§ 4.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
I beg to move,That where the Select Committee on European Legislation, &c., has recommended that any draft legislation or other proposal, published by the Commission of the EEC and submitted to the Council of Ministers should be further considered by the House, no Minister of the Crown shall give agreement to such a proposal in the Council of Ministers until such time as this House has debated the topic on a motion relating to that proposal.This motion is designed tocall attention to the need to establish greater parliamentary control of legislation of the European Economic Community and full accountability by Her Majesty's Ministers for their actions in its Council of Ministers.When my number came out of the box last week in the Ballot there were cries of "EEC debate". That is not surprising in view of the situation which arose last Thursday. I do not relish these occasions. I rather resent the amount of time that we have to spend on constitutional matters of this sort when I would prefer, perhaps, to deal with basic fundamental questions which we sometimes do not discuss sufficiently. On the other hand, what could be more basic than the relationship of an executive and legislature in this country and the super-executive which this House has taken upon itself?
While it is not a "nitty-gritty" subject, we are now talking about the fundamentals of the existence of this House and the freedoms of the elected representatives of the people and the people themselves against the executive, wherever it may be. We have to deal with a triangular super-executive, not like our own Government, which is united. We have to deal with an executive which has different characteristics, and I think that we do not sometimes sufficiently recognise this triangle of forces.
In the Council of Ministers there is no opportunity for private Government motions. There are no powers of initiation at all. Therefore, the Council of Ministers is not an assembly of this sort. Its powers are receptive. It must wait for a proposal to come before it. I know that hon. Members will say that they know all of this, but it is necessary to spell it out because we recognise that 45 the Government may have some difficulties in view of the nature of the operations of the Council, to which we are not privy. It operates in secret. We do not know what happens or how the procedures work. This may place some constraint upon the manner in which the Government can say to us "Yes, we shall have a debate" or "No, we shall not debate that". I wish to avoid controversy on the main question although I wish to refer, as a basis, to some of the things said last Thursday. Surprising as it may seem, there was a curious degree of common agreement on Thursday, at least sufficient for this debate, which I want to make a House of Commons occasion.
There seem to be three points of view. There was the view enunciated and analysed by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell)—an analysis which I have not heard challenged so far. That view was taken up by the hon. and learned Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve), who agreed with the analysis but said "Yes, I want to go down that road," whereas other hon. Members said "No, we do not want to go down that road." A third point of view was expressed well from the Front Benches by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) and the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw), who said "No, we do not want it. We do not think there is much of a risk in this, although we want some insurance policy." I think that in some respects my right hon. Friend and the right hon. Gentleman were not weighing the risks.
All these groups will agree that, whatever desire we may or may not have for the progress of the EEC and its institutions, we want to maintain all the powers of scrutiny, influence and the democratic powers of this House. Those who support a move towards an Assembly still say that the powers of this House are complementary to whatever power an Assembly may have. They want to retain the power to scrutinise and question our Ministers in the Council. Therefore, on the main question we can all start with a common point of view, whatever our views on other matters.
I suggest that in dealing with EEC matters in this House, the United Kingdom parliament starts off with its arm behind its back. First, as I understand 46 it, national parliaments have no rights under the treaty, and for the purposes of the treaty national parliaments might just as well not exist. Some people argue that the treaty is a discouragement to the activities of a national parliament. In domestic legislation, our Government are bound to provide the House with information. The Executive must provide the Command documents that we require. As I understand it, we have no rights as a House to be given information from the European Commission or Council. Any material that we receive is by courtesy of our own Executive. Therefore, the House, at least procedurally, is on a downhill slope on this issue. We are at a disadvantage in that respect, particularly in terms of the timetable on EEC business.
While the Assembly delivers opinions on proposals from the Commission, we have to fit in with the agenda of the EEC Council. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Judd) has just given the timetable and a long list of documents, and presumably the Scrutiny Committee will now scurry around and discuss this timetable in a hurry and my right hon. Friend the Lord President will try to juggle the business of the House so that we can have a debate in some of these matters before the relevant dates. We do not make the timetable. We have to fit in with someone else's timetable. Therefore, from the start we are not only fighting with one hand behind our back, in terms of not having a constitutional place within the European constitution, but we are also fighting uphill. It is little wonder that in the last three years there has been a good deal of dissatisfaction and controversy about the procedures which the Government have done their best to provide.
There were debates on this matter on 3rd November 1975, 19th May 1976 and 1st April this year. Alas, proper scrutiny by this House of the intentions of the EEC and our attempts to debate those intentions have to some degree been obstructed. Time after time, the House—by using Standing Orders and points of order and, best of all, by using the tank of the Scrutiny Committee itself, with its reports and its less formal communications with the Leader of the House—has had to move away obstacle after obstacle.
47 Originally EEC documents had numbers only. Fancy a Bill coming forward with a number! Often the documents were not available in time, and sometimes they were overtaken by events or outdated because further documents had been issued. Then hon. Members were given Government memoranda, but some were undated and hon. Members could not tell whether they were the latest versions. There were arguments about short notice being given on the Order Paper. I am still in correspondence with my right hon. Friend on that. I do not accept his claim that the European documents have had the same priority on the remaining Orders of the Day as others. Time after time we have had to clear those other matters away before we could get to grips with the issues. I am sorry that our Executive did not act in the way I should like, although I suppose that an Executive does not go out of its way to help Parliament.
Thanks to the Standing Orders and the determination and perspicacity of hon. Members, particularly those on the Scrutiny Committee, we have removed some mistakes, including the terrible phrase "European secondary legislation". That should never have got in. It is a very good example of Euro-speak.
Standing Order No. 73A, conceived for Statutory Instruments which are genuinely our own secondary legislation, still applies to Europen super, primary legislation. Therefore, although we have dropped the phrase "secondary legislation" in our Standing Orders we still regard it as such for actual procedure. That is wrong.
§ Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)
I agree with the hon. Gentleman on the point he has just made, at least in outline. Does he agree that with a more appropriate and suitable title a similar Committee that we had some time ago, but which seems no longer to be operating, would be a good way of devoting more time to EEC instruments, provided motions could be put down on the Order Paper, perhaps dealing with the matters that are not the principal EEC items to be debated on the Floor of the House?
§ Mr. Spearing
I am not sure which Committee the hon. Gentleman is refer- 48 ring to but he has very nicely led into, my next point.
