European Scrutiny (Standing Orders)

Deferred Division – in the House of Commons at 5:38 pm on 12th November 2008.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Government Equalities Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 5:38 pm, 12th November 2008

I beg to move,

That the amendments to Standing Order No. 119 and the amendments to nomenclature in the Standing Orders agreed to by this House on 7th February 2008, shall have permanent effect from 1st January 2009.

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Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to consider the following: amendment (a), line 4, at end add

'and that paragraph 10 of Standing Order No. 143 be replaced by the following paragraph:

'(10) Each such Committee shall determine at the beginning of each meeting whether any part of or all of its business that day shall be conducted in private'; and that the Standing Order, as amended, shall have permanent effect from 1st January 2009.'.

Motion 9— Modernisation of the House of Commons (Changes to Standing Orders)—

That the amendments to the Standing Orders and new Orders, agreed to by this House on 25th October 2007, relating to the recommendations of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons in its First Report of Session 2006-07, Revitalising the Chamber: the role of the back bench Member (House of Commons Paper No. 337 of Session 2006-07) and the Government response thereto (Cm. 7231) shall have permanent effect with the following amendments—

(1) In Standing Order No. 24A (Topical debates)

(d) in line 19, leave out 'six' and insert 'ten'; and

(e) in line 24, leave out from 'to' to the end of line 26 and insert 'a maximum of five interventions.'.

(2) In Standing Order No. 24B (Amendments to motions to consider specified matters)

(a) in line 1, after 'Speaker', insert 'or the Chairman'; and

(b) in line 2, after 'House', insert 'or, as the case may be, the committee'.

And the following amendment thereto: (a), leave out lines 9 to 12.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Government Equalities Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I will refer first to motion 9, on issues relating to the modernisation of the House of Commons. Broadly speaking, it rolls forward measures that have already been in place for some time. First, we are making sure that the topical debates that we have held for the past year can continue for the foreseeable future. As right hon. and hon. Members will know, my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House held a review of the operation of topical debates earlier this year. I think that many hon. Members have enjoyed the opportunity to have a more topical debate on a Thursday afternoon on one of the issues of the week. My right hon. and learned Friend now publishes monthly a list of all requests for topical debates, and that is a good principle.

We are introducing some changes this year. We have always held one-and-a-half hour topical debates on a Thursday, although we have said that we will look into whether it is possible to hold them on other days. Several hon. Members have become worried that Front Benchers monopolise the debates and that Back Benchers are not allowed enough time to take part. If the motion is carried, there will be less time available to the main— Government and official Opposition—Front Benchers, but the amount of time available to the Liberal Democrats spokesmen will increase slightly from six to 10 minutes. The irony is that, currently, the six minutes allowed for the Liberal Democrat spokesperson is often a shorter period than that allowed in the rest of the debate for Liberal Democrat Back Benchers. We might want to hear a little less from some Liberal Democrat Front Benchers—I am not looking at anyone in particular—but, none the less, we are moving the proposal that there should be equality between the three Front Benches.

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Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader

Will the Deputy Leader of the House take this opportunity to outline his thinking about the position of spokespeople from the political parties of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales?

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Government Equalities Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

No, I do not think that I should like to take this opportunity to do that. I note that the hon. Gentleman has not tabled an amendment to the motion, and he could have done, because it has been on the Order Paper for a full week now. However, I want to ensure that all Members have an opportunity to take part equally, so if he has proposals he should feel free to come and talk to me about them.

We are taking forward another measure that has been in operation over the past year: emergency debates. We have changed Standing Order No. 24, and the new system will allow for greater flexibility so that Mr. Speaker can determine not only the date of the debate—formerly, it could be taken only on the next day, immediately—but its length. Previously, such debates could go on for only three hours, but if the motion is approved Mr. Speaker will be able to determine that it continue for longer.

Hon. Members will know that one of the other innovations over the past year has been topical questions. Members have pretty much universally welcomed the fact that, during every Question Time, matters that are entirely topical can be raised, because the questions are effectively open. That has added a much greater sense of topicality and interest. Sometimes I wonder whether the Opposition parties have decided always to use the topical session merely as a means to try to trip up the Government, but it is clear that the whole House supports such opportunities, and as their continuing does not depend on any Standing Order change, it is not mentioned in the motion.

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Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

The Deputy Leader of the House refers to topical questions that are a part of the daily round of departmental questions to Ministers, but from watching the situation closely from the Back Benches, I must say that there is some evidence of Members who had questions on the Order Paper that were not reached using the topical sessions as a top-up, even though what they have asked has not been especially topical. How in my hon. Friend's view will Mr. Speaker or any other occupant of the Chair deal with that?

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Government Equalities Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Indeed, as my right hon. and learned Friend whispers, my hon. Friend is Back Bencher of the year—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"] I look forward to seeing him more frequently in the Division Lobby with me. However, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would not want me to infringe on the power of the Chair to determine whether a question is topical. In the past, we could have had an entire hour-long Question Time without the day's elephant in the room being referred to at all. Now, that is no longer possible, and the topical session is a significant improvement to the way in which we do our business.

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Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick PPS (Rt Hon Jack Straw, Lord Chancellor), Ministry of Justice

Will my hon. Friend give his view on the fact that Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople use topical questions more and more, yet as I understand it the original intention was for them to be the tool of Back Benchers? What should happen in that instance?

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Government Equalities Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

The idea behind topical questions—and topical debates, for that matter—was to allow Back Benchers, primarily, a greater crack of the whip in the Chamber. I have been asked questions by Opposition Members who pretend to be Back Benchers, but 10 minutes later suddenly become Front Benchers on a completely different subject. However, that is part of how the House operates.

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Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Conservative, Hammersmith and Fulham

If questioners are to be criticised if their questions are not topical, Ministers must be expected to have an answer ready if they are asked a topical question. Earlier this week, I asked about cuts in the BBC Russian service, of which the Deputy Leader of the House will be well aware. The Minister concerned seemed blissfully unaware of the controversy that had been raging about the issue in the press during the previous two days. Her answer was simply that she would write to me. When Back Benchers such as me ask topical questions, we surely have a right to expect Ministers to be able to provide topical answers.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Government Equalities Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am not sure that omniscience is handed out to every Minister. One of the difficulties with topical questions is that Ministers can be asked questions about anything under the sun, within their remit. Sometimes it is difficult for Ministers to have immediately to hand or on the tip of their tongues the precise answer that the questioner is looking for. Sometimes a Minister should be able to say, "I am terribly sorry. I do not know the answer to that question, but I will get back to the hon. Gentleman." A degree of magnanimity—"as magnanimous as Agamemnon", as Shakespeare put it—might be in order.

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Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick PPS (Rt Hon Jack Straw, Lord Chancellor), Ministry of Justice

I thank my hon. Friend for being generous with his time. In answer to my previous intervention, he referred to Opposition Front Benchers secreting themselves on the Back Benches to make topical points. I was referring to Front-Bench spokespeople on the Front Bench using time allotted for topical questions to make known their views on the relevant matters.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Government Equalities Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. I have noted that Mr. Speaker tends to allow the topical questions period to roll on when that has happened. I underline that it is essential that Back-Bench Members from both sides of the House get an opportunity to quiz the Government. Although, obviously, it is appropriate for Front-Bench spokespeople to make points during Question Time, sometimes the most percipient points are made by Back Benchers.

