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That makes a lot of sense. As long as there is an understanding that sessions are held in camera, I see no problem. But accountability pre-scrutiny and pre-Council makes sense. It is something that we should perhaps take up.
In terms of influencing EU institutions more directly during the process of elaborating legislation, the process becomes more complicated. For me, one of the problems when reading the House of Lords European Committee reports as an MEP was that, despite their brilliance, they would almost invariably be published after the law had been passed. Although there were some gems in there, in terms of critiques of EU directives, they were too late to influence the debate—which is why that pre-legislative scrutiny by national parliaments would be invaluable.
Analysing the Commission’s work programme would be an obvious way of ensuring a degree of pre-scrutiny, and it should become a core task—as has been suggested—of the whole Parliament and all the relevant Select Committees, rather than the preserve of EU committees. Furthermore, will the Minister comment on how we get a degree of consistency, as referred to by my noble friend Lady Quin? How do we ensure that there is a systematic approach to thorough, ongoing analysis by subject committees?
It is also essential that policymakers have a thorough understanding of the legislative processes of the EU institutions. In my experience, that was not obvious, even—dare I say it?—when dealing with some of the UK Ministers involved. So, mainstreaming, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, mentioned, is critical.
The committee’s suggestions for tightening up the reasoned opinion procedure make sense, and the fact that only two yellow cards have been given since the introduction of that system suggests that the hurdles may be too high. I note, however, that the expectation that the Commission should respond within a set timeframe is possible only if resources are provided. Imagine the resources involved in giving a comprehensive response to the 2,000 written contributions made since the Barroso initiative was introduced. There were 33,000 members of staff in the Commission last year. Let us compare that with the number of staff employed in the Department for Work and Pensions: 90,000. Just imagine the extra burden on the administration in answering 28 member state parliaments within a tight timeframe. Something would have to give; something would have to be prioritised. We need to be sensitive to that when we are asking for these things.
National parliaments, however, need to learn how, and when best, to influence the EU legislative process. It is worth considering the suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, of an annual get-together, but more relevant is a real understanding of how influential individual MEPs can be, particularly those who lead and formally shadow debates and who navigate the directives through the legislative process—that is, the rapporteurs. They are extremely influential, so identifying who they are and communicating with them at the appropriate time would be as impactful as trying to convince 28 different EU member states to take up an alternative position. There is no inconsistency in saying that national parliaments, as well as the European Parliament, should be involved in developing EU laws. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, I must say that I am disappointed to read that the real source of democratic legitimacy in the EU lies with national parliaments, according to the Government’s response to the report.
As the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, suggested, it is worth thinking about some of the ideas put forward. I fully endorse the point that the Conservatives have cut off their own influence in the EU by ceasing to be a member of the largest political group. It is worth considering the idea of a commissioner for national parliaments and European parliaments, but I warn that there is a danger that the job might be seen to have been done, and therefore the departmental commissioners might not take their responsibilities seriously in relating to national parliaments.
With such turmoil in the eurozone, the reality is that the public across the whole of Europe have learnt that financial and economic policy emanating from the EU is impacting on us all both directly and indirectly, whether through the massive austerity measures that have caused such savage cuts in our public services, or through reduced demand for our export goods. Therefore, national parliaments should take a more systematic approach to the surveillance of this policy area in particular.
On behalf of the Opposition, I thank the European Union Committee for its work on this report. It is essential that it is disseminated not just in our Parliament, but in parliaments throughout the European Union.