It is a great pleasure to have this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.
The ageing process has some charming aspects, one of which is that a new idea arrives and I sit and think, “I think I have heard this somewhere before.” If someone hangs around long enough, they may even find that not only have they heard the idea before but that they have heard it before before. I had that feeling when I heard of the latest strengthening of national Parliaments within the European Union context. At that stage I decided to break one of my basic rules: over the years I have never taken part in an EU debate without saying something that I have not said before. I recommend that practice to others, but on this occasion I thought I would pull together some thoughts on national Parliaments and some of the problems over the past few years.
Yet again, the role of national Parliaments is essentially being used as a fig leaf to hide accountability for decision making at the European level. The fig leaf is being used by national Governments, and we should not fall for it. I had a feeling of déjà vu 10 years ago, when I went to the Convention on the Future of Europe. One of the five working groups was on the role of national Parliaments, and an old hand sidled up to me and said, “Remember the dud they sold John Major?” I said, “No, I don’t remember the dud they sold John Major.” And the old hand said, “Well, during Maastricht they introduced the concept of subsidiarity and proportionality, which was supposed to appease the national Governments. There was also then a review of competences across Whitehall.”
It was funny—I thought I had heard that before. The dud they sold Major was on the principle that national Parliaments should be given a role on policing subsidiarity and proportionality—the Convention on the Future of Europe was in 2002 or 2003—so I said, “When has the principle ever been invoked?” I was then told that it had been invoked only once, during the British presidency, when there was the bright idea that we wanted to standardise the water temperature for sea lions in zoos. That was a step too even for Britain and was deemed to be out of order on the principle of subsidiarity and proportionality.
Subsidiarity and proportionality are being chucked at an interesting case that is currently going through—the representation of women on company boards. I find that quite extraordinary. The rights of women are now seen to be something at the behest of national Governments. I thought we had already reached equality. Please give me equality, but not because of subsidiarity.
I will give a bit of history. In 1994, after Maastricht, national Parliaments were supposed to come to the rescue; and in 2002-03, they were supposed to come to the rescue again with a card system of yellow cards, red cards, vetoes and all those kinds of things. Yet again, we hear that national Parliaments are supposed to be strengthened, but in this place we are talking less about Europe than ever before. Previously, a small, select group of people would gather on Wednesdays ahead of a European Council meeting, and occasionally we would tell each other something that we had not said before. We considered the programme of the European Council. There were afternoon debates, and Ministers had to tell the Commons what was about to happen. Regularly, on the following Monday, the Prime Minister would give a statement on the results. Some Members will remember that we used to have great fun at those pre-Council meetings, because the Danes would usually have published the Council conclusions on their website ahead of the Council meeting. We made fun of that, but at least we talked about it.
What happens now is that debates ahead of a Council meeting are deemed to be Back-Bench business. I spent three consecutive Thursdays complaining about that to the Leader of the House, and I kept getting the same answer—that it is part of the Wright recommendations. We have overturned other parts of the Wright recommendations, so why are they suddenly sacrosanct? On top of that, the Prime Minister did not give a Council statement back in June because he said it was so boring, and he has combined the subsequent Council statements with hefty, serious foreign policy statements on other issues. The last Council statement was combined with a statement on Afghanistan. Both issues would have deserved a statement in their own right. National Parliaments are supposed to be coming to the rescue, yet Parliament is speaking less about the matter.