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House of Lords: EU Scrutiny (EUC Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:00 pm on 27th October 2006.

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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.