Madrid Summit

– in the House of Commons at 9:09 pm on 15th June 1989.

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Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South 9:09 pm, 15th June 1989

In this Adjournment debate I want to raise the subject of the scrutiny of European Community business and the Madrid summit. It is a little ironic that I am raising this subject today of all days. The polling booths in the European elections are just about coming to the end of their day's business to elect to the European Parliament Members who will have an influence on legislation from the European Community.

This Parliament also has influence on such legislation through the Council of Ministers and the Ministers we send to Brussels to comment on the Commission's proposals and finally decide what those legislative proposals should be either through unanimity or by qualified majority. The debate is taking place at relatively short notice—only an hour or so. I thank the Economic Secretary to the Treasury for coming here at some personal inconvenience. I know that he will relay to the Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House my concerns that have arisen exactly today.

I regret very much the need for the debate. The Select Committee on European Legislation and other people have held discussions with the Lord President on the matter. However, in view of the Lord President's statement on next week's business, I was obliged to ask for a debate. I emphasise that I had the support of the Chairman of the Treasury and Civil Service Committee in my questions to the Lord President earlier today—also, I hope, when I raised the matter under Standing Order No. 20 and in this rare third Adjournment debate.

The Treasury and Civil Service Committee had been considering the matter in some detail in the expectation that there would be a debate before the Madrid summit the week after next, particularly on the Delors report on economic and monetary union. I had been confident that after pressure from two Committees and the precedents that have been set there would be a debate before that very important meeting of the European Council. However, at approximately 3.45 this afternoon the Leader of the House said that there would not be a debate—that no business next week related to that particularly important meeting.

Parliament provides procedures such as Standing Order 20 and Adjournment debates for the raising of grievances. I have therefore used those procedures. They are, as it were, fire extinguishers or alarm bells that are used when other people light a fire. The Government have certainly lit a fire today, not perhaps by an act of commission but by an act of omission in not arranging for a debate to take place next week on this very important matter. Some eyebrows may be raised when the Chairman of a Select Committee says that he finds it necessary to use these procedures, but I am sure that the Treasury and Civil Service Committee will agree with what I hope is a measured comment: there was every expectation that such a debate would take place.

I notice that the Lord President of the Council has arrived. I was not necessarily expecting him to be here. He could have read what I intend to say. Nevertheless, in view of his presence, I have to thank him for coming and I hope that what I have to say to him will not be too unexpected. I know that he has certain considerations to bear in mind, but the considerations that I intend to put to him tonight relate to the Parliament of which he is the Leader and not necessarily to him in his role as Lord President of the Council. I have pointed out on many occasions in the past that I am not sure that the habit of successive Governments in combining those posts is the happiest of habits. Sometimes it means that the same person has to balance conflicting interests. In our democracy, although it is a matter of contention on some occasions, split interests or conflicting interests should be avoided as far as possible.

There are many points of view about the European Economic Community. There are different points of view about the merits of our membership of the EEC, about the conditions under which we joined it, about whether we joined it correctly, the holding of referendums, and all the rest. On one thing, however, there is absolute agreement: that this Parliament must play some part in EEC legislation. This country is subject by treaty to EEC legislation, particularly legislation that is brought about by a weighted majority vote, perhaps against the inclinations of any British Government or the House. There is no doubt whatsoever about that. There is no difference in principle between the right hon. Members for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), and the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) and myself.

How is that influence to be wielded? How should draft legislation be considered, and how will influence be exerted on those who will ultimately decide it? Those questions have echoed down the ages, from the 16th century and Simon de Montfort, and along the corridor between the other place and this House. At the heart of our country's democracy is the extent to which there shall be consultation prior to legislation.

