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House of Lords

Friday, 27 October 2006.

The House met at eleven of the clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Peterborough.

Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Bill

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House of Lords: EU Scrutiny (EUC Report)

11.06 am

Lord Grenfell rose to move, That this House takes note of the report of the European Union Committee on EU Legislation—Public Awareness of the Scrutiny Role of the House of Lords (32nd Report, HL Paper 179).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, your Lordships’ Select Committee charged with the scrutiny of European Union proposals and documents was established just 32 years ago. From its inception, it has been recognised that national parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislation has a clear and vital constitutional purpose. Much European Union law is not implemented by our Parliament in a form in which it can be directly amended. Our scrutiny function is thus essential if we are to ensure that the law is right before it comes forward for implementation. That is why just over 70 Members of your Lordships’ House work week in and week out to ensure that scrutiny of issues of direct and significant relevance and concern to our citizens is effectively and promptly carried out, so that the Government will take into account our analyses and advice before they vote in the Council.

I take this opportunity to congratulate and thank each and every one of the members of our Select Committee and its seven sub-committees for their dedication and skill, underpinned by the unrivalled expertise that they command in the many fields in which draft legislation is presented to us. We normally have more volunteers for places on the Select Committee and its sub-committees than the formal limits on our membership allow. That is surely a very healthy sign.

That the public are insufficiently aware of what we are doing in their name has been a matter for enduring regret. It is not that we are looking for rounds of applause; far from it. We simply believe that citizens

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deserve to have a better understanding of how Parliament seeks to hold the Government to account for the EU legislation that they agree in the Council of Ministers. I therefore took it upon myself to recommend to the committee that we take a serious look at this problem. It gives me great pleasure to introduce today our relatively short report, EU Legislation—Public Awareness of the Scrutiny Role of the House of Lords. I begin, as usual, with some words of thanks; first, to the members of the Select Committee for their excellent work. In recent years, the committee has become more active. We now meet once a week instead of once a fortnight, and we regularly produce reports on cross-cutting matters in addition to the policy and evidence analysis undertaken by the sub-committees in their specific fields.

The Select Committee is just finishing a major piece of work on the further enlargement of the European Union, which will be published shortly. Even a relatively compact inquiry such as the one that we are reporting on today involves the Select Committee members in a considerable amount of work in addition to that which they undertake on the sub-committees on which they all serve. I am truly grateful to them. Secondly, I thank our Clerk, Simon Burton, and our Second Clerk, Sarah Price, for their admirable organisation of the inquiry and drafting of the report. Thirdly, my thanks go to all those who gave evidence to the inquiry. I strongly urge noble Lords with an interest in these matters to delve into the evidence that is printed with the report, as it provides a rich seam of material. Finally, I thank all those who have agreed to speak today, I look forward to an interesting debate, which will, I am sure, be considerably enhanced by the maiden speech of the former Lord Advocate, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby. We very much welcome him to his place today.

The House may recall that in 2002 we conducted a major review of our scrutiny work and set ourselves a number of goals to make even more effective the discharge of our constitutional mandate. One of those goals was,

We have worked since 2002 on a number of initiatives to deliver on that objective, including the adoption of a press and publicity action plan for all our reports. But the issue of Parliament’s relationship with the public has in recent months assumed a higher profile, not least with the publication of the Hansard Society’s report on Parliament in the public eye, which was debated in your Lordships’ House earlier this year. The chairman of that commission, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, very much regrets that he is unable to speak in this debate today. I am, however, delighted that we will hear from the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, who has not only been a very distinguished chairman of our Sub-Committee on Environment and Agriculture—a post from which we will be very sorry to see him step down at Prorogation—but who was a member of the Hansard Society commission.

It is my personal view that the Hansard Society report has provided an impetus for all of us in this

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House to think more carefully about how what we do impacts on the public, because this House is more than ever in the public eye. We of course have a duty to the citizens—they do not elect us but they do fund us, albeit quite modestly. But there is a more important argument—and here again I am giving my personal view—that this House, and the work we do, add considerable value to the democratic processes of law-making and accountability. It is accordingly our responsibility as parliamentarians to ensure that we perform that duty as effectively as possible.

