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Consideration of European documents in the House of Commons is currently subject to the European scrutiny resolution of 1998, under which Ministers
cannot agree to proposals in the Council of Ministers that have not cleared the Houses scrutiny processes, subject to certain exceptions.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I am sorry to have to raise a matter that is of some concern to me. The hon. Lady mentioned the November 1998 resolution. The European Scrutiny Committee stated unequivocally that the Prime Minister must secure a full debate on the Floor of the House of Commons before signing the treaty of Lisbon. I should make it clear that I am referring here to the opinion of the intergovernmental conference. That document was not cleared at that time, and no debate was held specifically on the intergovernmental conference opinion, in contravention of the scrutiny process. I should be grateful if the hon. Lady explained why that happened. There is no doubt that it did happen; I am referring to the opinion, not the treaty.
Helen Goodman: I understand that the hon. Gentleman takes an earnest and sincere interest in this matter, and I know that he has taken part in the series of debates in Committee of the whole House on the Lisbon treaty Bill. I am sorry if he is not satisfied, but the fact is that we are addressing a separate matter this afternoon.
The Houses scrutiny processes are underpinned by a system of Committee consideration set out in Standing Orders. Documents must be deposited with the European Scrutiny Committee, usually within two working days of publication by the Commission, with a Government explanatory memorandum deposited within a further 10 days. The Committee examines documents for legal or political importance. It might then, after exchanges with relevant Ministers, clear the document or recommend it for debate in a European Standing Committee or on the Floor of the House.
should be in the mainstream of our political life.
Should it not therefore be done in public? When I asked her that at questions earlier today, she said it should not be done in the full glare of publicity. Why should not part of the mainstream of our political life be conducted in the full glare of publicity? What have the Government got to hide about European business that means that it all has to be done in private? Why is she not recommending that Standing Orders be changed to permit us to meet in public?
The Committee examines documents for legal or political importance. It will then sometimes clear them, or recommend them for further debate. Standing Orders provide for three permanent European Standing Committees, to which documents can be referred, with 13 members each.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab):
On the recent intervention by the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), one of the advantages of that
being in private is that officials can give advice that is blunt and to the point; that advice might not be the same were it in public. Does my hon. Friend accept that as being an advantage?
Helen Goodman: What my hon. Friend says is borne of his experience on the European Scrutiny Committee, and it is clear that there are contrary views on this matter, but I will now make a little more progress and come back to it later.
Any MP may attend or speak in the proceedings of the European Standing Committees, but the system of permanent membership fell into disrepair because of the excessive commitment required of some Members. Consequently, the House is operating under a temporary system, whereby each European Standing Committee meets with an ad hoc membership appointed by the Committee of Selection.
Last year, the European Scrutiny Committee examined approximately 1,100 documents, identifying nearly 500 as of sufficient importance to justify comment in a report and recommending nearly 80 for further debate, including five for debate on the Floor of the House. The system has strengths: in particular, it means that every document of any significance is examined quickly; it means that difficult or unclear points can be discussed between a permanent Committee and the relevant Department; it means that important issues can be identified and debated further in the House, with any Member able to participate; it means that the House can come to a view on every document so debated; and it means that the Minister cannot, without having to explain why he or she had had to do so, agree a proposal without those steps having been taken.
tends to be seen as a minority activity, of interest to only a few Members.
The following specific issues have been raised: Members feel that they do not get early sight of EU proposals, although that is improving; most Members do not find EU discussions relating to specific issues to be very visible and they are not able to participate even where they have a specific interest or expertise; the process for questioning is unhelpful to both Ministers and those doing the questioning; Members do not get the papers they need, when they need them; and there is a lack of continuity between the different stages of scrutiny.
The Deputy Leader of the House referred to the fact that when a European document comes back to the Floor of the House it can be agreed. She will be aware that if a document is amended by a European Standing CommitteeI know that that has happened on a number of occasions, because I have been on the Committee in questionthat decision is
immediately reversed on the Floor of the House. I am just a naive, unknowing kind of person, so will she explain to me why a European document never suffers a reverse on the Floor of the House?