In 1975 the Select Committee on Procedure, after much labour, produced a report, House of Commons Paper No. 294 of Session 1974–75, suggesting the setting up of the sort of Committee that I think the hon. Gentleman has in mind, which could debate the issues on a motion, perhaps spending two or three Sittings on it. But the Government disagreed. On Monday 3rd November 1975 the then Lord President, the former Ted Short, said that he would introduce the proposals on the following Thursday, but the motions on the Order Paper on the following Monday did not introduce them, and unfortunately on that matter that Select Committee Report is largely a dead letter. I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said, and I am glad that he made the point, because it shows the bipartisan approach on this matter.
That report was not followed through, but the Scrutiny Committee followed things through. As always, we owe it a great debt, not only for its sifting work but for its various initiatives under both the former Chairman, the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies), and the present Chairman, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden), whom I am glad to see here today. The Committee produced two special reports, House of Commons Papers No. 336 of 1975–76 and No. 400 of 1976–77.
Matters of general procedure were so bad—I am rehearsing them only to show that we have had to fight for what we have—that in 1975–76 the Select Committee tabled Early-Day Motion No. 158 saying:That this House deplores the inadequacy of consideration of important EEC measures, both in Standing Committee and on the Floor of the House; and calls upon the Government, as a matter of urgency, to improve the timing, form and nature of such debates.Matters have improved a little since then, but it is coming to something when an all-party Select Committee has to place on the Order Paper an expression of its dissatisfaction with the way in which the Government of the day are treating matters of legislation. That it came to that shows that everything we have had has had to be fought for and that everything we obtain in future will have to be fought for. We must get the Executive of the 49 day to tell us why we should not have these things.
This is where I come to the Select Committee's next recommendation in House of Commons Paper No. 400 of 1976–77. On the question of debating legislative proposals referred to the House by it, the Committee says that there should be an opportunity for debate before such a proposal is decided or discussed in the Council of Ministers. It continues:The Committee believe that, provided a satisfactory draft—that is, the draft motion before the House—could be achieved, there would be some value in a proceeding of this kind—not least because any such resolution of the House could be held to bind any successor Government to follow the same course.I have chanced my arm today and put such a motion on the Order Paper.
§ Mr. Spearing
The motion needs to be on the Order Paper because the undertakings we have had so far—I shall read them out a little later—have been given entirely on the Floor of the House and in Written Answers. I do not believe that procedure of this sort, so vital and fundamental, should rest on an assurance by a Minister, even if it be printed in Hansard as it came from his lips or as a Written Answer. That is not good enough. I agree with the Select Committee that there is a need for a motion, and that is why I have put down my motion this afternoon. Another reason for the motion is that the original undertaking given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) has since been modified by my right hon. Friend the Lord President, and in a backward direction. I shall come to that when I come to the motion.
I have been rather censorious of my own Government. I do not think that my right hon. Friend the Lord President really minds, because in these matters I suppose that his enjoyment would make Masoch himself feel mild. The Government have difficulties. Are they such that we should take them into account in any motion that we adopt? That would be only fair. I hazard a guess at some of the difficulties that they may have. I 50 say "may" because I do not know. Only those right hon. Members privileged to attend the Council of Ministers know exactly what the difficulties are.
I believe that the clue to the difficulties lies in the evidence to the Scrutiny Committee of the former Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Fred Peart, who had to deal with an agricultural package and more or less told the Committee "Please don't tie me down. I know that you want to discuss milk powder on the Floor of the House, but please don't tell me that it must be done, because I may not be able to bargain and get the best for Britain." We know what happened. He went off to Brussels and gave away the principle of compulsory incorporation of dried milk in cattle feed. He had a difficult negotiating session, and did not want his hands tied, but when he returned the House said that he should not have done what he did. It later passed a motion to that effect. The Scrutiny Committee gave him permission to do what he did, and subsequent events may have shown it to have been right. It said in its Eleventh Report of the Session 1975–76:While therefore the Committee report that in their opinion the two instruments "—two instruments on dried milk—raise questions of political importance and recommend that they be further considered by the House, they do not consider that such further consideration need delay their adoption by the Council should such adoption prove necessary in the course of negotiations to achieve a satisfactory settlement on the package as a whole.That package was not simply a package of legislation, which would be tricky enough. It was the farm price review for the year.
I am not arguing whether the Scrutiny Committee was right or wrong in letting the Minister off the hook. Events may have shown the answer, one way or the other, but that does not matter. The important thing is that it let the Minister off the hook, and it was a Committee of the House that did it. It made the judgment that in the best interest of Britain it might be best to let the Minister do what he could. It was a judgment of the House, or of a Committee with that responsibility. It was not a judgment of the Minister.
Therefore, we must understand the problems. It is rather like a continuous 51 card game. People sit down and say "Torus is coming up. Can we give way on something else? We can't be too hard on fisheries this week. We have something coming next week." We have all been in a bargaining position, but the trouble is that the EEC is a continuous round of bargaining. Unlike an international conference, it does not meet, decide and then stop. As I understand it, the whole thing is a chain. Thus, just as none of us playing cards would like to have somebody standing behind saying arbitrarily "No, you cannot use that card now", so no Executive would like to have Parliament standing behind it occasionally saying, "No, in this negotiation you cannot do that."
But this is not a card game. What is being dealt with here is the livelihood, the occupation and the welfare of the people of this country. Therefore, at that point, this House must at some stage have the power to say "No, you must not", because without that the House of Commons has lost its power even over our own domestic Executive, let alone over any other. I put it to my right hon. Friend who is to reply that that is the prime consideration which he must take into account.
I think that there is probably a double reason why we have run into difficulties. First, there is the natural reluctance of any Executive to provide more information than it can get away with giving. There may be pressure for open government, but we know that there are permanent as well as temporary features in this place, and it takes a lot of courage to give more information which can later be used against one. There is, therefore, that problem. Second, there is the problem of package dealing, to which I have already referred.
I suggest, therefore, that we must find a proper balance between the two. We have to take account of some of the difficulties which the Government may have gleaned, perhaps, from imagination or an analysis of the nature of the organisation with which they are bargaining or of the arena in which they are bargaining, but at the same time we must take account of the just and proper requirements of the House and of the people whom we represent.
