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Indeed, realising from a former existence the problems of time in this Chamber, I think that we should consider carefully, if we want the additional time for which my noble friend Lady Williams so strongly argued, having an annual debate on the work programme of the Councilthat is mentioned in the report and would be of great importance, but would take at least a day of parliamentary timeas well as taking up opportunities for debates on substantial issues that have come up in European Council meetings. At some stage, the committee and the House will have to consider the trade-off in time spent on those mattersI am talking about time spent in the Chamber, as distinct from in the Moses Room or on what we used to call Unstarred Questions, for the consideration of our reports.
As has been said, relations with the press have not been easy for the committee and its sub-committees in terms of getting out satisfactory information. We should explore further the possibility of having post-publication seminars. These would be a useful opportunity to explore the results of the sub-committees work with a group of people that might include the witnesses who had come before us and specialists in the issue under consideration from universities and policy research institutes, from within and occasionally without the United Kingdom. We should follow the example given by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, of the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, who took the report of his Sub-Committee C on Africa to Brussels for a seminar of that sort. It would be a good idea if we could aim to have at least half our reports linked to post-publication seminars in the coming yearthat target might be worth aiming atand we would be able to evaluate how effective they had been in ensuring that the reports were better known and understood. That would be a particularly useful proactive activity on our part.
Secondly, there is no doubt that the parliamentary website as a whole has improved. The new design of the pages on public Bills before Parliament, of which we were sent a trial template yesterday, will be a significant improvement when it comes online in the new Session. That is good. Our own website, however, can be described only as a work in progress. I have signed up for messages, both on the committees page
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I have a good deal of sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said on the free distribution of our reports. Given the cost of preparing reports, the marginal cost of making copies available is relatively small. We ought at least to see whether it would be possible, if not to go quite as far as making all parliamentary publications free, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, suggested, then at least to have a wider distribution list of copies to those who would find them advantageous, both in this country and elsewhere in the European Union. I do not know, for instance, whether we send them automatically to each parliament in the European Union. That would be useful. Of course, the IPEX system will provide a computer link, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said, a hard copy is sometimes a good deal more useful than a link to a website.
I hope that the Minister will be able to answer the question about the government website on explanatory memoranda. As the committee was told by the Remembrancer of the City of London, the City of London is fortunate in that it is one of the few organisations that get copies of all explanatory memoranda. He felt that it was important, however, that others should also have access to them, and a website would be of considerable value in that respect.
As the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, said, we need to build up and extend our links with Members of Parliament considering these matters, and with Members of the European Parliament. We have a useful annual meeting with MEPs and the European Committee of the House of Commons, but we must think of further ways to ensure that there are better links between us. As has been said, our representative in Brussels is in a good place to ensure that, at least as far as the European Parliament is concerned, that is now done.
Finally, the European Union Committee has recently been considering another aspect linked to this report. In a communication, the Commission has made it known that in future it will send copies of proposals directly to national parliaments. To some extent, it would have been obliged to do that if the constitutional treaty had gone through, but it is now going to do it in any case, because it would like to have the views of national parliaments on its proposals. We will have to see how we will manage that responsibility alongside our prime responsibility,
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A great deal of hard work goes into the preparation of each of these reports. There is the time of the members of the committee or sub-committee, of our Clerks, of our specialist advisers, of government departments, which do a great deal in providing us with information and in coming to give evidence, and of other witnesses from a wide range of backgrounds. Given that so much work goes into the preparation of these reports, we have a responsibility to continue to work out how we can make them better known.
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I begin by saying how much I enjoyed the maiden speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby. We have been joined by a wise and learned Scottish mind that will illuminate our discussions not only in this area but in many others. He had a very good initial innings, if I may put it in cricketing terms. I thank him very much on my own behalf and on that of my colleagues.
Like all reports from the EU Committee, this report is a thorough piece of work. In its case, I can truly assert that I have read all the evidence. I have to go on to confess that I have hardly ever read all the evidence in any other report, but I did in this case. The report made some very interesting points. I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, who presides over this giant committee familythat is what it iswith such skill and geniality and brings its reports before us with such assiduity.
As the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, implied in his opening comments, there are two subjects in the debate, and there is a slight danger of them becoming entangled in the discussion of the report. The first is how the process of scrutiny of EU legislative instruments, documents and declarations can become more widely known. That includes not merely the formal process of scrutinising proposals from Brussels before they become law and placing a delay or a reserve on them, where appropriate, which is all laid down in the 1999 Scrutiny Reserve Resolution, but also examining the role of the Government in agreeing to EU-originated legislation. The second subject is quite different: it is the task of presenting, explaining and, in some respects, acting as advocate for the policies and activities of the European Union. They are two different subjects and, to some extent, they conflict. I shall try to explain a bit more about that in a moment.
