Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

One has to ask whether there is a need to explain the role of the House of Lords in scrutinising EU legislation. Are the general public really interested? I doubt it. They are more interested in the pros and cons of the EU: monetary union, the constitution, the cost and benefit—or otherwise—of membership. A new core function of the committee might be to publicise these areas in a non-partisan manner. Unfortunately, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde wrote in his evidence, the committee is seen as pro-European in its composition, as confirmed by my noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch, so that would be a difficult role for it to perform. Also, as I mentioned in the debate in May, the committee does not have enough businessmen on it. I note that the Chancellor of the Exchequer suggested that more businessmen should be on the committee. I see no progress at all in that regard.

27 Oct 2006 : Column 1425

Even if the committee’s role were more publicised, the public’s perception would be: if more than 50 per cent of our major legislation emanates from Brussels, on the Government’s own figures, why are we not looking to curb this deluge rather than just scrutinising it? Why, if 1,150 regulations are deposited in Parliament each year, do we not reject some of them? Incidentally, who on Earth is thinking this lot up, and who on earth can monitor and implement them? Who is running the UK? Is it Brussels?

I shall give your Lordships two example of the mess we are in. Last May our Prime Minister told Parliament that,

He also said that foreign criminals should be deported automatically. However, just days before, the Government had passed EU legislation through Parliament which stated:

In other words, what the Prime Minister said was illegal under EU and UK law. That is why John Reid announced last week in the other place that the Government are no longer trying to deport criminals from other EU member states. Even the Government do not know what is going on.

I shall give another example. Mr Barroso blames the European Parliament for its failure to scrap regulations. I quote:

How many regulations have been rejected by the committee? Should it have scrutinised the charge of corruption against one of the former presidents of the European Commission, twice under criminal investigation? Should it have required that the accounts of the European Union be signed off by the auditors each year? The accounts were rejected again this year, just this week, with over half the expenditure not approved by the auditors. How can the European Union have the audacity to criticise President Putin for corruption when it cannot even sign off its own accounts? Should we explain how the rejected EU constitution is being implemented by the back door? I refer to joint embassies and a proposal for one seat at the United Nations. There are too many examples to list them all. Were any of these scrutinised by the committee?

The administrative costs of the EU are estimated by Commissioner Verheugen at €600 billion a year—one-third of the UK’s GDP, or 5.5 per cent of Europe’s GDP, against the benefits of €160 billion. The costs are three and a half times the benefits on their own figures. In a free trade area this month the EU imposed tariffs on Chinese and Vietnamese shoes. President Chirac says that the CAP will not be changed until at least 2013, despite a clear understanding by the UK in particular that that would be dealt with in three years’ time. The EU will not put its NATO troops in harm’s way in Afghanistan. I could go on, but where are these

27 Oct 2006 : Column 1426

matters being scrutinised? Despite all our efforts, the UK Government cannot identify a single piece of legislation that has been withdrawn as a result of subsidiarity since the Maastricht Treaty came into force—according to Parliamentary Answer.

UK exports to countries outside the EU have been growing 45 per cent faster than exports to the EU. Last year the UK had more inward investment than any other country in the world, attracting $165 billion-worth, against, say, France at $40 billion. Fortunately, we are outside the monetary union.

Taking all this into account, it is sad that Mr Cameron from the other place says that the Conservative Party must start talking about the things voters care about instead of “banging on about Europe”, which is exactly what I am doing. A properly informed debate about why we should remain a member of the existing Union is something we should all be interested in. After all, it makes more than 50 per cent of our laws and costs us £15 billion a year. Perhaps this debate should include the reform of our own Parliament and the Civil Service now that it has much more of a scrutinising rather than a creative role.

At the moment we are ignoring what is happening in Brussels until it is too late. Little by little it is engulfing us all. President Chirac says that the constitution is not dead. The Europe that we wanted is not happening. We do not even have free trade. That Europe is being taken from us like the Chancellor’s stealth taxes. If we are unwilling to look at the fundamental problem and if we are to scrutinise and publicise our increasing strangulation by the Brussels bureaucracy, how can we improve this scrutiny? First, the Government should no longer have the right to bypass the scrutiny process—something that is increasingly being done. The Government have bypassed the scrutiny process more than 340 times since records began in 2001—17 times in the 2005 Summer Recess alone. Secondly, the adoption of EU legislation immediately after its First Reading should be stopped, thus enabling proper scrutiny to take place. Thirdly, the Government should need a mandate from the committee to sign up to European legislation. In the absence of this mandate, it should be referred to Parliament for debate. Fourthly, all meetings of the committee should be open to the public. I emphasise “all”.

