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House of Lords: EU Scrutiny (EUC Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:31 pm on 27th October 2006.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Leader, Parliament, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 1:31 pm, 27th October 2006

My Lords, I begin by saying how much I enjoyed the maiden speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby. We have been joined by a wise and learned Scottish mind that will illuminate our discussions not only in this area but in many others. He had a very good initial innings, if I may put it in cricketing terms. I thank him very much on my own behalf and on that of my colleagues.

Like all reports from the EU Committee, this report is a thorough piece of work. In its case, I can truly assert that I have read all the evidence. I have to go on to confess that I have hardly ever read all the evidence in any other report, but I did in this case. The report made some very interesting points. I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, who presides over this giant committee family—that is what it is—with such skill and geniality and brings its reports before us with such assiduity.

As the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, implied in his opening comments, there are two subjects in the debate, and there is a slight danger of them becoming entangled in the discussion of the report. The first is how the process of scrutiny of EU legislative instruments, documents and declarations can become more widely known. That includes not merely the formal process of scrutinising proposals from Brussels before they become law and placing a delay or a reserve on them, where appropriate, which is all laid down in the 1999 Scrutiny Reserve Resolution, but also examining the role of the Government in agreeing to EU-originated legislation. The second subject is quite different: it is the task of presenting, explaining and, in some respects, acting as advocate for the policies and activities of the European Union. They are two different subjects and, to some extent, they conflict. I shall try to explain a bit more about that in a moment.

The first group of tasks provides the mandate. It is a big and important mandate for the European Union Committee and its sub-committees. The second task—explaining EU policies to the public—is most emphatically not for that committee to undertake. It is not the business of the committee, the House or this Parliament; it is for the European Union, its institutions and its high officials to undertake. It is also, to some extent, a task for the Governments of member states, including our Government, to undertake since Ministers are accountable for EU enactments, even when they have been overruled in Brussels by a qualified majority. However, it has been made clear by a number of speakers that that is not a matter with which we want to be associated. It is a bit of a puzzle to find this matter alluded to in paragraphs 16 to 24 of the report, and I find it difficult to see why the committee should play any part in the so-called EU communications strategy, which is referred to in the report. At the moment, everyone knows that the EU and its institutions are giving a lot of time to improving their communications because they are deeply worried at their failure to connect with the European public and at the apparent and increasingly registered unpopularity of the Union and its activities. Nothing seems to go right for the EU institutions at the moment, and as my noble friend Lord Stevens reminded us, even the auditors are still on the Commission's back, although there may be two sides to that case and the Commission has tried to put the other side, but it does not look very good.

We have seen that this is leading to a need for a renewal of vows—to use the phrase employed by Chancellor Merkel of Germany—for the EU project. That indicates the level of worry and concern about the communications failure. We have also seen that the latest opinion polls in the UK indicate that even British business, which used to be very pro the European Union, is now apparently tiring of the excessive regulation which it believes emanates from Brussels and is beginning to question whether the benefits of the Union, which are undoubtedly there, exceed the costs that seem to loom even larger.

I realise that these are huge and contentious issues that raise questions about our national role, identity, interests and place in the world, and the Committee is very well advised to steer clear of them. As power shifts from the Atlantic and Europe to Asia, they also raise even broader questions about where our interests lie and whether this House should be giving more attention to that than we do at present. I do not propose to touch on those issues any further today; I have no doubt that we will have plenty of debate on them in coming weeks.

Instead, I turn to the central issue, which the report poses with almost brutal candour in Chapter 4, where it asks: "Why is our work"—that is, the work of the scrutiny committee—

"not getting more coverage in the media?", and goes on to question whether we are selling it wrong, or to the wrong people, or whether there is something wrong with the presentation or so on. I shall add a few more questions to that list. Are we selling the right product? Is the whole scrutiny reserve procedure a convincing process and artefact? Does it give real value, service and protection to the British public in the way they want? If the answer to those questions is no, then no amount of improved presentation, better websites, simple language or anything else will turn a bad story into a good one. I suspect that it is the product itself—by that, I do not mean the committee reports, but the raw material from which they are derived—which may need to be changed if there is to be any greater impact and connection with public interests.

Nowadays, the public wants a robust element of "arm's-length scepticism" about EU proposals, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde puts it in his excellent memorandum on page 78. To that I add: that should be combined with some healthy questioning on why certain proposals are within the proper competence of the EU at all as opposed to belonging to national legislatures.