In the Standing Order that gives my Committee its marching orders, the word that is used is "consideration". That provision is contained in a resolution passed by the House on 30 October 1980 after several years' consideration, which regularised the way in which it should operate. That is becoming increasingly important in the public gaze and in the media—and no doubt it will become increasingly important after the Madrid conference and with all that follows from it. Therefore, I shall read the resolution into the record: That, in the opinion of this House, no Minister of the Crown should give agreement in the Council of Ministers to any proposal for European legislation which has been recommended by the Select Committee on European Legislation, &c., for consideration by the House before the House has given it that consideration unless—

  1. (a) that Committee has indicated that agreement need not be withheld, or
  2. (b) the Minister concerned decides that for special reasons agreement should not be withheld;
and in the latter case the Minister should, at the first opportunity thereafter, explain the reasons for his decision to the House."—[Official Report, 30 October 1980; Vol. 991, c. 838.] In general, the operation of that resolution is relatively smooth. The problems of timing are neither the making of the Government nor of the House. However, problems occasionally arise and administrative slips occur in the best-run offices. Usually they are recognised as such and are smoothed out.

However, I regret to say that—subject to any subsequent correspondence—the spirit of that resolution has been breached. I refer to the Government reply to the "First Special Report, Session 1983–84", HC 527, when the then Leader of the House wrote, on page xxv of HC 400: It is the Government's practice that debates on European documents should be held as far in advance as is practicable of the expected adoption of the proposal concerned. It is desirable that this should be at the point when the voice of the House can be most influential. As a general rule, this will normally be early rather than late in the life of a proposal. The Committee rightly notes that the selection of an optimum time for debates is very much a matter of judgment. The Government fully accept the Committee's view that, when making this judgment, it should be the rule always to err on the side of an early debate, and Departments will be instructed accordingly. I am glad that the Leader of the House reinforced that general sentiment in correspondence with the Committee.

In principle, there is no dissent from that general point. Therefore, the question must be asked whether there is any reason why the spirit of the resolution, and the spirit and terms of that letter and of a subsequent letter from the Leader of the House, should not apply to the particularly important document that will be tabled at the Madrid summit—the Delors report on European monetary union.

I wish for a moment to be a devil's advocate and express what I would say if I were the Lord President or the Economic Secretary. I would say that it is not yet a matter for legislation. It is a report about feasibility—a very important matter. On the other hand, that report suggests that future legislation and future treaty change will be possible. There may not be a decision on Monday, Tuesday or on Wednesday week, but there will certainly be consideration, conceivably in principle. I might also ask whether the document comes within the ambit of the strict legality of the wording of the resolution on 30 October. One could argue that it does not. But if we are concerned about the principle of consultation before legislation and before important meetings which we all know will take place, it surely must, bearing in mind the words of the former Leader of the House and the confirmation of at least the principle by the present Leader of the House in current circumstances.

I also sent a letter to the Leader of the House—which I do not think he was surprised to receive—saying that there must have been some specific decision not to have this debate. It was not a matter of forgetful omission but an absolute decision not to do so.

I now turn to the question of timetable recommendation. The Scrutiny Committee usually produces a report once a week. We sat on 10 May, and what a bumper meeting it was. We dealt with broadcasting; procurement by water, energy and transport; foreign language training—the Lingua programme; freedom of movement and rights of residence; economic and monetary union; and irradiation of foodstuffs. That was rather a heavy week. I shall quote the final paragraph on the Delors document on economic and monetary union which we considered raises questions of legal and political importance and recommended it for further consideration by the House. I shall read out the last paragraph on page xii of that report. I had better read the lot. It states: The Committee notes that the Committee for the Study of Economic and Monetary Union —that is Mr. Delors' committee— was entrusted by the European Council with the task of studying and proposing stages leading towards an economic and monetary union and that its report concluded that Treaty amendment would be necessary to effect the transfer of decision-making powers from Member States to new or existing Community institutions to implement the latter two stages of its conception of economic and monetary union. It also notes that the Prime Minister has stated that the United Kingdom cannot accept the transfer of sovereignty that is implied in the report since economic and monetary union as spelt out in the report would in effect require political union, a United States of Europe, which is not, in her view, on the agenda now or for the foreseeable future, and that the Prime Minister has also stated that the Government does not believe that there should be further Treaty amendment as proposed by the report. Accordingly, in view of the evident legal and political importance of the report and the clear conflict between its proposals and the Government's views, the Committee recommends it for further consideration by the House. It considers that this debate should be held in good time before the European Council on 26–27 June, when the report is expected to be discussed by the Heads of Government. We know from the press that many Heads of Government may go along with Mr. Delors' proposals. There may be changes in the last few days and it may be that there will not be a consensus. However, some people will go along with the statement made by the Government and the Prime Minister. Others—I will not name them since we know who they are and they have been expressing their views in print recently—may not go along with the statement. However, it is right and proper for the Government to seek to obtain support or otherwise—I am sure that they would receive support—for their view and expose it to debate. In that way when the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Paymaster General go to subsequent meetings they would have the view of the House. Surely that would strengthen their arm—or weaken it—and at least there would have been some consultation and consideration.

