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House of Lords: EU Scrutiny (EUC Report)

– in the House of Lords at 11:06 am on 27th October 2006.

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Photo of Lord Grenfell Lord Grenfell Other 11:06 am, 27th October 2006

rose to move, That this House takes note of the report of the European Union Committee on EU Legislation—Public Awareness of the Scrutiny Role of the House of Lords (32nd Report, HL Paper 179).

Photo of Lord Grenfell Lord Grenfell Other

My Lords, your Lordships' Select Committee charged with the scrutiny of European Union proposals and documents was established just 32 years ago. From its inception, it has been recognised that national parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislation has a clear and vital constitutional purpose. Much European Union law is not implemented by our Parliament in a form in which it can be directly amended. Our scrutiny function is thus essential if we are to ensure that the law is right before it comes forward for implementation. That is why just over 70 Members of your Lordships' House work week in and week out to ensure that scrutiny of issues of direct and significant relevance and concern to our citizens is effectively and promptly carried out, so that the Government will take into account our analyses and advice before they vote in the Council.

I take this opportunity to congratulate and thank each and every one of the members of our Select Committee and its seven sub-committees for their dedication and skill, underpinned by the unrivalled expertise that they command in the many fields in which draft legislation is presented to us. We normally have more volunteers for places on the Select Committee and its sub-committees than the formal limits on our membership allow. That is surely a very healthy sign.

That the public are insufficiently aware of what we are doing in their name has been a matter for enduring regret. It is not that we are looking for rounds of applause; far from it. We simply believe that citizens deserve to have a better understanding of how Parliament seeks to hold the Government to account for the EU legislation that they agree in the Council of Ministers. I therefore took it upon myself to recommend to the committee that we take a serious look at this problem. It gives me great pleasure to introduce today our relatively short report, EU Legislation—Public Awareness of the Scrutiny Role of the House of Lords. I begin, as usual, with some words of thanks; first, to the members of the Select Committee for their excellent work. In recent years, the committee has become more active. We now meet once a week instead of once a fortnight, and we regularly produce reports on cross-cutting matters in addition to the policy and evidence analysis undertaken by the sub-committees in their specific fields.

The Select Committee is just finishing a major piece of work on the further enlargement of the European Union, which will be published shortly. Even a relatively compact inquiry such as the one that we are reporting on today involves the Select Committee members in a considerable amount of work in addition to that which they undertake on the sub-committees on which they all serve. I am truly grateful to them. Secondly, I thank our Clerk, Simon Burton, and our Second Clerk, Sarah Price, for their admirable organisation of the inquiry and drafting of the report. Thirdly, my thanks go to all those who gave evidence to the inquiry. I strongly urge noble Lords with an interest in these matters to delve into the evidence that is printed with the report, as it provides a rich seam of material. Finally, I thank all those who have agreed to speak today, I look forward to an interesting debate, which will, I am sure, be considerably enhanced by the maiden speech of the former Lord Advocate, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby. We very much welcome him to his place today.

The House may recall that in 2002 we conducted a major review of our scrutiny work and set ourselves a number of goals to make even more effective the discharge of our constitutional mandate. One of those goals was,

"the provision of information to the House and to the public as a contribution to transparency".

We have worked since 2002 on a number of initiatives to deliver on that objective, including the adoption of a press and publicity action plan for all our reports. But the issue of Parliament's relationship with the public has in recent months assumed a higher profile, not least with the publication of the Hansard Society's report on Parliament in the public eye, which was debated in your Lordships' House earlier this year. The chairman of that commission, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, very much regrets that he is unable to speak in this debate today. I am, however, delighted that we will hear from the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, who has not only been a very distinguished chairman of our Sub-Committee on Environment and Agriculture—a post from which we will be very sorry to see him step down at Prorogation—but who was a member of the Hansard Society commission.

It is my personal view that the Hansard Society report has provided an impetus for all of us in this House to think more carefully about how what we do impacts on the public, because this House is more than ever in the public eye. We of course have a duty to the citizens—they do not elect us but they do fund us, albeit quite modestly. But there is a more important argument—and here again I am giving my personal view—that this House, and the work we do, add considerable value to the democratic processes of law-making and accountability. It is accordingly our responsibility as parliamentarians to ensure that we perform that duty as effectively as possible.

That was the internal driver, so to speak, for our inquiry—seeking to enhance the work of this House and thus to do the best for the citizens. But there were also external drivers of which I shall cite two: first, a desire on the part of my committee to understand better the work of other national parliaments in their dealings with EU affairs and to learn from best practice; and, secondly, the broader context of debates on the role of the EU and its institutions in connecting and communicating with citizens.

I can be brief in respect of the other national parliaments. Paragraphs 26 to 34 of the report set out a number of initiatives that other parliaments have taken with regard to EU affairs. Some, notably in Denmark, Sweden and Latvia, have information centres within their parliaments where citizens can get direct, factual and unbiased information about the EU and about how proposed EU policies will affect them as citizens. In Ireland, the National Forum on Europe tours the land, engaging citizens directly with policy makers on a range of issues. While there was never any question of any of the resources of this House being used on an agency role for the European Union, given the steps taken by other parliaments, there was, in our view, a question to be asked about whether our House should or could do as other parliaments have done by seeking to become a source of impartial information on EU matters.

As noble Lords will see from paragraphs 44 to 53 of the report, our committee decided that in this country it was neither necessary nor desirable for our Parliament to take any such initiatives. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, gave powerful evidence on that point and may expand on it today. In summary, the committee's view was that Parliament should seek to add value to the process of EU legislation by its scrutiny function and, in particular, by the expert analysis of evidence that Members of this House undertake. It is for others to provide factual information about the EU, principally the Government and the EU institutions. The Government have a responsibility to explain the EU legislation and why they have agreed to it.

Accordingly, the committee welcomed a range of government initiatives in that regard and I hope that the Minister will be able to enlighten the House further. In particular, I hope that he will be able to say how the Government plan to keep Parliament fully informed of their work in providing information to the citizens. In addition, the EU has well developed structures of its own for providing information and it is a matter for the institutions themselves to ensure that those are properly managed and resourced.

This leads me to the final piece of background to the inquiry—the work the European Commission is undertaking to seek to connect more directly with the citizens. Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström has worked tirelessly in this regard, in particular by presenting a plan for democracy and dialogue, Plan D, and a citizens' agenda. She has also worked hard to ensure that the scrutiny role of national parliaments is recognised and enhanced. I accordingly welcome the first practical initiatives from the Commission, including the direct transmission of its documents to all national parliaments, a regular newsletter and a regular report on the work the Commission is undertaking to make commissioners and officials available to national parliaments. But perhaps more importantly, I welcome the political commitment given by the Commission that it will listen and respond to concerns raised by national parliaments, in particular, but not exclusively, on matters of subsidiarity and proportionality.

The final external reason for the inquiry was to focus our minds on what a committee such as ours should and should not be doing in the context of the broader debate about the EU and its relations with its citizens. That last point can be easily answered. We suggest that if our public profile is raised, especially through the media, our reports may exert more influence over policy makers. In paragraph 127 we state:

"Securing better publicity for our work may help us to better fulfil our core scrutiny function. Securing better publicity for our work might also help to raise the profile of the House itself and to restore public confidence in the role of parliament. If the Committee describes well and effectively the work we are doing, we will, in the end, have an effect on the public because we will show that Parliament is holding the Government to account properly and is being properly informed".

I will turn in a moment to how we have sought to rise to that challenge as a committee, but, first, a word about the Government. We made a few recommendations in our report directed to the Government and we welcomed their response to our report, which has been available to your Lordships in advance of the debate. There is, however, a specific recommendation on which I look forward to hearing from the Minister today. The committee places great value on the Government's explanatory memoranda on EU legislation, which, in effect, constitute the Government's evidence to Parliament. While these are public documents, available on request, they are not easy for the public to get hold of. We accordingly recommended that Her Majesty's Government establish a dedicated website to make explanatory memoranda available, and I hope that the Minister will bring us some news on that.

Turning to the committee: what are we already doing to achieve greater public awareness of our work? As far as the media are concerned the committee is realistic about the chances of securing headlines for a detailed report scrutinising and analysing EU matters from a deep and serious perspective. But there is always more that can be done and we will work to do so, not least by building on the links between individual members of committees and the press, in particular the regional and local press. We will do more to ensure that reports are published at the appropriate time, taking, as ever, the sound advice of our media officer; although I should note that this House has one press officer working for 15 committees while the other place has four for its committees. That is a matter to ponder.

Turning from media coverage to matters where early improvement may be easier to achieve, we are first seeking to enhance our scrutiny of the Commission's annual work programme. We reject the case made by some parliaments for a simultaneous debate on the programme in all national parliaments on the same day. That is unrealistic. As the usual channels would be the first to point out, it is not anyway in our gift to enter into such a commitment. But we do recommend an annual debate in your Lordships' House on the Commission's work programme as well as a debate after each European Council to supplement the reports already made by way of a statement. These, too, are matters for the usual channels and in the light of today's debate my committee will be considering how to take these ideas forward. If the Minister has any intelligence to share from his noble friend the Leader of the House or from his noble friend the Chief Whip, we would be pleased to hear about it. We would, of course, also be happy to hear whether the other parties whose Front Benches will speak today might support such ideas.

Equally important as a debate on the work programme is the need for more in-depth scrutiny of it each year, as it provides the first valuable insight into what the Commission is, and is not, planning to do, and thus allows us to get in far upstream where something is of concern. The 2007 work programme was published on Tuesday of this week and, at its meeting next Tuesday, the committee will be considering a proposal for enhanced scrutiny—so watch this space, as they say.

The committee has also redoubled its efforts to ensure that our views—the synthesis of our scrutiny work—are effectively conveyed to opinion formers in Brussels, including, but by no means confined to, Members of the European Parliament. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, whose speech this afternoon I eagerly anticipate, presented the conclusions of the report on human rights-proofing EU legislation to the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs on 22 February. The noble Lord also presented the conclusions of the report on the fundamental rights agency to the same European Parliament committee on 4 May.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, presented the conclusions of the report on the consumer credit directive to the European Parliament's Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee on 9 October. In addition, the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, discussed the committee's report on the EU's strategy for Africa with MEPs, two African Ambassadors, key officials from the EU institutions and NGOs at a think-tank round table in Brussels on 11 July. I am very grateful to those noble Lords for so admirably demonstrating how we wish to proceed.

I turn for a moment to the subject of Parliament's website. Our report agrees with the Puttnam commission's conclusion that the website needed a radical redesign, and we welcome work under way to that end. The Web Centre manager, Dominic Tinley, and his team have given us the welcome news that the first steps in a project that will deliver rolling improvements, especially in design and navigability, over the next few years have already been taken. These initial changes were based on user needs and involved significant testing with Members, staff and the general public. I am sure that we all look forward to further improvements.

My committee stands ready to pilot new initiatives and new ideas that will allow our reports and other work to be more effectively communicated directly to the citizens through the website. In any event, when resources permit, we will make full use of the interparliamentary exchange website, known as IPEX.

Finally, I stress that the committee wants to continue to work in as open a way as possible. That is particularly important for the public but also for all Members of this House, whatever our views on the merits or otherwise of the European Union. While our committee, along with other committees in both Houses, will continue to hold deliberative sessions in private, all our evidence is taken in public. Oral evidence is broadcast live on the internet, with uncorrected and then corrected transcripts made available on the website. Written evidence, too, is now routinely made available on the website where possible during an inquiry, but in any case with the final report. Significant items of correspondence with Ministers and replies are also available, and, of course, all our reports are available free to download from the website.

Earlier this year, we launched a monthly e-newsletter, which is available on our home page. This, too, is free, and an e-mail alert allows anyone who wants to subscribe to do so. The newsletter highlights major work under way or planned across the constellation of our committee and its seven sub-committees. I strongly encourage all noble Lords to sign up for this service. We also produce an annual report setting out the work undertaken and giving a forecast of work to come. The 2006 annual report is due to be published before Prorogation, and I hope that noble Lords intending to address the subject of EU affairs in the debate on Her Majesty's gracious Speech will have an eye on this document when they do so.

We of course welcome evidence to all our inquiries from any source, not least from Members of this House. If noble Lords have things to say, they should say them to us and we will take account of their views in our reports. If I may say so, we are an open and transparent committee in the best tradition of your Lordships' House, and long may that continue. It is in that spirit that our report comes before the House today. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of the report of the European Union Committee on EU Legislation—Public Awareness of the Scrutiny Role of the House of Lords (32nd Report, HL Paper 179).—(Lord Grenfell.)

Photo of Lord Renton of Mount Harry Lord Renton of Mount Harry Conservative 11:24 am, 27th October 2006

My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, in this debate on our EU scrutiny. The noble Lord has been a tireless and painstaking chairman of the EU Committee. It is a large committee with 17 members, and it cannot be said that all its members share exactly the same views on the EU. The diplomacy shown by the noble Lord is therefore always very welcome. I also served on Sub-Committee A, the economic and financial committee, when the noble Lord was its chairman for a short time. So it could be said that I have seen him in two roles—as sub-committee chairman and committee chairman.

That said, I am going to be rather less happy than the noble Lord about the situation that we are in now. I do not expect it to be very violent stuff; I do not think that there will be a headline tomorrow saying, "Uproar in the Lords", although we might rather enjoy such publicity. But I have more doubts about where we are now than have been expressed in our report and in what the noble Lord, our chairman, has said today.

We have to ask ourselves two specific questions. One is: are we increasing public awareness of our scrutiny role and, in the process, are we causing any change at all in EU legislation, either in draft or in final form, either here with Ministers or with the EU Commission and Council? Here, I shall quote one sentence from paragraph 128 of the report. We say that we should not,

"take on any additional role that might compromise the scrutiny role given to us by the House".

I wonder whether that is a little too unambitious. Therefore, in order to give an example of my feelings, I now want to turn in some detail to what we have been doing on Sub-Committee D.

