WEDNESDAY 6 NOVEMBER 2002
Mr William Cash
In the absence of the Chairman, Mr Marshall was called to the Chair
RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER, a Member of the House, Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), and MR CHRIS LEIGH, Head of UK Climate Change Programme, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, examined.
(Mr Meacher) I did not know that.
(Mr Meacher) I would not have used the word 'threatened'.
(Mr Meacher) Yes. If I could, indeed, spell out the background. As I said, Mr Chairman, I would not have used the word 'threatened' to. I do take the parliamentary scrutiny reserve extremely seriously, I do not take a decision to lift it at all lightly. It is certainly not a threat, it is just that I do have, in the last analysis, to take a judgement as to the ultimate UK national interest, there may be a dispute about the judgement about this, but that was what motivated me. The situation is, of course, as you have said, that it was not breached, we are now still going to have an opportunity to discuss the proposed EU greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme, the RIA and the accompanying Explanatory and Supplementary Explanatory Memoranda, and I think there is going to be a European Standing Committee debate on 21 November, and we can go into all of this in detail. The reason why I felt obliged to consider breaching the scrutiny reserve was because the Danish Presidency, in a way that I could not have predicted, in June (the Danish Presidency was started on 1 July and is now current), accelerated the timetable for agreeing the Common Position on the emissions trading scheme Directive, they worked with the European Parliament to bring forward the timetables for both the Committee and the first reading votes, in order that the Directive could get a first reading in the Parliament's plenary session on 9/10 October. I have to say, none of us, either I or my officials, expected that they intended to do that, or that they would be able to do that, but having achieved that the way was clearly open to Common Position being achieved at the Environment Council on 17 October. And I took the judgement, in what, I repeat, were very unexpected circumstances, that it was in the UK national interest to breach the scrutiny reserve, if it seemed inevitable that we would reach Common Position at the October Council. My reasons for that are that the Commission proposal was for establishing a flexible market instrument of exactly the kind which was favoured by the UK. The UK is, and is perceived in the EU, I have no doubt, as, a particularly strong supporter of emissions trading, we have actually set up the world's first economy-wide emissions trading scheme in the UK, and, in addition to that, the Presidency's compromised text actually went even further, this was in August, by adding further flexibilities to the Commission proposal which were favourable to the UK. Now, of course, I did not have to do it. All that I would say is that, if I had maintained the reserve, which, in principle, there is absolutely no question I would prefer to have done, and that is and will remain the situation, but if I had done so in these unusual circumstances, in the face of other Member States voting under Qualified Majority Voting, I do believe it would have severely damaged our reputation as a strong supporter of the emissions trading. It would have been seen, rightly or wrongly, as a signal that we might vote against the proposal, which would have been extremely unfortunate, we would have lost, in my view, for the UK, significant negotiating capital, we would have been isolated and, because of the system of QMV, our views would have been disregarded, and, in the last analysis, we could have been sidelined, and we could have ended up with a Directive which was not as good, in the interests of the UK, as it might have been. Now I think, in those circumstances, the balance of argument is on lifting the reserve; that is the reason I did it, not lightly, not as a threat, not as something I choose to do, or want to do, but because, in the circumstances, I do not believe that really I had any alternative.
Mr Marshall: Thank you, Minister.
(Mr Meacher) I do not actually know, maybe I should, how many other countries proposed to maintain a parliamentary scrutiny reserve, and no doubt we will be talking about the - - -
(Mr Meacher) What I was trying to say is, I do not know how many other Member States decided that, in the circumstances as they arose, they were going to maintain a parliamentary scrutiny reserve when we did not. I do not know the answer to that. I am giving the answer as to why I thought it important, and I have already done so; not for macho reasons.
(Mr Meacher) I try to say these things robustly.
(Mr Meacher) I am not being macho about it, I think there are very good arguments behind it, which I have given. In addition, I have not mentioned this, the Presidency compromise text did make provision for an opt-out - this is more of the detail - for installations, this is the argument for the particular details of the Directive, and I know we are talking about procedure, but it is quite important that the Presidency compromise text did enable both an opt-out that we wanted and an opt-in that we wanted, and opt-out in terms of installations in the period 2005-07, so long as equivalent environmental effort could be demonstrated, that would enable the UK to continue with its own environmental trading scheme and the negotiated agreements under Climate Change, which we had with major companies, which is a concession which we did not previously have. Secondly, an opt-in for additional industrial sector, and for additional gases, from 2008, because we have a wider system in both of those respects, compared with the one proposed by the EU, and it would strengthen our links to international trading under Kyoto. Now those were two important gains, in addition to those I have already mentioned; and we were very, very concerned not to lose all of that package of gains which we had negotiated hard and long to achieve. There was a risk that we could put that under threat and I was not prepared to take that risk.
