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12 Nov 2008 : Column 881

Let me turn to the substantive issue of the quality of debate in the European Scrutiny Committee. I have sat on the Committee for just over three years, and I served on European Standing Committees for four years before that. I take the point made by the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), that those Committees were a good training ground. I wish that we could return to a situation where people served some time on them, and perhaps we could consider that. As he will recall, the problem was that Members who were put on to the European Standing Committees felt as though they were being sent to Siberia—they felt as though they were being punished by the Whips by being made to serve on those Committees for a long time. Whether or not that was a misperception on the part of some Members, the system had its merits, and we need to examine how that structure worked.

As the shadow Leader of the House has mentioned, there needs to be a still wider debate on how we undertake scrutiny in this House. Denmark joined what is now the EU at the same time as the UK, but it has a far more robust system of scrutiny, as do all the new countries that have joined. [Hon. Members: “No they don’t!”] A number of them do. Finland has a robust system, of which the Modernisation Committee was enamoured when it visited that country—it was the basis for one of the proposals as to how we reform scrutiny, but that was rejected. Both the previous and existing Chairs of the European Scrutiny Committee are in the Chamber, and they, like other Members who have served on it, know that proposals have been made on this matter. The shadow Leader of the House made a series of proposals that would have brought Members of the European Parliament to sit alongside us. That seemed to go down fairly well in certain circles until it reached the Whips, who seemingly decided that they could not control what was emerging and so it was flattened.

Mr. Steen: In the hon. Gentleman’s mind, does “robust” equal open or open to the public? Why does he think that serving on those Committees was like being in Siberia? Some people enjoyed being on them.

Richard Younger-Ross: Some people love going to Siberia. The process must be robust and open. Robust does not, of itself, mean open.

Mr. Hendrick: The hon. Gentleman, I think, served on the Committee when I did. We visited the Folketing in Copenhagen to look at its methods of scrutiny. I agree totally that that Parliament is far more robust and rigorous in how it scrutinises European legislation, but I would say that this Parliament is second after the Folketing out of the 27 member states of the EU.

Richard Younger-Ross: I think that the hon. Gentleman and I disagree on that, although we have improved in the UK. When the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood) chaired the Committee, the business was always dealt with very promptly. We went through all the A briefs and B briefs very efficiently. The change in chairmanship, to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), enabled us to become far more robust in challenging the system than
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we were before. That has been welcome. The changes that the Government have tried to make to scrutiny have also been an attempt to open up the process, which is also welcome.

Mr. Hood: I do not know whether I am feeling nostalgic or whether the hon. Gentleman is, but I want to correct him on one point and to disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick). The Folketing committee is not the best scrutinising committee in the EU. It was always my argument that this Parliament had the best scrutinising Committee in the EU. The Folketing committee mandates the Minister and the Prime Minister, and—guess what—the Prime Minister sets up who is on that committee. It does what it is directed to do by the Prime Minister; it does not scrutinise.

Richard Younger-Ross rose—

Angus Robertson: That does not happen here.

Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that that never happens here—

Angus Robertson: That was sarcastic, for the record.

Richard Younger-Ross: He says that it was sarcastic, just to make it very clear.

The Committee has tried and is trying a lot harder. The current chairmanship is very demanding. When Ministers try to use the override to push through legislation without coming to the Committee, the Committee has called them to account and does so, in my view, more than it used to, which is welcome.

The main questions are whether the proceedings should be conducted in public or private and whether the deliberations should be secret, even though the decisions are not. There are unquestionably problems with the system. Should we get rid of that system and sit in private? As the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) said earlier, the public will not understand that and it is not acceptable.

Alternatively, should we try to resolve the problem with the terms on which private sessions were conducted? The Chairman of the Committee has figures that show that for every 15 minutes of public session, we could have an hour or an hour and a half of private argument and debate. I have no difficulty in saying that some members of the Committee tried to hold a debate in that session when they should have been asking the advisers questions. The result was that we had rather over-long discussions in what was meant to be a question session rather than having those discussions before the question session. If those people strongly believe that the debate should be held in public, they ought to restrain themselves and hold that debate in public. If they repeat in the private session what they want to say again later, it means that we get the full force of the argument twice, which is not necessary for the Committee to reach conclusions. That difficulty must be overcome. I know from the meetings in the past couple of weeks that the process has shortened. The Committee should support the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and review the change at a later date to see whether it can be made to work.

