‘(1) A statement laid before Parliament under section 5 of this Act shall be accompanied with all relevant documentation on the treaty or decision concerned, including all amendments sponsored by Ministers and other member states during negotiation of the treaty or decision.
(2) All decisions which as a result of any of sections 6 to 10 of this Act require approval by referendum or Act or resolution shall be accompanied with all relevant documentation on the decision concerned, including all amendments sponsored by Ministers and other member states during negotiation of the decision.’.—(Mr Clappison.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time. As another Member who willingly put his name to the new clause, I am delighted to do so.
Members who are familiar with the Second Reading debate and the proceedings in Committee will know that clause 5 is about a statement that must be laid before the House within two months of the conclusion of any of the treaty changes covered by the Bill, as part of the process whereby a referendum takes place. It covers treaty changes in both the ordinary revision procedure—the one with which we are all familiar, involving a convention followed by the full panoply of treaty change and agreement between the nations—and the simplified revision procedure that was introduced by article 48(6) of the treaty of Lisbon, which makes it much easier for the parties to the European Union to bring about treaty change. Under that article, all they need to do is reach an agreement within the Council and then put it to the member states, and unanimity is required for that. It is generally regarded as a measure that speeds up treaty change.
New clause 1 would require much more information to be included in the statement, or to be provided with it. When my friend Ms Stuart drafted the new clause, she may well have had in mind what took place during this House’s proceedings on the treaty of Lisbon, and I certainly had that in mind when I signed it. The then Government advocated all the measures in the treaty of Lisbon to the House—and to the country—but it was revealed during the debate that at the Convention that led to the drafting of the constitutional treaty which later became the Lisbon treaty, they had opposed a number of key proposals.
Is my hon. Friend also conscious of the fact that the Conservative party was, for the first time since 1972, united on that issue, and that it voted consistently against every provision that was worth voting against in the Lisbon treaty, yet subsequently accepted it?
Yes—and not only that, because my hon. Friend is being characteristically modest, as some of the warnings about the consequences that would flow from the treaty of Lisbon have proved right in the short time that has elapsed since its introduction. I am thinking in particular of the warnings that were given about what I regard as the unfortunate influence of the European External Action Service and the EU’s new Foreign Minister, Baroness Ashton, which has not entirely served the interests of this country.
The new clause is excellent. I like the idea that Ministers would have to report that they tried to get an improvement but they lost. Is it also proposed that some of the arguments should be made available, because it would be much more interesting if we knew how badly they had lost?
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Too often decisions are made behind closed doors, certainly in the Council. They are made in a remote and unaccountable way, and members of the public in this country simply do not have the information that they should have to be able to evaluate the decisions taken in their name.
During our debates on the Lisbon treaty, it was striking that time after time we had to remind members of the then Government of what they had said in the Convention about the measures that they were now putting before the House. I cannot remember whether they had opposed the establishment of the EU External Action Service and the EU Foreign Minister—I would not have blamed them if they had—but it emerged on a number of occasions in the debates in the House that Ministers had previously opposed what they were now proposing. That came to light only through the assiduous work of the then Conservative Front-Bench Members, and I pay tribute to them, as well as to colleagues such as my hon. Friend Mr Cash and my right hon. Friend Mr Redwood.
The new clause would remedy this problem, as the fullest possible information would be placed before the House, with the statement, so we would know exactly what had taken place, and whether the Government really agreed with what was being proposed or whether they had lost the arguments and been outvoted. In short, we would know whether we were being called upon to do something with which our democratically elected Government did not agree.
Absolutely—and a referendum on it.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking as if the new clause related to the situation after the negotiations have been completed, but what it actually says is
“during negotiation of the treaty or decision.”
I attended a negotiating skills course some years ago, and I was always advised not to give away my negotiating position during the course of the negotiation. Would not the new clause destroy the British Government’s negotiating position? Is that its intention?
No, because the British Government are representing the British people and the British people should know what is being negotiated on their behalf. This is not a private company trying to make a profit; it is democratically elected Ministers acting on behalf of the people. May I slightly correct the hon. Gentleman? I do not know whether he was in the House at the time, but I certainly recall this, because I was sitting directly behind the Liberal Democrats. That party supported an in/out referendum on the European Union, but it did not support a referendum on the Lisbon treaty itself. I remember that debate taking place. He will correct me if I am wrong, but I recall that although the Liberal Democrats got very agitated about having an in/out referendum, they were not exactly full-hearted in supporting a referendum on the Lisbon treaty.
I stand corrected. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues voted both for and against an in/out referendum, or whether they voted both for and against having a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. I do remember, because it would be hard to forget this, that one of his colleagues was excluded from the Chamber because he got into such a terrible temper about not being able to have an in/out referendum. I am not sure how many of his colleagues supported the amendment that we dealt with several evenings ago proposing an in/out referendum; the Hansard record will doubtless show the number.
The fullest possible information should be available to this House and to the British people so that we know what is really going on. One of the fundamental problems of the European Union is the feeling of disillusionment that people have about its lack of accountability. We do not know what is taking place and being done in our name. The EU is remote and decisions are taken behind closed doors. Some arrangements are entered into beforehand in an entirely private way, with decisions not even being taken at the meetings themselves, but often being taken behind closed doors. We need more information about such matters.
Even as we speak, a gigantic deal is being done in Europe. It is called the “competitiveness package”. It took me an urgent question—thanks to you, Mr Speaker—to elicit the truth about what was going on in European economic governance. What my hon.
Friend says is absolutely right: a tradition of deceit lies behind all this, and it goes right across the whole of Europe.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because he has done the House a service. It was entirely due to him that the contents of the Van Rompuy report, as they affected this country, which they clearly did, were revealed to this House. We look forward to having a fuller debate on those in due course. We want a fuller debate on many other issues, but when a treaty change comes before this House and is the subject of a statement under clause 5 we need to have all the information. We need to have everything out in the open so that we can have a full and well-informed debate.
By way of explanation, Mr Speaker, I think I have fallen victim to my usual habit of reading newspapers from back to front. I apologise for not having been here at the start of the debate, and I thank Mr Clappison for introducing the new clause.
I need to explain the antecedents of the thinking behind the new clause. When I was a Minister I attended meetings of the Council of Ministers, and I knew that it was perfectly impossible for any national Parliament to find out even whether their Minister was there to vote, let alone whether they had made any particular representations. I am sure that I am not the only Minister—people on both sides of the House must have done this—who performed the most amazing U-turns on policy when doing a Council of Ministers stint. I am talking about little notes along the lines of, “The United Kingdom no longer supports amendment 58”—and that was all that was ever said about the matter. There is nothing wrong with that; we do that in politics. But in this House, if the Government perform a U-turn, someone at some stage has to stand at that Dispatch Box and say, “We’ve changed our minds.” They have to give reasons for doing so, and on occasions those are perfectly acceptable. This is the one thing that is completely missing in our dealings with the European Union.
Post-Lisbon, we have made some advances in the information provided for the European Parliament. Although I welcome those provisions, I would challenge even hon. Members to close their eyes and tell me, hand on heart, that they can name all the MEPs who represent their region. I bet that they could not do that; I could not name them all myself. [ Interruption. ] My right hon. Friend Mr MacShane says that he does not even know all the MPs for Birmingham. Fortunately, I could tell him all their names, even in alphabetical order.
Greater accountability comes from information being available. If a national Parliament, for whatever reason, chooses not to follow that up, it is perfectly entitled to make that decision. In the limited confines of the Bill, new clause 1 is an attempt to ensure that all the documentation made available to Ministers is also made available to the House.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I can remember visiting EU Councils as a Minister and discovering that the Council of Ministers often met as a legislature. It was about to enact extremely important laws affecting all our countries, and all that the others and I said was entirely secret and did not have to be shared with the public. That is an absolute disgrace: we need much more transparency.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I negotiated the opt-out for the junior doctors working time directive back in 1999, and in a sense we knew on the negotiating basis all the problems that would happen in the NHS that the UK Government saw coming. We also knew that the directive would not actually hit us until about 2008-09. Now it is here, and everyone here is entitled to say, “We didn’t see it coming.” In fact, on one level we did see it coming.
It is also important for the House to consider the fact that, during the discussions on the Convention on the Future of Europe, I was in the very unusual position of being a negotiating partner at Government level, and also representing the House. Therefore, provided that I used a legal adviser from the House, I could be given the legal advice that was given to the previous Administration.
We should consider the nature and length of debates in the European Union. I deliberately chose the working time directive for junior doctors as an example, because it started in 1992 and started to have legislative impact on this country 10 years later, and only now are we beginning to find out its full effect.
We have now moved from Conservative to Labour to Conservative, and within our Government machinery—[Hon. Members: “Coalition.”] It is okay—the Liberal Democrats came sixth in Barnsley, so there is a ray of hope. Given the veil that falls between one Administration and the next, which hides the accumulated knowledge that could allow parliamentary scrutiny, there must be a mechanism that transcends individual Administrations, which would give the House access to the information that has been given to Ministers. Although new clause 1 is limited, it is nevertheless an important wedge representing that principle.
I understand that the hon. Lady is suggesting not necessarily publishing everything for everyone on this country’s negotiating position, but perhaps listening to Parliament. Am I right in thinking that a similar system exists in Denmark?
Yes and no. I would caution against using the Danish principle, because it mandates Ministers bindingly. No one needs to talk to them when they are sitting round the negotiating table in Brussels, because they know what they will say. They do a head count and say, “The Danes say x.” The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to not publishing all the information, because too much information is also a weapon: people can be drowned in information, and they cannot see the wood for the trees.
The advice given to Ministers should be made public to Parliament, so that Parliament can decide whether it wishes to pursue something. More importantly, that would allow information to move from one Administration to the next, and Parliament could develop the collective memory of responsibility and decision making that is essential in our dealings with the European Union.
We are having an important debate, and the first thing to do is find our national interest in the context of that debate. Otherwise, we will head into treacherous waters. For me, the national interest is to ensure that the Government are able to promote our interests in the best possible way in dealings with our EU partners. Anything less would risk undermining our prospects of promoting the best solutions for Britain in the EU.