I have been chairman of Sub-Committee D for three years. Our job concerns the environment and agriculture. We have some extremely interesting and wise members. When we produced a report, to which I shall refer again in a minute, on CAP reform, the four farmers on the committee all agreed that the single farm payment should be phased out by 2013. That is quite a statement. During my three years, we have produced various substantive reports. One was on EU fisheries policy in the North Sea; another, as I mentioned, published in June of last year, was on reform of the CAP; a report entitled Managing nuclear safety and waste: the role of the EU was published in July this year; and, at the moment, we are engaged on a report on the very lively subject of EU targets for the use of biofuels. Subject to the agreement of the full Select Committee, that will be published in November.

We have followed all the instructions, done all the things that we were told to do and have worked hard. We also had an extremely good Clerk. However, the only real publicity that we had in all that time was one article by Peter Riddell—someone whom I have known for many years—in the Times last year, saying that, so far as the CAP was concerned, he thought that we were providing a useful road map. Those were perhaps not the most fortunate words to have used, but that is what he said, and it was very pleasant to have that publicity. Other than that, publicity has, to be blunt, been zilch.

Therefore, I shall say a word more on the detail of our report on the nuclear package. Very few people know that the EU was proposing draft directives on the management, first, of nuclear safety and, then, of nuclear waste. In fact, these draft directives were first published in 2003. A qualified majority vote was required for them to become effective, but that was not achieved. Eight countries, including France and the UK, voted against, largely on the ground of subsidiarity. They felt that nuclear should be a national matter. However, that has not been the end of the story. The drafts were revised and republished in September 2004, at which time France switched and voted for them. That is interesting because France, as we know, generates about 80 per cent of its electricity by nuclear means, and one of our questions was: why has France changed tack?

It seemed to me, therefore, that this was an extremely appropriate report for us to take on, partly because so many others did not know about the EU's interest, but also because it was such a lively matter. At the moment in Britain we are considering whether to go down the nuclear route again. In the process of our inquiry we learnt a good deal and put into the report as much as we could of the knowledge that we obtained by, for example, going to Finland, which is building two new nuclear reactors and which is perfectly satisfied about how they will manage nuclear waste. We also went to Brussels and France and saw all the people whom we should have seen.

When it came to publicity, I talked to our press officer, whom the noble Lord, our chairman, mentioned, and we agreed that we would do our best. So we had a little drinks party for journalists, which I think that I paid for. It took place in the Attlee Room. Sixteen young journalists came, and I am sure that they were delighted to see the Attlee Room and to meet Peers and Peeresses. I asked our press officer to send me copies of all the publicity that we received. How much have I had from him? Zero. I was very disappointed, because I thought that this subject should command attention.

We made some sensible recommendations. We said that we were against the EU having the primary legislative role in this matter, but that we thought that the EU—we put this into the report—could act as a channel for information about the future of nuclear energy, the pros and cons, and try to spread this knowledge throughout the EU countries, bearing in mind that, for example, a lot of people are worried about whether there might be another Chernobyl and about the state of the nuclear reactors in countries such as Bulgaria, which is just joining the EU. So the report seemed to us a very appropriate one to write and I hoped, with my colleagues, that we would get a lot of interest. We did not.

I go from there—and I am about to retire, as the noble Lord said, as chairman of Sub-Committee D; I have greatly enjoyed the work—to the question: what do we do now? How do we take forward this area where we all want to do things better? We are living in cloud cuckoo land if we think that the media or the public are going to be genuinely and regularly interested in constructive, helpful EU directives. They are not. They are interested only when Christopher Booker tells us that, thanks to the EU, all bananas will now have to be pear shaped. That is the sort of information that gets publicity.

There is a reverse side to this. On Sub-Committee D, we are aware that the European Commission is quickly moving far ahead on environmental issues. As I am sure many noble Lords will know, there are now seven what are called EU thematic strategies. They cover waste, soil, air, natural resources, pesticides, marine and water. Only this Wednesday, we were considering the draft directive—this was a scrutiny matter—on proposals of the European Parliament and of the Council for environmental quality standards in the field water policy. That is a huge issue, and it has been taken forward under this label of mandated thematic strategies. There is little talk about it, but all these thematic strategies may well lead in due course to directives because they are continental and not national matters. The quality of air in Sweden and Denmark affects us in the UK. The same applies to water and waste. It is therefore very necessary for us to consider how we can be more effective in our scrutiny than we are at present and, in the process, occasionally even change something.

In the course of our travels, I went to Finland twice: once to look at its nuclear power stations and again, three weeks ago, with Michael Jack, chairman of the environment committee in the other place. Because of that, I have met quite a few of the Finnish MPs and so forth. I would like to read out descriptions of parliamentary EU scrutiny legislation, first in Finland and then in Denmark. Finland has a unicameral Parliament, the Eduskunta, with 200 seats.

"The Finnish constitution sets out a system of scrutiny of EU policy that divides proposals into U-matters on which the Finnish government must seek parliament's approval before agreement in Council, and E ... matters, on which the Eduskunta has the right to receive information".

Then, of Denmark, Ms Elisabeth Arnold MP, chairman of the Social Liberals in the Danish Parliament, states:

"Our task is to go through the agenda before every Council meeting and see that the Danish Government does not commit itself to something which cannot be carried through or implemented afterwards in the Danish parliament with a solid majority ... We have scrutiny where we go through every Council meeting and tell the Minister that he can say Yes or No to this or that".

That is revolutionary stuff, is it not? Ministers would hate the thought that they had to appear before a Select Committee of Members of—I hope—both Houses before they could decide how they would vote, yes or no, at Council meetings.

We have to consider very carefully how we can be more effective in this field. In my committee, we often say of environmental and agricultural matters, "We wish to scrutinise further; we don't like this and we want to look further". Then, in technical terms, our scrutiny is overridden because there is not enough time—the Council meeting is happening in a week's time and Ministers have to agree; the Minister is sure that we will understand but is very sorry that they were not able to pay any attention to our scrutiny. That happens time and time again. Therefore, how do we do something about it?

We all know perfectly well that at this time the EU is not popular. There is very little media interest unless, as I have said, it is bad news. At the same time, however, the EU is substantially widening its scope. We must look hard and seriously for a change of process—and maybe we have something to learn from the Finns and the Danes.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat 11:37 am, 27th October 2006

My Lords, we have listened to two extremely impressive speeches. I pay my tribute and, I think, that of many Members of this House to the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, for the extraordinary, conscientious and thorough way in which he has undertaken the difficult job of chairman of the European scrutiny committee. Those of us who know his work and the extraordinary amount of effort that he puts into it are eternally grateful to him and recognise that he has managed to make the committee a very influential force.

I am delighted to say that the two members of my own party who serve also as Members of the European Parliament assure me that the reports of the scrutiny committee and its sub-committees—the noble Lord, Lord Renton, has been a very distinguished chairman of one of those sub-committees—have a considerable impact on the European Parliament. That is very important. We must consider how that impact might be further increased.

I have already given a good deal of evidence to the committee that considered how far the scrutiny of the European scrutiny committee could be made better known to the public. I shall therefore follow the fascinating and challenging speech of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, by trying to be very specific about some of the things that I think we might do.

Before I do that, I want to remind the House of two things that are often forgotten. First, whatever our differences of opinion, we are members of the European Union, therefore we have a responsibility to try to influence it in ways that we think are helpful and constructive and not simply to sit on the sidelines and pretend that somehow it has nothing to do with us.

Secondly, following very directly what the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said, we must recognise that the European Union is today a major player globally. It is perhaps the most significant force, alongside China and the United States, in global trade regulation and global trade directives. It is a very significant player in how we deal with the increasingly frightening and immediate problem of climate change. It is a very significant player in intellectual property, one of the rising areas of concern in world trade, and is increasingly significant in the important area of human rights and trying to resolve global crises by conflict resolution and peaceful methods. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, will doubtless remind us, it has long been a significant force supporting the United Nations—perhaps the most significant group of countries to have thrown its weight behind that organisation and tried to make it work.

There are strong reasons why it is important that the work of the European scrutiny committee is closely considered in this House. The single most important way to do that is to establish a number of parliamentary conventions. For that reason, I am especially grateful that our excellent and very sensitive Lord Speaker happens to be with us at the moment. The first of those conventions—here, I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, said—is that there should be a major debate, at least a day long, on the annual work programme, which is the closest that we come in the EU to a Queen's Speech. If we cannot discuss the plans of the European Union for the forthcoming year or years, we are already chasing after the facts rather than trying to influence them. Therefore, my first plea for a parliamentary convention of the House is that there should be major time for a debate on the annual work programme.

Secondly—this would be useful to Members of the House, whatever their view of the European Union—we should establish as a convention that we invite the representative of each rotating presidency to come before the European scrutiny committee to say what are his or her proposals for the objectives of the country during its presidency. As most of us know, the presidency is often considerably influenced by the interests or the national vision of the president country. Therefore, to be able to influence the effect of that presidency, the shape that it gives to the European Union, is extremely important. It is crucial to establish a convention under which, as a normal pattern of behaviour, the European scrutiny committee invites that person or his or her representative to come before it. That would establish a link that might conceivably interest the media as well as Members of Parliament.

The third convention that I propose is that there should be biennial questioning of the European summit Statements made in this House. Where that Statement concerns a summit of particular importance touching on major subjects such as the environment, energy or agriculture, the House should debate it within a week or so of the summit report to enable it to be explored in greater detail than is possible in a debate on a Statement that lasts perhaps 40 minutes. Where there is a major subject in a summit, the House should expect a substantial debate to follow it. That is only to ask for time on two occasions a year, in addition to the one day discussing the annual work programme.

All that would be helpful—I repeat that it should be a parliamentary convention that we debate the annual work programme and summit discussions or Statements. Once they become established as conventions, almost immediately the European scrutiny committee and its sub-committees get a profile in the House that ought finally to get across to our friends in the media Gallery.

The Government could ask the European Parliament and Commission to expect there to be opportunities for the scrutiny committee to make its reports known, not just in writing but orally before the commissioner responsible, or his or her representative, in Brussels. It would be very helpful for our reports to be considered by the relevant commissioner and, where appropriate, by the European Parliament.

In that context, I want to pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Ludford, who has made a tremendous impact in human rights, an area in which, more than most, a link-up between the national Parliament and the European Parliament is critical. It does not work unless there is that link. In the light of the so-called period of consideration or reflection to which the Prime Minister referred, the Government could do more to establish links, discussion and debate between the Parliaments and between the Parliaments and the Commission.

I turn to the media. A redesign of the website is critical. Michael White, the political editor of the Guardian, giving evidence to the European scrutiny committee, said that often what journalists need is a nudge from the elbow. He meant that they digest short, terse and relevant material and do not digest long reports. That means that the explanatory memoranda and the executive summaries of reports are critical if we are ever to attract mainstream journalists. As far as possible, our website should concentrate on getting across the meat of a report, perhaps also making clear that the chairman of a sub-committee is available to answer questions and provide more information on the substance of the report. I also suggest that the committee and its sub-committees consider holding a launch for their reports, inviting the specialist press where relevant and remembering that there is nothing like coffee and biscuits to bring the press along early in the morning.

The final area that I want to consider is education, where there is a great deal to be done. Here, I shall talk rather straightforwardly, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, has done. It is simply ludicrous in a country which is, like it or not, a member of the European Union, that our citizenship curriculum and our study of history virtually do not mention it. I do not understand how we expect to have a constructive impact on the European Union—most of us recognise that it is highly unlikely that this country is about to withdraw from the European Union now or in the next 20 years—without our citizens having at least some glimmer of knowledge on what it is all about. We are probably the least educated of all the old European members. Whatever view you take, we know almost nothing about that hugely influential and important international group of countries. In our education and, not least, in our citizenship, we must give our children and young people some idea of what the European Union is about, where it came from and, dare I say it, just possibly, the fact that it is recognised in large parts of the world—from the United States to China—as having been one of the most constructive answers to the problem of dealing with continuing conflict, hatred and civil war.

How do we do that? We must include the European Union in the syllabus for citizenship. The committee could request a resumption of the famous sixth-form conferences which used to take place regularly under the aegis of the Council for Education in World Citizenship down the road at the Methodist Central Hall, where literally hundreds of sixth-formers came to discuss world citizenship and the European Union year after year. Those conferences have ceased, which is a tremendous shame.

Lastly on education, the opportunity to bring together teachers involved in teaching European politics, possibly to meet from time to time with chairs of the sub-committees or other members of the European scrutiny committee would be very useful.

Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch Conservative

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that, in this excellent attempt to widen the education of our children into matters concerning the European Union, the curriculum would have to be very carefully balanced between those who favour the project and those who do not?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I have always accepted that. I believe that, when teaching domestic politics, it is crucial that the representatives of different parties, not just a single voice, should be heard. In no sense am I arguing for a single voice; I am arguing for something different. I am arguing for informed debate instead of ignorant debate. Much of the debate in our country is, sadly, ignorant at present.

I have already taken enough of the House's time. I conclude by saying that we could be far more proactive. One result of the so-called period of reflection should be that this House insists that our own Parliament and the European institutions recognise the crucial need to link up again with citizens, especially young ones. In that respect, the European Scrutiny Committee has already played a considerable part, and could play an even greater one.

Photo of Lord Boyd of Duncansby Lord Boyd of Duncansby Labour 11:50 am, 27th October 2006

My Lords, I trace my interest in Europe back to a debate in which I participated. It was entitled "The Common Market: should Britain join?", and was held at a school debating society in Wick in Caithness. My family moved to Wick when I was 11 and left when I was 17, so I spent only a short period of my life there. These were, however, formative years, and Caithness and its people left a deep impression on me.

My first visit to this House was when the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, was the local Member in the other place. He was the one who arranged for me to sit up in the Gallery with my sister and to watch proceedings here. Little did I think that, 40 years later, I would be among noble Lords.

When it came to choosing a title, I wanted to choose one that represented Caithness and reflected my childhood. Duncansby Head is the most north-easterly point in Caithness and, for that matter, in Scotland. It was a favourite place for walks as a child, and one where the power and beauty of nature come together in great vistas across the Pentland Firth and the Pentland Skerries to Orkney and in great stacks of rock that stand proud against the elements. It was therefore with great pleasure that I chose Duncansby as part of my title, and it is an honour to sit among noble Lords.

