Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Roper: Oh!

Lord Tordoff: My Lords, it is a dangerous thing to do with Leaders of the House.

I have an enormous soft spot for the select committee. I think that this report, although in a sense navel gazing, is very important indeed. The time was right to have a really good look at the way in which we do scrutiny. I know that, given more resources, there are important things that could be done, but I think that it works quite well. Several noble Lords have mentioned the sift. Actually, the sift is a very efficient mechanism. The chairman does not have an easy job, but—thanks to the activities of the Clerks and of the legal adviser—it is not too difficult on a Monday to filter out those things which are obviously of no interest to the House as a whole and which cannot be changed. The derogation of tax on left-handed Chinese screwdrivers coming in from Indonesia is not a matter that need detain this House for very long. There is quite a large amount of that sort of thing. Provided we can filter out the things which really are important and where we can have some influence, then I believe we are doing a good job.

As to publicity outside, I do not think that we should attempt to get headlines in the Sun. The idea of the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, doing a full monty in order to get on the front page of the Sun is not a happy thought. However, occasionally we could perhaps do better at getting reports into the serious press. They are also very lax. I remember a remarkably good report by Sub-Committee D on GM foods where the Guardian writer did not bother to turn up to the press conference and had not had a copy of the report but wrote several column inches telling the world at large that the committee had done exactly the opposite of what it had done. However, matters have moved on from there. The activities of Mary Morgan and the expertise that she has brought in have been a great help.

This system is the crown jewel of your Lordships' House. I think that the Select Committee has excelled itself once again. I am grateful to it.

1.44 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, we have been debating an extremely interesting report which obviously involved a huge amount of work and raises

9 May 2003 : Column 1357

issues of constitutional importance. I say straightaway that I think the various encomiums placed upon the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, extremely well deserved. Indeed, there have been some very profound speeches, not least the one we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, who served in the chairmanship role two or three periods ago in an equally distinguished way. Nor should we forget that the whole operation rightly runs alongside, and I think complements very well, the scrutiny work of another place. Actually—and this is a very minor quibble—it is not correct that the House of Commons model has no sift, as paragraph 20 says. It does have a sift. I remember, in a past existence, agonised debates in the Scrutiny Committee and other committees of another place about the nature of the sift. I think that it is a different one, but it does have a sift. So that statement is not correct.

The central administrative problem is, of course, the sheer volume of documentation. We read that, in 2002, the last year for which I have figures, more than 1,400 documents to do with various EU proposals, directives, regulations and other initiatives were deposited. On top of that, our committee system undertakes in depth all the studies, the hearings, the visits and the questioning of Ministers and experts. The more they go upstream, the more important is the need to find out what Ministers are thinking before decisions are made. All of that comes on top of the amazingly up-to-date flow of reports from the European Union Committee on the goings-on of the very fractious convention and the draft constitution documents that are floating around. It bodes all sorts of prospects of a great deal more work. All that is done, as the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, reminded us, by about 70 Peers, six sub-committees and an overworked but absolutely brilliant staff. My own contact with the staff and experience of working with them certainly justifies the adjective "brilliant". They do an amazing amount of work.

Our colleagues in another place have one Scrutiny Committee, but their approach is different. They pore over hundreds and hundreds of documents to see which are worthy of further debate in the Standing Committees or on the Floor of another place. The picture, in other words, is of an unceasing blizzard of documents, regulations and directives which have direct force in law in this country. Parliament is left out of it except for those that require UK legislation in the form of statutory instruments, some affirmative and some negative.

As the noble Lord, Lord Lester, acutely questioned, it would be nice to have a clearer idea from the Government of how they decide which procedure to follow. We have regulations and directions from the Commission and we have them from the Council. Some come via the European Parliament, but some do not. It is no wonder that people get so confused about the direction these documents are coming from. In 2001 there were 1,496 such documents in all. So about 1,500 documents are coming through annually.

9 May 2003 : Column 1358

On top of that, as the report mentions and as the Government's reply elaborates, there is the whole comitology procedure. We read, I think in the Government's reply to the committee, that the Commission last year put 3,490 draft decisions into the comitology maze—where the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, trod delicately, and rightly so, because I suspect that he is one of the few people on earth who understands the full pattern and implications of the comitology process. I note the committee's view that some of it should occasionally be exposed to scrutiny as well.

If the principle is that law should be made by Parliament and that those who make it should be held to account, then that is plainly being flouted in the picture I have painted. The proposal of the Foster committee in 1973 was to ensure that Parliament was not bypassed once we were members of the European Community. Inevitably, because of the volume of legislation and documents, we are being bypassed. Even if we only look at the documents that are scrutinised, I read that in 2002 Ministers in 71 cases simply overrode scrutiny and carried on regardless. That figure is much too high and raises questions that I shall discuss in a moment about the scrutiny reserve process.

First, I am afraid I want to say something even more negative; namely, that all this will get very, very much worse, and the load will get very much bigger, under the sort of proposals now being aired at the European Convention. The powers of the Commission to make laws, which are to be called non-legislative acts, will increase. The exclusive and the shared EU competencies and powers will be enlarged right against the hope we had that powers would be diminished and returned to nation states. As the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, rightly reminded us, already over 50 per cent of all legislation governing this country is EU originated. That figure could rise much higher. It is estimated in convention documents that 70 per cent of all this flood of legislation is based on decisions reached by junior officials in Brussels and 15 per cent by senior diplomats in COREPER. Presumably the remainder are decided in the Council of Ministers. However, as your Lordships have often pointed out, that Council is a closed parliament of the nations and is not transparent. Therefore, in a sense, it is not a parliament at all.

It does not even stop there, because on top of that along comes the subsidiarity question, mentioned in paragraph 85 of the report. That is a very important question. The convention will clearly make new proposals. Indeed, the committee says in the report we are studying that it will produce a further report and comment on the whole subsidiarity question. It is right to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, said that the suggestion in the convention for giving national parliaments a role in deciding where the competencies of the EU institutions reach and where they stop is a weak one. Some Members of another place, including Gisela Stuart, tried very hard to get some serious powers devolved to national parliaments to put a halt on the intrusion of the EU institutions into areas where

9 May 2003 : Column 1359

they have no business to be. But all that looks like emerging is the opportunity for national parliaments as it were to clear their throats and remark that things are not as they should be and the whole matter then goes back to the Commission for review where presumably it will be discarded or accepted at will by the Commission. That is not a delegation of powers of the kind we need. I hope that we fight that matter before it becomes finally settled in the concrete of the intergovernmental conference.

I go even further. On top of that there is now the question of reopening the acquis. People said that that was impossible and unthinkable but even now the President of the Commission, Signor Prodi, has said that the acquis is an impossibly large and complex string of powers and documents and should be slimmed down and revised. That, too, will involve huge new examination of a whole range of existing powers.

Finally, on top of that is the issue of gold plating and monitoring the implementation of this flood of regulations from Brussels. As we know, in some departments and ministries in Whitehall there has always been a tendency to make unnecessary additions and to overload regulations which become unnecessarily intrusive in British life. Who will monitor all that? Setting out a workload—

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page