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The Deputy Leader of the House asks that question because he knows the answer. I have not
visited the European Scrutiny Committee; I have, however, spoken in some depth to those who serve on it. They do not just visit the Committee, but take part in all its meetingswe will come shortly to the impact that the debate that we had on 7 February and the motion that we passed then has had on the Committees meetings.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Is the difficulty not so much that the Committee wants to hide its deliberations on so many European documents behind a cloak of secrecy, but that it wants to give the impression that there are no such deliberations? Huge reams of material go through entirely unscrutinised and on the nod, and if people saw that in public, they would never stand for it.
Mrs. May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that extremely important point. The precise point is that people should be able to see what is happening. As it happens, my proposals to change European scrutiny would give the House much greater abilities to scrutinise European legislation in a variety of ways. [ Interruption. ] I hope that my hon. Friend is comfortable now that he is back on the Front Bench.
I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to contribute and I want to make progress. When the House accepted the 7 February change to procedures, there was a presumption that the Committee would meet in public and go into private session only in special and exceptional circumstances. Sadly, what has happened, as evidenced by the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham who has been trying to attend meetings of the Committee, is that meetings have started in private. Members of the public who attend do not know when meetings will be opened up for a public session and they often give up and go away.
Mr. Hands: My right hon. Friend is being generous in giving way again. The situation is even worse than that. Although the Committee starts in private and at a point not determined in advance goes into public session, it also has the right to return to sitting in private at any time thereafter. The meeting could therefore have three stages, which is extremely repellent for any member of the public who wants to attend.
Mrs. May: I accept my hon. Friends point, which is about the frustration both of the desire of those of us who tabled the amendment on 7 February and, I believe, of the will of the House at that time, which was in favour of a presumption that meetings would be held in public. It is important that meetings should start in public.
I want briefly to mention motion 9 and amendment (a) to it. The Deputy Leader of the House started by describing how the motion favoured Back Benchers, in
that it would reduce the amount of time that Front Benchers have to speak. It is certainly true that the proposal would reduce the amount of time given to Front Benchers in relation to interventions. I also accept the need to ensure that Back Benchers have a suitable amount of time to speak in topical debates.
I do not accept, however, that the Liberal Democrats should be given the same amount of time to speak as the official Opposition. I hope that the House will support my amendment, which would ensure that the conventions [ Interruption. ] The Deputy Leader of the House laughs, but he was talking about the usual practice of the House earlier, and the usual practice is that the Government and the official Opposition are given the prime time and that the Liberal Democrats are not treated in the same way.
Many other hon. Members wish to speak in the debate. I urge the House to support the amendments that I tabled. It is important to the whole debate about Europe that we open up the procedures of the House on the scrutiny of European legislation and enable members of the public to see those and to read about the deliberations that have taken place in the Committee in the official record. That way, people will be able justifiably to challenge us on what the House does when it comes to European legislation.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): May I first deal with the calumny of the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne)? He has probably never asked his hon. Friends who sit on the European Scrutiny Committee to see the paperwork it deals with. Those who take it seriously read every paper. That is the secret of European legislation: reading all the papers. I can assure him, as the Chairman of the Committee, that I read every document that comes, including the explanatory memorandum from the Department concerned and, often, the material that comes from the European Union, as do many other members of the Committee. That could be one of the problems: it is a heavy load to lift, and when people become involved in it, they can become somewhat obsessed.
I want to put it on record that it is not correct that in the February debate the House agreed that the Committee should meet in public in such a way that would not protect the members of staff of the Housethey are not civil servantswho give us advice. Therefore, we had to construct a methodI believe that I said on the record that we could construct a system whereby we could get information from our advisers without their becoming, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) said, the cats paw of the European scrutiny processthat ensured that it is the Committee, not the staff, that is reported. We have a private sitting in which we question the staff who put together their advice on the lettersthe correspondence sectionand the explanatory memorandums that we receive. The latter involves questions on A briefs, which, as has been said, are politically and economically important, and B briefs, which are considered not to be politically important, even if people sometimes decide that they should come back as A briefs so that they can be formally reported to the House. That was the construction.