I have been welcomed by Members on all sides with generosity and kindness, for which I thank everyone. I also extend my thanks to the staff of this House—the Doorkeepers, the Attendants, the staff in the Black Rod's Office and the Whips' Office, the Library and catering staff and, indeed, the police officers—all of whom have been of great assistance to a new boy finding his way, for which I am most grateful.

I was appointed Solicitor-General for Scotland in May 1997, and then Lord Advocate in February 2000—a post that I held until three weeks ago. During that time, I saw enormous constitutional change in this country: the devolution of power to Scotland and Wales, the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law and changes to the composition of this House—to name but a few. I also saw great changes in Europe. I have been very fortunate to have been at the centre of some of these events and to see how these constitutional changes work out in practice. I hope that, in some small way in the deliberations of this House, I may be able to contribute some of that experience and knowledge.

There is no question that this House is remarkably good at scrutinising EU legislation. The structure of the Select Committee, with its specialist sub-committees, combined with the knowledge and experience of those who sit on those committees, helps to produce reports of consistently high quality. It is equally true that the role of the House is not generally well known. When I read the report, I wondered what public we are talking about when we address the question. I noticed that the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, referred to attentive publics, which may be a more fruitful seam to mine.

On the role of the devolved Administrations, I was pleased to note that the role of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales in encouraging more debate on EU matters was recognised and acknowledged in the report, albeit as a footnote to paragraph 55, but it is there, nevertheless. The Scottish Parliament and Executive have responsibility for the implementation of EU obligations in the devolved areas. The scrutiny of that work falls to the European and External Relations Committee of the Scottish Parliament. I was disappointed to note that the National Assembly for Wales responded to the call for evidence, but the Scottish Parliament did not.

In its evidence to the Select Committee, the European Movement suggested that,

"it would be very helpful if the EU Select Committee could hold its hearings ... in the various UK nations ... not just in Westminster".

The recommendations do not take up that suggestion specifically, although I assume that it is covered in paragraph 148 of the report as one of the suggestions to be considered by the committee on how it can raise its profile. I heartily endorse such a suggestion: it would be great to see the committee sitting and taking evidence in Edinburgh. That would be welcomed by the Scots. It would also raise its visibility in the Scottish media, although I do not always endorse that. In this case, however, it would be helpful and beneficial.

I humbly suggest that one might go further and that, when sitting in Edinburgh, the committee might take the opportunity to meet Members of the Scottish Parliament, particularly members of the European and External Relations Committee. On page 27 of the minutes of evidence, during a discussion on, I think, the Puttnam commission's report, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said:

"The Scottish Parliament are giving us"—

I assume he means this House—

"a lesson in how to communicate itself better".

As a new boy in this place, I am not sure whether I am in a position to judge that. It is undoubtedly true, however, that both the Scottish Parliament and this House may have things to learn from each other.

This House no longer has a monopoly of interest in the scrutiny of EU legislation affecting citizens of the United Kingdom. It shares that role and interest with the devolved Administrations. I suggest that engagement with the committee in Scotland and the corresponding committee in the National Assembly for Wales might bring a number of benefits. First, it would undoubtedly bring a different perspective to the work of this House in its scrutiny of EU legislation. There is no doubt that they do it differently. I do not suggest for a moment that they do it better, but they are certainly alive to different issues from the ones considered by this House. Indeed, a founding principle of the European Union—a principle that we sometimes believe may be honoured less in practice than in speech—is subsidiarity, which would certainly be reflected in that engagement.

Secondly, I am certain that the Scottish Parliament can learn from the experience of this House and the way in which it scrutinises EU legislation. This House has been at it far longer, has far more experience of it, and it has the capability of its Members.

Thirdly, I read the Official Report of the European and External Relations Committee of the Scottish Parliament to find out why it had not responded to the call for evidence. The reason appeared to be that it was engaged in its own review of the Commission's Plan D. That was coupled, however, with a strong scepticism about how this House could presume to be acting on behalf of the public. That may raise all sorts of issues about the legitimacy of this House. But, in the limited area of this exercise, one way in which to counter such views is to engage with those who express them, to initiate a dialogue and to demonstrate the vital role that this House plays on behalf of the citizens of the whole of the United Kingdom in the scrutiny of EU legislation.

Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 12:00 pm, 27th October 2006

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the excellent maiden speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby, and to congratulate him on behalf of the whole House. The noble and learned Lord is a distinguished lawyer who, as he has mentioned, has held high office as Solicitor General for Scotland and Lord Advocate. His career suggests a very balanced approach to life, having studied at universities in England and Scotland, and having practised as a solicitor and a barrister. He has made some very constructive suggestions and we look forward greatly to his contributions to future debates.

I, too, very much welcome this timely and important report. The European Union Committee of your Lordships' House does extraordinarily valuable work, which is widely acknowledged by those familiar with Parliament and the processes of scrutiny of EU legislation by national parliaments. The work of the European Scrutiny Committee in the other place and the EU Committee of this House complement one another, the former going for breadth and the latter for depth. Within the constraints necessarily faced by national parliaments of member states, the system of parliamentary scrutiny in the UK works well. I believe that it could be strengthened—as could the position of national parliaments collectively—but it could be strengthened from a relatively strong base. Relative to other national parliaments, it may not exert the power of the Danish and some other legislatures, but we should be careful not to confuse powers with practice. We can learn from others, including, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd, said, Scotland, but it is the political will that is crucial.

The EU Committee serves as a valuable workhorse of your Lordships' House. I am very pleased, as the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, has said, that the committee has stressed that it does not have an agency role. It is a committee of this House and not an agent of the very institution and process it was set up to scrutinise. As a committee of this House, it adds value by the detailed and critical scrutiny that it undertakes. In response to my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry, I would argue that it contributes to debate at a stage when it can influence thinking. Its impact may not always be quantifiable, but I believe it to be real. It does not have to reach a wide public in order to have an impact. It does not necessarily have to have media coverage to have an influence.

However, as the committee recognises, there is a problem in ensuring that there is a greater public awareness of what it does. As I said when we debated the Puttnam report on the Communication of Parliamentary Democracy, I believe that what goes on in this House is a public good. The public have a right to know, and will also benefit from knowing, what we are doing—in terms both of the processes that we adopt, and the substance of the debates we have and the reports we publish. That is my starting point. It flows from that that we have a responsibility to ensure the public are informed of our activities and have an opportunity to inform us in that activity. There is, as I argued in my evidence, a two-way relationship, between the EU Committee and the institutions of the European Union, and between the EU Committee and the public. The committee thus constitutes an important link between the public and the EU, but one that adds considerable value in the process. The EU Committee, in short, is not a cipher and does not operate in a vacuum.

Picking up on a point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd, I shall take the term "public" as encompassing a number of publics. There are essentially three publics that the work of the committee should reach: parliamentarians, affected groups and members of the public. It is the second group that tends to be most aware of committee activity. Groups affected by EU activity, and which seek to influence the EU, are the bodies most likely to be consumers of EU Committee reports. That is not peculiar to the EU Committee. Such bodies, which are sometimes styled attentive publics, constitute something of a captive audience. They are likely to get copies of parliamentary reports, however obscure, poorly presented or expensive they are. But it is true then that the committee may have a particular influence.

The problem lies with the other two publics—parliamentarians and members of the public, who are not captive audiences. They have other things to occupy their minds. They will not necessarily take the initiative to get hold of the latest report from the EU Committee. In effect, the committee has to compete with other distractions in order to gain attention. Producing a report is a necessary but not sufficient condition for attracting attention. As I said in my evidence, too often we tend to assume that publication is the end point of a process. It is not. In terms of reaching the different publics, it should be seen as the starting point. As the report recognises, we need to enhance considerably our process of dissemination, which requires innovation, resources and political will.

In terms of innovation, we need to think about new ways of reaching out. We need to look at it from the perspective of users of the reports, or those who we want to be users of our reports, rather than from the perspective of officials or even some Members. In terms of parliamentary debate, I agree that there may be scope for more debates. I would suggest that there may be mileage in thinking about different types of debates: possibly short debates on topics related to the EU and not solely on specific reports. One—admittedly radical—idea is to have a debate on a substantive rather than a "take note" Motion.

I agree that we certainly need to produce executive reports for wide dissemination, which does not mean simply including an executive summary with copies of the report or leaving them for collection in the Printed Paper Office. It means being proactive in disseminating them widely and pushing them out in paper and e-mail form to all those who we think may be interested. That includes targeted Members of both Houses as well as schools, universities and libraries.

Innovation has to be linked to resources. I come to a point which would not be cost free. We should not simply be distributing executive summaries. We should make widely available copies of actual reports. They are available for free on the internet but that is not necessarily a good substitute for a printed copy. In any event, there is the danger of assuming that because a report is on the internet, people will be aware of it. The internet is essentially passive. We need to push copies out to schools, colleges, universities, libraries and any bodies interested in the EU or the subject matter of a particular report.

I variously speak on parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislation here and abroad. I spoke on the subject last week to the Centre for European Union Studies at my university. A reference to the cost of committee reports aroused the most animated response. Price is an obvious deterrent. I have no doubt that the sheer cost of committee reports keeps sales extremely low. We should bear the cost of making reports available free of charge. As I say, what we do here is a public good and we should enable members of the public to have access to what we produce. I believe that this should apply generally to parliamentary publications.

I believe that we also need to be innovative in the ways in which we attract the attention of the media, parliamentarians and those who study what we do. Press conferences are better than not doing anything—although sometimes not very much better—but they are not the best way to engage attention. As the report suggests at paragraph 112, why not organise seminars involving witnesses and representatives of the media, as well as parliamentarians and officials—not just government officials but EU officials? There is no reason why seminars need be confined solely to discussion of a committee report. We may even think of organising conferences, perhaps involving members of other parliaments. Picking up on the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, why not organise the occasional meeting or seminar in Brussels?

In terms of dissemination, we also need to make much greater use of the internet. The Parliament website has been redesigned—it is massively improved on what it was—but there is still an awfully long way to go in terms of delivering on the internet strategy reproduced in Appendix 4 of the report. The website is useful for those who know what they want but it is still not what it should be as a means of attracting people to use it, to explore it, and to find out what we are doing. It is still inadequate and certainly uninviting for those interested in particular policy areas. If you use search engines for a topic, such as the CAP, you will now find committee reports listed, but they have to compete with much more inviting sites.

We want members of the public to know what we do. We should also think in terms of engaging them with what we do. The two elements are linked. I was glad to see in the report that there has been an experiment with the web forum. That is the kind of engagement we should be pursuing. We need, as I say, to think of it as a two-way relationship. There is the danger of focusing too much on the two-way relationship of Parliament to the EU. We need to devote attention to both.

If we are to ensure greater public awareness of the scrutiny role of the EU Committee—and, indeed, of the House as a whole—we need the mindset, we need the political will, in order to deliver it. I can anticipate part of the Minister's response. He will doubtless say that many of the Committee's recommendations are matters for the House. If he does, he will be quite right. It is not something that we can hand over to someone else. This is a matter for us. It is vital that we do not take this report and this debate as the end of a process. It has to be the beginning of one.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 12:11 pm, 27th October 2006

My Lords, there is a paradox about the work of your Lordships' House in scrutinising European Union policies and legislative proposals. If you travel to Brussels, or even more widely around the European Union, and ask commissioners, their officials and national or European parliamentarians, they would, many of them, be fully aware and informed of the work we do, and many of them offer tributes to its quality and value as a contribution to policy making on European issues. But if you travel around our own country, I suspect you would find widespread ignorance of the House of Lords scrutiny work; and, naturally, where there is ignorance there cannot, by definition, be any benefit drawn from its quality. I find this paradox a disturbing one and one which, within the bounds of what is reasonable and realistic, needs to be remedied.

But this unsatisfactory situation is only compounded when you consider the poverty and paucity of the debate on European affairs in general in this country. Her Majesty's Official Opposition seem to be applying Basil Fawlty's precept with respect to the Second World War and simply not talking about EU policies at all—perhaps in the hope that they will go away, which they will not. The Government's attention is elsewhere and they are largely failing to contribute to the debate about the future development of Europe which is now beginning in many other European countries, most notably in the context of the French presidential election. Our press is mainly in the grip of knee-jerk Euro-scepticism and provides a caricature picture of European policy making that more closely resembles a description of matches in the European Cup than the daily reality in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Remedying this lamentable state of the public debate on European issues in this country and more widely is not what we are here to debate today. But it is relevant to what we are discussing because it is only if the level of informed opinion about European Union matters is raised that there will be the crucial underpinning in place to enable a serious debate to take place.

Our report makes clear that the poor state of awareness of the EU scrutiny work of this House is indeed partly our own fault. It is always easy and tempting in circumstances such as these to blame everyone but oneself. I hope we have avoided that trap. It is the case that our reports are not always very user friendly; it is the case that they are often burdened with that appalling jargon which is the bane of understanding many European policy issues; it is the case that they have in the past lacked a clear and punchy executive summary or foreword setting out in plain language what each report is about; it is the case that our website leaves something to be desired and requires considerable attention. These failings we have set out to remedy in a number of detailed recommendations, which will, I hope, bear some fruit over the months and years ahead. I believe we will need at some stage to test whether that has happened and, if necessary, revert to this important subject.

I cannot say that I was much encouraged by the rather skimpy content of the Government's response to our report. I hope the Minister will be able to remedy that when he replies to the debate. Little was said in it about the Government's need to keep Parliament informed of their own efforts and initiatives to provide citizens with information about European affairs. Could that possibly be because not a lot is being done? I fear that could be the case because there is little, if any, sign of a systematic effort in that respect since the end of the British presidency. There was not even any response in the Government's reply to our recommendation that a dedicated website be established to publish the Government's explanatory memoranda on draft EU legislative proposals. That would surely be a useful step to take. It might even exert some pressure to make those memoranda more informative and more substantive than they are at present.

So far as this House's own handling of EU business is concerned, I simply say that I endorse 100 per cent the three conventions proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby.