I turn to the motions relating to European scrutiny. We intend to roll forward the changes to Standing Order No. 119 which have been in operation for the past year and would lapse if we were not to renew them at the end of this calendar year. How we scrutinise European business is essential to how we scrutinise the Government.

We have made several innovations in the past year. One of them is the E section in the Order Paper, and it has been particularly useful. It alerts right hon. and hon. Members about which European Committee will be considering which documents from the European Union—from the Council, the Commission or the Parliament—and when. That gives all hon. Members the opportunity to follow the issues if they want. As a Back Bencher, I took a significant interest in all matters European, and I remember that it was often difficult to find out precisely where those issues were debated. Section E is a significant innovation.

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Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I am a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and I have the Chairman's authority to speak on his behalf. [Hon. Members: He is here!"] I am sorry. My Lord!

We all welcome the capacity to probe European issues. The real problem is not the procedure, but the timetabling. Will the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House talk to the Whips and the usual channels through the Clerks and the Chairmen so that members of the feeder Committees such as the Foreign Affairs Committee can attend those sittings without there being a clash with the core business of the feeder Committees? It is a reasonable request.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Government Equalities Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am sure that my hon. Friend considers all his requests reasonable. I agree with him. I was about to say that one of the other innovations relating to Standing Orders is that European Committees may now have present members of the European Scrutiny Committee and the relevant departmental Committee. It is sometimes a tall order to be able to arrange hon. Members' timings. I am happy to speak to the Whips and to others about that.

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Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

I hope that he never does.

My hon. Friend knows that I have written to the Leader of the House, and I have had replies from him and from his predecessor on this issue, which is still unresolved. If we are to extend this temporary arrangement, then ways must be found to ensure that members of a Select Committee who might be considering serving on such a Committee are given sufficient notice so that we do not come up with names and then find that there are clashes with other people's arrangements. Surely the authorities in the parties, in the Whips Offices and wherever can find ways of giving us proper notice so that we can find people to serve on these Committees.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Government Equalities Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to find a way of making this work better, because it is a good innovation. I am sure that there are not many Members who do not think that it is a good idea to have expert Members from departmental Committees informing the debate in a European Committee that is analysing a particular document. For instance, in March this year, when European defence was being considered by a European Committee, it was important that two members of the Defence Committee and a member of the European Scrutiny CommitteeMr. Cash—were present. That significantly improved the quality of the debate that could be had.

Another important innovation dependent on the motion is that a member of the European Scrutiny Committee should be able to make a five-minute statement at the beginning of the debate. This is about improving the quality of the work that we do in European Committees, which are often undervalued by Members, for whatever reason. It is important that we do everything we can to try to rectify the problem, which is particularly acute in relation to Committees such as that chaired by my hon. Friend Mike Gapes which already meet frequently, so there is a heavy burden on them. I undertake to work closely with him, with the Whips Offices and with the House authorities to try to ensure that we can overcome this problem and thereby improve the quality of our European scrutiny.

Let me turn to the amendment tabled by the shadow Leader of the House, which relates to whether there should be a presumption on the European Scrutiny Committee meeting in public unless it chooses to meet in private or a presumption on its meeting in private unless it chooses to meet in public. It is a shame that her amendment was tabled so late yesterday, because its wording means that it would not fulfil the function that I think she would want it to. The amendments to Standing Order No. 143 are not being taken forward, so her amendment would not apply. Equally importantly, it refers to "Each such Committee", but the Standing Order refers to only one Committee, so there is some ambiguity there.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

It so happens that paragraph (10) of Standing Order No. 143 specifies that

"The committee, and every such sub-committee, shall"— it is mandatory—

"sit in public unless it determines otherwise in relation to a particular meeting or part thereof."

That could not be clearer. Irrespective of any point that the hon. Gentleman may wish to make about the drafting of a particular amendment—on which I will make no comment because I will be supporting it—the current presumption is that the Committee is required to sit in public unless it has determined otherwise in relation to a particular meeting.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Government Equalities Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Leaving aside the drafting, there is a more important and substantive issue: whether there should be a presumption that the Committee meets in private unless it chooses to meet in public, or the other way round.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Government Equalities Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I would like to advance my argument a little, but then I will be more than happy to give way.

First and foremost, it is the accepted practice of this House, in every other Committee, that they meet in private when deliberating, and in public when considering evidence. That is an important principle, which has been reasserted by many Speakers of this House throughout the centuries, not least because if the deliberating process of a Select Committee or any other Committee were an open matter, the proper deliberation of a report would be thoroughly undermined. Many hon. Members will recall that drafts of Committee reports have sometimes leaked, leading to an investigation by the House as to why.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Government Equalities Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I will give way to both hon. Gentlemen in a moment, if they will allow me to continue.

It is an important part of the accepted practice of this House that every Committee should meet in private when it is deliberating and in public when it is taking evidence.

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Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Conservative, Hammersmith and Fulham

The current Committee system for European scrutiny is simply not working. At the moment, according to the Standing Orders, we meet as soon as is convenient after 11 o'clock. We meet in private at 11, and as soon as is convenient after 11. People who show up to our Committee have simply no idea of when it will start. A constituent of mine, with a personal and professional interest in environmental policy, has been visiting for some weeks, and has written to me saying:

"For several months now I have been trying to attend sittings of the European Scrutiny Committee which I understand to meet in public and to regularly review EU legislation in this field. On several occasions I waited for nearly one hour outside what is apparently the committee's meeting room only to be told that no one could say when the public session would start...I regret to tell you that your body, which is apparently entrusted with scrutinising EU laws, appears to be a bad joke and a farce. The EU is accused of being secretive. What is our Parliament but exactly the same?"

If the hon. Gentleman were in the position of a member of the public trying to attend our Committee, he would find it practically impossible to do so because he would be left sitting outside for an interminable length of time.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Government Equalities Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

It is certainly true that when I visited the European Scrutiny Committee it felt as if time had stood still. However, the hon. Gentleman—and if I may say so, his constituent—makes an important mistake. The European Scrutiny Committee— [ Interruption. ] If the hon. Gentleman will keep calm and listen. The Committee is not there to decide on the policy of this House with regard to any piece of European legislation. It is there to do a specific job, which is to decide where a document or policy recommendation should be properly considered. Every place where such matters are properly considered is fully open and has no private sittings. I say to the hon. Gentleman, and anyone else who is urging change on this matter, that there is a fundamental misconception about the nature of the European Scrutiny Committee.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

In the debate on 7 February, the hon. Gentleman's predecessor, Helen Goodman, said that she agreed

"with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead that, in general, there is a good case for the important work of sifting to be done in public."

She went on to say, in a presumably well-informed comment:

"the Government will come back to the House with a revised form of words providing for the ESC to have the power to decide whether to meet in public for the purposes of sifting documents."—[ Hansard, 7 February 2008; Vol. 471, c. 1182.]

