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My Lords, no one who has heard the debate this evening can be under any illusion that the topic we are discussing is not very important. I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, and his committee on the work they have done.
It was about 30 years ago when I began my involvement in political life when I stood as a candidate in the European elections in County Durham. It was not an especially glorious chapter as I got beaten by 55,000 votes, but it was a start. Nevertheless, even though I was inexperienced then I appreciated that the European Community, as it then was, was a sui generis type of institution that shared systems of government from both parliamentary and diplomatic traditions. It seemed to me that there were only two reasons for this. First, and we sometimes forget this when we are debating these things, different parliaments in different countries operate in really quite different ways. Secondly, the scale of what was involved was much smaller and seemed to be more aligned with what diplomacy traditionally did.
Of course, it is 30 years on now and the world has changed and the European Union with it. Economic integration, improved transport and communications and movement of people have changed the way people live and work not only in the Union but right round the globe. The role of the European Union has become functionally much more akin, it seems to me, to what states traditionally used to do than was the case then. At the same time, the diplomatic attributes of the EU’s modus operandi are much less prominent than they used to be. I am very glad that the member states are still the principal building blocks of this institution but we need to be clear that as the world changes the way in which nation states—and in the case of the European Union member states—work is going to have to evolve. One of the difficulties is that the role of national parliaments has not evolved in the same way as the European Economic Community became the European Community and then the European Union.
I should like to turn briefly to the report itself and break it down and focus on some of its themes. Scrutiny is perhaps the most prominent theme and is still probably the most important attribute of the engagement of national parliaments. I agree here very much with my noble friend Lord Tugendhat, who said a number of wise and sensible things. One of the most wise and sensible was that scrutiny of Ministers in the Council of Ministers should be enhanced. Certainly I had a brief spell when I was a departmental Minister of going to the Council of Ministers and nobody wanted an account from me about anything I was doing. From a purely personal point of view it was one of the most exhilarating parts of my political career. I think one brief discussion with my Secretary of State over a cup of coffee was the whole measure of it. I have wondered against this background whether Parliament as a whole might not be wise to revisit its general approach to European matters, which was put in place by Sir John Foster several decades ago.
I was also interested in the point made in the report about wider, less specific formal scrutiny, because in recent years most of the work I have done in this House has been with the Communications Committee and the Extradition Law Committee. That work has suggested to me that there may frequently be important European aspects that take a bit of digging out. I am particularly thinking of the significance of competition policy and regulatory policy in the context of media markets and communications—because I spent 10 years in the European Parliament I probably was more conscious of these aspects than many other Members.
I turn now to what might be described as the personal institutional engagement that could be enhanced between the Commission, Parliament, COSAC and so on. The idea is absolutely excellent but the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, is right that the problem is finding the time to do it because the laws of physics are still such that you cannot be in two places at once. I listened with very great interest to my Cumbrian neighbour, the noble Lord, Lord Judd, but when I was in the European Parliament—and you could do it then—I had the dual mandate. Given the workloads that apply in each of the two places I simply do not think it is possible to revert to doing that in the old way. Therefore, it is dangerous and misleading to try to overplay and over-rely on the ability of individuals, whether MPs or Peers, to engage fully in very extensive ongoing dialogue, because of their other commitments—although I add the proviso that it would depend on whether the way Parliament works changes or not, and I will touch on that briefly in a moment.
Like a number of noble Lords, I think that the reasoned opinion provision is an interesting and radical development, because on a very small scale it gives national parliaments a place in the legislative process. That is very important and something that should be worked on. The report said that there was no interest in treaty change; we have touched on it this evening. However, despite protestations to the contrary, the kind of changes that are being called for across Europe are such that certainly in the old days I doubt they could have been put into effect without treaty change—although, speaking for myself, if clever lawyers can find ways round, good luck to them.
In recent years, much of the background to the discussion and focus on the role of national parliaments in the European political system has been based, as has been said, on concerns about the European Union’s democratic deficit and its lack of popular legitimacy. This was a point the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, raised. However, we in Parliament need to be very conscious of some of the criticisms that have been levelled against Westminster recently. An awful lot of the traditional criticism of the European Union we now hear levelled against us here. It may follow from that that, as time goes by, our own terms of reference change. It seems to me inevitable that the role of national parliaments, and indeed the part that member states can play in a globalising interdependent world, are inevitably going to change and we no longer here have a Parliament set in a world that would be familiar to a Bagehot or a Dicey. Therefore, when we look forward we must tailor our thinking to what we recognise as the likely shape of the world as it will become.
Finally, I cannot recall any House of Lords report so enthusiastically endorsed by the Government. I have to admit that that makes me a bit concerned. However, it suggests that they too are finding the wider world a very perplexing place at present. I suggest that they might endorse their general stance in these matters by prioritising the importance of scrutiny and Ministers making themselves available for scrutiny as their number one priority.