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The committee, and every such sub-committee, shall
sit in public unless it determines otherwise in relation to a particular meeting or part thereof.
That could not be clearer. Irrespective of any point that the hon. Gentleman may wish to make about the drafting of a particular amendmenton which I will make no comment because I will be supporting itthe current
presumption is that the Committee is required to sit in public unless it has determined otherwise in relation to a particular meeting.
Chris Bryant: Leaving aside the drafting, there is a more important and substantive issue: whether there should be a presumption that the Committee meets in private unless it chooses to meet in public, or the other way round.
First and foremost, it is the accepted practice of this House, in every other Committee, that they meet in private when deliberating, and in public when considering evidence. That is an important principle, which has been reasserted by many Speakers of this House throughout the centuries, not least because if the deliberating process of a Select Committee or any other Committee were an open matter, the proper deliberation of a report would be thoroughly undermined. Many hon. Members will recall that drafts of Committee reports have sometimes leaked, leading to an investigation by the House as to why.
Mr. Hands: The current Committee system for European scrutiny is simply not working. At the moment, according to the Standing Orders, we meet as soon as is convenient after 11 oclock. We meet in private at 11, and as soon as is convenient after 11. People who show up to our Committee have simply no idea of when it will start. A constituent of mine, with a personal and professional interest in environmental policy, has been visiting for some weeks, and has written to me saying:
For several months now I have been trying to attend sittings of the European Scrutiny Committee which I understand to meet in public and to regularly review EU legislation in this field. On several occasions I waited for nearly one hour outside what is apparently the committees meeting room only to be told that no one could say when the public session would start...I regret to tell you that your body, which is apparently entrusted with scrutinising EU laws, appears to be a bad joke and a farce. The EU is accused of being secretive. What is our Parliament but exactly the same?
If the hon. Gentleman were in the position of a member of the public trying to attend our Committee, he would find it practically impossible to do so because he would be left sitting outside for an interminable length of time.
It is certainly true that when I visited the European Scrutiny Committee it felt as if time had stood still. However, the hon. Gentlemanand if I may say so, his constituentmakes an important mistake.
The European Scrutiny Committee [ Interruption. ] If the hon. Gentleman will keep calm and listen. The Committee is not there to decide on the policy of this House with regard to any piece of European legislation. It is there to do a specific job, which is to decide where a document or policy recommendation should be properly considered. Every place where such matters are properly considered is fully open and has no private sittings. I say to the hon. Gentleman, and anyone else who is urging change on this matter, that there is a fundamental misconception about the nature of the European Scrutiny Committee.
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.
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.[ Official Report, 7 February 2008; Vol. 471, c. 1182.]
Chris Bryant: But since then, the European Scrutiny Committee, as the hon. Gentleman knows full well, has met and considered whether it should meet in public or private and it has decided to go in the other direction. That was not just a matter of Eurosceptics voting for everything to be in public and Europhilesor sensible, pragmatic Europeansvoting for the Committee to meet in private for its deliberations.
Chris Bryant: I was just coming to my hon. Friend. My very honourable, very friendly friend from Luton, North, with whom I disagree on many matters relating to Europe, none the less voted with the Chair of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty).
Kelvin Hopkins: I agree strongly with my hon. Friends comments throughout the debate. Does he accept from someone who has served on the Committee for more than a year and who has seen it in both modesthe mode before the public mode worked wellthat what happens now is farcical and simply does not work?
Chris Bryant: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I think that I have said previously that some hon. Members have a single transferable speech on European mattersI know I doand my hon. Friend has heard it many times, as has the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), who is chuntering on the Conservative Front Bench. There is a confusion of principle, which hon. Members who want to insist that the Committee always meet in public, are asserting.
In the Lords, one person, namely Lord Grenfell, does the sifting in private, and there is little criticism of the way in which the House of Lords conducts that business. I do not advocate moving to a position whereby only my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East
Falkirk, the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, does the sifting, because the process of advising the Committee is important.
