Debate Europe and Communicating Europe in Partnership

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Jo Swinson: If the Minister does not have the information in front of her, will she outline, perhaps in her concluding remarks, why three centres closed and whether there are any lessons that we should learn as bids for new centres come forward so that they do not suffer the same fate?
Caroline Flint: I am happy to do so.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The first document before us, “Debate Europe”, which was deposited seven months ago, mentions proposals for European public spaces. It proposes that pilot projects
“will be extended to Rome, London, Copenhagen and Berlin”.
Presumably the project in London is now well under way. Will the Minister tell us what a European public space is, where the one in London is, what it is costing, and what the Government’s involvement is?
Caroline Flint: European public spaces are joint communication initiatives that are intended to enable the European Parliament and the European Commission, for example, to set up in the same building and consider ways in which to serve the public as meeting points for the sharing of information. For example, they can jointly offer information and documentation, and host exhibitions, debates, forums, lectures, training and seminars on European issues. This process is about looking for opportunities for much greater collaboration. I do not have the information to hand about London, but I am happy to provide it, and I am happy to provide cost details as appropriate—if not today, then in writing.
Mr. Hoyle: The Minister did not really mention the problem that we have with MEPs not delivering and not being accountable to the areas that they represent. Will she respond to that point?
I am concerned about funding from Europe for political parties. Does the Minister have a view on the extreme parties that could be funded, and is there anything that we can do about that situation? I believe in having a debate, but I certainly do not believe in financing extremists.
Caroline Flint: I apologise for not referring to the situation regarding MEPs that my hon. Friend brought to our attention. Of course within the United Kingdom, due to devolution as well as the European Union, there are various ways in which people are elected to represent local or regional communities. There are issues for some of our MEPs, and I know that when we had Yorkshire South, the situation was somewhat easier.
We face challenges in how we work together. Perhaps one of our jobs is to find better ways of working with MEPs—of whatever party—across the country so that their added-value role is seen in relation to what they do. From what I understand, the Lisbon treaty will give both national Parliaments and the European Parliament opportunities regarding their future scrutiny and policy-making roles. That might help to support MEPs, who do a good job, but find it quite difficult when, for example, they are only one member of a group representing Yorkshire and Humber. We should support MEPs in carrying out their very hard work.
My hon. Friend mentioned funding for extreme groups. Let me say, just for clarity, that the funding covered by these documents is not available to political groups. However, different forms of EU funding are available to any political party that is legally established in an EU member state, provided that it forms part of a wider political grouping, such as the European political party that is represented in a quarter of member states. There are certain other criteria related to transparency of funding. From what I understand, funding is available, but a party would normally have to have a certain number of members and also to be part of one of the groupings within the European Parliament.
Mr. Hoyle: Just to follow up on that, will the Minister say which extreme parties could possibly qualify for funding and tell us whether any of them are in the UK?
Caroline Flint: I do not want anyone to misinterpret me on this issue. For example, money currently goes to 10 separate EU-level political parties, including the Party of European Socialists, which includes the Labour party in Britain; the European People’s party, which at the present time includes the Conservative party in Britain; and Eurosceptic groups such as the Alliance for Europe of the Nations, the EU Democrats and the Independence/Democracy group, which includes the UK Independence party. UKIP is therefore part of one of the European political parties that receives EU funding. If Libertas, a party that has formed in recent times, succeeds in setting up a European political party that meets the representation and transparency criteria, that party would also be eligible for EU funding.
Mr. Francois: The Minister’s predecessor’s correspondence with the European Scrutiny Committee expressed some reservations about the deliberative polling techniques that are used as part of the Eurobarometer polling exercise, which is a subject that crops up quite often in the documents that we are discussing. Does the right hon. Lady, as she now holds the ministerial position, have any reservations about the techniques that are used in Eurobarometer polling?
Caroline Flint: I am aware that some issues have been raised about Eurobarometer polling. From what I understand, one of the issues was whether or not one could poll a member state specifically as opposed to across the EU as a whole. At present it is felt that it is quite important to get a poll across the piece in EU member states so that comparisons can be made and measured against. However, we will be looking closely at whether UK interests are represented in that process. If one asked citizens in the 27 member states which three European Union issues they thought were most important, I am sure that the UK response would be different from others. That issue was at the nub, as far as polling was concerned.
Mr. Francois: In a letter to the European Scrutiny Committee dated 5 July, which is on page 190 of the bundle, the Minister’s predecessor said:
“The Commission plans to arrange opinion polls in a more strategic manner so that polls are conducted on issues where they will have the most value for recipients and are published at the most appropriate time.”
What does the Minister think that means? Will she assure the Committee that Eurobarometer opinion polls will not be strategically released during the European election campaign?
Caroline Flint: I will certainly look into the timetable regarding statistics. The latest information that I have is that some statistics might be provided in January. Beyond that, I do not know, but I would imagine that the EU, like any other institution, would have to be very mindful of the sort of material that it produced during an election cycle, given the very clear purdah rules for member states. I am happy to get back to the Committee on that, but I believe that the next round of polling information is due in the new year.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The Minister said that she would write to us about European public spaces. I should like to ask her about a separate initiative for Europe Direct centres, which are different. When the Minister’s predecessor wrote to the European Scrutiny Committee earlier this year, he said that he
“would be interested in seeing a full list of the proposed expansion sites in 2009”.
