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Thirdly, I read the Official Report of the European and External Relations Committee of the Scottish Parliament to find out why it had not responded to the call for evidence. The reason appeared to be that it was engaged in its own review of the Commissions Plan D. That was coupled, however, with a strong scepticism about how this House could presume to be acting on behalf of the public. That may raise all sorts of issues about the legitimacy of this House. But, in the limited area of this exercise, one way in which to counter such views is to engage with those who express them, to initiate a dialogue and to demonstrate the vital role that this House plays on behalf of the citizens of the whole of the United Kingdom in the scrutiny of EU legislation.
Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the excellent maiden speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby,
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I, too, very much welcome this timely and important report. The European Union Committee of your Lordships' House does extraordinarily valuable work, which is widely acknowledged by those familiar with Parliament and the processes of scrutiny of EU legislation by national parliaments. The work of the European Scrutiny Committee in the other place and the EU Committee of this House complement one another, the former going for breadth and the latter for depth. Within the constraints necessarily faced by national parliaments of member states, the system of parliamentary scrutiny in the UK works well. I believe that it could be strengthenedas could the position of national parliaments collectivelybut it could be strengthened from a relatively strong base. Relative to other national parliaments, it may not exert the power of the Danish and some other legislatures, but we should be careful not to confuse powers with practice. We can learn from others, including, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd, said, Scotland, but it is the political will that is crucial.
The EU Committee serves as a valuable workhorse of your Lordships' House. I am very pleased, as the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, has said, that the committee has stressed that it does not have an agency role. It is a committee of this House and not an agent of the very institution and process it was set up to scrutinise. As a committee of this House, it adds value by the detailed and critical scrutiny that it undertakes. In response to my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry, I would argue that it contributes to debate at a stage when it can influence thinking. Its impact may not always be quantifiable, but I believe it to be real. It does not have to reach a wide public in order to have an impact. It does not necessarily have to have media coverage to have an influence.
However, as the committee recognises, there is a problem in ensuring that there is a greater public awareness of what it does. As I said when we debated the Puttnam report on the Communication of Parliamentary Democracy, I believe that what goes on in this House is a public good. The public have a right to know, and will also benefit from knowing, what we are doingin terms both of the processes that we adopt, and the substance of the debates we have and the reports we publish. That is my starting point. It flows from that that we have a responsibility to ensure the public are informed of our activities and have an opportunity to inform us in that activity. There is, as I argued in my evidence, a two-way relationship, between the EU Committee and the institutions of the European Union, and between the EU Committee and the public. The committee thus constitutes an important link between the public and the EU, but
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Picking up on a point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd, I shall take the term public as encompassing a number of publics. There are essentially three publics that the work of the committee should reach: parliamentarians, affected groups and members of the public. It is the second group that tends to be most aware of committee activity. Groups affected by EU activity, and which seek to influence the EU, are the bodies most likely to be consumers of EU Committee reports. That is not peculiar to the EU Committee. Such bodies, which are sometimes styled attentive publics, constitute something of a captive audience. They are likely to get copies of parliamentary reports, however obscure, poorly presented or expensive they are. But it is true then that the committee may have a particular influence.
The problem lies with the other two publicsparliamentarians and members of the public, who are not captive audiences. They have other things to occupy their minds. They will not necessarily take the initiative to get hold of the latest report from the EU Committee. In effect, the committee has to compete with other distractions in order to gain attention. Producing a report is a necessary but not sufficient condition for attracting attention. As I said in my evidence, too often we tend to assume that publication is the end point of a process. It is not. In terms of reaching the different publics, it should be seen as the starting point. As the report recognises, we need to enhance considerably our process of dissemination, which requires innovation, resources and political will.
In terms of innovation, we need to think about new ways of reaching out. We need to look at it from the perspective of users of the reports, or those who we want to be users of our reports, rather than from the perspective of officials or even some Members. In terms of parliamentary debate, I agree that there may be scope for more debates. I would suggest that there may be mileage in thinking about different types of debates: possibly short debates on topics related to the EU and not solely on specific reports. Oneadmittedly radicalidea is to have a debate on a substantive rather than a take note Motion.
