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Lord Bruce of Donington moved Amendment No. 11:

After Clause 1, insert the following new clause--

Report on role of national parliaments

(". A Minister of the Crown shall, no later than 1st June 1999 and at annual intervals thereafter, lay before both Houses of Parliament a report on the action taken by the Her Majesty's Government in pursuance of the Protocol on the role of national parliaments in the European Union annexed to the Treaty signed at Amsterdam on 2nd October 1997 amending the Treaty on European Union, the Treaties establishing the European Communities and certain related Acts.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, you will recall that I dealt very briefly with the essence of this amendment in Committee.

Will the Minister explain the origins of this extraordinary protocol? Just who is responsible for producing it? Under what conditions was it produced?

Your Lordships will recall from the diaries of Mr. Alan Clark, now the MP for Kensington and Chelsea, and Mr. Lamont, who was sometimes Chancellor of the Exchequer and attended Council meetings from time to time, the rather realistic and graphic descriptions of how Council business was discussed--for example, the recumbent or otherwise attitude of some of those attending, the doubt as to whether some were awake at the time, and one or two other matters--which placed the Council in rather an unfavourable light.

I am not for the moment suggesting that this applies now. I suggest that all members who attended the council meeting at which the text of the treaty and the protocols were agreed were alert people, bent on arriving at a solution and determined to meet the requirements of their countries in so far as possible and on a normal give-and-take basis.

When I last discussed this matter with your Lordships, I indicated that one of the preambles exhibited a less than vigorous attitude towards the provision of information to the members of the national parliaments. I should like to read it in order to refresh your Lordships' memories. It states:

    "DESIRING, however, to encourage greater involvement of national parliaments in the activities of the European Union and to enhance their ability to express their views on matters which may be of particular interest to them".

According to those who drafted the protocol, that was the main purpose.

I may be wrong, and once again I may be out of step with the Government I am pleased to support. However, I did not and do not take that attitude in regard to information provided to us by the European Commission. I thought that one of the principal purposes was to enable parliaments to advise their own Ministers on what they thought about proposed legislation. It was not merely a matter of passing interest; it was because under parliamentary government, to which most of them are strangers, it is customary for members of parliaments to want to be fully informed in order to advise their governments and if necessary--and perish the thought--occasionally to rebel in order to establish their will. That is why I am curious to know how the provision originated.

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My second inquiry relates to what the Government propose to do about it. The protocol states:

    "All Commission consultation documents (green and white papers and communications) shall be promptly forwarded to the national parliaments of the Member States".

I want to know what is the Government's concept of the word "promptly". I do not wish to refer to domestic matters too much, but from time to time I have been in correspondence with government departments here and have been promised prompt responses. "Prompt" may mean as much as four or five months, even in our domestic affairs. I wonder at what understanding they arrived in order to determine what was meant by "promptly".

Paragraph 2 of the protocol states:

    "Commission proposals for legislation"

and this has a certain resonance with a comment I made earlier--

    "as defined by the Council in accordance with Article 207(3) of the Treaty establishing the European Community, shall be made available in good time so that the Government of each Member State may ensure that its own national parliament receives them as appropriate".

Paragraph 3 states:

    "A six-week period shall elapse between a legislative proposal or a proposal for a measure to be adopted under Title VI of the Treaty on European Union being made available in all languages to the European Parliament ... subject to exceptions on grounds of urgency".

All that sounds a little vague. What I want to know, and what the House may be interested to know, is exactly how the Government propose that the protocol shall be adhered to principally by the Commission. What sanctions do they believe they have to demand that proposals are sent to them in good time so that they can be considered by their parliaments? What arrangements have they come to with other members of the Council who may or may not think on similar lines? I would have thought that we wanted something a little more definite.

For a time I was a member of the Select Committee on European legislation. I will not bother to relate to the House the history of my participation in that committee or the circumstances of my departure. But from time to time we were hampered--and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, will agree--by lack of information provided in good time. Indeed, the noble Lord complained eloquently and most efficiently to the various parties in Europe in order to have that difficulty rectified.

These are important matters. It is not only a question of getting information to us on time but also of bringing to a halt the flood of proposed legislation which the European Commission, as a trained bureaucracy, knows very well we cannot possibly scrutinise before it is enacted in law. I refer your Lordships, for example, to the latest progress of scrutiny document issued by the House of Lords on 1st May. It sets out a list of the various proposals and communications received from the European Commission on which explanatory memoranda have already been prepared by the

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government department concerned and which it will not send for scrutiny and recommends should not be scrutinised at all.

That is reasonable because the committee knows quite well that even if the members of the sub-committees of the European Community Select Committee in this place were doubled they would not get through all the documents at all promptly. In the three weeks up to 1st May, 60 such items were not sent to any sub-committee or to the Select Committee; they were passed through as not requiring scrutiny.

