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I put the matter of the Lisbon treaty and the Prime Minister into that category. I urge people in trade associations, professional organisations and trade unions to volunteer information to the Committee so that our advisers have the best possible advice available on what is going on in the world outside. With the best will in the world, they can form a judgment as expert advisers, but they need as well-informed a judgment as possible. What would be better, in relation to questions affecting industry, commerce or whatever, than all the
people who wanted to make representations being able to use the Committee as a means to ensure that any debate that is held is held on the right basis?
Kelvin Hopkins: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about outside organisations making representations so that we are better informed. Would it not also be a good idea for general advice to be issued to Select Committees stating that any documentation that comes to them that they think relevant to European legislation should be passed to us on a regular basis? Many Select Committees, such as the one I belong to, receive a series of documents submitted by outside organisations, which give very valuable advice. Those might be helpful to the European Scrutiny Committee, too.
Mr. Cash: I concur with that point. I support any means whereby the maximum useful information can be made available in a decision of matters that, once decided in the Council of Ministers, becomes apparently irrevocable. Such decisions cannot be changed by this Parliament except through the use of the formula
notwithstanding the European Communities Act 1972,
which I believe we should use, perhaps more often than some people might suppose. The question is one of whether we legislate in this House, or through the Council of Ministers and the European Court of Justice.
The committee shall have power to seek from any committee specified in paragraph (12) of this order
its opinion on any European Union document, and to require a reply to such a request within such time as it may specify.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sure that it has been extremely informative to put the answer to that question on the record, but it lies outwith the motions and amendments we are discussing. I think that I should steer the hon. Gentleman back to the proposals before the House.
Mr. Cash: I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because having served on the European Scrutiny Committee with you for 14 years, I know that you know a great deal about how the workings of the Committee.
Debate on decisions of the European Scrutiny Committee.
Mr. Cash: I am extremely grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I had not appreciated that; I would not have referred to it otherwise. It is an interesting amendment, but I had not appreciated that it was not selected. What a pityparticularly as I was one who proposed the idea behind it, which the shadow Leader of the House then took up. But there we are. It is funny how these things go in circles. [ Laughter. ] I think that I am getting the message.
Mr. Cash: A number of amendments have not been selected, and I apologise for even referring to the existence of this one. It suggested that there would be a power to send for officials of the European Parliament and the European Commissionsomething we should do more regularly.
The essence of the important debate is whether we can improve the quality of the scrutiny process, for reasons that go to the heart of the way in which we tackle such issues. The Committee was set up immediately after the European Communities Act 1972 was passed to act as an advisory body and ensure that things were done properly. On the whole, in the years since 1972, the Committee has done a good job and is getting better. When I first served on the Committee, there was a tendency to be rather relaxed about some provisions. Nowadays, a serious analysis is conducted, possibly because the accumulated functions have become so great that we have to take the Committee even more seriously.
We need to improve our arrangements. I still believe that the notwithstanding formula will become necessary, for example, for the charter of fundamental rights, the supremacy of Parliament and the Bill of Rights provisions, which we will discuss later, when we consider the treaty. Having said that, the debate is important and the European Scrutiny Committee does a good job, despite the fact that not many people outside take a blind bit of notice of what we do.
Mr. Vara: The hon. Gentleman should enjoy it while it lasts. He and his colleagues on the Committee do a terrific job, despite the difficulties, many of which have already been articulated. They should be commended for that. I thank all the speakers who have taken part in the debate, especially given that the House is due to rise for a few days.
I am pleased that the Government have recognised the inadequacies in the European scrutiny procedure,
although I fear that the concessions are merely tinkering and do not go to the heart of what is required to scrutinise properly the legislation that stems from Brussels in an ever-increasing flow.