If Members were serious about the public attendingI am talking specifically about the Members who keep
telling us that their constituents are banging down the door to get inthey would not talk at such great length and keep the public out. If we look at reports of Committee meetings, we see that the public sittings run for 10 or 15 minutes and, even if they are longer, they are certainly less than half an hour. However, reports of private sittings, in which Opposition Members who are obsessed about Europe talk at great lengthon many occasions they talk off the subject, just to show that they know about everything to do with Europeshow that sittings can last for more than two hours. The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) said that his constituents sit outside gasping to come in, but they are kept out by the very Members who are supposed to want them in. That is truth of what happens: it has turned into a farce.
If the shadow Leader of the House and her deputythe right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara)had accepted the invitation that I put to them in writing to come to the meetings, as the former Deputy Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and the present Deputy Leader of the House did, they would see that public meetings are greatly delayed by the activities of Opposition Members who cannot seem to stop themselves grandstanding on every issue .
Mrs. May: If the hon. Gentleman is so enthusiastic about members of the public being able to see what is happening in his Committee, as Chairman of the Committee he can to move into the public session earlier. The deliberations of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash)if that is who he is implyingor other members of the Committee would then be in public.
Michael Connarty: If the right hon. Lady looks back at the debate, she will find that the House decided that we should protect officials of the House when they give us advice. That is not possible unless we go through the process. We must treat their advice seriously, but in private sittings I have seen members of my Committee arguing, sometimes three or four times, to try to get an official to change the recommendation that they stand by. That is not what the Committee is about, but that is what is happening.
Let me explain what the Committee does. We decide whether [Interruption.] I am not giving way yet. We decide whether something is economically or politically important and whether it should be sent somewhere else for further scrutiny. We do that after correspondence, which is dealt with as a private matterthe correct way to deal with ongoing correspondence with a Ministerand we do it by calling for evidence from a Minister, who defends the Governments position in front of us. That happens if we think the Government are taking a wrong decision and breaking a scrutiny reserve. Alternatively,
we send it for a debatea public debate that any Member, not just those in the European Scrutiny Committee or other relevant Committees, can attend. We sometimes send a matter to the Floor of the House for debate and we sometimes produce specific reports. The shadow Leader of the House mentioned our recent report on the Lisbon treaty and another recent one on subsidiarity; those are public documents.
I believe that those processes can be undertaken without any need for the public to attend. I am quite sorry that we have reached this position, because we have failed to deliver a system that protects our officers and at the same time allows the Committee to function properly. We had an informal meeting on that, but certain Members who talk at great length did not bother to turn up to discuss with our officialsin confidence and in privatehow to modify the system. They did not turn up, so we brought it back to a public sitting of the Committee and put a resolution to the Leader of House that, in line with the normal practice of Select Committees, we should deliberate in private. That is the fact of the matter.
Angus Robertson: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is an excellent Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, that the status quo is not sustainable. However, does he agree with me that going back to meeting largely in private, other than when evidence is being taken, will not be understood by the public? Although it may cause problems for the advisers, who may feel that they cannot be as open as they could if we met in public all the time, does not the hon. Gentleman accept that, on balanceit is a fine judgment callit is much better to meet in public than in private?
Michael Connarty: I would have thought that over the past 10 years we could have introduced a system to achieve that. The shadow Leader of the House failed to say that Labour Members accepted an agreement to try to work out a system and not to force the Standing Order amendment that was on the Order Paper in February. That system might have worked and might have been a move in the right direction, but we did not get the chance to try it because the Standing Order was forced on to the Order Paper the night beforeas in the present caseand very late in the day when many Members had already been allowed to go home to their families. They were not in the House; that is the truth of it.
This time, we have to face reality. I would love to work our way out of this. I do not know whether the Conservative party wants to allow its Members to get it out of their system every week by regaling our Committee. People who read the papers are told what is in the papers by Opposition Members and then the arguments go on interminablya good word that the shadow Leader of the House usedin Committee. We thus do not get to the point, which is to discuss not the merits but the importance of a document in order to get it sent to the appropriate place for further discussion. The failure has resulted from the way in which the Committee has been treated by Conservative Members. I am sorry about that, but the only way forward I can see is to deliberate in private, and then perhaps to have a sensible discussion about how we can move towards a better system so that the public get the chance to see all we do.