I understand some of the reasons why the new clause has been introduced. For example, I see why Members of the European Parliament might be interested in hearing more about the position of the British Government—under the co-determination procedure, they have an interest in knowing more—but we are not Members of the European Parliament; we are Members of this Parliament, and we should be concerned about the accountability of the Government to this Parliament. We have no real interest in giving information to a Parliament that happens to have representation from all the nation states that we would be negotiating with. That is a bad reason for promoting the new clause, and if it was to be further advanced in the House, I would repeat that argument.
There might well be another reason, and I have thought about this myself. The previous speaker, the hon. Member for—
Excellent, a beautiful place. The hon. Lady might well think that the transparency of the Commission is important—indeed, the transparency of the Council of Ministers—and I have certainly thought about this long and hard. I understand why people would wish there to be more transparency in both those organisations. After all, they make decisions that are important to us, but the new clause tackles the issue in the wrong way because it would undermine the Government’s capacity to negotiate. That is what we have to underline.
When the Government enter negotiations with other nation states about the future of Europe, they must do so with the knowledge that they may or may not enter into alliances with various Governments, and that those alliances may change during the negotiations.
Because it is important to bear in mind the next negotiation and not think only about the one we have just had. That is obvious, because alliances can fluctuate and relationships are important. I do not think my right hon. Friend would say the same thing about any negotiation on a treaty outside Europe, and certainly not, for example, about NATO.
The hon. Gentleman is fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of the negotiations. One thing that British Ministers are famous for is the fact that, by the time they go into negotiations, they have reached agreement across Whitehall. Quite often that does not allow us to play a poker game. There is a formed body of opinion that represents the British view, and, after the negotiations, we, as a House, have the right to know.
I would prefer to take the line that it is much more important to consider the outcome. Certainly, the House should be testing the Minister on that outcome and should be able to hold that Minister fully to account for it, but explaining how we got there would be a dangerous route to take.
Order. I have not given way at all. I just want to help the hon. Gentleman to get it right, and I am sure that he will use the correct parliamentary language.
I certainly think it is important for people to know how decisions are made, but it is equally important to ensure that we have the quality of decisions that are best for Britain and that we do not box ourselves in for the future. Many of the decisions made in Departments are not necessarily things that the public need to know before those decisions are implemented and discussed in the House.
My hon. Friend is being exceptionally generous in giving way. The idea of keeping those decisions secret is the reverse of what the Prime Minister wants. In his speech of
Certainly not. The Prime Minister is right to seek transparency wherever it is appropriate and possible. That is a good characteristic of the coalition Government and I welcome it. I can see huge opportunities for more transparency, wherever appropriate. I think the Prime Minister also wants to be sure that his position representing this country or the position of his Ministers representing this country in the Council of Ministers enables them to negotiate, form the appropriate alliances with necessary nation states and deal with matters properly, with the guarantee that trust and understanding are possible. Otherwise we will find that we as a nation state are not respected by our partners. We must be respected on our terms—that is, for promoting our national interest and making sure that what we want to do is achievable.
I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from, and equally, I understand the new clause. The reality is that after any Council meeting, 26 other countries run to their national press to say exactly what the British negotiating position was and what we might have given away. Within about 24 hours, anybody out there can see most of the negotiations that have taken place. I am sure Ms Stuart will understand this point. If we are going for transparency—if the detail of the negotiations is going to be out there anyway—surely it would be easier for the British Government to come back, lay their cards on the table and say how they played their hand.
The role of Ministers in interpreting each other’s decisions and talking to the press later is different from formally disclosing key positions. I do not spend a huge amount of time reading the newspapers, certainly not those produced by Mr Murdoch. I would much prefer the House to test Ministers on the outcomes and make sure that the integrity of the decisions was protected and that the capacity of our Ministers to act independently in the interests of this nation state was upheld. That is why the clause is not helpful.
I understand the motives, as I said at the beginning of my remarks. I can see why people want to have more information about the European Parliament and more transparency in relation to the Commission. It is not a clear structure at the best of times. I can see why more transparency should be required of the Council of Ministers, but the clause is not the right mechanism. The critical issue, as we discussed last time, is to make sure that this House can test Ministers thoroughly and properly at each and every opportunity.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he has done so with charm and good grace and been very generous indeed. He has said a number of times how important it is for the House to hold Ministers to account. How can the House hold Ministers to account if Members do not understand precisely what has been discussed, which then comes before the House? He undermines his own argument, does he not?
No, I do not. The real way of holding Ministers to account is to examine the quality of the decision that has been made and the impact that that decision will have on this country. It would be far better to look at the decision and its implications and understand the reasons for it than to worry too much about why it was made and by whom. That is the key. Too often in this country, we tend to examine the entrails rather than the direction of travel and the implications of the decision that we are supposed to be implementing.
I have one concrete example for the hon. Gentleman: the way we deal with the art market and the extra tax on it. Britain currently has an opt-out, but it is coming up for renewal, which could completely undermine Christie’s and the art market in this country. At what level in this House does he think he will debate the ministerial decision on that?
Order. I am always delighted to be told that I have made a good point when I have done so, and even when I have not, but in this case I have not. The hon. Lady might have done.
May I suggest a much simpler piece of logic to explain why the new clause would probably not be helpful? If the hon. Gentleman has ever attended a European Committee, whose members are supplied with a large volume of documentation that they are supposed to read before debating the issue and taking a position when voting, he will realise that most do not read it. The more information that is supplied on European matters, the more paper that is provided, which will not be read.
Right. [ Laughter. ] That is longer than Stroud.
That is an important point to end on, because I do not think that everyone does read everything they should, and we have come across that in the past. The European Scrutiny Committee is under the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for— [Hon Members: “Stone.”]—for Stone (Mr Cash), but one of the things I noted before becoming a Member was that scrutiny of European measures, if carried out at all, was not thorough. I have done some research and found that decisions have literally been nodded through, which is characteristic of these kinds of issues. It is far better for this House to consider the outcomes seriously, because it is the outcomes that matter. That has always been the case in decision making. Sometimes the process that we use needs to be scrutinised because the outcome is not so good, and clearly we might want to test that.
We should never undermine the capacity of a British Minister to represent our interests and make adjustments to his or her position while in negotiations with other nation states. I repeat that if we were having this discussion about the United Nations or NATO, for example, I do not think we would be talking in these terms, because we understand the value of empowering Ministers to make decisions on our behalf and report back with outcomes that are to our liking.
I follow very much in the footsteps of Neil Carmichael by highlighting two very worrying developments in our discussions in this House on Europe that have taken place since the coalition was formed: the abolition of the twice-yearly debates on Europe and the decision of the Foreign Affairs Committee no longer to go to the country holding the EU presidency to examine its plans.
I am grateful that the poor fish thrown into the sea will now have their flippers flipped in the House of Commons.
I want our Government and our House regularly to debate Europe, but the plain fact is that it is the decision of this Government—this coalition—not so to do. The Foreign Affairs Committee, with its coalition majority, is also abolishing its regular trip to the European Union nation that holds the presidency.
Yes, and I well remember the right hon. Gentleman in the even longer debates—going through the night—on the treaty of Amsterdam saying that signing it would mean the abolition of Britain. When there is a new Bill, we have debates, and we have had many debates and some good discussions on this one.
I am not sure whether I should take that as a compliment. Has the right hon. Gentleman had a chance to read the written ministerial statement about this subject that was issued during our previous five days of debate? It included what, in coalition terms, would probably be deemed a full and comprehensive offer to the House about how we might scrutinise justice and home affairs matters. We should examine that offer in much closer detail today, and perhaps we will later on.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he brings to the House considerable knowledge of how the European Parliament does its business. That is exactly the way in which the European Parliament carries out its scrutiny. Perhaps we should learn from him; perhaps he and I should set up a small committee to go to Strasbourg —for him to return there—to see what we might learn.
In essence, the hon. Member for Stroud is quite right: this is the WikiLeaks amendment. It would abolish the need for WikiLeaks, because the process of Government decision-making would be published. I would love to see that for something infinitely more important to my constituents—the thinking, advice and documents that have led to the promulgation of the NHS Bill or, in two or three weeks’ time, that lead to the Budget. I expect, however, that I would find very little support on the Government side of the House and absolutely none from the Opposition Front Bencher waiting for his turn to speak for the idea that we do government better if we allow Mr Julian Assange to publish every document and every communication that goes into a Minister’s box.
I can confirm exactly the point that my hon. Friend Ms Stuart made about how negotiations can and do take place. I recall once trying to protect the steelworkers of Britain from a proposal, which the then Labour Government supported, to allow the import of steel—a derogation of the then EU trade rules—from a dodgy supplier in Egypt which I knew to be linked to the army and was, in my view, a wholly corrupt organisation. I could not quite work out why we were so keen to allow the deal to go through, which would have damaged steelworkers’ jobs and production in this country and, if the steel were re-exported, those in the rest of Europe, too.
I could not, however, convince any civil servants. At one stage, I had 27 of them, including two knights of the realm, grouped around me, telling me, “Minister, you have to give way.” I put down my little foot and said, “No, I am elected. That is what I am paid to do.” Then, they went out and got the Secretary of State for Business and Industry to phone me, and at that stage either I resigned on the spot or accepted a superior order.
No, I did not resign, simply because I work in a team. When the hon. Gentleman graces the Front Bench, as I hope and I am sure he soon will, he will have to learn that there is something called teamwork, and that until he becomes Prime Minister he will take rather than give orders.
I am not sure that it would have been any particular help to have published all my animadversions immediately afterwards, although I told my steelworker community friends privately what had happened. Frankly, one cannot do business in that way. I am not even sure whether, constitutionally or legally, suggestions made before a decision is taken can then go fully into the public domain if they belong to other people. I think we may find, legally, that there are certain rules on what is the property of other states. We do not publish every communication with the United States, France, or any country, for good and sensible international legal reasons.
The process in Europe is legislative. When this House legislates, the debates are published, regardless of the ultimate decision, so that the British people know how the debate has been formed in the legislature. As the Commission, Council and Parliament of Europe are legislatures, the information should likewise be public.