Your Lordships may have different views; all our priorities are different according to our preferences, our subjects and possibly even our skills. But if your Lordships look at List A in the progress of legislation document you may believe that it would have been a good idea if such-and-such a document were sent to the committee and scrutinised. It illustrates that even now the flood of communications--perhaps proposals for decisions, directives or regulations--coming to the British Parliament is too much for it to deal with.

Do not let us kid ourselves. The Commission is a bureaucracy, and I have had a long experience of them in business and elsewhere. I know that one of the easiest ways of overwhelming your adversaries is to flood them with so much work that they cannot possibly deal with it. It happens in professions and in associations in exactly the same way and that is what is being done by the Commission.

We are not free from blame in this matter, I regret to say. I must be fair because there are deficiencies in our own parliamentary institutions which match some of the decisions of the bureaucracy in Brussels. For example, on 28th February the Annual Report and Statement of Assurance of the European Court of Auditors concerning the financial year 1996 was passed through on the nod late at night at about a quarter past ten without examination by Parliament. That hardly indicates a degree of devotion to duty of Members of another place. There is another one too with regard to the budget itself, about which the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, made representations because we did not get the documents in time to consider them. On 25th November 1997 at 10.15 p.m. the following Question was put without debate:

    "That this House takes note of the European Community documents Nos. 10153/97, the draft general budget of the European Communities for 1998, and PE262.699, the European Parliament's proposed amendments to the draft general budget of the European Communities for 1998; and supports the Government's efforts to maintain budget discipline in the Community.

    Question agreed to".

That means that we ourselves, as a British Parliament, will have to pull up our socks a little as well and look at these matters on which we demand particulars and on which we have a right to have particulars.

Noble Lords may feel that I am too particular about these matters. It is a very old saying but the price of liberty is, of course, eternal vigilance. And before we make political judgments, judgments which affect our citizens not only in this country but elsewhere, it

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behoves us to be provided with the information and the documents enabling us to reach a balanced and true judgment. I beg to move.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, it may be to the benefit of the Report Stage of this Bill if I speak to Amendments Nos. 16 and 17 briefly at this stage so that we can take part in the general debate. Then, of course, they will be moved separately.

I should make it absolutely clear that in my view Amendments Nos. 16 and 17 address themselves to the issue of how Parliament can most effectively deal with European legislation. I believe that a report would be unnecessary because one could almost issue the first report immediately. I intend, in the few moments which I shall take, to try to do that.

If one goes back first to the issue of legislation under the Community part of the European Union, that is to say the part which falls within the non-intergovernmental areas, so-called pillars 2 and 3, there has been, as the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, pointed out, a scrutiny machinery set up in this House which I believe has been one of the most striking developments of this House's functions in recent years. It has been most effective.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, I have had the great honour to be a member of one of the sub-committees of the European Communities Committee. It is an excellent development of Parliament's powers and a most effective way to have Parliament's views brought to bear on European legislation.

I have also had the pleasure of going with the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, to a meeting of other parliamentary groups looking into the issue of scrutiny. I heard how effectively and brilliantly he has put forward the way in which scrutiny is conducted by the Houses of Parliament in this country and how that has influenced other countries.

Over recent years there have been a series of reports by committees of this House dealing with the issue of the scrutiny of European legislation. I take just a couple of examples. The 27th report contained a long list of the ways in which scrutiny is delayed, held up or made difficult. The problems range from explanatory memoranda not showing up to drafts of documents not appearing. And, in many, many instances, the responsibility lies, unfortunately, with our own government departments.

The same 27th report gives an example of an important piece of legislation concerned with the environment. It was presented to the sub-committee on 27th November but the Minister was obliged to explain that the matter had already been decided a few weeks previously. Not even a draft had reached the sub-committee.

There are, unfortunately, recent examples, even under this Government, of similar somewhat--how can one put it--"high-handed" treatment of sub-committees. Frankly, it is not in our interests, if we care about democratic scrutiny, to make sure that this machinery does not work well. Fortunately, the Government have

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taken the matter very much to heart. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, referred to the protocol and did so, I thought, in somewhat critical terms. The protocol is a very substantial achievement. The fact that the protocol says that all Commission consultation documents, both green and white, should in future be forwarded to national parliaments for their consideration goes a few steps towards meeting the extremely powerful point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford. The noble Lord said that it was important that these matters were discussed before decisions were taken upon them and not, as so often, after those decisions had effectively been made. To have Green and White Papers coming before national parliaments is an important element in ensuring that the views of national parliament are taken much more seriously into account.

