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Mr. Straw: It is almost an oxymoronsorry, I mean that it is an obvious pointto say that Parliament is sovereign. Of course that is true. Parliament can pass any legislation that it wants, but that legislation may have consequences; we have had that discussion before. On the issue of votes, the procedure is a matter for the Modernisation Committee, not for meI am making proposalsbut if the hon. Gentleman thinks about it, I do not think that he would propose that what happens in Standing Committees should be the last word on votes. It would be very odd if Governments of any party were not able to reverse the vote in a Standing Committee on the Floor of the House. The Standing Committee on the Intergovernmental Conference and the Standing Committee on the Convention worked, not least because there were no votes. However, there was an expression of sentiment, which we took away and dealt with.
The hon. Gentleman said that he and I were assiduous attenders of that Committee. He is right. It is a matter of regret that as far as I recall, the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), the shadow Foreign Secretary, never turned up to one of the sittings of the Standing Committee on the Convention or the Standing Committee on the Intergovernmental Conference, notwithstanding his rather grandiloquent remarks earlier.
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op): May I ask the Foreign Secretary to ignore the churlish remarks of the shadow Foreign Secretary? Not only did he do nothing when he was in office, but he did not even call for the statement. I greatly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. As so much now, right across the board, is decided in Europe, it is important that we have accountability. However, if this Committee is to have the importance that it deserves, it is imperative that Members can attend it and attend this Chamber. Will my right hon. Friend therefore draw the issue to the attention of the Leader of the House, in the light of the possible revision of the House's sitting hours? If we go on as we are, trying to pack everything into the mornings and afternoons, the Committee will not enjoy the attendance that it deserves.
This matter will come before the House, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House knows my opinion and those of many other Members. It is a matter of record that the decision to sit on Tuesday between 11.30 am and 7 pm was passed by only seven votes, and I know of at least eight Members who have changed their minds since then.
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): As a new member of the European Scrutiny Committee, I am horrified at the volume of EU proposals pouring through it each week. A fraction of them are examined, and they cannot be amended in any respect. Since the problem of over-regulation and excessive legislation exists higher up the food chainin the EU itselfwhy are the Government arguing in the constitution for more powers for the EU and for more majority voting, which would increase the volume of legislation that the House has to deal with? Will the right hon. Gentleman explain the extra powers of the Committee that he is setting up? Otherwise, we shall simply debate again proposals that we cannot block or amend in any respect. What additional powers is he Foreign Secretary proposing for the Committee to reject proposals that the House does not want?
Mr. Straw: I am concerned about the volume of EU proposals and so is my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That is why, in the pre-Budget report of 10 December, he announced an important initiative, taken with the other forthcoming presidencies, through which we will try to get a grip on the volume of regulations coming out of Brussels. I should point out that the Commission is becoming increasingly aware of this issue, and it is one of the reasons why support for the EU is diminishing across Europe. We must also deal with gold-plating and drafting. Conservatives may want to excise the memory of this, but I should repeat for the right hon. Gentleman's benefit that, when they were in government for 18 years, they did nothing at all about the volume of legislation. However, we are trying to deal with it.
The European Scrutiny Committee does a very good job, and as the right hon. Gentleman knows, I have taken the trouble to attend its meetings and give evidence; indeed, I am told that I am the first Foreign Secretary to do so. However, the Committee isto use his analogytoo far down the food chain. We want proposals to be discussed when they are in draft form. Because such proposals are, by definition, simply draft proposals, they are unlikely to be subject to a vote. However, if Parliament is alerted to them, it is possible to call for debates on them in Government or Opposition time. In any event, my ministerial colleagues and I see our role in Europe as representing not just the British Government, but the British Parliament and the
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I warmly welcome the excellent proposals that the Foreign Secretary has introduced today. They are a response to what Members on both sides of the House have been calling for, and they refocus the Government's European policy on the reform agenda. As he has attended many summits, he will know that it is not just a question of going to the summit and getting the conclusions; what matters is how they are implemented. What is the current status of the proposed second chamber for the European Parliament that the Prime Minister raised the possibility of in a speech in Warsaw three years ago? Does that still form part of the discussion, or is it no longer on the agenda?
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving us advance notice of his statement, and I declare an interest, like others, as a member of the European Scrutiny Committee. On behalf of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, I warmly welcome measures that will improve scrutiny and accountability. However, why has no commitment been made to ending the secrecy of relations between the UK Government and devolved Administrations, as outlined in the concordats? That would surely be a good first step towards assisting scrutiny in the House, the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and, in due time, the Northern Ireland Assembly.
In the absence of complete details about the workings of the planned Committee, will the Foreign Secretary give an assurance that the plans are not a cover to diminish the attendance of Ministers at detailed evidence sessions of the European Scrutiny Committee? Does he agree that the Conservatives, who were quick to criticise much of his statement, would have more credibility on the issue if they had a better attendance record at the Standing Committee on the Intergovernmental Conference?
Mr. Straw: On the last point, I entirely agree. The attendance record of the Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen at the Standing Committee on the Intergovernmental Conference was lamentable, showing that they were not interested in securing significant change and were simply trying to score points.
On the effectiveness of the body, I can say to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) that I very much hope to be able to make arrangements for EU Commissioners to attend and to make statements of the kind that I am making today. While speaking informally with commissioners about the body, I have made the point that they have a job to do simply in explaining to the British Parliament and people what their job is. If there is a great deal more communication, some of the things that come out of Brussels that cause us concern may be less likely to do so.
On the point about relations between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations, it is a matter not quite of secrecy but of maintaining confidences in our relationships. That is important, and is similar to, if not quite the same as, the way in which we maintain confidences with other nation states. I chair a Cabinet Committee that includes members of the devolved Administrations. It is important that they should be fully involved in the decisions that we make on their behalf as well as on our own, and that requires confidence. The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) will know from my work with the European Scrutiny Committee that we are trying to be as open as possible about the work of the British Government, and the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament are trying to do the same.