When the amendment was tabled, it was exactly as I said. In other words, the presumption was that the Committee should be in public, except in a particular case.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Government Equalities Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

But since then, the European Scrutiny Committee, as the hon. Gentleman knows full well, has met and considered whether it should meet in public or private and it has decided to go in the other direction. That was not just a matter of Eurosceptics voting for everything to be in public and Europhiles—or sensible, pragmatic Europeans—voting for the Committee to meet in private for its deliberations.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Government Equalities Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I was just coming to my hon. Friend. My very honourable, very friendly friend from Luton, North, with whom I disagree on many matters relating to Europe, none the less voted with the Chair of the Committee, my hon. Friend Michael Connarty.

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Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I agree strongly with my hon. Friend's comments throughout the debate. Does he accept from someone who has served on the Committee for more than a year and who has seen it in both modes—the mode before the public mode worked well—that what happens now is farcical and simply does not work?

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Government Equalities Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I think that I have said previously that some hon. Members have a single transferable speech on European matters—I know I do—and my hon. Friend has heard it many times, as has Mr. Francois, who is chuntering on the Conservative Front Bench. There is a confusion of principle, which hon. Members who want to insist that the Committee always meet in public, are asserting.

In the Lords, one person, namely Lord Grenfell, does the sifting in private, and there is little criticism of the way in which the House of Lords conducts that business. I do not advocate moving to a position whereby only my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, does the sifting, because the process of advising the Committee is important.

That leads me to another point about the confusion in some hon. Members' minds. Those who advise the Committee are advisers to the Committee, not the Government. That is an important principle. Many Select Committees have advisers and it is not right for them to have to provide their advice in public. They should give their advice in private as part of the deliberative process so that Members can go on in public sittings to make whatever speeches they want.

We are not considering whether we believe that matters should be kept private or public. I have argued from the Back Benches that it is important to conduct European scrutiny far better than we have done in the past. I believe that the measures that we introduced in the past year, which we want to roll forward, have made a significant contribution. I point out to Conservative Members that not only Labour Members in the European Scrutiny Committee voted in favour of the option for the Committee to vote to sit in private. Mr. Steen, who could hardly be described as a rabid, pro-Labour pro-European, also voted for that.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 6:02 pm, 12th November 2008

I beg to move amendment (a) to motion 8, in line 3, at end add

'and that paragraph 10 of Standing Order No.143 be replaced by the following paragraph:

'(10) Each such Committee shall determine at the beginning of each meeting whether any part of or all of its business that day shall be conducted in private'; and that the Standing Order, as amended, shall have permanent effect from 1st January 2009.'.

I should also like to move amendment (a) to motion 9.

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Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Amendment (a) to motion 9 will be dealt with formally at the end of proceedings. However, that does not prevent the right hon. Lady from speaking about it.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I intended only to speak about amendment (a) to motion 9.

The Deputy Leader of the House claims that amendment (a) to motion 8 is not fundamentally about whether the European Scrutiny Committee should meet in public or private, but it is precisely about that. It is about whether the House's deliberations on European legislation should be open and transparent, with members of the public able to come in to hear and see the decisions that hon. Members make about the importance or otherwise of European legislation.

It is a great pity that casual readers of the Government's motion would think that it was merely about confirming some small changes to the way in which the House scrutinises European legislation. I am happy to support the changes. Indeed, I believe that the House should go considerably further—I have published a document and proposals on the matter, but they are for another day. However, the casual reader would miss the fact that the Government are trying to take the Committee back to the position that pertained before our debate on 7 February. They are trying to reconsider whether the deliberations of the European Scrutiny Committee, when it is determining the importance of legislation from the European Commission for the House and the country, should be available and open to members of the public or be carried out behind closed doors.

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Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

The right hon. Lady knows that no other Committee deliberates in public. What is so special about the European Scrutiny Committee that it should do so in public, and what effect would that have on the advisers to the Committee? Is it not the case that the real scrutiny is done when legislation undergoes further scrutiny in the European Committee or Select Committee?

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman asks about the difference between the European Scrutiny Committee and the other Committees mentioned by the Deputy Leader of the House when he was talking about the normal procedures of the House. I was about to make the point that I disagree with the Government's position precisely because the European Scrutiny Committee is very different from other Select Committees. The other Select Committees take evidence in public on issues, and then they decide what they are going to say about those issues. The European Scrutiny Committee is completely different. It decides the importance of the legislation from Europe that constitutes 50 to 70 per cent. of the legislation passed in this country. That is very different from the normal job of a Select Committee.

Labour Members get very excited about this issue, but it has long been my view that one of the problems in the debate about European legislation is that many people feel that it is something that is done to us, without this Parliament giving it any proper scrutiny. The figures show that of the 1,000 or so documents that the European Scrutiny Committee sees each year, only some 500 are considered to be significant and only some 50 receive proper scrutiny and debate. It is my firm belief that if we opened up the process to show what the House is doing on European legislation, it would be valuable in showing the public the role that the House plays. We should go further in scrutinising European legislation, but the debate today is about the European Scrutiny Committee.

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Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Labour, Streatham

Is the right hon. Lady aware of the note from the Library that reveals that a maximum of 10 per cent. of the statutory instruments considered by the House originate in Europe? Can she offer the House the evidence she has for her assertion that 60 to 70 per cent. of our legislation originates in Europe?

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I am tempted to say to the right hon. Gentleman that I am happy to offer supporting evidence, but I am sure that some of my hon. Friends will also be happy to provide it.

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Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells

The 50 per cent. estimate is an underestimate. It is more like 80 per cent.—at least, that was the conclusion of the Bundestag committee that examined this issue. It is not only statutory instruments that implement EU legislation: all EU regulations are implemented directly, without any implementing legislation, although that is done under the authority of this House. If we take into account the totality of statute and regulation, the figure is nearly 80 per cent., and my right hon. Friend was being characteristically modest and cautious in her estimate.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I bow to my right hon. Friend's superior knowledge of this issue as he has spent rather more time on it.

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Photo of Adrian Bailey Adrian Bailey PPS (Rt Hon Bob Ainsworth, Minister of State), Ministry of Defence

Does the right hon. Lady believe that the advice given by the civil servants to the Committee should be subject to public debate? If so, does she think that that will affect the nature of that advice?

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I have thought long and hard about this particular issue. As hon. Members will see, and as I did in the amendment that was accepted by the Government and the House as a whole in February, I would provide the opportunity for the Committee to meet in private when that is considered necessary. I accept that there will be some issues, perhaps relating to national security, when that will be important. Therefore, the Committee needs to have that option available to it.

I take a different view from Mr. Bailey on what would happen in relation to the advice. It is important that people have an opportunity not only to see proceedings in person by coming to the Committee, as the constituent of my hon. Friend Mr. Hands has been trying to do, but to read the official record the deliberations of the Committee, and therefore be able to see why it has taken decisions about the importance of certain documents.