I agree that we certainly need to produce executive reports for wide dissemination, which does not mean simply including an executive summary with copies of the report or leaving them for collection in the Printed Paper Office. It means being proactive in disseminating them widely and pushing them out in paper and e-mail form to all those who we think may be interested. That includes targeted Members of both Houses as well as schools, universities and libraries.
Innovation has to be linked to resources. I come to a point which would not be cost free. We should not simply be distributing executive summaries. We should make widely available copies of actual reports. They are available for free on the internet but that is not necessarily a good substitute for a printed copy. In any event, there is the danger of assuming that because a report is on the internet, people will be
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I variously speak on parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislation here and abroad. I spoke on the subject last week to the Centre for European Union Studies at my university. A reference to the cost of committee reports aroused the most animated response. Price is an obvious deterrent. I have no doubt that the sheer cost of committee reports keeps sales extremely low. We should bear the cost of making reports available free of charge. As I say, what we do here is a public good and we should enable members of the public to have access to what we produce. I believe that this should apply generally to parliamentary publications.
I believe that we also need to be innovative in the ways in which we attract the attention of the media, parliamentarians and those who study what we do. Press conferences are better than not doing anythingalthough sometimes not very much betterbut they are not the best way to engage attention. As the report suggests at paragraph 112, why not organise seminars involving witnesses and representatives of the media, as well as parliamentarians and officialsnot just government officials but EU officials? There is no reason why seminars need be confined solely to discussion of a committee report. We may even think of organising conferences, perhaps involving members of other parliaments. Picking up on the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, why not organise the occasional meeting or seminar in Brussels?
In terms of dissemination, we also need to make much greater use of the internet. The Parliament website has been redesignedit is massively improved on what it wasbut there is still an awfully long way to go in terms of delivering on the internet strategy reproduced in Appendix 4 of the report. The website is useful for those who know what they want but it is still not what it should be as a means of attracting people to use it, to explore it, and to find out what we are doing. It is still inadequate and certainly uninviting for those interested in particular policy areas. If you use search engines for a topic, such as the CAP, you will now find committee reports listed, but they have to compete with much more inviting sites.
We want members of the public to know what we do. We should also think in terms of engaging them with what we do. The two elements are linked. I was glad to see in the report that there has been an experiment with the web forum. That is the kind of engagement we should be pursuing. We need, as I say, to think of it as a two-way relationship. There is the danger of focusing too much on the two-way relationship of Parliament to the EU. We need to devote attention to both.
If we are to ensure greater public awareness of the scrutiny role of the EU Committeeand, indeed, of the House as a wholewe need the mindset, we need the political will, in order to deliver it. I can anticipate part of the Ministers response. He will doubtless say that many of the Committees recommendations are matters for the House. If he does, he will be quite
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Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, there is a paradox about the work of your Lordships House in scrutinising European Union policies and legislative proposals. If you travel to Brussels, or even more widely around the European Union, and ask commissioners, their officials and national or European parliamentarians, they would, many of them, be fully aware and informed of the work we do, and many of them offer tributes to its quality and value as a contribution to policy making on European issues. But if you travel around our own country, I suspect you would find widespread ignorance of the House of Lords scrutiny work; and, naturally, where there is ignorance there cannot, by definition, be any benefit drawn from its quality. I find this paradox a disturbing one and one which, within the bounds of what is reasonable and realistic, needs to be remedied.
But this unsatisfactory situation is only compounded when you consider the poverty and paucity of the debate on European affairs in general in this country. Her Majestys Official Opposition seem to be applying Basil Fawltys precept with respect to the Second World War and simply not talking about EU policies at allperhaps in the hope that they will go away, which they will not. The Governments attention is elsewhere and they are largely failing to contribute to the debate about the future development of Europe which is now beginning in many other European countries, most notably in the context of the French presidential election. Our press is mainly in the grip of knee-jerk Euro-scepticism and provides a caricature picture of European policy making that more closely resembles a description of matches in the European Cup than the daily reality in Brussels and Strasbourg.