We can enter into a political science or constitutional debate on the nature of decision making in the EU—which, I remind right hon. and hon. Members, spends only 1% of Europe’s gross national income—but the plain fact is that the Commissioners are appointed and it is the Council of Ministers that takes decisions, as mandated by its member countries. It is no more a legislature than it is a legislative process when one goes to negotiate a treaty on the law of the sea or on new environmental rules.
It is worthy of note that when the European Parliament is engaged in the process of co-decision, it publishes on its website all its position papers in between negotiations. That is a model, in many ways, of how democracy in practice should operate.
There is a curious alliance between two distinguished former Members of the European Parliament—my hon. Friend and Chris Heaton-Harris—in saying that perhaps this House can learn from the European Parliament. Other right hon. and hon. Members might care to look at that.
The European Union will be taking very big decisions on Friday, when there are two special meetings of the Council, the first of which—
The right hon. Gentleman, in some dispute with my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg, suggested that decisions taken by the Council of Ministers were not legislative acts. Can he think of anything that is more of a legislative act than when, by a majority vote, the decision that is taken is binding upon this House without our having any opportunity to intervene?
On Friday, there will be two highly important meetings of the European Council, the first of which will discuss Libya. I am a supporter of much of the robust line that the Prime Minister has taken since he came back from his trip to the middle east. It will be interesting to see whether the Government publish all the details of the propositions that they are putting up for that debate and decision, or whether they offer a referendum lock to the people of Britain on any future military intervention in Libya, as proposed in certain other areas under the Bill.
Once that meeting is over—I sincerely wish the Prime Minister and his team well; I hope that the whole House does, because Libya will continue to occupy our minds and worries for many months ahead—the British Prime Minister will be asked to leave the room. That is because the next set of decisions that will be taken, on economic governance and the euro, will exclude Britain, even though they will impact on us, as the Council will discuss how to react to the new Irish Government’s position in wanting a serious rewriting of the agreement that the previous Government had reached. It may discuss the European Parliament’s call for a ban on naked short selling, which the German Government have already introduced in Germany and which is very unpopular in the City. Britain will not even be there, because it is excluded from that part of the Council. The notion that we will learn about decisions made in Europe if Britain publishes its documents is nonsense, because unless all 26 other members states do the same, we are left in ignorance on the ebb and flow of discussions.
If I may, I will continue, because I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have a good chance to speak shortly.
Having taken part in many European decisions and negotiations, including on treaties, I say to the House that they are precisely that—negotiations. Perhaps because British parliamentarians are equipped with a better way with words than some of our more dramatically rigidified colleagues, we often find words that help the Council come to a better decision—often helped, it must be said, by our excellent officials. Frankly, the notion that those notes, scribbles and whispers can somehow all be published is bordering on fantasy, as the hon. Member for Stroud rightly said.
It is a mixture of both. First, one listens to the positions of all 27 member states, then one says things like, “Look, that’s not going to fly for us. We suggest you drop it. Here are our ideas.” Proposals go backwards and forwards between the Council secretariat and the Commission secretariat, and they come back here for discussion, as my hon. Friend Ms Stuart rightly said. Whitehall has a very effective co-ordination operation. As a result, the finest civil servants in the land meet very early every morning—sensibly that is usually done without any gabby politicians present—and over a large English breakfast, on the eighth floor of some Hilton or Hyatt in Brussels, they hammer out a position and work out where every other country will be to maximise what Britain wants. Very often, we are the demandeurs who want to achieve a policy change in the European Union which requires skilled diplomatic negotiation. I say respectfully that the notion that all that can be minuted and published is not realistic.
On a point of information, I just wanted to put it to the right hon. Gentleman that the European conclusions of
“Non-euro members will be invited to participate in the coordination.”
They also state that it will be guaranteed that
I therefore do not think he was quite right to suggest that we would not be involved, because the conclusions state specifically that we will be. However, the whole system is completely crazy.
We will see what happens on Friday. I am concerned, as all hon. Members ought to be, that because we are not in the euro—for perfectly good reasons—Britain is not as fully involved as the other deciders in many areas of decision making. We will leave that to be revealed in Friday’s meeting and future discussions.
I am very attracted to the point made by my hon. Friend Michael Connarty. We can now, in the House of Commons, announce the new Connarty law: there is a precise ratio whereby the more paper provided on any European decision, the less real discussion and debate there is thereon. I hope that he will agree that that new Connarty law should be enshrined as an official part of how we do business in Europe.
I remember that for the constitutional Convention, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston valiantly represented the House of Commons, the then Foreign Secretary and myself set up a special Select Committee and published everything. We had regular meetings for the sake of accountability, but not a single Opposition Front Bencher ever came to them and they were often inquorate. Mr Cash was valiantly present at every meeting, but his party leadership was absent. Again, that reflects the Connarty law—the more opportunity and information right hon. and hon. Members are given on Europe, the less inclined they are to take it up and debate it.
I think that what I said was that the more paperwork that is provided, the less it is read. Information can and should be given, and Ministers do not give it often enough from the Dispatch Box or in evidence. They try to hide information. It is paperwork that frightens people, not information.
The right hon. Gentleman’s argument seems to illustrate what is wrong with the new clause, which is that there is no definition of “relevant”. It is therefore entirely unclear whether vast volumes of documentation would be produced were it to form part of the Bill. That is my real objection to the new clause. Does he agree, and is that an aspect of the Connarty conjecture, as I shall call it—or perhaps the Connarty-MacShane law, as it now turns out to be?
Yes, “relevant” is a difficult adjective to define. There is an even more difficult adjective in the Bill, which states that only a matter that the Minister judges to involve “significant” sharing of sovereignty should be brought back to the House for debate and a possible referendum. I put it to Members that no British Government or Minister would sign a treaty that they would then bring back to the House of Commons and offer for referendum. It would be a dereliction of duty. I have every confidence in the excellent occupant of the post of Minister for Europe, and his duty is to negotiate the best for Britain. If a treaty is not good enough for Britain, he should not sign it. We should effectively veto it there and then rather than have the nonsense and rigmarole in the Bill, whereby a treaty would be brought back to the House, we would have endless debate about what was and was not significant, and then it would be put to a referendum.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who has been extraordinarily generous in taking interventions.
I raised with Ms Stuart the situation in Denmark, and she said, “Their negotiating position was known. We knew what they were doing.” Is not a potential concern about the new clause the fact that our negotiating position could be known? Does it harm Denmark in practice that its position is known?
The Danish Parliament is very different. The last time there was a majority Government in Denmark was 1909. Actually, perhaps that will not be such an unusual thing even for our own legislature in the years to come—let us wait and see how this century unfolds, especially if the people are so foolish as to adopt that ludicrous alternative vote nonsense. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] It is so easy to get that reaction.
The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on a good question: do we, as a House, take the European Union seriously enough? Do we have the mechanisms and structures to involve ourselves fully in EU debates and decision making? The Danish Parliament has an all-party Committee—although we should remember that the Danish Government are always a coalition—to which Ministers must report, and it is a much smaller operation. I would like this House to set up permanent Standing Committees to survey different areas of EU policy and legislation. Our Select Committees could have permanent Sub-Committees to track EU decisions that would otherwise be off the rota. Those Sub-Committees could travel around Europe, and not necessarily just to Strasbourg and Brussels—I keep insisting that decisions on Europe are taken in Rome, Paris, Warsaw and elsewhere, and not comprehensively and uniquely in the two European Parliament buildings.
I should like us to debate Council meetings after they have taken place rather than before—I made my maiden speech in a pre-Council debate and have taken part in many more.
To take up the point made by my hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke, I am a great advocate of transparency, which is crucial. The problem is that the Bill proposes unilateral transparency. We are not in the business of declaring that we are for unilateral disarmament before negotiations. Will the Minister ensure that although we need to make progress on transparency, we need to do so across Europe, and not just in respect of our negotiating team, which might feel hampered in making the key decisions that matter so much to my constituents?
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. Aneurin Bevan famously said apropos of unilateral nuclear disarmament that we should not send a Foreign Secretary naked into the conference chamber. Now and then at the more tedious European Council meetings, someone coming in naked might have cheered everyone up, but she is right to insist that Britain cannot unilaterally reveal itself in its wondrous glory, naked to the rest of the world, while 26 other members are smuttily enjoying the sight while keeping their own crown jewels well and truly hidden.
I was tempted to do so, but I shall resist.
My frustration, after 17 years in the House, is that we still do not know how to discuss the EU. We are still frightened of going to the national capitals of Europe. Much of the information that the Bill calls for can be found if hon. Members are prepared to take the time to meet opposite numbers of all parties—the European debaters and deciders in the Bundestag, the Assemblée Nationale or wherever. Hon. Members could also easily find things out from civil servants in Brussels. Most of the information is available if they are prepared to take the time to find it.
Our own negotiating functionaries, to whose extraordinary qualities I pay tribute, would be quite happy to discuss with Committees of this House what they do, but we have reduced European matters to adversarial, in-or-out, horrors-of-Brussels debates and all the drivel that one can read in the Daily Mail and similar papers, instead of accepting that we are in the EU and, as the Prime Minister has made very clear, that we are not leaving. The EU will come forward with new proposals, some of which will be tricky and some of which we will advance, and it would be much better if we could have a mature dialogue with other national parliamentarians. There are 9,700 national parliamentarians and 700 MEPs. We overreact to what the latter say, and ignore the need to connect to the national Parliaments and parliamentarians of Europe to debate decisions.
That would mean a revolution in how we do business. Frankly, the Labour Government failed miserably in improving the quality of oversight and debate on EU decision making. I could publish some of the papers I wrote—if they are not locked away under some 30-year rule—to call for some of the measures that we are discussing. I wish the Minister and his team well in changing how we do EU business. The new clause is not the way forward, and I hope the motion is withdrawn after the debate, but it represents, and is a symptom of, a deep malaise in our nation and of the distrust of
Europe that many people feel. I understand that fully, but I insist that parliamentarians can put it right. Hurling insults at the EU will never achieve that.
The Bill is titled the “European Union Bill”, and is a legislative measure by this Parliament in respect of the government of this country. It seems to me that what Denmark does is what Denmark does, and what others do, they do. There is nothing unreasonable in the new clause, other than perhaps in respect of the question reasonably raised about the definition of “relevant”. However, I think that everyone in the debate understands the gist of this rather important new clause.
