Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

One of the most frightening of these is the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, with its relevant agency in Vienna. The Government admitted in a Written Answer on 11 January that the legal basis for this initiative had not been agreed in the Council, so it appears to be going ahead in a legal vacuum. Other articles in the treaty have been put forward as a legal justification for this initiative, particularly Article 308, but one does not have to be a legal expert to see that they have no validity whatever.

The European Charter of Fundamental Rights is the initiative that Mr Keith Vaz, when Europe Minister, said would have no more force than the Beano and the Prime Minister assured us that it would not become justiciable in the Luxembourg court. Yet on 14 December last year, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor admitted in your Lordships' House, at cols. 1252 to 1254 of the Official Report, that the court was already relying on the charter in its judgments, and the Commission has ordained that all new EU legislation must conform to it. So it is going ahead anyway, with the potential to deprive us of much of our remaining legal independence by imposing the EU’s social model on our economic, employment, welfare, education, health, environment and cultural policies.

This is some of the reality in which your Lordships’ European Union Committee merely scrutinises European legislation and makes suggestions about it. As far as I know, the committee has never made much of a difference to any significant piece of Brussels legislation, but no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, will enlighten us if this is not so.

Your Lordships’ committee scrutinises, and even presents reports in Brussels, but it is not clear what changes as a result. Is it therefore any surprise that the public are not frightfully interested in what the committee gets up to? Is it likely that their interest will be engaged unless and until the committee starts making firm proposals to put the situation I have described into reverse, thus giving them back their democracy? I think not. I will, of course, be told that such action would be outside the committee’s terms of reference, but I have no doubt that it could, for

27 Oct 2006 : Column 1418

instance, get the House’s permission to carry out an objective cost-benefit analysis of our EU membership, which the Government steadfastly refuse to do because they are so frightened of the horrifying result. But that result would be of great interest to the taxpaying public.

Alas, given the committee’s present composition, nothing worthwhile like that is vaguely on the cards. As I pointed out in a letter to the chairman on 27 February—it has been printed in the report, for which I am grateful—the composition of the committee and its sub-committees is heavily biased in favour of the Europhile viewpoint. Of the main committee’s 19 members, 12 are among the most ardent Europhiles in your Lordships' House, including the chairman, and only three could be described as Eurosceptic. None publicly holds the view that the UK should leave the European Union, a view held by a large and growing proportion of the British population.

The committee’s general persuasion can be gauged, because its original intention was to suggest a role for the House of Lords in presenting and explaining the EU. Luckily, this also was found to be outside its terms of reference. As I indicated in my letter to the chairman on 23 March, many of us fear that the inspiration for this original suggestion was a desire on the part of the committee to join in the EU’s multi-billion-euro propaganda campaign to explain how wonderful the EU really is in schools and across Europe generally. Such a campaign is of course now necessary given the diminishing popularity of the EU project in most other EU countries apart from our own, but it is a relief that your Lordships’ Select Committee will not overtly form part of it.

Even so, I fear that the forthcoming education campaign will not be balanced in any sense. Perhaps I may surprise noble Lords by ending in agreement with one recommendation of the report, which is made in paragraph 131. It is that more time should be made available in your Lordships' House and the House of Commons to debate EU matters. I agree especially with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams—if she does not mind too much—that EU summits should be debated here at much greater length. It is truly frightening that the EU project is going ahead, often in a legal vacuum, and no one is talking about it. Apart from that, I doubt that the report’s recommendations will do much to energise the media or to inform the public of what is being done in their names and behind their backs. Indeed, I doubt the usefulness of our European committees altogether as they presently operate.

12.32 pm

Lord Harrison: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, for introducing this debate on the scrutiny role of the European Union Committee, most of whose recommendations I support. When I came into the House seven years ago, our EU reports were on the outside a dull red and on the inside a dull read. Fortunately, much has changed in the interim. The typeface and appearance have been markedly improved; forewords and executive summaries, which are vital to

27 Oct 2006 : Column 1419

those who wish to understand at least the subject which the committee addresses, are now included. I am very grateful to Simon Burton and his band of colleagues who have done so much work in this respect. They have now moved on to modern technology and we now communicate by way of an EU newsletter. Indeed, I asked my son Adam last night to Google this committee. Within 10 seconds, he was able to draw up the reports which we are addressing.