Remedying this lamentable state of the public debate on European issues in this country and more widely is not what we are here to debate today. But it is relevant to what we are discussing because it is only if the level of informed opinion about European Union matters is raised that there will be the crucial underpinning in place to enable a serious debate to take place.
Our report makes clear that the poor state of awareness of the EU scrutiny work of this House is indeed partly our own fault. It is always easy and tempting in circumstances such as these to blame everyone but oneself. I hope we have avoided that trap. It is the case that our reports are not always very user friendly; it is the case that they are often burdened with that appalling jargon which is the bane of understanding many European policy issues; it is the case that they have in the past lacked a clear and punchy executive summary or foreword setting out in plain language what each report is about; it is the case that our website leaves something to be desired and requires considerable attention. These failings we
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I cannot say that I was much encouraged by the rather skimpy content of the Governments response to our report. I hope the Minister will be able to remedy that when he replies to the debate. Little was said in it about the Governments need to keep Parliament informed of their own efforts and initiatives to provide citizens with information about European affairs. Could that possibly be because not a lot is being done? I fear that could be the case because there is little, if any, sign of a systematic effort in that respect since the end of the British presidency. There was not even any response in the Governments reply to our recommendation that a dedicated website be established to publish the Governments explanatory memoranda on draft EU legislative proposals. That would surely be a useful step to take. It might even exert some pressure to make those memoranda more informative and more substantive than they are at present.
We must certainly, of course, not neglect that aspect of awareness of our role which is in better shape; namely, awareness among EU institutions and on the national parliamentary networks of the shortly-to-be 27 member states. We like to think of ourselves as being out in front in this matterand I suspect we arebut we will stay there only if we continually improve the awareness and outreach of our reports. The links between national parliaments are growing apace and will continue to do so whether or not the constitutional treaty or some other form of institutional change goes ahead. Some of the changes, particularly in respect of the assessment of subsidiarity criteria for EU legislation, are alreadyin an, as yet, very tentative waymoving ahead.
But the strengthened provisions on judging subsidiarity will work effectively only if the national parliaments learn to work together much more closely than they have ever done in the past. Only in that way will you be able to summon up the critical mass required to make the Commission think again about proposals it has put forward. And working together more closely will occur only if our reports setting out our views on the matter in question are available to other parliaments and to the European Parliament in a timely fashion. In achieving this, the role of the representative of your Lordships House in Brussels is central. It seems to me to have got off to an excellent start, with the first incumbent, Dr Richard McLean, making a real difference. We will need to ensure that good start is sustained and properly resourced in the years ahead. As is often the case with such changes, one is now astonished that we thought for so many years that we could do without representation in Brussels.
I would not like to conclude my contribution to this debate without a word about the misunderstandings that arose at an early stage over the scope and purpose of this report. Words such as spin and propaganda were bandied about. The noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition in this House, who is not in his place today, wrote a strongly wordedbut perhaps slightly less strongly reasonedletter to the chairman of our committee. It was an example of the deep emotions which always seem to be aroused when European matters come up for discussion. I would argue that it should not be so in the present case. All three main partiesalthough perhaps not all their membersare committed to Britains membership of the European Union and to making a success of that. All know from the work of this House and from their time on Front Benches or in government how closely intertwined are policy making in Brussels and Strasbourg and policy making in Whitehall and Westminster. It is surely, therefore, in the common interest that the part of that work that goes on in this House should be more widely known and shared. It cannot be in anyones interest that it should be wrongly believed that this House and this Parliament are making no input to the shaping of European policies.