We forget who we are. It was a struggle to get accountable government—that is what this is about: accountable government. It is an odd quirk of the British constitution that we seek accountability at certain levels. Some of us have been here a long time and will remember the triumph of Sir John Major over Maastricht. If I recall correctly, he came back saying that he had won “game, set and match”. As was rightly pointed out by several Members, that is the normal formula of most leaders of EU countries, who all protest that they have secured some golden objective, the consequences of which we only find out some years later. I emphasise that the struggle for accountable government was not easily won. In fact, the House used to sit in secret, and it was a criminal offence to reveal the force and arguments that took place. We did not know, therefore, whether the man who protested he was our friend was indeed our friend, and we did not know whether the person pointed out as the enemy was indeed our enemy. To the benefit of this country, that went. An essential ingredient of our constitution, therefore, is the concept of accountability, but we cannot have accountability if we do not know how the Government act and what they say.
Today’s most relevant observation—I thought it was important, and I hope that the House thinks so too—was made by my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg. He said that many of the decisions coming from the EU are legislative decisions. Imagine that the House sat in secret discussing legislative decisions, and that none of us could be held to account—it is rather like the coalition agreement, is it not?—for the outcome of the decisions. No one is held accountable. That would end democracy in this country as we understand it. It is a difficult enough task to hold Governments to account: time goes by, and the exigencies and pressures of other issues get rammed in.
We are facing a huge constitutional change that has taken place over the past 30 years, and the decisions now made within the EU structure are profound and affect all our lives. One of the promoters of the new clause, Ms Stuart, gave a very good example—the working time directive for junior doctors. It had enormous consequences, and the House would have been better placed to agitate and put pressure on Ministers who proclaimed that they were fighting for Britain all the way and were winning game, set and match. However, the consequences of that decision are now being felt throughout our national health service.
The working time decision was taken in 1994. I experienced two constituency cases involving horrible deaths because of overworked doctors who were obliged to do long hours at the weekend who, to put it crudely, made slight mistakes with a zero, so I welcomed that decision. However, those provisions were there from 1994. They could have been put into operation and introduced slowly, but we pretended that that was not going to happen. The decision was made, but nothing was secret.
I have just heard another inaccuracy from the right hon. Gentleman, just as previously he was corrected on a matter of fact regarding the invitation of those not in the eurozone to be present at meetings affecting what are profound matters. I shall therefore take with slight caution some of the arguments that he has advanced.
I should declare an interest: I am a parliamentary vice-chairman of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. What is noticeable is that Europe is notoriously remiss in this area. It is proclaimed that work is being done on freedom of information, yet in many ways the bureaucracy in Europe is one of the most secretive organisations of them all.
The very paper that led to the urgent question that divulged what was going on with European economic governance was described as a “non-paper”. In other words, it was a paper that no one was supposed to know anything about.
This is the record on Europe that most of us will recall; it is not the fantasy of some, who see Europe as an object of almost theological insistence.
Indeed, and I took an intervention from the right hon. Gentleman, if he remembers. However, I have listened to the argument, and it is the same argument that he makes most of the time. Although repetition does inform one, it sometimes becomes like a woodpecker on the brain. [ Interruption. ] No, no, I am going to be fair. This is an important new clause. Our constitutional arrangements require Ministers to be accountable to this House, and the new clause would give us a better understanding of what is happening to our future and our constitutional arrangements.
The European Union set up a body—indeed, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston sat on it—to bring the citizens of Europe closer to the institutions and nature of the European Union. I have watched, as have all Members of this House, the disengagement of those citizens—certainly in this country, but also in many others, right across Europe—which is becoming very severe indeed. We have only to look at Ireland, which has done everything that was required of it and is now in an horrendous state, so I do not need the right hon. Gentleman, the former Minister for Europe, to say that this is wonderful. It is not; we expect accountable Government.
We are quite rightly focusing this debate on the workings of the European Union, but some right hon. and hon. Members seem to be establishing a principle that must surely apply to all international treaty organisations that the UK signs up to, whether on environmental, legislative or defence matters in international law. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he wants exactly the same transparency in all negotiations in every treaty organisation of which the UK is a part? Surely that would be consistent.
I do not accept the argument, because there are very few international agreements that apply in a directly legislative way in this country. Therefore, on a great range of matters we have to put things through this House; therefore, they are governed by the processes of this House. Normally they are nodded through, that is true. None the less, there is accountability to this House, and there are the Ponsonby rules and all that—if they amount to as much as I would like them to amount to. I would therefore urge the House to support the view that we should know exactly what is happening. I do not want to hear “Game, set and match”; I want to hear where we stand in these matters. I want our Front Bench to be quite candid about this matter, which lies at the heart of this European Union Bill, as amended. I was sent a press release, or whatever it was, to advise me as to the merits of the Bill. Well, I will make my own judgment on that, as will other Members who do not follow the Whip as closely as I do. I hope that we will have enough belief in ourselves—because this applies to us, to the British Government—to introduce a proper process in which Ministers will be candid and bring forth exactly what happens in these meetings.
“including all amendments sponsored by Ministers and other member states during negotiation of the treaty or decision” particularly excite me. Clearly that proposal would not apply at the time of the meetings but to afterwards, when we would come to understand the character of those who are making the law.
Would it not be very strange indeed if Ministers were to try to keep secret the amendments that they had tabled during such negotiations? Is not this something that people should subsequently know?
I believe so, because there is a matter of the most profound trust involved. When Ministers speak at the Dispatch Box, we trust that they are telling the truth. That is one of the rules and we must hold them to it—[ Interruption. ] No, that is a convention of the House. Ministers have fallen when they have lied at the Dispatch Box.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I have some sympathy with the point that he is making, but does he not foresee a legal problem with the publication of the amendments proposed not only by the British Government but by other member states as well?
As I understand it, the European Union purports to be a country now. That change of title happened following Maastricht. We became citizens of the Union, also under Maastricht. Those issues were fiercely fought over. The question of whether Her Majesty the Queen was a citizen of Europe arose on the Front Benches here. We asked those questions and they were debated. The Bill was passed, but it was, as Labour Members will recall, a damned close-run thing—on one amendment in particular.
The very amendment paper that my hon. Friend is holding in his hand demonstrates the amendments that have been tabled and that are available to everyone who cares to look at them. On the basis that the Council of Ministers is a legislative body, does he not agree that, if we have to receive its legislation and are then allowed to table amendments to it, we should be entitled to see the amendments that have been tabled during the preceding process?
I hope not to delay the House for too long. I am actually a signatory to this new clause, but I hope that Mr Clappison will withdraw it. It was an attempt to ask for a process in which information should be provided to make sense of any proposal under section 4, which is mentioned in clause 5 on statements to the House. The truth is that there is a problem with the understanding of, and interest in, the decisions made in the European Council, which are then enacted by this Parliament and which affect the citizens, businesses and communities that we represent.
Mr Shepherd is always keen for us to be more informed, but I am not sure that the new clause would achieve that. Listening to the debate, I have become more and more convinced that more and more documentation does not mean more and more information. We need to look carefully at how the House treats the process involved. There are, I think, six members and one former member of the European Scrutiny Committee here today, and we tend to take a lot of interest in these matters, but there is not the same breadth of understanding, information gathering or discussion of European matters in the generality of the House.
Much can be explained by changes in the structure of how Parliament deals with European issues. We used to have European Standing Committees, with specific designations as A, B and C, specific remits and a fixed membership of 13 each, and they debated every single issue that came from the European Council about which the European Scrutiny Committee was not happy. What happens now is that a randomised group of people chosen by the Committee of Selection turn up now and then and the Committees have no sense of a specific remit. They are still foolishly called A, B and C as if they still have specific remits, but when a Minister brings forward provisions to change our position and bring in new law on the basis of a directive, regulation or other proposal from the European Commission, very few people understand what that Minister is doing.
We need to reflect carefully on what will happen when this Bill is enacted and it comes to something as serious as a referendum. Of course, I said originally that I did not believe this provision would ever be used; it is effectively wallpaper, as was said by many learned people from whom we took evidence. If the circumstances for a referendum arise, there will be a lack of information, a lack of understanding and only a very small number of people will debate the issues intensively, which they will do either because they have a fixed political position or on account of their interest and knowledge.
The idea is to gain more information from Ministers, which I believe will require a change in the structure of how this House treats European business. That is important. The Home Secretary put forward that view when she was the shadow Leader of the House and the Labour Government Front-Bench team also spoke strongly about it, but it never came to anything. I believe that it must now be looked at again.
The new clause makes a plea for this House to be treated seriously and to be properly informed by Front-Bench Members. Members need to be interested and engaged in the process whereby differences can be made to our relationship with Europe.
I am attracted by the hon. Gentleman’s argument about the need for a change in the way this House deals with European policy. Is not the logic of his argument, however, that we need to go back to an earlier stage, whereby we as legislators should be involved, pre-negotiations and pre-discussions, in thematic debates and policy statements so that we can make some input to the Commission and the institutions of Europe? Does he accept that?
I not only accept it; I fully endorse and applaud it. There is a work programme that comes forward from the European Commission, and it is debated in Westminster Hall, but very few people turn up: that is the reality. We have tried to engage a number of Select Committees by referring to them matters of interest to the European Scrutiny Committee, which continues to be chaired ably by Mr Cash. We are trying to engage Select Committees in those issues so that the European Scrutiny Committee and then the House could be advised of any European matters of substance that should be considered.
We could therefore change aspects of the apparatus we use before reaching the point to which the new clause refers, where a Minister is recommending a referendum. When this clause is triggered, the Government will have decided that they want to do whatever it is the referendum has been called to consider. It will be a referendum on a Government proposal, perhaps for a new treaty or a new decision that will change our relationship with Europe.
Let me finish by providing one example. We took a decision a long time ago—it was probably agreed across the Chamber because it was politically sensitive for us not to opt into all of the Amsterdam treaty—whereby we did not become members of the Schengen group of countries. That group is effectively all the European Union countries apart from us. Frontex, the new border police, is now trying to throw a ring around Europe and it is going to be heavily pressurised by migration from other parts of the world—particularly from Africa, and perhaps very quickly from north Africa. We are not a member of Frontex because we are not a Schengen country. We sit on the board—Frontex has been quite nice to us, even though we did not sign up to it—so we asked whether any of our officers engaged in a Frontex operation could have the same protection from prosecution as other Frontex officers. We are told “No, because you are not a member of the Schengen group.” The train is leaving the station very quickly to protect the rest of Europe, and the United Kingdom is running at the back waving a little flag saying “Can we join? But we do not want to be full members.”
