Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 40 - 51)



  40. And on into the powers of the Member States?
  (Lord Norton of Louth) Yes. People have a perception that it is encroaching. It is the perception that is extremely important and, given that perception, you are quite right. I share your view that the most important point is to establish its limitation and say that it may not go into these areas. That would be reinforcing a greater connection or assuring people, knowing this is an area into which it is not going to go. Clearly, it is going to be extremely difficult to achieve that and join that up but that is the direction in which to go.

  41. The impression I got from my visit in Belgium was that they are not too keen on subsidiarity. Are we the only country that is really concerned to limit the powers of the European Union? How do we stand? Are we a minority country? Is it the press or is it the general view that Europe needs to go so far and call it a day?
  (Lord Norton of Louth) It is difficult to answer that in precise, quantitative terms. Are you talking about national governments, national parliaments or national electorates? It depends at which level you answer the question. I suspect you may get a different response because the problem in some countries is the divide between governments and voters is wider than in some other countries. We are not alone in feeling there should be some limits. My suspicion is the feeling that there should be some limitation is growing and that seems to be borne out by what is happening in a number of countries. If you look at the debate that took place when the members of national parliaments and members of the European Parliament met earlier this year to discuss arrangements for the Convention, you could see the tension there between those who wanted it to be a statement of limitations and those who wanted to move more in the direction of a statement that would lead to a European constitution. There is a very real debate going on there and the feeling across here would tend towards a statement of limitations rather than moving in the direction of a constitution. It is very important that we are central to that debate and the sooner we do it the better because there is the danger that, as a national parliament, we may be left behind by other national parliaments who are way ahead of the game in terms of having debates about the future of Europe.

Roger Casale

  42. We could start by strengthening the relationship between the Scrutiny Committee of the House of Commons and the one in the House of Lords. Your presence here is extremely welcome. Perhaps we can use this meeting as a further incentive. There is a paradox in relation to the British system of Scrutiny. On the one hand, our methods of scrutiny are very well developed in comparison to other national parliaments. On the other hand, our links with other parliaments are very under-developed. It is not just a question of sharing information, it is also a question of collaborating with other committees. I am thinking in particular of the collaboration that took place between the French European Affairs Committee and the German Committee on the Bundestag in the period leading up to the Treaty of Nice. They had regular meetings and reciprocal visits and helped shape the negotiatiin positions of their respective governments in the run up to and throughout the Inter-Governmental Conference.
  (Lord Norton of Louth) You are quite right. To some extent, I would take the contact between the French and German parliaments as an exemplar of the sort of contact I had in mind, because that is continuing. They have already agreed their proposals for the Convention and so on which gives them a tremendous advantage. There is a lot to be done, both unilaterally—today and tomorrow the National Assembly is hosting a two day major conference on the future of Europe—and then there is the contact between parliaments. The example of French/German is a very good example of bilateral contact in a physical sense, not just sharing information. That is the way forward because not all the committees may want to meet with other committees. I suspect quite a few would find it extremely valuable. Building up that sort of contact performs a number of valuable purposes. One is obviously discussion but mere contact in itself—in other words, you know who the members of other committees are and you make contact with them—is invaluable for building up trust and so on.

  43. How would we go about doing that?
  (Lord Norton of Louth) By just approaching other parliaments and saying, "Can we organise a meeting?" It is relatively straightforward. The whole point of my paper was to try and avoid trying to do it in too much of an institutionalised way, imposing a straitjacket, because you will find some do not want to be in a straitjacket. Why not contact the relevant committee in each parliament? There is already some degree of contact. You could build on that and suggest meetings. If one has a range of bilateral meetings, some could be multilateral, that would be all to the good.

