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House of Lords: EU Scrutiny (EUC Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:24 am on 27th October 2006.

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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.