in less formal surroundings than the chamber. That has now moved to Westminster Hall. It has now been put on a permanent footing with permanent standing orders, but what if a minister is due to be winding up a debate in Westminster Hall while he or she is also meant to be responding to departmental questions, now that you have moved the business of the House forward? Where does that leave both ministers and back-benchers who wish to be involved in Westminster Hall activities but would also like to be involved in what you have described as the main business of the House between 11.30 and two o'clock, which have been the traditional meeting hours of Westminster Hall activities?
  (Mr Cook) Subject to correction, I think I am right in saying that on Thursdays Westminster Hall does coincide with the sitting hours of the House. It is not a new principle.

  27. It is the afternoon from 2.30 to 5.30.
  (Mr Cook) Indeed. We specifically recommended, from memory, in our modernisation report that Westminster Hall also should not be sitting during question time or statements so that, as on the Thursday, we meet up until 11.25 and meet thereafter again after two o'clock. I do not think with the generality of Members of Parliament that will necessarily cause too great a conflict. I cannot guarantee that there will never be an occasion when one member may find a conflicting pull on where they wish to be and what they want to contribute to, but that is not a new dilemma for Members of Parliament.

Mr David

  28. Could I begin by saying that when I was elected first of all to this House I remember being approached by one of the whips who said to me, "We realise you have some knowledge of European issues but we are going to do you a favour and not put you on a European standing committee." One of the things that is needed, in response partly to Mr Cash's points, is a determined effort to Europeanise the work of the House and not to see Europe and European matters as being separate and divorced from everything else; for all of us, collectively and individually, to make an effort to make sure that there is a European dimension brought to virtually every issue that we discuss in this place. It is a long term project, but one that is of tremendous importance. The question I want to ask is with regard to the success which I think you have in part alluded to of the standing committee on the Convention of the future of Europe. Admittedly, in the first meeting, there was some difficulty in securing a quorum but, in the second committee, as Mr Connarty said, it was very well attended. The debate on both occasions was of an exemplary, high standard. I was wondering if you thought that that success gave grounds for taking forward the idea of having a European Grand Committee established?
  (Mr Cook) I am very pleased to hear of the success of the second meeting of the committee on the Convention because I was very keen that we should get there because it is innovative and breaks the mould of the traditional committee structures within the House. I think we were right to do that in the unusual and different situation in which the House itself has two representatives accountable to the House on the Convention. I would make two observations on the question of a European Grand Committee. The first is I would be slightly hesitant about going down that road while we still have the committee on the Convention because, almost by definition, virtually everybody on the committee on the Convention are the people that you would expect to play an active part on a European Grand Committee, so I think there would need to be a sequential issue there. That takes us through the next couple of years because the IGC will be some time away before we necessarily wind up. It might be logical to think of the committee on the Convention becoming something else after the Convention itself has necessarily wound up. For instance, I would want the House to be fully engaged in the IGC and the outcome of the Convention because the Convention is not an end in itself. The Convention is a preparatory phase. Whether at the end of all of that—and one may by then be looking at the next Parliament rather than this Parliament—you set up a European Grand Committee would have to be a judgment on whether there was sufficient interest among members to support such a European Grand Committee. That takes me back to the discussion we have had for much of the past hour, which is how do we motivate members? How do we get members interested? I suppose the judgment we have to make is I can see a case for a European Grand Committee if it provides a forum for an interest in the House, an opportunity for members to express their view and to hold ministers to account. Fine. If, however, the judgment was that it might rather reveal a lack of interest in Europe and a reluctance to attend, we might be wise not to expose ourselves to the criticism that would flow from that.