Such consultation was expected by the Treasury and Civil Service Committee. Last week it had before it the Governor of the Bank of England who is a signatory to the report. We are not sure whether he was signing on the principles of the mechanics or the objectives. However, he and the Chancellor of the Exchequer were both witnesses before the Committee. I have been told by the Chairman of the Committee that it is preparing a manuscript report to be available early next week in the expectation that a debate will take place.

Some people may say that we can find out what was said by reading the press. However, surely the idea of Select Committees—certainly departmental Select Committees—is that they are able to sort out and set out for the House in a reasonable and readable way the views and evidence provided by prestigious and well-informed persons. Unless one has had an opportunity to listen to what is going on, one will not know because no papers will be available for information other than through the Committee.

It is no use having material if it cannot be used in time for the deliberations that will take place. A great deal has been written and discussed recently about the departmental Select Committees. However, they are unable to be effective prior to the debate in Madrid.

The debate in Madrid is not public. That is not a criticism. I simply want to place that on record. In fact, its agenda is not known. During Question Time yesterday the Foreign Secretary was not very forthcoming on its full extent. We know that the Delors report will be discussed; as will matters relating to an equally contentious document on the social charter, on which there are different views. We are not having a debate on that but it is different from the document commisioned by the Heads of Government.

Matters may be raised by the Presidency about which we know nothing. I am not suggesting that the Leader of the House should hold a debate on a speculative basis but I am throwing in some of the other problems we have in respect of scrutiny. The Presidency has an entire department within the EEC and is able to select matters at will. A great deal of initiative is left to the Presidency. We may hear from the Prime Minister on her return that this, that or the other has been discussed and that decisions of principle have been taken. We may not know that such matters were being discussed and, therefore, could not debate them even if we wanted to.

Another general point that has arisen in the past week relates to the time and the period of debate. Exactly a week ago I asked the Leader of the House to consider an exemption to the one-and-a-half hour rule in respect of a debate due to take place on Tuesday on broadcasting rules for television, which the Commission proposes should apply to the EC—rules that will be resolved in the end by majority vote. I anticipated that many people would wish to speak in that debate. It started just after one o'clock early on Wednesday morning and lasted until 2.37 am.

Despite the late hour and the fact that the speeches were relatively brief and to the point, there was no time for the Minister to reply. Various matters were raised in the course of the debate on which the Minister could not comment. I do not complain about the choice of day because the matter is being discussed at this minute, so it had to be dealt with when it was. But the House was constrained by the fact that the debate was limited to an hour and a half. I put it to the House and to the Leader of the House—he has heard it before but I cannot over-emphasise it—the one-and-a-half hour limit was originally the time designated for the consideration of British secondary statutory instruments. We are talking about super-primary legislation.

The Prime Minister and the Leader of the House talk about the need for greater scrutiny and better procedures, a matter with which many people are now grappling. The Procedure Committee is having a go at it, the Leader of the House and I are having fruitful conversations on it and there is proper correspondence between the Scrutiny Committee and the Leader of the House. All that is helpful, but there are certain things that should and could happen now which need no change in the Standing Orders, simply the use of the Government's powers and responsibilities to Parliament.