That was the internal driver, so to speak, for our inquiry—seeking to enhance the work of this House and thus to do the best for the citizens. But there were also external drivers of which I shall cite two: first, a desire on the part of my committee to understand better the work of other national parliaments in their dealings with EU affairs and to learn from best practice; and, secondly, the broader context of debates on the role of the EU and its institutions in connecting and communicating with citizens.

I can be brief in respect of the other national parliaments. Paragraphs 26 to 34 of the report set out a number of initiatives that other parliaments have taken with regard to EU affairs. Some, notably in Denmark, Sweden and Latvia, have information centres within their parliaments where citizens can get direct, factual and unbiased information about the EU and about how proposed EU policies will affect them as citizens. In Ireland, the National Forum on Europe tours the land, engaging citizens directly with policy makers on a range of issues. While there was never any question of any of the resources of this House being used on an agency role for the European Union, given the steps taken by other parliaments, there was, in our view, a question to be asked about whether our House should or could do as other parliaments have done by seeking to become a source of impartial information on EU matters.

As noble Lords will see from paragraphs 44 to 53 of the report, our committee decided that in this country it was neither necessary nor desirable for our Parliament to take any such initiatives. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, gave powerful evidence on that point and may expand on it today. In summary, the committee’s view was that Parliament should seek to add value to the process of EU legislation by its scrutiny function and, in particular, by the expert analysis of evidence that Members of this House undertake. It is for others to provide factual information about the EU, principally the Government and the EU institutions. The Government have a responsibility to explain the EU legislation and why they have agreed to it.

Accordingly, the committee welcomed a range of government initiatives in that regard and I hope that the Minister will be able to enlighten the House further. In particular, I hope that he will be able to say how the Government plan to keep Parliament fully informed of their work in providing information to the citizens. In addition, the EU has well developed structures of its own for providing information and it is a matter for the institutions themselves to ensure that those are properly managed and resourced.

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This leads me to the final piece of background to the inquiry—the work the European Commission is undertaking to seek to connect more directly with the citizens. Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström has worked tirelessly in this regard, in particular by presenting a plan for democracy and dialogue, Plan D, and a citizens’ agenda. She has also worked hard to ensure that the scrutiny role of national parliaments is recognised and enhanced. I accordingly welcome the first practical initiatives from the Commission, including the direct transmission of its documents to all national parliaments, a regular newsletter and a regular report on the work the Commission is undertaking to make commissioners and officials available to national parliaments. But perhaps more importantly, I welcome the political commitment given by the Commission that it will listen and respond to concerns raised by national parliaments, in particular, but not exclusively, on matters of subsidiarity and proportionality.

The final external reason for the inquiry was to focus our minds on what a committee such as ours should and should not be doing in the context of the broader debate about the EU and its relations with its citizens. That last point can be easily answered. We suggest that if our public profile is raised, especially through the media, our reports may exert more influence over policy makers. In paragraph 127 we state:

I will turn in a moment to how we have sought to rise to that challenge as a committee, but, first, a word about the Government. We made a few recommendations in our report directed to the Government and we welcomed their response to our report, which has been available to your Lordships in advance of the debate. There is, however, a specific recommendation on which I look forward to hearing from the Minister today. The committee places great value on the Government’s explanatory memoranda on EU legislation, which, in effect, constitute the Government’s evidence to Parliament. While these are public documents, available on request, they are not easy for the public to get hold of. We accordingly recommended that Her Majesty’s Government establish a dedicated website to make explanatory memoranda available, and I hope that the Minister will bring us some news on that.

Turning to the committee: what are we already doing to achieve greater public awareness of our work? As far as the media are concerned the committee is realistic about the chances of securing headlines for a detailed report scrutinising and analysing EU matters from a deep and serious perspective. But there is always more that can be done and we will work to do so, not least by building on the links between individual members of committees and the press, in particular the regional and local press. We will do more to ensure that reports are published at the appropriate time, taking, as ever, the sound advice of our media officer; although I should note

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that this House has one press officer working for 15 committees while the other place has four for its committees. That is a matter to ponder.

