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House of Lords: EU Scrutiny (EUC Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:46 pm on 27th October 2006.

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Photo of Lord Bowness Lord Bowness Conservative 12:46 pm, 27th October 2006

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, who so ably leads the Select Committee and who led it through this inquiry, has already given a very full account of the report and its recommendations and the questions that it raises, and any attempt on my part to do that at this stage in the debate would be superfluous. However, as a member of the Select Committee, it did not seem at all unreasonable at the time that we published the original call for evidence on the topic of presenting and explaining the European Union. I know that that topic was subsequently changed, but it was not an unreasonable suggestion. After all, it was not a decision to do it, in fact, and it was reasonable bearing in mind what other Parliaments do in other countries. It might have been worth looking at, in any event.

It is extraordinarily regrettable that attempts to widen the knowledge of the European Union so frequently run the risk of being branded as attempts to promote a particular policy. It was clear from some of the responses to the committee's call for evidence that anything that the committee might propose to extend actively knowledge of European proposals would be viewed with disfavour and as an attempt to use the House for pro-European propaganda. It is often an argument deployed by those whose attitudes towards the European Union are less than favourable, but I should have thought that much of what is done by Europe was unknown and allegedly—I stress the word "allegedly"—hidden from the public or Parliament. Therefore, one would have supposed that anything that extended the knowledge would be welcome. However, it is clear that anything approaching the Swedish, Danish, Latvian or Irish information centres, which are attached to their Parliaments, for the reasons outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, and my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, had to be almost immediately ruled out. And it would not enhance the reputation of the committee and its reports elsewhere if its work—its work, not its conclusions—became the subject of political controversy.

We have to accept that we are where we are, although we may ponder whether the Swedes, Finns, Danes, Irish and Latvians have a greater maturity in matters relating to Europe, in that they apparently can disagree with particular policies without questioning whether they want to be in the game as currently played, and that they accept that promoting knowledge of proposals is different from actively supporting them.

Of course it is important that the reports to the committee are known and available. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, I sometimes think they are better known and more frequently read outside the United Kingdom than within. However, I also believe that the principal responsibility for explaining the European Union and its policies falls to national Governments. It is for national Governments who have been party to the decisions of the Council of Ministers to take responsibility for those decisions, to take a political lead and not hide behind the skirts of the Commission—or, put even more vaguely, Brussels.

I have noted the new website referred to in the Government's response. It does indeed contain a great deal of information. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, will no doubt be pleased to know that one section actually contains a quotation from the United Kingdom Independence Party. Having viewed it, I wonder why the Minister in his response particularly highlighted the animated section—the one-minute tour. With great respect, I think it is rather simplistic. Why on earth is the British citizen on his one-minute tour of the European Union represented in a 1950s or 1960s Dormobile bumping along through the Continent? Is that really how we see ourselves? Have things moved on? Perhaps they have not, and that worries me even more.

We should all be prepared to support greater time for debating European issues on the Floor of the House and in Parliament generally. Those who are supportive of much of what the European Union tries to do would welcome it. Presumably those who are of a hostile disposition—and I think the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, has indicated this—would also welcome the opportunity to express a contrary point of view. Indeed, if that were not the case, one would have to conclude that there was an element of fear that the facts might get in the way of the argument.

In my view, a debate on the Commission's work programme would be appropriate. That would not in any way mean Brussels was setting Parliament's agenda; it would be our decision to have the debate. It would recognise that we are part of the European Union, and that our Ministers sit in the Council and make the decisions on the proposals from the Commission. As has already been said today, the sooner we express our views the better. It may not be a popular view, but the European Commission is in many ways more transparent than Whitehall, and its intentions are flagged up far earlier. For those who wish to comment, the sooner these matters are brought to their attention the better.

Much is written and said about how the institutions can reach out to citizens, and those institutions, particularly the Commission, try. But they will always be accused of pressing their own interest, and even if that is not true, it will be a one-sided interest. We should give an enthusiastic welcome to the declared intention of commissioners to make themselves available to national Parliaments, and to President Barroso's proposal to visit each national Parliament. If that became a regular practice it would be a welcome addition to the one that the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, has instituted, of the EU Select Committee seeing the ambassador of the presidency state at the beginning of each presidency to go through the work programme.

We are part of the European Union, and our Governments must be prepared to lead public opinion, not merely follow it or allow it to drift. If we, as Members of a national Parliament, want to play our part in the affairs of Europe, we need to do so enthusiastically and pursue the suggestions in this report—but also, I submit, to consider how much further we can go. Sometimes we will agree with proposals and policies, sometimes we will disagree, but if we do not have the debate, who is ever going to know? We are concerned about how to engage the public with politics. Europe is very much a part of our politics, whether you think that is a good thing or not. To ignore it will be to our detriment.