[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

That is helpful. I hope that it applies not just to the Foreign Affairs Council but to all meetings that are open, so that we can know afterwards whether the Minister or a civil servant was there.

To give one example, I was on a committee considering defence procurement across Europe. Countries have a veto and can say that it is in their national interest for a particular piece of defence procurement not to come within the single market rules. There was a reference to how often the UK had used that veto, and I wanted to find out through written answers how often that veto was used by other countries, because without comparison with other countries a single figure is utterly meaningless; one cannot tell whether it is excessive or very low.

I think that the UK used its veto about nine times. If France had used its veto 315 times, there would have been something wrong. If France had never used it, I would want to ask a few more questions about why we had. The answer came back that the information was not available. The Foreign Office felt that it was not its job to answer for the European Union, but as an MP, I had no means at that stage to go further and find that information. Similarly, the Dutch had not fully signed up to that agreement. When I tried to find out why, I was told that that was an issue for the Dutch Government. That is a legitimate answer, but it does not allow us to understand how we are represented and how other countries are working on that.

Even if the Prime Minister does not wish to create a new role for a Europe Minister with responsibility across Whitehall—I can see why he might not want to do so, because it takes power away—let us consider the notion of the red card, yellow card or whatever colour it is. The card is meant to be a mechanism by which national Parliaments can say to the Commission, “Thus far, and no further. Step back again.”

When the red card system was first mooted, the Commission was up in arms, because it felt that it was insulting to suggest that it would ever bring anything forward that would breach the principles and could be objected to by two thirds of national Parliaments, or whatever. It subsequently got off its high horse and accepted the principle—but no more than the principle, that we can wave a card, because there is no duty on the Commission to withdraw its proposals or to come back with better proposals. Following the speech of the Foreign Secretary in Berlin, I gather that we now have ideas for an improved version of the red and yellow cards, and I look forward to hearing more about that.

Instead of the card system, however, perhaps the British Government will consider discussing with the Commission the idea of a delete button for legislative proposals. When we have a general election and the Government go, so do their manifesto commitments and legislative proposals; the slate is wiped clean. At the European level, there is no such delete button. Proposals that are not agreed in one parliamentary session, simply refuse to die. A classic example of that is the hallmarking directive, which comes up again every so often, because some countries have a particular interest. We can either negotiate something to death, so that it is almost meaningless, or we end up introducing something that, 10 years ago, when first introduced, was a good idea, but now no longer is.

One example was the effect of the working time directive on junior doctors. Negotiations on the working time directive started in the ’90s, with legitimate concerns about lorry drivers driving for too long, and so on. It was not until 1999 that I ended up trying to negotiate on opt-out for junior doctors, because we could tell that the working hours requirements would mean that the increase in doctors, which the Labour Government was bringing in, would be totally consumed in the first few years. We wanted the directive to be phased, but we then had court judgments that extended it even further. The political impact of that decision did not become apparent until almost 20 years after the original directive.

If democratic accountability means getting rid of decision makers when we think that they have made bad decisions, by the time a European Union decision on some things kicks in, it really is the Schleswig-Holstein question and only three people know the answer: one is mad, another is forgotten and the third is dead. If we had a process of completion that gave us some parliamentary input, we would know where the start and end points were, so we would know where we could use our influence and get the Government to take a stance.

I hope that the Minister will tell us more about the red card, but I also hope that he will say more about whether he envisages Parliament having a role in affecting the decisions of the Government before they go into negotiations. Unless we know beforehand, not only in the European Scrutiny Committee but through a mechanism by which what is about to happen is discussed on the Floor of the House, we cannot influence it. By the time the Minister goes to Brussels, the deals have been struck. Any Ministers who have attended European Council meetings know that they go on the plane, they read their papers, they arrive in Brussels and UKRep gives them a brief with the lines to take. Anyone who tries to unravel anything is told, “That’s the deal; that’s it.” At that stage, anyone short of the Prime Minister cannot unravel the deal.

I want to leave the Minister with a final, incredibly radical thought—a radical retrograde step to some perhaps. At the recent Königswinter conference, I chaired one of the groups and, by way of introduction, I asked everyone to say, going around the table, one thing that they really loved about the European Union and one that they would get rid of tomorrow if we could. The group was half Germans and half Brits, and to my absolute astonishment there was a consensus around the table that the one thing that we should get rid of was the European Parliament. Then I realised the real difference between the Germans and the Brits. We talked about the connection never being made and how a double mandate was the way to link things, but for the Germans the double mandate was to use some MEPs as national MPs, while for the Brits it was to use some nationally elected parliamentarians at the Brussels level.

We must look at the workings of the European Parliament. It will simply not do that our contact with it is getting less and less. With the closed list system, fewer and fewer people know who their MEPs are. The relationship is not only fractured, but virtually non-existent. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say even about some basic things. He may want to correct me, but we do not automatically issue passes for the House of Commons to Members of the European Parliament, so they have to queue up with everyone else. If we want a proper a dialogue, they ought to be here. I remember that we would not let MEPs have dining rights or book a room, because we thought that they would invade this place in order to enjoy the cuisine. [Interruption.] I give way to my hon. Friend Graham Stringer.