Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I must frankly confess that the remarks I made during the debate on the last amendment would have been more suitably addressed to this one. I can only plead that I was carried away by the eloquence of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, in her remarks about the European Parliament, into issues related generally to parliamentary control over the activities of the European Union. However, without tedious repetition, I should like to say, first, that many of the queries that I raised have been marvellously eliminated by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, in his intervention. Indeed, he described the progress that the COSAC concept is making.

As regards the second and third pillars, especially the third pillar, the noble Lord rightly said that, because we are dealing with intergovernmentalism, there is no European parliamentary role. The European institutions are not equipped to call to account the decisions reached on the intergovernmental basis and we have a real task in strengthening our own democratic methods of examining such matters.

The noble Lord also rightly said that our Parliament is not like other parliaments in that we cannot just produce people who can claim to represent something called, "the views of Parliament". Indeed, every Member of the other place represents himself. They are equal in that sense and have very interesting views, but they do not represent Parliament and never can. So there is a difficulty there which I can recall being conscious of in relation to representatives of other parliaments. They sometimes spoke as though they carried a mandate of a very authoritative kind--sometimes they did--from

14 May 1998 : Column 1233

their parliamentary groups and committees. Therefore, I hope that we can hear more from the Minister about how he or she sees the COSAC concept developing.

There is one route that I hope we will not follow. In the late 1980s, I seem to remember being summoned to something called a parliamentary assise in Rome where groups from all the parliaments of the EU member states gathered with a view to developing the role of national parliaments. However, when we got there, the whole thing had already been fixed, hijacked and arranged by the European Parliament and by some officers of the Commission. We were rapidly told that we could not even sit in parliamentary groups but that we must sit in party groups. That removed the whole point of the exercise and we came away deeply disappointed. Therefore, I hope that no one will attempt again that kind of approach which merely had the tone of satisfying the grumblings of national parliaments and actually hoped that they would all go home without noticing. We did grumble and go home; but it seemed to us that national parliaments must play a stronger role in the areas that the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, so eloquently and clearly described.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I hesitate to speak after the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, on an issue which is so peculiarly his own. However, I should like, first, to add my support and feeling to the issue of timing. I believe that the strength of our committees lies in the fact that they take evidence; but evidence takes time to assemble. Therefore, I very much hope that the Government--I welcome the way that they have succeeded in this so far as regards obtaining a much longer time--are prepared to insist in Council that, if by the time six weeks have expired there are still important matters to be established, no one should be forced into making a decision. That is particularly true in issues like cost/benefit analysis, as we found in the committee on which I had the honour to serve.

The other problem that we encountered, which is another aspect of the same thing, is that of transparency. So many of the specialist committees refused--and, indeed, continue to refuse--to give the reasons for the recommendations that they had made or even, in many cases, to say who made them and their competence to do so. I know that this Government, and the previous one, certainly intended to secure much greater transparency in the Amsterdam Treaty. I can remember report after report in the committee on the environment, stretching back for six years at least, where we had to say every single time that we were unable to establish why the recommendations were made, by whom and what their competence was. Therefore, we cannot stress too strongly that scrutiny which ultimately has to say, "We didn't have the facts", is not, in the end, scrutiny. That point must be stressed to a very considerable degree.

I am also somewhat disturbed by a few words in paragraph 3 of the protocol on national parliaments

14 May 1998 : Column 1234

regarding the provision of information; namely that such provision is,

    "subject to exceptions on grounds of urgency".

I--and, I believe, every committee--would need very considerable evidence to show why the "urgency" made it impossible to provide the information. One does not make decisions of national importance without knowing why. I simply wanted to stress that, although I am pleased that the amendment urges the period of six weeks, I am depressed by the noble Baroness's probably accurate assessment that, if we are to get any sense in terms of explanation from the department, another fortnight at least would have to elapse. It is quite unreal to consider major issues in the time-scale proposed.

Therefore, on the grounds of the need for transparency and for a truly responsible scrutiny, which actually rests on full knowledge of the facts, we must hope that our Government will be able to be extremely strong in Council. I see absolutely no reason why-- I think of such provisions as the quality of water--there should not be a much longer period of time given to the consideration of many of the directives before decisions are required.

Lord Monson: My Lords, one remembers well when this treaty was first published what a warm welcome everyone gave to this measure--be they Euro-enthusiast, Euro-sceptic or something in between--to provide a greater role for national parliaments. Here at last was something which we could all agree was an unmitigated good thing. Good thing it may be, but the more one examines it the less meaningful and significant it appears, which is not to deny that it still produces some benefits.