52 We must, therefore, examine this whole area, as it were, in two parts. First, there is the procedure for documents and the machinery of the House itself in terms of Committees and Standing Orders, and then there is the question of the motion which at some time or other must be passed by the House in relation to discussion of these affairs on the floor before a Minister proceeds to Brussels. I shall now consider those two parts.
Section 1 of the European Communities Act lays down that there are two sorts of treaty. The first sort of treaty, covered in Section 1(1), comes within the ambit of the Treaty of Rome. Such treaties do not even come before the House at all. I believe that there are about 250 of them reached since we acceded to the Treaty of Rome, dealing mainly with food aid but some of them dealing with rather more esoteric and unusual subjects. I understand that these do not come to the House or to the Scrutiny Committee at all.
A more important type of treaty is covered by Section 1(3). These need ratification by member States and come to the House. They have the self-enacting force of domestic legislation. In other words, the treaties themselves, unlike former treaties by which this country was bound, become legally binding in our courts if they are relevant. Who can tell whether they are relevant? They may be, as it were, an unexploded legal bomb. We have our troubles in the House defining whether they will be of legislative effect. But, incredibly, these treaties are dealt with as though they are Statutory Instruments. We have a Definition of Treaties Order, and one has to look very hard to find out what the treaties are.
This was how on 8th and 9th December 1975 an amendment to the Treaty of Rome itself got through the House. It was not known because it was not on the Order Paper. It was a Definition of Treaties Order. Last Thursday night, after we had gone home, after the main debate and after the Highway Code men had had their debate, there was a Definition of Treaties Order before the House. It dealt with 300 pages of treaty relating to Morocco, Algeria, Portugal and Tunisia. That treaty had been discussed in Committee upstairs for about an hour. 53 That was the procedure. It was under camouflage.
I suggest, therefore, that legislation by stealth is still the characteristic of some of these matters, and that is what I want to see cleared away, certainly in regard to treaties.
I suggest that an amendment to the European Communities Act via an Order in Council covering Section 1(3) to remove that procedure would be appropriate. It would not be in breach of the treaty. These treaties have to be ratified according to our own national procedures, and, as I see it, the present procedure is subterranean. Some people, no doubt, would give an even worse summing up of that type of procedure. It is, I suppose, typical of an Executive to use the Statutory Instrument procedure in that way. I know that it is all about Crown Prerogative, but it is not good enough.
The other great set of treaty obligations comes under Section 2(1). These go to the Scrutiny Committee, although that Committee does not see all the legislation of the EEC because some of it deals with customs duties and so forth. I see the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, West in his place, and hope that he will catch the eye of the Chair later. The trouble is that the Scrutiny Committee can do only half a job because, although we speak well of the Scrutiny Committee, giving it well-deserved plaudits for standing up to the Lord President and so on, it can do no more than decide whether a document should be debated on the Floor. It is a sifting Committee, a switching Committee.
Like all our Select Committees, the Scrutiny Committee is. I hope, reasonably well staffed, it has papers—perhaps it needs more: I do not know, and we may hear—and it does a lot of work, it produces a lot of reports, it asks Ministers questions, having them up to say what these things are all about. All that is very good, but when the Scrutiny Committee has done all that the House has asked of it, it can then decide only whether there should be a debate on the Floor. But, the Committee having gone to all the trouble to define whether a matter is important enough, for us then to be estopped from debating or consider- 54 ing the merits of the proposals is uneconomic, to say the least.
What happens then? The Scrutiny Committee having decided that the House should debate these matters, more often than not a Lord President will put down a motion to send them upstairs to a Committee. Up they go to a Committee, unless 20 of us stand, which we did the other week. What happens then? These matters are discussed for one and a half hours, as a Statutory Instrument is discussed, on a meaningless motion which says that the Committee "have considered" the document. If the Committee does not like it and votes against the motion, that does not make a scrap of difference, and back it comes to the Floor.
We are here considering the health of democracy in this country. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) said in a very good speech last week—I hope that we shall hear more like it from him Parliaments do not have such a reputation that they should think too much about reproducing themselves elsewhere with too much alacrity—or words to that effect. If our constituents knew that that sort of ridiculous proceeding went on in Committee, they would be critical of us, and rightly so.
What happens when a substantive motion comes before the House on the Order Paper to the effect that the House "approves" or "takes note" of a document? It can be on the Order Paper right at the end of the day. It does not have to come on at 3.30 p.m. One of the scandals of our procedure is that, when the Statutory Instrument procedure for consideration in Committee was first initiated, it was understood that Statutory instruments sent to Committee would come back to the Floor for decision at the start of public business, but that has not happened. It was what the Lord President said at the Dispatch Box at the time, but when the Standing Orders came to be drafted that magic point was not included.
It is very easy for anything to go upstairs to a Committee, come back at the end of the Order Paper, and then be passed virtually on the nod.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)
Is not all that the hon. Gentleman is saying merely this, that the Report of the Procedure Committee on which he and 55 I served pointed out to the House what would happen if the House did not take a certain course, but he is then saying that the sifting committee, the Scrutiny Committee, is trying to do some of the work but it is in the position that the Procedure Committee said it would be in, of being a toothless tiger? Although one may be sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's motion, is not our position such that the only way, or the major way, to put matters right lies in the Lord President saying that the basis of the original Procedure Committee Report was right and it ought to be implemented by changes in our Standing Orders?
§ Mr. Spearing
I agree that we need to change Standing Orders as our Procedure Committee recommended so long ago. I think that that would ease the situation. But I am not convinced that that would give the total answer, and perhaps the new Procedure Committee which is looking at these matters will come up with an answer. I am disturbed that the technical effort which is imposed on the Scrutiny Committee and Officers of the House in the evidence which they take from Ministers, is as it were, left to waste. I know that it cannot easily be used. I know that one can get reports. One needs seven or eight documents for these debates, which makes things difficult.
What can be done? I believe that the first thing to do is to make sure that we get this procedure put right; that we do not have clandestine legislation by Statutory Instrument and treaty. That could be done, and perhaps the usual channels could get an agreement on this matter. It is within the competence of the United Kingdom.
I think, too, that we should consider the point that has just been made by the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) and get the Standing Order amended. In April my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould) and Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Lee) and I had a debate when the Standing Orders might have been changed. Unfortunately, that debate was on a Friday. For some inexplicable reason the Government were not happy with our view, and no change was made. 56 I press my right hon. Friend to look at the amendments again. They have appeared on the Order Paper twice, and he and those who assist him know them very well.