I wonder how many Opposition Members, apart from Committee members, have read the weekly chapters in these documents. How many of them have read the reports produced by Hansard? Very few have done so.
Mr. Cash: Will the hon. Gentleman take up an invitation that I extend to him? In return for having all these proceedings in public, could the public have the right to decide whether the so-called interminable arguments, to which he refers, are justified or not? A number of recent documents got through only through his casting vote.
Michael Connarty: I think that my casting vote was always given on the recommendation of the Committees officials, because I respect their ability and judgment and the way in which they have supported my Committee.
Mr. Borrow: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Does he agree that at the heart of the debate is the question of whether the desirability of the Committees holding all its sittings in publicwhich, if it included the advice given by Committee officials, could restrict the clarity of that advice and pose the risk that the Committee would make poorer decisionsshould outweigh the fact that if the officials give their advice in private, they can be open and blunt and better decisions may result? Is that not the balance that the House must strike? The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) has clearly concluded that he would prefer these issues to be dealt with in public, with the risk that the Committee will make poorer decisions. I take a different view, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend would like to comment.
Michael Connarty: As I said at the outset, and as I have said all along, for as long as I have been a member of the Committee I have inclined to the idea that we should open up and add the public to what we already have, which is a fairly disciplined process in the private sessions. Adding the public sessions has turned our business into something completely different. I regret that, because I must now step back and say that if I want the Committee to work efficiently, and if I want Members to take the business seriously without being regularly harangued, we must return to private sessions.
My final point is not about what happens in the Committee. I still regret the fact that, under the Standing Orders, we no longer have three European Standing Committees with fixed membership. That would have allowed us to have 15 or 16 Members on those three Committees who would learn about European business, and would regularly bring that experience to our Committee. That is how I came on to the Committee, but now there is an ad hoc system of appointing members, and all that we have to supplement that membership are the two European Scrutiny Committee members. They give our Committee direction, and I support the idea that members should come from the subject Committees, but the
fact remains that they already possess knowledge of Europe and European business. We are not training a new set of people in European business, as we used to when there was set membership of the three Standing Committees.
Mr. Steen: I feel that I must make a confession. As the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood) will recall, I set the hare running when I observed that there were enough Tory Members to defeat the Labour Members. As a result, we tabled a motion proposing that we meet in public.
I have been a Committee member since those early days, and I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman agrees with the following propositions. First, the present system does not work. Secondly, we need to be more open. Thirdly, we have not found a way of ensuring that that happens, and we must do so. Perhaps we should attempt to adjourn this debate, and have a discussion outside about how we can do it.
Michael Connarty: I recognise the hon. Gentlemans substantial diplomatic skills. I think that if we had approached the situation in that manner when the Leader of the House made the offer in February, we might have made some progress rather than finding ourselves in the present impasse. I deeply regret that too, and I hope that Members will support the Government in the Lobby.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): I wish to deal with an issue which, although it is occupying a smaller part of the debate, is as important as the resttopical debates. We welcome the Government amendments. We particularly welcome the provision of 10 minutes rather than six, principally because that is the procedure followed in other parts of the House such as Westminster Hall, and we see no reason for it to be rejected. As for the Conservative amendment, I think it particularly mean that more Conservative Front Benchers than Liberal Democrat Front Benchers will always be called to speak because of the balance of membership in the House, and the ratio of those who are likely to catch the Speakers eye will be three or four to one. That is in the nature of things.
A topical debate business committee should be established which would be responsible for the scheduling of and choice of subject for topical debates. Its membership should include backbenchers and business managers. Its chairman should be a backbencher.
Will the Deputy Leader of the House consider that? Alternatively, will he explain why that recommendation cannot be implemented? He may conclude that he does not want to go down that path, but does he recognise that if we do not use a cross-party business committee to choose the subject, more needs to be done to improve the transparency of this selection process? Members need to know the rationale behind the choices made, because the subjects sometimes do not appear to be inherently topical. Tomorrow, we shall debate obesity, but I am unsure as to why, all of a sudden, that should be the subject of a topical debate, despite its importance.
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