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Michael Connarty: Has the hon. Gentleman read the detail of the amendment? It says that when every Committee meets, the first thing that it has to do is decide at that time whether to meet in private or in public on certain issues. That, I think, would lead to a point scoring process. Certain members would turn up hoping to bounce the Chairman to make the decision to meet in public at exactly 2.30. We would then have the problem of how to get advice from our advisers, and we could end up with full public sessions. The amendment is badly scripted.

Richard Younger-Ross: That is not my understanding of how the amendment would work. Even if it did work as the hon. Gentleman has described, I am fairly certain that the Government Whips would make sure that Labour Members were there in time to save themselves from being ambushed. I do not believe that members of the Committee would do as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

We need to discuss how the evidence from the advisers is taken. I do not propose that we should hold that debate now, or that the advice should be given to us in public. However, it is something that we need to explore and consider, which is why I moved an amendment to that effect when we were debating this matter in Committee a couple of weeks ago.

Mr. Steen: How would that be done?

Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) supports our going into private session but asks how we would do what I suggest. I can tell him that I do not know, but that it is something that we need to discuss. I do not have an instant answer to his question.

Mr. Steen: The hon. Gentleman says that I am in favour of going back into private session, but that is not entirely true. I am in favour of making the whole Committee public, but that will not work with our present system of advisers and briefs, which is why I oppose the present arrangements. We need to work out a way to enable the Committee to sit entirely in public, which is very different from what the hon. Gentleman proposes. He is still sitting on the fence: people would love to know what the Liberal Democrats believe, but they have been waiting for that for some years.

Richard Younger-Ross: I think that it is the hon. Gentleman who is sitting very firmly on the fence on this matter. He voted for the Committee to meet in private, but says that he wants it to meet in public. Our decisions are taken according to how we vote, and the hon. Gentleman voted for our meetings to be in private. He continues to do so, so I think that it is clear where he stands on the matter.

Finally, we believe that the Committee can be made to work in public, and that it should do so. I believe that it is a disgrace that we are looking to meet in private, which is something that the public will not understand. Every year, 1,000 documents of European legislation go through the Committee. The process of how we decide whether a document is important enough to be referred to this House should not be kept secret. It has to be transparent, and that is what we are proposing.

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6.47 pm

Keith Hill (Streatham) (Lab): I rise to support the motion on European scrutiny in the name of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House. However, as a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, I wish to explain why I oppose the amendment in the name of the shadow Leader of the House and others, the purpose of which appears to be to create a presumption in favour of the Committee meeting in public, for all or part of its proceedings.

Of course, I accept that as far as possible Parliament should operate with a high degree of transparency, but there is a balance to be struck between transparency and efficiency. Since February this year, the European Scrutiny Committee has experimented with meeting partly in private and partly in public. I am afraid that that experiment has failed, and I shall explain why.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), our very good Chairman, has set out already the principles that guide our arrangement of the Committee. In order to protect the confidentiality of the recommendations from our advisers, we agreed that the first part of our meetings should take the form of an information-seeking session in private, while the second—and public—part should deal with making decisions about the contents of our reports to the House.

However, that arrangement has not worked as we might have desired. It has considerably and quite unnecessarily protracted our proceedings. More often than not, the length of our meetings has doubled. On two recent occasions, the arrangement that I have described has quintupled the amount of time taken before we began the experiment. Moreover, it has led to unacceptable levels of repetition in our proceedings. The public part of the meeting has become a simple repetition of the exchanges in the private part. That is a simple waste of time, and it is certainly very tedious.

Mr. Hands rose—

Keith Hill: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but other colleagues also wish to contribute to the debate, so I shall not give way often following his intervention.

Mr. Hands: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he not see that the easy solution to this duplication problem is to return to the resolution of the whole House on 7 February, which was that the majority of these meetings should be held entirely in public? He would then abolish the duplication of the two separate sessions. It would be so much easier just to meet in public, rather than meeting in two parts.

Keith Hill: The hon. Gentleman has often expressed those views both in Committee and the Chamber. For the reasons that I intend to set out, it is simply unacceptable that we should conduct our entire proceedings in public.