The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, has explained to your Lordships how parliamentary scrutiny has improved over recent years and months quite independent of the treaty. What the treaty appears to do--which may be of some use, of course--is to dot a few i's and cross a few t's. What, after all, are the primary purposes of any national parliament? The first is to legislate. The individual national parliaments will still have no power to legislate on purely Community matters.

The second primary purpose of any national parliament is to hold the Executive to account. It was only yesterday in an excellent five-hour debate that the vital importance of Parliament being able to hold the Executive to account was emphasised time and time again by noble Lords from all quarters of the House. Of course, as regards the EU, national parliaments will have no real powers in this regard either. For that reason I believe that this amendment--so well introduced, as always, by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington--is well worth considering.

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne: My Lords, I have listened to all the speakers in this interesting debate. First, I support the general thrust of the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, in seeking more information from the Government on the important Titles V and VI. Despite my relative disagreement with the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, I believe that the Government now in power should look carefully at ways

14 May 1998 : Column 1235

and means of ensuring that the national Parliament of the United Kingdom plays its full part in the Council, Commission and Parliament of the European Union. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, expressed surprise that the Treaty of Amsterdam should chivvy national parliaments to consider material that they should already be considering. He said that in his view the European Union produces more material than we can get through. That is perhaps a little ambivalent.

In my experience in the other place on European Standing Committees A and B and on the Employment Select Committee I found, sadly, that the material given to committees was insufficient and was presented in an untimely way. That did not enable us to function properly. I was particularly interested in the social chapter which reflects the major strides the European Union has taken for women, low-paid workers, the disabled and ethnic minority workers--the kinds of people without whom the famous single market could not operate at all. It was galling to discover that other national parliaments had been involved over months and years in discussing the social chapter with the Commission. Our Parliament and our Employment Select Committee had not done so because we had neither knowledge of the meetings nor the relevant information. That material had been kept in the Whips Office of the then government in the House of Commons. I believe therefore that scrutiny and analysis of information are called for now so that we can be confident that in the future we shall be able to contribute as fully as other national parliaments have done in matters which affect our people, through subsidiarity.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, the protocol on national parliaments is a small bone tossed to national parliaments to try to assuage their doubts about this matter. When we talk about scrutiny that is all we are talking about. What I am concerned about is accountability. All this protocol gives us is six weeks to scrutinise some difficult and complicated legislation which is proposed. Frankly, I am not impressed. Six weeks is not always sufficient, bearing in mind the examination which must take place. What is more, when that scrutiny by Parliament has taken place, and when Parliament has made its decision known, Ministers can then go off to Europe and do exactly as they like. That may be scrutiny, but it certainly is not accountability. I would much prefer us to do as Denmark does--some people may not prefer this--namely, to hold our discussions and to mandate Ministers before they go to Europe to make decisions supposedly on behalf of Parliament. However, in actual fact they make the decisions on behalf of themselves. I give an example.

I, too, served on the European Communities Committee. The members do an enormously good job and work hard. Those who sit on Sub-Committee E probably do the hardest work of all because they are inundated with "legalities" and documents which they strive hard to understand. Generally only judges, Law Lords and barristers can understand those documents. I served on that committee. We examined a directive on consumer protection. We sat long hours and worked hard. We summoned countless witnesses. In the end we decided that the directive was not good enough and that our

14 May 1998 : Column 1236

present arrangements were rather better. We recommended against adopting the directive. What happened? The Government completely ignored what we said and they proposed the opposite of what our committee had suggested. That scrutiny did not do much good, did it? I fear that much of the scrutiny and much of the work that is carried out by the Select Committee in this place and in another place is non-productive. Unless we are to have accountability, all the work we do is largely wasted.

I remember when I worked for the Central Electricity Generating Board we had what was called a local advisory committee. I was once a member of it and then I became the secretary of it. We had long discussions with management and we advised them from the point of view of ordinary working people. The management said they had listened to what we had said and had reached a decision which was usually the opposite of what the working people had recommended.