The main point of our business this afternoon is the motion, which I hope the House will pass. I want to explain the history of the undertakings that have been given. On 11th June 1974 my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), to whom the House and the country owe a great debt, intervened during the speech of my now right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and asked:….will my hon. Friend now give an assurance that in no case will the Government allow any legislative instrument to proceed further in the EEC if the Scrutiny Committee has notified my right hon. and hon. Friends that it thinks that it should be examined by this House.My right hon. Friend replied:Certainly. In the case of legislative instruments, any other arrangement would be intolerable."—[Official Report, 11th June 1974; Vol. 874, c. 1547.]People say that Parliament is no good, but they should thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North for his intervention in that debate, and they should think of what the Scrutiny Committee has done, and on which our edifice has been built. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council has changed that under-taking. I know that it was given off the cuff, but my right hon. Friend apparently does not agree that any other procedure would be intolerable, because after various debates he made a promised statement.
In answer to a Written Question—it was a bad statement and I had better read it —my right hon. Friend told us what he proposed. His statement was made during the Summer Recess and many people may not have read it. He said:Ministers will not give agreement to any legislative proposal recommended by the Scrutiny Committee for further consideration by the House, before the House has given it that consideration, unless the Committee has indicated that agreement need not be withheld…".So far so good, because that puts the onus on the Scrutiny Committee, just as it did with milk. We are not altering that position. The Scrutiny Committee can give 57 the Minister a let out. But then my right hon. Friend spoilt it by saying:or the Minister concerned is satisfied that agreement should not be withheld for reasons which he will at the first opportunity explain to the House."—[Official Report, 4th August 1976; Vol. 916, c. 803.]In other words, we are now in the position that the undertaking given to my right hon. Friend the Member for Spark-brook has been changed by the Lord President of the Council. He is happy that the Scrutiny Committee can make a judgment and let the Minister off the hook, but he wants to go further. If the Scrutiny Committee will not let the Minister off the hook, my right hon. Friend wants the Minister to let himself off it. That is what he is saying, and he is drawing back on the earlier undertaking, and drawing back a long way.
I understand the difficulties, and I have tried to underline them. Passing the motion would not prevent the Scrutiny Committee from letting the Minister off the hook. It would still be able to ask for a debate on a motion, and that would not be a debate on the Adjournment, and things like that. It would be a debate on a substantive motion.
The proposal does not ask for a decision. In other words, once the matter has been discussed it will be taken to have been debated. If there is no quorum in a Division, the issue will be regarded as having been debated. There is no blocking mechanism that can be used by a small number of people. I hope that I have gone some way towards helping my right hon. Friend in what would be a dilemma. The proposal would prevent a Minister from deciding whether the House should debate the issue before a decision was taken.
I put it to my right hon. Friend that, in an uncharacteristic way, he has stepped over an important line. The House allows the Scrutiny Committee to decide whether a matter should come to the House before the Minister decides, or whether the Minister can deal with the matter before that happens. We might disagree with that decision, but we give a Committee of the House that responsibility. There is all the difference between the Committee and the House deciding, and the Minister deciding.
58 The Lord President of the Council is an autocratic figure because the office of Lord President of the Council is an autocratic function, but my right hon. Friend is also Leader of the House, which is a democratic function, and sometimes those two functions conflict. They probably conflict in this regard, but I remind my right hon. Friend that he shares with the rest of us a third function, which is to represent part of the British public. Therefore, it is two to one on the side of democracy.
I believe that there should be democracy in the EEC. I do not believe that the establishment of democracy in the EEC by any method need reduce it here. Indeed, if the EEC demands that it be reduced here there is something wrong. By accepting the motion my right hon. Friend would not alter the present position, but he would show himself to be on the side of democracy. If he does otherwise, he will be on the side of autocracy. It will be the Minister and not the House who will make the decision.
I suggest that if my right hon. Friend does not accept the motion he must explain why, because the Prime Minister in two or three speeches recently, and in his famous letter to the National Executive Council of the Labour Party, has made it clear that the rights of national Governments and Parliaments must be protected, and this is a right of Parliament. If my right hon. Friend does not accept the motion the Prime Minister's words and his letter will not be worth the paper on which they are written.
§ 4.38 p.m.
§ Sir John Eden (Bournemouth, West)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) on the use that he has made of his luck in the draw. As Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee —in other words, the Select Committee on European Legislation, &c.—I welcome very much the interest that the hon. Gentleman takes in our work and the close attention that he has given to it.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, and as do all those who do much hard work on that Committee, not all the comments that we receive are uncritical. The Economist of 19th November contained the following sentence:While Mr. Callaghan lectures on the need for greater parliamentary control over EEC 59 policy, the House of Commons Scrutiny Committee charged with watching the outpourings from Brussels remains largrely ineffective….Other papers, too, have taken up that line. I have seen similar comments in The Times and other newspapers. I think that such comments show a woeful lack of understanding of the purpose of the Scrutiny Committee. They show also a complete failure to recognise the limitations imposed upon the Committee by its terms of reference, and I think that before one goes any deeper into this question I should ask the House to bear with me while I set them out. The terms of reference are as follows:…to consider draft proposals by the Commission of the European Economic Community for legislation and other documents published by the Commission for submission to the Council of Ministers or to the European Council whether or not such documents originate from the Commission and to report their opinion as to whether such proposals or other documents raise questions of legal or political importance, to give their reasons for their opinion, to report what matters of principle or policy may be affected thereby, and to what extent they may affect the law of the United Kingdom, and to make recommendations for the further consideration of such proposals and other documents by the House.…We in the Scrutiny Committee do not attempt to pass collective judgment on the merits of any particular proposal. It would be very difficult for us to do so in most cases. We have a membership of 16, but that small number of hon. Members represents most shades of opinion in relation to views on the Common Market. It would be most difficult each week to arrive at a single point of view which would make any sense at all in order to help further consideration of these matters by the House of Commons.
I should like briefly to rehearse the outline of the method of work of the Scrutiny Committee. We have to determine whether documents coming to us are of political or legal significance and, if we do so, we try to support our conclusion with a brief paragraph or two. Sometimes we go further and our comment runs to several pages. Sometimes, if time allows, these matters are examined in greater depth before we come to any conclusion.
