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House of Lords: EU Scrutiny (EUC Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:17 pm on 27th October 2006.

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Photo of Lord Roper Lord Roper Liberal Democrat 1:17 pm, 27th October 2006

My Lords, I begin by saying how much the whole House appreciated the maiden speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby. I particularly appreciated his references to Caithness, and will certainly report to my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart his appreciation of his first visit to this House. Scotland's loss is certainly our gain, and we appreciated what the noble and learned Lord had to say about further working between the European Union Committee and the appropriate committees in the devolved Assemblies. I hope that that will be taken forward. We look forward to hearing him on many other subjects in future.

I was not a member of the Select Committee when the report was prepared and I can therefore warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, and his colleagues on their work on it. Since it was prepared, I have become a member of the committee and have seen, as has been said by so many other noble Lords, how much the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, does in co-ordinating our work and in ensuring that we are effective.

Since I have served on the committee, I have had a duty to read the whole range of reports that the committee and its sub-committees have produced. They are a remarkable contribution to the understanding of developments in the European Union and the relations between the United Kingdom and the Union. There is no doubt about the quality of the reports, as has been made clear in today's debate and earlier ones. The problem is that the reports do not get the attention that they deserve. That is the issue that we have discussed both in the report and in our debate today.

I agree with the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Grenfell and Lord Norton of Louth, on the role of the committee and its rejection of any agency function. It would not be appropriate for the committee or the House to be involved in promoting the European Union. Some years ago, when I was involved in the work of policy research institutes, or think tanks, I made the distinction between those which existed to improve the quality of debate in their area of policy and those which existed to influence the direction of the debate. The committee exists to improve the quality of the debate on European issues, rather than to influence its direction. There is no doubt that the reports have great potential, not only in debates in this House but also in the wider debates in the country and throughout the European Union.

However, I share the concern expressed in the report—and widely echoed today—that the reports are not fulfilling their potential in improving the wider debate. There have been a whole series of useful suggestions made in the debate, and I want to comment on a number of them. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, in what sounded like a valedictory telegram as he left Sub-Committee D, covered a lot of important ground and spoke of the problems that chairmen have in making their reports better known. This is not the place to discuss whether following the Danish or Finnish solution would necessarily be the right course for us; maybe we can return to that on another occasion. I suspect that 27 member states with Danish-type committees would not necessarily ensure any progress in the European Union.

I am particularly interested in two ways of making the reports better known, an issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. He mentioned three areas of post-publication activity: debates in this Chamber; press relations and press conferences; and seminars and other promotional activities. Debates in this Chamber are, of course, the traditional post-publication activity, once we have received the reply from the Government to the report. As the noble Lord, Lord Neill, said during the deliberations and the questioning session in the committee, sometimes when the debates are limited almost exclusively to those who have taken part in preparing the report, it is not always clear whether this is the best use of this Chamber's time.

Indeed, realising from a former existence the problems of time in this Chamber, I think that we should consider carefully, if we want the additional time for which my noble friend Lady Williams so strongly argued, having an annual debate on the work programme of the Council—that is mentioned in the report and would be of great importance, but would take at least a day of parliamentary time—as well as taking up opportunities for debates on substantial issues that have come up in European Council meetings. At some stage, the committee and the House will have to consider the trade-off in time spent on those matters—I am talking about time spent in the Chamber, as distinct from in the Moses Room or on what we used to call Unstarred Questions, for the consideration of our reports.

As has been said, relations with the press have not been easy for the committee and its sub-committees in terms of getting out satisfactory information. We should explore further the possibility of having post-publication seminars. These would be a useful opportunity to explore the results of the sub-committee's work with a group of people that might include the witnesses who had come before us and specialists in the issue under consideration from universities and policy research institutes, from within and occasionally without the United Kingdom. We should follow the example given by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, of the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, who took the report of his Sub-Committee C on Africa to Brussels for a seminar of that sort. It would be a good idea if we could aim to have at least half our reports linked to post-publication seminars in the coming year—that target might be worth aiming at—and we would be able to evaluate how effective they had been in ensuring that the reports were better known and understood. That would be a particularly useful proactive activity on our part.

Secondly, there is no doubt that the parliamentary website as a whole has improved. The new design of the pages on public Bills before Parliament, of which we were sent a trial template yesterday, will be a significant improvement when it comes online in the new Session. That is good. Our own website, however, can be described only as a work in progress. I have signed up for messages, both on the committees page and the pages of a couple of sub-committees in which I have a concern. So far, however, all I have received is one that says that the page has been changed. It is not clear what has been changed, so perhaps I should look at the page again. That is not how to have a user-friendly website. We should look at whether this can be done more effectively. We should consider—my noble friend Lady Williams mentioned this in her evidence to the committee and the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, also referred to it—building up e-mail lists for each sub-committee and for the Select Committee, so that we could send out the executive summary of our reports to an audience of the attentive public concerned with the area with which we were dealing. We should be more proactive in that way, too.

I have a good deal of sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said on the free distribution of our reports. Given the cost of preparing reports, the marginal cost of making copies available is relatively small. We ought at least to see whether it would be possible, if not to go quite as far as making all parliamentary publications free, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, suggested, then at least to have a wider distribution list of copies to those who would find them advantageous, both in this country and elsewhere in the European Union. I do not know, for instance, whether we send them automatically to each parliament in the European Union. That would be useful. Of course, the IPEX system will provide a computer link, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said, a hard copy is sometimes a good deal more useful than a link to a website.

I hope that the Minister will be able to answer the question about the government website on explanatory memoranda. As the committee was told by the Remembrancer of the City of London, the City of London is fortunate in that it is one of the few organisations that get copies of all explanatory memoranda. He felt that it was important, however, that others should also have access to them, and a website would be of considerable value in that respect.

As the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, said, we need to build up and extend our links with Members of Parliament considering these matters, and with Members of the European Parliament. We have a useful annual meeting with MEPs and the European Committee of the House of Commons, but we must think of further ways to ensure that there are better links between us. As has been said, our representative in Brussels is in a good place to ensure that, at least as far as the European Parliament is concerned, that is now done.

Finally, the European Union Committee has recently been considering another aspect linked to this report. In a communication, the Commission has made it known that in future it will send copies of proposals directly to national parliaments. To some extent, it would have been obliged to do that if the constitutional treaty had gone through, but it is now going to do it in any case, because it would like to have the views of national parliaments on its proposals. We will have to see how we will manage that responsibility alongside our prime responsibility, but that would meet the point raised by my noble friend Lady Williams about being able to send our reports to the appropriate commissioners and perhaps going to see them on occasion and giving them our views.

A great deal of hard work goes into the preparation of each of these reports. There is the time of the members of the committee or sub-committee, of our Clerks, of our specialist advisers, of government departments, which do a great deal in providing us with information and in coming to give evidence, and of other witnesses from a wide range of backgrounds. Given that so much work goes into the preparation of these reports, we have a responsibility to continue to work out how we can make them better known.