We must certainly, of course, not neglect that aspect of awareness of our role which is in better shape; namely, awareness among EU institutions and on the national parliamentary networks of the shortly-to-be 27 member states. We like to think of ourselves as being out in front in this matter—and I suspect we are—but we will stay there only if we continually improve the awareness and outreach of our reports. The links between national parliaments are growing apace and will continue to do so whether or not the constitutional treaty or some other form of institutional change goes ahead. Some of the changes, particularly in respect of the assessment of subsidiarity criteria for EU legislation, are already—in an, as yet, very tentative way—moving ahead.

But the strengthened provisions on judging subsidiarity will work effectively only if the national parliaments learn to work together much more closely than they have ever done in the past. Only in that way will you be able to summon up the critical mass required to make the Commission think again about proposals it has put forward. And working together more closely will occur only if our reports setting out our views on the matter in question are available to other parliaments and to the European Parliament in a timely fashion. In achieving this, the role of the representative of your Lordships' House in Brussels is central. It seems to me to have got off to an excellent start, with the first incumbent, Dr Richard McLean, making a real difference. We will need to ensure that good start is sustained and properly resourced in the years ahead. As is often the case with such changes, one is now astonished that we thought for so many years that we could do without representation in Brussels.

I would not like to conclude my contribution to this debate without a word about the misunderstandings that arose at an early stage over the scope and purpose of this report. Words such as "spin" and "propaganda" were bandied about. The noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition in this House, who is not in his place today, wrote a strongly worded—but perhaps slightly less strongly reasoned—letter to the chairman of our committee. It was an example of the deep emotions which always seem to be aroused when European matters come up for discussion. I would argue that it should not be so in the present case. All three main parties—although perhaps not all their members—are committed to Britain's membership of the European Union and to making a success of that. All know from the work of this House and from their time on Front Benches or in government how closely intertwined are policy making in Brussels and Strasbourg and policy making in Whitehall and Westminster. It is surely, therefore, in the common interest that the part of that work that goes on in this House should be more widely known and shared. It cannot be in anyone's interest that it should be wrongly believed that this House and this Parliament are making no input to the shaping of European policies.

If I am correct in this analysis, then we should be able to move forward down the road recommended in the report on a cross-party basis, just as we have done in the EU Select Committee, of which I have had the honour to be a member in the past few years and the very great pleasure of sitting under the benign chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell.

Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch Conservative 12:19 pm, 27th October 2006

My Lords, this report comes at a time of growing public disenchantment with our system of representative democracy, and even greater disenchantment with our undemocratic subservience to the project of European union. If we look first at what remains of our hard-won democracy, the largest party in general elections has become the "No Point in Voting" party, at 40 per cent of the electorate. Modern Governments are formed by some 40 per cent of the 60 per cent who do still bother to vote—or only 24 per cent of the electorate. So perhaps one can be forgiven for suggesting that some 76 per cent of the electorate may not be all that enthusiastic about this system in general and the laws passed nowadays by Parliament—that is, the House of Commons and your Lordships' House.

However, the situation is far worse than that. Most of our national legislation is no longer made by Parliament under our system of representative democracy; it is made in Brussels and rubber-stamped here—if, indeed, we get to see it at all. The Government seem understandably nervous of revealing exactly what percentage of our legislation is imposed on Parliament, and thus the British people, by Brussels. But the German Federal Ministry of Justice has recently estimated that 80 per cent of all German national legislation since 1998 has been imposed by Brussels, and there is not much reason to think that the figure would be very different here.

It is also interesting to note that Monnet's aim in his original blueprint for the European Union was for 80 per cent of all law to be made in Brussels, leaving 20 per cent to the member states. Be that as it may, for the purposes of this debate, let us settle for the fact that a majority of our law—probably a large majority—is now made in Brussels. So even the 24 per cent of the electorate who vote for the Government of the day are no longer voting for the people who make most of their laws. The fundamental principle of our democracy, which is that the British people should elect and dismiss those who make their laws, has been largely betrayed through our membership of the European Union.

To set this report in its more specific context, it is perhaps worth remembering just exactly how undemocratic the system of Brussels law-making is. The unelected bureaucracy—the Commission— has the monopoly of proposing new legislation. Our friends in the United States, Switzerland and other democracies around the world find it hard to comprehend or believe this arrangement which, of course, has its origin in the big idea which gave birth to the project of European union. That big idea was that the nation states, with their unreliable democracies, had been responsible for the carnage of two world wars. Those nation states must therefore be emasculated and diluted into a new form of supranational government, run by a Commission of wise technocrats. That is why the Commission still has the monopoly of proposing new legislation, which it does after secret discussion, and of executing it once it has been passed into European law by the Council of Ministers. Before they reach the Council, however, the Commission's proposals are again negotiated—again in secret—by COREPER, or the Committee of Permanent Representatives from the nation states. Decisions are then taken in the Council of Ministers, yet again by secret vote, and still largely behind closed doors.

It is at this point that the scrutiny committees of the House of Commons and your Lordships' House enter the picture. British Governments, both Labour and Conservative, have given Parliament a non-binding undertaking that they will not agree any new law in the Council of Ministers until both scrutiny committees have given their consent, or until the proposal has been debated—not passed, just debated—in the Chamber concerned. This is known as the scrutiny reserve, and it is not much of a parliamentary safeguard. The flood of EU legislation is such that the EU committees can look at only a tiny fraction and anyway, the Government regularly break their promise and sign up to new laws in the Council which are still under scrutiny in one House or the other. I gather that this habit has grown worse in recent years. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, indicated as much in his remarks. It would be helpful if the chairman of the committee, the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, would care to comment on the latest trend when he comes to sum up.

Whatever the latest position with the scrutiny reserve, it would not do much to safeguard our democracy, even if it were legally binding. So much of the legislation which comes from Brussels is subject to the qualified majority vote, under which the Government are shortly to have only some 8 per cent of the votes. Roughly speaking, the Government can already be outvoted under this system on laws affecting all our commerce, industry and direct taxation, all our social and labour policy, and our agriculture, fish, foreign trade and foreign aid.

A binding scrutiny reserve might, however, be of some small help in those areas of our national life where the Government have retained the veto under the Treaty of Nice which theoretically represents the present legal position in the absence of the proposed all-encompassing constitution. Those areas where we retain the veto are roughly our justice and home affairs and our foreign and defence policies. I say "theoretically" because some of the most undesirable elements of the proposed constitution are going ahead as though the people of France and Holland had not spoken.

One of the most frightening of these is the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, with its relevant agency in Vienna. The Government admitted in a Written Answer on 11 January that the legal basis for this initiative had not been agreed in the Council, so it appears to be going ahead in a legal vacuum. Other articles in the treaty have been put forward as a legal justification for this initiative, particularly Article 308, but one does not have to be a legal expert to see that they have no validity whatever.

The European Charter of Fundamental Rights is the initiative that Mr Keith Vaz, when Europe Minister, said would have no more force than the Beano and the Prime Minister assured us that it would not become justiciable in the Luxembourg court. Yet on 14 December last year, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor admitted in your Lordships' House, at cols. 1252 to 1254 of the Official Report, that the court was already relying on the charter in its judgments, and the Commission has ordained that all new EU legislation must conform to it. So it is going ahead anyway, with the potential to deprive us of much of our remaining legal independence by imposing the EU's social model on our economic, employment, welfare, education, health, environment and cultural policies.

This is some of the reality in which your Lordships' European Union Committee merely scrutinises European legislation and makes suggestions about it. As far as I know, the committee has never made much of a difference to any significant piece of Brussels legislation, but no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, will enlighten us if this is not so.

Your Lordships' committee scrutinises, and even presents reports in Brussels, but it is not clear what changes as a result. Is it therefore any surprise that the public are not frightfully interested in what the committee gets up to? Is it likely that their interest will be engaged unless and until the committee starts making firm proposals to put the situation I have described into reverse, thus giving them back their democracy? I think not. I will, of course, be told that such action would be outside the committee's terms of reference, but I have no doubt that it could, for instance, get the House's permission to carry out an objective cost-benefit analysis of our EU membership, which the Government steadfastly refuse to do because they are so frightened of the horrifying result. But that result would be of great interest to the taxpaying public.

Alas, given the committee's present composition, nothing worthwhile like that is vaguely on the cards. As I pointed out in a letter to the chairman on 27 February—it has been printed in the report, for which I am grateful—the composition of the committee and its sub-committees is heavily biased in favour of the Europhile viewpoint. Of the main committee's 19 members, 12 are among the most ardent Europhiles in your Lordships' House, including the chairman, and only three could be described as Eurosceptic. None publicly holds the view that the UK should leave the European Union, a view held by a large and growing proportion of the British population.

The committee's general persuasion can be gauged, because its original intention was to suggest a role for the House of Lords in presenting and explaining the EU. Luckily, this also was found to be outside its terms of reference. As I indicated in my letter to the chairman on 23 March, many of us fear that the inspiration for this original suggestion was a desire on the part of the committee to join in the EU's multi-billion-euro propaganda campaign to explain how wonderful the EU really is in schools and across Europe generally. Such a campaign is of course now necessary given the diminishing popularity of the EU project in most other EU countries apart from our own, but it is a relief that your Lordships' Select Committee will not overtly form part of it.

Even so, I fear that the forthcoming education campaign will not be balanced in any sense. Perhaps I may surprise noble Lords by ending in agreement with one recommendation of the report, which is made in paragraph 131. It is that more time should be made available in your Lordships' House and the House of Commons to debate EU matters. I agree especially with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams—if she does not mind too much—that EU summits should be debated here at much greater length. It is truly frightening that the EU project is going ahead, often in a legal vacuum, and no one is talking about it. Apart from that, I doubt that the report's recommendations will do much to energise the media or to inform the public of what is being done in their names and behind their backs. Indeed, I doubt the usefulness of our European committees altogether as they presently operate.

Photo of Lord Harrison Lord Harrison Labour 12:32 pm, 27th October 2006

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, for introducing this debate on the scrutiny role of the European Union Committee, most of whose recommendations I support. When I came into the House seven years ago, our EU reports were on the outside a dull red and on the inside a dull read. Fortunately, much has changed in the interim. The typeface and appearance have been markedly improved; forewords and executive summaries, which are vital to those who wish to understand at least the subject which the committee addresses, are now included. I am very grateful to Simon Burton and his band of colleagues who have done so much work in this respect. They have now moved on to modern technology and we now communicate by way of an EU newsletter. Indeed, I asked my son Adam last night to Google this committee. Within 10 seconds, he was able to draw up the reports which we are addressing.

I need modernising. I am of that generation which believes that a Google, rather than a googly, is just not cricket, but progress has yet to be made. Progress could be made in this House, too. It is a joy to be here on yet another dress-down Friday in your Lordships' House to address yet another EU report. Would it not be splendid if we had more time to discuss these important issues, as the previous speaker has already implied, and gave them more prominence on your Lordships' agenda?

I shall identify two problems which frustrate us doing more. The first is the press, and the second is the vexed question of resources. Earlier this week, the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, and the European Union Committee were in Paris to talk to our counterparts there, the délégation which has responsibility in the French Parliament for discussing these affairs. It has recently opened up its committee to the press and we discovered that it had had the benefit of proper, reasoned and lengthy articles in the major press on its work. Would that that were the position here in your Lordships' House.

When Sub-Committee G, so ably led by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, who is here today, was dealing with social and consumer affairs, the noble Baroness invited the press to a House of Lords tea to talk to it about lifelong learning. I remember the anxious glances of the reporters, who were looking anywhere but at us when we were talking about the report. They found the report unhelpful, because it did not violently disagree with government.

Your Lordships' committee produced an important report on paediatric medicine for which we brought in experts. A very good press release was issued about this important, European matter, but there was no mention in the press of the remedy provided by the European Union of setting up a co-ordinating committee that might help with the difficult question of medicines provided to children. All we saw were screaming headlines about babies being endangered by untried medicines.

The same was true of our report on the consumer credit directive. A columnist in the Times referred to it as an example of a boring report coming across her desk which she chose not to read. The fact that the directive is important to consumers in this country as we develop the single market had not impinged on her imagination. Sometimes I despair, but we plough on, as we should, because our committee's work is important. The press witnesses who attended the launch of the report seemed to share the same sense of impotence about achieving sound and reasoned coverage in this country's press.

I say this because we are sometimes in danger of wearing a hair shirt in this House and saying that we have got to do so much more. There is more that we need to do, but we are up against a press which does not want to know about the European Union. I was going to suggest a minor attempt at doing something about it by targeting younger reporters and giving them a briefing in the House, perhaps in the compass of a morning, simply to explain the workings of the House of Lords and of the European Union Committee in particular, but it seems that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, has already made that attempt, without resounding results.

I disagree with the report's conclusion on the possibility of a special House of Lords unit. There is a limited role for such a unit in discussing European Union affairs, and I would limit it in this way: it should deal with the opportunities to reply to press articles only by referring to reports which your Lordships have already produced in the European Union Committee. There is a wealth of knowledge in those reports which is not always unearthed to the press. Those who were dealing with the press could intervene and ask whether it was aware of this or that. Such a unit could target those who would benefit from receiving our reports. I went this week to a breakfast meeting about part-time students in the United Kingdom and the European Union. I met the president of the National Union of Students, who seemed to be unaware that we had produced a report on lifelong learning when, quite clearly, it tied in with its own interest in part-time study. We need to be more sophisticated and adept at targeting those who might benefit from reading our reports.

We then return to the eternally vexed question of resources in the House. I am sorry to say that we run this House on the cheap and to our disbenefit. The input of your Lordships to the reports on the European Union—the expertise and experience that is gathered together, the quizzing of witnesses and the writing of the reports—is considerable, but it is not matched by a complementary output, which would ensure that what resulted found its way to those who might be influenced in making public policy in this country.

I have one little suggestion to make about the press. When I was a Member of the European Parliament—and this is true of many MPs in Westminster, too—there were columns in the local press relating the daily work that we did in the European Parliament and what MPs did in the House of Commons. I wonder if there exists any place where any of us have even a monthly column in our local press, which in my case would be the Chester Standard and the Chester Chronicle. The Wirral News used to carry such columns. I wonder whether such outlets would be interested in the House of Lords. I suspect that they might, if the columns were well written and were of interest.