It is especially regrettable that no proposal has been made to challenge the override facility, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) referred. That mechanism allows the Government to override the scrutiny reserve power of European Committees to agree to European legislation at central meetings between Ministers of the member states and European Union officials. It is noteworthy that, since 2001, the Government have used the override facility on more than 350 occasions to bind Britain to European Union legislation without debate in either House or any express consent from Parliament. We also have the so-called fast-track system, whereby some 60 per cent. of all legislation is passed. It allows legislation to be adopted straight away after it has passed its First Reading in the European Parliament. Again, there is no scope for proper scrutiny of that legislation.
I am pleased that the Deputy Leader of the House acknowledges the problem of the 12 weeks when the European Scrutiny Committee does not sit but the European Commission still legislates. However, I am not convinced that the matter should be left, as she proposes, simply to the discretion of the Committee to sit during the recess. That needs to be reconsidered.
I endorse the point of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who said that he greatly hoped that the Government would accept proposals that might enhance the scrutiny of the legislation that stems from Brussels. The proposals for opening up scrutiny to the public are simply not good enough at present. It cannot be right that a procedure that deals with so much legislationbelieved to be some 60 per cent. of the legislation impacting on the British publicis held behind closed doors. The public are already rightly wary of the subject; continuing in a secret way will only add to that wariness. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) that there is a fair amount of contempt in some quarters for the lack of scrutiny. That will only increase unless we make a genuine attempt to open up the proceedings in that area.
Incidentally, the Deputy Leader of the House will no doubt be aware that the lack of openness flies in the face of what the Prime Minister said in his opening days about wanting his Government to be open and frank. I appreciate that that made a good soundbite at the time and that it might now just be detail that can be conveniently ignored, but I fear that it is detail of rather great importance that should not be ignored.
My right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House rightly referred to the success of other countries. She mentioned Denmark, to which I should like to add Sweden and Finland, which also have increased scrutiny. We should certainly take lessons from those countries.
The Deputy Leader of the House said that she believed that our amendment (c) would not achieve our aims. We have looked at it and we believe that it does, so I would welcome a further explanation from her on that point.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk made a thoughtful and knowledgeable speech. His experience as Chairman of the august European Scrutiny Committee was clear. I agreed with him entirely, as I am sure did many other hon. Members, when he quoted the late Robin Cook as saying that good scrutiny makes for good legislation.
The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) made a typically informed speech, identifying various points of serious concern. I was particularly pleased that he agreed that there should be more openness of the Committee and its proceedings. The hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) made a valuable contribution, although I did not agree with his reluctance to open up the proceedings of the Committee. I understand his reservations about advisers perhaps being reluctant to give free and frank advice, but when we are talking about 60 per cent. of the legislation impacting on the British people, we have a duty as elected Members to let the public know what advice we are acting upon. The hon. Gentleman and I will therefore have to agree to disagree on that point.
Kelvin Hopkins: My concern is that the Government would effectively have more control if the proceedings were more open than less. For the House to have control, it is important that our advisers should be free to say what they want to say and not be pressurised through becoming public figures. My point was about ensuring that the House is as independent in the matter as possible, rather than having even more control placed in the Governments hands.
Mr. Vara: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, but there has been a tendency in the past decade or so to make officials give the answers and advice that the Government wish to hear. If the Government put less pressure on advisers, they might be minded to give more free and frank advice. My understanding is that many such people are lawyers. If they were practising in another area of the law, the advice that they gave would be on recordif they were in open court, there would be journalists. If the advisers are lawyers, there is no reason why they cannot be open in their advice in this context.
Michael Connarty: To assist the hon. Gentleman, let me say that the point is that the advisers do not work for the Government; they work for Parliament. They work for our Committee with tremendous loyalty and they are in no way interfered with. Some of them have illustrious antecedencethey have been permanent secretaries or senior officials in Departments who have moved over to help us. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) was making was that, if the advisers felt that they might become the focus of attention by being named in the press for giving their advice in public, they would be reluctant to become, as it were, the stars of the show.
