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 Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Shadow Leader, Parliament, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 9:30 pm, 19th May 2008

The comments that I have just made rather apply. I agree with my right honourable friend in the other place, who once served as my Parliamentary Under-Secretary and is an excellent fellow, when he said—I paraphrase—"Everyone but a fool knows perfectly well that this is word for word the same treaty as the previous one". However, on this matter, I think that he is falling into the same trap. He, too, should read The Black Swan. The assumption that, just because things have not happened, they will not happen is very tricky and produces a lot of surprises. I predict that this measure will be used and will produce—for some people, although not for me—all sorts of surprises. The unexpected always happens.

We come to the heart of the matter. The noble Lord, Lord Roper, who is very wise and informed in these fields, said that more than the normal convention would apply under the proposal in the Bill that there should be a motion before both Houses. The noble Baroness spoke in detail about that. Apparently, this will all be different. She says that there is a new power and that the process will be simpler and better. All that is very interesting, but I think that we need to hear a lot more about it before we are through. It is very interesting that a new power is to be produced to cope with these unfamiliar situations.

I was surprised to hear about the detail that has apparently already been gone into and the advice of parliamentary draftsmen that this is a new power. Perhaps I should not have been surprised, but I was. Indeed, it raises a whole series of new questions. Parliamentary procedure both here and in the other place evolves and changes from time to time. It is always debated closely, because if the procedure is too loose all sorts of things can get through. We need to be very clear about all this.

The noble Lord, Lord Owen, spoke with dazzling clarity, as he nearly always does. He reminded us that the "legislative factory", as he rather dismissively called the great other parliamentary Chamber, is not very popular and is not greatly admired for its sausage-machine activities in churning out legislation. He said that it is even less admired for the fact that a great deal of that legislation appears to be poorly scrutinised and for the fact that its Members appear to go to bed earlier than we did in our day, although he rightly warned me against the dinosaur argument that things were better in the past.

However, there is no doubt that there is no popularity in the other place or your Lordships' House being too cavalier in letting legislation go through by this or that motion and this or that whipped vote. Most people in this country seem to want a referendum, although we shall come to that in our debates both tomorrow and later on. The vast majority—86 per cent, according to the latest ICM poll—want a referendum. We need to be very careful, without subordinating ourselves to public opinion—we need to give leadership and experience where we can—about flying in the face of such a massive majority of people, who for a long time have wanted things to be other than Parliament appears inclined to agree to at present.

We then came to what one might call the middle-of-the-night syndrome. I was interested in the intervention that the noble Baroness made to reject the worries of the noble Lord, Lord Owen. However, I could not then understand what the Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, was talking about when he said as Foreign Secretary that,

"late at night at an ordinary European Council, a decision on one other country's milk quotas is traded for a concession on moving from unanimity to QMV ... that is not acceptable".

Of course the very fact that he said that indicates that that sort of thing goes on. I recall—I am sure that I am hopelessly out of date—that when I attended Industry and Energy Councils decades ago a great deal went on late at night and a great many pressures were exerted and trades and deals were done. If the Ministers came to a trading situation in the middle of the night, where it was raised that something might be moved from unanimity to QMV, could they act and then come back to the House of Commons, where we would ask for an Act of Parliament to validate it, and the Government would ask for a motion of novel procedures? I am not sure if they could act or would have to say that they could not even enter into the discussion until they had gone home and got a view from the other place. Perhaps we can clear this up at a later stage in our discussions. I am not totally clear on this procedure.

The time is pressing on. We have covered a good deal of ground this evening, largely by leaping swiftly from clause to clause. These are vastly important subjects; we are talking about treaty changes. They may be small, but they are treaty changes. These are things for which the party of the noble Lord, Lord Roper, voted in the name of parliamentary accountability and improved parliamentary control. These are not, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, suggested in an earlier debate, games. It is not, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, keeps suggesting, an elephant trap. This party does not believe in trapping elephants. The comparison of elephants to the Liberal Democrats is not a happy one. After all, elephants never forget, whereas the Liberal Democrats seem to forget their policy every 10 minutes. Because of this talk of new powers, we have opened up a whole new area of questioning and issues of vast importance for the future. Something will happen and the more I hear that it will not, or is unlikely, or may never be used, the more certain I am that these matters will occur in the future. Those of us who fail to make provision will have been, as it were, the unwise virgins who failed to prepare for what is certainly going to happen, and will be very much criticised. That is why we need to return to this matter and that is why, for the moment, and clearly on those understandings, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.