My Lords, the report on the 2013-14 Session details the work of your Lordships’ European Union Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing. I am pleased to be discussing the work of our committee on the Floor of the House, especially as the committee has just passed the significant milestone of its 40th anniversary. I note that the late Lord Diamond—the first chairman of the Select Committee—when reporting to the House in 1974 on the first three months of its work and its members’ contribution thereto, stated that,
“your Lordships’ House is a veritable storehouse of wisdom, skills, and talents of a kind unimaginable”.—[ Official Report , 7/11/74; col. 600.]
I can report with some confidence that that is still the case some four decades on. I personally express the debt of gratitude that I owe to members of the committee and the sub-committees, who contributed their skills and talents to our work over the past Session, and to those who continue to do so in this one. Alongside them I add the names of their admirable and expert staff, to whom we are very grateful.
The committee’s role is to scrutinise EU policies and proposed EU laws, seeking to influence their development, to hold the Government to account for their actions in and connected to the EU, and to represent the House in its dealings with the EU institutions, other member states and their national parliaments. Many will know that the bulk of that work is done by six sub-committees.
The Select Committee itself and its sub-committees have undertaken an extraordinary level of work this year. We have scrutinised more than 250 EU documents and proposals, and corresponded at length with Minsters in order to examine the Government’s position and to put forward the committee’s own view. We have published 14 substantive reports on a diverse range of topics. While our primary task is to inform the House as a whole, we also engage actively with the outside world. I was gratified that the Financial Times described the committee’s reports as,
“the sort of calm, balanced report that ought to inform public debate”.
The Select Committee itself regularly conducts one-off hearings with the Minister for Europe, as well as with other key figures. The committee’s main focus in the year in question was our inquiry into the role of national parliaments in the EU. We emphasised national parliaments as a vital source of democratic legitimacy across the EU and supported the case for greater co-operation between national parliaments and early engagement by them with the EU Commission and other European institutions, including the European Parliament, so as to maximise their joint influence.
I will not rehearse our arguments in detail since there will be a full debate on the report in due course. I welcome the fact that although the Government’s response was late, it has now been received and it appears extremely positive. We look forward to pressing on with our efforts to promote the role of national parliaments by a range of means in the coming months.
I turn now to the sub-committees. They have all undertaken a range of important work, but I have only time to highlight a few key points for each. The Economic and Financial Affairs sub-committee examined in detail the financial transaction tax proposal and genuine economic and monetary union and its implications for the UK, and published substantive reports on both policy areas. This sub-committee produced an innovative report on the euro area crisis, incorporating the outputs of a series of six-monthly mini- inquiries, by which they have followed the crisis blow by blow for two years. The sub-committee did excellent work in its scrutiny of the 2014 EU annual budget and of the European semester—the term for the cycle of economic and fiscal policy co-ordination within the EU—which all amounts to a wide range of other scrutiny work.
The Internal Markets, Infrastructure and Employment sub-committee undertook an important inquiry into the issue of youth unemployment in the EU. That is a pressing issue affecting the UK and all member states. Its report recognised that,
“the responsibility for dealing with youth unemployment rests primarily with Member States”,
and that the key measures to address the issue should be concentrated and implemented at national level. But it was a timely and considered contribution to an EU-wide issue that will require attention for a long time to come, sadly.
The Sub-Committee on External Affairs was typically busy, dealing with a wide range of issues on foreign affairs, development, defence and international trade. In particular, it conducted an exhaustive inquiry into the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership—TTIP—in prospect between the USA and the European Union. This report concluded that as,
“the most ambitious trade and investment pact ever attempted”,
“set the template for a new generation of 21st century trade and investment agreements”.
We urge member states to promote the TTIP initiative and to address public concerns over the prospect of a deal. The United Kingdom Government should seek to explain how TTIP is relevant, not just to large multinational companies but to consumers and small businesses. TTIP negotiations continue and we will follow developments with interest.
