European Union (Amendment) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 19th May 2008.

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Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council (Privy Council Office) 9:30 pm, 19th May 2008

This has been an interesting and stimulating debate on an important subject. Noble Lords have made clear that they consider this an important aspect of our deliberations in Committee and I agree.

What is very important is that this is the first time since passerelles—footbridges—came into existence, through the Single European Act of 1986, that Parliament is able to determine whether they should be used. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, is correct in looking for a better class of procedure. That is what we have acquired here. Through this legislation, we are giving Parliament the power to veto any use of a defined list of treaty-amending provisions—the passerelles or footbridges. That is extremely important. Many of our deliberations have been about what that ought to look like—whether it should be through Act of Parliament or, as we have proposed, through a vote in both Houses of Parliament. I know that noble Lords, particularly on the Liberal Democrat Benches, are looking for what has changed, in terms of how we think about that scrutiny, from when the Bill left the other place and came here. I will seek to address that.

I am conscious that, many weeks ago, I promised the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, that I would make sure that in my discussions on the Lisbon treaty I would be clear about the importance of Europe and the value of the treaty provisions. I think that, in principle, these provisions could be beneficial to the United Kingdom. If we wanted, for example, to make a minor change to the EU's machinery without recourse to a full-blown intergovernmental conference, this would enable us to do so. We should not see what is proposed in the legislation from an entirely negative viewpoint. I accept that noble Lords are concerned about making sure that we have the right checks and balances. I argue that nowhere is that better done than in your Lordships' House and in another place. As noble Lords have indicated, from their long experience in the European Union, it is unlikely that this option will be used often. Passerelles to move treaty powers from unanimity to QMV have been around since 1986 and used only once. I think it extremely unlikely that we will see great frequency of use, but the option could be of potential benefit.

Noble Lords have rightly concerned themselves with the role of the Minister, and at what point the Minister should play his role. I had an interesting exchange about that with the noble Lord, Lord Owen. He said that he wanted to use the N-word about me. I thought it was "naughty", but actually it is "naive". I do not pretend that I can emulate his experience from 1976 to 1979. What he should and probably does know is that I sat on the Justice and Home Affairs Council for three years and, as noble Lords have been kind enough to note today, I flew in from Peru this morning, where I was at the European Union Latin American/Caribbean conference until last night. Therefore, I pray in aid some experience of negotiations but perhaps not late into the night—the Justice and Home Affairs Council was quite civilised in its deliberations. I recognise that discussions go on between officials and Ministers outside the formal deliberations at the European Council. As noble Lords would expect, that is part and parcel of the system.

The point that I sought to make but clearly failed to make effectively is a different one. Here, we are proposing that no Minister can enter those deliberations and make any suggestion, positive or negative, until both Houses of Parliament have made it clear what the position should be. The wording that we have put into the legislation is there to capture not just votes but the kind of discussions and manoeuvres that the noble Lord recognises—and smiles at—where a form of assent is given without a formal vote. It is clear from what is in the legislation that that cannot happen in these instances. Until there has been a discussion—