Turning from media coverage to matters where early improvement may be easier to achieve, we are first seeking to enhance our scrutiny of the Commission’s annual work programme. We reject the case made by some parliaments for a simultaneous debate on the programme in all national parliaments on the same day. That is unrealistic. As the usual channels would be the first to point out, it is not anyway in our gift to enter into such a commitment. But we do recommend an annual debate in your Lordships’ House on the Commission’s work programme as well as a debate after each European Council to supplement the reports already made by way of a statement. These, too, are matters for the usual channels and in the light of today’s debate my committee will be considering how to take these ideas forward. If the Minister has any intelligence to share from his noble friend the Leader of the House or from his noble friend the Chief Whip, we would be pleased to hear about it. We would, of course, also be happy to hear whether the other parties whose Front Benches will speak today might support such ideas.

Equally important as a debate on the work programme is the need for more in-depth scrutiny of it each year, as it provides the first valuable insight into what the Commission is, and is not, planning to do, and thus allows us to get in far upstream where something is of concern. The 2007 work programme was published on Tuesday of this week and, at its meeting next Tuesday, the committee will be considering a proposal for enhanced scrutiny—so watch this space, as they say.

The committee has also redoubled its efforts to ensure that our views—the synthesis of our scrutiny work—are effectively conveyed to opinion formers in Brussels, including, but by no means confined to, Members of the European Parliament. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, whose speech this afternoon I eagerly anticipate, presented the conclusions of the report on human rights-proofing EU legislation to the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs on 22 February. The noble Lord also presented the conclusions of the report on the fundamental rights agency to the same European Parliament committee on 4 May.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, presented the conclusions of the report on the consumer credit directive to the European Parliament’s Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee on 9 October. In addition, the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, discussed the committee's report on the EU's strategy for Africa with MEPs, two African Ambassadors, key officials from the EU institutions and NGOs at a think-tank round table in Brussels on 11 July. I am very grateful to those noble Lords for so admirably demonstrating how we wish to proceed.

I turn for a moment to the subject of Parliament’s website. Our report agrees with the Puttnam commission’s conclusion that the website needed a radical redesign, and we welcome work under way to

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that end. The Web Centre manager, Dominic Tinley, and his team have given us the welcome news that the first steps in a project that will deliver rolling improvements, especially in design and navigability, over the next few years have already been taken. These initial changes were based on user needs and involved significant testing with Members, staff and the general public. I am sure that we all look forward to further improvements.

My committee stands ready to pilot new initiatives and new ideas that will allow our reports and other work to be more effectively communicated directly to the citizens through the website. In any event, when resources permit, we will make full use of the interparliamentary exchange website, known as IPEX.

Finally, I stress that the committee wants to continue to work in as open a way as possible. That is particularly important for the public but also for all Members of this House, whatever our views on the merits or otherwise of the European Union. While our committee, along with other committees in both Houses, will continue to hold deliberative sessions in private, all our evidence is taken in public. Oral evidence is broadcast live on the internet, with uncorrected and then corrected transcripts made available on the website. Written evidence, too, is now routinely made available on the website where possible during an inquiry, but in any case with the final report. Significant items of correspondence with Ministers and replies are also available, and, of course, all our reports are available free to download from the website.

Earlier this year, we launched a monthly e-newsletter, which is available on our home page. This, too, is free, and an e-mail alert allows anyone who wants to subscribe to do so. The newsletter highlights major work under way or planned across the constellation of our committee and its seven sub-committees. I strongly encourage all noble Lords to sign up for this service. We also produce an annual report setting out the work undertaken and giving a forecast of work to come. The 2006 annual report is due to be published before Prorogation, and I hope that noble Lords intending to address the subject of EU affairs in the debate on Her Majesty's gracious Speech will have an eye on this document when they do so.