Labour Members have said, "Ah, but the proper debate takes place when the documents get to other Committees," but this is a sifting process. It is therefore important for people to see decisions taken by this Parliament as to which documents require further discussion by the Parliament and which do not, and which are dismissed as things that can simply be cleared through the House without the House taking any further interest in them, as well as why those decisions have been taken.

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Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Does my right hon. Friend believe that it is a massive own goal by those who would argue in favour of Europe that they are cloaking their proceedings in secrecy? That is completely at odds with what the Government said in our Lisbon debates, when they talked about a new relationship between national Parliaments and the EU. The first thing they do is insist on secrecy in discussing these documents.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. As I said, it has long been my view that the process of helping members of the public to understand a little more about what happens in Europe and the decisions that come out of it is part of showing what the House does and what takes place in it. Secrecy in the House only makes people think even more that we have no say in what is happening in the EU.

I say to all those on the Labour Benches and all those around the House who believe strongly in full participation in the EU that opening up this Committee is part—one small part—of showing people that this Parliament does have a say and takes its job seriously.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I have a very small point to raise with the shadow Leader of the House. To use the word "secret" is improper: on a weekly basis, the Committee publishes every single report on any document that is considered, and those reports are available to the public, so it cannot be secret. Things may happen in private, but she should not call it secret, or she is saying that every deliberation of every Committee is secret. If a Committee publishes its results, they cannot be secret.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

What is not revealed to the public—I thank the hon. Gentleman—is the discussion that takes place within the Committee as to the purposes of the Committee.

I recognise that some important reports have been published by the Committee. For example, the report on the statutory reserve in relation to the Lisbon treaty was significant, but I still believe that the process and discussion on the sifting of those documents should take place in public. The presumption should be that the Committee meet in public. That is why my amendment is worded as it is. The presumption is that it would meet in public and start its meetings in public. If it chose to go into private session, people could see that as well.

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Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick PPS (Rt Hon Jack Straw, Lord Chancellor), Ministry of Justice

Contrary to what the right hon. Lady said earlier in highlighting the difference between this Select Committee and others, this Committee takes evidence from Ministers and regularly debates things in full view of the public. In talking about Europe being "done" to this country, she seems to forget that there is a European Parliament to which people from the UK are directly elected to deliberate on our behalf, see everything that is produced by the Commission and vote on legislation, in some cases before it even gets to the House. I cannot understand the right hon. Lady's logic. Would not some of her Back-Bench colleagues wish to grandstand on many of these issues because they are not winning the arguments in the House?

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

If the hon. Gentleman disputes my comments about the general public's views about what happens in this House to legislation from Brussels, he should ask people on the street what they think. The majority of people in this country believe that European legislation just comes out of Brussels and that Parliament does not play a proper— [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman says that those beliefs are not true, but in that case he should support my amendment, so that people can see that it is not true. That is the whole point of what I have proposed.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Government Equalities Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Will the shadow Leader of the House tell us whether she visited the European Scrutiny Committee last year in its previous incarnation, whether she has visited it this year and if so, whether she noticed any difference, as my hon. Friend Kelvin Hopkins described?

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The Deputy Leader of the House asks that question because he knows the answer. I have not visited the European Scrutiny Committee; I have, however, spoken in some depth to those who serve on it. They do not just visit the Committee, but take part in all its meetings—we will come shortly to the impact that the debate that we had on 7 February and the motion that we passed then has had on the Committee's meetings.

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Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Parliamentary Private Secretary To the Leader of the Opposition

Is the difficulty not so much that the Committee wants to hide its deliberations on so many European documents behind a cloak of secrecy, but that it wants to give the impression that there are no such deliberations? Huge reams of material go through entirely unscrutinised and on the nod, and if people saw that in public, they would never stand for it.

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Hello Mr Swayne, I'm one of your constituents and receive "they work for you" emails. I was pleased and almost surprised to read that you are questioning the openess and scrutiny applied to the multitude of EU...

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that extremely important point. The precise point is that people should be able to see what is happening. As it happens, my proposals to change European scrutiny would give the House much greater abilities to scrutinise European legislation in a variety of ways. [ Interruption. ] I hope that my hon. Friend is comfortable now that he is back on the Front Bench.

I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to contribute and I want to make progress. When the House accepted the 7 February change to procedures, there was a presumption that the Committee would meet in public and go into private session only in special and exceptional circumstances. Sadly, what has happened, as evidenced by the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham who has been trying to attend meetings of the Committee, is that meetings have started in private. Members of the public who attend do not know when meetings will be opened up for a public session and they often give up and go away.

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Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Conservative, Hammersmith and Fulham

My right hon. Friend is being generous in giving way again. The situation is even worse than that. Although the Committee starts in private and at a point not determined in advance goes into public session, it also has the right to return to sitting in private at any time thereafter. The meeting could therefore have three stages, which is extremely repellent for any member of the public who wants to attend.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I accept my hon. Friend's point, which is about the frustration both of the desire of those of us who tabled the amendment on 7 February and, I believe, of the will of the House at that time, which was in favour of a presumption that meetings would be held in public. It is important that meetings should start in public.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

No, I am sorry; I will now make progress.

If the Committee decides that it wants to go into private session, people can see that it has taken the deliberate decision to carry on without their being able to see what is being done.

I want briefly to mention motion 9 and amendment (a) to it. The Deputy Leader of the House started by describing how the motion favoured Back Benchers, in that it would reduce the amount of time that Front Benchers have to speak. It is certainly true that the proposal would reduce the amount of time given to Front Benchers in relation to interventions. I also accept the need to ensure that Back Benchers have a suitable amount of time to speak in topical debates.

I do not accept, however, that the Liberal Democrats should be given the same amount of time to speak as the official Opposition. I hope that the House will support my amendment, which would ensure that the conventions— [ Interruption. ] The Deputy Leader of the House laughs, but he was talking about the usual practice of the House earlier, and the usual practice is that the Government and the official Opposition are given the prime time and that the Liberal Democrats are not treated in the same way.

Many other hon. Members wish to speak in the debate. I urge the House to support the amendments that I tabled. It is important to the whole debate about Europe that we open up the procedures of the House on the scrutiny of European legislation and enable members of the public to see those and to read about the deliberations that have taken place in the Committee in the official record. That way, people will be able justifiably to challenge us on what the House does when it comes to European legislation.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee 6:20 pm, 12th November 2008

May I first deal with the calumny of Mr. Swayne? He has probably never asked his hon. Friends who sit on the European Scrutiny Committee to see the paperwork it deals with. Those who take it seriously read every paper. That is the secret of European legislation: reading all the papers. I can assure him, as the Chairman of the Committee, that I read every document that comes, including the explanatory memorandum from the Department concerned and, often, the material that comes from the European Union, as do many other members of the Committee. That could be one of the problems: it is a heavy load to lift, and when people become involved in it, they can become somewhat obsessed.

