Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Grenfell: My Lords, I rise as chairman of the European Union Committee to speak briefly within the rubric of European affairs and to introduce the committee's annual report, published just 12 days ago. The committee has agreed that this report does not call for a separate debate, but it wished me to keep your Lordships informed about the contribution that the committee makes to the scrutiny of European affairs on behalf of the House.

Our report sets out in, if I may say, very digestible detail what the committee has done over the past year and gives a forecast of activities for the year ahead. I shall confine myself to a few of its key messages and I hope that the Minister will be able to react, necessarily briefly, to some of these points, although the formal and detailed government response to the report will of course be provided in writing within the normal two-month period.

So what are these key messages? First, the committee remains concerned at the number of occasions on which the Government override in Council the House's scrutiny reserve. We will be monitoring this closely and will expect further improvements from the Government.

I should, however, make two positive comments. First, as the report makes clear, the Government are now co-ordinating, analysing and presenting to Parliament data on scrutiny overrides and, for the first time, the committee has published them in its annual report. This hard work by the Government is a welcome contribution to transparency and should be warmly commended.
24 Nov 2004 : Column 119

The second positive comment is that the number of scrutiny overrides in the period from January 2003 to June 2004 shows a downward trend. That is wholly to be welcomed, especially in those departments where there had been a relatively large number of overrides, such as Defra and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where improvements have recently been made in the scrutiny of common foreign and security policy matters.

I should add one specific and positive example that occurred after our report had been published. It was precisely because of our scrutiny reserve that the Minister for Europe secured a postponement of agreement in Council of measures concerning the effective implementation of the mandate of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia. That is in the right spirit and we look forward to more of the same.

More remains to be done, however, on scrutiny in the area of European security and defence policy where the Ministry of Defence is in the lead. There are difficulties arising from the purely intergovernmental nature of much of the business which means that the usual scrutiny reserve does not apply. The department thus needs to be extra vigilant in keeping Parliament informed. We will be monitoring this area closely over the coming year.

Overall, the committee urges all departments to do everything possible to ensure that they meet the best practice of their fellow departments. The staff of my committee are always willing to assist departments and, in particular, to make themselves available to explain the House's scrutiny procedures to civil servants at all levels. With good will on all sides, I am confident that recent positive trends can be continued, become the norm and spread across all departments.

The second key message to which I wish to refer is that the forthcoming UK presidency of the EU, starting on 1 July next year, will very fully engage the 70 Members of your Lordships' House serving on the European Select Committee and/or its seven sub-committees. In many ways, the House's scrutiny of European legislation will continue as normal during the UK presidency, but there will be two significant differences.

The first is that our own Government will be setting the agenda and my committee thus feels that it has an additional responsibility for holding Ministers to account. Secondly, it will be for our national Parliament to host the meeting of COSAC, the Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees of Parliaments of the European Union, and the candidate countries, together with a delegation of Members from the European Parliament—probably between 200 and 300 people. That will take place in October 2005 and we will be working with the other place to make sure that it is a success.

The third area touched on in the report is the Constitutional Treaty, but I should warn your Lordships that we do not discuss it in detail in the report, having done so very fully in previous reports. We do, however,
24 Nov 2004 : Column 120
call on the Government to continue to make more information available to Parliament and the public, in particular through their websites.

However, with regard to the monitoring by national Parliaments of the application of the subsidiarity principle, as mandated in the specific protocol annexed to the Constitutional Treaty, my committee has launched an inquiry into how we might suggest that this House fulfil its responsibilities. Yesterday and the day before we had interesting discussions on this in the Hague at a meeting of the COSAC.

It is clear that there are a number of questions about how the early warning mechanism would work and I encourage all of your Lordships—and, indeed, those outside—who have views on the subsidiarity mechanism to contact the committee as soon as possible. We intend to take oral evidence in December and January with a view to reporting to the House in March.

Another important message in our report is the need to work towards better regulation in European legislation, and we fully support our Government's objectives in this regard. We particularly intend to monitor the work of the European Parliament towards ensuring real improvements in its procedures regarding impact assessments and we will be having discussions with it.

Another key message in the report is the need for closer working with other national Parliaments and with the European Parliament at all levels. In this context, the House's work will be much assisted by the fact that a member of your Lordships' staff will, as a consequence of the UK presidency, be seconded to the COSAC secretariat in Brussels and will also examine how the work of the House, and in particular our committee, could be enhanced by better contact on the ground in Brussels. This is a very positive development and one on which I hope we will be able to report considerable progress in our annual report next year.

The report also touches on a number of other areas, such as the problem of so-called "competence creep" and the need for the Government to be robust in pursuing cases of an inappropriate legal base being chosen by the Commission through an inappropriate use of Article 308 of the EC Treaty.