It is tedious for Members to experience the repetition in the public session of arguments that we have already heard in private session, but I would accept that MPs being bored might not be a great sacrifice if there were a great public demand to observe our proceedings. However, there is no such demand. Public attendance has ranged
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from non-existent to minimal. It may be argued—the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) has done so—that such poor attendances result from the unpredictable timing of the public session, but I have to report that, with the exception of the constituent whom he mentioned, no Committee member has received any expression of discontent from members of the public who are frustrated in their desire to view our proceedings.

Several hon. Members rose

Keith Hill: I said that I wanted to allow other Members to come in, and I especially wish Opposition Members to do so. I shall give way now to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey).

Mr. Bailey: Given the passion with which Opposition Members have argued for conducting business in public session, does my right hon. Friend share my bafflement that a study of the timing of their contributions in the meetings reveals that a greater part of them have been in private session, and that they have not utilised the public session?

Keith Hill: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and I must say that we have had a very candid and frank set of exchanges on this matter. The great bulk of the expansion in the time of the Committee’s proceedings has occurred in the private, rather than the public, session.

The truth is that we have instituted a grossly inefficient procedure, and for no good reason, as there is no public demand to observe our proceedings. Also, since there is no evidence to suggest that the public are interested in our proceedings—as opposed to our conclusions, which are published—there can be no justification for making public the entirety of our proceedings, because that would entail placing on the public record the private views and recommendations of our lay advisers, and some of us believe that that would be bound in time to affect the quality of the advice that they offer us. I also remind the House that it would be unprecedented for utterances of non-elected persons—whom we must remember are advisers, not witnesses—to form a large part, if not the bulk, of the written record of a Committee. I think the House will want to ponder long and hard before going down that path.

Mr. Steen: Before the right hon. Gentleman moves on from his last point, may I say a few words? As a new boy to the Committee, he has been very much welcomed because he has brought a freshness and a different approach to its work as both a former Minister and an adviser to the Prime Minister. Is his objection to the public session to do with the advice that the advisers give us, and if we could overcome that stumbling block, would he be open to the idea of making the Committee public? Or is his point that the Committee is really just a signposting Committee, so he believes that we never need to meet in public, because all we do is direct various directives into the public domain for discussion? I just want to get that clear, if I may.

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Keith Hill: The hon. Gentleman, with his usual prescience, anticipates an argument that I intend to develop. I am grateful for his extremely warm words; he has been a significant influence on me, a new boy on the Committee, and on my understanding of its proceedings.

Just over three weeks ago, the Committee published its report on subsidiarity. In the past 12 months or slightly more, the Committee has also published reports on the Lisbon treaty and on the scrutiny function. Like any departmental Select Committee report, our reports include the full transcripts of our witness sessions, witness depositions, and the record of voting in the Committee. Proceedings were also held in public, as are the Committee’s occasional sessions with Ministers. In other words, when the European Scrutiny Committee operates as a regular Select Committee, its proceedings are entirely transparent. No Committee member has a problem with that, and there is no resistance to public sessions, where they are appropriate. However, that is not the normal work of the Committee.

The greater part of our activity is not concerned with policy formation, or even the investigation of policy. That is exactly the point made by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). Also, for the most part, we do not set our own agenda. We receive and filter documents, and we inform the House. The European Scrutiny Committee is not the stage for great debates about the rights and wrongs of European legislation; the places for that are the European Standing Committees and the Floor of the House. On the contrary, we make a technical judgment about documents sent to us, and we report our conclusions weekly to the House in the form of our reports—there is no attempt to disguise our conclusions there—which are available in the Vote Office. In other words, we are, as the hon. Gentleman has described it, a service Committee.

Mr. Steen: A sifting Committee.

Keith Hill: I have already used that adjective; I am now describing it as a service Committee. The Committee was set up to facilitate the House’s work in respect of the issues and initiatives arising from the European Union. Essentially, what we do each week is agree a Select Committee report to the House—a process, by the way, that occurs in private in every other Select Committee. The most precise comparators for the European Scrutiny Committee are not the departmental Select Committees but the House’s functional or domestic Select Committees—the Administration Committee, the Finance and Services Committee, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and even the Committee of Selection. The point is that those are deliberative Committees. They meet in private, and everybody accepts that. There is a well-worn adage about the work of the House—deliberate in private, legislate in public. It is good advice and a good motto, and it should apply to the work of the European Scrutiny Committee.

6.58 pm

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