I need modernising. I am of that generation which believes that a Google, rather than a googly, is just not cricket, but progress has yet to be made. Progress could be made in this House, too. It is a joy to be here on yet another dress-down Friday in your Lordships' House to address yet another EU report. Would it not be splendid if we had more time to discuss these important issues, as the previous speaker has already implied, and gave them more prominence on your Lordships’ agenda?

I shall identify two problems which frustrate us doing more. The first is the press, and the second is the vexed question of resources. Earlier this week, the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, and the European Union Committee were in Paris to talk to our counterparts there, the délégation which has responsibility in the French Parliament for discussing these affairs. It has recently opened up its committee to the press and we discovered that it had had the benefit of proper, reasoned and lengthy articles in the major press on its work. Would that that were the position here in your Lordships' House.

When Sub-Committee G, so ably led by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, who is here today, was dealing with social and consumer affairs, the noble Baroness invited the press to a House of Lords tea to talk to it about lifelong learning. I remember the anxious glances of the reporters, who were looking anywhere but at us when we were talking about the report. They found the report unhelpful, because it did not violently disagree with government.

Your Lordships’ committee produced an important report on paediatric medicine for which we brought in experts. A very good press release was issued about this important, European matter, but there was no mention in the press of the remedy provided by the European Union of setting up a co-ordinating committee that might help with the difficult question of medicines provided to children. All we saw were screaming headlines about babies being endangered by untried medicines.

The same was true of our report on the consumer credit directive. A columnist in the Times referred to it as an example of a boring report coming across her desk which she chose not to read. The fact that the directive is important to consumers in this country as we develop the single market had not impinged on her imagination. Sometimes I despair, but we plough on, as we should, because our committee’s work is important. The press witnesses who attended the launch of the report seemed to share the same sense of impotence about achieving sound and reasoned coverage in this country’s press.

I say this because we are sometimes in danger of wearing a hair shirt in this House and saying that we

27 Oct 2006 : Column 1420

have got to do so much more. There is more that we need to do, but we are up against a press which does not want to know about the European Union. I was going to suggest a minor attempt at doing something about it by targeting younger reporters and giving them a briefing in the House, perhaps in the compass of a morning, simply to explain the workings of the House of Lords and of the European Union Committee in particular, but it seems that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, has already made that attempt, without resounding results.

I disagree with the report’s conclusion on the possibility of a special House of Lords unit. There is a limited role for such a unit in discussing European Union affairs, and I would limit it in this way: it should deal with the opportunities to reply to press articles only by referring to reports which your Lordships have already produced in the European Union Committee. There is a wealth of knowledge in those reports which is not always unearthed to the press. Those who were dealing with the press could intervene and ask whether it was aware of this or that. Such a unit could target those who would benefit from receiving our reports. I went this week to a breakfast meeting about part-time students in the United Kingdom and the European Union. I met the president of the National Union of Students, who seemed to be unaware that we had produced a report on lifelong learning when, quite clearly, it tied in with its own interest in part-time study. We need to be more sophisticated and adept at targeting those who might benefit from reading our reports.

We then return to the eternally vexed question of resources in the House. I am sorry to say that we run this House on the cheap and to our disbenefit. The input of your Lordships to the reports on the European Union—the expertise and experience that is gathered together, the quizzing of witnesses and the writing of the reports—is considerable, but it is not matched by a complementary output, which would ensure that what resulted found its way to those who might be influenced in making public policy in this country.

I have one little suggestion to make about the press. When I was a Member of the European Parliament—and this is true of many MPs in Westminster, too—there were columns in the local press relating the daily work that we did in the European Parliament and what MPs did in the House of Commons. I wonder if there exists any place where any of us have even a monthly column in our local press, which in my case would be the Chester Standard and the Chester Chronicle. The Wirral News used to carry such columns. I wonder whether such outlets would be interested in the House of Lords. I suspect that they might, if the columns were well written and were of interest.