I repeat that I am not impressed by this protocol, particularly when so much more power and influence have been given to the institutions of the European Union through the Amsterdam Treaty. A far greater power of co-decision has been given to the Parliament. Much more power has been given to the Commission, as we heard in our earlier debates, although perhaps not so much to the Council. Nevertheless, the institutions of Europe have gained more power and we have been thrown this little bone of two weeks' extra scrutiny. Frankly, it simply is not good enough. As I said in an earlier debate, and have said no doubt from the point of view of some noble Lords ad nauseam, gradually our power in this Parliament and the powers of the House of Commons are being eroded. They are being transferred from this Parliament, from the people of this country, to institutions which in the last analysis the people do not control. It is not good enough. I hope that we shall vote on the amendment. Small though the concession is, as my noble friend proposes, we should have a proper report as to what it means.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, I support the new clause. It is such a reasonable request that I am sure the Government will find it in their wisdom to accede to the arguments deployed so eloquently by noble Lords in favour of it. I wish to say a few words on the role of national parliaments. Unsurprisingly, it has become something of a theme throughout our deliberations on the Bill. I shall then focus specifically on points made by the Minister in Committee.

I was pleased to hear the noble Baroness's reassurance that she considers the principal source of democratic legitimacy in the European Union to be national parliaments. In Committee, she pointed to the fact that it is to national parliaments that governments are answerable, and that it is with national parliaments that the people most readily identify. I also welcomed her commitment to reinforcing the role of national parliaments in the context of the European Union; and her confirmation that the treaty will provide a stronger role and a clearer voice for national parliaments, in particular since there have been occasions during these

14 May 1998 : Column 1237

proceedings when some of us have had good cause to question, or even to doubt, the Government's position on this point, not least in our lengthy debates on qualified majority voting.

As I said in Committee, it is not a matter in respect of which there we have any difference of principle with the Government--another good reason why the Government should accept the amendment. I wish to make it clear again that that is the case. I believe that there is a good deal of common ground between us on the matter. We welcome the fact that the treaty includes measures to permit better scrutiny of Community legislation by national parliaments. Our debate in Committee was a timely opportunity to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff--I do so again this evening, not least following his insight, and his useful contributions to this stage of our proceedings--and the work of the Select Committee which considers European legislation. Many of the measures we are considering today had their origins in the important work that they carried out.

Nevertheless, two important issues were raised during our debate on the protocol, upon which the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington focused, relating to the role of national parliaments in the European Union. I believe that matters relating to the starting point for the six-week period of notice and the issue of urgency were not fully debated in Committee. I put precise questions to the Minister on both issues. I fear that I was not as happy as the noble Baroness would like me to be with either of her two answers. I therefore take this opportunity to return to the specific issues I raised.

First, I asked the Minister to be specific on the starting point for the six-week period of notice. I appreciate that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, sees this as an important step forward in its own right; and it is. I should like it to go further. I argue that we need to be absolutely clear when the starting point for the six-week period of notice will be between the depositing of Commission consultation documents before the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers and the date on which they are to be discussed in the Council. I wanted an assurance that that will be the date when the relevant documents reach national governments. This is a critical point and relates to the possibility of a delay in transmission. National parliaments have control over national governments. They do not have control over the European Parliament and the Council as a whole.

The Minister was clear in her answer. She stated that the six-week scrutiny period will begin when the document is received by the Council Secretariat after which it will be translated and distributed to member states. I appreciated her clear argument as to why that is the case. I recognised that the period was extended from four to six weeks to enable those additional two weeks to be used for the delivery of such documentation. I was grateful that the Minister recognised that it is an important issue. Although I was not wholly clear about her reference to the electronic pilot transmission project, it sounded as though it was a serious step in the right direction.

14 May 1998 : Column 1238

No doubt the Minister will be unsurprised to learn that I am somewhat disappointed in my hope that the six weeks will start when the documents arrive at Westminster. The critical issue to take into account is not so much the date on which the documents are received by the Council Secretariat, but the date on which Westminster receives its copy. If we knew that delivery of documentation from the Council would be speedy, efficient and reliable, we should be far more confident. Much of my concern on the issue depends on whether or not we can find a mechanism to ensure that Westminster receives the paperwork well in advance of consideration by the Council, and preferably on a specific date.

On the question of sufficient time for scrutiny, my noble friend Lady Park made a valuable point about the problem of the incomplete nature of information arriving from the Commission. If documents arrive without vital information, as sometimes they must do--the noble Baroness quoted cost/benefit analysis in this context--it is important to recognise that extra time is then spent on consultation and hearing evidence from the relevant agencies.

Scrutiny must be done properly so that a serious recommendation can be made to the Government. It is a necessary part of the process. That fact must be taken into account when determining an appropriate period for scrutiny by national parliaments. I fully endorse my noble friend's comments and reflections and join in urging the Minister to take this dimension into consideration--although I know the Minister needs no urging about the importance of time for due consideration of documents.