  29. That is encouraging. I agree very much with the points you have made. One of the points which is made in our report is the need to have a better relationship between Parliament and the European Parliament. I know that is something which the government supports. Do you think that this suggestion of a European Grand Committee might be one way in which that better relationship could be developed by perhaps from time to time allowing MEPs to sit and participate in some way?
  (Mr Cook) Possibly, but I would not want the participation of MEPs to be dependent on the creation of a grand committee. Indeed, I welcomed the reference in your report that, from time to time, you may want to involve MEPs in discussions about European legislation. I think that is entirely sensible because, after all, the legislative dimension of the European Parliament is a very large element of their work. I myself would be very supportive of more select committees inviting MEPs to join them from time to time to discuss matters of common interest. I think that could be extremely healthy. We in turn are willing to look at ways of making sure that it is easy for MEPs to access the premises and to attend those meetings, if invited to do so. We do need to have a sane, adult, grown up dialogue with our colleagues who are elected from Britain to represent Britain's interests in the European Parliament.

Roger Casale

  30. I entirely understand that the Leader would want to see better use made of the existing committees in the House of Commons for European scrutiny before we invent a new one and, in particular, to see how the standing committee on the Convention gets on. Let us hope that plenty of members will take the opportunity that they have to participate. The standing committee on the Convention came about because there was a very specific job that needed to be done. We did not have an adequate means of doing that job. Therefore, that committee was invented. I want to put to the Leader that what lies behind the suggestion from our Committee to have a European Grand Committee is that there are a number of important jobs that need to be done now and are simply not being done. For example, when the Prime Minister attends a Council meeting, he comes back to the House of Commons and makes a statement on the floor of the House and members have the opportunity to question him; but when other government ministers attend Council meetings there is no such opportunity because there simply would not be time. There is so much European business and so many such meetings that there is not time to take a statement about that on the floor of the House. Such a statement could be made before a European Grand Committee but if we want to wait before we think about having a European Grand Committee where can we do it now? Similarly, there are very important things that are discussed and debated perhaps every year in the European Union such as the Commission's annual work programme, which in a sense could be seen in some ways as analogous to a kind of Queen's Speech, and similarly the European budget. Again, these are matters which have enormous implications for people in this country and yet we do not get a chance in this House of Commons to give those documents a proper airing and have a proper debate. While I understand that we need to take things one step at a time—that has been the tradition with this Committee; we have taken things one step at a time and things have gone well. We have acquired the powers; we have shown they were needed and we have used them well—if those are the jobs that we have identified that we think a Grand Committee could do, if we are not going to have a Grand Committee in this Parliament, how do those jobs get done in the meantime?
  (Mr Cook) We had an extended discussion this morning about the degree of interest among members in European detailed matters. I have to be very careful that I set up structures that respond to the interests of members and release the enthusiasm of members and that we do not end up with a situation in which we set up a structure for which the whips have to dragoon members to attend by the kind of entertaining promises and tricks that we have discussed during the course of our session. There needs to be a felt need for it as well as a job to be done. Secondly, in terms of the accountability of ministers, I would very much welcome a stronger interest by the departmental select committees in the role of holding ministers to account for what they do in Europe. Indeed, I am pleased to say that in their report, in response to the modernisation proposals for select committees, the Liaison Committee has produced a template of core tasks for select committees, in the course of which it does stress the importance of the European dimension of those departments. There is absolutely no reason why departmental select committees should not hear from the departmental minister who has been to Europe about how matters are progressing there over any issue of controversy. Consistent with what I said earlier, about 20-25 per cent of all departmental work now being European driven or European directed, I think there should be more interest shown in Europe by those departmental select committees.

