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Lord Tordoff: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Part of the problem is the six months' presidency, which has not been touched on. The fact is that there is pressure on parliaments to agree matters because the presidency wants to get its agenda through at the last minute. The combination of that and the general agreement is dangerous.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, that may well be the case. None of your Lordships has addressed the six months' presidency, but we shall have a chance to do so when we discuss the issues relating to the convention later.
The noble Lords, Lord Grenfell, Lord Lester of Herne Hill and Lord Williamson, raised points about the implementation of EU legislation. As my noble and learned friend Lord Williams noted in his reply to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, on 18th November 2002, the Government are keen to provide the committee with information on how they intend to implement a particular legislative proposal.
It is clearly right that the means and implications of implementation should be considered by our negotiators at the earliest possible stage, and that the Government's views are provided to the committee. That is already reflected in the guidance that we give to departments.
But the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, was right. The Government's view remains that it would be impossible for them to commit to giving a definitive view on implementation issues while a dossier is still under negotiation. It is only during negotiation that all the implications are teased out. Moreover, implementation in the UK is not solely the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government; the devolved Administrations, as some noble Lords acknowledged, will sometimes be responsible in their areas for that.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I apologise for intervening. Does the Minister at least agree that, from the point of view of scrutiny, it is important to know as far as possible how that will be implemented, so that the scrutiny committee can know whether to leave the matter to Parliament through legislationI refer, for example, to the affirmative procedureor to engage in deeper scrutiny because the negative procedure is involved? Are not those factors involved?
I turn to another point about which I know the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, is concerned; that is, the inclusion of the human rights implications in explanatory memorandums. I want to get through as many points as I can. The Government responded favourably to the recommendation from the committee that explanatory memorandums should provide a statement that a proposal is compatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. That is very important, as the noble Lord pointed out. The Government will issue guidance to departments on how to do that. That guidance will be issued as soon as officials have reached agreement with committee Clerks on the way in which that should be done. In addition, we will keep in touch with committee staff to monitor how the arrangements work over time and to decide whether any further adjustments might need to be made to the arrangements. I hope that that satisfies at least some of the noble Lord's points.
I turn to the signing of explanatory memorandums. I do not believe that there is anything very revolutionary in the Government's proposals in this regard. We seek no more than to re-establish what has for a long time been an informal and pragmatic approach to explanatory memorandums that are produced in certain limited circumstances. It remains a working method with which the European scrutiny committee in another place is very happy. The Government acknowledge and welcome the fact that, following the committee's agreement that certain unimportant categories of documents can be dropped from formal scrutiny, there are still some routine documents that will continue to be deposited for scrutiny. In the narrowly defined area in which there are genuinely no policy implications arising for the UK, it should be possible for a department to produce a factual statement to the relevant effect on behalf of their Minister. That approach has previously been accepted by the committee and in each case it would require a decision of the committee for an unsigned explanatory memorandum to be submitted. The important point is that in such circumstances it should always remain open to the committee to challenge a statement to that effect. The Minister would then be required to respond in the usual way.
There might also be occasions on which a private secretary might sign on behalf of a Minister. I know that that causes concern. It is not unusual to do so in relation to other government business and the practice is governed by very tight departmental rules. The important point is that of accountability. Ministers will continue to be fully answerable to the committee for the content of the explanatory memorandum.
I turn to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Billingham, about the importance of improving links with MEPs. I could not agree more with her comments. We must harness the expertise, knowledge and contacts of MEPs and we need the opportunity to
Many noble Lords raised questions about timetabling government responses to committee reports. The Government agree that it is important to respond as quickly as possible to committee reports and to do so certainly no later than within two months of the publication of the report. However, the speed with which the Government respond must depend on a number of complex recommendations and the ways in which those turn up in different reports. It must also reflect the need to reach collective agreement on the terms of the government response, which can take a long time when one must consult many different departments. I know that that is a matter of concern to the noble Lords, Lord Grenfell and Lord Tordoff, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Harris and Lady Park.
Perhaps I can be more helpful on this point. We are happy to aim to respond to the committee's view about short reports within the six-week period. I agree that we must react to the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Harris; that is, that we should respond within a time frame that allows scrutiny while there is still a real opportunity to affect negotiations. She made a very powerful point and I agree that it is the important issue. To help with that the Government, with the committee Clerks, will look at co-ordinating closely to ensure that immediately the committee's reports are sent to the printers, the process is activated.