We ought to be fully informed of the consequences of decisions such as that. I am not talking about those who are, for reasons of prejudice, Eurosceptic and against doing things on an EU basis, in the belief that they can somehow be done on a bilateral basis with 26 other countries. If we had been fully informed, we would have concluded that membership of Frontex was important enough for us to take the step of joining the Schengen countries and being a real part of Europe.
Although such information and debate would be extremely useful, that will not be made possible by the new clause, and I therefore hope that it will be withdrawn. However, we need to make those changes in the Chamber if our constituents are to understand that we know what we are talking about in Europe, and that we are acting on the basis of analysis and proper information rather than prejudice.
It is a privilege to follow the extraordinarily interesting and thoughtful speech of Michael Connarty. The debate on the new clause has been largely underpinned by a dislike and distrust of the European Union and its works, and I share that distrust. Many Members feel that an organisation that spends vast swathes of our money and imposes massive increases in our budget contributions in return for no obvious value, at a time of great downturn across the continent, is not an organisation that is in touch with this country—or any other country. They do not trust an organisation that feels so remote from the electors of this country and every other country in the European Union. Even in Germany, an increasing number of people are finding the European Union and its works troubling.
The hon. Gentleman says that he attaches no obvious value to the European Union. Does he exclude from that the EU’s important contribution to world climate change and trade negotiations? Does he exclude the European arrest warrant, which enables us to fight terrorism across international borders? Surely those things have some value.
They could all have been achieved by nation states. Obviously we welcome the ability to do some things on a wider and more agreed basis, but we do not want the spider’s web of intrusion into our national lives and the lives of member states that we have seen in the European Union. That is why many Members object to it and say, “We don’t trust anything that happens there.” Every time there is a treaty negotiation the spider’s web creeps further out, more of our money is sucked in, and more of our national vitality is taken away from us and planted in Brussels.
I am merely recording the sentiments that, in my view, underlie the new clause. It is felt that we have been shut out of the process, and that we do not have a say. For the last 20 or 30 years, the Governments of all the member states in Europe have been saying that they have secured great deals in Europe, but the general public in countries throughout the European Union have a sense that they have, to some extent, been sold down the river.
The new clause is underpinned by questions such as, “What are the amendments that you are moving? What are the discussions that you are having? What really happened behind those closed doors?” I understand that view, but although I share the deep concern that has been expressed about our involvement, and future involvement, in the European Union, I am not sure that the new clause represents the right way in which to deal with it. There is a balance to be achieved, given the inevitable tension between transparency and the need for negotiations. I am a massive fan of transparency, because I want to know how the European Union spends our money, and I want government that is accountable to our people. Dare I say it, I want government of the people, by the people, for the people. On the other hand, we must take part in negotiations, and we must ensure that our negotiating position does not blow up in our faces.
Many examples can be given. The Cabinet meets in secret, and we do not learn what happened until some years later; the NATO councils and some of the United Nations councils meet in secret as well. Traditionally, relations between member states tend not to be published on a case-by-case basis. I have listened with interest to the argument being put that the Council of Ministers is not an executive organisation but a legislature. That is a technical, semantic argument about what is really a negotiation between Governments of member states—it is an intergovernmental negotiation.
I have grave misgivings about giving away our negotiating position and telling other nations, which we want to squeeze for a better deal, where our top and bottom lines are in that negotiation process. I make that point because I must tell the House, with regret, that I used to be a law firm partner—I was a poacher before I turned gamekeeper—and in that time I would negotiate for my clients against the lawyer on the other side of the table who was representing their client. I did not want to tell them what I was going to concede; I did not want them to have an idea of what I and my client might, and might not, give away in future negotiations. I did not want to reveal where the lines of debate were or when I would say, “No further,” because if I had I would not have got the best deal. Just as in those times I wanted to get the best deal for my clients, in these times I want to get the best deal for my clients, who are now the people of Dover, and the nation as a whole.
Actually, my hon. Friend is a gamekeeper turned poacher. He is making a compelling argument about not giving away our negotiating position to other EU member states. The difficulty here, however, is to do with the use of the word “relevant” in the new clause. Does that mean that under this clause we would disclose information that would not already have been known to other nation states? In that case I can see the point of his argument. However, if it means something different, it may not have that effect. Does he have any grip on what the word “relevant” means here, and does this problem not underline why the new clause should not be added to the Bill?
I completely agree, and I was about to turn to that argument.
The new clause is important in prompting a debate that should be had—and might previously have been had—about the relationship between this House and the Executive in respect of our negotiations in Europe. [Interruption.] Ms Stuart nods from a sedentary position. This is a very important point, which goes to the heart of things, and it is why I asked about the situation in Denmark. I did so not in order to trip her up but because I was genuinely interested and knew that, as she is an expert on European matters, including the Council of Ministers, she would have experience to share on that subject.
The phrase “relevant documentation” in the new clause is not, of course, defined; it could mean anything or nothing. That is a technical deficiency, therefore. I also think that there is a technical deficiency in the phrase, “amendments sponsored”. I asked the former Europe Minister, Mr MacShane, how amendments are dealt with in Europe: is an amendment tabled and moved, or is there a nice bit of Euro chit-chat and then everyone comes to an agreement at the end? The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston can correct me if I am wrong, but my impression is that it is a bit of a mishmash of everything, and out of the sausage machine of discussion comes a new piece of Euro-legislation, freshly approved with the mark of Europe stamped on it.
I fear the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Austro-Hungarian empire would have called the process “durchwurschteln” as it is a sort of sausage machine. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having such a good grasp of what goes on even though he has never been inside any of those negotiating rooms in Europe. The key problem is that the practice and the theory are so far from what we think they are. That is why I thought it was so important to try to open the door on what goes on, and it also highlights why it is important to keep asking questions about how these things work.
I thank the hon. Lady, and I am humbled by her kind words and great generosity. An important issue of transparency is involved here. We want negotiations to go on; we do not want to have everything picked over later, to risk our negotiating position in future and to risk our relationship with other member states. They might not want some of their information put into the public domain.
I want discussion to be full and frank. Why is that? I do not know how anybody else feels, but I remember that this country went through a phase of “sofa government”, when there were no minutes, no notes and no discussion. Not everybody thinks that that was a high point of our national life. Some people think that it was a particular low point because little deals got cut on sofas, in corridors and far away from anyone taking any minutes. That is the risk when we say, “Let us know what goes on behind closed doors.” Funnily enough, this sort of thing will not go on behind closed doors; it will go on in closed corridors and on sofas. I worry about that, because it is a real concern.
However, I also want to have a sense of transparency: I want to know what Ministers are getting up to in Europe. I want this House to be properly involved in matters to do with the European Union, as does the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston. That is why I keep raising the example of Denmark. I have not yet mentioned Finland, but I will now go on about both those countries.
That is exactly the argument that I seek to put. There is massive distrust of the European Union in this House, and massive suspicion that Ministers—of all parties—go to Brussels and sell us down the river without our knowing what goes on. Meanwhile, our electors give us a good kicking about why this, that and the other happened, and we cannot really explain why it happened and what our role in it was. So there is an accountability deficit.
Denmark has an open process, whereby its Folketing’s European affairs committee meets in public and agrees a mandate system, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston told us. It says, “This is your up line and this is your down line. Go off to Europe and negotiate.” The process is public so, as she beautifully put it, people do not need to worry about Denmark because they know where it stands. People count it in or count it out, and negotiate with everyone else. I suspect that Denmark is left out of negotiations because people say, “We don’t need to cut a deal with those guys.”
The difference is that although Finland mandates, the mandate can still be negotiated with its Parliament, whereas the Danes are mandated and the Ministers cannot change their minds. They are therefore at the meeting simply to say what their Parliament has told them. The Finnish system is better because it still allows for mandating movement.
Beautifully put, as ever, by the hon. Lady, who describes the problem exactly. The Danes’ mandate becomes an open negotiating position and they lose their ability to be flexible and to push other member states in the give and take that sits at the heart of true business or governmental negotiations.
Finland, like Denmark, does involve its national legislature, but the difference is that in Finland this is done in private. The Finnish grand committee meets in private, away from the cameras and the spotlight, so it can have that important discussion.
I do not know what other Members think, but I believe that my hon. Friend Mr Cash has some good points to make. He makes them with great passion and often at great length, and he is well informed. He passes the Linlithgow test, because he reads all those boring papers, whereas all the rest of us put our heads in our hands and then flip through them quickly to pick out the main points. My hon. Friend actually reads this stuff—I do not know how he does it, but he does—so he is able to have a substantial and serious discussion about the issues. I put it to the Minister—I hope that he will respond in due course—that we need a mechanism, perhaps a Committee system, whereby those hon. Members who are interested, even obsessed, with the European Union can represent the House’s interests and hold discussions in private, as the Finnish grand committee does, before a negotiation happens.
The Intelligence and Security Committee knows what goes on, and therefore builds in some democratic accountability, but it does not blab to everyone exactly what our spies are up to around the world and what our security interests are. If it were possible to have a mechanism similar to the grand committee system in Finland, so that Parliament could be involved, perhaps there would be a greater sense of trust and a greater sense not only that we have the essential transparency, but that we do not send our Ministers in to bat in Brussels with—as I think a former Prime Minister put it—one arm tied behind their backs, so that they cannot negotiate in this country’s fullest interests.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful case in relation to Finland. Does he not agree that the system in Sweden, which is quite similar to that in Finland, would provide a useful way forward? Such a committee could meet, usually in closed session, and give a mandate to the Minister. The Minister would have discretion to depart from that mandate, but the position would be clearly defined before the Minister went to the Council. That has all the attractions of the systems that my hon. Friend has been ably advocating.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I do not think that it is for me, as a Back Bencher, to find the detailed solution, but those who are senior in the House, such as Front Benchers, should consider the other models of accountability used in Europe. They should consider the fact that we want accountability and transparency, without prejudicing the United Kingdom’s negotiating position in the discussions that are held in European Councils. So long as we have to put up with being a member of the European Union—or, indeed, are enthused by that fact—we need to negotiate well and get the best possible deal for this country.