The role of scrutiny is very important. I turn to the question of how and who we influence. With the Government, who must be the major target, I would like to see more than just the reception of the Minister, as usually happens towards the end of a Select Committee report. I should like to see a much greater follow-up—perhaps a dialogue after the report has been reported on and the Government have replied to it. Why not have Ministers come back to start a dialogue? A year or two after directives have been placed in British law, why should we not have a review with Ministers about how that law has worked and operated? We can do more.

On the other hand, we talk well to the European Commission. I am always impressed by the witnesses we have who come from the Commission, often unaided—they do not have an army of helpers coming with them from Brussels, and invariably they speak excellent English. With the European Parliament, the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, has done much in recent years to improve relations, with regular meetings with MEPs. I was very pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, on our behalf, recently went to talk to Brussels to talk to the equivalent committee on the consumer credit directive. More of that should be done.

I should also like us to promulgate our reports more widely to other national and European parliamentarians. How refreshing it would be for a change if we translated some of our reports and put them on websites in languages other than English. I know that would be thought to be a fruitless expense, but sometimes courtesy shown to others by speaking their tongue brings in its own rewards, in unexpected ways.

Lastly, I concentrate on MPs. We do not do enough in the House of Lords to communicate with Members of Parliament. They know little about what we do in our work. One distinguished Member of your Lordships' House who was an MP confessed to me yesterday that he had been to this House only four times while he was a Member of the other place. We need to make greater effort in that regard. One MP said to me over the summer that she believed we still dressed in ermine to do our daily work here in your Lordships' House. That is quite astonishing—although when you think about it, whenever we see this House represented on the BBC, it is the day of the Queen's Speech, when some of us are be-ermined. That is the image that others carry away with them. Why could not the image of us performing our scrutiny be taken from the Questions at 2.30, for example?

How do we reach out to MPs? We could offer a briefing, especially to new MPs, about the work of the House of Lords. I know that they have so much work to do, but why should we not have a morning when we show them round this House? Perhaps they would learn something from it and be engaged enough to come and see us again? Why not think about pairing Members of this House with MPs? At least, then, new MPs would have a pair in the House of Lords—someone to whom they could refer, whom they could phone up and have a cup of tea with and with whom they could have a chat about the work of the two Houses. Is that such an outrageous idea? Are we prepared to help out there? We need to talk better to MPs about the House of Lords because the reform, finally, will be done by them. I hope when they make that decision—and it is their right to make it—they will at least make it on the basis of a greater, better and improved knowledge of the House of Lords.

In conclusion, rather like the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, I found the Government response slightly lukewarm. It is in the Government's interests that the European Union Committee is active and provides provoking and helpful criticism of the Government from time to time. Good governance has a vested interest in good scrutiny.

Could the Minister also give us news of further progress on the European information centres, which I regard as very important, as we have had rather a tardy approach to them in the past?

Photo of Lord Bowness Lord Bowness Conservative 12:46 pm, 27th October 2006

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, who so ably leads the Select Committee and who led it through this inquiry, has already given a very full account of the report and its recommendations and the questions that it raises, and any attempt on my part to do that at this stage in the debate would be superfluous. However, as a member of the Select Committee, it did not seem at all unreasonable at the time that we published the original call for evidence on the topic of presenting and explaining the European Union. I know that that topic was subsequently changed, but it was not an unreasonable suggestion. After all, it was not a decision to do it, in fact, and it was reasonable bearing in mind what other Parliaments do in other countries. It might have been worth looking at, in any event.

It is extraordinarily regrettable that attempts to widen the knowledge of the European Union so frequently run the risk of being branded as attempts to promote a particular policy. It was clear from some of the responses to the committee's call for evidence that anything that the committee might propose to extend actively knowledge of European proposals would be viewed with disfavour and as an attempt to use the House for pro-European propaganda. It is often an argument deployed by those whose attitudes towards the European Union are less than favourable, but I should have thought that much of what is done by Europe was unknown and allegedly—I stress the word "allegedly"—hidden from the public or Parliament. Therefore, one would have supposed that anything that extended the knowledge would be welcome. However, it is clear that anything approaching the Swedish, Danish, Latvian or Irish information centres, which are attached to their Parliaments, for the reasons outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, and my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, had to be almost immediately ruled out. And it would not enhance the reputation of the committee and its reports elsewhere if its work—its work, not its conclusions—became the subject of political controversy.

We have to accept that we are where we are, although we may ponder whether the Swedes, Finns, Danes, Irish and Latvians have a greater maturity in matters relating to Europe, in that they apparently can disagree with particular policies without questioning whether they want to be in the game as currently played, and that they accept that promoting knowledge of proposals is different from actively supporting them.

Of course it is important that the reports to the committee are known and available. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, I sometimes think they are better known and more frequently read outside the United Kingdom than within. However, I also believe that the principal responsibility for explaining the European Union and its policies falls to national Governments. It is for national Governments who have been party to the decisions of the Council of Ministers to take responsibility for those decisions, to take a political lead and not hide behind the skirts of the Commission—or, put even more vaguely, Brussels.

I have noted the new website referred to in the Government's response. It does indeed contain a great deal of information. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, will no doubt be pleased to know that one section actually contains a quotation from the United Kingdom Independence Party. Having viewed it, I wonder why the Minister in his response particularly highlighted the animated section—the one-minute tour. With great respect, I think it is rather simplistic. Why on earth is the British citizen on his one-minute tour of the European Union represented in a 1950s or 1960s Dormobile bumping along through the Continent? Is that really how we see ourselves? Have things moved on? Perhaps they have not, and that worries me even more.

We should all be prepared to support greater time for debating European issues on the Floor of the House and in Parliament generally. Those who are supportive of much of what the European Union tries to do would welcome it. Presumably those who are of a hostile disposition—and I think the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, has indicated this—would also welcome the opportunity to express a contrary point of view. Indeed, if that were not the case, one would have to conclude that there was an element of fear that the facts might get in the way of the argument.

In my view, a debate on the Commission's work programme would be appropriate. That would not in any way mean Brussels was setting Parliament's agenda; it would be our decision to have the debate. It would recognise that we are part of the European Union, and that our Ministers sit in the Council and make the decisions on the proposals from the Commission. As has already been said today, the sooner we express our views the better. It may not be a popular view, but the European Commission is in many ways more transparent than Whitehall, and its intentions are flagged up far earlier. For those who wish to comment, the sooner these matters are brought to their attention the better.

Much is written and said about how the institutions can reach out to citizens, and those institutions, particularly the Commission, try. But they will always be accused of pressing their own interest, and even if that is not true, it will be a one-sided interest. We should give an enthusiastic welcome to the declared intention of commissioners to make themselves available to national Parliaments, and to President Barroso's proposal to visit each national Parliament. If that became a regular practice it would be a welcome addition to the one that the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, has instituted, of the EU Select Committee seeing the ambassador of the presidency state at the beginning of each presidency to go through the work programme.

We are part of the European Union, and our Governments must be prepared to lead public opinion, not merely follow it or allow it to drift. If we, as Members of a national Parliament, want to play our part in the affairs of Europe, we need to do so enthusiastically and pursue the suggestions in this report—but also, I submit, to consider how much further we can go. Sometimes we will agree with proposals and policies, sometimes we will disagree, but if we do not have the debate, who is ever going to know? We are concerned about how to engage the public with politics. Europe is very much a part of our politics, whether you think that is a good thing or not. To ignore it will be to our detriment.

Photo of Lord Stevens of Ludgate Lord Stevens of Ludgate Conservative Independent 12:54 pm, 27th October 2006

My Lords, I welcome the European Union Committee report on public awareness of the scrutiny role of the House of Lords. I read with interest the recommendations contained therein. I note in particular that there is no mention of the core function changing—I shall return to that in a few moments—or of setting up any new information centre. It is perhaps interesting to note that, at the rate regulations are created in Europe, at least one new regulation has been created during the course of this debate.

I note the reference to the Government not only thinking through what they have done, but sometimes accounting for it. One might ask: why only sometimes? Why should the Government not always account for it?

I wonder whether any progress has been made with regard to the European Commission's agreement to promote direct contact between the institutions and the public. I hope that is not another way for the Commission to avoid its responsibilities by agreeing to something and then taking no action. After all, public companies meet their shareholders; why should the commissioners not meet their financiers? In Ireland, we are told, it has been a challenge to get members of the public to attend a meeting of the Forum on Europe.

One has to ask whether there is a need to explain the role of the House of Lords in scrutinising EU legislation. Are the general public really interested? I doubt it. They are more interested in the pros and cons of the EU: monetary union, the constitution, the cost and benefit—or otherwise—of membership. A new core function of the committee might be to publicise these areas in a non-partisan manner. Unfortunately, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde wrote in his evidence, the committee is seen as pro-European in its composition, as confirmed by my noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch, so that would be a difficult role for it to perform. Also, as I mentioned in the debate in May, the committee does not have enough businessmen on it. I note that the Chancellor of the Exchequer suggested that more businessmen should be on the committee. I see no progress at all in that regard.

Even if the committee's role were more publicised, the public's perception would be: if more than 50 per cent of our major legislation emanates from Brussels, on the Government's own figures, why are we not looking to curb this deluge rather than just scrutinising it? Why, if 1,150 regulations are deposited in Parliament each year, do we not reject some of them? Incidentally, who on Earth is thinking this lot up, and who on earth can monitor and implement them? Who is running the UK? Is it Brussels?

I shall give your Lordships two example of the mess we are in. Last May our Prime Minister told Parliament that,

"it is now time that anybody who is convicted of an imprisonable offence and who is a foreign national is deported".—[Hansard, Commons, 3/5/06; col. 960.]

He also said that foreign criminals should be deported automatically. However, just days before, the Government had passed EU legislation through Parliament which stated:

"Expulsion orders may not be issued by the host Member State".

In other words, what the Prime Minister said was illegal under EU and UK law. That is why John Reid announced last week in the other place that the Government are no longer trying to deport criminals from other EU member states. Even the Government do not know what is going on.

I shall give another example. Mr Barroso blames the European Parliament for its failure to scrap regulations. I quote:

"Speaking at Chatham House last week, EU Commission President José Barroso said, 'we acknowledge the fact that there is too much regulation ... but let me be clear—sometimes we have over-regulation in Europe because member states and national bureaucracies ask for them".

How many regulations have been rejected by the committee? Should it have scrutinised the charge of corruption against one of the former presidents of the European Commission, twice under criminal investigation? Should it have required that the accounts of the European Union be signed off by the auditors each year? The accounts were rejected again this year, just this week, with over half the expenditure not approved by the auditors. How can the European Union have the audacity to criticise President Putin for corruption when it cannot even sign off its own accounts? Should we explain how the rejected EU constitution is being implemented by the back door? I refer to joint embassies and a proposal for one seat at the United Nations. There are too many examples to list them all. Were any of these scrutinised by the committee?

The administrative costs of the EU are estimated by Commissioner Verheugen at €600 billion a year—one-third of the UK's GDP, or 5.5 per cent of Europe's GDP, against the benefits of €160 billion. The costs are three and a half times the benefits on their own figures. In a free trade area this month the EU imposed tariffs on Chinese and Vietnamese shoes. President Chirac says that the CAP will not be changed until at least 2013, despite a clear understanding by the UK in particular that that would be dealt with in three years' time. The EU will not put its NATO troops in harm's way in Afghanistan. I could go on, but where are these matters being scrutinised? Despite all our efforts, the UK Government cannot identify a single piece of legislation that has been withdrawn as a result of subsidiarity since the Maastricht Treaty came into force—according to Parliamentary Answer.

UK exports to countries outside the EU have been growing 45 per cent faster than exports to the EU. Last year the UK had more inward investment than any other country in the world, attracting $165 billion-worth, against, say, France at $40 billion. Fortunately, we are outside the monetary union.

Taking all this into account, it is sad that Mr Cameron from the other place says that the Conservative Party must start talking about the things voters care about instead of "banging on about Europe", which is exactly what I am doing. A properly informed debate about why we should remain a member of the existing Union is something we should all be interested in. After all, it makes more than 50 per cent of our laws and costs us £15 billion a year. Perhaps this debate should include the reform of our own Parliament and the Civil Service now that it has much more of a scrutinising rather than a creative role.

At the moment we are ignoring what is happening in Brussels until it is too late. Little by little it is engulfing us all. President Chirac says that the constitution is not dead. The Europe that we wanted is not happening. We do not even have free trade. That Europe is being taken from us like the Chancellor's stealth taxes. If we are unwilling to look at the fundamental problem and if we are to scrutinise and publicise our increasing strangulation by the Brussels bureaucracy, how can we improve this scrutiny? First, the Government should no longer have the right to bypass the scrutiny process—something that is increasingly being done. The Government have bypassed the scrutiny process more than 340 times since records began in 2001—17 times in the 2005 Summer Recess alone. Secondly, the adoption of EU legislation immediately after its First Reading should be stopped, thus enabling proper scrutiny to take place. Thirdly, the Government should need a mandate from the committee to sign up to European legislation. In the absence of this mandate, it should be referred to Parliament for debate. Fourthly, all meetings of the committee should be open to the public. I emphasise "all".

This is just a start and there are others much more expert than I who could amplify these suggestions, and no doubt tell me how impractical they all are. But if the committee is to be something more than a rubber stamp, it must be given more authority to scrutinise. With more authority, I am sure that the publicity would take care of itself.

The committee seeks to increase public awareness but it will need to be very careful, despite what I have said, not to tread over the line of awareness and start to give views on policy, for that is the role of Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, mentioned the word "fear". I entirely agree with what he said about that. Fear of criticism of Europe is indicated clearly by the rules in Brussels that if you are retired and criticise the European Union you run the risk of losing your pension. As an anti-European, I have nothing to fear. I am sad that those who are pro-Europe are so unsure of their position that they have this regulation. The public have a pretty good idea what the EU is. I am pleased to say that in my travels I hardly ever hear a pro-EU voice, but that, of course, is what I want to hear.

Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative 1:05 pm, 27th October 2006

My Lords, I suffer from a disadvantage in that for several reasons I am interested in climate change. First, I feel the change in weather. I guess that the barometer pressure has dropped by two points since we entered your Lordships' Chamber today. Secondly, over time things change and we have political change. When my wife gave me the latest modern electronic barometer on my birthday this morning, I realised that I had been in your Lordships' House for almost 44 years. I am now at last in the senior form comprising those above the average age.

Some 32 years ago I served on one of the committees mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell. Frankly, I regard the European Union as yesterday's story. In those early days when I was treasurer of the Conservative Group for Europe and later when I worked, at a much lower level than the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Ludgate, in one of the great banking groups, I was suddenly told that I was in charge of the European Union aspect. I was told of the impact that it might have on our great banking group and its customers, clients and others. If you were in the merchant banking world, you had clients. If you were in a clearing bank, you had customers. The difference was that in one the assets went up and down in the lift every day but in the other they remained in the basement and wasted away.

When I was a young Member of your Lordships' House I was selected by great names. I was put on a European committee to discuss the future position of the Conservative Party as we were likely to enter the European Union. I made the mistake of speaking one day. I was told afterwards that I was there to listen, not to speak because this European lark would take such a long time that by the time it happened I would probably be the only one alive. I am repeating some of the things I may have said 30 or 40 years ago. Then I was sent out to speak to the nation. I was very proud. I was asked to speak in draughty village halls. The number of noble Lords present today would have constituted an enormous audience in those days. But I did not realise that I was a stand-in for someone who did not want to drive north in the cold weather. As I travelled around those places I promoted the idea of Europe and the great opportunities that it would present for us. In those days we said that it was Britain's business to be in Europe, that we wanted to get in, have a free market, earn money and that it would be profitable for us. Your Lordships will be aware that at that time the great Labour Party was so totally opposed to any form of European concept that when we had the referendum it practically refused even to participate. When we wanted to send our first delegation to the European Parliament, it refused to send anybody and I had the job of raising money for Peter Kirk and his team because the Treasury could not get a vote on that as it would have meant putting it through Parliament.

Now the political climate has so changed that the Labour Party, realising the great power of the European communion—

Noble Lords:

Oh!

Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative

My Lords, I should have said European Community. That was a Freudian slip. The Labour Party considers that the European Union is a good thing because it enables it to introduce legislation into the United Kingdom that it could not have done otherwise and because it enables more and more central control to be taken. That is not an original thought and it is not mine. I reflect the views of others.

When I was a consultant one of my senior partners once said, "In business there are only two things: incest and rape. Incest is talking to yourselves, rape is finding a client or someone outside to talk to". In this great debate today almost everybody is incestuous, with the exception of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby, who is totally independent and comes from a part of the world that I was not even allowed to reach when I had to speak about Europe, and my noble friend Lord Stevens of Ludgate. Everyone else is either a member of the committee talking to themselves or someone who has already given evidence and is seeking to repeat it. This is one of the problems that we have in Parliament these days. I have raised this before. We used to have very informed debates on Wednesdays, which would be fully occupied, and which were not divided between Opposition Benches. These days when we have debates on Thursdays, there is a very small attendance. Often I have been the only one on the Conservative Bench in a Labour debate. We are failing ourselves on debating internally in Parliament the important issues that may be raised from time to time.

In the House of Commons, what happens now? They go home on Wednesday. They do not have Adjournment debates; they do not talk about anything. They go back to their constituencies as a form of social worker to talk to a few people. If we are seeking to approach the outside world—the outside world means people—I say that the European Union as such is yesterday's story, but how can we in the United Kingdom benefit from it? How can we keep the wrong controls out of our country and introduce issues that will be of direct benefit to our economy, our social activities, and so on?

That is difficult, because I was told that there was a convention, although several conventions have gone. The first was that you should not speak on anything that you did not know about. However, when you joined your Lordships' House you could read your speech, but only for three or four times. Then you were allowed to have notes. Thereafter, you did not read a speech, otherwise someone would say, "Reading, reading!". You would speak, but when you were young like me, I was told that you did not know anything so you could read a speech for a while, but when you know something, you speak on it and do not need any notes. There were many people in this House, as there are now, with a great knowledge of a range of subjects, but their knowledge is not dispersed outside.

The other convention was that if you received a letter from outside, or a communication of any form from a member of the public, you did not answer it. First of all, you had only 24 sheets of writing paper a month, no stamps and no allowances. But you immediately passed it on to the Member of Parliament in the other place. You would write to him. If you were old enough you would call him by his Christian name, but if you were my age you would almost say, "Dear Sir, I have received a letter from so and so, who I understand is one of your constituents. Could you please reply?". Has that convention now gone? You only have to speak in this place and have it quoted on the internet or something and you receive hundreds of letters. Do we reply to them or do we send them to another place? Maybe we should encourage more people to write and communicate with us.

I have another disadvantage. I happen to be president of the Anglo-Swiss Society, and because the business of voluntary euthanasia came up and you could go to Switzerland, I had a host of letters complaining at one level or another. When we get these letters, do we reply? If they have given a telephone number, I ring up, but I lick the letter first to see whether it is part of a lobby and to check whether or not the ink runs. I even do that with Ministers' letters. Fewer and fewer Ministers' replies to Written Questions run, so I have reason to believe that they are stereotype signatures. When you reach the outside public, they may ask about EU subjects that I may or may not know about. I ring them up if I have their number and try to work out whether they will be at home at that time. You try to guess whether they have high tea or dinner. You then ring and say, "I'm ringing because you wrote to me about so and so". More often than not, they say, "Who?". I then say, "Well, it's me, Malcolm Selsdon. I am actually a Lord. I am terribly sorry about it; it is an accident of birth". "Oh, did we?", they ask. I say, "Yes, you wrote", and you realise that you have got part of the lobby, so you are not in touch with the general public. Occasionally someone will be very pleased. I then say, "If you want to know something about something else, let me know", or you give them the website. We can therefore spread the net.

We need to promote—not the committee; it is an extremely boring subject, but some of the issues that come up need to be identified. We need presenters and promoters, as we have discussed with the Hansard Commission. Let us look at the promoters we have. We have a rather rakish frigate of great charm, the Lord Speaker, and a 94-gun solid oak battle ship in the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell. That does sound a bit like a battle ship. Those are the two key people. From underneath them, we should look at people who would go out to promote, speak, wherever it may be, and also get into the audio-visual communication world.

I happen to be secretary of the Parliamentary Space Committee. At one of our earlier meetings in Brussels, one of the commissioners—a remarkable Italian who has the ability, as some Italians do, to speak sometimes moving his arms ahead of his voice, and sometimes behind—left a lasting impression on me. He said that within five years, half the population of the world would have access to audio-visual communication for sound, music, speech, whatever it may be, on a unit, which is strictly to them wherever they are. I suddenly thought that half the population of the world—3 billion—speak English either as their first or second language, or are learning it. It is that form of communication that we should be looking at.

I try occasionally to be a bit electronic, and in distant parts I can manage to access your Lordships' House. Your Lordships may not realise that debates or committees are sometimes reported on three months later. They are continually repeated because there are not enough programmes to broadcast on television. You will see them occasionally in an odd airport, or wherever. If we could only use the electronic media and decide what our policy should be, we should be promoting not the committee but specific issues. I believe that that is possible.

I wish we could drop the phrase "European Union". We are looking at the advantages that we can gain from it. Of course we can give a lot. As my noble friend Lord Stevens pointed out, in the business world now we have a greater concentration of financial resources in this centre than probably anywhere in the world. I do not know the answers, but—I do this reluctantly—if you were to cherry-pick within the EU, there are certain legislative things that could be beneficial. I am told that anyone on a waiting list for the NHS here for a replacement hip, elective surgery, or whatever, may, under new legislation, which has been drafted or set up in Brussels, have an operation in a hospital with only a few days', or maximum two weeks' waiting, which has to be paid for by the NHS.

If we look at the advantages or disadvantages there is no harmonisation or unity. We have to keep the pound sterling. A little thing: you cannot even insure a car or register a car for all the countries of the European Union. There are so many "noes" and "pluses". We need to reach out to the consumer—the person who wants to know whether he can move his dogs around. That was done, but the foreign consumer did not know when he came to London on holiday with his dogs whether they would be well looked after. There was nowhere he could stay with his dog, and hardly a restaurant he could go to. There are so many little anomalies, but should we decide to go out and promote the importance of the scrutiny of legislation, it is a matter of the issues themselves.

It has been a great day today; the weather should also be good tomorrow. I am very grateful that we have had a chance to debate this, but unless we can somehow change our own internal structures and communicate with ourselves on a broader base we have little hope of communicating with the outside world.

Photo of Lord Roper Lord Roper Liberal Democrat 1:17 pm, 27th October 2006

My Lords, I begin by saying how much the whole House appreciated the maiden speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby. I particularly appreciated his references to Caithness, and will certainly report to my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart his appreciation of his first visit to this House. Scotland's loss is certainly our gain, and we appreciated what the noble and learned Lord had to say about further working between the European Union Committee and the appropriate committees in the devolved Assemblies. I hope that that will be taken forward. We look forward to hearing him on many other subjects in future.

I was not a member of the Select Committee when the report was prepared and I can therefore warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, and his colleagues on their work on it. Since it was prepared, I have become a member of the committee and have seen, as has been said by so many other noble Lords, how much the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, does in co-ordinating our work and in ensuring that we are effective.

Since I have served on the committee, I have had a duty to read the whole range of reports that the committee and its sub-committees have produced. They are a remarkable contribution to the understanding of developments in the European Union and the relations between the United Kingdom and the Union. There is no doubt about the quality of the reports, as has been made clear in today's debate and earlier ones. The problem is that the reports do not get the attention that they deserve. That is the issue that we have discussed both in the report and in our debate today.

I agree with the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Grenfell and Lord Norton of Louth, on the role of the committee and its rejection of any agency function. It would not be appropriate for the committee or the House to be involved in promoting the European Union. Some years ago, when I was involved in the work of policy research institutes, or think tanks, I made the distinction between those which existed to improve the quality of debate in their area of policy and those which existed to influence the direction of the debate. The committee exists to improve the quality of the debate on European issues, rather than to influence its direction. There is no doubt that the reports have great potential, not only in debates in this House but also in the wider debates in the country and throughout the European Union.

However, I share the concern expressed in the report—and widely echoed today—that the reports are not fulfilling their potential in improving the wider debate. There have been a whole series of useful suggestions made in the debate, and I want to comment on a number of them. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, in what sounded like a valedictory telegram as he left Sub-Committee D, covered a lot of important ground and spoke of the problems that chairmen have in making their reports better known. This is not the place to discuss whether following the Danish or Finnish solution would necessarily be the right course for us; maybe we can return to that on another occasion. I suspect that 27 member states with Danish-type committees would not necessarily ensure any progress in the European Union.

I am particularly interested in two ways of making the reports better known, an issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. He mentioned three areas of post-publication activity: debates in this Chamber; press relations and press conferences; and seminars and other promotional activities. Debates in this Chamber are, of course, the traditional post-publication activity, once we have received the reply from the Government to the report. As the noble Lord, Lord Neill, said during the deliberations and the questioning session in the committee, sometimes when the debates are limited almost exclusively to those who have taken part in preparing the report, it is not always clear whether this is the best use of this Chamber's time.

Indeed, realising from a former existence the problems of time in this Chamber, I think that we should consider carefully, if we want the additional time for which my noble friend Lady Williams so strongly argued, having an annual debate on the work programme of the Council—that is mentioned in the report and would be of great importance, but would take at least a day of parliamentary time—as well as taking up opportunities for debates on substantial issues that have come up in European Council meetings. At some stage, the committee and the House will have to consider the trade-off in time spent on those matters—I am talking about time spent in the Chamber, as distinct from in the Moses Room or on what we used to call Unstarred Questions, for the consideration of our reports.

As has been said, relations with the press have not been easy for the committee and its sub-committees in terms of getting out satisfactory information. We should explore further the possibility of having post-publication seminars. These would be a useful opportunity to explore the results of the sub-committee's work with a group of people that might include the witnesses who had come before us and specialists in the issue under consideration from universities and policy research institutes, from within and occasionally without the United Kingdom. We should follow the example given by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, of the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, who took the report of his Sub-Committee C on Africa to Brussels for a seminar of that sort. It would be a good idea if we could aim to have at least half our reports linked to post-publication seminars in the coming year—that target might be worth aiming at—and we would be able to evaluate how effective they had been in ensuring that the reports were better known and understood. That would be a particularly useful proactive activity on our part.

Secondly, there is no doubt that the parliamentary website as a whole has improved. The new design of the pages on public Bills before Parliament, of which we were sent a trial template yesterday, will be a significant improvement when it comes online in the new Session. That is good. Our own website, however, can be described only as a work in progress. I have signed up for messages, both on the committees page and the pages of a couple of sub-committees in which I have a concern. So far, however, all I have received is one that says that the page has been changed. It is not clear what has been changed, so perhaps I should look at the page again. That is not how to have a user-friendly website. We should look at whether this can be done more effectively. We should consider—my noble friend Lady Williams mentioned this in her evidence to the committee and the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, also referred to it—building up e-mail lists for each sub-committee and for the Select Committee, so that we could send out the executive summary of our reports to an audience of the attentive public concerned with the area with which we were dealing. We should be more proactive in that way, too.

I have a good deal of sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said on the free distribution of our reports. Given the cost of preparing reports, the marginal cost of making copies available is relatively small. We ought at least to see whether it would be possible, if not to go quite as far as making all parliamentary publications free, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, suggested, then at least to have a wider distribution list of copies to those who would find them advantageous, both in this country and elsewhere in the European Union. I do not know, for instance, whether we send them automatically to each parliament in the European Union. That would be useful. Of course, the IPEX system will provide a computer link, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said, a hard copy is sometimes a good deal more useful than a link to a website.

I hope that the Minister will be able to answer the question about the government website on explanatory memoranda. As the committee was told by the Remembrancer of the City of London, the City of London is fortunate in that it is one of the few organisations that get copies of all explanatory memoranda. He felt that it was important, however, that others should also have access to them, and a website would be of considerable value in that respect.

