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Parliament and the EU

12.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Government's plans for enhancing the role of Parliament in European Union matters and in respect of other developments in the European Union. This is set to be an important year for the EU. Ten new members join on 1 May, and the elections for a new European Parliament take place in June. We also have the initial proposals on the financing of the European Union after 2006, the continuing efforts to reform the European economy so that it can better deliver jobs and prosperity, and the outstanding matter of the intergovernmental conference. By the end of this year, we hope to conclude accession negotiations with Romania and Bulgaria, and make a decision on whether to launch such negotiations with Turkey. Meanwhile, discussions began yesterday in New York on the scope for a reunited Cyprus joining the EU in May.

Those and other EU developments are of profound importance to Britain and British interests. It is therefore vital that the House, and Parliament as a whole, have an integral role in debating, influencing and agreeing the policies of the British Government. Together with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and other colleagues, I was concerned to ensure that there was regular and rigorous parliamentary discussion of the intergovernmental conference following the publication of the draft constitutional treaty last summer. We therefore laid a White Paper on the draft treaty before the House last September. Ministers and officials attended a total of 13 sessions with Committees in this House and the Lords on the Convention on the Future of Europe and the IGC, and responded to 16 Select Committee reports. From last May onwards, when the successive parts of the Convention text of the draft treaty were published, we had more than a dozen debates on EU issues on the Floors of both Houses and three sittings of the Standing Committee on the Intergovernmental Conference.

That parliamentary engagement in the IGC process helped to develop a better understanding of the issues at stake, and strengthened our negotiating position at the EU table. On energy, to take just one example, the strength of opinion in Parliament helped us to secure an acceptable amendment from the Italian EU presidency. This level of scrutiny and debate on the IGC should, in my view, become the norm for providing Parliament with the opportunity to oversee the work of the European Union and the British Government's role in it. Indeed, given the range of issues that the EU now covers—from trade to the environment, from cross-border crime to consumer protection—it is vital that we enhance national democratic scrutiny in this way.

I greatly applaud the diligent and valuable work of the scrutiny Committees in both Houses. However, I am sure that they would agree that we need a broader and earlier focus, across Parliament as a whole, on the forthcoming plans of the Commission and the European Council, sufficiently in advance that all Members of the House and of the other place have an opportunity to raise concerns and to influence policy before it is set in stone.

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First, therefore, starting in April this year, then each January thereafter, the Government will lay before Parliament a White Paper looking at the year ahead for the EU's legislative and other activities. The paper will set out the Government's priorities in the light of the European Commission's legislative and work programme for the year ahead, as well as the operational programme for the forthcoming EU presidencies agreed each December by the European Council. At the same time, subject to your agreement, Mr. Speaker, I plan to make an oral statement to the House summarising the White Paper's main themes. In addition, each July we will publish as a Command Paper an interim report to take stock of progress and to look ahead to the second six-month presidency of the year. Those papers will subsume our existing retrospective reviews of developments in the European Union.

Secondly, to build on the Standing Committee that was set up to look at the Convention, then at the IGC, the Government favour creating a successor Committee whose remit would be extended to cover the whole of the EU's work. To that end, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House hopes shortly to present proposals to the Modernisation Committee for its consideration. Our aim is that the new Committee would be open to Members of both Houses, and that Ministers involved in EU work, from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and from other Departments, would give statements, respond to questions and participate in debates. I hope that the House might also consider whether ways might be found to allow European Commissioners to make statements and answer questions before the new body, and perhaps for UK Members of the European Parliament to attend. I look forward to the Modernisation Committee's findings, and hope that it might include in its inquiry the operation of the European Standing Committees A, B and C, which, if I may express a purely personal view, seem never to have worked fully as intended.

Decisions on any new Committees are of course a matter for the House, with the other place. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I have discussed the idea informally with the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee; indeed, it reflects much of the thinking contained in that Committee's report of 22 May 2002, "European Scrutiny in the Commons". I have also raised the idea with the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and discussed it informally with the Chairman of the European Union Committee in the Lords.

Let me turn to a number of other proposals. The first is a more strategic approach to EU business in the form of the three-year strategic programme that was adopted by the European Council last December, which we have made available to the Chairmen of the scrutiny Committees of both Houses. That is designed to overcome the inherent difficulties posed by the existing system of six-month EU presidencies by setting out agreed objectives and priorities for the EU, and time frames for their implementation.