I originally intended to speak in support of the comments made earlier in the debate by my Gloucestershire neighbour, Neil Carmichael, but I found myself in a surprising degree of agreement with Charlie Elphicke, who gave a learned analysis of the implications of the new clause, as opposed to its intent.
As described by Ms Stuart and others, the intention is to create more transparency and openness—that is obviously a good thing, which we would all support—but somewhere in the drafting of the new clause it has become a little confused, or perhaps awkward, in the attempt to bring it within the scope of the Bill.
The effect of the new clause would be to reveal a great deal of documentation, but after the decision had been taken. The decision to which the statement under clause 5 related would have already happened. Although much of the documentation would be relevant in the sense that it related to that decision, it might not prove to be very pertinent to the decision. Much of it might be advice, even legal advice, that was ultimately rejected. So it would not have materially affected the decision under consideration. What really mattered would be the outcome, and the proposals that the British Government were putting to Parliament and, perhaps even in a referendum, to the people of this country. We could discuss that without the benefit of all the paperwork that had been discarded earlier in the process.
The second problem with the new clause is that a lot of what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said was about trying to add transparency to the process at European level—to the Commission’s decision-making processes and the debate in the Council of Ministers. Jacob Rees-Mogg compared that to the former secrecy of debates in this Chamber, but the new clause would not reveal the debate that took place at European level. It would reveal only the background paperwork, which would be rather like getting a House of Commons briefing, but with no copy of Hansard to follow.
The new clause would not bring great openness or transparency to European processes. The only transparency that it would provide would be on the British negotiating position. Then we would start to have a problem, because although that would be revealed after the event, the nature of the advice, especially the legal advice, could have profound implications for future negotiations. If we revealed all that documentation, that would clearly impact on the position of British Ministers in subsequent negotiations. It would almost certainly impact on the advice, especially legal advice, that officials felt able to give to Ministers, because they would know that it was not private advice, but would become public in due course. Clearly, that would put British Ministers at a disadvantage relative to other Ministers in the European Council. It would undermine the British interest and thereby achieve, presumably, the reverse of what the new clause intends. It would, in a real sense, send British Ministers naked into the Council of Ministers. In some cases, that is a very sobering thought indeed.
Has not the Liberal position traditionally been to want British Ministers to go naked into the conference chamber of the EU? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his and his colleagues’ Europhile tendencies contributed towards the Liberals’ stunning success in coming sixth in the Barnsley by-election?
I am not sure that we have a party policy on nakedness in general—although I shall certainly consult my colleagues on that.
I shall not detain the House long, but it seems clear that the new clause would result in the undermining of the British interest in terms of ministerial participation in negotiations. There may be measures that should be introduced to add more transparency and openness to the EU at Commission level, and certainly at Council of Ministers level, and I am sure that I, and Liberal
Democrat Euro MPs and Members of this Parliament, would be sympathetic to them. There may even be methods that we should explore similar to the Finnish model about which we have heard so much. Those would also be greeted with a lot of sympathy, but the new clause would not deliver any of those things, so I am afraid that hon. Members should throw it out.
My hon. Friend Mr Shepherd reminded us that the purpose of the new clause is to deal with the manifest lack of trust that the public have in the negotiation, on behalf of the British public, of grave constitutional issues in the European Council and elsewhere. The new clause would itself introduce a considerable constitutional change, and I hope that hon. Members will allow me to say that I would find that not a necessarily unhappy change, but a change none the less. That is the fact that, heretofore, Ministers of the Crown negotiated and treated on behalf of the British people and of the Crown, and Parliament, if it saw fit, studied the results of that treaty after the event.
That is not necessarily a good way for Ministers to discuss the nation’s interests in the councils of the world, but it is the situation as it stands. I would suggest, therefore, that if we are to see a change to that protocol—as was, to a degree, anticipated by the previous Government in their discussions on the royal prerogative—it may be appropriate to consider in the round the other international bodies and instruments to which we are party, and not just our relationship with the EU.
Hon. Members have rightly said that the EU is of considerable concern to many of our constituents. It is, but so are our World Trade Organisation negotiations. The EU has not yet created a riot on the streets outside Parliament—not yet, at least—yet a few years ago we had the anti-globalisation riots, which arose directly out of our negotiations in the WTO.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that our constituents generally take European matters much more seriously than almost any other international matter? Proof of that is the fact that in the Barnsley by-election, the UK Independence party managed to beat the Conservatives. What does that say about public confidence in the Conservatives’ position on Europe?
The hon. Gentleman has made a powerful point, but the public often have interests beyond the European Union. So far they have created a riot on trade issues. I happen not to agree with what the rioters were doing or with their motives, but the matter raises extreme passion among our constituents. Members know perfectly well that we are regularly written to by people who are concerned about globalisation and world trade rules. Our negotiations in the Security Council are another case in point. We as a nation are currently discussing Libya, a matter of considerable concern to our constituents. Perhaps we could have an understanding of the Government’s negotiating position on that, so that we might study and better understand what the Government plan to do.
Our constituents have considerable concerns about security matters with the United States, Commonwealth allies and other partners. I have been written to far more often about our security co-operation arrangements with other nations than about the European Union. Here, too, it might be appropriate for the House to have some sort of structure, such as that proposed by my hon. Friends the Members for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) and for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), whereby we see what the Government propose, in anticipation of their negotiating.
In the matter of declaring war, the House had a cursory and temporary assessment of the merits of conducting war against Iraq. It is shameful that even the papers relating to that cannot be released to the Iraq inquiry so that we might see the decision-making moments that happened in that most extraordinary and important decision that the House and the Government have taken in the past decade.
Although I support the broad thrust of the new clause, it would be more appropriate to consider all the international organs and bodies on which we sit, and to do so on the basis of a much wider consideration of the constitutional powers that our Ministers wield when they are negotiating and treating on our behalf.
My right hon. Friend has expressed that with much greater concision than I have managed, and embarrassed me in the process.
There is so much concision in the new clause that it is difficult to understand precisely what the proposers are getting at. It says that the papers relating to the negotiations should be released
“during negotiation of the treaty or decision.”
One of the proposers, Ms Stuart, related the negotiation of the European working time directive and the fact that it took from 1992 to 1999 to make that decision. At which point during that long negotiation would the papers relating to it be released to the House? If released after the negotiation had been concluded in 1999, would they have helped to understand the Government’s position in 1992?
The release of the papers would indeed have helped. The subsequent interpretation of the working time directive and the detail of how it should operate by the Court of Justice would have made it clear that none of the Governments involved in the original negotiations had intended certain interpretations to be made. That would have strengthened the House’s hand in saying, “No, that’s not what was intended, even by our Ministers.”
The hon. Lady has clarified that beautifully. It argues for wider consideration of such issues in the kind of structure anticipated by my hon. Friends and the process in Finland that she described.
There is a broader transparency that the House enjoys, which is to put to the electorate a manifesto at the time of elections. In the past 10 years a party has put forward a manifesto proposing a referendum on the European constitution, lately called the Lisbon treaty, yet that referendum was never granted. The purpose of this Bill is to ensure that such mendacity cannot be repeated. I therefore propose that the new clause be advanced at a later stage and on a wider basis, but I support the broader purposes of the Bill.
Does my hon. Friend agree that taking that proposal forward and evolving it over the next couple of years and months must be done on a multilateral basis, not a unilateral UK basis?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, because it is patently obvious how difficult it is for the United States, our ally, to negotiate at the moment, following the unilateral release of its documents to the world’s media, which was not its choice. If this is to be done, clearly it must be on a multilateral basis, especially with our key allies in the Commonwealth and the United States, as well as those in Europe.
I support the main aims of the Bill. I am greatly attracted to the thrust of the new clause, but I suspect that it would have more power and greater reach if it were advanced at a different stage and on a wider basis.
I want to make a few brief remarks about what is, on the face of it, a very laudable new clause. It is proposed by a number of Members whose reputations for seeking more openness in the transactions of government precede them. However, I hesitate to support it for several reasons, many of which have been ably outlined by other Members during the debate. In an intervention, my hon. and learned Friend Stephen Phillips really got to the heart of one problem with the terminology used in the new clause, particularly the word “relevant”, which is used in subsections (1) and (2).
The hon. Gentleman may well have a point. He focuses on the word “relevant”, but does he agree that the same arguments could be used against the word “significance”, which is used throughout the Bill?
I disagree, because I think that the term used in the Bill in relation to significance is very well couched. It has been explained very carefully and is backed up by a careful and clear text. There is a list in the Bill of the particular aspects that will trigger a referendum. I am afraid that I do not think that our points about those two words are analogous.
The word “relevant”, which I am focusing on, causes lawyers and all those with an interest in the law much difficulty in a wide range of issues. For example, an application for relevant documentation made before a criminal trial can cause much debate and argument on precisely what the term means. Frankly, I can see the same thing happening with the new clause and the issue going before the courts. In other words, I can see a judicial review of a particular laying of documentation by a Minister as part of the process, which again would make juridicable those issues that are properly dealt with by this House. I do not think that that is the intention of the Members who tabled the new clause, but it would be an unfortunate and unforeseen consequence of the use of that terminology, because what is relevant to one person will not be relevant to another. I can see a long and exhaustive list of documents being laid before the House and yet more requests being made for further documentation, which will then have to be ruled on by a court. Those would be regrettable consequences that none of us wants to see.
Another main problem with this rather wide-ranging new clause is the fact that not all the documents would be in the possession or ownership of the UK Government. It is clear from the phrasing of the new clause that many of the documents will have been drafted by either EU officials or other member states. Therefore, they are not under the ownership or control of the UK Government; they are what we call third-party documents.
The new clause would therefore have a great impact on the position of other member states and the institutions of the European Union. As we have heard, from my hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke in particular, other member states have their own procedures and ways of dealing with pre-negotiation positions, and many are dealt with in secret. Are we to say that this House has a right to interfere directly with the procedures of other member states?