(Mr Meacher) I am sorry; perhaps it is important to spell out why I proposed to use it, and then say why it was deferred.
(Mr Meacher) Yes. It was deferred because, as you indicated, Mr Chairman, in your opening remarks, you are well aware, it was deferred as a result of pressure from Germany. The Danes, for their own reasons, they are quite a green Member State, they were anxious to achieve this, they saw this as an important dossier, they attempted to accelerate the timetable; they did so to the degree that we never expected they would achieve. But, in the end, in the event, what happened was that there was very considerable pressure from the Germans to defer it, the reason being that the Germans, with an election, I think, on 22 September, found it difficult to negotiate a line, because with this prior to the election, or would the new Government be in a position to negotiate a line, so they wanted a deferral. Now, in those circumstances, not being in a position to demand a deferral, for the reasons that I have given, when Germany took the lead, we were only too glad, mindful of the fact that it would enable us to have scrutiny in both Houses, we were only too anxious to fall in line behind them and give support to a deferral.
(Mr Meacher) The UK, I think, is in the lead, in Europe, on this issue; no other country has an economy-wide emissions trading scheme, no other country had put the pressure on the EU - - -
(Mr Meacher) I think this is, if I may say, Mr Chairman, I think it is relevant.
(Mr Meacher) We are in a prime position, prime pole position, within the EU on this issue. And for us then, when the Presidency, for their own reasons, the Presidency is sovereign, each country when it is a Member State decides its own priorities, if the Presidency decides to push this forward, now we could drag our feet and deliberately make it difficult for them, but no Member State would do that, and we certainly would not do that on this issue. If they decide to make a priority of it, they enable, contrary to everything we expected, that they would be able to achieve Common Position on 17 October, for us then, the UK in the lead on this issue, to insist on its being deferred would be absolutely extraordinary, it would be contrary to all the signals that we have been giving, and it would be contrary to our whole interest.
(Mr Meacher) I agree, I entirely agree; and if I could, as briefly as I can, go over the chronology here. It would clearly have been preferable to hold the debate after the Regulatory Impact Assessment was submitted. I agreed, and this was confirmed in letters with Mr Hood, that the RIA would be provided by 30 June, and there was an exchange of letters in March. I think the scrutiny committees received the Explanatory Memorandum on the Directive on 21 January; in my letter of 5 March, and Mr Hood's reply on 13 March, we agreed a date of 30 June to submit the Regulatory Impact Assessment. Now I entirely agree that, in the light of what subsequently happened, it would have been better if that had been submitted earlier, of course; but none of us, at that point, predicted the course of events that actually occurred. So we had agreed 30 June, which had been perfectly adequate for there to be a debate before the summer recess, or, indeed, when Parliament resumed in October. Now, of course, you could hold the debate before the Regulatory Impact Assessment was received; the Committee's original recommendation was that it would be preferable, and I do not demur from this at all, it would be preferable to hold the debate after it was submitted, Mr Hood's letter of 13 March appeared to reinforce this, he said, he appeared to be indicating, that the submission of the RIA was a pre-condition to hold the debate, his words, and I quote, were: "Our main concern was to register...the need for the outstanding Regulatory Impact Assessment to be provided sufficiently quickly to ensure that the debate can be held." So that is why it was not held before 30 June. The actual Regulatory Impact Assessment was submitted on 9 July, I accept that that is nine days later, but, for all practicable purposes, that is the same as 30 June, because no scrutiny meetings were held between 30 June and 9 July.
(Mr Meacher) And so did I. I absolutely shared the same view. We agreed a date of 30 June and our view was that there would either be the opportunity for a debate before the summer recess, or when Parliament resumed. None of us - none of us - thought that the Danes either would aim to or be able to reach Common Position on 17 October; and, of course, let us be honest, in the end, they did not.