As the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, said, we need to build up and extend our links with Members of Parliament considering these matters, and with Members of the European Parliament. We have a useful annual meeting with MEPs and the European Committee of the House of Commons, but we must think of further ways to ensure that there are better links between us. As has been said, our representative in Brussels is in a good place to ensure that, at least as far as the European Parliament is concerned, that is now done.

Finally, the European Union Committee has recently been considering another aspect linked to this report. In a communication, the Commission has made it known that in future it will send copies of proposals directly to national parliaments. To some extent, it would have been obliged to do that if the constitutional treaty had gone through, but it is now going to do it in any case, because it would like to have the views of national parliaments on its proposals. We will have to see how we will manage that responsibility alongside our prime responsibility, but that would meet the point raised by my noble friend Lady Williams about being able to send our reports to the appropriate commissioners and perhaps going to see them on occasion and giving them our views.

A great deal of hard work goes into the preparation of each of these reports. There is the time of the members of the committee or sub-committee, of our Clerks, of our specialist advisers, of government departments, which do a great deal in providing us with information and in coming to give evidence, and of other witnesses from a wide range of backgrounds. Given that so much work goes into the preparation of these reports, we have a responsibility to continue to work out how we can make them better known.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Leader, Parliament, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 1:31 pm, 27th October 2006

My Lords, I begin by saying how much I enjoyed the maiden speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby. We have been joined by a wise and learned Scottish mind that will illuminate our discussions not only in this area but in many others. He had a very good initial innings, if I may put it in cricketing terms. I thank him very much on my own behalf and on that of my colleagues.

Like all reports from the EU Committee, this report is a thorough piece of work. In its case, I can truly assert that I have read all the evidence. I have to go on to confess that I have hardly ever read all the evidence in any other report, but I did in this case. The report made some very interesting points. I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, who presides over this giant committee family—that is what it is—with such skill and geniality and brings its reports before us with such assiduity.

As the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, implied in his opening comments, there are two subjects in the debate, and there is a slight danger of them becoming entangled in the discussion of the report. The first is how the process of scrutiny of EU legislative instruments, documents and declarations can become more widely known. That includes not merely the formal process of scrutinising proposals from Brussels before they become law and placing a delay or a reserve on them, where appropriate, which is all laid down in the 1999 Scrutiny Reserve Resolution, but also examining the role of the Government in agreeing to EU-originated legislation. The second subject is quite different: it is the task of presenting, explaining and, in some respects, acting as advocate for the policies and activities of the European Union. They are two different subjects and, to some extent, they conflict. I shall try to explain a bit more about that in a moment.

The first group of tasks provides the mandate. It is a big and important mandate for the European Union Committee and its sub-committees. The second task—explaining EU policies to the public—is most emphatically not for that committee to undertake. It is not the business of the committee, the House or this Parliament; it is for the European Union, its institutions and its high officials to undertake. It is also, to some extent, a task for the Governments of member states, including our Government, to undertake since Ministers are accountable for EU enactments, even when they have been overruled in Brussels by a qualified majority. However, it has been made clear by a number of speakers that that is not a matter with which we want to be associated. It is a bit of a puzzle to find this matter alluded to in paragraphs 16 to 24 of the report, and I find it difficult to see why the committee should play any part in the so-called EU communications strategy, which is referred to in the report. At the moment, everyone knows that the EU and its institutions are giving a lot of time to improving their communications because they are deeply worried at their failure to connect with the European public and at the apparent and increasingly registered unpopularity of the Union and its activities. Nothing seems to go right for the EU institutions at the moment, and as my noble friend Lord Stevens reminded us, even the auditors are still on the Commission's back, although there may be two sides to that case and the Commission has tried to put the other side, but it does not look very good.

We have seen that this is leading to a need for a renewal of vows—to use the phrase employed by Chancellor Merkel of Germany—for the EU project. That indicates the level of worry and concern about the communications failure. We have also seen that the latest opinion polls in the UK indicate that even British business, which used to be very pro the European Union, is now apparently tiring of the excessive regulation which it believes emanates from Brussels and is beginning to question whether the benefits of the Union, which are undoubtedly there, exceed the costs that seem to loom even larger.

I realise that these are huge and contentious issues that raise questions about our national role, identity, interests and place in the world, and the Committee is very well advised to steer clear of them. As power shifts from the Atlantic and Europe to Asia, they also raise even broader questions about where our interests lie and whether this House should be giving more attention to that than we do at present. I do not propose to touch on those issues any further today; I have no doubt that we will have plenty of debate on them in coming weeks.

Instead, I turn to the central issue, which the report poses with almost brutal candour in Chapter 4, where it asks: "Why is our work"—that is, the work of the scrutiny committee—

"not getting more coverage in the media?", and goes on to question whether we are selling it wrong, or to the wrong people, or whether there is something wrong with the presentation or so on. I shall add a few more questions to that list. Are we selling the right product? Is the whole scrutiny reserve procedure a convincing process and artefact? Does it give real value, service and protection to the British public in the way they want? If the answer to those questions is no, then no amount of improved presentation, better websites, simple language or anything else will turn a bad story into a good one. I suspect that it is the product itself—by that, I do not mean the committee reports, but the raw material from which they are derived—which may need to be changed if there is to be any greater impact and connection with public interests.

Nowadays, the public wants a robust element of "arm's-length scepticism" about EU proposals, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde puts it in his excellent memorandum on page 78. To that I add: that should be combined with some healthy questioning on why certain proposals are within the proper competence of the EU at all as opposed to belonging to national legislatures.

I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, found my right honourable friend's letter not to his liking. It seems to me to be a completely reasonable and straightforward analysis of the proper role of the committee and the need to concentrate on that role.

The approach of other legislatures was described in the evidence, notably that of Denmark, but also of Sweden and Finland, where—as the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, reminded us in an excellent and thoroughly interesting speech—they go a good deal further by insisting that Ministers should be mandated, in the Danish case by the Folketinget, before they agree any legislative measures in Brussels. We have some lessons to draw, and if we are talking about having more public impact, that is where our minds should be turning. It is indeed revolutionary stuff, but the media of today are always ready to be bored and to condemn serious things as dull, and are looking for revolutionary utterances. I suspect people also want from these activities a firm assurance that the process of filtering and examining proposals from the Commission via our government departments—that is the scrutiny procedure—really works, and cannot just be overridden by Ministers when it suits them, or when they are in a hurry, or when Parliament is not sitting, or for some other excuse.

We have debated this issue in this House, as some of your Lordships will recall, and we have given it a good deal of attention. It needs constant watching to ensure that regulations and EU measures do not just get rushed through by Ministers on some pretext such as confidentiality, urgency, or, "We had to get it through for some reason or other", before proper scrutiny has even begun. That has happened, and there is a real danger that, while scrutiny procedures continue, they are being reduced to a farce or a formality by Ministers agreeing things provisionally in Council. That has happened, and this House has objected strongly to the Government about the habit of agreeing things provisionally and arguing later that it was not real agreement in a political sense but was only provisional. In fact, they are pushing things through with no regard at all for the scrutiny process.

When I talk about a degree of scepticism, that is why this much-needed approach may sometimes be in head-on conflict with those who are trying to wave all doubts aside and promote and proselytise on behalf of EU measures and ideas, or argue that they have gone through anyway and that it is good thing too. It is perfectly natural that all EU officials will want to put the best possible face on everything that they are doing or proposing, but people here want a much more critical and questioning approach. They want, rightly, to know what value certain measures from the EU really add, and what harm they might do. The two—making the EU case as opposed to evaluating EU proposals—are not compatible. It is the latter, the rigorous evaluation, which will command far more public attention than the former.

I welcome the suggestion in the report that larger EU subjects should continue to be examined by the sub-committees. I do not really understand why one needed to recommend that, because that is what the sub-committees have always done, and very good it is too. Some excellent reports have appeared over the years, which are widely admired and referred to. I endorse the ideas put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. I liked the recommendations for more debates on EU proposals in the Chamber, and on the Floor of the other place, although it does not sound from one of the letters from the Minister for Europe that he is very keen on that idea at all. He seemed to imply that we have had enough debates already.

I have one more observation. The committee is anxious to avoid having to dumb down its reports in its efforts to gain a higher profile. That is understandable, but we live in a media-dominated age and the media are easily bored, as the evidence to the committee confirms. I have been looking at some of the recent reports from the scrutiny committee in the other place and I am struck by the blunt and aggressive language that it uses about certain EU measures and the way that they are handled by Her Majesty's Government—that is part of the remit. I ask your Lordships to listen to what our colleagues on the Commons scrutiny committee had to say about a recent, rather vacuous, EU communication, Europe in the World. The committee had received a letter from the Minister in which he had expressed the hope that his explanatory memorandum would be informative. The committee report stated:

"On the contrary, its cursory summary of the Communication is uninformative, as is his statement of the Government's views. This seems to be at one with the position taken by the previous and present Minister for Europe with regard to similar documents, all of which in one way or another relate to the future of Europe in the wake of the rejection, a year ago, by French and Dutch citizens of the Constitutional Treaty".

The report continues:

"The Government's general position appears to be to shelter behind the obvious absence of any consensus on the future of Europe and to say that it will inform the House of its views once there is one. This is somewhat at odds with the notion of increasing the involvement of national parliaments in decision-making, as is the submission of an Explanatory Memorandum on the day after the Council has approved the document in question and instructed those involved to proceed forthwith ... We consider this stance unacceptable", and so on.

That is rough but justified language that throws an important light on the totally unsatisfactory way in which some of the scrutiny procedures are treated by the Government . The more firmly that our committee says that, the better is its chance of obtaining some resonance with the public. The scrutiny committee in the other place knocked both the European paper and the Minister right out of the ground.

I know that we in the Lords pride ourselves on the gentility of our approach and the politeness of our language, but it may be that, without dumbing down, we have to get a little rougher and harsher in our reports to attract media attention and to show that we are doing our job.

Photo of Lord Renton of Mount Harry Lord Renton of Mount Harry Conservative

My Lords, I have listened to my noble friend with great interest and I am grateful for what he said about my speech, but I would point out to him, as perhaps might our chairman, that when we are in the process of scrutiny, if we do not like what the Government are saying or think that we are being rushed, we draft a very rude letter that our chairman then sends to the Minister. That is very much our practice and that does not appear in the document that we are considering, but I assure my noble friend that we very often ask the chairman to kick the Government very hard.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Leader, Parliament, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, good. That is just what one wants to hear and the more that that is conveyed in the reports and to the public, the better. We have to get a bit ruder for two reasons. The first reason is that more and more EU measures are widely disliked and the public expects them to be given not just a slap on the wrist but a very rough ride—and the kind of language to which my noble friend Lord Renton referred is what the public wants to hear. Secondly, there is the sad but realistic reason that in this age of deafening publicity and overwhelming information flows, one has to be blunt and shout very loudly to get any kind of hearing at all. That is why my noble friend Lord Renton in his marvellous speech described the 16 journalists who had wine poured down their throats in the hope that they would write. However, they did not write because, when they got back to their offices, their desks were deluged with so much other information that the report got no priority.

Those are the harsh realities. I do not for one moment underestimate the difficulties of getting any kind of hearing for what are often deeply technical matters, and I admire the bravery of the committee in asking itself outright why it is not making more impact. The answers are many and varied, and several of them go very deep into policy on basic disputes about where this nation stands in the world. Those are a few thoughts which I hope will help.

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 1:50 pm, 27th October 2006

My Lords, I pay sincere tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, and all members of the European Union Committee for an excellent report. I also thank all those who have spoken in the House today for their clarity.

It is not always easy to communicate the work of the European Union. In my experience, even for those of us who take a lively interest in the matter, it is often expressed in the least accessible language possible, rich in obscure expression and laden with acronyms, many of which remain a mystery to me. I welcome what is said at paragraph 138 of the report, for example: I do not think that clarity is dumbing down in any sense; it is essential.

I felt for the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry: the lack of publicity and the approach of the media are genuinely difficult problems. Where there is publicity, it is still so often about straight bananas or sausages—often, I have noticed, in newspapers that on the same day confirm that Elvis Presley is alive and has been found driving a London double-decker bus on Mars—that I really wonder about the quality of thought that is brought to the process.

I say that as someone who is genuinely positive about Europe, but I think that we have to think about the years of obscurity and impenetrable language. Subjects such as our air or water, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, are vital to people but, when they become clouded by mandated thematic strategies, the description of the pillars, comitology procedures and so on, then, in my judgment, vital things are translated by an impenetrable alchemy into a cure for insomnia.

The noble Lord, Lord Renton, is right: at the heart of this we need greater political dynamism to overcome these problems so that we disseminate positively. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, made similar points about reaching out, with which I also agree. But I make the point to the House—not in contradiction, because I think that it is probably the underpinning thought here—that dissemination should be in the sense not simply of publishing but of engaging people in a dialogue. I was very pleased that there is much more thought in the report—at page 45, as I recall—about the interactive qualities that are now needed, using modern technologies, to get that kind of dialogue. I believe that it reflects what younger people now expect in exchanges on important issues, as my noble friend Lord Harrison said.

With regard to the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, which are directly related, we could probably all do more in education on the role of Europe. I have often argued in this House that, unless we understand Europe better historically, including the violent enmities in its history, the gross impact of some of the nationalistic causes that have been fought out on European soil and the way that, in this generation and the one just before, European peace has been constructed since 1945, then I fear that we will understand nothing.

I have already mentioned the mythology of the straight banana. I shall comment on one or two of the myths in the statistics cited by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. I addressed this point on 29 June in reply to a Parliamentary Question from the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Ludgate. I repeat the point about the volume of legislation because we might as well be clear about it. It is not a massive millstone as described. I hope the House will forgive me if I repeat the essential point I made that day:

"We estimate that around half of all UK legislation with an impact on business, charities and the voluntary sector stems from legislation agreed by Ministers in Brussels. Parliamentary analysis of UK statutory instruments implemented annually under the European Communities Act suggests that on average about 9 per cent"—

9 per cent—

"of all statutory instruments originate in Brussels".

Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch Conservative

My Lords, the noble Lord will forgive me, but the answer is that we do not believe what the Government are saying and we pray in aid what the German Government have said. We are not asking for the percentage of statutory instruments; we are asking for the percentage of overall national legislation, which we maintain—and we have done the separate studies to confirm it—is now much more than half of what goes through the national Parliaments.

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, I understand that the noble Lord prefers the statements of the German Government to those of the Government of the United Kingdom. My own preference is that everybody studies the data and reaches an accurate result, even though that kind of more academic process may be thought rather arid.

Perhaps I may take up one or two of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, with, if I may say so, typically careful thought. First, is the reserve process the right product? He described the desirable approach to this as "arm's-length scepticism". "Scepticism" is probably a well chosen word in these circumstances. I fear that there is often criticism—scepticism, if one wants to put it that way—but with too little engagement in how to deal with the consequences of that cynicism. Of course the processes could be better; they must be better. They need to be more effective and timely. On occasions people are disappointed by Europe because of the length of time the process takes, rather than the rush of things. But in any case, either way, it must not be reduced to a formality. The use of robust language does not alarm me; I quite enjoy it. But I wonder whether on occasions the shower of abuse which seems to be required to get into a newspaper adds a lot to the discussion. There needs to be a judgment about when noise obscures knowledge.

As the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, pointed out, your Lordships' European Union Committee works with enormous commitment in scrutinising issues of direct and significant concern and relevance to citizens. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, is so disobliging about the committee. It will not surprise him or the committee a great deal if I take the opposite view. The noble Lords, Lord Roper and Lord Bowness, have taken a different view about the importance of providing good, clear information through this structure rather than a process of advocacy, and thereby have added to the quality of the debate. Those distinctions are useful to all of us.

The Government welcome the valuable contribution that your Lordships' committee makes to the debate on the EU. We must take it seriously for precisely the reason given by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams: we are dealing with an entity of global importance, and if we do not treat it seriously we can only suffer. I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, that we must do it enthusiastically as well.

Perhaps I may join others in congratulating my noble and learned friend Lord Boyd on his maiden speech. I welcome him to the House. He adds a fine forensic mind to our debates, and I know that he will contribute on many subjects. I wish the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, a happy birthday. I hope that his barometer goes up consistently, but within the bounds of climate sustainability.

The Government attach great importance to Parliament's scrutiny work and to meeting our commitments to you. The committee report contributes important analysis and expertise in the context of the period of reflection on the future of Europe. Although many of the recommendations relate to the committee's engagement with Parliament and the public, the conclusions provoked deeper thoughts about the challenges to government, Parliament and others in raising awareness of legislative issues and deepening two-way communication with citizens. During the past 15 months, the Government have worked persistently to refocus the EU to deliver the results and reforms that reflect the priorities and concerns of citizens of Europe

In his speech to the European Parliament in June 2005, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister led the call for a debate on how to ensure that Europe responds to the challenges of today's world. At the Hampton Court summit, during our presidency of the EU last year, we put issues such as energy policy and tackling organised crime at the top of the political agenda.

Subsequent European Council meetings have endorsed and taken forward that approach. Most recently, the informal European Council at Lahti on 21 October provided a welcome opportunity for EU leaders to take forward what we have described as the "delivery agenda". Leaders addressed the challenges of climate change, of energy security, of improving Europe's record on innovation and of addressing citizens' concerns on migration. I am delighted to say that they also discussed the grave situation in Darfur and had a candid discussion over a working dinner with President Vladimir Putin.

Those issues—Darfur, human rights and the other issues that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, mentioned—have a resonance with the people of this country. As we work to deliver those priorities, it will be essential to continue and deepen the two-way discussion promoted by the European Commission's Plan D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate—let me just call it Plan D—and other aspects of the national debates which began last year.

The Government welcome the invaluable expert contributions that Parliament offers through the scrutiny process and in other debates. We attach great importance to engaging with Parliament and the citizens whom we serve on EU issues and the future of Europe.

The noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, asked about the Government's EU communications initiatives. Your Lordships asked to be kept informed about that, and I welcome this opportunity to provide that information. We stand ready to provide the House with regular updates on the Government's work in that area.

Since the period of reflection began in June 2005, my right honourable friends the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the Minister for Europe and many other Ministers have made high-profile speeches to further the debate on Europe. Information has been provided to the UK public through the media and a range of publications.

During our presidency of the EU in 2005, we co-hosted a conference entitled "Sharing Power in Europe" with the Dutch Government, to consider how we can ensure that the EU takes action in areas where it can make a difference and add value to member state action. I had the privilege of representing the United Kingdom at that meeting. The noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, played a crucial role in drawing the threads of that meeting to a successful conclusion. A similar initiative, "Europe begins at Home", took place in St Poelten on 18 and 19 April under the Austrian presidency.

In April, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office launched a new website providing information on the EU and seeking input to the future of the European debate. We will continue to evaluate and develop that website to ensure that it offers useful and, I hope, engaging content to raise awareness and deepen debate on EU issues. The FCO also published a factual guide to the EU in English and Welsh. It has been distributed to libraries and other public information points.

Other departments have contributed. For example, in June, the DTI published a practical guide for business on working in the European Union, designed to help businesses to have their say in the law-making process. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has also been engaging with a wide range of civil society groups on EU issues. Earlier this month, for example, my right honourable friend the Minister for Europe met British Overseas NGOs for Development—the BOND network—to exchange views on the role of the EU in helping to address international development priorities.

The Government welcome the principles of improving communication on Europe in the European Commission's Plan D and White Paper on a European communications policy. The main responsibility for communication on EU issues is, as has been stated in this House, at member state and EU levels. We therefore welcome the European Commission's emphasis in Plan D and the White Paper on contributing through close co-operation with Governments and others at national and local levels. The Government submitted a response in July to the European Commission's consultation on the White Paper, and my right honourable friend the Minister for Europe sent a copy of the Government's response to the parliamentary scrutiny committees on 26 October.

The Government continue to co-operate with the European Commission and European Parliament offices in the UK. In particular, we are working closely with the European Commission to make its Europe Direct project a success. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, mentioned this in his contribution to the debate. Since June, 10 Europe Direct centres have opened in Plymouth, Eastleigh, Scotland, London, Coventry, Llangollen, Cardiff, Durham, Luton and Newtown. A further 14 will open next year. We have been working with some of the centres to increase the profile of their launches, for example through the FCO's press releases and through ministerial letters of support. We are also providing input into training events. I should add that I support the desire of my noble and learned friend Lord Boyd to involve the devolved Administrations more in this work. European commissioners, including the president of the European Commission in October, have made 48 visits to the UK this year to date. We welcome these visits. We have also worked with the European Commission on the UK-specific Eurobarometer research.

I suspect that the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome will provide many opportunities. We are emphasising educational work. We have proposed an interactive schools event, encouraging schools across Europe to link up and talk in real time, and furthering school twinning and exchanges. I shall certainly give more thought to the idea of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, about sixth-form debates. It had slipped off my radar, too, for which I apologise. I am keen that we should have those. There is also a range of proposed cultural events to mark the anniversary. My own department is considering several of those proposals, as well as ideas from non-governmental organisations, such as conferences and debates. Belgium, at least, is planning street parties, dancing in the streets and balloons. We may not succeed in mirroring all these activities or in engendering quite the same enthusiasm, but I am determined that we do what we do effectively.

The Government are very willing to keep Parliament updated on our public communications about EU issues. In addition to the explanatory memoranda and other information provided to the EU Committee, my right honourable friend the Minister for Europe could provide updates in future post-Council evidence sessions with parliamentary scrutiny committees.

I take the point that has been made, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, about how the period of deliberation may not have led to as full a discussion as he would have wished on the future of Europe, but I believe the period has been used very effectively in some ways. It has not paused or failed to focus on the issues that I described earlier as being of concern to the peoples of Europe. The time has not been wasted in that sense. We are, however, arriving at the point at which we should hold the debate that my right honourable friend Geoff Hoon has described as necessary. It is right that the Government let Parliament know our thinking on this subject and how it is developing, and we intend to set out to Parliament at an early opportunity the underlying principles of the approach now.

The noble Lords, Lord Grenfell, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, Lord Roper, and others asked for an update on progress to establish a government website in order to make the explanatory memoranda more easily accessible to the public. The Government are committed to producing that website, which we hope to have up and running early in 2007. Our website, like that of the committee, needs to be user-friendly and to attract people rather than embody some of the problems that I have described in European communications. The initial plan is being refined. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, that as we develop the website, it may have animated parts—I know that all good websites have to be video-enabled and able to use a range of media—but I understand the point that one minute of rather dated activity does not meet the bill.

The Government welcome the contribution that the committee makes to the debate on EU affairs and policy making through its reports and debates on them. I understand that 23 reports by the European Union Committee have been debated on the Floor of the House this Session, including today's debate, and that another debate is scheduled for next Friday. All in all, that is not a disastrous record, but finding more opportunities, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, observed, is usually a matter for the usual channels. Despite that, I am keen to speak with the business managers in another place to ensure that we know their thinking on driving forward these debates. I will certainly look at the suggestion made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for a review of the EU annual work programme. I am not in a position to commit them to that, but I am eager to have that discussion and to make sure that your Lordships know the outcome. I would also like to look at the very interesting presidency convention that the noble Baroness suggested. We have tried variants, but I am not sure that they have all worked. It is certainly not out of bounds to think of others.

The points that my noble friend Lord Harrison made about dialogue are also important. It obviously is not for me to make commitments on behalf of other Ministers about coming back after the reports of committees or other major debates have taken place, but I try to follow exactly the practice that has been advocated in relation to my responsibilities in Africa or Latin America, not least because I find it hugely beneficial and I learn a lot. It is well worth meeting with parliamentarians and, in the cases that I have mentioned, with NGOs who are often very much better communicators than many of the rest of us, which is of great value.

I thank your Lordships for the opportunity to have what I believe is a very constructive debate. As the European Commission recognised in its evaluation of Plan D in May, Plan D is part of what must be a long-term exercise. Setting up a constructive dialogue will never be achieved just from one day to the next. The Government value highly the scrutiny role of the committee. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, also made the point that the committee's function should be specific and not confused with other roles, and I agree. We therefore share the committee's hope that wider audiences will become increasingly aware of its work and that this will contribute to making further informed, democratic debate possible and that decision making will become ever more transparent.

Photo of Lord Grenfell Lord Grenfell Other 2:13 pm, 27th October 2006

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, without exception: a very fruitful three hours or more has been given to this topic. I very much appreciate noble Lords' welcoming, on the whole, the report. I also thank the Minister for the extremely positive and helpful replies that he has given on a number of issues that were raised when I addressed the House at the beginning of this debate. I thank him very much for that.

Perhaps I may also say how impressive, constructive and helpful was the maiden speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby. He raised the matter of the Select Committee meeting in other parts of the United Kingdom—he mentioned Edinburgh specifically. We are due in the next couple of months to host the annual meeting of the chairs of the European committees of both Westminster Houses, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and, who knows, even possibly the Northern Ireland Assembly. That would be a good moment for us to take up the point the noble Lord has made.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for the many excellent proposals she made. We shall certainly be discussing them in the future. On one point, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, mentioned, we are already ahead of her: we do indeed invite the ambassador of the incoming presidency to come before the Select Committee at the beginning of the presidency to lay before us the priorities of his government's presidency. We had the ambassador of Finland just before the summer Recess and we will be inviting the ambassador of Germany to come at the beginning of the German presidency.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for his many excellent proposals, particularly in relation to post-publication activities, a point also taken up by the noble Lord, Lord Roper. The idea of seminars certainly appeals.

I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who asked whether copies of our reports automatically go to other parliaments. Yes, indeed they do—and they are much appreciated, too. They go to key officials in Brussels as well. As to the website, I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that we are aware of the shortcomings. But real progress is being made now and we look forward to considerable improvements in it in the months to come.

The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, asked about the trend in scrutiny overrides. The best I can say to him at this stage is that he should look at our annual report when it comes out very shortly and I think he will be pleasantly surprised—well, I will be pleasantly surprised; it may not be quite so pleasant for him. But the figures will be in there in detail and he will be able to see them when they are published in our annual report.

The noble Lord raised the issue of what impact the Select Committee has on legislation and, if I interpret him rightly, he takes a slightly negative view of our ability to influence government. All I can say is that he should take a look at the exchanges of letters between the Select Committee and departmental Ministers. If he agrees with the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Ludgate, that we are merely a rubber stamp, he should ask some of those departmental Ministers whether they think we are a rubber stamp—some of them might wish we were. I can assure the noble Lord, as has already been mentioned by others, that the amount of work that goes into making sure that our views are fully communicated to the Government, and that we get responses from them, is at the very core of our work.

I should also mention the fact that because we nowadays go as far upstream as possible and look at Green Papers very carefully, that has become a stage in the legislative procedure where we really can have a big impact. Let me give one good example—although it is some time ago—when I was chairing Sub-Committee A. We received the Green Paper on Mario Monte's merger regulation reforms and we were able to complete a full inquiry into that while it was at the Green Paper stage, including extensive talks with the Commission and the commissioner. We were able to get our full report on that on to the desk of the Government before they went to negotiate in the Council. The Government were kind enough to write to us and say that this had been extremely useful in helping them to make up their minds about how they were going to react in the Council. That is just one example of the way in which we can have an impact.

Finally, I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who wondered why it was that we had even mentioned the work of the Commission and Plan D. We did so, first, because it is the Commission that is doing something and it is we who are calling on it to do more because we cannot do it ourselves. Secondly, I should point out that only one of the conclusions in the report addressed what the Commission was doing—we welcomed the commitment made by President Barroso to make commissioners talk to parliaments and other fora to explain what it is that the Commission is doing. That was a good commitment on his part and we want to hold him to it. That is why we put it in the report.

I think I have covered all the points that I can but, of course, as I said in the concluding remarks of my address, we are always ready to answer questions and listen to concerns. This has been a very good debate and one that will be extraordinarily helpful to the work of the Select Committee.

On Question, Motion agreed to.