European Union (Amendment) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:30 pm on 19th May 2008.

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Photo of Lord Willoughby de Broke Lord Willoughby de Broke UKIP 8:30 pm, 19th May 2008

With the leave of the Committee, it may be convenient for me to speak to Amendment No. 150, which deals with parliamentary control, although it is grouped separately on the groupings list. If that is in order, I should like to make a few remarks on it.

The purpose of the amendment in my name and the names of my noble friend Lord Pearson and the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, is to put flesh on the bones of the spurious claim that the Lisbon treaty gives more powers to national parliaments. Our amendment would require Ministers, before they cement their negotiating position on any proposed EU law, to get approval from a Joint Committee of both Houses and/or from both Houses of Parliament. Should the Joint Committee wish, it may refer matters to debate in both Houses.

Let me remind the Committee why I say that the claim that the Lisbon treaty gives or returns powers to national parliaments is entirely bogus. Under the terms of the two protocols in the treaty, which I believe that the Minister confirmed the other day are binding, parliaments will have the right to consider whether Commission proposals are compliant with subsidiarity. Parliaments have eight weeks to consider Commission proposals, which is a marginal improvement over the six weeks that were proposed in the constitution. I suppose that you could call it an improvement, but it is not worth arguing about; as Dr Johnson would say, it is like arguing the difference between a louse and a flea. If one-third of the 27 national Parliaments consider that there has been no such compliance, it may be sent back to the Commission, which can simply decide to maintain its proposal if it wishes. How can that possibly be interpreted as strengthening the role of national parliaments? It does not.

Under Protocol 2, a simple majority of all national parliaments—14 in this case—may require the Commission to review a proposal. Again, the Commission may decide to override national parliaments. Its reasons for doing so would have to be put to the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, and a majority of those august bodies may then decide whether to support the parliaments. Those are very high hurdles indeed and, again, simply cannot realistically be described as giving more powers back to national parliaments. You can argue—as I would—that such proposals are actively damaging. They give the appearance of accountability without the substance.

The problem is that our own system of scrutinising parliamentary legislation in this country is not satisfactory either. We have the European Union Scrutiny Committee in the other place, or our own EU Select Committee. The only power that either of these committees has is that of scrutiny reserve. In theory this means that they can ask the Government not to approve EU legislation until it has been debated in Parliament. This simply has not worked very well, has it? The problem is not only the amount of legislation or the limited powers of the EU committees, but the propensity of Governments to use the scrutiny override reserve and proceed to legislate without either House of Parliament having had a chance to debate it or, indeed, often to scrutinise it properly.

Since 2001 the Government have used the scrutiny override 346 times. In 2005 alone, it was used 52 times in the European Union Scrutiny Committee and 28 times in the Select Committee of your Lordships' House. I asked a question about that last summer and the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, who answered for the Government then, denied that there was any gap in European scrutiny. She said that the Government,

"will continue to account for their actions by writing to the chairman of the House of Lords European Union Committee".—[Hansard, 15/5/07; col. 124.]

I am not sure how that answers the question. Merely writing to the chairman is not a particularly strong measure and does not answer the concerns that have been expressed in the Chamber this evening and earlier about the powers of Parliament to monitor, scrutinise and debate European legislation before it comes into force. The reality, I am afraid, is that EU proposals can become law without being properly scrutinised. For example, again in 2005, rather astonishingly, the EU produced 1,691 pieces of legislation, be they regulations, directives or decisions. Those passed into UK law without full scrutiny or, in some cases, any scrutiny at all. That really is quite astonishing.

Our amendments would mean that the scrutiny process is much stronger and more accountable than the current system. It would include both Houses of Parliament and require parliamentary approval of ministerial positions. It would be much harder for Ministers to override, and would mean that Parliament would control the position of Ministers in EU negotiations. Going back to my question last summer and today's debate, I was happy to see that I got a little support from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who said:

"Does the Minister recall the Chancellor of the Exchequer has recently made some powerful proposals to strengthen the role of Parliament in relation to the Executive? Does she not agree that this is one area where the strengthening of the role of Parliament against the Executive where Ministers do not pay sufficient attention to making sure that good replies are given on time to committees should be one of his priorities?".—[Hansard, 15/5/07; col. 125.]

Again, tonight, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said that he was deeply committed to parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislation. So I hope that I can count on the support of the Liberal Democrats. I beg to move.