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National Parliaments (EUC Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:35 pm on 15th December 2014.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 8:35 pm, 15th December 2014

My Lords, I suspect that any incoming British Prime Minister does not begin to understand just how much of his time he will now have to spend out of the country dealing with other Governments and so on. One of my very small roles within government has been trying to say, “No, the Deputy Prime Minister cannot go to that international conference, in spite of the fact that he speaks the language”, or whatever it may be. The pressure on Ministers to travel, particularly those in the British Government who have much more pressure to spend time being accountable in Parliament and to parliamentary committees than many of our counterparts, is among the real strains that I see our senior Ministers facing.

On consulting the public, I shall briefly remark on the balance of competences exercise. The final report will be published this Thursday. The two-year exercise has consulted British stakeholders on the single market and a range of other areas. We have had more than 2,000 pieces of evidence from a very wide range of organisations—economic think tanks and others—and have attracted contributions and evidence from more than two-thirds of the other member states.

One of the most pleasing aspects of it has been to hear people in other Governments saying, “This is a very useful exercise. We should do something like it ourselves”. People within the French Government, the Dutch Government, the Finnish Government and others have said the same. One of the small achievements of this coalition Government has been to consult widely on how far the current arrangements under the Lisbon treaty suit British business, British interests, British trade unions and others. I cherish the evidence from easyJet, which began, “If it were not for the European single market, easyJet would not exist”.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, touched on the exchange of information between national parliaments and Brussels. I welcome her as someone who has made the transition from being a witness before committees of the House of Lords to being a Member of the House of Lords—a route that I remember transiting myself rather too long ago.

The question of how far we co-operate with other national parliaments raises some difficulties. There are other national parliaments with which we are in very close touch. There are others which do not have quite the same style or tradition. Two years ago I had lunch with the chair of the European affairs committee of a particular national parliament, who did not seem to have the sense that he should ever criticise his own Government or should disagree with their approach to Brussels. It was a rather surreal experience.

Some, however, are very active. I note, incidentally, from the table in Appendix 6 of the report that second chambers in several countries are much more active than first chambers. We are not the only ones who are able, because of our second-chamber status, to do what we can.

The European Union is, of course, a political system. How it works depends on how actively different institutions engage with it. We wish, as far as possible, to encourage other European parliaments to engage with us. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked about the government response and how this fits in with the Government’s reform agenda. I remind him that the Foreign Secretary, my right honourable friend Philip

Hammond, is engaged in active conversations with other national Governments. He has so far visited 11 national capitals. The feedback he has been getting demonstrates very clearly that there is an achievable, broad-based reform agenda shared by many other Governments which does not require treaty change.

Indeed, other Governments are vigorously saying, “We can do this without treaty change.” It is achievable within the headroom provided by the Lisbon treaty, and it covers a stronger role for national parliaments, effective regulation, the budget, completion of the single market in areas such as services in which the obstacles come from Germany rather than from Britain and others, the digital single market and so on. We have an active reform agenda that we are pursuing.

Time is short, and I am sure that noble Lords would like their dinner before everything closes. I think that one has to stress the obstacles, such as travel requirements, yet again. The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, suggested that one could spend more time visiting others. I am sure that the Daily Mail would take very careful note of the sort of hotels in which Members stayed. Again, all of these things require time and effort. If you do one thing, you cannot do another. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, suggested that we need to get ordinary people involved, not always members of the elite. Unfortunately, politicians by definition are part of the elite. We are not ordinary people, otherwise we would now be at home watching television or doing something else. Part of the underlying problem of democracy that we now have is that it is easy to decry those engaged in national, let alone international, politics as part of an elite.