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My Lords, I thank the committee and the noble Lord, Lord Boswell in particular, for the excellent work that they have done in this report. It has been an urgent and necessary task to look at, and to try to do something about bridging, the gap between the legislatures and the public. That is certainly true in terms of EU legislation and the citizens of the European Union. The distance between elected representatives and the public is certainly a problem. It is a problem for the European Parliament. It is probably fair to say that, in general, people relate more readily to national parliaments, so how national parliaments relate to EU law is absolutely critical. It is worth taking note of the wise words of my noble friend Lord Judd in terms of how we engage people beyond the usual suspects and try to go beyond the elite when we are taking evidence. That may go some way to bridging that gap.
I served 15 years as a Member of the European Parliament. I can tell noble Lords that during that time, the Lords European Union Committee was the best example that we had of how national parliaments interacted with the process of EU legislation. Yes, there were some good examples in Holland and Denmark as well, but the fact that this House took that responsibility seriously was noted. It therefore makes sense that your Lordships’ committee is the group that comes up with practical reasons for why national parliaments perhaps find difficulty in influencing EU debates and provides some constructive suggestions about how some of those problems can be overcome.
The report recognises that national parliaments have a dual responsibility in relation to EU law, not just in scrutinising their own Government’s positions on EU policy, but in influencing more directly EU institutions and proposed laws. The authors have correctly identified that a national parliament holding its own Government to account for its EU policy positions can be done now. It is a matter of the will of parliamentarians and of their Governments to effect that will. As the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said, the UK has to put its own house in order when it comes to this.
It is worth noting that the House of Commons Library reported that the number of laws influenced or based on EU law varies between 15% and 50%, depending on the definition. Knowing that, does Parliament have the balance correct in terms of the time and resources set aside to scrutinise these laws, given the number and quantity of laws emanating or being influenced by Brussels? Let us be clear. These laws are not decided by Brussels: they are proposed by Brussels. No EU law is passed without the UK Government having been involved in detailed discussions in terms of the outcomes. But the Government need to be held to account by Parliament on their position in relation to EU law.
A point not picked up in the report is the fact that it would be extremely difficult for some Parliaments, including the UK Parliament, to keep up with legislative scrutiny of EU laws, as we sit for only 30 weeks a year, compared with the 45 weeks a year that the European Parliament sits. That point was made by my noble friend Lord Judd. We need therefore to take seriously this point of prioritising the laws on which to focus.
Some of the major decisions that are made in the EU, which set the political direction and tone for various debates and forthcoming EU laws, are made, as has been pointed out, in the European Council meetings. The suggestion by the committee of holding pre-Council scrutiny meetings to feed into government preparations, rather than holding them afterwards, makes eminent sense. However, due to the fact that the Government are by definition entering into a negotiation, we understand the need to be sensitive to the view that requiring the Government to disclose their negotiating plan in public would not necessarily be in the interests of the UK. But that does not mean that they cannot listen, as the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, suggested.