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Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, in supporting what the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, said about the difficulty, in practice, of holding Ministers to prior consultation, I wonder whether the problem which used to bedevil all committees--I refer to the delay in receiving documents from Brussels--has been solved. Very often the delay was because the documents were written first in Finnish and then had to be translated, and for all kinds of other practical reasons. I remember that a point was made of this when we discussed the Treaty of Amsterdam. I should like to be reassured in the Chairman of Committee's answer that that problem has been solved. Without a solution, it will be very difficult in any case to make the scrutiny effective.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff--who I know of old--did not intend any slur on the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, of which, up to now, I have had the honour to be a member, appointed by your Lordships, for a number of years. I think he was probably complaining about the policy on statutory instruments, which is outwith the remit of the Joint Committee. I agree with him that that is something which must be changed, and changed soon.
Baroness Sharples: My Lords, I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, on the question of ancillary rights for those hereditary Peers who are departing this House. It is a great shame that the matter has not been discussed while they are still here in order that they may have an input into the discussion.
Nothing is perfect in this world but, in recent times, the speed of transmission of documents from Brussels, through the Cabinet Office and other departments, has improved enormously. If the noble Baroness and others would care to read the correspondence with Ministers that we publish from time to time, they will find a section in the back--it might be described as the "black book"--which deals with those occasions when
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, perhaps I may say a word as a former member of the scrutiny committee, not a present one. I am very impressed by the tremendous efforts that the scrutiny committee has invariably made to ensure that there is sufficient time to look in detail at the proposals put forward by the European Commission before they get to the Council of Ministers for a final decision.
The work of the scrutiny committees is widely admired far outside this House and far outside this country. It is one of the jewels in the crown of this House, and we should say so clearly. Our scrutiny committees have brought about a remarkable achievement. I warmly welcome the new report because it will further strengthen the work of the scrutiny committees.
Perhaps I may add one other note. The problems of scrutiny which we face go much deeper even than the European scrutiny committee, which is crucial in observing and scrutinising European legislation. Last night in another place I had the pleasure of listening to a guillotined debate on the issue of the Immigration and Asylum Bill, which is shortly to come before us. In the course of that guillotined debate, approximately three-quarters of Lords amendments were not debated. The issue of proper scrutiny of legislation is at least as serious in terms of our own domestic procedures as it is with respect to European legislation. When the new Session begins, I very much hope that the House will be able to look seriously at the whole question of how we scrutinise domestic as well as European legislation.
The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, first of all, perhaps I can deal with a matter which has arisen but which does not arise out of the report. As your Lordships will, I hope, know, I am always anxious to be helpful to your Lordships. If I had been able to respond to what the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, said about the Offices Committee's consideration of ancillary rights, I would have reminded your Lordships that it had been agreed that no decisions should be taken about those matters in this Session of Parliament. Your Lordships will also know--perhaps your Lordships do not need to be reminded--that active consideration has been given to these matters. They have not been and will not be overlooked.
I am very grateful to all noble Lords--the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, and others, who have given a welcome to the report. I am also very grateful to my noble friend the Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees, who chairs your Lordships' Select Committee on the European Communities, as it is at the moment, for his very helpful remarks.
The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, mentioned the question of membership and the spectrum of views being represented on the Select Committee. My noble friend Lord Tordoff has said something about that already. It is not an unfamiliar point to be made; your Lordships have heard this point before. The prime point is that the scrutiny work of this committee and its sub-committees is conducted on a non-partisan basis. However, it has been the case over the years that different strands of opinion have been represented on it and its sub-committees. As your Lordships will recall, the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington--who is one of the supreme Members of your Lordships' House for the homework that he does--has made his contribution over the years as a member of that Select Committee. But I bear very much in mind what has been said about the non-partisan nature of the important scrutiny work carried out by the committee and the sub-committees. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for his comments on this matter.
The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, referred to delays in receiving documents. That has been a problem. Vigorous action has been taken, not least by my noble friend Lord Tordoff, and substantial improvements have been made. I regret that I cannot meet the noble Baroness's dearest wish. It is not possible and it would not be prudent for me to give an absolute guarantee that the important matter that she has raised has not been overlooked and, if necessary, will be pursued.
The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, among others, referred to the exceptions it is possible for Ministers on occasion to make. This is not a new provision. There has been provision for exceptions to be made on previous occasions, not least on the grounds of security, which is perhaps the most obvious case. I do not believe that such exceptions are made use of lightly by Ministers. If they were, those Ministers would be called to account by the Select Committee. That committee is sometimes a little tough with Ministers when the occasion demands. For that reason, I do not share the fears that have been expressed on this matter. If any undue use of such exceptions were to be made by Ministers, not only would they be called to account, but your Lordships would wish to consider any further measures that might be needed to tighten up on the matter. I believe that it can be dealt with in that way.
I hope that I have responded to many of the points raised on the general matters. I shall of course bear in mind the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman. I regret that I did not know that the noble and learned Lord proposed to raise this matter today. It is an issue to which he has turned his attention in the past in your Lordships' House, and I believe that
Lord Brightman: My Lords, perhaps I may apologise to the noble Lord. It is clear that he has not received the letter that I sent to him yesterday, together with a copy of the draft guidelines for Community legislation. I do not understand how the letter failed to reach him because it was posted before midday yesterday.
The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I am deeply grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, for that explanation. As soon as the noble and learned Lord indicated that he had given notice of the points he wished to raise, I had assumed that something of that nature must have happened and that the missive went astray. However, it has not gone amiss because the noble and learned Lord has made his point very well this afternoon. I hope that I have gone some way to satisfying his worry.