My hon. Friend Mr Shepherd, in his eloquent speech, said that what is for the Danes is a matter for them, but I am afraid that the new clause would drive a coach and horses through that, because what is for the Danes would no longer be a matter for them; it would become a matter for us. In effect, we would decide to disclose documentation that they, under their procedures, did not want formally disclosed, and that would have a consequence for our relations with other member states in the context of freedom of information.
Such a decision would also have a consequence for existing regulations on access to EU documents. The current regulations, to which this country is a signatory, provide rights of access to documents held by EU institutions, and with the consent of those institutions the documents can then be disclosed to the public. The new clause would override and potentially conflict with that rule, and that is a problem—a practical difficulty—which makes questionable the fundamental deliverability of the aims of the proposed change. We cannot legislate in a vacuum, and we cannot ignore the rules of other member states or the rules and regulations to which we are a signatory.
Ironically, in an attempt to assert the power of this House to scrutinise negotiation and legislation, we risk interfering directly with the domestic arrangements of other member states, and I am absolutely sure that many who have spoken in today’s debate, who always speak so eloquently about the rights of nation states in the European Union, would not want that to happen.
I yield to no one in my fervent belief in transparency and openness. I believe fundamentally that some of the previous Government’s conduct was a negation of democracy, and, if the European Union is to be sustained as an institution that is worthy of the trust and support of not just its members but its peoples, much more must be done to increase that transparency.
Finally, I also believe fundamentally that we have to be realistic and strike a balance between the interests of openness and the interests of efficient and effective negotiation. My hon. Friend the Member for Dover, in his speech—
His excellent speech; I am happy to be corrected. My hon. Friend the Member for Dover made an important and helpful analogy between the negotiations that he as a lawyer would conduct on behalf of his clients and the work of Ministers representing this country in the Council of Ministers and in other European institutions. He quite rightly said that it would be—I paraphrase somewhat—rather absurd for him to be forced to reveal to his opponents his entire menu of options during a negotiation.
I adopt that analogy but take it one stage further: it would be even more absurd for my hon. Friend, as a lawyer justifying his decision to his clients, then to be forced to disclose not only the documents that he generated as a result of his negotiation, but the documents generated by his opponents. That would potentially prejudice not only his position but that of another party to the negotiations. Indeed, I am sure that he took part in negotiations with more than one party.
One can therefore see how the entire house of cards comes tumbling down as regards the freedom to indulge in a human negotiation. Let us face it, we are all human—we all know the constraints that can be placed on us if we know that everything that we say and do is, as in this place, taken down and recorded. If negotiations are to mean anything, there has to be an element of freedom within which our elected Governments who represent us on the European stage can conduct themselves. For all those reasons, I oppose what is otherwise a very well-intentioned new clause.
This has been a genuinely interesting debate which—somewhat unusually for European debates, dare I say it—has developed in a way that I did not altogether anticipate. We started by discussing a new clause dealing with transparency and public and parliamentary access to information concerning European negotiations, but as the debate continued it developed along the broader theme of the adequacy or inadequacy of our current arrangements for the scrutiny of decisions taken by successive Governments of the United Kingdom on behalf of Parliament and people within the institutions of the European Union. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate.
The key choice that has to be borne in mind in considering the proposition put forward in the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend Mr Clappison and Ms Stuart concerns the most effective balance between, on one hand, appropriate access to information that provides the flexibility to allow citizens and other interested parties to see documents that contributed to policy making and, on the other hand, the need to preserve a space for candid, confidential discussion, deliberation and negotiation to ensure the best possible outcome in the interests of our country. I have sympathy for many of the arguments—certainly the motivations—of the hon. Members who tabled the new clause, but I do not think that it would deliver the right balance. I will make my arguments in more detail in due course, but I hope that at the end of the debate they will not press the motion to a Division.
I want to start by addressing some of the broader issues that have been raised. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said that we needed to know when and how Ministers voted. Of course, one of the changes introduced by Lisbon is that we have new rules for the workings of the Council, including not only a public record but a public broadcast of the final deliberations at a Council session on legislative dossiers. At that point, it is apparent how each member state has voted, if indeed there is a formal division, and the arguments or the statement of position that the Minister or other representative of a member state chooses to put forward are also be made public. I have sat through a number of those public sessions over the past 10 months. I do not think that they will ever command a mass audience on a Saturday evening. I am not aware that they have ever been broadcast as part of the regular prime-time news bulletins in this country or any other member state.
The new clause and many of the contributions to the debate have tried to get at how Parliament, on behalf of the public, can hold Ministers to account more effectively, not just for that final, often rather formal, process of taking a decision on live TV, but for how the negotiating position of the United Kingdom is shaped in the numerous bilateral contacts and contacts with European institutions that are undertaken by Ministers and officials, sometimes over many months. A number of ideas have been suggested. My hon. Friend Ben Gummer said that we need to look at the matter in the context not only of the EU, but of our participation in other international institutions and considering the use of royal prerogative powers more generally.
It is interesting that no hon. Member has mentioned the House of Lords, which has distinct and different scrutiny arrangements. There is a question for parliamentarians at both ends of this building as to what methods of scrutiny experience teaches us work best and most effectively. If Government and Parliament are to agree on new scrutiny arrangements, the position of both Houses will have to be taken into account.
I am sure that the Minister would not want to misrepresent the differences between the two Scrutiny Committees. I know he is aware that the House of Lords has more generalised debates, whereas under our Standing Orders, our debates relate to particular legislative documents. To align the two might be a bit of a mistake.
That would be a matter for debate. I have heard dissatisfaction with the current scrutiny arrangements and a wish to explore the alternatives from several Members from all parts of the House this afternoon. At the moment, we have a model in the House of Commons and a model in the House of Lords. This business is done in various ways in other member states. Such a debate would take all those approaches into account.
Michael Connarty and my hon. Friends the Members for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) and for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) talked more generally about how we could improve our scrutiny arrangements. It seems to me that we need to keep the distinction between Parliament and Executive clearly in mind. Parliament’s role is to hold Ministers to account for their decisions, not to take on the role of the Minister. There is a strong case for saying to Parliament—perhaps I should be more cautious and say suggesting to Parliament—that rather than drowning parliamentarians in paperwork, about which the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk made a good point, Parliament and its Scrutiny Committees could seek to call Ministers before them, including in advance of Council decisions rather than necessarily waiting for the final version.
Will the Minister say how he thinks the House can overcome the problem of collective memory? In Whitehall, there is collective memory within the Administration, and if there is a change of Government, it is handed from one Administration to the next. Parliament has overcome the problem through successive Select Committees. However, if the knowledge is not in Parliament, once an Administration are gone it has no access.
When speaking on behalf of the Government, I must be careful not to presume to represent a collective Government position that does not yet exist, nor to pre-empt the views of parliamentarians from all parts of the House on the most appropriate method of scrutiny.
The Minister is moving away from the proposals put forward by Ms Stuart into a much deeper question, and I know that he is taking this opportunity to do so. As Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, I ask him to consider also that because the decisions made by the Council of Ministers are of a legislative character and are binding on Parliament through section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972, it is incumbent on him to consider the idea—in fact, to implement it—that Parliament may decide to vote against proposals that have been cultivated by the Government and to reject provisions that have been decided in the Council of Ministers. Perhaps the Minister can throw that point into the pool of his considerations.
That is clearly already possible under our system if a European measure comes forward that requires primary or secondary legislation to transpose it into the law of the United Kingdom. It is up to the Government of the day, of whichever party or parties it is composed, to retain the confidence of Parliament and to persuade a majority in Parliament to endorse their preferred approach.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston challenged me on the question of collective memory. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk said that he regretted the switch from European Standing Committees with fixed memberships to European Committees with shifting memberships. I spent my first Parliament, among other things, doing duty on European Standing Committee A. There is no doubt that I learned a great deal by virtue of that continuity, not least through the example of the late and great Gwyneth Dunwoody on how to hold Ministers to account. She used to deliver a master class in reading the documents in advance and picking out the weaknesses in the Government’s argument.
I could share many happy memories of that lady turning up in Standing Committees of which she was not a member and holding Ministers to account because of her interest in the subject. Cross-border health care, for example, although not her speciality, was a cause célèbre for her.
I compliment the previous Government and the present Government for continuing to send draft Council conclusions to the European Scrutiny Committee. That is what a lot of Members, such as Charlie Elphicke, have been talking about—actually seeing the proposals that are before the Council before they are discussed in the Council. The difficulty is that they are “limité” documents and are therefore semi-confidential. If there was a method that allowed a Committee or group of people in Parliament to have that responsibility—as is done in Denmark and Finland—and to interrogate the Minister on those documents, it would be a great step forward.
That is certainly an interesting suggestion. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his compliment. We intend to continue the practice of supplying “limité” documents whenever appropriate.
There is sometimes an issue about where the boundary of responsibility should lie between the European Scrutiny Committee and the various departmental Select Committees. If I have one reflection to offer from my experience in the 10 months that I have held my responsibilities, it is that parliamentary debate on this country’s engagement with the EU tends to take place in a metaphorical annexe. It is as though Parliament had constructed a separate, padded building, where the equivalent of the teenagers with their drum kits could get up to what they wanted. There is a serious question to be asked about whether our arrangements do justice to the fact that the European decision-making and legislative process should now be regarded as part of the mainstream of politics in the UK, rather than as something that can be relegated to an annexe.
I would very much welcome the idea of having, for example, European questions in the House. I have many proposals that would make the system more efficient. I remind my right hon. Friend of the current Home Secretary’s pamphlet, which recommended not only that European Committees should have their proceedings properly advertised, but that if, for example, 150 Members decided that they wanted to have the matter in question debated on the Floor of the House, there should be a free vote on a motion to overturn a decision taken in the Council of Ministers, whether or not the Government had approved the provision there. Some of us would be more interested in the results of a vote than in a mere discussion.
I welcome the tone and content of the Minister’s comments about having more scrutiny in the House. May I suggest to him that we really need to reinstate the twice-yearly debate about Europe before the Council meetings? Before he responds that that is an issue for the Backbench Business Committee, I once again implore him to ensure that Government time is provided for those debates.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has at least been consistent in pushing that line, but I have to remind him that his party, when it was in office, and all other parties, agreed unanimously to changes to our procedures and the organisation of parliamentary time that explicitly gave responsibility for those biannual debates on European matters to the Backbench Business Committee rather than the Government.