I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, found my right honourable friend's letter not to his liking. It seems to me to be a completely reasonable and straightforward analysis of the proper role of the committee and the need to concentrate on that role.

The approach of other legislatures was described in the evidence, notably that of Denmark, but also of Sweden and Finland, where—as the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, reminded us in an excellent and thoroughly interesting speech—they go a good deal further by insisting that Ministers should be mandated, in the Danish case by the Folketinget, before they agree any legislative measures in Brussels. We have some lessons to draw, and if we are talking about having more public impact, that is where our minds should be turning. It is indeed revolutionary stuff, but the media of today are always ready to be bored and to condemn serious things as dull, and are looking for revolutionary utterances. I suspect people also want from these activities a firm assurance that the process of filtering and examining proposals from the Commission via our government departments—that is the scrutiny procedure—really works, and cannot just be overridden by Ministers when it suits them, or when they are in a hurry, or when Parliament is not sitting, or for some other excuse.

We have debated this issue in this House, as some of your Lordships will recall, and we have given it a good deal of attention. It needs constant watching to ensure that regulations and EU measures do not just get rushed through by Ministers on some pretext such as confidentiality, urgency, or, "We had to get it through for some reason or other", before proper scrutiny has even begun. That has happened, and there is a real danger that, while scrutiny procedures continue, they are being reduced to a farce or a formality by Ministers agreeing things provisionally in Council. That has happened, and this House has objected strongly to the Government about the habit of agreeing things provisionally and arguing later that it was not real agreement in a political sense but was only provisional. In fact, they are pushing things through with no regard at all for the scrutiny process.

When I talk about a degree of scepticism, that is why this much-needed approach may sometimes be in head-on conflict with those who are trying to wave all doubts aside and promote and proselytise on behalf of EU measures and ideas, or argue that they have gone through anyway and that it is good thing too. It is perfectly natural that all EU officials will want to put the best possible face on everything that they are doing or proposing, but people here want a much more critical and questioning approach. They want, rightly, to know what value certain measures from the EU really add, and what harm they might do. The two—making the EU case as opposed to evaluating EU proposals—are not compatible. It is the latter, the rigorous evaluation, which will command far more public attention than the former.

I welcome the suggestion in the report that larger EU subjects should continue to be examined by the sub-committees. I do not really understand why one needed to recommend that, because that is what the sub-committees have always done, and very good it is too. Some excellent reports have appeared over the years, which are widely admired and referred to. I endorse the ideas put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. I liked the recommendations for more debates on EU proposals in the Chamber, and on the Floor of the other place, although it does not sound from one of the letters from the Minister for Europe that he is very keen on that idea at all. He seemed to imply that we have had enough debates already.

I have one more observation. The committee is anxious to avoid having to dumb down its reports in its efforts to gain a higher profile. That is understandable, but we live in a media-dominated age and the media are easily bored, as the evidence to the committee confirms. I have been looking at some of the recent reports from the scrutiny committee in the other place and I am struck by the blunt and aggressive language that it uses about certain EU measures and the way that they are handled by Her Majesty's Government—that is part of the remit. I ask your Lordships to listen to what our colleagues on the Commons scrutiny committee had to say about a recent, rather vacuous, EU communication, Europe in the World. The committee had received a letter from the Minister in which he had expressed the hope that his explanatory memorandum would be informative. The committee report stated:

"On the contrary, its cursory summary of the Communication is uninformative, as is his statement of the Government's views. This seems to be at one with the position taken by the previous and present Minister for Europe with regard to similar documents, all of which in one way or another relate to the future of Europe in the wake of the rejection, a year ago, by French and Dutch citizens of the Constitutional Treaty".

The report continues:

"The Government's general position appears to be to shelter behind the obvious absence of any consensus on the future of Europe and to say that it will inform the House of its views once there is one. This is somewhat at odds with the notion of increasing the involvement of national parliaments in decision-making, as is the submission of an Explanatory Memorandum on the day after the Council has approved the document in question and instructed those involved to proceed forthwith ... We consider this stance unacceptable", and so on.

That is rough but justified language that throws an important light on the totally unsatisfactory way in which some of the scrutiny procedures are treated by the Government . The more firmly that our committee says that, the better is its chance of obtaining some resonance with the public. The scrutiny committee in the other place knocked both the European paper and the Minister right out of the ground.

I know that we in the Lords pride ourselves on the gentility of our approach and the politeness of our language, but it may be that, without dumbing down, we have to get a little rougher and harsher in our reports to attract media attention and to show that we are doing our job.