We would also be interested in that, particularly given that that most recent ministerial communication does not say where the centres are or what they do. It gives a bit more information about them—apparently, there are none in London or the east midlands—and says that they are “vital communications multipliers”, but I am not quite sure what a communications multiplier is. Will the Minister tell us where the centres are, or write to us giving that information? I do not think that there are any in my constituency; I certainly have never been into one. Will she tell us what they cost and what exactly they are for?
As I have said, there have been new calls for proposals to run from 2009 to 2013, and the Commission has received applications in that regard. All centres will have to apply under the new call whether they have received grants before or not, so they will have to make a new case for funding. I imagine that that process will involve an evaluation of how good centres have been. The hon. Lady mentioned three centres that have closed down, and I said that I would be happy to look into why that happened. This is not about setting up separate buildings or bureaucracies, but about adding to community information centres and finding ways of giving information about the EU that might be helpful to local citizens. Such an approach has to be kept under review so that we can see what is being produced and whether communication is in touch with what people want in the 21st century. The internet, for example, seems to be both cheaper and more appealing to the younger generation.
Jo Swinson: On monitoring and assessing the engagement that has already taken place as part of plan D, what lessons might be learned in relation to Debate Europe? I draw the attention of the Committee to page 2, which states:
“Some 40,000 people took part in person in the six transitional Plan D projects co-funded by the Commission, and ‘hundreds of thousands are estimated to have participated virtually via the Internet’.”
When I did the maths, it struck me that 40,000 people are equivalent to 0.005 per cent. of the population of Europe, which does not seem to be a high participation rate. Given our earlier discussion about how the European Union thought it could have these consultations locally, if this took place only in the capital cities, perhaps we should be astonished that as many as one in 20,000 citizens in Europe managed to take part. That strikes me as a low figure.
The hundreds of thousands who are estimated to have participated virtually via the internet are part of a more positive story. However, it struck me that it was an estimated number. Surely, in these days of internet technology, we ought to be able to provide a more accurate estimate than hundreds of thousands. That could be anything from 100,000 to 200,000 or nearly a million. Even if the figures are not immediately at the Minister’s fingertips, can she give the Committee a more accurate figure in relation to the level of engagement and how many people participated? The consultation was probably the type that passes most people by. If we are to go forward and improve communication, we need to understand how successful the previous consultation was.
Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): I wonder whether, in her new role as Minister for Europe, my right hon. Friend will take time to consider again how European matters are scrutinised in the House in relation to democracy. Despite all the recent reports on that matter, we do not seem to be inspiring enthusiasm any more than in the past.
Annexe 1, on page 31 of the document, notes projects that have been
“co-funded by the Commission Representations in the framework of Plan D in 2007-2008”.
Some of those projects appear to be related more to community development in local areas than to enhancing democracy in terms of people’s perceptions of the EU. Will the Minister tell the Committee a bit more about the purpose of those particular funded projects?
Caroline Flint: All those projects have to go through a selection process. If Committee Members do not have them already, I am happy to provide the criteria for that selection process. I do not decide that myself; the Commission does so by working through the matter. It is trying to consider a variety of ways in which to engage with people—for example, I understand there was a project directed at young people’s discussions of climate change and their views on that. There was another project directed at women in Northern Ireland.
Such projects can have many different forms, and that is not a bad idea. However, all the projects are about trying to get people to discuss different issues that are relevant to how the EU impacts on their daily lives. As I have said, the idea is to get a mix of views back. We hope that the EU is informed by those projects and that the people who take part do not just keep them to themselves but use them in further discussions within the community. I suppose that part of community development is about understanding who makes decisions, where they make them, and what power they have, whether it is the local council, the MP or, at an EU level, the European Parliament or the Council of Ministers.
On the scrutiny process in the House of Commons, of course this is part of it. In the past four weeks, I have appeared before various House of Lords Committees and have corresponded with colleagues in both Houses. Part of it is trying to talk more plainly about the added value of the EU in our daily lives. Sometimes the debate is separated, in that we talk about what we do in the UK but do not explain how it is enhanced by EU added value.
To give one example, as a former Home Office Minister, I know that the trust and collaboration that we have been able to get in tackling crime was greatly enhanced by being part of the EU. I have no doubt that legislation such as that for the European arrest warrant is a contributing factor to ensuring that there is no place for criminals to hide in the EU. We do not talk about that enough, and we do not give information that is accessible to people and allows them to see how what the EU does fits alongside local policing and neighbourhood teams in their area. We need to think about how we can get better at that.
Those of us who believe that there is added value from the EU have a responsibility to provide such information, because there are plenty of others who want to try to undermine the EU and what it offers to people in this country, which is not very helpful. That is a political choice that parties need to make, but we can get better at providing information. I hope that I can contribute to a plainer discussion about the real outcomes of what the EU offers. Nothing is clearer in that respect than the present discussions, which I believe have helped to stabilise the situation across the EU, on taking action on the banking problems in many EU countries.
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