This is just a start and there are others much more expert than I who could amplify these suggestions, and no doubt tell me how impractical they all are. But if the committee is to be something more than a rubber stamp, it must be given more authority to scrutinise. With more authority, I am sure that the publicity would take care of itself.

The committee seeks to increase public awareness but it will need to be very careful, despite what I have said, not to tread over the line of awareness and start to give views on policy, for that is the role of Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, mentioned the word “fear”. I entirely agree with what he said about that. Fear of criticism of Europe is indicated clearly by the rules in Brussels that if you are retired and criticise the European Union you run the risk of losing your pension. As an anti-European,

27 Oct 2006 : Column 1427

I have nothing to fear. I am sad that those who are pro-Europe are so unsure of their position that they have this regulation. The public have a pretty good idea what the EU is. I am pleased to say that in my travels I hardly ever hear a pro-EU voice, but that, of course, is what I want to hear.

1.05 pm

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, I suffer from a disadvantage in that for several reasons I am interested in climate change. First, I feel the change in weather. I guess that the barometer pressure has dropped by two points since we entered your Lordships’ Chamber today. Secondly, over time things change and we have political change. When my wife gave me the latest modern electronic barometer on my birthday this morning, I realised that I had been in your Lordships’ House for almost 44 years. I am now at last in the senior form comprising those above the average age.

Some 32 years ago I served on one of the committees mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell. Frankly, I regard the European Union as yesterday’s story. In those early days when I was treasurer of the Conservative Group for Europe and later when I worked, at a much lower level than the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Ludgate, in one of the great banking groups, I was suddenly told that I was in charge of the European Union aspect. I was told of the impact that it might have on our great banking group and its customers, clients and others. If you were in the merchant banking world, you had clients. If you were in a clearing bank, you had customers. The difference was that in one the assets went up and down in the lift every day but in the other they remained in the basement and wasted away.

When I was a young Member of your Lordships’ House I was selected by great names. I was put on a European committee to discuss the future position of the Conservative Party as we were likely to enter the European Union. I made the mistake of speaking one day. I was told afterwards that I was there to listen, not to speak because this European lark would take such a long time that by the time it happened I would probably be the only one alive. I am repeating some of the things I may have said 30 or 40 years ago. Then I was sent out to speak to the nation. I was very proud. I was asked to speak in draughty village halls. The number of noble Lords present today would have constituted an enormous audience in those days. But I did not realise that I was a stand-in for someone who did not want to drive north in the cold weather. As I travelled around those places I promoted the idea of Europe and the great opportunities that it would present for us. In those days we said that it was Britain’s business to be in Europe, that we wanted to get in, have a free market, earn money and that it would be profitable for us. Your Lordships will be aware that at that time the great Labour Party was so totally opposed to any form of European concept that when we had the referendum it practically refused even to participate. When we wanted to send our first delegation to the European Parliament, it refused to send anybody and I had the job of raising

27 Oct 2006 : Column 1428

money for Peter Kirk and his team because the Treasury could not get a vote on that as it would have meant putting it through Parliament.

Now the political climate has so changed that the Labour Party, realising the great power of the European communion—

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, I should have said European Community. That was a Freudian slip. The Labour Party considers that the European Union is a good thing because it enables it to introduce legislation into the United Kingdom that it could not have done otherwise and because it enables more and more central control to be taken. That is not an original thought and it is not mine. I reflect the views of others.

When I was a consultant one of my senior partners once said, “In business there are only two things: incest and rape. Incest is talking to yourselves, rape is finding a client or someone outside to talk to”. In this great debate today almost everybody is incestuous, with the exception of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby, who is totally independent and comes from a part of the world that I was not even allowed to reach when I had to speak about Europe, and my noble friend Lord Stevens of Ludgate. Everyone else is either a member of the committee talking to themselves or someone who has already given evidence and is seeking to repeat it. This is one of the problems that we have in Parliament these days. I have raised this before. We used to have very informed debates on Wednesdays, which would be fully occupied, and which were not divided between Opposition Benches. These days when we have debates on Thursdays, there is a very small attendance. Often I have been the only one on the Conservative Bench in a Labour debate. We are failing ourselves on debating internally in Parliament the important issues that may be raised from time to time.