The Sub-Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries, Environment and Energy undertook an inquiry into food waste prevention in the European Union, which attracted a significant and thoroughly well deserved amount of media and public attention. This report called for greater collaboration and shared financial responsibility along the supply chain so that, for example, retailers work more closely with farmers and consumers to reduce food waste. It also called for the Government and the European Commission to assess how the redistribution of unsold food for human consumption might be encouraged through appropriate fiscal incentives. The report’s impact is only just beginning to be felt but it will, we are sure, continue to inform and influence public debate.
The Justice, Institutions and Consumer Protection Sub-Committee presented a reasoned opinion challenging the proposal to establish the European Public Prosecutor’s Office on grounds of subsidiarity. This opinion was agreed by the House on
“a very significant and disruptive incursion into the sensitive criminal law systems of the Member States”.
The sub-committee continues to examine the impact the EPPO will have on the United Kingdom.
The sub-committee also conducted a joint follow-up inquiry with the Home Affairs, Health and Education Sub-Committee on the UK’s block opt-out decision relating to pre-Lisbon police and criminal justice measures. This issue was debated last week on the Floor of the House and will be revisited again before the final decision is made by the Government. Both sub-committees maintain a keen interest in this.
Separately, the Home Affairs, Health and Education Sub-Committee examined the strategic guidelines for the European Union’s next justice and home affairs programme, concluding that,
“evaluation must be at the heart of the next programme”,
and recommending reviews of,
“efficacy, transposition and implementation of all existing JHA legislation”.
The committee urged that,
“robust mechanisms must be put in place to review any future legislation or activities”.
This inquiry is a clear demonstration of the technical and considered contribution that the committee is in a position to make and in which it leads the debate, for which it is held in such high regard in Europe.
At this point I record personally my particular thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, who chaired the home affairs sub-committee so authoritatively. I welcome and look forward to working with his successor, the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar.
The work of the European Union Committee and its sub-committees depends on the necessary information being provided in a timely manner by Her Majesty’s Government in accordance with their obligations to Parliament. I have to give one bit of good news, which is that the provision of this information has noticeably improved and the number of scrutiny overrides continues to fall. However, the quality of the explanatory memoranda can still vary across departments. This element of inconsistency can cause issues for the work of the committees if it raises more questions than it is meant to answer. Explanatory memoranda have a duty to explain.
Our committees also continue to make a significant contribution to interparliamentary relations and work. Some of the work is undertaken through the Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union, known by the not particularly easy acronym as COSAC. It is certainly not a perfect institution and it does have issues that need to be addressed, but it provides the best framework for formal interparliamentary co-operation. Meanwhile, and less formally, our excellent national parliament representative in Brussels provides help to colleagues and other Members of the House to build effective relationships with other national parliaments and parliamentarians. We have increasingly close relations with like-minded members of committees in a number of other national parliaments. We benefit from a strong working relationship with the chair of the European Scrutiny Committee in another place as well as with those of the devolved Administrations. We meet formally twice a year and informally far more often.
To conclude, the pace of work has not dropped off. The sub-committees are looking forward and launching inquiries into topics such as regulatory reform, the use of civilian drones, the relationship between Russia and the EU, regional maritime strategy, the Government’s policy in opting into international agreements in the area of freedom, security and justice and, finally, an alcohol strategy. A short and very timely report on European Union data protection law, the so-called “right to be forgotten”, will be published next week.
At the same time, our regular scrutiny work continues week on week. There is also a significant amount of institutional change in the European Union—a change of face and perhaps a change of style—and we will seek to build on our relationships with the institutions and individuals over the coming Session.
This House is known for keeping an eye on the small print, and that meticulous approach is never more apparent than in the way the committee tackles European Union affairs. We seek at all times, and I think we generally succeed, without closed minds and without complacency, to act in a non-partisan way and to give, as we are required to, well informed and neutral advice to the House on European Union matters. It is not always easy for us to perform and to communicate that vital function, and frankly it will not become any easier as we approach the 2015 election and whatever lies beyond, but I take great pride in heading this team of European Union committees. With those comments, I commend to the House our report on the work of the 2013-14 Session.