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House of Lords: EU Scrutiny (EUC Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:37 am on 27th October 2006.

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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.