We then invite representations from interested parties outside the House, and also on occasion we call in and cross- 60 examine expert witnesses to assist us in arriving at our conclusions. Furthermore, from time to time we see and question Ministers. In the past few months we have had before us the Leader of the House, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Secretary of State for Transport, a Minister of State at the Foreign Office, and other Ministers. The reports on all these meetings and encounters are made available to every Member of the House and are sent out with the Votes.
I am tempted to say more about the Committee and its work largely because of the value, as I see it, of what it does and because it engages hon. Members in a great deal of close and detailed study and occupies them over a considerable period of time. Furthermore, we are served, as the hon. Member for Newham, South made clear, by an extremely able staff of advisers who are assiduous in enabling us to make the best use of the comparatively limited time that is usually at our disposal.
§ Mr. Marten
My right hon. Friend has given an interesting and accurate account of the work of the Committee. However, a little earlier he mentioned criticisms that had been made by political commentators, such as a Mr. Wood who writes in The Times. The reason is that the House of Lords serves up its reports in nice blue covers that are easily identifiable and read by the Press, whereas our criticisms of regulations are always made late at night when the Press has gone home to sleep.
§ Sir J. Eden
I shall be saying something about that in a moment.
In my view, the criticisms made of us are misdirected. They should be criticisms of the use made by this House of the reports of the Scrutiny Committee —that is where the criticisms should fall. Therefore, I believe that those criticisms show a complete lack of understanding of what the Scrutiny Committee is about and what it was set up to do.
§ Sir J. Eden
Comparisons have also been made between our Committee and the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities. But the 61 Lords Committee is a different animal and its terms of reference are very much wider than ours. The terms of reference of the Lords Committee are:To consider Community proposals, whether in draft or otherwise, to obtain all necessary information about them and to make reports on those which, in the opinion of the Committee, raise important questions of policy or principle, and on other questions to which the Committee consider that the special attention of the House should be drawn.Apart from having those wider terms of reference, I would also emphasise that the Lords Committee has many more members than does our Committee. Using its powers of co-optation, it has currently a membership of 80. That enables that Committee to have a large number of Sub-Committees to examine various aspects. It also has more time at its disposal than is available to hon. Members. It may also be said—and this is a relevant point—that members of the Lords Committee are not so deeply divided on the question of the Common Market as we tend to be in this House.
I see the Lords Committee not in any sense as a rival to the work we do here, but as complementary to the work we attempt to do on behalf of Parliament as a whole. We certainly work as closely as we can with the Lords Committee and, wherever possible, avoid duplication.
Having given a cursory outline of the work of our Committee, I accept that improvements are possible and desirable. The Committee has already identified a number of improvements that it supports, and these were set out in special reports, the last of which was available as House of Commons Paper No. 400. I shall not rehearse those matters again this afternoon, but let me give an example of one or two of the things we should like to see happen.
We want debates to take place in good time before Ministers have to come to a conclusion in the Council of Ministers. Debates should be held in time to allow Ministers to note the views of this House and to take them fully into account in the later negotiations rather than right at the last moment just before Ministers go to Brussels, when they speak in debates in order to salve their consciences or to honour undertakings that they have given to the House.
62 When the Economist reports adversely on our work and criticises us because our comments are made after the EEC decisions are taken rather than before, it is completely wrong. It does not know what it is talking about. Perhaps the political correspondent of the Economist should sit in on one of our sessions. If he did, he would learn something of what the Committee does.
§ Sir J. Eden
Sometimes it is true that these debates take place at a late stage, but that happens not through the fault of the Scrutiny Committee but at the behest of Ministers.
§ Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)
Since the right hon. Gentleman rightly insists that there is a need for debate well before decisions are taken in Brussels, may I take it that he supports my hon. Friend's motion?
§ Sir J. Eden
I shall be coming to that matter. We want debates to be held in good time.
We also want debates not to be held within the one-and-a-half-hour writ that now runs. Such debates should be treated differently from what happens to Statutory Instruments. There are many matters of great importance and significance that need to be fully debated in the House. If they were treated in the same way as Bills are treated, they would never be able to be brushed side within a debate lasting one and a half hours. They should be given full and proper attention.
Surely such debates should take place earlier in the parliamentary day. Most of the debates are held after 10 p.m. It is true that we have had many more of them and I am grateful to the Leader of the House for the attention he has given to this matter and for ensuring that much of the backlog which had accumulated has been worked off. But most of these debates are put down to take place after 10 o'clock, and it is impossible then properly to test the opinion of the House.
The purpose of the debates must be to get a clear expression of Back-Bench views and not just to give the principal protagonists on either side of the Common Market argument the opportunity to rehearse the same points time and again. We need to bring into the debates Members who know about the topics under 63 discussion and to give them the chance to express their opinion about how we are likely to be affected by the Commission's proposals. We are unlikely to have that sort of expression of opinion unless debates take place earlier in the day.
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)
The right hon. Gentleman has stressed the importance of these debates taking place at the appropriate time. Will he say something about the problem with which the House is presented when, in the course of a debate on an instrument referred to the House by the right hon. Gentleman's Committee, it appears that the matter is still subject to further negotiations and that the proposals may undergo a substantial change before a final decision is taken? I am sure that this is something which has engaged the anxiety of the right hon. Gentleman's Committee and although it is not, in terms, covered by the motion, would the right hon. Gentleman care to refer to it, since many of us are extremely anxious about the matter?
§ Sir J. Eden
That is one of the points that I shall touch on in referring to the motion. The hon. Member for Newham, South rightly said that he had drawn on the words in the Committee's special report, House of Commons Paper No. 400, paragraph 28. In that report we drew attention to the desirability of expressing in a formal motion of the House the undertaking given by the Government.
The undertaking is slightly different from the words in the motion. The motion refers to:any draft legislation or other proposal, published by the Commission".The undertaking given by the Leader of the House refers to "any legislative proposal". There is a considerable difference.
I tend to come down strongly in favour of the words of the hon. Member for Newham, South. We have frequently found it helpful to have debates in the House on consultative documents and not just on final proposals. That is what Ministers should wish to hear, because they should have the view of the House at the early formative stage. If proposals change substantially as a result of negotiations and what amounts to a new pro- 64 posal emerges, we would have the chance of a second look at it.