I echo the comments made by my noble friend Lady Park. I asked about the exception to the six-week rule for national parliamentary scrutiny on the ground of urgency. I wanted to know who would define an exception on the ground of urgency. I wanted an assurance from the Minister that it is essential that that provision is tightly defined to avoid the exception becoming the norm; and that there should be a requirement for the Council to state formally the ground for urgency.

I fully understand that it is difficult to give precise hypothetical examples for the future. But the thrust behind my question was not so much to request a detailed list of exceptions on the ground of urgency, but rather to seek an assurance that Parliament will know the moment the Council has determined that a subject is an exception on the ground of urgency so that it can be aware that the procedure outlined on the six-week rule would be waived.

In the context of the memorandum published by the President of the Council in January setting out the Government's four proposals, which has been sent to the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, I ask the Minister to give due weight to the arguments put forward during debates in Committee, and to the importance which the Opposition attach to the need for the Council to be required to state formally and immediately when it decides that there will be an exception on the ground of urgency.

14 May 1998 : Column 1239

I appreciate that I have asked some 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 points that I have raised and giving assurances where I have requested them. To reiterate, I welcome the Minister's assurance that the Government intend the provisions of the new protocol to strengthen the role of national parliaments in ensuring democratic legitimacy; likewise, that they intend them to help to rectify weaknesses in our national scrutiny system--important points were made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, in that context; and that they will build on the new provisions in separate proposals to update and strengthen our national arrangements.

As in Committee, my remarks underpin this important point. On these Benches we believe that national parliaments remain the primary focus of democratic legitimacy within the European Union, for it is they that hold national Ministers to account. In moving this amendment, the noble Lord has given the House the opportunity to receive regularly a report, to be laid before both Houses of Parliament, so that we can assess how effectively the issues that we have raised in this debate have been delivered and bring new ideas forward as a result of the report which will be debated. When, I hope, rather than if, the noble Lord presses this amendment to a vote, I assure him that he will have my support.

7.40 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we have had a very good debate on these amendments. I shall do my best to answer the points that noble Lords have raised. I shall cover all three amendments, Amendments Nos. 11, 15 and 16.

I assure the House, as I did on Tuesday, that the Government are determined to build a European Union that is more open and more democratic. The Council of Ministers, the European Parliament and, in particular, national parliaments all have a part to play in this effort. We believe that national parliaments are the principal source of democratic legitimacy in the European Union, as I reiterated in the debate on Tuesday. We must therefore reinforce the role of national parliaments, nationally and at the EU level. I do not believe that there is a single Member of this House who has spoken on these matters this evening who would disagree.

During our debate on Tuesday I described the steps that we take nationally to facilitate scrutiny of EU issues, and how we plan to build on that. I shall return to that matter when I respond to Amendments Nos. 15 and 16 on parliamentary scrutiny. However, perhaps I may turn first to Amendment No. 11.

At the European level, Her Majesty's Government agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that the protocol on national parliaments, which is the subject of Amendment No. 11, provides the right way forward. For the first time the role of national parliaments is recognised in a legally binding form. The protocol strikes the right balance between preserving the efficient conduct of business and allowing proper scrutiny. We

14 May 1998 : Column 1240

have to bear both of those matters in mind. Proper scrutiny is extremely important, as I have emphasised. But so, as I am sure all noble Lords would agree, is the necessity for the efficient conduct of business.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, the protocol's main feature is a new legally binding minimum period of six weeks between the circulation of a proposal and a Council decision on it, except in genuinely urgent cases. That will greatly facilitate scrutiny by national parliaments. The protocol also provides for an enhanced role for COSAC. It is of a non-binding consultative kind only, as COSAC wanted.

Two specific aspects of the protocol were raised when we discussed it in Committee. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, reiterated them. The first is the starting point for the six-week period; the second, how to define genuinely urgent cases.

On the first point, the period begins when a text reaches the Council Secretariat. That is clear. It would be impractical to start the clock when, say, it has reached all capitals. Arrangements for that are for each member state, and vary from one to another. So the point the noble Lord makes about starting the clock at that point, is simply not a practical option. Instead, we ought other ways to ensure that a reasonable minimum period was preserved. I am pleased to say that in negotiation we succeeded.

The average time taken for texts to be translated and sent from the Secretariat to capitals has fallen sharply over the past two years, from 40 days to 14. That is an improvement, but it would still consume two weeks of the scrutiny period. We therefore argued, and partners agreed, that the period must be extended to six weeks. This means that national parliaments will still have about four weeks to study draft legislation--the minimum suggested when the Westminster Select Committees, including the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff's, first proposed the idea. So we believe we have met that point.

