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House of Lords: EU Scrutiny (EUC Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:50 am on 27th October 2006.

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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.