This is what the Leader of the House, as a result of our representations, has provided. We get a fresh explanatory memorandum submitted to us—and it will be available to all hon. Members—so that we have the opportunity of a second stage consideration in the light of changes that may have taken place in negotiations. We can then either uphold our original recommendation for further consideration by the House or withdraw it. That is why I do not go all the way with the wording of the motion. We need to preserve a certain degree of flexibility in handling these matters.
§ Mr. Powell
I wonder whether a difficulty is created by the words in the motion:published by the Commission of the EEC".In many cases, such as those to which the right hon. Gentleman has been referring, although there may be a new explanatory memorandum which may lift part of the veil over what has been going on in the Council of Ministers, the proposals before us would be the original proposals published by the EEC. There would be no subsequent official publication.
§ Sir J. Eden
That is a valid point. I shall not attempt to redraft the motion to encompass what the right hon. Gentleman has said, but we have in mind that we consider documents other than those published by the Commission. The Tindemans Report is an example. The change in our terms of reference enables us to consider such matters. Bearing in mind what is likely to come to us as a result of enlargement of the EEC it is as well to preserve this degree of flexibility in the subjects selected for debate.
I thank the Government and the Leader of the House for the moves that they have made and for the additional explanatory memoranda that are provided to inform the Committee of changes. There are a number of other ways in which we should press Ministers for further improvements.
The first is already being pursued. We are calling for a much better system of reporting back to the Committee and lettings its members know what is happening as a result of the discussions in 65 which it has been engaged. Fuller reports might provide an opportunity for the Committee and the House to cross-examine Ministers and to question them further.
Important though these matters are, however, we are still only tinkering with the question. We really need either substantially enlarged terms of reference or a fully-fledged Select Committee on European affairs. We should then be able to combine the work of scrutiny—which must be preserved whatever else comes along—with a discussion of merit.
I do not believe that we should go as far as the Danes, who seek to mandate Ministers. Their committee can take a decision on an issue and it is then binding on the Folketing. I do not think that this House would accept that in relation to our Committee, and I would not recommend it. Nor do I believe that we should emulate the French, who have subsumed discussion of EEC matters within their Foreign Affairs Committee to the point where they are virtually submerged. The Prime Minister, in his letter to the General Secretary of the Labour Party, referred todemocratic control of Community business".I do not know exactly what he had in mind and I wonder whether he does. He said:We should try to define categories of Community legislation and develop greater Parliamentary control over those categories which we would otherwise have considered appropriate for Parliamentary legislation.That might be possible, but I do not think that it will get us very far. It is important for us not to be led too easily along that route. I am thinking particularly of such matters as the annual farm price review, which is not a legislative proposal, and the budget, which might not come within the Prime Minister's category.
Let me put one point to the Leader of the House. Will he make it possible for a discussion on these matters to be held in the Select Committee? Will he analyse what the Prime Minister had in mind and consult the Select Committee before any finality is reached? I say that in all humility, but with great emphasis, on behalf of the hon. Members who serve on that Committee. They have built up a fund of experience on these matters and it would be folly to pass that by. While 66 doing that, will the right hon. Gentleman also at least await the report of the Select Committee on Procedure?
Meanwhile, the right hon. Gentleman has the power to achieve more effective debates on these matters in the House. I urge him to use it.
§ 5.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)
I wish to intervene only briefly in the debate because the main arguments have already been deployed extremely well by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). I want to emphasise the point that in dealing with European legislation and proposals we are involved in a continuing process. It has been said that a proposal may come forward and be looked at by the Scrutiny Committee, but that subsequently the Commission or Council of Ministers, or some other European body, can bring forward all kinds of modifications so that the ultimate proposal may be quite different from the original document that came before this House or the Scrutiny Committee.
We are not, therefore, dealing with a situation in which a proposal comes forward in Brussels, passes to our Scrutiny Committee and then may or may not be discussed on the Floor of the House. We are dealing with a continuous process in which proposals related to anything from energy and fisheries to the environment and so on, are continuously coming up and being reviewed with a whole mass of directives and regulations arising from consideration of these matters in Brussels. The defect here is simply that the House does not possess a coherent Committee system. Until it does, we shall not be able adequately or properly to deal with Community legislation or a great many other matters which are entirely within our powers.
I do not wish in any way to criticise the Scrutiny Committee which has done an invaluable job and without which we would have been totally at sea over the past few years of our membership of the EEC. But the Committee suffers from lack of time. It is under enormous pressure and it is constituted of only 16 hon. Members. I do not see how 16 hon. Members can possibly examine effectively the enormous range of matters with which the European Communities 67 deal. I cannot see that one small Committee can adequately scrutinise, digest and present the mass of legislation involved to the House, even on its limited remit which is simply to draw our attention to whether matters are important.
§ Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)
May I point out to the hon. Member that in our domestic secondary legislation a very much smaller Committee with an equally limited remit considers a vast volume of secondary legislation?
§ Mr. Hooley
That is a further defect of our procedures. We must have a coherent Committee system so that the Departments of State can come under scrutiny from a group of hon. Members who over a period of time will become familiar with a particular area of public policy, can build up their own expertise, can draw on the knowledge of a qualified staff, and can be in a position, over the years, successfully to challenge, scrutinise and probe Government policy. Related to that, it would be its duty to probe into the mass of regulations and directives which come from Brussels.
I do not see how we can hope to control or effectively influence all the decisions that emerge from the Communities unless we have a Committee system on that scale and with that job.
A very tentative move in that direction has been made since I understand that the Select Committee on Science and Technology has decided through its own general purposes sub-committee to take on the task of examining some of the European directives in the light of that Committee's interests and remit. That is a useful move, but I doubt whether it goes far enough.
In case anyone doubts the importance of this issue I noted myself in a recent report from the Scrutiny Committee a reference to the need for the Community to produce 140 million tonnes of oil by 1985. As far as I know the United Kingdom is the only member which has oil that would even remotely approach that figure. This means that unless there is some serious debate in the House on that proposition, which is part of the Community's general energy strategy, the United Kingdom might be faced with a curious and far reaching decision on depletion policy for our oil. That is a decision that this 68 House should debate extensively before Ministers came to any conclusion or were committed to any definite policy on the subject.