I want to put it on record that it is not correct that in the February debate the House agreed that the Committee should meet in public in such a way that would not protect the members of staff of the House—they are not civil servants—who give us advice. Therefore, we had to construct a method—I believe that I said on the record that we could construct a system whereby we could get information from our advisers without their becoming, as my hon. Friend Kelvin Hopkins said, the cat's paw of the European scrutiny process—that ensured that it is the Committee, not the staff, that is reported. We have a private sitting in which we question the staff who put together their advice on the letters—the correspondence section—and the explanatory memorandums that we receive. The latter involves questions on A briefs, which, as has been said, are politically and economically important, and B briefs, which are considered not to be politically important, even if people sometimes decide that they should come back as A briefs so that they can be formally reported to the House. That was the construction.

If Members were serious about the public attending—I am talking specifically about the Members who keep telling us that their constituents are banging down the door to get in—they would not talk at such great length and keep the public out. If we look at reports of Committee meetings, we see that the public sittings run for 10 or 15 minutes and, even if they are longer, they are certainly less than half an hour. However, reports of private sittings, in which Opposition Members who are obsessed about Europe talk at great length—on many occasions they talk off the subject, just to show that they know about everything to do with Europe—show that sittings can last for more than two hours. Mr. Hands said that his constituents sit outside gasping to come in, but they are kept out by the very Members who are supposed to want them in. That is truth of what happens: it has turned into a farce.

If the shadow Leader of the House and her deputy—Mrs. May and Mr. Vara—had accepted the invitation that I put to them in writing to come to the meetings, as the former Deputy Leader of the House, my hon. Friend Helen Goodman and the present Deputy Leader of the House did, they would see that public meetings are greatly delayed by the activities of Opposition Members who cannot seem to stop themselves grandstanding on every issue .

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

If the hon. Gentleman is so enthusiastic about members of the public being able to see what is happening in his Committee, as Chairman of the Committee he can to move into the public session earlier. The deliberations of my hon. Friend Mr. Cash—if that is who he is implying—or other members of the Committee would then be in public.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

If the right hon. Lady looks back at the debate, she will find that the House decided that we should protect officials of the House when they give us advice. That is not possible unless we go through the process. We must treat their advice seriously, but in private sittings I have seen members of my Committee arguing, sometimes three or four times, to try to get an official to change the recommendation that they stand by. That is not what the Committee is about, but that is what is happening.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I am going to continue.

Let me explain what the Committee does. We decide whether— [Interruption.] I am not giving way yet. We decide whether something is economically or politically important and whether it should be sent somewhere else for further scrutiny. We do that after correspondence, which is dealt with as a private matter—the correct way to deal with ongoing correspondence with a Minister—and we do it by calling for evidence from a Minister, who defends the Government's position in front of us. That happens if we think the Government are taking a wrong decision and breaking a scrutiny reserve. Alternatively, we send it for a debate—a public debate that any Member, not just those in the European Scrutiny Committee or other relevant Committees, can attend. We sometimes send a matter to the Floor of the House for debate and we sometimes produce specific reports. The shadow Leader of the House mentioned our recent report on the Lisbon treaty and another recent one on subsidiarity; those are public documents.

I believe that those processes can be undertaken without any need for the public to attend. I am quite sorry that we have reached this position, because we have failed to deliver a system that protects our officers and at the same time allows the Committee to function properly. We had an informal meeting on that, but certain Members who talk at great length did not bother to turn up to discuss with our officials—in confidence and in private—how to modify the system. They did not turn up, so we brought it back to a public sitting of the Committee and put a resolution to the Leader of House that, in line with the normal practice of Select Committees, we should deliberate in private. That is the fact of the matter.

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Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is an excellent Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, that the status quo is not sustainable. However, does he agree with me that going back to meeting largely in private, other than when evidence is being taken, will not be understood by the public? Although it may cause problems for the advisers, who may feel that they cannot be as open as they could if we met in public all the time, does not the hon. Gentleman accept that, on balance—it is a fine judgment call—it is much better to meet in public than in private?

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I would have thought that over the past 10 years we could have introduced a system to achieve that. The shadow Leader of the House failed to say that Labour Members accepted an agreement to try to work out a system and not to force the Standing Order amendment that was on the Order Paper in February. That system might have worked and might have been a move in the right direction, but we did not get the chance to try it because the Standing Order was forced on to the Order Paper the night before—as in the present case—and very late in the day when many Members had already been allowed to go home to their families. They were not in the House; that is the truth of it.

This time, we have to face reality. I would love to work our way out of this. I do not know whether the Conservative party wants to allow its Members to get it out of their system every week by regaling our Committee. People who read the papers are told what is in the papers by Opposition Members and then the arguments go on interminably—a good word that the shadow Leader of the House used—in Committee. We thus do not get to the point, which is to discuss not the merits but the importance of a document in order to get it sent to the appropriate place for further discussion. The failure has resulted from the way in which the Committee has been treated by Conservative Members. I am sorry about that, but the only way forward I can see is to deliberate in private, and then perhaps to have a sensible discussion about how we can move towards a better system so that the public get the chance to see all we do. I wonder how many Opposition Members, apart from Committee members, have read the weekly chapters in these documents. How many of them have read the reports produced by Hansard? Very few have done so.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

Will the hon. Gentleman take up an invitation that I extend to him? In return for having all these proceedings in public, could the public have the right to decide whether the so-called interminable arguments, to which he refers, are justified or not? A number of recent documents got through only through his casting vote.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I think that my casting vote was always given on the recommendation of the Committee's officials, because I respect their ability and judgment and the way in which they have supported my Committee.

Let me say, in finality—

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Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Does he agree that at the heart of the debate is the question of whether the desirability of the Committee's holding all its sittings in public—which, if it included the advice given by Committee officials, could restrict the clarity of that advice and pose the risk that the Committee would make poorer decisions—should outweigh the fact that if the officials give their advice in private, they can be open and blunt and better decisions may result? Is that not the balance that the House must strike? Angus Robertson has clearly concluded that he would prefer these issues to be dealt with in public, with the risk that the Committee will make poorer decisions. I take a different view, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend would like to comment.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

As I said at the outset, and as I have said all along, for as long as I have been a member of the Committee I have inclined to the idea that we should open up and add the public to what we already have, which is a fairly disciplined process in the private sessions. Adding the public sessions has turned our business into something completely different. I regret that, because I must now step back and say that if I want the Committee to work efficiently, and if I want Members to take the business seriously without being regularly harangued, we must return to private sessions.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I did say "in finality".

My final point is not about what happens in the Committee. I still regret the fact that, under the Standing Orders, we no longer have three European Standing Committees with fixed membership. That would have allowed us to have 15 or 16 Members on those three Committees who would learn about European business, and would regularly bring that experience to our Committee. That is how I came on to the Committee, but now there is an ad hoc system of appointing members, and all that we have to supplement that membership are the two European Scrutiny Committee members. They give our Committee direction, and I support the idea that members should come from the "subject" Committees, but the fact remains that they already possess knowledge of Europe and European business. We are not training a new set of people in European business, as we used to when there was set membership of the three Standing Committees.

Nevertheless, although I deeply regret that, I support the Government within the confines of the motion.

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Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen Conservative, Totnes

I feel that I must make a confession. As Mr. Hood will recall, I set the hare running when I observed that there were enough Tory Members to defeat the Labour Members. As a result, we tabled a motion proposing that we meet in public.

