It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope, in a debate that is of great interest to you. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ms Stuart on securing the debate and on a characteristically thorough and forensic speech, which drew on not only 17 years in the House, but many weeks and months—I do not know how many—on the Convention on the Future of Europe. She is a real expert and it was a great pleasure to hear her this morning.
I agree in particular with my hon. Friend’s overall argument that national Parliaments need to play a much greater role in holding to account not only the
European Union, but our own Government’s decisions on Europe and the formulation of European legislation and policy. She and many other right hon. and hon. Friends, some of whom are here this morning, want parliamentary scrutiny of the EU and what our Government does in Europe to be enhanced and improved. That objective unites pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics, and hon. Members from different parties alike.
I agree with my hon. Friend’s specific point that it is regrettable that one of the first actions of the Government when they came into power in 2010 was to do away with pre-European Council debates. It is unsurprising that she, and others present and beyond our debate today, complained repeatedly about the decision, but unfortunately it was to no avail. While other member states are improving their scrutiny of their Governments’ decision-making and negotiating strategy ahead of European Councils, our Government have taken a retrograde step and have in effect decreased scrutiny. The Government have not simply done away with the pre-Council debates, but the post-Council debates are now combined with major issues of concern—whether Afghanistan or the horrific murder in Woolwich. Such subjects and the post-European Council report need to be separate. They are too important to be combined. Notwithstanding the scrutiny of the European Scrutiny Committee, it is vital that scrutiny also takes place on the Floor of the House, as she set out, so that all right hon. and hon. Members have the opportunity to scrutinise how the Government represent the UK in the EU.
The starting point from which I approach the debate is perhaps different from that of some hon. Members who have spoken. I am a passionate believer in our membership of the EU. I am both pro-European and passionately in favour of reform. Just because I believe in our membership, that does not mean that I think the EU is perfect—far from it. I spent six years of my life working and living in Brussels; I have seen at first hand the many imperfections of the EU. A vital part of EU reform lies in the issue that we are focusing on today: strengthening the accountability that national Parliaments have over European decision-making.
The shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr Alexander, in a speech in January this year, set out proposals for a red card system. It took the Government five months to come to the same conclusion, but we were encouraged—better late than never. As hon. Members are acutely aware, the current yellow card system was introduced by the Lisbon treaty, which the Labour Government negotiated. It gives national Parliaments the ability to force the European Commission to reconsider its proposals if they believe that a proposal violates the subsidiarity principle.