I am sure that we shall never achieve proper democratic scrutiny and control along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South unless we radically overhaul our Committee system here. That is a wider proposition that goes beyond this debate. But the problem of scrutinising what is happening in Brussels, of scrutinising the mass of legislation which we are supposed to examine on behalf of the British people, cannot be dealt with by our existing Committee system. Until we change it, bring it up to date and make it more effective we are faced with an insoluble problem.
§ 5.9 p.m.
§ Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)
I very much agree with the three hon. Members who have spoken so far, and that excuses me from repeating what they have said.
The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has done us a great service in choosing this subject. I agree with him about the need for control over the legislation which comes out of the Common Market. I agree also with the chairman of the Scrutiny Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden), about the need for fuller debates and for debates before final decisions are taken. Those debates should come in good time so that Ministers may give consideration to the views of the House of Commons before they go to the final discussion.
The right hon. Member also did us a service by pointing out the limitations imposed upon the Committee by its terms of reference, and by suggesting that they should be widened and that something like the Lords Committee might be introduced. I agree that this is a continuing matter and that we must review the whole Committee system of the House of Commons if we are properly to undertake what for us is a new job.
It happens that my constituents have lately complained to me about a number of regulations that they allege had emanated from the EEC. They complain about regulations concerning slaughterhouses, eggs, milk, transport, the low price of store cattle and especially about 69 fishing. As a Member of Parliament I know what to do when my constituents complain about the shortcominggs of the Government. It is my duty to harry the appropriate Minister, to make him accept his responsibility and to give some explanation of what is happening and, if possible, to put the matter right. I found myself in some difficulty when my constituents complained about regulations that were said to emanate from Brussels. I found that several of them did not come from that quarter at all. One of the difficulties that we shall face in the coming years, especially if a Scottish Assembly is established, is that a great many people in the United Kingdom will not know from where important regulations affecting their lives have come. The House had better give some little attention to that matter.
As this problem caused me considerable concern I thought that I had better write to the Chairman of the Commission, which I accordingly did. I received a full and helpful reply. I shall quote one passage of Mr. Jenkins' letter that states:What I would strongly deny, however, is that the Commission is engaged in the imposition of inappropriate and harmful regulations. In the first place, it is not a case of imposing regulations at all. Most important Community legislation goes through all the processes of consultation with the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee and discussion in the Council of Ministers, at all of which stages public interest and national interest can be brought to bear upon our proposals before they reach the statute book.Far be it from me to attack the admirable people who make up the various bodies referred to in the letter, but they are, I suspect, operating at second hand. They are not in direct contact with the electorate, and the electorate is in some difficulty about knowing how to make its views known. Its views are often different from those of the Economic and Social Committee, or those of the other bodies to which reference is made. Its interests are not always national interests. They are often local and personal interests. They are often the interests of a body of people in one part of the country.
The letter continues:I sometimes wonder whether it is fully realised in the United Kingdom how open the Community system is to public discussion, as compared with the British tradition of gov- 70 ernment; and how often the press reports of 'decrees from Brussels' are really only proposals which are just entering the arena of public debate. The truth is that the Community practises a degree of open government, which is quite surprising to most British politicians, though it is of course in the best Liberal tradition!I am exceedingly glad to hear that.
To touch on a point that has already been made, very often in this House we do not know what stage has been reached in the system that is operated at Brussels. We know, of course, what is happening within our own politics. We can read things in party manifestos and in Green Papers and White Papers. However, we do not have such a clear idea of the buildup of policy in the Common Market.
The letter continues:In the second place, we have firmly put aside the idea of standardisation for standardisation's sake, which is the sinister implication of 'harmonisation' in the minds of many people.Certainly my constituents are rather fearful that harmonisation for the sake of harmonisation is just what the Commission is all about on occasions. I am glad to be told that it does not adopt that approach, but I still think that we need a better channel of communication. Whether that is to come from the House or direct from Brussels, I do not know. Equally, I do not know whether things will change when the new European Parliament is elected. It is only my business to point out where the shoe pinches and to ask what proposals are being made. It would be useful if we had further debates in the House and further opportunity to examine our own Ministers on these important matters.
From where does Brussels get its policies? I put a specific question to Mr. Jenkins on fishing quotas. I received a note that states:The Commission has proposed quotas for haddock, cod, whiting and other species for 1977, and again for 1978. The purpose of limiting catches of these species is to protect or rebuild stocks so as to assure future supplies. It is, however, impossible for a fishing boat to catch just one species at a time.That is what I pointed out. It goes on to say:This is one of the intractable problems".However, it is not the duty of Brussels to face us with decisions that are unworkable and to propose intractable problems. There are other ways of overcoming the 71 problem, but none of them was acceptable to Brussels. It is not good enough to say "This is an intractable problem but we shall enforce this solution."
The commentary continues:As far as industrial fishing is concerned, it is perfectly true that inspection of the catch in port is virtually impossible, in the sense that the proportion of individual species can no longer be assessed…But on-the-spot inspection at sea is practical.It would only be practicable if we had an enormous fleet for inspectors. Surely we have a right to know who made these proposals. From where do they come?
There is the same situation in respect of energy, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) said. There is grave anxiety about many aspects of the EEC's agricultural policy in some parts of the country. As Members of this place we are supposed to find out what is going on, but Ministers often succeed in stonewalling. At any rate, we should know who is responsible. At present I do not feel that I know who is responsible in Brussels. And I do not know why there is such a volume of regulations.
I speak as a supporter of the EEC. I do not want it to fail. However, whatever its global intentions may be, people sometimes find that its effect on their daily lives is harmful. That is the real danger. The EEC is a splendid conception, but it must mobilise support by showing that it is not harming the individual in his normal occupation and ordinary daily life. If it is to avoid that, it must reassure and ease where there are pinches. It must ensure that ordinary people have some means of expressing their views. They should be able to find out who is responsible if something has gone wrong, and there must be machinery within the EEC to enable others to try to put right that which has gone wrong.
If that is done through the House, I agree with the terms of the motion. I think that it would be a valuable contribution. However, I wonder whether that is enough. I wonder whether it is not necessary to spend a great deal more effort to determine how we shall control Brussels from the point of view of the ordinary person in this country.
