Intergovernmental Conference (Ministerial Group)

Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs – in the House of Commons at 1:45 pm on 12th March 1997.

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Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South 1:45 pm, 12th March 1997

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs how many meetings of the ministerial group of the intergovernmental conference on a new European Union treaty Ministers have attended in 1997; and at which meetings the proposed protocol on the place of national parliaments was discussed. [18301]

Photo of David Davis David Davis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

In answering this question, I ask for your indulgence for the second time, Madam Speaker. The hon. Gentleman is standing down at the next election and I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to him for all the work that he has put in, particularly his nine years as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, at a time when that Committee was less fashionable. As to his question, there have been two IGC meetings at ministerial level this year. The protocol on national Parliaments was last discussed on 25 November.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

I thank the Minister for his kind words and pay tribute to the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Sir R. Hicks)—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—who has had 22 years on the Committee against my 18. He has presided with impartial courtesy.

Will the Minister tell those at the conference that the Select Committee and, I think, all hon. Members, have doubts about the advisability of giving COSAC—the informal meeting of representatives of member state Parliaments—specific powers or duties, or even hinting at that? National Parliaments are the unique democratic institutions that express the continued existence of nations and the continued democratic freedom of their peoples.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point. I add my voice to his tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Sir R. Hicks). Many people have put a lot of work into the Committee.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point. I have argued about the importance of leaving to nation states what their Parliaments do and how they structure their democratic accountability. The Government have supported the more informal and less constrained approach argued for by the Committee and put forward in the Irish text.

Photo of Mr Robert Hicks Mr Robert Hicks , South East Cornwall

I remind my right hon. Friend that, at the Dublin meeting of the European affairs committees of national Parliaments, it was agreed unanimously that all documents, regulations and directives emanating from the Commission should go to national Parliaments at least four weeks before the Council of Ministers takes any decision on the provisions contained in those documents. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government fully support that position to allow due scrutiny of all the provisions emanating from Brussels?

Photo of David Davis David Davis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I shall say more than that. The proposal that there should be a legal requirement written into the treaty came from a Select Committee, supported by the Government. It is probably unique for a protocol to be put into a substantive treaty in that way. We shall support the proposal, because we were the first advocates of the argument.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin , Gateshead East

I join the Minister in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South for all the work that he has done to ensure proper scrutiny of European legislation.

In the few remaining opportunities that the Minister will have to attend European meetings, will he explain to his colleagues and the House why the Government have so frequently ignored recommendations from the European Scrutiny Committee for a debate on the Floor of the House? Will he take a leaf out of the Swedish Government's book and allow for much greater scrutiny of the second and third pillars of the European Union—common foreign and security policy, and justice and home affairs—which, so far, have had little scrutiny?

Photo of David Davis David Davis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I say two things to the hon. Lady. First, she should read the Select Committee's report, which makes it clear that our scrutiny procedure is as good as any in Europe—a point that she has obviously not taken on board. Secondly, with respect to the treatment of second and third pillar proposals, third pillar matters, which have legislative import, are obviously brought to this House. It is significant that we argue for unanimity on those actions, which makes the Government's accountability to the House absolute.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

Did my right hon. Friend have an opportunity to see the reported comments of the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) in The Times of 7 March, where he undertook to make surrenders and six changes to the Government's policy? Is that not an abdication of Labour's responsibility? Will it not undermine the British negotiating position?

Photo of David Davis David Davis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I did see the report of the right hon. Gentleman's comments at the weekend. My hon. Friend is right. The Labour party has undertaken to make six surrenders of British sovereignty in six weeks. If it were ever in government, we would never get those back.