The first group of tasks provides the mandate. It is a big and important mandate for the European Union Committee and its sub-committees. The second taskexplaining EU policies to the publicis most emphatically not for that committee to undertake. It is not the business of the committee, the House or this Parliament; it is for the European Union, its institutions and its high officials to undertake. It is also, to some extent, a
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We have seen that this is leading to a need for a renewal of vowsto use the phrase employed by Chancellor Merkel of Germanyfor the EU project. That indicates the level of worry and concern about the communications failure. We have also seen that the latest opinion polls in the UK indicate that even British business, which used to be very pro the European Union, is now apparently tiring of the excessive regulation which it believes emanates from Brussels and is beginning to question whether the benefits of the Union, which are undoubtedly there, exceed the costs that seem to loom even larger.
I realise that these are huge and contentious issues that raise questions about our national role, identity, interests and place in the world, and the Committee is very well advised to steer clear of them. As power shifts from the Atlantic and Europe to Asia, they also raise even broader questions about where our interests lie and whether this House should be giving more attention to that than we do at present. I do not propose to touch on those issues any further today; I have no doubt that we will have plenty of debate on them in coming weeks.
and goes on to question whether we are selling it wrong, or to the wrong people, or whether there is something wrong with the presentation or so on. I shall add a few more questions to that list. Are we selling the right product? Is the whole scrutiny reserve procedure a convincing process and artefact? Does it give real value, service and protection to the British public in the way they want? If the answer to those questions is no, then no amount of improved presentation, better websites, simple language or anything else will turn a bad story into a good one. I suspect that it is the product itselfby that, I do not mean the committee
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Nowadays, the public wants a robust element of arms-length scepticism about EU proposals, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde puts it in his excellent memorandum on page 78. To that I add: that should be combined with some healthy questioning on why certain proposals are within the proper competence of the EU at all as opposed to belonging to national legislatures.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, found my right honourable friends letter not to his liking. It seems to me to be a completely reasonable and straightforward analysis of the proper role of the committee and the need to concentrate on that role.
The approach of other legislatures was described in the evidence, notably that of Denmark, but also of Sweden and Finland, whereas the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, reminded us in an excellent and thoroughly interesting speechthey go a good deal further by insisting that Ministers should be mandated, in the Danish case by the Folketinget, before they agree any legislative measures in Brussels. We have some lessons to draw, and if we are talking about having more public impact, that is where our minds should be turning. It is indeed revolutionary stuff, but the media of today are always ready to be bored and to condemn serious things as dull, and are looking for revolutionary utterances. I suspect people also want from these activities a firm assurance that the process of filtering and examining proposals from the Commission via our government departmentsthat is the scrutiny procedurereally works, and cannot just be overridden by Ministers when it suits them, or when they are in a hurry, or when Parliament is not sitting, or for some other excuse.
We have debated this issue in this House, as some of your Lordships will recall, and we have given it a good deal of attention. It needs constant watching to ensure that regulations and EU measures do not just get rushed through by Ministers on some pretext such as confidentiality, urgency, or, We had to get it through for some reason or other, before proper scrutiny has even begun. That has happened, and there is a real danger that, while scrutiny procedures continue, they are being reduced to a farce or a formality by Ministers agreeing things provisionally in Council. That has happened, and this House has objected strongly to the Government about the habit of agreeing things provisionally and arguing later that it was not real agreement in a political sense but was only provisional. In fact, they are pushing things through with no regard at all for the scrutiny process.
When I talk about a degree of scepticism, that is why this much-needed approach may sometimes be in head-on conflict with those who are trying to wave all doubts aside and promote and proselytise on behalf of EU measures and ideas, or argue that they have gone through anyway and that it is good thing too. It is perfectly natural that all EU officials will want to
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I welcome the suggestion in the report that larger EU subjects should continue to be examined by the sub-committees. I do not really understand why one needed to recommend that, because that is what the sub-committees have always done, and very good it is too. Some excellent reports have appeared over the years, which are widely admired and referred to. I endorse the ideas put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. I liked the recommendations for more debates on EU proposals in the Chamber, and on the Floor of the other place, although it does not sound from one of the letters from the Minister for Europe that he is very keen on that idea at all. He seemed to imply that we have had enough debates already.
