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National Parliaments (EUC Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:09 pm on 15th December 2014.

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Photo of Lord Bowness Lord Bowness Conservative 8:09 pm, 15th December 2014

My Lords, as a member of the European Union Select Committee at the time of the preparation of this report, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Boswell of Aynho, both for his comprehensive introduction of the report and for his guidance and chairmanship during the inquiry. It goes without saying that I support the conclusions and recommendations in the report. I want to emphasise one particular aspect of the report, express a concern and put two matters on the record, not so much to Ministers as to the usual channels and parliamentary authorities.

The aspect that I wish to emphasise is the need for enhanced contact and working with the European Parliament and its members. If our scrutiny is to be effective and we wish to try to ensure that our views are reflected in the final version of European Union legislation, it is vital that we build relationships with the chairmen of committees, the rapporteurs and, indeed, the spokesmen and spokeswomen of the important political groups in the Parliament. It is important, too, to remember that the European Union Select Committee and its sub-committees are there not just to scrutinise the draft EU legislation but, as many Members have said today, to hold Her Majesty’s Government to account in the way that they approach these matters.

Co-decision presents us with significant challenges in knowing what may happen at various stages—particularly the first reading deals, referred to in the report. We need robust systems which will enable us further to scrutinise measures when substantial changes have been made to the proposal originally scrutinised. Agreements as to working practices between the European Parliament, the Council, the Commission and other national parliaments are what are required, not treaty changes, and these will, I believe, be easier to achieve when personal relationships are established.

The concern that I have is this: a national parliament’s view of a greater role for national parliaments may be rather different from that of a national Government, which may espouse the cause of greater power for national parliaments. I believe that we have to be careful to ensure that national Governments, including our own, do not seek a greater role for parliament if the motivation for that greater role is to use a whipped majority to support a government view as a way of circumventing the decision-making processes of the treaties. To do that in the extreme will lead to a slower and less efficient decision-making process in the European Union and undermine the position of the European Parliament.

The so-called democratic deficit will not be solved just by national parliaments and national Governments proclaiming themselves to be the only keepers of the democratic flame in the European Union. There is a real role for the European Parliament, and I am pleased to say that the report recognises this. We in the United Kingdom do not always help to dispel that deficit. There has in recent months been much questioning of the candidacy of Mr Juncker as Commission President, with it being said that we in the UK knew nothing about the campaign during the European elections and that therefore the positions adopted by the parties in the European Parliament were somehow irrelevant and not justified. But, quite simply, we did not engage in the way of the other member states. There was election literature in all the languages of the European Union and there were televised debates. Of course, I have to say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that the United Kingdom Government could have had an input into the choice of right-of-centre candidate had the Conservative Party still been associated with the European Parliament.

My last points I address to the parliamentary authorities and the usual channels, and perhaps, in their absence, to Treasury Ministers, as there are not many pies in which they do not have a finger. Relationships with the European Parliament, the Commission and national parliaments are important, and many of the proposals in this report require resources in terms of staff and Members’ time. I do not believe that those relationships can be built initially just with video links. As the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, said, people need to meet people—at least initially. So, although I am not advocating a merry dance around the capitals and parliaments of the European Parliament, I believe in those personal contacts.

Likewise, the European Union Select Committee and its sub-committees cannot carry out the work of scrutiny and holding the Government to account without the necessary support. We have very great support through the committee and its sub-committees but it would be a brave individual who suggested that in some way there was any element of slack in that support.

My last point will, I fear, not be heeded because it would involve a change of a decision already made by the House and is likely to be dismissed as special pleading, but I put it nevertheless. The proposal which has been agreed regarding length of service on a committee, and particularly the decision to treat the European Union Select Committee and its sub-committees as one—and the retrospective nature of that decision—will, I understand, mean that some two-thirds of the existing members will no longer be able to serve for at least two Sessions of the next Parliament. Of course, I accept what my noble friend Lady Smith of Newnham, said—that there is a need to involve as many Members in EU matters as possible, and that it be seen to be a part of mainstream politics and not a specialist interest. It is regrettable perhaps that today, as the noble Baroness described it, only the usual suspects are present.

Nevertheless, having said all that, I believe that the Select Committee, under both its current chairman and his distinguished predecessors, has built an enviable reputation across the European Union. That is at least in part due to the fact that a body of knowledge of issues and people has been built up over the years and members have acquired experience in a wide variety of different areas of EU activity. There is a corporate memory which may well be lost with the rapid turnover which is now to become the norm. I hope that someone may think again on that issue.