We have heard this afternoon about the importance of decisions in the EU to everybody in the country, and it would be a good expression of Parliament’s understanding of that point if Back Benchers of all parties put pressure on the Backbench Business Committee to make a debate on Europe a priority, instead of debates on the other matters that the Committee has chosen in response to Back Benchers’ demands. Back Benchers’ priorities should be debated in Back-Bench time, and I believe that most of us present this evening would like the Committee to feel that a debate on Europe was what Back Benchers wanted. I hope the hon. Gentleman will persuade his colleagues of that.
I simply remind all hon. Members who want to take forward these wider arguments that I said in my written ministerial statement on scrutiny on
“review the arrangements for engagement on EU issues in consultation with Parliament.”—[Hansard, 20 January 2011; Vol. 521, c. 52WS.]
I invite them to take advantage of that opportunity.
I turn to the detail of new clause 1, which causes me concern because it would result in the United Kingdom having a substantially different policy with regard to information on EU decision making from that on domestic policy making. It would also represent a substantial impediment to the UK’s ability to negotiate effectively in an intergovernmental conference, in the European Council and in the Council of Ministers. As a number of Members have said, it could have a negative impact on our relationship with other member states and the EU institutions, and more generally on the process of good policy making and legislation.
The negative effect on our ability to negotiate at the Council of Ministers concerns me most. First, action to comply with the statutory duty that the new clause would impose on Ministers could reveal sensitive information about the UK’s long-term negotiating approach in a number of areas. I do not believe it is sufficient protection to say that the negotiations would be complete or substantially complete by the time the documents were made available, because it is very rare that negotiating positions taken in respect of one piece of legislation do not have a read-across to positions on other matters that will probably still be live dossiers when that legislation has been agreed to.
Secondly, complying with the new clause would mean that our tactics in negotiations would have to take into account the duty to make negotiating positions on proposed amendments public at a later stage. For example, there are occasions on which we try to persuade other member states to propose, or take the lead on, particular amendments so that we can concentrate our time and energy on different amendments that perhaps have less widespread support. If a Minister knew that he might be criticised if it became public that he had not sponsored a particular amendment, that would constrain our negotiating tactics and weaken our negotiating strategies.
I quite understand that the proponents of the new clause might want to see how a decision is made at EU level and the details of what part the UK has played in that process, but I do not want any Ministers of any Government who are fighting for Britain’s interest in future discussions and negotiations to be doing so with one hand tied behind their back. It is absolutely essential to our national interest that Ministers can negotiate effectively on behalf of our country.
As a number of Members have said, including my hon. and learned Friend Stephen Phillips, the new clause would also have implications for information that we have on record about the positions of other member states. There is even a risk that its requirements could put us in conflict with existing European legislation. As a member state of the EU, we are party to the terms of the access to documents regulation, article 5 of which requires that when any member state intends to disclose a document originating from one of the EU institutions, it must consult that institution before public disclosure. If, under the new clause, we had to release a text submitted at a Council working group that included proposed amendments from each member state, and the agreement of the Council as a whole had not been sought or obtained, we could potentially be at risk of infraction proceedings and ultimately a fine. As the new clause is drafted, it is quite possible that our obligations as an EU member state could be at odds with the statutory duty that the new clause would create.
The remedy that my hon. Friend seeks can be obtained by Committees and the House being energetic in holding Ministers to account for the positions that they take and for the way in which they agree to whatever compromise is eventually negotiated.
Importantly, the proposed new clause does not specify in any way to what “relevant documentation” refers. That came up earlier in the debate. It is not clear, for example, whether “relevant documentation” covers so-called non-papers submitted by member states, which are intended to be “without prejudice” contributions to discussions. Does it include Council working group documents that give the position in summary of each and every member state on a particular issue? There could easily be widely diverging views on what comprises “relevant documentation”.
That lack of clarity could also cause confusion in relation to UK documents. Reference was made during the debate to whether legal advice given to the Government would be required to be made available under the terms of the proposed new clause. If so, that would clearly undermine the principle of legal professional privilege, the significance of which the Information Commissioner has generally recognised in the context of the Freedom of Information Act. Governments need to receive free and frank legal advice without fearing that it must be drafted in a form that is suitable for later public consumption.
Hon. Members may argue that we should try to use the current renegotiation of the access to documents regulation to implement the provisions of proposed new clause 1, but that measure would take us a long way beyond what would be acceptable in terms of releasing documents that are used at EU level for deliberations and decision making. The positions of other member states in respect of the documents that they make available to their Parliaments and public vary dramatically. Domestic regulations in several states lay out specific criteria on which documents can and cannot be released. Such criteria often allow for a great deal of discretion for Ministers or their officials, or impose strict limitations on the type and origin of documents to be released.
In some member states, the approach is to accept the general principle that as much documentation as possible should be released, with the only limitations being the prevention of harm, with harm often being defined in terms of personal, legal or economic impact.
My right hon. Friend is expertly demonstrating the complete, total lack of democracy in the EU. If ever a case needed to be framed and put in everybody’s loo, it is this one.
I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend and seeing the framed Hansard extract of my argument. I could return the compliment by wallpapering one of my rooms with the Hansard report of one of his speeches.
Hon. Members referred to a number of EU member states in the debate. Denmark was cited more than once as the prime example of an open country, but the documents that the Danish Government must provide to the European Affairs Committee of the Folketing do not include the positions of other member states or amendments that they have proposed, and nor are the Danish Government required to provide documents that have been prepared for their internal use, such as inter-ministerial correspondence. Even in Denmark, the right of access is subject to limitations when protection of, for example, public financial interests is essential.
I could run through a list of other countries and cite similar limitations and the categories of exemption that they choose to apply, but I will deny my hon. Friends and hon. Members that particular treat this evening. As a matter of general principle, the most effective way to operate in the EU is to build alliances and mutual trust with other member states that share our objectives, or that we can persuade to do so. That would be undermined by the approach embodied in proposed new clause 1.
Many member states would, with good reason, be concerned if the British Government were under a unilateral obligation to disclose documents relating to their positions in Council deliberations. Imagine the reaction here if the Spanish or Slovenian Government were to say, “Because our laws say so, we’re going to make public your initial position on this proposal and any detailed amendments that you have brought forward whether you like it or not, and regardless of whether you were subsequently persuaded to accept a different approach.” We must respect the sovereign rights of those member states. Revealing confidential information on other Governments’ amendments and negotiating positions would not enable us to forge the coalitions that we need to defend our national interest, but would make that considerably more difficult.
Although I am sure that this is not the intention of the supporters of new clause 1, one consequence of releasing Council deliberations routinely into the public domain would be to put it at a disadvantage with the European Parliament under the ordinary legislative or co-decision procedures. If we want to maintain and maximise British influence in the EU, we need to promote an effective and cohesive Council. It is not in the Council’s interest to reveal to the European Parliament all details of its negotiations, including the balance of argument and how compromises are struck. I know that some in the European Parliament claim that their committee meetings are open to the public and therefore that Council working groups should be similarly open, but it is understood that often, the real negotiations in the European Parliament take place outside Committees—I am glancing over my shoulder at my hon. Friend Chris Heaton-Harris—in corridors, coffee bars and restaurants.
I see no merit in anything that encourages the Council to move in the same direction, which I fear proposed new clause 1 does, and nor do I see merit in enacting a measure that would encourage people within the British Government, and perhaps within the Governments of other member states, not to commit their thoughts and ideas to paper, but to conduct negotiations verbally or by Post-it notes that could easily be disposed of subsequently.
The very things that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere denounced—decisions taken in secret and informal meetings arranged to fix a compromise in advance of a formal discussion—would be made more likely and not less by new clause 1. For those reasons, I cannot support it.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the care and attention that he has taken in answering this debate and for the manner in which he has done so. I am sure that it has been of great assistance to the House, and I will now be going to the Library to seek out a copy of the European Union access to documents regulations—I certainly would not want to fall foul of them, given what we have been told this afternoon.
My right hon. Friend has approached the debate in the spirit of the new clause. I am sure that Ms Stuart, in drafting the new clause, did not think that it was the finished article. It was a plea for greater transparency, and I hope that it has been taken as such. Despite possible problems with, for example, the phrase “relevant documentation”, what that might include, and what implications might flow from it, I hope at least that on the question of amendments proposed by a Government during treaty negotiations and treaty changes—that is what new clause 1 deals with—whether through the ordinary procedure or the new simplified revision procedure, members of the public and the House will be told what amendments are being, and have been, proposed by the Government, so that we, and members of the public, can judge, in due course, the strength of the Government’s position on what they ultimately recommend. We should be told whether a Government have been consistent in the amendments that they proposed and in what they subsequently recommend.
I will give one example. I was struggling earlier to think of one, although I know that there are a lot of them. During negotiations on the Lisbon treaty, Ministers in the then Government came to the House and advocated a certain clause or course of action, but it was discovered that during the negotiations on the Convention they had advocated exactly the opposite. One prime example was the creation of the European “foreign ministry” itself—the European External Action Service. During the debate, I have helpfully been told by the House of Commons Library that the then
“government’s amendments in the Convention to articles 1-27, III-197.1 describe the term ‘Foreign Minister’ as ‘unacceptable’ arguing that ‘he/she should have no ministry’. The government preferred the term ‘EU external representative’.”
Well we have our external representative—or rather, our High Representative—but perhaps that phrase conceals the fact that she is in reality a Foreign Minister, and the office was originally intend as such. We also have a European “foreign ministry” in the form of the EEAS, even though the then Government did not want it. They then had to come before the House, having apparently lost on that amendment, and argue from the Dispatch Box in favour of the creation of an external action service. The Minister will well remember, as I do, that on that occasion, Conservative Members opposed its creation. In the light of developments since, and what the public have come to learn and think about the EEAS and its conduct, I am not sure that our arguments against it have been entirely disproved. But there we are. That is one example.
The new clause was a plea for transparency. However, I know that there are important matters still to come before the House, and I do not want to delay them by pressing the new clause to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.