Planning for the British EU presidency in the second half of next year is already well under way. That will give us a valuable chance to keep the EU agenda focused on delivering economic reform, jobs and growth. As he announced in the House on 10 December last year, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is

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already working with his Irish, Dutch and Luxembourg colleagues, as those countries have the next presidencies, to achieve better regulation in the EU. For Europe to remain competitive, we must make faster progress on deregulation and more flexible labour, capital and product markets. According to the International Monetary Fund, an improved EU regulatory framework could deliver as much as a 7 per cent. increase in the EU's gross domestic product and a 3 per cent. increase in productivity in the longer term.

Transposition of EU legislation into national law also needs attention. The risk of gold-plating the original texts, thereby imposing on British businesses more stringent conditions than those that their competitors in other member states face, is real. With that in mind, 18 months ago I commissioned the distinguished European lawyer, Robin Bellis, to prepare a report on our implementation of EU legislation and I published it on 24 November last year. In December I held a seminar to discuss its recommendations with representatives from across Government, the House, the EU institutions and the Confederation of British Industry. I have asked the relevant Departments to report back to me in six months on the steps that they have taken to implement the recommendations. Of course, I also welcome the views of the House.

Britain's national interests are best served by an active engagement with our partners in the European Union. However, just as issues such as trade, the environment and organised crime require effective cross-border action throughout the EU, it is imperative that national democratic bodies are fully engaged on those issues. I therefore hope that the proposals that I have set out today will go some way towards ensuring that the House and Parliament can be more effective in doing that.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and for advanced sight of it. I, too, welcome the discussions in New York on the reunification of Cyprus, and we wish them every success.

We welcome the concept of enhancing the role of Parliament in European Union matters. However, overall, the Foreign Secretary's statement is gravely disappointing, not so much for what it says but for what it fails to say. The context is not new. The backdrop is the constantly increasing flood of directives and regulations from Brussels, with which Parliament is increasingly unable to cope.

In 2002–03, the European Scrutiny Committee considered 1,327 documents, of which only 3.5 per cent. were referred to the European Standing Committees that the Foreign Secretary mentioned, and only five were debated on the Floor of the House. The test of today's statement is therefore twofold. First, will the measures do anything to stem the tide of European regulations and directives that are imposed on the United Kingdom? Secondly, will they do anything to increase our national Parliament's powers to stop or change them? I fear that, as is so often the case with the Government, despite the fine language, the answer to both questions is no.

We welcome the promise of an annual White Paper. I hope that it will keep Parliament more fully informed of the Government's and the Commission's intentions.

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However, will it give Parliament any more influence? Will it in any way echo the Danish principle of seeking Parliament's approval before decisions are made in the Council? Again, the answer appears to be no.

We welcome, as far as it goes, the proposed new Standing Committee, which, from reading between the lines, appears to be some sort of Grand Committee, rather in the old style. Of course increased debating and questioning is desirable, but will the Committee have the power to alter or stop anything? Once again, the answer appears to be no. We all want an end to gold-plating. Although I appreciate the need to take account of our laws, I cannot for the life of me understand why it is taking so long to end an unfair and unsatisfactory practice. Why should action take another six months?

The genuine significance of the statement is the dogs that have not barked. Why did it not include a response to the conclusions of last June's European Scrutiny Committee's report? They are relevant to the subject of the statement, which is greater parliamentary involvement in EU work. Why did the Foreign Secretary say nothing about the need to tighten up the scrutiny reserve procedure against the abuses that continue to undermine Parliament's authority? Why was there no mention of strengthening Parliament's rights, not only to seek a review of EU legislation that offends against the principles of subsidiarity—the so-called yellow card—but to block such legislation under a red card procedure, which the Foreign Secretary has previously said that he favours?

Why is there no move to ensure that major European issues are dealt with on the Floor of the House? Should not at least the European Court of Auditors report and all budgetary matters be dealt with in this way? Why does the Foreign Secretary not address the serious undermining of the authority of Parliament through what is known as the comitology process?

There is a serious and growing democratic deficit in relation to the flood of European legislation. The European Parliament alone cannot fill that deficit. This statement does far too little to enable this national Parliament to do so better. It is an opportunity regrettably missed—even more regrettably in the light of the threat of the constitution, which will make the deficit worse.

The Foreign Secretary's statement is a finger in the dyke when the floodwaters are rising. I cannot help wondering whether its timing has anything to do with the fact that the Prime Minister is about to embark, with France and Germany, on another round of old-fashioned integrationist planning. I am reminded of the saying, "The more they talk of their honour, the more we count the spoons," and I advise my hon. Friends to regard the statement in that light.

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