Mr Hendrick

  31. I wonder if the Leader would agree with me that the nitty gritty issues and individual directives are not particularly interesting, one, to members of this House and, two, to members of the public? Most people, unlike the people present in this meeting who I would call European anoraks, are not really interested in anything other than the big issues—i.e., enlargement, the euro or things of that nature. Reflecting the Leader's point earlier about members following press interests and the press invariably being obsessed with bad news which sells newspapers and makes people watch TV programmes, much of the nitty gritty stuff that we engage in, in committees like this, and would do obviously in a European Grand Committee does not capture the imagination, no matter how you dress it up. Is it not perhaps better to make what we have work better, rather than trying to create new fora which may attract even less interest?
  (Mr Cook) That is a very complex contribution with lots of thoughts I want to chase. I am not necessarily convinced that bad news does sell newspapers. In fact, it is striking that virtually all the national newspapers are facing a decline in circulation. The one exception is represented here and I think it is probably fair to say that the FT focuses less on bad news than the other press and there may be a lesson for the rest in that. On the question you raise, it is true that nitty gritty, detailed issues are never going to be matters of mass public concern but that is true of an awful lot of things we do in the Commons necessarily. We are sent here as representatives by constituents to hold the government to account, to pass legislation, and that does involve us in doing lots of things that effectively our constituents subcontract to us, quite rightly, to do. We do not necessarily have the same problem of lack of interest in some of these other areas. To some extent, the word "European" becomes a turn off even although if you say to people, "This is going to be something that will have a real effect on business in your constituency", in the same way as some piece of other secondary legislation in which members might be exercised, possibly we might get the message across. I do not disagree with your bottom line which is that the problem is that lack of interest and enthusiasm and engagement. The problem is not the absence of the structures.

Mr Cash

  32. This series of questions turns on the issue of relations with members of the European Parliament and in the government's reply to our report it is clear that the government agrees that closer links between national parliaments and the European Parliament are desirable. It then speaks about more contact. Really, I am sure you would accept that that sort of atmospheric approach is not what we are talking about. It is about legislative power making. The real question surely is that you should not just, however desirable it is to have discussions, avoid the fact that there are times when, for example, a national parliament might wish to say, "We do not agree with what has been said." I am not just talking about the government; I am talking about the Parliament. Do you not agree that there ought to be an opportunity for a national parliament to exercise a veto against proposals that are being put forward by the European Council, for example? Do you think that is acceptable as a matter of principle?
  (Mr Cook) I have answered this question twice already and I am running out of new lines.

  33. I think there is a difference between amending or repealing legislation and exercising a veto which would take place at an earlier date.
  (Mr Cook) On those matters for which there is a requirement for unanimity, any minister casting their veto or indeed, for that matter, choosing not to exercise their veto is accountable to the House of Commons and can be held to account on the floor, in the select committees and elsewhere for the way in which the minister either exercises or fails to exercise that veto. To put it in perspective, even now, never mind what may come out of the Convention of Europe, 80 per cent of decision making within the Council of Ministers is by majority voting. That is not a statement of the balance within the Treaty where it is very different and more Treaty articles require unanimity by much higher proportions—still a majority of them, I think. In practice, the issues that come before ministers come before ministers on articles of the Treaty which require majority voting in cases like the single market. My own broad experience is that the veto has never been as much help to Britain as it has been an obstacle to Britain, in that it becomes the basis on which we fail to get the reforms that we want. We saw this two or three times in Nice where, for instance, we sought to secure right of recognition in Germany for qualifications granted in Britain, to which Schroeder applied a veto at Nice, a clear example of the veto getting in the way. We had great difficulty and did not secure as much progress as we would have wished on a common agreement on changes to the trade articles in the Treaty because of French objection on grounds of protectionism which we do not share. On the whole therefore, I am not terribly enthusiastic about more talk of vetos as opposed to trying to find a constructive outcome which will involve compromise. At the end of the day, in my experience, Britain comes out of that well.


  34. You describe our proposal in respect of deferred divisions on European documents as unnecessary. That was in your reply, paragraph 30. Does that mean that the possibility of deferred divisions will never be cited as a reason why an EU document cannot be cleared in time and that the government will always be willing when necessary to take motions on EU documents at the start of public business?
  (Mr Cook) You would not necessarily have to take the documents out of public business but what you could do is switch off the requirement for a deferred division. The deferred division rule is one that can be put off like the light switch if you wish to and you can vote there and then. You would not have, because it comes on after ten, to defer the vote until the subsequent Wednesday, so if you did find yourself in a tight hole in which you needed a decision that day, there are ways in which you can secure that decision even if you are still debating it, in those days after ten o'clock, the next session after seven.