That leads me to another point about the confusion in some hon. Members minds. Those who advise the Committee are advisers to the Committee, not the Government. That is an important principle. Many Select Committees have advisers and it is not right for them to have to provide their advice in public. They should give their advice in private as part of the deliberative process so that Members can go on in public sittings to make whatever speeches they want.
We are not considering whether we believe that matters should be kept private or public. I have argued from the Back Benches that it is important to conduct European scrutiny far better than we have done in the past. I believe that the measures that we introduced in the past year, which we want to roll forward, have made a significant contribution. I point out to Conservative Members that not only Labour Members in the European Scrutiny Committee voted in favour of the option for the Committee to vote to sit in private. The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who could hardly be described as a rabid, pro-Labour pro-European, also voted for that.
and that paragraph 10 of Standing Order No.143 be replaced by the following paragraph:
(10) Each such Committee shall determine at the beginning of each meeting whether any part of or all of its business that day shall be conducted in private;
and that the Standing Order, as amended, shall have permanent effect from 1st January 2009..
The Deputy Leader of the House claims that amendment (a) to motion 8 is not fundamentally about whether the European Scrutiny Committee should meet in public or private, but it is precisely about that. It is about whether the Houses deliberations on European legislation should be open and transparent, with members of the public able to come in to hear and see the decisions that hon. Members make about the importance or otherwise of European legislation.
It is a great pity that casual readers of the Governments motion would think that it was merely about confirming some small changes to the way in which the House scrutinises European legislation. I am happy to support the changes. Indeed, I believe that the House should go considerably furtherI have published a document and proposals on the matter, but they are for another day. However, the casual reader would miss the fact that the Government are trying to take the Committee back to the position that pertained before our debate on 7 February. They are trying to reconsider whether the deliberations of the European Scrutiny Committee, when it is determining the importance of legislation from the
European Commission for the House and the country, should be available and open to members of the public or be carried out behind closed doors.
Mr. Jim Hood (Lanark and Hamilton, East) (Lab): The right hon. Lady knows that no other Committee deliberates in public. What is so special about the European Scrutiny Committee that it should do so in public, and what effect would that have on the advisers to the Committee? Is it not the case that the real scrutiny is done when legislation undergoes further scrutiny in the European Committee or Select Committee?
Mrs. May: The hon. Gentleman asks about the difference between the European Scrutiny Committee and the other Committees mentioned by the Deputy Leader of the House when he was talking about the normal procedures of the House. I was about to make the point that I disagree with the Governments position precisely because the European Scrutiny Committee is very different from other Select Committees. The other Select Committees take evidence in public on issues, and then they decide what they are going to say about those issues. The European Scrutiny Committee is completely different. It decides the importance of the legislation from Europe that constitutes 50 to 70 per cent. of the legislation passed in this country. That is very different from the normal job of a Select Committee.
Labour Members get very excited about this issue, but it has long been my view that one of the problems in the debate about European legislation is that many people feel that it is something that is done to us, without this Parliament giving it any proper scrutiny. The figures show that of the 1,000 or so documents that the European Scrutiny Committee sees each year, only some 500 are considered to be significant and only some 50 receive proper scrutiny and debate. It is my firm belief that if we opened up the process to show what the House is doing on European legislation, it would be valuable in showing the public the role that the House plays. We should go further in scrutinising European legislation, but the debate today is about the European Scrutiny Committee.
Keith Hill (Streatham) (Lab): Is the right hon. Lady aware of the note from the Library that reveals that a maximum of 10 per cent. of the statutory instruments considered by the House originate in Europe? Can she offer the House the evidence she has for her assertion that 60 to 70 per cent. of our legislation originates in Europe?
