My Lords, follow that! What a thunderbolt—or at least it was one to me.
I believe that it is a duty but first of all a pleasure to thank the chairman of the EU Select Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, for all his support, humour and encouragement during the year, as well as for introducing this debate on the work of the EU Select Committee and its sub-committees in the 2013-14 Session.
I have the privilege of being chairman of Sub-Committee B. Our remit is to scrutinise proposed or actual legislation in the areas of the internal market, infrastructure and employment. I also sit on the main EU Select Committee. The highlights of the sub-committee’s year are already outlined in the annual report, so I shall use this debate for a few of my own reflections on some of the interesting moments in the sub-committee’s work this Session.
The pre and post-European election atmosphere in Brussels resulted in proposals coming to a conclusion that the committee has been scrutinising in the long term. Sometimes it feels that some of the work that we do has little relevance to the 500 million people who live in the 28 member states. Those feelings persist when I get a sheaf of paper, all written in bureaucratic, turgid prose. However, part of the joy of the job is when our attention is drawn by our clerk and policy analyst to the likely impact of the content of this turgidity, if there is such a word, which can or could be of benefit to everyone.
To a man and a woman—more than one woman—we get enthusiastic about an issue like universal high-speed broadband. We examined the Commission’s proposal for a regulation aiming to reduce the overall cost of the new superfast superstructure for a new entrant operator involving better co-ordination of street works and by network operators. However, we felt that a directive would be a better instrument than the regulation, as it would enable the Government to implement the measures more flexibly. In the end, this became a success story and I am afraid that we have to update page 31, paragraph 115, of the annual report of the Select Committee, because we actually have sorted out the final legislation. It is sound and it is in the form of a directive, so that is one minor feather in our cap.
This is a positive example, however, that the views of national Governments and parliaments can have a real impact. The study on the national impact of national parliaments has already been referred to several times. I commend it to every Member of the House, because the EU is going to become of ever increasing importance between now and pre-election and, indeed, post-election. We really should be as up to speed as possible because we are always going to be questioned by the chattering classes outside.
We hope that the proposal on superfast broadband will help the 500 million people, at least half of whom are involved, connect to the internet, and ensure minimal disruption by street work. The whole point of the digital agenda is that it is creating bigger and bigger divides and that has to be tackled. That is not part of our agreement, but it is part of our concentration on where the House of Lords can bring matters to the attention of Government.
As noted in the report, in tackling this, we had informal one-off meetings with BIS officials. We have found it very useful to speak to officials in person, rather than via correspondence and found out exactly what was happening in the negotiations. I think that the more we can do of this, the speedier can be the response to Brussels. It will ensure a deeper understanding for everybody involved. Building up a good relationship with officials and the Executive is so much better than tending to deal with them at arm’s length.
The posting of workers directive was the most interesting case, allowing companies to employ their own staff on projects in other member states on home country terms. The proposal attempted to improve existing provisions and to avoid social dumping. Another very topical and difficult issue was the situation of the rights of migrant workers, an EU document to strengthen workers’ rights. We held two formal evidence sessions, one with NGOs and academics and then with the Minister for Immigration. The Commission argued that the rights were not being properly enforced by some law enforcement officers and employers. The committee got tough and agreed with the Government that we did not need even more legislation but that the EU should show courage to use the existing structures. For example, the EU should use enforcement proceedings against offending member states.
As it happened, the committee’s work in this case was set against an interesting backdrop. On
Balance of Competencies Review on Free Movement Rights published on
I shall turn to inquiries. The noble Lord, Lord Boswell, has already referred to the youth employment report. The debate was on
We used Twitter to ask the public what Members should ask the Minister for Employment and the Minister for Skills and Enterprise. This was a novel tool for our committee. Perhaps the House should reflect on the potential benefit of using it. It might make people realise that we do want their views. We had useful evidence sessions with young people at the Prince’s Trust Centre in Liverpool and at Birmingham City Council. It was great to get very straightforward views—my delicate ears were subjected to rather earthy language—from young people trying to get into the jobs market and to link the debates about funding at EU level with the practical reality of youth unemployment on the ground.
As a committee, we firmly believe in the necessity of follow-up work. Following our women on boards inquiry, which reported in 2012, we heard from the Government, the shadow rapporteur on the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee in the European Parliament, which drafted its “own initiative” report on women on boards, and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. The excellent session with the right honourable Dr Vince Cable occurred recently. I shall quote verbatim from the transcript. Dr Cable stated:
“What has come across to me, more strongly than in many of my other conversations, is the way in which you are very much on top of what is happening with the European Union dimension and the way things can move quite quickly and in a different way from what we experience, and that we need to do some balanced thinking about how we would manage that”.
That was not about me; it was about the committee. However, it was very gratifying to hear that because sometimes there is a huge gap between members of Select Committees and the Ministers who have the final say on any matter. We hope that that will lead to a greater meeting of minds.
The issue of subsidiarity seems to come up at every meeting. In fact, I believe that we have real experts on the subject on our sub-committee. Subsidiarity means that action should be taken at EU level only where it is appropriate. It is a very important issue. We closely scrutinise all proposals from the EU under the subsidiarity magnifying glass—for example, the occupational retirement pension funds directive, which deals with the governance and transparency of the operation of these types of pension fund schemes in the EU. The vast majority of these schemes are located in just four of the 28 member states, including the UK. Because of this, the committee felt that the issues the proposal aims to address would be better actioned at national level. We are keeping a close eye on the proposal as negotiations progress and have written to the Commission and the Government outlining our concerns. We do not drag our feet. I do not think that we are different from any other sub-committee but we are very proud of ours.
I pay tribute to all members of the committee, all of whom are lively, interested and work very hard. I know that all of them in turn agree that without the support and direction of our clerk, Nicole Mason, and our policy analyst, Paul Dowling, and the ability to have really good specialist advisers and backroom staff—I must not forget them—we would be lost.