On the domestic front, we highlight the importance of agreeing new arrangements for debating our reports, and we set out briefly our principal reactions to the proposal for a joint European Committee of both Houses. All these matters, however, will be discussed in other forums in your Lordships' House and I do not wish to trouble the House with them today.

I commend to the House our committee's annual report for 2004. I think it gives a very full description of what we have done and a good idea of what we hope to do in the coming year. I hope that all Members, in particular those interested in serving on our sub-committees, will find a little time to peruse this document. I would be delighted to receive feedback or comments from Members of the House on any aspects of our work.
24 Nov 2004 : Column 121

8.45 p.m.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, we are told that the Army is to reduce the number of infantry battalions from 40 to 36—a reduction of 10 per cent—by April 2008. This strikes me as very strange when our allies, the United States, are seeking an additional 23,000 infantrymen, and the Australians—also our allies, and a member of the Commonwealth—are increasing not only the size of their infantry but also their Special Air Service.

The reasons given for this proposed reduction are the cessation of the Arms Plot moves and an anticipated reduction of troop levels in Northern Ireland. Significantly, however, nothing has been said about making any effort to achieve the longstanding, but equally long-ignored, defence planning assumption that units should enjoy 24 months between operational tours.

I acknowledge that ending the Arms Plot may increase the availability of the number of battalions, but arms plotting is due to be phased out over the next 10 years, and April 2008 is somewhat nearer than that.

Being able to reduce the number of troops in Northern Ireland is only an assumption. Given the history of that Province, trouble is likely to blow up at the drop of a hat. We should remember that Gerry Adams said, "We never go away".

An example of the current shortage of infantry battalions is the fact that the Demonstration Battalion stationed at Warminster—the Black Watch—is on active service in Iraq.

With that background, it is therefore totally illogical for the Secretary of State for Defence to announce, before Christmas, which battalions are to be cut.

I am concerned about my own regiment, the Royal Scots. It is the oldest regular unit in the Army, having given 371 years of loyal and valuable service to our country since 1633. The regiment is still giving very loyal service. I understand that it has the fourth best record of retaining its men in the infantry.

The 1st Battalion arrived in Edinburgh in March and the beginning of April 2002 after a two-year operational tour in Northern Ireland. Six months later, it went to Bosnia for a six-month tour of duty. After a gap of only seven months, the great majority of the battalion deployed to Iraq for a six-month tour, to reinforce other units. They are now on standby to return to Iraq from 3 January 2005, and with elections due to be held there on 30 January, it is highly likely that they will be sent.

With this sort of commitment, is it any wonder that wives get fed up and encourage men—experienced men—to leave the Army? This is not helped by the policy of the Ministry of Defence. I am told that this year the Royal Scots recruited 44 men, but as there has been a freeze on recruit training, they were allocated only one recruit training place between May and the end of September. Where else would one offer a man a job, but say he may not start work for many months? Surely it is better to pay a man as a much needed infantryman than give him unemployment benefit.
24 Nov 2004 : Column 122

I think we need a major debate on defence, and I trust that the Government will provide the time for one soon.

I just missed my old regiment, the Royal Scots, in Iraq, when my wife and I went there last April, which brings me to the second part of my remarks. I would like to thank the commanding officer and all ranks of 22 Field Hospital, who looked after us so well. I commend them and all at the Defence Medical Services for all they were doing at that time, and are still doing, to assist the civilian medical services in the Basra governate.

We hear a great deal from the media of the problems that we and the Americans face in Iraq, but very little of what is being done to help that country and the welcome given by Iraqis to our efforts. We went with a volunteer MOET training team to train local doctors, midwives and nurses in the management of obstetric emergency and trauma. That is very important for a country that probably has the highest maternal and child mortality rates in the world. The training started saving lives almost immediately and the local MOET teams that our British people trained will have saved many more lives.

We went with the MOET team to set up telemedical links through the Swinfen Charitable Trust that I run to provide online advice in some 70 medical specialties and sub-specialties and medical training to doctors in 10 hospitals in Iraq, with others waiting to join the scheme. Is the Minister aware of the work being done by the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Midwives to provide medical training and help improve medical services in Iraq? Can the Minister tell us of the work being undertaken by the Defence Medical Services and how work progresses in making sure that hospitals there have ample medical supplies? What is now the position on the restoration and improvement of electricity and water supplies? Is sewage and rubbish disposal satisfactory? Is a public transport system now up and running?

We hear very little of how delighted the vast majority of Iraqis are at Saddam Hussein's overthrow and how pleased they are at the way we are helping them defy and overcome the insurgents. Let us hear more.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page