In the House of Commons, what happens now? They go home on Wednesday. They do not have Adjournment debates; they do not talk about anything. They go back to their constituencies as a form of social worker to talk to a few people. If we are seeking to approach the outside world—the outside world means people—I say that the European Union as such is yesterday’s story, but how can we in the United Kingdom benefit from it? How can we keep the wrong controls out of our country and introduce issues that will be of direct benefit to our economy, our social activities, and so on?

That is difficult, because I was told that there was a convention, although several conventions have gone. The first was that you should not speak on anything that you did not know about. However, when you joined your Lordships’ House you could read your speech, but only for three or four times. Then you were allowed to have notes. Thereafter, you did not read a speech, otherwise someone would say, “Reading, reading!”. You would speak, but when you were young like me, I was told that you did not know

27 Oct 2006 : Column 1429

anything so you could read a speech for a while, but when you know something, you speak on it and do not need any notes. There were many people in this House, as there are now, with a great knowledge of a range of subjects, but their knowledge is not dispersed outside.

The other convention was that if you received a letter from outside, or a communication of any form from a member of the public, you did not answer it. First of all, you had only 24 sheets of writing paper a month, no stamps and no allowances. But you immediately passed it on to the Member of Parliament in the other place. You would write to him. If you were old enough you would call him by his Christian name, but if you were my age you would almost say, “Dear Sir, I have received a letter from so and so, who I understand is one of your constituents. Could you please reply?”. Has that convention now gone? You only have to speak in this place and have it quoted on the internet or something and you receive hundreds of letters. Do we reply to them or do we send them to another place? Maybe we should encourage more people to write and communicate with us.

I have another disadvantage. I happen to be president of the Anglo-Swiss Society, and because the business of voluntary euthanasia came up and you could go to Switzerland, I had a host of letters complaining at one level or another. When we get these letters, do we reply? If they have given a telephone number, I ring up, but I lick the letter first to see whether it is part of a lobby and to check whether or not the ink runs. I even do that with Ministers’ letters. Fewer and fewer Ministers’ replies to Written Questions run, so I have reason to believe that they are stereotype signatures. When you reach the outside public, they may ask about EU subjects that I may or may not know about. I ring them up if I have their number and try to work out whether they will be at home at that time. You try to guess whether they have high tea or dinner. You then ring and say, “I’m ringing because you wrote to me about so and so”. More often than not, they say, “Who?”. I then say, “Well, it’s me, Malcolm Selsdon. I am actually a Lord. I am terribly sorry about it; it is an accident of birth”. “Oh, did we?”, they ask. I say, “Yes, you wrote”, and you realise that you have got part of the lobby, so you are not in touch with the general public. Occasionally someone will be very pleased. I then say, “If you want to know something about something else, let me know”, or you give them the website. We can therefore spread the net.

We need to promote—not the committee; it is an extremely boring subject, but some of the issues that come up need to be identified. We need presenters and promoters, as we have discussed with the Hansard Commission. Let us look at the promoters we have. We have a rather rakish frigate of great charm, the Lord Speaker, and a 94-gun solid oak battle ship in the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell. That does sound a bit like a battle ship. Those are the two key people. From underneath them, we should look at people who would go out to promote, speak, wherever it may be, and also get into the audio-visual communication world.

27 Oct 2006 : Column 1430

I happen to be secretary of the Parliamentary Space Committee. At one of our earlier meetings in Brussels, one of the commissioners—a remarkable Italian who has the ability, as some Italians do, to speak sometimes moving his arms ahead of his voice, and sometimes behind—left a lasting impression on me. He said that within five years, half the population of the world would have access to audio-visual communication for sound, music, speech, whatever it may be, on a unit, which is strictly to them wherever they are. I suddenly thought that half the population of the world—3 billion—speak English either as their first or second language, or are learning it. It is that form of communication that we should be looking at.

I try occasionally to be a bit electronic, and in distant parts I can manage to access your Lordships’ House. Your Lordships may not realise that debates or committees are sometimes reported on three months later. They are continually repeated because there are not enough programmes to broadcast on television. You will see them occasionally in an odd airport, or wherever. If we could only use the electronic media and decide what our policy should be, we should be promoting not the committee but specific issues. I believe that that is possible.

