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Lord Moynihan moved Amendment No. 26C:

Page 1, line 18, at end insert ("and the Protocol on the Role of National Parliaments in the European Union"").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 26C. In introducing this amendment, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Park for her insight into the matters that I am about to raise. She would have introduced this amendment far better than I am capable of doing. I believe it is important that the issues she raises are considered in detail by the Committee. It is

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with some pleasure that I move this probing amendment. This is not a matter in respect of which there is any difference of principle with the Government. I believe that there is a good deal of common ground between us on this matter. The purpose of the amendment is to give the Committee an opportunity to debate the role of national parliaments within the European Union.

The amendment deals with the provisions of the treaty contained within the protocols to allow a minimum six-week period for scrutiny of Community and third pillar proposals by national parliaments. The protocol also provides a new consultative role for COSAC (the Committee of National Parliamentary Scrutiny Committees). It will come as no surprise to the Committee to hear that these Benches welcome the fact that the treaty includes measures to permit better scrutiny of Community legislation by national parliaments.

The previous government led the way in Europe to ensure that the Treaty of Amsterdam contained such a measure and that national parliaments were given a greater role in scrutinising European legislation. The requirement for a six-week notice period before the Council decided on legislative proposals had its origin in important work carried out by the Select Committee on European Legislation. Declaration 13 of the Treaty of Maastricht on the role of national parliaments in the European Union stated the importance of encouraging greater involvement of national parliaments in the activities of the European Union. It called for the exchange of information between national parliaments and the European Parliament to be stepped up and for national parliaments to receive Commission proposals for legislation in good time for information or possible examination.

But the previous government were keen to make the main elements of Declaration 13 of the Treaty of Maastricht legally binding by entrenching them in the treaty, for it was clear that a legally enforceable provision was sorely needed. In 1994, in the first of its reports on the 1996 Intergovernmental Conference, the Select Committee on European Legislation was scathing about the lack of openness and accessibility of the process. According to the report, not only was the principle of making information available to national parliaments in good time before a Council decision routinely ignored, but the unpredictability and lack of notice led that committee to conclude that laws for European citizens were "to be made in a private club".

I quote from paragraph 61 of the 24th Report of the Select Committee:

    "The process of legislation in a democratic society always contains the elements of proposal, consideration, amendment if necessary, and approval. This process works only if what is proposed is clear, if it is widely available, if there is publicity and public consultation, and if there is time to consider the proposal before decisions are taken".

European law accounts for a large and growing proportion of the law of each member state, as we have learned again in these Committee proceedings, yet increasingly it appears "to be made in a private club".

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The committee listed a selection of 42 documents which in the previous 14 months had been found to be of legal or political importance but which it had had to consider without an official text. The committee singled out for criticism the use of unofficial texts and the absence of a minimum period of notice for legislation to be considered in the Council. The Committee will be aware that that was compounded by difficulties in obtaining documents attributed to translation, transmission and organisational delays.

Such difficulties have long been a problem for national parliaments, and particularly for those like the Westminster parliament with a demanding and extensive European scrutiny system. Other problems arose from unpredictable Council agendas, late Commission proposals, and the bunching of business towards the end of a presidency notice. As a result, in its report, the Select Committee recommended a 4-week period of notice to protect the interests of national parliaments and the citizens they represent. It stated:

    "It seems to us that the minimum period of notice should be four weeks",

that is, four clear weeks between the official text of a document being available in the appropriate language in every national capital and a decision on the document being taken in Council.

However, on the publication of the Select Committee's 27th report on 18th July 1996--a year and a day after that recommendation had been made--the situation worsened. That report listed a selection of 75 documents of legal or political importance which the committee was forced to consider without an official text. It excluded documents where the committee had an unofficial text, or the Commission document and no expectation that there would be a change. But, as the Committee is aware, an unofficial text is not a depositible document available to this place and to the public more widely--not least to those who may be affected by the legislative proposal contained within it.

The Select Committee again attributed that "lamentable state of affairs" to four main causes: the unpredictability of Council agendas; late production of proposals and other documents by the Commission; the preparedness of the Council to take items at short notice; and the slow transmission of documents. The Select Committee acknowledged also the previous government's role in working to resolve that unacceptable situation. It stated:

    "No blame attaches to the Government for the situation. Following our report last summer, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers and officials have kept up pressure on the Commission and the Council Secretariat for quicker production of documents and more orderly organisation of business, and have raised with them the particular difficulties which we have encountered".

The committee reiterated its recommendation of the previous year:

    "In our view the difficulties will only be solved by the introduction of the binding four-week period of notice which we recommended last summer".

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On the recommendation of that Select Committee, which was endorsed unanimously by all the European affairs committees of parliaments of member states' at the COSAC meeting in October 1996, the British Government tabled a treaty amendment which formed the basis of a draft protocol. That appeared in the treaty text presented to the Dublin European Council in December 1996. As a result, the period of notice now enshrined in the protocol is legally enforceable. That is the good news.

Now for some perceived problems associated with the protocol. In the preamble to the protocol that appeared at Amsterdam, the desire to enhance the ability of national parliaments to express their views on matters which may be of particular interest to them is indeed expressed, but is it not the case that national parliaments have to have an interest in everything the Union does and legislates for, for it is binding on all their people? Will the Minister confirm when the starting point for the six-week period of notice between the depositing of Commission consultation documents before the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers and the date when they are to be discussed within the Council will be? I believe that my noble friend Lady Park is interested in that point. We need to know the starting point for that six weeks, and I should welcome the Government's clear answer to that question.

Will the Government give an assurance that the six weeks will start from the date that the relevant documents are delivered to national governments over whom national parliaments have control rather than the date the documents are made available to the European Parliament and the Council as a whole over whom national parliaments do not have control, in order to avoid the possibility of a delay in transmission? Will the Minister confirm that it can take up to six weeks for documents to be sent on from Brussels? So unless the six weeks start when Westminster receives its copy, it would seem that the time allowed would frequently still be insufficient to permit parliamentary scrutiny.

There is of course an exception to the six-week rule on the grounds of urgency. I would be grateful if the Minister could assist me by defining what is an exception on the grounds of urgency. What type of legislation does the Minister envisage that that exception would cover? Does the Minister agree that it is essential to ensure that that provision is defined tightly to avoid the exception becoming the norm, and that the Council should be required to state formally the grounds of urgency?

Those are specific, detailed questions on an important part of the work done by the Government in negotiation. I am sure that the Minister will have no difficulty in clarifying the two points that I have raised. I underpin a broader more general important point; that on these Benches we believe that national parliaments remain the primary focus of democratic legitimacy within the EU, for it is they who hold national Ministers to account.

Will the Minister confirm--this is no light question in the context of a further shift in powers towards the EU institutions--that the Government concur that

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national parliaments remain the primary focus of democratic legitimacy within the EU? In a Europe which is to flourish as a partnership of nations, national parliaments must remain the bedrock of democratic legitimacy and accountability. They represent the primary forum for the exercise and application of democracy, and for the expression of the will of the people in elections.

Far from acting as the guardians of democratic accountability of our national Parliament, at Amsterdam the Government allowed many powers to be diminished and undermined, and transferred to the European Parliament, and into the hands of unelected officials, as we debated at length last night with regard to the presidency of the Commission. I have asked specific questions, and I shall be grateful if the Minister could reply to the wider and critically important issue of national parliaments remaining the focus for our democratic legitimacy? I beg to move.

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