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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 16th October 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Kinnoull The Earl of Kinnoull Chair, European Union Committee, Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees 3:30 pm, 16th October 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow a fellow Scot, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, who spoke with his usual authority on these matters. I apologise for the fact that you are hearing from me today; yesterday there was a direct clash with the European Union Committee—an important meeting with our sister committee from the Swiss Parliament. I am grateful to the Whips’ Office for enabling me to swap the time.

It was a great comfort to hear, in the second sentence of the gracious Speech, that the Government intend to work towards a new partnership with the European Union, and referred to “friendly co-operation”. That was important, because it was the theme that underpinned the Beyond Brexit report of the European Union Committee in March. I will return to that.

Other good news came in the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, when he referred to the fact that 1,000 new diplomats were being “minted”, of which 500 would work in Europe. As he said that, I was thinking of the empty-chair policy: the policy, starting on 20 August, of non-attendance at EU meetings. The system is that the Government look at the agenda for a forthcoming meeting and decide whether it is in the national interest to attend. If they decide not to attend, they give any vote that comes up to Finland, as the rotating president. The net effect is that we now attend about a third of EU meetings.

I and the committee feel that this is badly wrong, for three reasons. First, it is not liked by our partners in the European Union. It is disrespectful to their institutions and is not in accord with the idea of moving towards a partnership with the European Union, or with friendly co-operation.

As I pointed out before, to create a deep and meaningful relationship one does not start with an empty chair.

Moving on to my second complaint, it is not clear that this test creates predictability about the UK’s appearances, either for us as parliamentarians, or for our EU partners. An agenda, after all, does not necessarily —in my long experience of meetings—reflect the eventual content of that meeting: meetings tend to wander around. Matters of national interest may well be discussed that were not on the agenda.

Given this lack of clarity, the whole thing is difficult to scrutinise. That brings me to my third point, which in many ways is the most important: the interaction of this policy with the scrutiny reserve resolutions made by both Houses in 2010. Not turning up to meetings to do with the 200 or so files that are held under scrutiny reserve by the EU Select Committee would be in neither the spirit nor the letter of the resolution. Certainly, handing our vote to Finland is not within the spirit or words of those resolutions. We are, in any case, undertaking a terrier-like correspondence, and the Minister has agreed to see me next week—I think—on this point.

There is one bit of good news: yesterday we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, that we had turned up to the General Affairs Council this month. Last month we did not, and 16 Foreign Ministers from other countries looked at an empty chair—Britain’s—alongside those deputy Ministers who had turned up. It would help the House if the Minister gave a quick update on the empty-chair policy, given the huge number of extra diplomats and that we are now turning up to the General Affairs Council.

I turn to our Beyond Brexit report, which was published on 25 March and is about how Britain conducts itself with the EU after the Brexit process has taken place. Since 25 March, we have had no response from the Government; indeed, the only thing that looked even vaguely like a response was read out in this Room by Her Majesty on Monday. When might we expect a response to Beyond Brexit, as it is a most important report? It may not have the answers, but it raises a lot of the issues that this House will be very interested to grapple with. It contains 60 pages of meat. The logic that it lays out applies equally in any Brexit deal and it also applies in a no-deal Brexit. I do not want to go through the whole report, but there were three general areas in it, and I thought that I might reflect briefly on each of them.

First, the formal structures perceived within the withdrawal agreement have on top a joint committee, which has hanging off it various specialised committees, or sub-committees, which deal with certain subject areas, including citizens’ rights, Northern Ireland, the sovereign base in Cyprus, and Gibraltar. At the Swiss meeting—it was a private meeting, so I am constricted in what I can say about it—it was interesting to hear that they run their affairs with the European Union via a joint committee. They have no deal, as it were, for it. The joint committee has stood the test of time and has been pretty active. We had an interesting exchange of views and were given quite a few useful tips about how one might run a structure like that—we intend to carry on our discussions with the Swiss as well.

We concluded that the joint committee conceived under the draft withdrawal agreement was a bit too powerful. It has the power, for instance—albeit slightly limited—to change the withdrawal agreement. We felt that it was not very transparent and would be hard to scrutinise. Unfortunately, in the absence of a government response, we have no answer to any of those questions and we are not able to make progress on these issues and raise the concerns here in the House.

The middle section of the report concerned the less formal structures; for instance, the EU agencies and the EU programmes. These are referred to in the political declaration, but with vastly different levels of detail. We name a few EU agencies that we are interested in joining; where the programmes are concerned, none of them is named and there is a just a sentence or two of warm words. Equally, the security partnership is laid out in considerable detail within the political declaration. On all those things we need a lot more detail; they are all matters we raise in the Beyond Brexit report and ask for comment on. We are still waiting, seven months later, for that comment to arrive.

I want to raise two other little questions relating to the less formal structures. On one, it appears there is an answer, but we have not been given it. We said that UKRep—now to be called, I gather, “UKMiss”—needed a lot a more resource. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, yesterday that a lot more resource is being pumped into Europe. I recently visited UKRep in Brussels and I think that the extra number of posts there was around 40, so that resource is being given. It is an easy answer to give to us formally: that UKRep is getting more resource to be able to cope with the increased work it will be asked to do.

The other thing—as a Scot, I feel strongly about this— is the recommendation that the devolved Administrations be heavily involved in matters of importance to them. Again, we need to hear back on that. At this very difficult time, certainly in Scotland at the moment, a clear statement about that would be most valuable, particularly in my area, Perthshire.

The final section of the report deals with inter-parliamentary relations and the scrutiny role of Parliament. There are two things to be scrutinised: the new governance structure for the relationship between the EU and the UK and the mechanisms for that, on which we made a whole set of recommendations; and the dialogue regarding the negotiations that will take place—over what I suspect will be many years—on the future relationship, on which we also made recommendations, but we have no answers. Parliament itself will need to do a lot more work. The European Union Committee is very lucky, in that we are invited to many inter-parliamentary meetings at the moment. That will no longer automatically happen, so we will have to work harder to maintain the relationships with the various parliaments. In addition, the European Parliament itself will undoubtedly set up one of its formal structures. It has under its rules of procedure a formal way of dealing with third countries. Forty-four third countries have a formal committee facing them, and we will be the 45th.

In closing, I return to the words of the gracious Speech:

“to work towards a new partnership with the European Union”,

and the “friendly co-operation” that it envisages. I urge the Government to engage with the Beyond Brexit report, as these are issues that the Government and Parliament need to work together on. Although today the press and media are occupied exclusively with the period up to Brexit, planning for beyond has never been more vital.