I wish we could drop the phrase “European Union”. We are looking at the advantages that we can gain from it. Of course we can give a lot. As my noble friend Lord Stevens pointed out, in the business world now we have a greater concentration of financial resources in this centre than probably anywhere in the world. I do not know the answers, but—I do this reluctantly—if you were to cherry-pick within the EU, there are certain legislative things that could be beneficial. I am told that anyone on a waiting list for the NHS here for a replacement hip, elective surgery, or whatever, may, under new legislation, which has been drafted or set up in Brussels, have an operation in a hospital with only a few days’, or maximum two weeks’ waiting, which has to be paid for by the NHS.

If we look at the advantages or disadvantages there is no harmonisation or unity. We have to keep the pound sterling. A little thing: you cannot even insure a car or register a car for all the countries of the European Union. There are so many “noes” and “pluses”. We need to reach out to the consumer—the person who wants to know whether he can move his dogs around. That was done, but the foreign consumer did not know when he came to London on holiday with his dogs whether they would be well looked after. There was nowhere he could stay with his dog, and hardly a restaurant he could go to. There are so many little anomalies, but should we decide to go out and promote the importance of the scrutiny of legislation, it is a matter of the issues themselves.

It has been a great day today; the weather should also be good tomorrow. I am very grateful that we have had a chance to debate this, but unless we can somehow change our own internal structures and communicate with ourselves on a broader base we have little hope of communicating with the outside world.

27 Oct 2006 : Column 1431

1.17 pm

Lord Roper: My Lords, I begin by saying how much the whole House appreciated the maiden speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby. I particularly appreciated his references to Caithness, and will certainly report to my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart his appreciation of his first visit to this House. Scotland’s loss is certainly our gain, and we appreciated what the noble and learned Lord had to say about further working between the European Union Committee and the appropriate committees in the devolved Assemblies. I hope that that will be taken forward. We look forward to hearing him on many other subjects in future.

I was not a member of the Select Committee when the report was prepared and I can therefore warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, and his colleagues on their work on it. Since it was prepared, I have become a member of the committee and have seen, as has been said by so many other noble Lords, how much the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, does in co-ordinating our work and in ensuring that we are effective.

Since I have served on the committee, I have had a duty to read the whole range of reports that the committee and its sub-committees have produced. They are a remarkable contribution to the understanding of developments in the European Union and the relations between the United Kingdom and the Union. There is no doubt about the quality of the reports, as has been made clear in today’s debate and earlier ones. The problem is that the reports do not get the attention that they deserve. That is the issue that we have discussed both in the report and in our debate today.

I agree with the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Grenfell and Lord Norton of Louth, on the role of the committee and its rejection of any agency function. It would not be appropriate for the committee or the House to be involved in promoting the European Union. Some years ago, when I was involved in the work of policy research institutes, or think tanks, I made the distinction between those which existed to improve the quality of debate in their area of policy and those which existed to influence the direction of the debate. The committee exists to improve the quality of the debate on European issues, rather than to influence its direction. There is no doubt that the reports have great potential, not only in debates in this House but also in the wider debates in the country and throughout the European Union.

However, I share the concern expressed in the report—and widely echoed today—that the reports are not fulfilling their potential in improving the wider debate. There have been a whole series of useful suggestions made in the debate, and I want to comment on a number of them. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, in what sounded like a valedictory telegram as he left Sub-Committee D, covered a lot of important ground and spoke of the problems that chairmen have in making their reports better known. This is not the place to discuss whether following the Danish or Finnish solution would necessarily be the right course for us; maybe we can return to that on

27 Oct 2006 : Column 1432

another occasion. I suspect that 27 member states with Danish-type committees would not necessarily ensure any progress in the European Union.

I am particularly interested in two ways of making the reports better known, an issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. He mentioned three areas of post-publication activity: debates in this Chamber; press relations and press conferences; and seminars and other promotional activities. Debates in this Chamber are, of course, the traditional post-publication activity, once we have received the reply from the Government to the report. As the noble Lord, Lord Neill, said during the deliberations and the questioning session in the committee, sometimes when the debates are limited almost exclusively to those who have taken part in preparing the report, it is not always clear whether this is the best use of this Chamber’s time.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page