If I am correct in this analysis, then we should be able to move forward down the road recommended in the report on a cross-party basis, just as we have done in the EU Select Committee, of which I have had the honour to be a member in the past few years and the very great pleasure of sitting under the benign chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, this report comes at a time of growing public disenchantment with our system of representative democracy, and even greater disenchantment with our undemocratic subservience to the project of European union. If we look first at what remains of our hard-won democracy, the largest party in general elections has become the No Point in Voting party, at 40 per cent of the electorate. Modern Governments are formed by some 40 per cent of the 60 per cent who do still bother to voteor only 24 per cent of the electorate. So perhaps one can be forgiven for suggesting that some 76 per cent of the electorate may not be all that enthusiastic about this system in general and the laws passed nowadays by Parliamentthat is, the House of Commons and your Lordships' House.
However, the situation is far worse than that. Most of our national legislation is no longer made by Parliament under our system of representative democracy; it is made in Brussels and rubber-stamped hereif, indeed, we get to see it at all. The Government seem understandably nervous of revealing exactly what percentage of our legislation is imposed on Parliament, and thus the British people, by Brussels. But the German Federal Ministry of Justice has recently estimated that 80 per cent of all German national legislation since 1998 has been imposed by Brussels, and there is not much reason to think that the figure would be very different here.
It is also interesting to note that Monnets aim in his original blueprint for the European Union was for 80 per cent of all law to be made in Brussels, leaving 20 per cent to the member states. Be that as it may, for the purposes of this debate, let us settle for the fact that a majority of our lawprobably a large majorityis now made in Brussels. So even the 24 per cent of the electorate who vote for the Government of the day are no longer voting for the people who make most of their laws. The fundamental principle of our democracy, which is that the British people should elect and dismiss those who make their laws, has been largely betrayed through our membership of the European Union.
To set this report in its more specific context, it is perhaps worth remembering just exactly how undemocratic the system of Brussels law-making is. The unelected bureaucracythe Commission has the monopoly of proposing new legislation. Our friends in the United States, Switzerland and other democracies around the world find it hard to comprehend or believe this arrangement which, of course, has its origin in the big idea which gave birth to the project of European union. That big idea was that the nation states, with their unreliable democracies, had been responsible for the carnage of two world wars. Those nation states must therefore be emasculated and diluted into a new form of supranational government, run by a Commission of wise technocrats. That is why the Commission still has the monopoly of proposing new legislation, which it does after secret discussion, and of executing it once it has been passed into European law by the Council of Ministers. Before they reach the Council, however, the Commissions proposals are again negotiatedagain in secretby COREPER, or the Committee of Permanent Representatives from the nation states. Decisions are then taken in the Council of Ministers, yet again by secret vote, and still largely behind closed doors.
It is at this point that the scrutiny committees of the House of Commons and your Lordships' House enter the picture. British Governments, both Labour and Conservative, have given Parliament a non-binding undertaking that they will not agree any new law in the Council of Ministers until both scrutiny committees have given their consent, or until the proposal has been debatednot passed, just debatedin the Chamber concerned. This is known as the scrutiny reserve, and it is not much of a parliamentary safeguard. The flood of EU legislation is such that the EU committees can look at only a tiny fraction and anyway, the Government regularly break their promise and sign up to new laws in the Council which are still under scrutiny in one House or the other. I gather that this habit has grown worse in recent years. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, indicated as much in his remarks. It would be helpful if the chairman of the committee, the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, would care to comment on the latest trend when he comes to sum up.
Whatever the latest position with the scrutiny reserve, it would not do much to safeguard our democracy, even if it were legally binding. So much of the legislation which comes from Brussels is subject to the qualified majority vote, under which the
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A binding scrutiny reserve might, however, be of some small help in those areas of our national life where the Government have retained the veto under the Treaty of Nice which theoretically represents the present legal position in the absence of the proposed all-encompassing constitution. Those areas where we retain the veto are roughly our justice and home affairs and our foreign and defence policies. I say theoretically because some of the most undesirable elements of the proposed constitution are going ahead as though the people of France and Holland had not spoken.
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