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

However, here we are discussing the passerelles within the treaty under Clause 6. We are saying that, in the context of what is in the legislation, that has nothing to do with what happened in the middle of the night on the previous occasion. We are talking about what would happen if it were proposed that we should move on these footbridges from unanimity to qualified majority voting. We are saying that there would have to be a decision by both Houses of Parliament to give a mandate to the Minister in question to move on that basis. I argue that that is altogether different: it means a positive, improving and important role for Parliament.

Noble Lords have argued that that should be done by Act of Parliament and not by what is proposed; they have veered between saying that Acts of Parliament are absolutely critical and saying that we do not do them very well anyway, particularly in another place. I argue that what matters is that Parliament has appropriate and proper debate, but I do not believe that that is always possible within an Act of Parliament. Clause 6 gives Parliament the opportunity, if it so wishes, to provide the Minister with some flexibility in negotiations—for example, with regard to the date of commencement of a particular provision and so on. Parliament can determine that it does not wish to give that flexibility, while still mandating the Minister, simply by removing Clause 6(3) from the discussion. That possibility would be available to it. If the Minister were given the mandate and some flexibility by an Act of Parliament, we would have to come back and create a new Act of Parliament every time the negotiation changed. Alternatively, as noble Lords know—because they sometimes complain about parliamentary discussion of legislation which is too open-ended—there is an argument for saying that what would have to be provided for would be far too open-ended for an Act of Parliament. Therefore, I take the view that what we propose here is much better.

Noble Lords—particularly but not exclusively those on the Liberal Democrat Benches—want to be reassured that what we have proposed and considered since the issue was debated in another place is stronger. I agree completely with the noble Lords, Lord Roper and Lord Wallace, about the value and importance of both committees in terms of scrutiny. That will be essential. I appeared before the EU Select Committee in your Lordships' House last week to talk about another issue, but we also discussed the need to consider how best to achieve greater scrutiny. I accept that.

More importantly, the conventions that would normally apply to secondary legislation, statutory instruments, and the votes and debates with which noble Lords concern themselves in relation to primary legislation—traditions and conventions that we might not vote against something—do not apply in this context. In the words of the parliamentary counsel whom I consulted this morning, this is a new power. It is different. For the benefit of noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches in particular, and for noble Lords in general, I can confirm that that is where we are. Therefore both Houses of Parliament can consider this fully and properly in the kind of debates that they would wish. The length and timings of debates are for the usual channels and are not within the Government's gift to veto, alter or change. I hope that that will reassure noble Lords who have been concerned that in moving to this, which they would support in principle, the issue that was of greatest concern, both here and in another place, was how that would be different from the issues and concerns that have normally been raised when looking for votes on the debates in question. I hope that that reassures noble Lords.