Mr Cash

  44. The more I hear—that is the whole of this morning, not just your evidence—the more worried I get because it seems to me that over and over again we come back to the question: would it not be better if? The real truth is it is about the exercise of power, the making of laws, the question of who is responsible to whom, where does the authority come from. These are pretty simple propositions; it is not exactly rocket science to ask these issues particularly as a parliamentarian. Every time I look at the situation, I find that there are no answers; there is just another movement in a circular fashion. For example, you say here, "National parliaments have therefore to look at their relationships with their governments." Fine, but the reality is that the impact that is created by the decisions that are taken by any one government or parliament in the context of this legal framework which has been created automatically has an impact on the others, whether it is by qualified majority voting or by regulation of the Commission or whatever. Therefore, it seems to me astonishing that we are allowing Rome to burn, as it were, or at any rate we are allowing events to take place without any coherent idea as to what the relationship in very simple terms should be between the voter and government in matters of increasing complexity in the modern world. We are only, for example, going to have one member of the whole of the British Parliament, as I understand it, at this Convention. How on earth is that supposed to contribute to what you were describing as an attempt to arrive at sensible arrangements as to the shape and form of the future of Europe and the European constitutional arrangements that would flow from it? You say that the core question for each national legislature therefore is not what should national parliaments be doing but rather what should this national parliament be doing. Mr Casale made a very interesting aside earlier where he said—I think I am paraphrasing correctly—each parliament or each nation has a different idea, a different culture and different traditions as to how it should be governed. This is a very fundamental question because if, taking the issue of scrutiny to the point, other countries do not want to have scrutiny, they do not want public accounts committees because they do not want people to dig into the public finances, and we simply say, "We will take an isolated view of this" and we will simply say, "We take our view as to doing this but we know that the other countries are not going to, but we also assume that what they do will have an impact on us and on the European Union as a whole, that is a council of despair. What is the solution to this? I am all in favour of European cooperation. It is no good talking about embodying scrutiny reservations in statute if other countries are not really scrutinising at all for the most part.
  (Lord Norton of Louth) Your premise is absolutely right, that what you are dealing with here is the exercise of power. You are dealing with the real and one has to accept and respond to the existing situation, not what you think should be the situation. That is the reality. Various changes have taken place which may not be desirable but they are real. You have a ratchet effect in many respects, so you cannot de-ratchet what has happened. All you can do is create new or parallel structures to accommodate or deal with the situation that has been created.

  45. Do you mean negotiate?
  (Lord Norton of Louth) You can try, or you can move on and negotiate a new Treaty. You are dealing with different bodies and the exercise of power, so formally, yes, you could; whether that is achievable is another, rather fundamental question. It is because one is dealing with this situation which may not be the ideal, but it is the real, that you look to see how can parliaments exercise a greater role than at present. I think there is a case for moving forward quite substantially. The point I was making about different cultures was not to say that the British one is isolated within the European Union. A belief that the national parliament should play a greater role in scrutiny is not peculiar to this country. There are some countries that may not take quite such an enthusiastic view, but there are quite a lot of others that do, to a greater or lesser extent. There is a way of moving forward across the board on this. There is an incentive for national parliaments to get involved if they can know that they can affect what their own national governments are doing. The proposed Convention may help clarify matters, may push things further forward, but you have put your finger on one of the fundamental problems about the idea of a convention, which is how representative can you make it? You have said you might only have one representative. I know the French and German proposal is to have two members of each national parliament and perhaps an additional two as non-voting members to try and ensure some degree of balance. Even under their proposals, on my calculations, you would end up with a convention of about 91 members including the MEPs, representatives of national government, and the members of the Commission. That is rather a small body relative to the size of national parliaments in the European Union. How do you ensure a body that is representative? The other problem with the Convention I foresee is what incentive will there be for people serving to go and be on this Commission? It is likely to be extremely time consuming and it is going to require a lot of work to be involved in a body that is essentially going to identify options. There are problems to be addressed in relation to the Convention that need to be thought through if it is to be that fundamental in bringing things further forward. Coming back to my central point, I do not disagree with the premises that informs your question. The only way you can respond to the situation in which we are now is by pursuing some of the ideas I have advanced in the paper, but they will never solve the problem because of the reasons I touched upon earlier. I think it is an insoluble problem.

Mr David

  46. This is a nebulous statement but one of the ways to take things forward is not simply to scrutinise legislation and so on but to increase contact between parliamentarians.
  (Lord Norton of Louth) Absolutely.