The role of scrutiny is very important. I turn to the question of how and who we influence. With the Government, who must be the major target, I would like to see more than just the reception of the Minister, as usually happens towards the end of a Select Committee report. I should like to see a much greater follow-up—perhaps a dialogue after the report has been reported on and the Government

27 Oct 2006 : Column 1421

have replied to it. Why not have Ministers come back to start a dialogue? A year or two after directives have been placed in British law, why should we not have a review with Ministers about how that law has worked and operated? We can do more.

On the other hand, we talk well to the European Commission. I am always impressed by the witnesses we have who come from the Commission, often unaided—they do not have an army of helpers coming with them from Brussels, and invariably they speak excellent English. With the European Parliament, the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, has done much in recent years to improve relations, with regular meetings with MEPs. I was very pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, on our behalf, recently went to talk to Brussels to talk to the equivalent committee on the consumer credit directive. More of that should be done.

I should also like us to promulgate our reports more widely to other national and European parliamentarians. How refreshing it would be for a change if we translated some of our reports and put them on websites in languages other than English. I know that would be thought to be a fruitless expense, but sometimes courtesy shown to others by speaking their tongue brings in its own rewards, in unexpected ways.

Lastly, I concentrate on MPs. We do not do enough in the House of Lords to communicate with Members of Parliament. They know little about what we do in our work. One distinguished Member of your Lordships' House who was an MP confessed to me yesterday that he had been to this House only four times while he was a Member of the other place. We need to make greater effort in that regard. One MP said to me over the summer that she believed we still dressed in ermine to do our daily work here in your Lordships' House. That is quite astonishing—although when you think about it, whenever we see this House represented on the BBC, it is the day of the Queen’s Speech, when some of us are be-ermined. That is the image that others carry away with them. Why could not the image of us performing our scrutiny be taken from the Questions at 2.30, for example?

How do we reach out to MPs? We could offer a briefing, especially to new MPs, about the work of the House of Lords. I know that they have so much work to do, but why should we not have a morning when we show them round this House? Perhaps they would learn something from it and be engaged enough to come and see us again? Why not think about pairing Members of this House with MPs? At least, then, new MPs would have a pair in the House of Lords—someone to whom they could refer, whom they could phone up and have a cup of tea with and with whom they could have a chat about the work of the two Houses. Is that such an outrageous idea? Are we prepared to help out there? We need to talk better to MPs about the House of Lords because the reform, finally, will be done by them. I hope when they make that decision—and it is their right to make it—they will at least make it on the basis of a greater, better and improved knowledge of the House of Lords.



27 Oct 2006 : Column 1422

In conclusion, rather like the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, I found the Government response slightly lukewarm. It is in the Government’s interests that the European Union Committee is active and provides provoking and helpful criticism of the Government from time to time. Good governance has a vested interest in good scrutiny.

Could the Minister also give us news of further progress on the European information centres, which I regard as very important, as we have had rather a tardy approach to them in the past?

12.46 pm

Lord Bowness: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, who so ably leads the Select Committee and who led it through this inquiry, has already given a very full account of the report and its recommendations and the questions that it raises, and any attempt on my part to do that at this stage in the debate would be superfluous. However, as a member of the Select Committee, it did not seem at all unreasonable at the time that we published the original call for evidence on the topic of presenting and explaining the European Union. I know that that topic was subsequently changed, but it was not an unreasonable suggestion. After all, it was not a decision to do it, in fact, and it was reasonable bearing in mind what other Parliaments do in other countries. It might have been worth looking at, in any event.

It is extraordinarily regrettable that attempts to widen the knowledge of the European Union so frequently run the risk of being branded as attempts to promote a particular policy. It was clear from some of the responses to the committee’s call for evidence that anything that the committee might propose to extend actively knowledge of European proposals would be viewed with disfavour and as an attempt to use the House for pro-European propaganda. It is often an argument deployed by those whose attitudes towards the European Union are less than favourable, but I should have thought that much of what is done by Europe was unknown and allegedly—I stress the word “allegedly”—hidden from the public or Parliament. Therefore, one would have supposed that anything that extended the knowledge would be welcome. However, it is clear that anything approaching the Swedish, Danish, Latvian or Irish information centres, which are attached to their Parliaments, for the reasons outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, and my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, had to be almost immediately ruled out. And it would not enhance the reputation of the committee and its reports elsewhere if its work—its work, not its conclusions—became the subject of political controversy.