I have been a Committee member since those early days, and I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman agrees with the following propositions. First, the present system does not work. Secondly, we need to be more open. Thirdly, we have not found a way of ensuring that that happens, and we must do so. Perhaps we should attempt to adjourn this debate, and have a discussion outside about how we can do it.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I recognise the hon. Gentleman's substantial diplomatic skills. I think that if we had approached the situation in that manner when the Leader of the House made the offer in February, we might have made some progress rather than finding ourselves in the present impasse. I deeply regret that too, and I hope that Members will support the Government in the Lobby.

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Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport 6:34 pm, 12th November 2008

I wish to deal with an issue which, although it is occupying a smaller part of the debate, is as important as the rest—topical debates. We welcome the Government amendments. We particularly welcome the provision of 10 minutes rather than six, principally because that is the procedure followed in other parts of the House such as Westminster Hall, and we see no reason for it to be rejected. As for the Conservative amendment, I think it particularly mean that more Conservative Front Benchers than Liberal Democrat Front Benchers will always be called to speak because of the balance of membership in the House, and the ratio of those who are likely to catch the Speaker's eye will be three or four to one. That is in the nature of things.

We need a more open way of deciding the subject of the topical debate. In April, the Procedure Committee recommended the following:

"A topical debate business committee should be established which would be responsible for the scheduling of and choice of subject for topical debates. Its membership should include backbenchers and business managers. Its chairman should be a backbencher."

Will the Deputy Leader of the House consider that? Alternatively, will he explain why that recommendation cannot be implemented? He may conclude that he does not want to go down that path, but does he recognise that if we do not use a cross-party business committee to choose the subject, more needs to be done to improve the transparency of this selection process? Members need to know the rationale behind the choices made, because the subjects sometimes do not appear to be inherently topical. Tomorrow, we shall debate obesity, but I am unsure as to why, all of a sudden, that should be the subject of a topical debate, despite its importance.

Let me turn to the substantive issue of the quality of debate in the European Scrutiny Committee. I have sat on the Committee for just over three years, and I served on European Standing Committees for four years before that. I take the point made by the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, Michael Connarty, that those Committees were a good training ground. I wish that we could return to a situation where people served some time on them, and perhaps we could consider that. As he will recall, the problem was that Members who were put on to the European Standing Committees felt as though they were being sent to Siberia—they felt as though they were being punished by the Whips by being made to serve on those Committees for a long time. Whether or not that was a misperception on the part of some Members, the system had its merits, and we need to examine how that structure worked.

As the shadow Leader of the House has mentioned, there needs to be a still wider debate on how we undertake scrutiny in this House. Denmark joined what is now the EU at the same time as the UK, but it has a far more robust system of scrutiny, as do all the new countries that have joined. [Hon. Members: "No they don't!"] A number of them do. Finland has a robust system, of which the Modernisation Committee was enamoured when it visited that country—it was the basis for one of the proposals as to how we reform scrutiny, but that was rejected. Both the previous and existing Chairs of the European Scrutiny Committee are in the Chamber, and they, like other Members who have served on it, know that proposals have been made on this matter. The shadow Leader of the House made a series of proposals that would have brought Members of the European Parliament to sit alongside us. That seemed to go down fairly well in certain circles until it reached the Whips, who seemingly decided that they could not control what was emerging and so it was flattened.

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Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen Conservative, Totnes

In the hon. Gentleman's mind, does "robust" equal open or open to the public? Why does he think that serving on those Committees was like being in Siberia? Some people enjoyed being on them.

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Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport

Some people love going to Siberia. The process must be robust and open. Robust does not, of itself, mean open.

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Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick PPS (Rt Hon Jack Straw, Lord Chancellor), Ministry of Justice

The hon. Gentleman, I think, served on the Committee when I did. We visited the Folketing in Copenhagen to look at its methods of scrutiny. I agree totally that that Parliament is far more robust and rigorous in how it scrutinises European legislation, but I would say that this Parliament is second after the Folketing out of the 27 member states of the EU.

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Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport

I think that the hon. Gentleman and I disagree on that, although we have improved in the UK. When Mr. Hood chaired the Committee, the business was always dealt with very promptly. We went through all the A briefs and B briefs very efficiently. The change in chairmanship, to Michael Connarty, enabled us to become far more robust in challenging the system than we were before. That has been welcome. The changes that the Government have tried to make to scrutiny have also been an attempt to open up the process, which is also welcome.

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Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

I do not know whether I am feeling nostalgic or whether the hon. Gentleman is, but I want to correct him on one point and to disagree with my hon. Friend Mr. Hendrick. The Folketing committee is not the best scrutinising committee in the EU. It was always my argument that this Parliament had the best scrutinising Committee in the EU. The Folketing committee mandates the Minister and the Prime Minister, and—guess what—the Prime Minister sets up who is on that committee. It does what it is directed to do by the Prime Minister; it does not scrutinise.

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Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport

The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that that never happens here—

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Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport

He says that it was sarcastic, just to make it very clear.

The Committee has tried and is trying a lot harder. The current chairmanship is very demanding. When Ministers try to use the override to push through legislation without coming to the Committee, the Committee has called them to account and does so, in my view, more than it used to, which is welcome.

The main questions are whether the proceedings should be conducted in public or private and whether the deliberations should be secret, even though the decisions are not. There are unquestionably problems with the system. Should we get rid of that system and sit in private? As Angus Robertson said earlier, the public will not understand that and it is not acceptable.

Alternatively, should we try to resolve the problem with the terms on which private sessions were conducted? The Chairman of the Committee has figures that show that for every 15 minutes of public session, we could have an hour or an hour and a half of private argument and debate. I have no difficulty in saying that some members of the Committee tried to hold a debate in that session when they should have been asking the advisers questions. The result was that we had rather over-long discussions in what was meant to be a question session rather than having those discussions before the question session. If those people strongly believe that the debate should be held in public, they ought to restrain themselves and hold that debate in public. If they repeat in the private session what they want to say again later, it means that we get the full force of the argument twice, which is not necessary for the Committee to reach conclusions. That difficulty must be overcome. I know from the meetings in the past couple of weeks that the process has shortened. The Committee should support the amendment tabled by Mrs. May and review the change at a later date to see whether it can be made to work.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Has the hon. Gentleman read the detail of the amendment? It says that when every Committee meets, the first thing that it has to do is decide at that time whether to meet in private or in public on certain issues. That, I think, would lead to a point scoring process. Certain members would turn up hoping to bounce the Chairman to make the decision to meet in public at exactly 2.30. We would then have the problem of how to get advice from our advisers, and we could end up with full public sessions. The amendment is badly scripted.

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Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport

That is not my understanding of how the amendment would work. Even if it did work as the hon. Gentleman has described, I am fairly certain that the Government Whips would make sure that Labour Members were there in time to save themselves from being ambushed. I do not believe that members of the Committee would do as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

We need to discuss how the evidence from the advisers is taken. I do not propose that we should hold that debate now, or that the advice should be given to us in public. However, it is something that we need to explore and consider, which is why I moved an amendment to that effect when we were debating this matter in Committee a couple of weeks ago.