Jim Dobbin

  35. I have a question about the creation of yet another committee which I understand that you are supporting this time, and that is the possibility of having a secondary legislation scrutiny committee. The question is quite simple: when will the Modernisation Committee look at this or give it some consideration? How much of a priority do you feel it is?
  (Mr Cook) We were not able to reach a final view on that in our last report and we did say in our last report that we would be returning to this issue in the next session. I am very conscious that there is a very large volume of secondary legislation which requires a more systematic approach to scrutiny. The vast majority of it is pretty trivial stuff, important and valuable but not particularly contentious. Indeed, about a third of it relates to speed limits in local areas which was undergoing very exceptional problems. However, we do need some mechanism by which we can reassure ourselves that the small proportion of those which are strategic, controversial, can be adequately scrutinised and the Modernisation Committee at some point in the next year will be returning to this topic.

Mr Connarty

  36. Given our previous discussion about the role of the Standing Committee debates in the scrutiny process would it be your view that, when this Committee has recommended a debate, if a minister then breaches the scrutiny reserve resolution before the debate takes place that greatly increases the seriousness of that scrutiny breach?
  (Mr Cook) Obviously the more serious the issue and the more this Committee has demonstrated that it attaches seriousness to the question, the more important it is that we do not get into the position of breaching the security of the scrutiny reserve. As we say quite firmly in our response, we recognise the importance of the scrutiny reserve and we wish to observe the scrutiny reserve in all circumstances and give a full explanation in the exceptional circumstances where it cannot be done. Unfortunately, and this is the difficulty, sometimes the timetable on Europe is not in our own hands but we always seek to try and reach a decision within the scrutiny reserve.

  37. This Committee is always conscious if the timetable is driven by the Commission or someone else, but I hope you share our concern that we have two ministers coming for evidence sessions tomorrow who ignored scrutiny reserve debates when we thought there was adequate time to have them.
  (Mr Cook) We certainly would wish to make sure that there is proper opportunity for the House to reach a view within the time available wherever it can be done, and where it cannot be done we accept that there is an obligation on us to provide a full explanation of why.

Angus Robertson

  38. I am advised that announcements about European Standing Committee debates used to be made as part of the business statement and that that is no longer the case. Within the context of what we were talking about earlier about engaging more MPs to be involved in European business is it not perhaps a regressive step to not announce these Standing Committee meetings or does it not at least imply a downgrading of their importance?
  (Mr Cook) I cannot pretend to strong feelings either way. If the Committee feels strongly on it we can revert to the previous practice but as the guy who is there every week I would not want the Committee to imagine that when I announced them there was rapt attention in the Chamber. We are all professional public speakers. We all can sense when we are carrying our audience with us and when our audience is finding better things to do. I am not sure that I can put my hand on my heart and say that from any of the ones that I have announced there was ever a Member who entered it in his diary in order to go and attend it.

Roger Casale

  39. I share the Leader's concern about the lack of engagement on European issues in this place and outside this place, but I wonder if he can comment on whether he thinks that is partly to do with the fact that a lot of the work that we do in terms of European scrutiny is very detailed and that if there was a forum for more strategic discussion about where Europe is going or indeed a European Affairs Committee, as is the case in other parliaments, we might get more interest and engagement from other Members.
  (Mr Cook) There are opportunities of course for those strategic exchanges and indeed we do have in the House every six months a full day's debate on European matters, quite apart from what may be happening in other forums. I think that the strategic debates on Europe are well catered for. What we are trying to grapple with here is something which has been more difficult for the House to come to terms with, namely, the legislative impact of detail from Europe and that we do need to address. We have discussed at some length whether a new structure as a grand committee would help here. I would much rather be appointing a new structure if I felt there was a perceived demand for it rather than trying to put a structure to stimulate a demand.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 16 December 2002