I have one more observation. The committee is anxious to avoid having to dumb down its reports in its efforts to gain a higher profile. That is understandable, but we live in a media-dominated age and the media are easily bored, as the evidence to the committee confirms. I have been looking at some of the recent reports from the scrutiny committee in the other place and I am struck by the blunt and aggressive language that it uses about certain EU measures and the way that they are handled by Her Majestys Governmentthat is part of the remit. I ask your Lordships to listen to what our colleagues on the Commons scrutiny committee had to say about a recent, rather vacuous, EU communication, Europe in the World. The committee had received a letter from the Minister in which he had expressed the hope that his explanatory memorandum would be informative. The committee report stated:
On the contrary, its cursory summary of the Communication is uninformative, as is his statement of the Governments views. This seems to be at one with the position taken by the previous and present Minister for Europe with regard to similar documents, all of which in one way or another relate to the future of Europe in the wake of the rejection, a year ago, by French and Dutch citizens of the Constitutional Treaty.
The Governments general position appears to be to shelter behind the obvious absence of any consensus on the future of Europe and to say that it will inform the House of its views once there is one. This is somewhat at odds with the notion of increasing the involvement of national parliaments in decision-making, as is the submission of an Explanatory Memorandum on the day after the Council has approved the document in question and instructed those involved to proceed forthwith ... We consider this stance unacceptable,
That is rough but justified language that throws an important light on the totally unsatisfactory way in which some of the scrutiny procedures are treated by the Government . The more firmly that our
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I know that we in the Lords pride ourselves on the gentility of our approach and the politeness of our language, but it may be that, without dumbing down, we have to get a little rougher and harsher in our reports to attract media attention and to show that we are doing our job.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I have listened to my noble friend with great interest and I am grateful for what he said about my speech, but I would point out to him, as perhaps might our chairman, that when we are in the process of scrutiny, if we do not like what the Government are saying or think that we are being rushed, we draft a very rude letter that our chairman then sends to the Minister. That is very much our practice and that does not appear in the document that we are considering, but I assure my noble friend that we very often ask the chairman to kick the Government very hard.
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, good. That is just what one wants to hear and the more that that is conveyed in the reports and to the public, the better. We have to get a bit ruder for two reasons. The first reason is that more and more EU measures are widely disliked and the public expects them to be given not just a slap on the wrist but a very rough rideand the kind of language to which my noble friend Lord Renton referred is what the public wants to hear. Secondly, there is the sad but realistic reason that in this age of deafening publicity and overwhelming information flows, one has to be blunt and shout very loudly to get any kind of hearing at all. That is why my noble friend Lord Renton in his marvellous speech described the 16 journalists who had wine poured down their throats in the hope that they would write. However, they did not write because, when they got back to their offices, their desks were deluged with so much other information that the report got no priority.
Those are the harsh realities. I do not for one moment underestimate the difficulties of getting any kind of hearing for what are often deeply technical matters, and I admire the bravery of the committee in asking itself outright why it is not making more impact. The answers are many and varied, and several of them go very deep into policy on basic disputes about where this nation stands in the world. Those are a few thoughts which I hope will help.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, I pay sincere tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, and all members of the European Union Committee for an excellent report. I also thank all those who have spoken in the House today for their clarity.
It is not always easy to communicate the work of the European Union. In my experience, even for those
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I felt for the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry: the lack of publicity and the approach of the media are genuinely difficult problems. Where there is publicity, it is still so often about straight bananas or sausagesoften, I have noticed, in newspapers that on the same day confirm that Elvis Presley is alive and has been found driving a London double-decker bus on Marsthat I really wonder about the quality of thought that is brought to the process.
I say that as someone who is genuinely positive about Europe, but I think that we have to think about the years of obscurity and impenetrable language. Subjects such as our air or water, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, are vital to people but, when they become clouded by mandated thematic strategies, the description of the pillars, comitology procedures and so on, then, in my judgment, vital things are translated by an impenetrable alchemy into a cure for insomnia.
The noble Lord, Lord Renton, is right: at the heart of this we need greater political dynamism to overcome these problems so that we disseminate positively. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, made similar points about reaching out, with which I also agree. But I make the point to the Housenot in contradiction, because I think that it is probably the underpinning thought herethat dissemination should be in the sense not simply of publishing but of engaging people in a dialogue. I was very pleased that there is much more thought in the reportat page 45, as I recallabout the interactive qualities that are now needed, using modern technologies, to get that kind of dialogue. I believe that it reflects what younger people now expect in exchanges on important issues, as my noble friend Lord Harrison said.
With regard to the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, which are directly related, we could probably all do more in education on the role of Europe. I have often argued in this House that, unless we understand Europe better historically, including the violent enmities in its history, the gross impact of some of the nationalistic causes that have been fought out on European soil and the way that, in this generation and the one just before, European peace has been constructed since 1945, then I fear that we will understand nothing.
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