We of course welcome evidence to all our inquiries from any source, not least from Members of this House. If noble Lords have things to say, they should say them to us and we will take account of their views in our reports. If I may say so, we are an open and transparent committee in the best tradition of your Lordships’ House, and long may that continue. It is in that spirit that our report comes before the House today. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of the report of the European Union Committee on EU Legislation—Public Awareness of the Scrutiny Role of the House of Lords (32nd Report, HL Paper 179).—(Lord Grenfell.)

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11.24 am

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, in this debate on our EU scrutiny. The noble Lord has been a tireless and painstaking chairman of the EU Committee. It is a large committee with 17 members, and it cannot be said that all its members share exactly the same views on the EU. The diplomacy shown by the noble Lord is therefore always very welcome. I also served on Sub-Committee A, the economic and financial committee, when the noble Lord was its chairman for a short time. So it could be said that I have seen him in two roles—as sub-committee chairman and committee chairman.

That said, I am going to be rather less happy than the noble Lord about the situation that we are in now. I do not expect it to be very violent stuff; I do not think that there will be a headline tomorrow saying, “Uproar in the Lords”, although we might rather enjoy such publicity. But I have more doubts about where we are now than have been expressed in our report and in what the noble Lord, our chairman, has said today.

We have to ask ourselves two specific questions. One is: are we increasing public awareness of our scrutiny role and, in the process, are we causing any change at all in EU legislation, either in draft or in final form, either here with Ministers or with the EU Commission and Council? Here, I shall quote one sentence from paragraph 128 of the report. We say that we should not,

I wonder whether that is a little too unambitious. Therefore, in order to give an example of my feelings, I now want to turn in some detail to what we have been doing on Sub-Committee D.

I have been chairman of Sub-Committee D for three years. Our job concerns the environment and agriculture. We have some extremely interesting and wise members. When we produced a report, to which I shall refer again in a minute, on CAP reform, the four farmers on the committee all agreed that the single farm payment should be phased out by 2013. That is quite a statement. During my three years, we have produced various substantive reports. One was on EU fisheries policy in the North Sea; another, as I mentioned, published in June of last year, was on reform of the CAP; a report entitled Managing nuclear safety and waste: the role of the EU was published in July this year; and, at the moment, we are engaged on a report on the very lively subject of EU targets for the use of biofuels. Subject to the agreement of the full Select Committee, that will be published in November.

We have followed all the instructions, done all the things that we were told to do and have worked hard. We also had an extremely good Clerk. However, the only real publicity that we had in all that time was one article by Peter Riddell—someone whom I have known for many years—in the Times last year, saying that, so far as the CAP was concerned, he thought that we were providing a useful road map. Those were perhaps not the most fortunate words to have used,

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but that is what he said, and it was very pleasant to have that publicity. Other than that, publicity has, to be blunt, been zilch.

Therefore, I shall say a word more on the detail of our report on the nuclear package. Very few people know that the EU was proposing draft directives on the management, first, of nuclear safety and, then, of nuclear waste. In fact, these draft directives were first published in 2003. A qualified majority vote was required for them to become effective, but that was not achieved. Eight countries, including France and the UK, voted against, largely on the ground of subsidiarity. They felt that nuclear should be a national matter. However, that has not been the end of the story. The drafts were revised and republished in September 2004, at which time France switched and voted for them. That is interesting because France, as we know, generates about 80 per cent of its electricity by nuclear means, and one of our questions was: why has France changed tack?

It seemed to me, therefore, that this was an extremely appropriate report for us to take on, partly because so many others did not know about the EU’s interest, but also because it was such a lively matter. At the moment in Britain we are considering whether to go down the nuclear route again. In the process of our inquiry we learnt a good deal and put into the report as much as we could of the knowledge that we obtained by, for example, going to Finland, which is building two new nuclear reactors and which is perfectly satisfied about how they will manage nuclear waste. We also went to Brussels and France and saw all the people whom we should have seen.

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