Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

House of Lords: EU Scrutiny (EUC Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:32 pm on 27th October 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

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?