The second point raised by the noble Lord related to exceptions for genuinely urgent cases. It is right to make provision for such cases, as I am sure the noble Lord himself would agree. We do so in our national scrutiny system. There may be cases where sanctions measures are needed rapidly against a third country, or an environmental or health crisis may demand a swift response.

But there are two potential risks: first, if it is too easy to invoke the period, that full scrutiny will be by-passed without good and proper reason; second, if it is too difficult, that one country can block a genuinely urgent measure for its own ends.

The protocol therefore includes a provision to lessen both risks. The Council must state specific reasons in the Act for invoking the urgency clause. The same majority is thus needed to invoke the urgency clause as to approve the Act itself.

The new protocol will greatly strengthen the role of national parliaments in scrutinising EU business. We support the protocol strongly and are determined that it should work effectively. We believe the provisions I have described should ensure that it does.

14 May 1998 : Column 1241

There may be one or two noble Lords who are still worried on this point. So perhaps I may give your Lordships a further assurance. The Government will keep the operation of this under review. If we see any instances of the abuse that I have described as one of your Lordships' worries, we will raise the matter with our partners and will seek appropriate action. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, will also take a very close interest in how that works. The Government will respond to any reports that his committee, or its counterpart in another place, may make on this matter.

The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, raised a couple of additional points. He asked how the protocol originated. The protocol was originally tabled before this Government came into office. I hesitate to speculate on whose hand actually held the pen that originally put the document into being. What we can say is that it clearly reflects the views of the Committee of this House chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff.

The noble Lord also asked how we can enforce the protocol. The protocol is a binding commitment. It will be open to a member state to challenge before the ECJ an Act adopted in a way that breaches the terms of the protocol.

I hope that I have been able to say enough to your Lordships to explain why the Government believe that this amendment is so unnecessary. It is for that reason that the Government oppose it, and I urge the House to do the same.

I now turn to Amendments Nos. 15 and 16. The intention of the amendment is to strengthen existing parliamentary scrutiny. We sympathise with that desire. We are committed to enhancing Westminster scrutiny procedures. That will reinforce the Amsterdam Treaty provisions I have just described to strengthen the role of national parliaments in the EU. We therefore welcome the positive spirit in which the amendments have been tabled. However, we do not believe that they offer the right way forward in practice.

I described on Tuesday the steps we had taken to keep Parliament informed and to encourage discussion of EU issues. We have also undertaken to deposit all legislative proposals, and other texts, in Parliament within two days of their receipt, and not to agree them until parliamentary scrutiny is complete. As a result, in the great majority of cases Parliament has several weeks at least to consider new legislative proposals.

The existing system does not cover all EU documents and does not work in every case. We have therefore made the proposals which I described on Tuesday to strengthen the system. We propose to extend it to cover the second and third pillars as Amendment No. 16 proposes. Meanwhile the Amsterdam Treaty provides for a minimum six-week period for national parliaments to examine new proposals. Even with a two-week delay for the text to be translated and reach capitals, that exceeds the 10-day period in the amendments.

Our proposals and the provisions of the Amsterdam Treaty go far beyond the position under the last government. I hope that the noble Lords who spoke from the Liberal Democrat Benches will welcome our

14 May 1998 : Column 1242

readiness to strengthen the system we inherited. Where we differ from those who tabled these amendments is over the idea of regulating those matters in primary legislation. Such business has traditionally been covered by convention and by standing order. We believe that there are good reasons to continue with that, particularly given that that route allows greater flexibility.

The scrutiny reserve resolution illustrates the point well. It allows exceptions for documents that are urgent, trivial or confidential. Ministers may agree such proposals before clear scrutiny, but must explain why to the House at the first opportunity. The Amsterdam Treaty also allows exemption of urgent business from the minimum notice period. In this case the reason for that urgency must be stated in the Act.

I note the reference by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, to the failings of government departments in meeting their obligations under the scrutiny process. I believe that generally the record is improving, but I accept that we must strive for the highest level of efficiency and accuracy. I can assure the noble Baroness that the Government have ensured that all departments dealing with scrutiny business have reviewed their procedures in an effort to meet the test.

I was grateful for the intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. I am sure that the whole House welcomed his expertise on the issue. I can assure him that the Government are determined to ensure effective scrutiny. It is particularly appropriate that he should have intervened in the debate in that way. I fully agree with him that COSAC should not have the status which would allow it to appear to represent national parliaments. That was why we supported the protocol which gives COSAC a non-binding and consultative role.

I hope that I have been able to answer the major points of difficulty raised by your Lordships in support of the amendments and that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page