I draw attention also to the six-week period now laid down in the protocol. That is a huge step forward. We now have six weeks before any Council can reach a decision and during which the documents must be made available to the Council and to the national parliament.

With respect to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, it is the case that the six-week period could largely apply to a national parliament if our own Government got the document to us fast enough. It will be laid before our own Government in the Council of Ministers within the same requisite six weeks. The reason why my amendments refer only to 10 working days stems from the miserable experience of all too many documents that became totally stuck in a government department. I am allowing, frankly, three and a half weeks for them to be stuck in government departments before they have to be laid before the scrutiny committee of the respective Houses. I consider that not an ungenerous amount of time.

The second substantial achievement appears in the European Communities Committee report called Enhancing Parliamentary Scrutiny of the Third Pillar. The report draws attention to the wholly unsatisfactory absence of any effective scrutiny over an area of intergovernmental legislation here which directly affects in one area after another the liberties of the individual. Anyone who has studied carefully the sections dealing with Europol and other aspects of internal security will know how sensitive such material is. I was appalled to discover how extraordinarily weak the accountability in this area was. It seemed that we were spending all our time seeking to ensure that it did not drift towards the Community pillar but doing very little indeed to establish the rights of our Parliament to be heard on these matters.

I share as emphatically as the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, a sense that Parliament has a significant role to play. In that document, the sixth report, noble Lords drew attention to the importance of a formal scrutiny reserve on intergovernmental documents--specifically, in this case, internal security. They drew attention to the need for the Government to refuse to agree any adoption of such legislation within the intergovernmental structure of the Council of Ministers unless the scrutiny reserve had been removed.

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Many of your Lordships know how much they have been concerned about that and how much it has been pressed over recent years. It was therefore a delight for me to see that in her memorandum, the President of the Council, the Leader of the House in another place, brought forward two very striking commitments.

The first commitment is that:

    "The Government undertakes, subject to certain exceptions, not to give agreement to the Council of Ministers to any proposal in which either House has not completed scrutiny--the so-called scrutiny reserve".

That applies specifically in that area to the intergovernmental pillar. She went on to say that the scrutiny reserve would apply to documents deposited in both Houses for scrutiny under the intergovernmental pillars.

Those two commitments by the President of the Council extend very substantially the ability of this House and of another place to scrutinise crucial legislation affecting individuals in this country and the liberty of those individuals. It is crucial that we support the President of the Council in what she is doing. It is crucial that we follow this up.

I do not intend to press either of the amendments to a Division. It would be wholly inappropriate to do so because the Government have already taken very long steps--much longer steps than their predecessors--in the very direction which my colleagues and I wish to move. I congratulate them on what they have done. It substantially strengthens the role of Parliament. I hope that the Government will respond to what is essentially a probing amendment to establish how far we can now go and what they hope for from the Modernisation Committee in another place. That is why I have tabled the amendments. Again, I should say how glad I am that we are moving in that direction as quickly as we are doing.

7 p.m.

The Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Tordoff): My Lords, it may be appropriate for me to intervene at this stage and say a few words on this important subject, which is the bread and butter of my daily life these days.

I hope that I can stay until the end of the debate and I apologise if I cannot. However, I must catch the last train back to the South West this evening. Normally, in the circumstances, I would have stayed overnight but I must be back in London on Sunday for the start of the COSAC meeting which we are hosting on Sunday evening, Monday and Tuesday of next week. I shall return to COSAC in a few moments.

I have heard some interesting remarks in the last few moments from all sides of the House. I overheard, as it were, the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, through my monitor, talking about parliamentary scrutiny, and I listened with interest, as always, to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, and my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby.

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Matters have improved over the past few years but, as the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, said, they are far from perfect. One of the issues which the noble Lord did not stress in what he said was the synergy between the two Houses of Parliament. One must remember that the other place provides a different form of scrutiny. It vets each document and decides whether it is of political or legal importance. If it is, it is passed either to a Standing Committee or to the Whole House. Finding a slot to debate the issue thereafter is a matter with which we all have difficulty. That is the case also in this House in relation to reports from your Lordships' Select Committee. Particularly later in the year, it is difficult to find a slot so that matters can be debated at a reasonable time. Such matters tend to get pushed to the back of the queue after government legislation, which is quite understandable.

The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, mentioned the number of A-list matters which do not normally go to the sub-committees for scrutiny. However, a sub-committee chairman, assisted by the clerk and the legal support that we have in the Select Committee, can always have such measures brought back for further consideration if it is felt that there is something that the system has missed.