We do not just have a Government to produce legislation on the basis of one philosophy or another, and I hope that I am making a constitutional rather than a party speech. Every Government have a responsibility to parliamentary democracy. We know just how much the Prime Minister is wedded to that. She is always telling us how important it is, particularly in relation to the European Community. There is a moral and a constitutional obligation on the Government, as well as on the Leader of the House, who has particular concerns in this matter, not only to see that parliamentary democracy and representative government go on, but are seen to go on. But in respect of EC legislation, alas, that is not yet the case.

That matter does not relate simply to this Government. My esteemed predecessor, Mr. John Davies, a Cabinet Member and the first Chairman of the Select Committee of which I have the honour to be Chairman, got into dead trouble with the Labour Government of the day, or they got into dead trouble because of what he was doing. On one occasion, he had to get all the members of his Committee to put down an early-day motion, headed by a former Cabinet Minister and well-respected gentleman who had strong views in one direction about the European Community—perfectly honourable and right ones. He had clashes with the Government, I think in good spirit, but in the spirit of parliamentary democracy.

I hope that I have not gone over the top today but rather have used those procedures which parliamentary democracy provides—which have ancient origins and which are there to be used on occasions—to draw attention to the matter, particularly to those who will read what we say, as well as the Leader of the House, whom I am glad to see here, and the Economic Secretary, who has been put to some personal inconvenience to be present.

I do not expect a long reply because the Minister has had only short notice, but the debate has illustrated the profound dilemmas that now confront Parliament and Government in the practice of representative democracy and in making sure that conversations on major matters, such as economic and monetary union, can be read about in the press in yards of articles, or in the form of speculation, argument or debate on the radio, of which we have heard quite a lot and will hear even more after the election results on Sunday. It may have some influence on what appears in the papers on the summit. But for Parliament not to be able to discuss such matters even on Adjournment debates—I am not asking for a substantive or amendable motion—would be seen as something strange by people outside.

As the former Leader of the House, Lord St. John of Fawsley, often told us, it is not this place that is the mother of Parliaments, but Britain. That this Parliament is unable to discuss major matters of European and constitutional issue prior to our representatives going to Europe to speak on our behalf would be judged by any constitutional textbook as something that should not be tolerated—I fear that history will judge it so.

I know that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury will make a short reply; I do not expect a long one. The Lord President has been present and I know that he will draw this speech to the attention of others. There is yet time for something to be done. It has been known for business to be changed and there are other people who may exercise an influence—sometimes they are described as "the usual channels".

I hope that I have used the procedures of the House correctly. Unfortunately, it has been necessary for such a person as myself, with the backing of the Chairman of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, to exercise those procedures. I believe that I have done so in the spirit of parliamentary democracy and I look for a response in exactly the same fashion.

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley The Economic Secretary to the Treasury 9:36 pm, 15th June 1989

First, I thank the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) for his characteristic courtesy in giving me the maximum possible notice of his intention to raise this matter in the third Adjournment debate.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his Committee on the vigilance with which they pursue the scrutiny of the legislation that comes before this House or is in prospect and on the diligence with which they seek to ensure the House can scrutinise such legislation.

I was intending to assure the hon. Gentleman that I would convey to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House the contents of his speech. As it is, I can assure him that my right hon. Friend has heard the cogent and powerful arguments that he has deployed. He knows that my right hon. Friend will consider them seriously. The fact that my right hon. Friend is here tonight is an indication of the importance he attaches to the hon. Gentleman, to his Committee and to the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee and its Chairman who, I understand, joined with the hon. Gentleman in the points he raised tonight.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will excuse me for not giving a fuller and more substantive reply, but I believe that it is more important that such matters are considered by the Leader of the House and those associated with him.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Ten o'clock.