  47. The more there is greater dialogue and exchange of ideas, the more commonality is established. Many MPs might be surprised to see some of the views expressed in other legislatures. We need to pull people together to create a sense of forward looking.
  (Lord Norton of Louth) One could see Parliament not just reaching out to other parliaments but acting as the pivot between the European Union and groups out there in society. My understanding is that today the National Assembly conference in Paris is bringing together 2,000 or 3,000 people, drawn from civil society, representatives of different organisations as well as parliamentarians, civil servants, former ministers and academics. There, the parliament is acting much more as a catalyst. One looks out to the other national parliaments but one looks to one's own nation as well in terms of drawing those groups in because that gives Parliament an important role and a role that it is seen to be fulfilling, which I think is quite valuable.

  48. Hopefully, to some extent, in this inquiry we are conducting we are beginning that process. Much of the discussion earlier was about the relationship between the Commission and the Council. In a nutshell, how do you see the Commission developing in the future?
  (Lord Norton of Louth) I am slightly sceptical in relation to the Commission because, if one is trying to inject anything into the process, the emphasis has to be on the Council as the representative of the legitimate governments of the Member States. Therefore, the ideal is that the role of the Commission should be that of being on tap rather than on top. I would place far more stress on the role of the Council and ideally I would like to see the Council being given an initiating role, rather than responding to what is placed before it by the Commission.

Mr Tynan

  49. You say the links between MEPs and constituents are not well developed. The low turn out at the last European elections was due to a proportional system. How much effect do you think that had on the turn out? Do you think it is moving the MEPs away from the electorate, further than they were before?
  (Lord Norton of Louth) The change in the electoral system probably exacerbated a low turn out. Since there has been a drop in turn out across the Union, the decline in turn out cannot be explained through a change in the electoral system as such. You have the prior, underlying problem that people are not quite sure what they are voting for. They are not faced with a candidate representative of their area. The important point in the British context is the relative one: the system you are moving to means you are moving from another system, and people have been quite well used to the constituency based system. It is not as if you are starting from scratch. You are moving from a constituency based system to one which is not constituency based. In the context of British culture, that is something of a shock that people do not quite understand or relate to. There is a difficulty there because, under the parliamentary system, there is someone that you think is your Member of Parliament. Once you move to a list system, you move away from that There is no connection with those names that appear on the list. Given the size of regions, if you are in one part of a region, who speaks for your locality? That can be affected by the make up of the region in terms of whether there is a very large urban centre which predominates relative to a rural one, rather than a fairly well balanced region. That exacerbates the situation as well. I do not think it is necessarily the cause of a low turn out but it contributed. There are other reasons. It was a campaign that simply did not resonate with the electors. That is part and only part of the reason for that.

Mr Connarty

  50. Would it make a difference if the scrutiny reserve that the parliaments observed was embodied in a statute? If it was, how could it be enforced?
  (Lord Norton of Louth) I do think it should be embodied in a statute. That was one of the recommendations of the Commission for Strengthening Parliament last year. You have raised what I think is the fundamental question about enforcement. The main impact would be educative, though I do not believe the law should primarily be used for that purpose, but it would make clear to departments that there was a statutory requirement to fulfil it because sometimes the failure is not deliberate; sometimes departments are not that well versed in what is required of them as far as the reserve is concerned. If it was embodied in statute, formally, the recourse would be judicial in relation to departments. My presumption is that would probably not be necessary because once you embody it in a statute you impose a discipline on departments and ministers, because the last thing they want to be seen to be doing is breaking the law. I would hope the case would not then arise where you would need to pursue them, given what I think is the cause of the problem at the moment.

  51. Do you think it could be made a precondition for agreeing a proposal in Council that the document or proposal concerned has been scrutinised by the national parliament and the scrutiny reserve removed, because we have come across arrangements, political agreements, conditional agreements, that do not ignore the scrutiny reserve but agree among the ministers that they are not likely to get any proposals coming back from their parliaments that will stop the agreement becoming final. It seems to have been a growing arrangement among ministers to conditionally or politically agree a position that has not been properly cleared of scrutiny.
  (Lord Norton of Louth) That is a very important role to explore further. The concept of the scrutiny reserve is not peculiar to this country and if one can move further forward and get political agreement on that I would regard that as a massive step forward.

  Mr Connarty: Thank you for your evidence. It has been very useful both in your written submission and in answer to questions. I am sorry we have taken so much of your time.

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