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National Parliaments (EUC Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:16 pm on 15th December 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Quin Baroness Quin Chair, EU Sub Committee E - Justice, Institutions and Consumer Protection 6:16 pm, 15th December 2014

My Lords, I am very pleased to have the opportunity of speaking in this debate, both as a member of your Lordships’ Select Committee on the EU and as the chair of the EU sub-committee dealing with justice, institutions and consumer affairs. Having only recently become chair of the sub-committee, I begin by paying warm tribute to my predecessor, my noble friend Lady Corston. I know from my own experience and also from other members of the committee how much her wise, calm and friendly chairing of the committee was appreciated. Under her guidance the scrutiny work of the sub-committee was thorough and detailed. This was particularly true in the case of the role of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, referred to a minute ago by the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, where the committee’s report leading to a reasoned opinion being approved by your Lordships’ House raised issues which are relevant to this report and to our debate this evening.

I very much welcome the report that we are discussing today and the way it has been presented to us by the noble Lord, Lord Boswell. The conclusions of the report contain many worthwhile recommendations which I hope will be acted upon. Indeed, noble Lords will know that our reasoned opinion on the European Public Prosecutor’s Office was one of a number approved in national parliaments across the EU, leading to the yellow card threshold being reached. Yet, as the noble Lord said, when a yellow card is issued, in theory the European Commission should engage seriously in a discussion with national parliaments about it, but in this case it failed to do so.

We very much hope that the new Commission, the words of which have so far been very encouraging in terms of relations with national parliaments, will take much more seriously any yellow cards issued in future. Certainly, the appointment of Frans Timmermans as a senior vice-president with specific responsibility for relations with national parliaments is something we should build on in order to try to get a much more effective system than we have had up to now. I also endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said about the desirability of national parliaments being able to influence the process around a green card at a much earlier stage than is normally the case at present.

Some of our recommendations are, of course, directed to the Government. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that they will deal with the European Union Select Committee and the sub-committees in a timely and responsible way. On the whole, the Government engage with the work of the committees, but none the less, as the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said, there have been a number of examples of where the Government have not replied to committees in good time. There certainly needs to be consistency across government and government departments. It would be good to hear in which ways the necessary co-ordination is going to be achieved in future.

In considering these issues, on a personal note, I am influenced not only by being a Member of your Lordships’ House but by having been a member of the scrutiny committee in the House of Commons in the early days of that committee, by having been Europe Minister and by the fact that I began my elected political life as a Member of the European Parliament in the first directly elected Parliament way back in 1979. Perhaps because of that, I am particularly keen to endorse the words of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, who is on the record as saying that the relationship between national parliaments and the European Parliament should not be a zero-sum game.

Indeed, I somewhat bridled at part of the Government’s response to our report. While it said, quite rightly, that national parliaments seek to be, and in many cases are, close to their citizens, the subtext seemed to denigrate the European Parliament and its representative role, which would be unfortunate. While I yield to no one in my admiration for the thorough work this House does in scrutinising European legislation, it has to be said that we are not elected and we do not have constituencies or geographical areas to relate to or to represent in that formal way. Furthermore, given that Members of the European Parliament represent political parties, they do not campaign just in European elections but take part in general and local elections and presumably have plenty of contact with voters in doing so. I was an MEP in the days of Euro constituencies, which I have to say I rather approve of in comparison with the large regions that are represented today. In that role, I had regular contact with people affected by European rules, whether in the fishing industry, which was a very controversial issue at the time in terms of European legislation, or in the shipbuilding industry, which was big in my European constituency at the time, or in companies, local authorities, charities and others seeking to access European funds or simply requesting information about European single market rules which might affect them.

I am concerned not to promote competition between national parliaments and the European Parliament but to look at ways in which the joint working of the two can be improved. It seems to me sad and somewhat ironic that in these days when the European Parliament has much more power than it had when I was an MEP, contact in many ways seems less frequent and less productive than it was then. I therefore think it is an urgent matter for us and others to consider.

There are practical problems in that the timetables of MEPs, MPs and Members of your Lordships’ House mean that physical contact and joint meetings are challenging, at the very least. None the less, with modern technology that could be overcome, and at least some of the recommendations in the report in front of us today about how committees in both Houses of Parliament could link with rapporteurs and spokespeople in the European Parliament committees need to be acted on and would be a practical way forward to encourage the kind of joint working we would like.

I believe that a more effective role for national parliaments, as well as better co-operation between national parliaments and the European Parliament, can mean better scrutiny and much more accountability and transparency in the European decision-making process. This must improve democracy and help address the democratic deficit. That has to be in the interests of all the citizens whom we seek to serve.