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Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport

Mr. Steen supports our going into private session but asks how we would do what I suggest. I can tell him that I do not know, but that it is something that we need to discuss. I do not have an instant answer to his question.

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Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen Conservative, Totnes

The hon. Gentleman says that I am in favour of going back into private session, but that is not entirely true. I am in favour of making the whole Committee public, but that will not work with our present system of advisers and briefs, which is why I oppose the present arrangements. We need to work out a way to enable the Committee to sit entirely in public, which is very different from what the hon. Gentleman proposes. He is still sitting on the fence: people would love to know what the Liberal Democrats believe, but they have been waiting for that for some years.

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Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport

I think that it is the hon. Gentleman who is sitting very firmly on the fence on this matter. He voted for the Committee to meet in private, but says that he wants it to meet in public. Our decisions are taken according to how we vote, and the hon. Gentleman voted for our meetings to be in private. He continues to do so, so I think that it is clear where he stands on the matter.

Finally, we believe that the Committee can be made to work in public, and that it should do so. I believe that it is a disgrace that we are looking to meet in private, which is something that the public will not understand. Every year, 1,000 documents of European legislation go through the Committee. The process of how we decide whether a document is important enough to be referred to this House should not be kept secret. It has to be transparent, and that is what we are proposing.

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Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Labour, Streatham 6:47 pm, 12th November 2008

I rise to support the motion on European scrutiny in the name of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House. However, as a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, I wish to explain why I oppose the amendment in the name of the shadow Leader of the House and others, the purpose of which appears to be to create a presumption in favour of the Committee meeting in public, for all or part of its proceedings.

Of course, I accept that as far as possible Parliament should operate with a high degree of transparency, but there is a balance to be struck between transparency and efficiency. Since February this year, the European Scrutiny Committee has experimented with meeting partly in private and partly in public. I am afraid that that experiment has failed, and I shall explain why.

My hon. Friend Michael Connarty, our very good Chairman, has set out already the principles that guide our arrangement of the Committee. In order to protect the confidentiality of the recommendations from our advisers, we agreed that the first part of our meetings should take the form of an information-seeking session in private, while the second—and public—part should deal with making decisions about the contents of our reports to the House.

However, that arrangement has not worked as we might have desired. It has considerably and quite unnecessarily protracted our proceedings. More often than not, the length of our meetings has doubled. On two recent occasions, the arrangement that I have described has quintupled the amount of time taken before we began the experiment. Moreover, it has led to unacceptable levels of repetition in our proceedings. The public part of the meeting has become a simple repetition of the exchanges in the private part. That is a simple waste of time, and it is certainly very tedious.

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Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Labour, Streatham

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but other colleagues also wish to contribute to the debate, so I shall not give way often following his intervention.

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Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Conservative, Hammersmith and Fulham

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he not see that the easy solution to this duplication problem is to return to the resolution of the whole House on 7 February, which was that the majority of these meetings should be held entirely in public? He would then abolish the duplication of the two separate sessions. It would be so much easier just to meet in public, rather than meeting in two parts.

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Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Labour, Streatham

The hon. Gentleman has often expressed those views both in Committee and the Chamber. For the reasons that I intend to set out, it is simply unacceptable that we should conduct our entire proceedings in public.

It is tedious for Members to experience the repetition in the public session of arguments that we have already heard in private session, but I would accept that MPs being bored might not be a great sacrifice if there were a great public demand to observe our proceedings. However, there is no such demand. Public attendance has ranged from non-existent to minimal. It may be argued—Mr. Hands has done so—that such poor attendances result from the unpredictable timing of the public session, but I have to report that, with the exception of the constituent whom he mentioned, no Committee member has received any expression of discontent from members of the public who are frustrated in their desire to view our proceedings.

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Several hon. Members:

rose —

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Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Labour, Streatham

I said that I wanted to allow other Members to come in, and I especially wish Opposition Members to do so. I shall give way now to my hon. Friend Mr. Bailey.

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Photo of Adrian Bailey Adrian Bailey PPS (Rt Hon Bob Ainsworth, Minister of State), Ministry of Defence

Given the passion with which Opposition Members have argued for conducting business in public session, does my right hon. Friend share my bafflement that a study of the timing of their contributions in the meetings reveals that a greater part of them have been in private session, and that they have not utilised the public session?

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Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Labour, Streatham

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and I must say that we have had a very candid and frank set of exchanges on this matter. The great bulk of the expansion in the time of the Committee's proceedings has occurred in the private, rather than the public, session.

The truth is that we have instituted a grossly inefficient procedure, and for no good reason, as there is no public demand to observe our proceedings. Also, since there is no evidence to suggest that the public are interested in our proceedings—as opposed to our conclusions, which are published—there can be no justification for making public the entirety of our proceedings, because that would entail placing on the public record the private views and recommendations of our lay advisers, and some of us believe that that would be bound in time to affect the quality of the advice that they offer us. I also remind the House that it would be unprecedented for utterances of non-elected persons—whom we must remember are advisers, not witnesses—to form a large part, if not the bulk, of the written record of a Committee. I think the House will want to ponder long and hard before going down that path.

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Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen Conservative, Totnes

Before the right hon. Gentleman moves on from his last point, may I say a few words? As a new boy to the Committee, he has been very much welcomed because he has brought a freshness and a different approach to its work as both a former Minister and an adviser to the Prime Minister. Is his objection to the public session to do with the advice that the advisers give us, and if we could overcome that stumbling block, would he be open to the idea of making the Committee public? Or is his point that the Committee is really just a signposting Committee, so he believes that we never need to meet in public, because all we do is direct various directives into the public domain for discussion? I just want to get that clear, if I may.

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Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Labour, Streatham

The hon. Gentleman, with his usual prescience, anticipates an argument that I intend to develop. I am grateful for his extremely warm words; he has been a significant influence on me, a new boy on the Committee, and on my understanding of its proceedings.

Just over three weeks ago, the Committee published its report on subsidiarity. In the past 12 months or slightly more, the Committee has also published reports on the Lisbon treaty and on the scrutiny function. Like any departmental Select Committee report, our reports include the full transcripts of our witness sessions, witness depositions, and the record of voting in the Committee. Proceedings were also held in public, as are the Committee's occasional sessions with Ministers. In other words, when the European Scrutiny Committee operates as a regular Select Committee, its proceedings are entirely transparent. No Committee member has a problem with that, and there is no resistance to public sessions, where they are appropriate. However, that is not the normal work of the Committee.

The greater part of our activity is not concerned with policy formation, or even the investigation of policy. That is exactly the point made by Mr. Steen. Also, for the most part, we do not set our own agenda. We receive and filter documents, and we inform the House. The European Scrutiny Committee is not the stage for great debates about the rights and wrongs of European legislation; the places for that are the European Standing Committees and the Floor of the House. On the contrary, we make a technical judgment about documents sent to us, and we report our conclusions weekly to the House in the form of our reports—there is no attempt to disguise our conclusions there—which are available in the Vote Office. In other words, we are, as the hon. Gentleman has described it, a service Committee.

