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House of Lords

Monday, 6th November 1995.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

EC Proposals: Prompt Scrutiny

Lord Bruce of Donington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action they propose to take in order that Parliament receives all European Commission proposals for legislation in time for adequate parliamentary scrutiny prior to their consideration for decision by the Council of Ministers.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey): My Lords, we are always concerned if Parliament does not receive legislative proposals in good time to scrutinise them before their consideration in the Council. The Commission and the Council secretariat are well aware of the need to reduce delays in making draft legislation available. We are considering a number of proposals to reduce delays, some of which we hope to secure at the IGC.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that that Answer is far from satisfactory? Is she further aware that the Select Committee of the other place recently concluded, in its Report 239-I at pages xxiv to xxxv, that in over 40 instances last year, taken at random, items were passed by the Council without any consideration at all by Parliament? Is the Minister aware that the French Government have already taken action and have declined to consider questions in Council of which the French Parliament has not received more than a fortnight's notice?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, should be so dissatisfied. We receive the vast majority of documents in good time for scrutiny before consideration in the Council. Of nearly 800 documents deposited last year, about 2½ per cent. produced complaints from the scrutiny committees of this House and another place. We know the reasons; we have always taken delays extremely seriously. We raise each individual case with the relevant institution. We have raised the delays not only with the Commission but also with the Council secretariat which has promised to do all it can to minimise the problems. As the noble Lord knows, we are committed to maintaining and enhancing the role of national parliaments in the European Union and, in particular, the scrutinising of Community legislation. In that we have been the leaders in seeking the change which we hope will be brought about fairly shortly.

Lord Tordoff: My Lords, is the Minister aware that, following the report from another place, a report of the IGC sub-committee of your Lordships' Select Committee

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finished its inquiries last Thursday? The report passed through that committee, assisted by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. We endorse entirely the recommendations made by the committee of another place that there should be a minimum of four weeks. Does the Minister intend to press the matter through the Reflection Group? Is there any truth in the suggestion that the Reflection Group has already taken it on board?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. I was aware that his committee had agreed the report, and we know that it is shortly to be published. I shall not go into any details because I believe that that would be against the wishes of the House. However, I can assure the noble Lord that once the report is published we hope for an early debate. I sincerely hope that it will take place before Christmas, despite the other pressures upon us.

In addition, my honourable friend David Davis has been pressing matters with other member states. I referred to that when I said, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, that we wish to consider the matter in the context of the IGC. I sincerely hope that the progress which we are making will lead to a much more satisfactory situation in the coming year than we have experienced in past years.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, is the Minister aware that those of us who frequently disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, on European Union matters thoroughly agree with him on the Question which he put to the Government?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I am aware of that. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bruce. We must work away at this. The situation has been far too unsatisfactory for far too long. From this Dispatch Box I have often complained. I have never made any secret of my belief that whatever the cause, the delays must be curtailed and prevented. That may mean more translators or doing things in different ways. We are already ensuring that we do our bit to rectify matters, but some of the problem lies in the hands of the Council's secretariat, not the Commission alone.

Lord Richard: My Lords, in order to preserve the extraordinary harmony that has broken out in the House, perhaps I may say that for once I agree with my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington on a Question in respect of the European Union. I also thought that the noble Baroness gave some indication that the Government were taking the matter seriously, for which we are grateful.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Richard. It is extremely nice when we agree on these occasions. I am absolutely determined that we shall change this situation, and so is my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone: My Lords, would not part of the answer be to ration the Commission both as to prolixity and numbers of proposals?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, occasionally it is as a result of demands from member

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states that the Commission comes forward with proposals. Occasionally, therefore, we might be rationing against our own better interest. But I agree with my noble and learned friend that when something is unnecessary it should not be produced.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, while I welcome everything that my noble friend has said, may I ask: does she think that it would be helpful if the Government were to try to bring Commission regulations under closer parliamentary scrutiny, bearing in mind that the Commission is using more of those instruments but that they are not even deposited in national Parliaments? Is she aware that, for instance, it is a Commission regulation which threatens the survival of the British lettuce growing industry?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, it is not just a matter of lettuces. The whole question that my noble friend raised is a matter that is under consideration in the Reflection Group which will lead to the IGC.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, I am most grateful to the coalition for supporting me in this matter. But is the Minister aware that legislation is still going onto the statute book without our Parliament even being informed about it? It does not concern a small number of instances. Is she further aware that during the Recess no fewer than 179 pieces of legislation were issued by the Commission? Does she agree that one would be glad to feel that somebody read them, let alone dissented from them?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I cannot verify the number that the noble Lord has just given. I recall during the long Recess writing on one piece of legislation to both your Lordships and another place because for legal reasons a decision had to be taken through during the Recess. That occasionally happens. I have sympathy with the point. No more than anybody else do I wish to see legislation on our statute book without our having had the opportunity to scrutinise it. That is a subject on which we are all in agreement and on which I am quite certain we can persuade the other 14 members of the European Union to go with us.

Aziza Tribunal

2.47 p.m.

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are aware of the intention of any member state to raise at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Auckland the sentences passed by the Aziza tribunal in Nigeria.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I am aware of no specific intention. However, Commonwealth leaders will discuss ways of taking forward work on the Harare Declaration. I have no doubt that the issue of military governments and the recent events in Nigeria will be discussed fully.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, if the Prime Minister's suggestion, as reported in this morning's papers, is taken

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up—namely, that states which are not in compliance with the Harare Declaration or the rule of law should have to submit six-monthly reports to the Commonwealth Secretariat and to be on sufferance as members pending their compliance—will one of the conditions in respect of Nigeria be that the proceedings of the Aziza tribunal, which were a gross violation of the rule of law, would have to be quashed before the threat of suspension on Nigeria is lifted?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, as the noble Lord will understand, prior to a meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government which will address the issue of adherence to the Harare principles and the question of human rights in the Commonwealth, there are a number of speculative articles in our newspapers. I cannot tell the noble Lord from where this one came. We deplore the continued use of secret military tribunals such as the Aziza tribunal and the continued suspension of habeas corpus. That is the kind of matter which should come under scrutiny and no doubt by this time in two weeks we shall be a little wiser as to what the Commonwealth has decided.

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