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), with support from colleagues on the European Scrutiny Committee, has tabled an amendment that would allow the changes to run only for the remainder of the current year, rather than until the end of the current Parliament. As I have said, the proposals are experimental. It may be that the rest of the current year is long enough to assess their effectiveness, and I am happy to accept his amendment.
Let us turn to the improvements to the system that I am proposing, the first of which relates to the timetable. In 2005, the Modernisation Committee recommended that the Government undertake to alert the House at an early stage of consultation exercises, and the Government accept it.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): It would be ungracious not to acknowledge that what is being proposed is better than we have had in the past. I am happy to place that on record. The Deputy Leader of the House agreed to accept the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Mr. Connarty). That indicates that even if she achieves the rest of her business today, she is willing to take on board ideas that are made after today, with a view to introducing further proposals in due course. Will she confirm that that is the case?
We believe that there also needs to be better scrutiny of the annual Commission work plan. The most appropriate way to do that would be through short debates in Westminster Hall on the annual policy strategy and on the legislative and work programme. Such debates could be expected to fall in March and November.
Our proposals do not set out any major change to the European Scrutiny Committee. However, it is noticeable that the parliamentary calendars of Brussels and the UK are different. A more effective approach might be if the Committee were regularly able to meet before the House returns in October, as it did last year. Ultimately that is a matter for the Committee itself.
I turn to the composition of the European Standing Committees. The proposal before the House would enable ad hoc appointments to be more targeted than has been the case hitherto. Out of 13 members, it is proposed that two places should be filled by members of the European Scrutiny Committee and a further two by members of the relevant departmental Select Committee, and that at least five members would be spokesmen or Whips. Overall, at least nine out of 13
places would thus be filled by Members specifically identified for what they can contribute to debate on a particular document. Furthermore, hon. Members can make representations to their party Whips to take part in a European Committee debate in which they are interested. In many ways, that should provide a more informed debate than those based on the old core membership model, partly because of the wide remits that they had, partly because some of the core members on the permanent Committees felt that they had been press-ganged.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I welcome what my hon. Friend has said. It is a matter for this Chamber and for the political parties. One of the flaws in the old systemone of the reasons there was an apparent, but not intended, lack of interestwas that Members were not given enough notice of subjects. We need a system whereby people can go to their party Whips and say, I am interested in this. When you nominate, can I be in the frame? Hon. Members will need to be given some notice, because people cannot be in two places at once. It is a time scale problem.
Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we have looked at the way that papers are circulated and notice is given, as I shall explain later. Of course, it is not for me in my role as Deputy Leader of the House to make suggestions to other parties about how their Whips Offices should operate, but I hope that they have heard my hon. Friends remarks.
Kelvin Hopkins: I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that one of the reasons hon. Members are less interested and engaged than they might be is the enormous volume of turgid Euro-speak in the documents. One of the great advantages of the private part of the European Scrutiny Committee is that we have simple summaries by officials of the House that state precisely what the document is about, what we need to focus on and what their conclusions are. They are a quick read, and hon. Members could well do with such summaries in the European Standing Committee, too.
Helen Goodman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I hope that his views, which are based on practice, will be heard by other hon. Members who are interested in that aspect of the matter.
In order to maintain all the necessary flexibilities, including the need to maintain the right party balance, the vehicle for delivering appointments to the European Standing Committee is the Committee of Selectionas with all other appointments to Committees. We also see two ways in which the actual proceedings of the European Committees can be made more effective. First, we are agreeing to the 2005 recommendation of the Modernisation Committee that there should be an opportunity for a brief opening statement at the beginning of a Committee sitting by a European Scrutiny Committee member to point out why the document or documents were referred.