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Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Labour, Streatham

I have already used that adjective; I am now describing it as a service Committee. The Committee was set up to facilitate the House's work in respect of the issues and initiatives arising from the European Union. Essentially, what we do each week is agree a Select Committee report to the House—a process, by the way, that occurs in private in every other Select Committee. The most precise comparators for the European Scrutiny Committee are not the departmental Select Committees but the House's functional or domestic Select Committees—the Administration Committee, the Finance and Services Committee, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and even the Committee of Selection. The point is that those are deliberative Committees. They meet in private, and everybody accepts that. There is a well-worn adage about the work of the House—deliberate in private, legislate in public. It is good advice and a good motto, and it should apply to the work of the European Scrutiny Committee.

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Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells 6:58 pm, 12th November 2008

I strongly object to the short time allocated to this important debate. I do not believe that the Leader of the House or her deputy have really done much to stand up for the rights and privileges of this institution. The whole procedure today appears to be very much driven by the Government's requirements, and the short time allocated for this debate is a reflection of that.

The core issue in this short debate about the European scrutiny system is openness against secrecy. As usual, the friends of secrecy deploy a lot of self-serving arguments, as they have always done. I am quite sure that in the 18th century the same arguments were deployed against allowing reporters to enter the Chamber and take away records and accounts of proceedings. The argument was that the integrity and candour of debate would be undermined if the public were allowed to know what went on. That is a poor argument—and, today, a very damaging one, because there is an acknowledged gap between the public and the political system. Nowhere is that greater than in respect of European business.

Throughout the debates about the European constitution and the treaty of Lisbon, it was asserted by Ministers—by the Government—that we had to ventilate the system and allow people in to see what was done on their behalf. They do not know what is going on in secretive committees in the European Union such as the article 133 committee that sets our trade policy, because only officials sit on it and no minutes are published. It is here that people want to know what is done in their name, and although the European Union is secretive in its deliberations, there is no absolutely no need for us to replicate that secrecy in our own proceedings.

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Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader

Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the strongest argument against meeting in public is that it would somehow impinge on the independent advice that we receive from our advisers? But, for the record, does the House not appreciate that it would be useful if the advice that we received in advance of meetings came with the telephone number of the advisers in question, so that, should we have any queries about explanatory memorandums, we might take them up with the advisers in advance of the meeting, which could then take place entirely in public?

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Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells

The hon. Gentleman makes a very creative suggestion, which the Government have not even considered. Of course we want to protect our advisers from giving confidential advice that may be damaging, but in this country we have a culture of secrecy, and official Britain needs to roll back its frontiers. It was not very long ago that the advice given by magistrates clerks in court was secret; now it is public. It was not very long ago that planning officers gave their advice to a committee only in private; now it is public. The roof did not fall in and civilisation did not end. It ought to become part of the national culture to take people along with us—to allow them to see what is done on their behalf. Of course there is an institutional tension, as there should be, between the House and the Executive, because our Clerk advisers and legal advisers quite properly give us advice that does not always accord with the advice given by Ministers, but that is a healthy part of the debate, and we should not be ashamed of it.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

Taking up the point just made by Angus Robertson, I must say that it would not be by any means impossible for us to have two completely separate sessions at which we dealt with the question of advice with the Clerks on the one hand and then went into public sitting. We would not need to telephone the Clerks, because we would have two separate sessions. It is perfectly simple—no problem at all. The following session would be open to the public, and open for broadcasting, as it could be and often is.

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Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells

My hon. Friend makes a constructive suggestion; he has lengthy experience on the Committee. What is true is that, currently, we treat the public with contempt. They read and are told that our proceedings at some point—the phrase is "when convenient"—will be opened to the public. But that is for our convenience, not that of the public. My hon. Friend Mr. Hands gave us an example of when they do turn up. A constituent wrote to him, saying that he had gone to the Committee and had had to wait half an hour or an hour before being admitted. On more than one occasion, we have actually moved to consider a draft report and put back by another half an hour the time at which the public can be admitted. This is not our Parliament, however. The public sent us here, they pay our salary, this is a democracy and they ought to come first. They ought to be permitted, allowed, encouraged, indeed, to watch what we try to do on their behalf. The importance is obvious, and the point has already been made that more than half the legislation in this country originates from the European Union. Even the Government admit to that figure, but I believe that it is higher than that. The dominant influence on our legislation and regulations comes from the European Union.

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Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that some common sense has been injected into the debate with the acceptance that the official advice should be private to us? Perhaps our debate about the issues should be public, but the crucial thing is that the advice should be in private so that the officials remain private people and do not become public, political figures. That would be the problem.

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Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells

I have already given examples of other public bodies, such as magistrates courts and planning committees, in which what was once secret is now public—to the general benefit. I do not accept that all advice should be given in private. That should be done exceptionally, when the case for doing so is made. The case could be about national security or commercial confidentiality, or the advisers might say that they wished to give sensitive advice that could be given only in private.

However, the case should be made on each and every occasion. The presumption should be that this vital Committee, which is a conduit for more than half of all the legislative procedures in this country, should be open to the public and that the press and public can be admitted as of right. I make that modest request on behalf of the people who send us here, and I strongly support the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend Mrs. May.

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Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North 7:06 pm, 12th November 2008

I have prepared a longer speech, but I have only about one minute. I have listened to the debate with interest, but I believe that we should do everything to ensure that our official advice stays private and confidential—to protect the advisers, who would otherwise become political figures. They would be identified as Eurosceptics or Euroenthusiasts, and the advice would not be as objective and robust as what we get at the moment. Such objective and robust advice is crucial.

I speak as a profound critic of the European Union who takes a view similar to that of many Conservative Members about the importance of retaining parliamentary democracy and not handing over power to Brussels and bureaucrats. What we have now actually works. One of the reasons why I so enjoy being a member of the European Scrutiny Committee is that we have absolutely first-class written and oral papers and first-class advice from our five advisers and legal adviser. If they became public in any way, we would end up with bland advice that was less robust. The Euroenthusiasts, who no doubt want to run rings around people such as myself, would have a field day.

I support Government Front Benchers strongly on this matter. If we can find a way of making our debates about Europe more public, that will be fine. However, we must, above all, protect our advisers so that they can give free, robust and objective advice about all matters European. I, for one, think that what they do now is first class and of fundamental importance to our democracy. They ensure that we understand what is going on in Europe, and that the Euroenthusiasts—many of whom are on my side of the House—do not run rings around people such as me.

I have had only a brief time to speak, but I wanted to make my point.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone 7:08 pm, 12th November 2008

Very briefly, Madam Deputy Speaker [Laughter.]

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Madam Deputy Speaker proceeded to put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [this day].

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Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 195, Noes 201.

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Division number 323 Deferred Division — European Scrutiny (Standing Orders)

Aye: 194 MPs

No: 201 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

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Question accordingly negatived.

Madam Deputy Speaker then proceeded to put the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.

Main Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That the amendments to Standing Order No. 119 and the amendments to nomenclature in the Standing Orders agreed to by this House on 7th February 2008, shall have permanent effect from 1st January 2009.

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