On the issue of increasing the number of sub-committees, raised by my noble friends Lord Woolmer and Lord Brooke, on 17th February the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, put to the Liaison Committee a proposal for two extra sub-committees. I believe that the committee declined to make a decision until after today's debate, which was sensible. The Leader of the House and I see a case for one further sub-committee. However, I stress to your Lordships that that is a matter for the Liaison Committee and for the House. The exact structure or the responsibilities of sub-committees is a matter for the EU Committee.
The holding of debates in prime time was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Grenfell, Lord Lyell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris. It is still too early to draw conclusions about the whole package of changes in our working practices. We know that slow progress has been made on a number of Bills on the Floor of the House and we had hoped that that would have been expedited somewhat by references to Grand Committees. However, flexibility of approach is at the heart of the issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Harris,
Points were raised about Wednesday debates. A specific suggestion was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Park, to use every fourth Wednesday to discuss European business. I note that when my noble and learned friend the Leader of the House answered the Starred Question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, about Select Committee debates, the noble Lord, Lord Peston, suggested a similar idea about the use of Wednesday debates. It is a simple point. If the House wants to debate those matters every four weeks it is in the hands of the House so to do.
Other important points were raised about Grand Committees. I could not agree more with my noble friend Lord Lea of Crondall. There is no difference in any substantive way between debating matters in your Lordships' House in the Chamber or in Grand Committee. I believe that we should give greater thought to that.
I have my eye on the time. I want to mention comitology. The noble Lords, Lord Williamson and Lord Howell of Guildford, raised the matter. The noble Lord, Lord Williamson, is right to be concerned about the lack of democratic oversight of measures adopted under comitology. He will know that the European Parliament has been campaigning on that issue for years and that the convention is looking at ways of achieving greater oversight of delegated legislation by the European Parliament. The Government are receptive to that and to ways of opening up the comitology process more generally. I shall write to the noble Lord about some of those details, as I believe that there is more that can be said that will be helpful and I shall copy those points to the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, who has some similar concerns.
Our parliamentary system of scrutinising European legislation is important. It matters. It matters not only to us, but it also matters, whether they acknowledge it openly or not, to the people of this country and it matters to our democracy. Our system is admired in many member states of the European Union, as the steady stream of visitors from the 10 new member states testifies. Many seek to emulate what we are doing.
The scrutiny system has, albeit, rather belatedly, come to be accepted, and even appreciated by the European institutionsthat is quite a featfirst, in the Amsterdam protocol and now in some of the proposals that emerge from the Convention on the Future of Europe.
I thank all noble Lords whose commitment and forbearance enables the system to work as well as it does. As the committee report indicates, there are ways in which we can further improve the system to make it more effective and more efficient. The Government fully support those efforts. I am confident that the wisdom contained in the committee's report will make a genuine and lasting contribution to ensure just that.
Lord Grenfell: My Lords, this has been an excellent and an extremely helpful debate. I thank everyone who has participated in it for their valuable contributions. I particularly thank the Minister for her very thoughtful reply which was often very encouraging. That reflects the broad areas in which we find agreement. We shall study her speech with great care, particularly on those areas where we are not yet, and may never be, in agreement. But we shall certainly devote all the attention to it that it clearly deserves.
I want to make one brief comment on the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, and then taken up and referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, which relates to the powers of this Chamber in relation to the scrutiny reserve. This is a personal opinion, but one that is, I think, held by a number of members of our committee. My comment is that this is not so much a question of an unelected Chamber trying to abrogate more powers to itself, but of a scrutinising Chamber, fully using the powers that it constitutionally enjoys already as a body that holds the Government to account. So, I think that there is a different approach and a difference of opinion on that.
I now look forward very much indeed to working with my colleagues to implement the changes. I shall be working with a wonderful group of sub-committee chairmen with their excellent staffs. Our task now is to implement this review. I think that together we can enhance the House's scrutiny of the European Union and, at the same time, provide an important constitutional service. We can also show the world exactly what a House is capable of doing when it devotes the energy, the expertise and the resources to scrutiny of what are, after all, very significant areas of public policy. This has been an excellent debate. Once again, I thank all noble Lords who have participated.