We have to accept that we are where we are, although we may ponder whether the Swedes, Finns, Danes, Irish and Latvians have a greater maturity in matters relating to Europe, in that they apparently can disagree with particular policies without questioning whether they want to be in the game as currently played, and that they accept that promoting knowledge of proposals is different from actively supporting them.



27 Oct 2006 : Column 1423

Of course it is important that the reports to the committee are known and available. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, I sometimes think they are better known and more frequently read outside the United Kingdom than within. However, I also believe that the principal responsibility for explaining the European Union and its policies falls to national Governments. It is for national Governments who have been party to the decisions of the Council of Ministers to take responsibility for those decisions, to take a political lead and not hide behind the skirts of the Commission—or, put even more vaguely, Brussels.

I have noted the new website referred to in the Government’s response. It does indeed contain a great deal of information. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, will no doubt be pleased to know that one section actually contains a quotation from the United Kingdom Independence Party. Having viewed it, I wonder why the Minister in his response particularly highlighted the animated section—the one-minute tour. With great respect, I think it is rather simplistic. Why on earth is the British citizen on his one-minute tour of the European Union represented in a 1950s or 1960s Dormobile bumping along through the Continent? Is that really how we see ourselves? Have things moved on? Perhaps they have not, and that worries me even more.

We should all be prepared to support greater time for debating European issues on the Floor of the House and in Parliament generally. Those who are supportive of much of what the European Union tries to do would welcome it. Presumably those who are of a hostile disposition—and I think the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, has indicated this—would also welcome the opportunity to express a contrary point of view. Indeed, if that were not the case, one would have to conclude that there was an element of fear that the facts might get in the way of the argument.

In my view, a debate on the Commission’s work programme would be appropriate. That would not in any way mean Brussels was setting Parliament’s agenda; it would be our decision to have the debate. It would recognise that we are part of the European Union, and that our Ministers sit in the Council and make the decisions on the proposals from the Commission. As has already been said today, the sooner we express our views the better. It may not be a popular view, but the European Commission is in many ways more transparent than Whitehall, and its intentions are flagged up far earlier. For those who wish to comment, the sooner these matters are brought to their attention the better.

Much is written and said about how the institutions can reach out to citizens, and those institutions, particularly the Commission, try. But they will always be accused of pressing their own interest, and even if that is not true, it will be a one-sided interest. We should give an enthusiastic welcome to the declared intention of commissioners to make themselves available to national Parliaments, and to President Barroso’s proposal to visit each national Parliament. If that became a regular practice it would be a welcome addition to the one that the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, has instituted, of the EU

27 Oct 2006 : Column 1424

Select Committee seeing the ambassador of the presidency state at the beginning of each presidency to go through the work programme.

We are part of the European Union, and our Governments must be prepared to lead public opinion, not merely follow it or allow it to drift. If we, as Members of a national Parliament, want to play our part in the affairs of Europe, we need to do so enthusiastically and pursue the suggestions in this report—but also, I submit, to consider how much further we can go. Sometimes we will agree with proposals and policies, sometimes we will disagree, but if we do not have the debate, who is ever going to know? We are concerned about how to engage the public with politics. Europe is very much a part of our politics, whether you think that is a good thing or not. To ignore it will be to our detriment.

12.54 pm

Lord Stevens of Ludgate: My Lords, I welcome the European Union Committee report on public awareness of the scrutiny role of the House of Lords. I read with interest the recommendations contained therein. I note in particular that there is no mention of the core function changing—I shall return to that in a few moments—or of setting up any new information centre. It is perhaps interesting to note that, at the rate regulations are created in Europe, at least one new regulation has been created during the course of this debate.

I note the reference to the Government not only thinking through what they have done, but sometimes accounting for it. One might ask: why only sometimes? Why should the Government not always account for it?

I wonder whether any progress has been made with regard to the European Commission’s agreement to promote direct contact between the institutions and the public. I hope that is not another way for the Commission to avoid its responsibilities by agreeing to something and then taking no action. After all, public companies meet their shareholders; why should the commissioners not meet their financiers? In Ireland, we are told, it has been a challenge to get members of the public to attend a meeting of the Forum on Europe.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page