May I further help the hon. Gentleman? As I seriously promised, we have been thinking about how we could open up the Committee. It might be possible to structure the proceedings in such a way that we could have half a meeting in private, at which we could have an interchange with our officials, before moving
into public session and formally discussing the documents without asking the officials to speak. We would already have received their written and spoken advice, before our public debate. I think that we might be able to square the circle in that way.
Mr. Vara: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Let me make it absolutely clear that I recognise that we are the public figures, and that there should be no undue pressure on officers and advisers to Parliament. I hope that I have also managed to convey, however, that this is nevertheless an issue. I am grateful to him for providing that suggestion. It is one that needs to be considered, but perhaps we should also consider other angles in trying to resolve the issue. The British public have a right to know what advice we have been given, but we also need to protect those who are giving the advice.
Mr. Cash: In the interest of trying to assist, I point out that my hon. Friend might like to reflect on the fact that, if one were to apply criteria of the kind that are relevant to advice given within Departments, and the rules that apply in those circumstances and to evidence given to other Select Committees, there might be circumstances in which it would simply not be possible to have a completely open session of the kind that the Chairman of the Committee has mentioned. That is not because people want to be secretive about anything; it is simply because a different kind of process would be going on.
Mr. Vara: My thanks go to my hon. Friend for that advice. Given that he has given 23 years service to the Committee, I will certainly do as he instructs and give further thought to the matter. However, one of the amendments would give the Committee the option to sit in private if necessary. That covers the question of striking the right balance between private and public.
I shall move on to, as it happens, the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), which was typically learned. He was right to point out that European scrutiny in the House is at the heart of all that we do. We are right to give it the attention that we do.
This is a vital subject that recurs constantly in public debate and in the House. We, as servants of the people who have elected us, do them a great disservice if we do not give the subject the attention that it deserves. If the public out there are to be obligated by Brussels for at least 60 per cent. of the legislation of this country, they have a right to expect us to give proper scrutiny to all that comes from Brussels.
We have had a thorough debate on European scrutiny this afternoon, and I am pleased to be responding to it. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) spoke on a whole range of issues, and I want first to address the question of overrides. I understand her concern about the level of overrides, but when lookingperhaps with envyacross the North sea at the mandate system that the Scandinavians have chosen, we have to take account of the fact that such a system fits their politics and their system of government, which involves coalitions and in
which all positions have to be negotiated. That is simply not the position that we find ourselves in, and such a system would be too inflexible for us.
During the right hon. Ladys speech, other hon. Members raised the issue of the new rights that Parliament will get under the Lisbon treaty. These are that Parliament should receive documents first and that if 30 per cent. of countries wish to play the orange card, the Commission will have to hold back on its proposals. It is our intention, when the Bill has been through Parliament, to enact the Lisbon treaty and come back [Interruption.] When? When the Act has been passed, we will look more precisely into how these matters should be operated and what resources will be necessary to do so.
Mr. Clappison: Now might be an appropriate moment for me to ask whether the Deputy Leader of the House has an answer to the question I posed earlierhow much of our legislation comes from EU institutions?
Helen Goodman: Despite the fact that, unlike Conservative Members, the Government are supported by the Rolls-Royce machine of the British civil service, I am afraid that I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman about that.
Amendment (c) was proposed by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead. I understood her to say that she was prepared to work with us and withdraw the amendment. I was not sure whether the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) was quite as positive about that as the right hon. Lady, but as I said, I understood her to be happy about working together and waiting to see how things operate in practice.
I know that at a certain point in my speech, my pages got into disorder, so in order to be absolutely clearand particularly for the benefit of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes)let me repeat what I said. We will seek to proceed so that where a Standing Committee has agreed a resolution in different terms from the one proposed by the Government, the motion tabled for agreement in the House will be the one agreed by the Committee. There should be the possibility of having a debate if the Government subsequently seek to amend the motion.
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