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House of Lords: EU Scrutiny (EUC Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:05 pm on 27th October 2006.

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Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative 1:05 pm, 27th October 2006

My Lords, I should have said European Community. That was a Freudian slip. The Labour Party considers that the European Union is a good thing because it enables it to introduce legislation into the United Kingdom that it could not have done otherwise and because it enables more and more central control to be taken. That is not an original thought and it is not mine. I reflect the views of others.

When I was a consultant one of my senior partners once said, "In business there are only two things: incest and rape. Incest is talking to yourselves, rape is finding a client or someone outside to talk to". In this great debate today almost everybody is incestuous, with the exception of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby, who is totally independent and comes from a part of the world that I was not even allowed to reach when I had to speak about Europe, and my noble friend Lord Stevens of Ludgate. Everyone else is either a member of the committee talking to themselves or someone who has already given evidence and is seeking to repeat it. This is one of the problems that we have in Parliament these days. I have raised this before. We used to have very informed debates on Wednesdays, which would be fully occupied, and which were not divided between Opposition Benches. These days when we have debates on Thursdays, there is a very small attendance. Often I have been the only one on the Conservative Bench in a Labour debate. We are failing ourselves on debating internally in Parliament the important issues that may be raised from time to time.

In the House of Commons, what happens now? They go home on Wednesday. They do not have Adjournment debates; they do not talk about anything. They go back to their constituencies as a form of social worker to talk to a few people. If we are seeking to approach the outside world—the outside world means people—I say that the European Union as such is yesterday's story, but how can we in the United Kingdom benefit from it? How can we keep the wrong controls out of our country and introduce issues that will be of direct benefit to our economy, our social activities, and so on?

That is difficult, because I was told that there was a convention, although several conventions have gone. The first was that you should not speak on anything that you did not know about. However, when you joined your Lordships' House you could read your speech, but only for three or four times. Then you were allowed to have notes. Thereafter, you did not read a speech, otherwise someone would say, "Reading, reading!". You would speak, but when you were young like me, I was told that you did not know anything so you could read a speech for a while, but when you know something, you speak on it and do not need any notes. There were many people in this House, as there are now, with a great knowledge of a range of subjects, but their knowledge is not dispersed outside.

The other convention was that if you received a letter from outside, or a communication of any form from a member of the public, you did not answer it. First of all, you had only 24 sheets of writing paper a month, no stamps and no allowances. But you immediately passed it on to the Member of Parliament in the other place. You would write to him. If you were old enough you would call him by his Christian name, but if you were my age you would almost say, "Dear Sir, I have received a letter from so and so, who I understand is one of your constituents. Could you please reply?". Has that convention now gone? You only have to speak in this place and have it quoted on the internet or something and you receive hundreds of letters. Do we reply to them or do we send them to another place? Maybe we should encourage more people to write and communicate with us.

I have another disadvantage. I happen to be president of the Anglo-Swiss Society, and because the business of voluntary euthanasia came up and you could go to Switzerland, I had a host of letters complaining at one level or another. When we get these letters, do we reply? If they have given a telephone number, I ring up, but I lick the letter first to see whether it is part of a lobby and to check whether or not the ink runs. I even do that with Ministers' letters. Fewer and fewer Ministers' replies to Written Questions run, so I have reason to believe that they are stereotype signatures. When you reach the outside public, they may ask about EU subjects that I may or may not know about. I ring them up if I have their number and try to work out whether they will be at home at that time. You try to guess whether they have high tea or dinner. You then ring and say, "I'm ringing because you wrote to me about so and so". More often than not, they say, "Who?". I then say, "Well, it's me, Malcolm Selsdon. I am actually a Lord. I am terribly sorry about it; it is an accident of birth". "Oh, did we?", they ask. I say, "Yes, you wrote", and you realise that you have got part of the lobby, so you are not in touch with the general public. Occasionally someone will be very pleased. I then say, "If you want to know something about something else, let me know", or you give them the website. We can therefore spread the net.

We need to promote—not the committee; it is an extremely boring subject, but some of the issues that come up need to be identified. We need presenters and promoters, as we have discussed with the Hansard Commission. Let us look at the promoters we have. We have a rather rakish frigate of great charm, the Lord Speaker, and a 94-gun solid oak battle ship in the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell. That does sound a bit like a battle ship. Those are the two key people. From underneath them, we should look at people who would go out to promote, speak, wherever it may be, and also get into the audio-visual communication world.

I happen to be secretary of the Parliamentary Space Committee. At one of our earlier meetings in Brussels, one of the commissioners—a remarkable Italian who has the ability, as some Italians do, to speak sometimes moving his arms ahead of his voice, and sometimes behind—left a lasting impression on me. He said that within five years, half the population of the world would have access to audio-visual communication for sound, music, speech, whatever it may be, on a unit, which is strictly to them wherever they are. I suddenly thought that half the population of the world—3 billion—speak English either as their first or second language, or are learning it. It is that form of communication that we should be looking at.

I try occasionally to be a bit electronic, and in distant parts I can manage to access your Lordships' House. Your Lordships may not realise that debates or committees are sometimes reported on three months later. They are continually repeated because there are not enough programmes to broadcast on television. You will see them occasionally in an odd airport, or wherever. If we could only use the electronic media and decide what our policy should be, we should be promoting not the committee but specific issues. I believe that that is possible.

I wish we could drop the phrase "European Union". We are looking at the advantages that we can gain from it. Of course we can give a lot. As my noble friend Lord Stevens pointed out, in the business world now we have a greater concentration of financial resources in this centre than probably anywhere in the world. I do not know the answers, but—I do this reluctantly—if you were to cherry-pick within the EU, there are certain legislative things that could be beneficial. I am told that anyone on a waiting list for the NHS here for a replacement hip, elective surgery, or whatever, may, under new legislation, which has been drafted or set up in Brussels, have an operation in a hospital with only a few days', or maximum two weeks' waiting, which has to be paid for by the NHS.

If we look at the advantages or disadvantages there is no harmonisation or unity. We have to keep the pound sterling. A little thing: you cannot even insure a car or register a car for all the countries of the European Union. There are so many "noes" and "pluses". We need to reach out to the consumer—the person who wants to know whether he can move his dogs around. That was done, but the foreign consumer did not know when he came to London on holiday with his dogs whether they would be well looked after. There was nowhere he could stay with his dog, and hardly a restaurant he could go to. There are so many little anomalies, but should we decide to go out and promote the importance of the scrutiny of legislation, it is a matter of the issues themselves.

It has been a great day today; the weather should also be good tomorrow. I am very grateful that we have had a chance to debate this, but unless we can somehow change our own internal structures and communicate with ourselves on a broader base we have little hope of communicating with the outside world.