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): The 50 per cent. estimate is an underestimate. It is more like 80 per cent.at least, that was the conclusion of the Bundestag committee that examined this issue. It is not only statutory instruments that implement EU legislation: all EU regulations are implemented directly, without any implementing legislation, although that is done under the authority of this House. If we take into account the totality of statute and regulation, the figure is nearly 80 per cent., and my right hon. Friend was being characteristically modest and cautious in her estimate.
Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): Does the right hon. Lady believe that the advice given by the civil servants to the Committee should be subject to public debate? If so, does she think that that will affect the nature of that advice?
Mrs. May: I have thought long and hard about this particular issue. As hon. Members will see, and as I did in the amendment that was accepted by the Government and the House as a whole in February, I would provide the opportunity for the Committee to meet in private when that is considered necessary. I accept that there will be some issues, perhaps relating to national security, when that will be important. Therefore, the Committee needs to have that option available to it.
I take a different view from the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) on what would happen in relation to the advice. It is important that people have an opportunity not only to see proceedings in person by coming to the Committee, as the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) has been trying to do, but to read the official record the deliberations of the Committee, and therefore be able to see why it has taken decisions about the importance of certain documents.
Labour Members have said, Ah, but the proper debate takes place when the documents get to other Committees, but this is a sifting process. It is therefore important for people to see decisions taken by this Parliament as to which documents require further discussion by the Parliament and which do not, and which are dismissed as things that can simply be cleared through the House without the House taking any further interest in them, as well as why those decisions have been taken.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend believe that it is a massive own goal by those who would argue in favour of Europe that they are cloaking their proceedings in secrecy? That is completely at odds with what the Government said in our Lisbon debates, when they talked about a new relationship between national Parliaments and the EU. The first thing they do is insist on secrecy in discussing these documents.
Mrs. May: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. As I said, it has long been my view that the process of helping members of the public to understand a little more about what happens in Europe and the decisions that come out of it is part of showing what the House does and what takes place in it. Secrecy in the House only makes people think even more that we have no say in what is happening in the EU.
I say to all those on the Labour Benches and all those around the House who believe strongly in full participation in the EU that opening up this Committee is partone small partof showing people that this Parliament does have a say and takes its job seriously.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab):
I have a very small point to raise with the shadow Leader of the House. To use the word secret is improper: on a weekly basis, the Committee publishes every single report on any document that is considered,
and those reports are available to the public, so it cannot be secret. Things may happen in private, but she should not call it secret, or she is saying that every deliberation of every Committee is secret. If a Committee publishes its results, they cannot be secret.
I recognise that some important reports have been published by the Committee. For example, the report on the statutory reserve in relation to the Lisbon treaty was significant, but I still believe that the process and discussion on the sifting of those documents should take place in public. The presumption should be that the Committee meet in public. That is why my amendment is worded as it is. The presumption is that it would meet in public and start its meetings in public. If it chose to go into private session, people could see that as well.
Mr. Hendrick: Contrary to what the right hon. Lady said earlier in highlighting the difference between this Select Committee and others, this Committee takes evidence from Ministers and regularly debates things in full view of the public. In talking about Europe being done to this country, she seems to forget that there is a European Parliament to which people from the UK are directly elected to deliberate on our behalf, see everything that is produced by the Commission and vote on legislation, in some cases before it even gets to the House. I cannot understand the right hon. Ladys logic. Would not some of her Back-Bench colleagues wish to grandstand on many of these issues because they are not winning the arguments in the House?
Mrs. May: If the hon. Gentleman disputes my comments about the general publics views about what happens in this House to legislation from Brussels, he should ask people on the street what they think. The majority of people in this country believe that European legislation just comes out of Brussels and that Parliament does not play a proper [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman says that those beliefs are not true, but in that case he should support my amendment, so that people can see that it is not true. That is the whole point of what I have proposed.
Chris Bryant: Will the shadow Leader of the House tell us whether she visited the European Scrutiny Committee last year in its previous incarnation, whether she has visited it this year and if so, whether she noticed any difference, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) described?
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