[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair] — National Parliaments and the EU

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 16th July 2013.

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Photo of Gisela Stuart Gisela Stuart Labour, Birmingham, Edgbaston 9:30 am, 16th July 2013

The hon. Gentleman has gone to the nub of the matter. We need to decide what we think the role of national Parliaments is. Is it only to scrutinise? If so, we need to widen the base so that more Members take part more regularly. Or is it to get Governments to change their decisions at times? I think that it needs to be the latter, but a number of things have to happen to allow that. Early information is key.

We also need information about how people actually act in the Council of Ministers. I have sat in the Council of Ministers, and I know that there is rarely a vote. If there is, it is seen as a failure by the civil servants that they have allowed the situation to arise. They do a head count to see whether they have a qualified majority, and if they do not think they will get the decision they want, they give in gracefully.

That takes me to what really needs to change. We need a proper Europe Minister. That is not to cast any aspersions on the current Europe Minister, but the position is a fallacy. Why are matters involving the European Union, which deals essentially with domestic legislation, placed in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? Numerous Governments have tried at times to get the Europe function out of the Foreign Office. From what I gather, the trade union of Foreign Office Ministers usually gets together and it does not happen, but there is a question to be addressed there.

If the Europe Minister is in the Foreign Office and makes decisions and strikes bargains regularly, they might say, “There’s an idea here that affects agriculture on which we want some compromise”, or it might be on cigarette advertising, the working hours of junior doctors or any number of issues on which we can get a deal. Such deals are struck across various Departments. At that level of political bargaining, the House has no ability to scrutinise, take a role or even know what happens. We are simply given the end results. A Europe Minister should have accountability for our permanent representative in Brussels, UKRep, which does all those dealings, and be answerable to the House of Commons for the bargains struck. There was a stage when a previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, seriously envisaged such a role, but for whatever reason it did not happen.

I can hear the outcry: “You can’t politicise UKRep!” I am not saying that I would do it the way that the Finns do it, for example—they call their civil servant before them every Friday morning—but Select Committees can call civil servants. There could be a regular slot for UKRep representatives when they come on a Friday to brief Whitehall Departments about what they have done. They could stay until the Monday morning or come on the Thursday afternoon to give evidence. If we do not want to do it at the civil service level—actually, I would rather do it at the political level—there should be a Minister who is answerable to the House across Whitehall Departments for negotiations, compromises and deals struck in Brussels. It would be such a far-reaching brief that the Minister would almost function as a Deputy Prime Minister.