(Mr Meacher) I think I do, and I hope that is not contrary to my earlier comment. Perhaps I could clarify that, and I do not use the word 'clarify', as so often in Westminster and Whitehall, to mean completely the reverse of what I have just said, I stand by what I said, but what I meant was that the Member State that holds the Presidency is entitled to choose its priorities. I used the rather strong word it is 'sovereign', they can choose their priorities; the rest of us are invited to co-operate with that. It does not mean to say, of course, we agree with what they suggest, of course we have total discretion to reject and oppose what they decide are their priorities, there is absolutely no question about that; what I was simply saying is that I think it would be unusual, although perfectly possible, for a Member State to use procedural mechanisms to try to thwart the desire of a Member State in the Presidency to bring forward a particular dossier. I cannot recall that that has ever happened. I dare say, a Member State that did not like the dossier would not go out of its way to be overhelpful, but I do not think it would deliberately - - -
(Mr Meacher) First of all, I was clarifying the remarks that I made, which you picked up on. If I could now turn to your remarks. I wholeheartedly agree that the essence of the parliamentary scrutiny process is the sovereignty of Parliament, that you can disagree with the Government's view of events, its priorities, the way it proposes to handle it, the essence of the proposal before you, that is absolutely the essence, we respect that in an untrammelled way. Unless you are about to say, well, how do you explain the fact that I am here today, talking about this issue. The only trammel on it is, we, in Government, as well as you, have to take a view of what is ultimately in our national interest; we may diverge on that. But what the Government is not entitled to do is to say, short of such circumstances, that it is very interesting, what Parliament is saying, but we are proposing to do so and so. We are not entitled to do that, we are obliged to listen and we should listen very carefully and respectfully; and, if I may say, we do.
(Mr Meacher) You make three points, if I may respond to those. First of all, you said that the Danish parliamentary system operates on a strong scrutiny basis, I am sure that that is the case, all my knowledge of Denmark would suggest that that is the case. I do not know whether there was a scrutiny process completed in Denmark on this issue.
(Mr Meacher) The point I am making is that I do not actually know but I assume that the scrutiny process in Denmark had been completed; in which case, of course, the issue which we are discussing today, why I proposed that I would... I am told that Denmark still has a scrutiny reserve on this, in which case, if it had gone to Common Position they would have had to have overridden it.
(Mr Meacher) I have to say, I am quite surprised at that.
(Mr Meacher) But, if that is the case, and they are still maintaining that is scrutiny reserve, that is quite significant; because it does seem to me odd that the Danish Government, in the Presidency of the EU, decides to press forward putting enormous pressure on, I do not wish this to be taken badly, but a rather slow-moving European Parliament, and an even slower-moving environment working group, to get them to complete all of their discussions so that they could reach Common Position on 17 October, and yet, at the same time, the Danish Government knew that the scrutiny reserve was still in place. I find that very odd; but that is a matter - - -
(Mr Meacher) Maybe I should have known it, but I did not, until it was brought to my attention; but it does not, in any way, diminish my considerable surprise.
(Mr Meacher) I do not think it alters the argument I have made, at all. The issue is, what would the Danes have done if the Germans had not put this pressure on deferral and the Danes had really pressed to achieve Common Position on 17 October. Now I do not know what they would have done, in terms of their scrutiny reserve. I find it very difficult to believe that they would not have overridden it. I do not know. It just does not seem to make sense to maintain a scrutiny reserve and, when you yourself are in a Presidency, to drive the process, contrary to all expectations and contrary to the normal process of events, to a point where you can get Common Position on 17 October. But that is a matter for the Danes. I cannot speak for them.
(Mr Meacher) With great respect, Mr Chairman, I do not think it does anything of the kind. I think it actually reinforces my argument.
(Mr Meacher) Perhaps I could make the statement again. We are all mature parliamentarians here who can make our own judgements; what construction of events does one place on the fact that the country which is in the Presidency of the EU does what, I do not think there was any question whatsoever, they changed the course of what would otherwise have happened, in order to achieve Common Position in October, there is absolutely no question whatsoever that they intended to do that. Now how could they be so forceful in seeking to secure that objective when, at the same time, they knew that there was a scrutiny reserve which was outstanding.
Mr Cunningham: The scrutiny reserve, they could not change it, they could not overturn it; that is the difficulty the Danes would have had, they could not overturn the scrutiny reserve.
(Mr Meacher) All that I am saying is that this is a situation presented to me, as it is presented to all the members of this Committee, and the construction which I would put on that, I stand to correction, but the strong impression which it leaves me is that the Danish Government did intend to go for Common Position on 17 October, and if there was a scrutiny reserve outstanding, the implication, maybe this is wrong, but the clear implication is that they were going to override it. That is, I think, the only construction that one can put on those events.
(Mr Meacher) First of all, I am not calling the Danish Presidency in aid. I did not raise the issue of the Danish Presidency and their action, Mr Connarty did, and I was simply responding to the point that he was making. He seemed to think that their action supported his view, I believe that they support my view, but that was only different constructions put on the historical record. I entirely agree with Miss McIntosh that it is not for a UK Minister to take a view on the Danish Presidency. I did say earlier it is a matter for the Danes, it is a matter for the Danish Government, and I think we should leave it at that. I am not trying to protect my position by referring to the Danes, at all, not at all.