In your Lordships' Select Committee, we are looking to focus on those matters which we can consider in depth and on which we can look outside for expert witnesses who are prepared to come and give their time and wisdom to our sub-committees. As your Lordships may know, there is a report being considered at the moment by Sub-Committee A on the central bank. When that is published fairly shortly, it will be seen that the list of witnesses is most impressive--Mr. Eddie George, Herr Tietmeyer, Mr. Duisenberg, M. Trichet and so on. It is a list of the great and the good in central banking. Those people are prepared to give up their time to answer questions because they recognise that your Lordships' Select Committee is serious and produces serious reports. That is our role: to look at issues in depth. The House of Commons tends to take a horizontal approach.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, is quite right in terms of the timing of documents coming to Select Committees or to Parliament. It is not quite as simple as all that because the tendency is to say, "We want to have the document as soon as we can". One may then find oneself becoming involved in in-depth scrutiny and then suddenly find that the document is changed completely; that there is a new draft; or that its terms have changed. While I accept that it is better to be in at the early stages rather than to be too late, an awful lot of time and effort can be wasted if there is a significant change in the draft directive before the committee.

I believe that the question of the six weeks is one of the most important features of the Amsterdam Treaty for this House. Our Select Committee and our colleagues in another place recommended that there should be a four-week period and, to their credit, the Government managed to extend that to six weeks. There are provisos. There may be exceptional circumstances.

At present, as our presidency reaches its latter days, there is a tendency by Ministers to say, "I must have this cleared by next Tuesday because I want it to go

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before the energy council", or it may be the agriculture council and so on. That is on the increase and must be decreased. I have had some slightly terse correspondence backwards and forwards with Ministers in the past few weeks. Although I had hoped that the British presidency would set an example to other countries and future presidencies, I am not at all sure that that has been achieved. However, we shall have a postmortem when the presidency is finished and I shall continue my correspondence with the Lord Privy Seal, which noble Lords may already have seen in the publication of letters to Ministers. The noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal has been helpful and understanding and he has used his clout to make sure that Ministers understand the position, as has Mrs. Ann Taylor in the other place. But things are still not satisfactory. I understand the temptation for Ministers and their staff to want to chalk up successes during the course of a presidency but that must not be at the expense of parliamentary scrutiny.

I turn now to the Conference of European Affairs Committees, which is known by the French acronym of COSAC. As I said, that is meeting on Monday and Tuesday of next week. The view has been expressed by the British delegation on many occasions--and it is my view--that there is a limit as to how formal that can become. There was a lot of pressure from the French National Assembly and Senate to try to formalise that; to have formal votes; and to produce documents from COSAC. I have believed always that that is a mistake because if you are sending three people from each chamber of each parliament across Europe, you cannot pretend that they are representative of the parliament. Once you go down that road, they will become representatives of the government. We know that in certain countries, the way in which their democracies work, even now, they are representatives of the government. But at least on the part of this country and the Scandinavian countries in particular, they are certainly not; they are representatives of the parliament. Indeed, in the case of some of the Scandinavian countries, they actually mandate their Ministers before they go to meetings of the European Council. I am not suggesting that we go down that road, because it seems to me that it could delay matters interminably if we all did so. Nevertheless, it means that there is proper scrutiny to a degree that we do not know in this country.

So, here we have this strange body of people from right across Europe. I believe that it is useful for exchanging ideas on how to keep our governments on their toes. To that end, in the COSAC which is due to take place on Monday and Tuesday, we have on the agenda a paper from the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, dealing with the European Central Bank, which my noble friend Lady Williams will introduce. We shall also have a paper from my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire on scrutiny of the third pillar.

As my noble friend Lady Williams has already said, the third pillar scrutiny is perhaps more important than anything else we do, because the European Parliament cannot scrutinise third pillar matters as they are entirely matters for the Council. If we do not do it, no one will. In the main, these are subjects which are very close to

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the whole area of human rights. Therefore, I believe that we have a special responsibility and that we are starting to do it quite well, especially through Sub-Committee F, which is chaired by my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire. Moreover, we want to encourage other parliaments in the European Community to do the same and, in that way, to bear on the Council through Ministers to ensure that it abides by the rules.

One of the problems with the Council has been its refusal to allow documents to be released. There was a time when it was impossible to get the agenda. Indeed, there was a time when, after a meeting, the agendas were all burnt. However, things are improving from that point of view. One recent route has been through the European ombudsman. He is not someone about whom one hears much; indeed, I do not know that he has been mentioned in the whole of this arena. Nevertheless, there have been recent findings by the European ombudsman which have begun to open up access to the Council of Ministers and the documentation. Although the Commission comes in for much criticism, the culture of secrecy in the Council has been much greater than in the Commission.

I have intervened in this debate to say that I believe matters have been improved. However, governments really do have to abide by the new rules and ensure that, when they attend Council meetings, they are not brow beaten into accepting things that have not been completely scrutinised by their Parliaments.

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