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National Parliaments (EUC Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:01 pm on 15th December 2014.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour 7:01 pm, 15th December 2014

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, has already made the important point that bringing national parliaments closer to the institutions of the EU, and particularly to the Commission, so as to improve familiarity of national parliaments with the issues and to enhance the influence of national parliaments on decisions being taken in Brussels is a cause that unites all three major parties in our democracy. It unites Eurosceptics and Europhiles. All those categories are well represented here this evening. Not surprisingly, UKIP is not represented here. Their representatives do not turn up much when they get elected to the European Parliament: they have the worst record for attendance there, a quite disgraceful one. They have not turned up tonight and they have demonstrated once again that they belong to a party that is very interested in demagogy, but not in doing an honest day’s work or even an honest evening’s work on European policy.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, on this report, which he has produced with his colleagues. I also commend him on the great energy and engagement that he has brought to his considerable responsibilities and the robustness with which he is prepared to talk—we had an example of that earlier this evening—both to our own Government here and to the European Commission, or to anybody else who might be relevant when that is required, in order to make clear the strong, serious position of this House and its committees on European-related subjects.

I agree with an enormous amount of what has been said this evening. I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, on the latter part of his remarks, about the desirability of involving the departmental

Select Committees in the scrutiny work much more systematically than happens now. I take this opportunity to add to the proposals made in this very interesting document with tuppenny-ha’penny-worth of my own suggestions, and I will make three proposals.

We are really confronting three broad issues this evening. One is how to bring national parliaments closer to the Commission and to have more influence with the Commission. There I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, to whom I always listen not just with great respect but with great interest. He suggested that it would be a good idea to appoint a Commissioner responsible for relations with national parliaments and with the European Parliament. That would have unfortunate and counterproductive consequences: such a Commissioner would act as an insulating barrier between the two. It would be rather like dealing with the director of public affairs of a company instead of the chief executive. If you want to influence anything that a company does, that is not a sensible way forward. It is important to have much greater direct contact. I also disagree with the committee’s report in one respect—desirable as it would be—which is the proposal in paragraph 54:

The Commission which will be appointed in 2014 should make a commitment that its Commissioners and senior officials will be willing to meet committees of national parliaments as a core part of their duties”.

That is very desirable, but idealistic and unrealistic as well. If a Commissioner spent half a day of his time with each of 28 different national parliaments or their representatives or their scrutiny committees, then he would be spending 14 working days—something like two and half weeks of his time—on that subject. That is not likely to happen. We have situations when we are able, in Select Committees of the House of Commons and in European sub-committees here, to meet Commissioners or senior officials of the Commission; I have been a beneficiary of that myself in various roles over time. However, sadly, I do not think it is realistic to expect that there should be some kind of statutory—or if not statutory, at least formal—commitment of the kind suggested in this document.

A much more promising proposal is that it should be a general rule that—and this can be agreed with the courts without any kind of constitutional change; it could be a rule decided by the Commission itself—once or possibly twice a year, every Commissioner would invite to a seminar in Brussels the departmental or specialised committees covering his particular responsibilities. They are called Select Committees in the House of Commons, but a lot of continental parliaments call them commissions. That would be an opportunity for the Commissioner to make a direct presentation to them of his agenda, and have perhaps some working groups getting into the detail of these proposals or other proposals that the national parliaments might want to advance, and to have some serious discussions from both sides, bringing the two bodies directly together without any kind of intermediary organisation or individual. I would be grateful if that proposal could be considered by our own committee. I myself sit on the Economic and Financial Affairs Sub-Committee of the European Union Committee.

The second thing that needs to be done is to bring national parliaments more closely together in the context of European scrutiny. Quite clearly, no national parliament is going to have much effect if it is isolated. If we want a yellow card—or not necessarily a yellow card, but some influence—it is necessary to combine with others, as is a normal rule in any sensible and functioning democracy. There is not much opportunity for that. The COSAC works well, but it brings together just the chairmen of scrutiny committees: that is a very narrow group of people. There should be an occasion once a year for, let us say, a two-day conference, bringing together those responsible for scrutiny in the national parliaments from all 28 member states. At the conference, it should be possible to have some detailed working sessions on particularly important or controversial issues, or on matters where there is a question of a yellow-card procedure being initiated—or having been initiated—by one or more parliaments. That would be an opportunity for anybody wanting a yellow card to make a case for that, and attempt to get other national parliaments to second that initiative. Human contact is absolutely indispensible; I have never believed in any context—in ordinary commercial marketing, advocacy or anything else—that electronics or digital communications can replace human contact. It is very important to be able to look at people in the face, hear the emphasis they put in their communications with you and make an assessment as to how reliable or serious they are and how much they have gone into the question that they are talking about. It is therefore central that there should be more human contact between the parliamentarians involved. That is the spirit in which I make these two proposals.

My third proposal relates to an area that has already been mentioned several times in this debate, and we are very conscious of it. We are not very good at scrutiny. As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said, the fundamental role of national parliaments as far as the EU is concerned is to make sure that we properly control our Ministers when they go to the Council of Ministers, because they go there as our delegates. In actual fact, with the exception of Denmark, no member state has really succeeded in making a reality of this theory, that democratic legitimacy stems directly from the national parliaments, because the Council of Ministers—one of the two legislative bodies in the European Union—is directly responsible to national parliaments. If we are going to make a reality of that, we need to change immediately the way we do business here. In my view, we need to make sure that we talk to Ministers before they go to the Council of Ministers. We should not take a decision to lift the scrutiny reserve merely on the basis of an Explanatory Memorandum and then, perhaps a month or two later, have an opportunity to talk to the Minister in retrospect about why he or she did or did not do whatever it was that is of concern to us. It is essential that Ministers appear before the relevant scrutiny committee or better still—here I agree totally with the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat—the relevant departmental Select Committee before they go to the Council of Ministers meeting, so that they are forced to disclose their brief and agenda, hear the comments of parliamentarians, take them into account, and, if they wish to disagree with them, to do so openly and to try to persuade them or not, as the case may be. It is up to Parliament to decide whether or not to lift the scrutiny reserve when it has heard what the Minister has to say.

Those are three suggestions. They are not modest suggestions because they are quite far reaching, but I hope that they will make a modest contribution to the debate.