(Mr Meacher) Right; if I could respond to that. First of all, I have not said, at any point, that I was calling in aid the change of departmental responsibilities; that is irrelevant to what we are discussing today. On the question of whether it could occur again, I did say, firstly, that I do genuinely and deeply respect the duty of Parliament to scrutinise Government and Ministers, I think that is absolutely embedded in the democratic process, I totally support it. Point two. I have tried to spell out that the chronology of events here was very unusual and very surprising and not predicted by anyone, as far as I know, certainly, totally contrary to what we believed would be the case. Thirdly, in those circumstances, it is necessary for the Government, for the relevant Minister, to take a view as to whether to insist on the scrutiny reserve, which in all other circumstances there is no question it should be insisted on, or whether, in the highly unusual circumstances, and unpredicted circumstances, we have here, it is in the wider national interest to lift the reserve, in order not to prejudice the possibilities of the UK Government achieving a major objective in terms of policy, which might otherwise be damaged or lost. Now the fourth point is whether this could happen again. I think it is virtually inconceivable it will happen again in exactly these circumstances; but what I cannot say - I cannot say - to you is that my respect for the parliamentary scrutiny process means that in no circumstances whatsoever that can be envisaged, or that might happen that have not been envisaged, the scrutiny reserve must have ultimate predominance, I cannot say that.
Miss McIntosh: But, Chairman, one last point, it should be for the Committee to decide, not for Government.
(Mr Meacher) The first question you asked was in regard to my officials. I wonder, Mr Chairman, whether it would be helpful if Mr Chris Leigh would sit beside me in order to answer that question, either to stay there or to go back to his chair, but certainly if he could address the Committee formally, in answer to that question, since it is a question for him, not for me.
(Mr Leigh) We have been aware for some time that there has been a Danish parliamentary scrutiny reserve on the Directive, and indeed it remains on the face of the Directive.
(Mr Leigh) I suspect it has been there since the Directive was first produced, and since parliamentary scrutiny was footnoted in the Directive.
(Mr Leigh) We have been aware that there have been a number of Member States that have had parliamentary scrutiny reservations, which have gradually, the number has gradually reduced as the scrutiny reservations have been removed.
(Mr Meacher) What I am being asked is that, well, - - -
(Mr Meacher) I am extremely grateful, Mr Chairman, and therefore I will not do it once more, I will simply try to abbreviate that by saying that my perception of the role of the Government or of any UK Minister is that the ultimate requirement on that person must be to have regard to the UK national interest. Now that, of course, is a very wide-ranging and rather loose and, in some ways, unclear concept, people have different views of the national interest. But if it is perceived in the way I perceive it, namely, that I am taking a view that to act in this way would benefit the UK, taking account of all the circumstances in as balanced a way as possible, and that not to act in that way could put the UK interest at some risk, I think that any UK Minister must decide to act in a way which promotes the UK interest and does not risk a loss to the UK interest. Now I would have thought that that was a concept, a framework, which is unlikely to be challenged. In those circumstances, I am being asked whether, when I believed that the UK national interest demanded this, I would still override that by insisting on maintaining the parliamentary reserve. I simply say to you, I do not see how I can do that, I do not see how I can remain responsible to the British Parliament if I say that a scrutiny reserve, which in all normal circumstances is absolutely desirable and should be regarded, with the one exception I have given, as sacrosanct, should nevertheless, even in those exceptional circumstances, be overridden, I cannot bring myself to say that. But that does not mean, I hope I have chosen my words fairly weightily, that I regard this lightly, it does not mean that I expect this to happen again in the foreseeable future, I think it is exceedingly - exceedingly - unlikely to happen again, and, in the light of this Committee, and the views which have been expressed here, pretty forcibly, I would certainly think, I did think twice, three times, before, but I would think even more times before ever contemplating such a thing. But I cannot give you a guaranteed and unexceptionable 'no' to that question.
(Mr Meacher) It could have; it could have. I cannot say for certain that it would have, or that we would have lost all that we had been seeking to gain, through hard and long negotiation. I am not saying that, it is not as black and white as that; it is a judgement about the balance. I am saying that this is very important to us, it is very important for the UK Government, the Prime Minister himself has expressed himself extremely strongly in favour of an emissions trading scheme. We have secured one which meets almost entirely our requirements, in the face of considerable resistance and opposition within Europe, and the judgement was that to put that at risk is just too great a risk to take. That is all that I am saying. I am not saying it would have been disastrous, we would have lost everything, I do not believe that, but we could have had some significant loss in that package, and my simple judgement is, it would not have been right. But I deeply respect the views which have been expressed so forcibly today; and I do not wish to be patronising, but I think that you, as representatives of the British Parliament, have made, extremely clearly and forcefully, the sovereign nature of the rights of Parliament and the need for Government to respect those fully, and I wholly and completely and unreservedly take that on board.
(Mr Meacher) I am very grateful for your absolution, Mr Chairman.
Chairman: Thank you.