Secondly, the period of questioning on a ministerial statement can often be unsatisfactory because members are called to ask a single question at a time, leading to a broken series of unrelated questions. It would be more effective for questioning to take place in a more
Select Committee-like style, with individual members being able to ask a series of related questions in one stretch. So, I am grateful to the Chairman of Ways and Means for agreeing, through the Chairmens Panel, to advise all Chairmen to make that the standard way for conducting the questioning on statements in European Committees. I hope that hon. Members across the House will find that useful.
The Government have also been looking at ways in which Members might be kept better aware of developments on EU issues through the flow of documentation. One way forward is for Members to indicate in advance to the Vote Office the specific matters on which they would be interested to receive European documents. Those documents could be sent directly to the Member concerned without the need to fill in one of the regular and often rather impenetrable yellow lists of EU documents that are available from the Vote Office. I am grateful to the Deliverer of the Vote for his work in making that possible.
A further step that is being taken is for the forthcoming business before the European Committees to be listed in the daily Order Paper along with other future business. I hope that Members will find that a helpful way forward.
I am terribly sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I have lost the place in my speech. While I wait for the rest of it, let me turn to the amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May).
Amendment (c) relates to motions taken on the Floor of the House after a debate in Standing Committee. I understand that the intention is to require that the motion tabled on the Floor of the House is the same as the one agreed by the Standing Committee and that a debate can be held if the Government then table an amendment to it.
The amendment does not achieve either aim. For example, it does not require the motion tabled in the House to be the one agreed by the Committee, but the Government recognise the long running view expressed by previous Committees, including by the Modernisation Committee in 2005, that the motion tabled should be the one agreed by the Committee. If the right hon. Member for Maidenhead will agree not to press the amendment, the Government will undertake to proceed in practice in the way the Opposition seek.
That would mean that, if a Standing Committee agreed a motion different from the one proposed to it by the Government, the motion tabled in the House for agreement would be the one agreed by the Committee. There should be the possibility of a debate if the Government then seek to amend the motion. If any such debate is required, there should be provision for the first vote to be on the form of words agreed by the Committee, rather than on the Governments amendment. That is what happens on Opposition days.
I turn now to the right hon. Member for Maidenheads amendment (e), which deals with the conduct of the work of the European Scrutiny Committee in public. It stems from a request first made in 2003 by the ESC in relation to its sifting of European documents for debate. The Modernisation Committee considered the matter in its 2005 report and concluded that the ESC should have the power to decide whether to meet in public for that purpose for an experimental period.
The ESC has considered the proposal, and taken a different view. I agree with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead that, in general, there is a good case for the important work of sifting to be done in public. However, amendment (e) is not limited to the formal sifting of EU documents undertaken by the ESC: rather, it applies to all of the Committees proceedings and so goes much wider than anything envisaged by the ESC or the Modernisation Committee.
For example, amendment (e) would mean that a discussion in the ESC about internal communications, dates, summer recess work or the order of witnesses would have to end in a vote. If the right hon. Member for Maidenhead will agree not to press the amendment, the Government will come back to the House with a revised form of words providing for the ESC to have the power to decide whether to meet in public for the purposes of sifting documents.
A further step being taken is for the forthcoming business before the European Committees to be listed in the daily Order Paper, along with other future business. I hope that hon. Members will find that helpful, and I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for his authorisation of this measure. If the motions are approved, I shall also send hon. Members a resource pack so that they are aware of the support available for their European scrutiny work.
Helen Goodman: My understanding is that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk has withdrawn amendment (b), but the Government entirely accept the intention behind it. We will use our best endeavours to ensure that when the Committee of Selection meets, the usual channels will have listened to the views of the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee on which hon. Members are best placed to take forward each European Standing Committee. Taken together, the measures that I am proposing will be of real benefit to the House. They will help to improve the accessibility of the processes to all Members, improve the effectiveness of the Governments scrutiny of European business, and make it clearer to the public what we are doing. As I have said, the measures will always be open to further review, and the motion envisages that the Standing Order changes will have effect only until the end of the year. I invite Members to support the motion.
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