European Union Committee: Report on 2013-14 (EUC Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:57 pm on 24th July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 6:57 pm, 24th July 2014

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, for moving this take note debate. Much more than that, though, on behalf of the Opposition I congratulate the noble Lord and all his colleagues on another year’s work well done. The House, the country beyond and the EU as a whole owe a large debt of gratitude to all members of the EU Committee and its sub-committees. It is obvious that a huge amount of works takes place—not least the scrutiny of EU documents every week by the chairman and the committee’s legal adviser—all of which is to improve our understanding of the European Union and, in particular, of the Commission. Whether it is scrutiny, inquiries, holding Her Majesty’s Government to account, or any other of its myriad responsibilities, the committee and its sub-committees are rightly praised at home and abroad.

I have little to ask the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, about the year covered in the report. The important points have been mentioned by other noble Lords very clearly and with great expertise during the debate. What particularly interested me was paragraph 122 in chapter 5 on the rights of EU migrant workers. What the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, had to say was extremely helpful here, as her sub-committee debated this issue. Paragraph 125 of the report explains that the Government’s report on abuse of free movement rights was shared with the sub-committee in January 2014. My simple question is: is it possible for others to see the report that the Government shared with the sub-committee? It would make interesting reading for some of us who are interested in this subject. The noble Baroness referred to the balances of competences initiative and said that it was just the other day that the sub-committee received the Government’s review. That is a long way after September 2013 and January 2014, and I wonder what explained the delay. It may be that the Lord chairman—the noble Lord, Lord Boswell—can assist me when he comes to reply. Maybe even the Minister can, too—in fact, I feel certain that he can from the grin on his face.

The youth employment inquiry under the chairmanship of noble Baroness is of huge interest, too. I get the impression that the sub-committee was not entirely happy with the Government’s response to that inquiry. What I do not know, and perhaps should, is whether the Government have yet formally replied to the inquiry and, if so, what they have said about the sub-committee’s criticisms.

Let me move forward from last year to the coming year and chapter 10, looking ahead to the 2014-15 session. At paragraph 225, the report states that there was to be a pre-Council evidence session with the Minister for Europe ahead of the vital June European Council meetings. I believe that the meeting took place. I wonder whether in his response the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, will tell us how it went. Noble Lords will remember that, before 2010, the House of Commons used to have the opportunity to debate upcoming European Council meetings; in other words—just to make position clear—before they took place. That system was scrapped by the coalition Government shortly after they took office. Will the Minister remind us why those debates were scrapped? This all contrasts very badly with the Dutch approach, where Ministers appear before the relevant Select Committees in advance of European Council meetings. My question to both the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, and the Minister is whether such a system—that is, that of June 2014, where a Minister comes before the committee before the Council meeting—will become the norm again in the United Kingdom. My party’s intention, if it is to win the general election, will be to reinstate House of Commons debates pre European Council meetings and we will consult on the creation of a dedicated EU Select Committee in another place.

I support my noble friend Lord Harrison in the important question for the Minister that he asked at the end of his speech.

My final question is more for the Minister than for the noble Lord, Lord Boswell—and I have given the Minister some notice of it. Is it the intention of Her Majesty’s Government to allow either your Lordships’ Committee on the European Union or its Commons equivalent, or perhaps both, to scrutinise the appointment of our new European Commissioner, the noble Lord, Lord Hill? This would mean a formal hearing, with the noble Lord present to answer questions, but, of course, it would not be a confirmation hearing.

The appointment of the noble Lord, Lord Hill, is popular in your Lordships’ House for very good reasons, not least our admiration for his many qualities. However, if we really believe in an increased role for the British Parliament in scrutinising the Government’s handling of European affairs—there has been some talk of that this afternoon, not least from the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Boswell—surely the Government should agree with members of the House of Commons EU Scrutiny Committee and accept its proposal for such a hearing in this case.

The noble Lord, Lord Hill, will, of course, be before the European Parliament between 20 and 23 September this year. As I understand it, by or on 30 August the European Council will have recommended the new Commissioners for the top posts. I put to the Minister that there is an unanswerable case for our own Parliament to be able to question the noble Lord before he goes before the European Parliament. I look forward to his reply on that important point. I, of course, would like to hear the view of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, on this but my question is specifically for the Minister in his reply. I really hope he can be encouraging in his answer.

To finish, on behalf of all of us I once again congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, and his colleagues—those in the House tonight and all the other Members who served on the committee and the sub-committees—on their hard work. They enhance the reputation of this House and deserve our thanks.