§ 5.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)
I agree with everything that the right hon. 72 Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) has said, but I cannot help wondering whether it would not have been a good thing if the Liberal Party had discovered some of these truths before it developed such a great enthusiasm for joining the EEC. The right hon. Gentleman gave the impression that it was only in the past week or two that some of these truths had come home to him. I also wondered whether he had replied to Mr. Jenkins' letter and at least pointed out to him the simple fact, of which Mr. Jenkins would not seem to be aware, that the House meets in public whereas the Council of Ministers legislates in secret, which is a rather different situation.
I shall briefly urge three points upon my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. First, I believe that what we are dealing with in debating the motion is legislation. We are concerned with legislative instruments that will be binding in our courts on the British public. One of the causes of the problem is that in Brussels—to some extent it is the case in the Foreign Office—as opposed to this country there is constant confusion between negotiation and legislation. Negotiation is one thing and legislation is quite another.
The Government have the right to negotiate, to bargain, to have discussions in secret from time to time and then to recommend the results of their negotiations to the House. They do not have a right to legislate in this place by allowing a Minister to say "I am introducing a Bill. I cannot give you the exact text because we have not had time to work it out. In any case, I have been in rather a hurry in the past few days. I have had to have discussions with many people. Therefore, I must ask you to pass the Bill into law without my being able to give you further information about it."
What would we think if an argument of that sort were produced by a British Minister when introducing British legislation? I do not think it is good enough for Ministers or the Government to argue that they cannot in all cases ensure that there is a discussion in due time in the House because sometimes Ministers are involved in negotiations in Brussels. Of course they are so involved, but that should not absolve them from the obligation to hold a discussion or to permit a discussion in this place in good time 73 before a legislative act is passed in Brussels.
Secondly, I urge the Leader of the House to accept that the proposal in the motion is an extremely modest advance indeed. We can discuss all sorts of far better reforms and improvements to the conduct of the Scrutiny Committee and to the Committees of the House but that is not what is proposed in the motion. All that is proposed is that the undertaking given to me as long ago as June 1974 by a senior Minister in the Foreign Office should be embodied in a resolution of the House. We are asking no more than that the Government should agree to a resolution which confirms what they profess to be doing as a result of their undertaking.
My right hon. Friend might argue that he would have drafted the resolution differently but its essence is simply to ensure that where the Scrutiny Committee has recommended a debate in the House the Minister cannot accept a legislative fait accompli in Brussels until that debate has taken place. The motion does not require that there should be a decision at the end of a debate. I should like to see that but it is not what we are proposing.
I hope that when so modest a proposal is put forward the Leader of the House will be able to tell us that he accepts it, or the full substance of it. Modest as it is, it is surely in accordance with the Prime Minister's letter to the Secretary of the Labour Party. That letter said that one of the main aims of the Government was to achieve greater national control over EEC legislation. The Prime Minister's letter did not merely say that we need more democratic control over EEC legislation—that phrase is becoming a platitude. The letter went beyond that and spoke of greater control by national parliaments.
All we are asking is that the Government put into proper parliamentary form an undertaking which they gave three years ago and which goes only a modest step towards achieving what the Prime Minister has said is the main objective of the Government.
§ 5.23 p.m.
§ Mr. Neil Marten (Banbury)
If anybody were to oppose this motion we should have grounds for the deepest 74 suspicion of that person or party. Speaking, as I can, for a number of Back-Bench colleagues, I should like to accept the motion on their behalf.
I shall deal with one or two points that were raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley). He said that we needed a larger Scrutiny Committee. I disagree with him about that. Perhaps he is not aware that we have advisers to take us through many of the technicalities in the documents. After all, we are politicians and not technicians. We have developed a political nose or nous for picking out the important from the unimportant.
The most dreary of documents come before us. There may be a document about jute in India, for example. Some people might think that that is unimportant but because we are politicians we know that it affects the labour situation in Dundee, which is a jute manufacturing area. We would therefore recommend that case for debate because we see constituency interests in a matter as dull as jute. I do not believe that we need a larger Committee.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) says that he finds difficulty in keeping track of all the various proposals. I see his point. Perhaps I can help him. If he keeps an eye on the Vote Office he will find long yellow forms which list about 100 EEC documents a week. I look at them just for the hell of it. If the right hon. Gentleman does that he will learn exactly what is going on in that extraordinary place over the water.
§ Mr. Spearing
On the subject of keeping track of documents, does the hon. Member remember that in a Select Committee report on procedure there was a distinct recommendation that a new system of indexing and keeping track of these documents be instituted? Those recommendations were turned down by the Lord President.
§ Mr. Marten
I am sure that the hon. Member would find such a document interesting.
The hon. Member for Heeley wanted to know how we could possibly make a judgment on some of the complicated proposals. Let us take the subject of eviscerated chicken, for example. As a 75 boy I always knew about chickens but I did not know about eviscerated chicken. I consulted local producers who told me all about it, about its cost and the vast increase in bureaucracy that the proposal would produce. However, when I examined the proposal for the harmonisation of emulsified mayonnaise, I learned that it involved no world-shattering proposal, so I did not raise the matter but just read about it. One has a feel for what is worth debating and what is not.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) made an excellent speech on the Scrutiny Committee and I agree with most of what he said. The answer to the problem is to limit the output of documents each week from the EEC. If we said that it should publish no more than 10 documents per week and gradually reduced that number to nil, the House would be happier and would be able to cope.
I turn to the subject of the Press. I agree that it is a curious campaign—it may be "follow my leader"—by this Mr. Wood. I do remember his name because recently his articles have been suffering from Dutch elm disease. It is extraordinary that an article that he wrote in The Times some time ago was picked up by the Economist, translated by the worthies at the Financial Times and become gospel in the Press arena. The members of the Press are wrong. The Lords serve up the argument for them and all they have to do is to copy it out and they have a nice article. If they wanted to hear our arguments they would have to stay up until 11.30 at night. They would not like that.
We should debate these regulations and proposals at an earlier hour. On one occasion we debated three fairly important regulations in one day, as we do in the Consolidated Fund debates. If we debated these matters at an earlier hour it would give reasonable people a chance to vote on these unreasonable proposals.
We should not be asked to debate a document that is not available. That situation has arisen in the past. It would be curious if we were asked to have a Second Reading debate on a Bill that had not been published. We would reject such a proposal. Ministers who have been 76 asked to come here and talk should simply refuse to do so when they have no documents available, or have not the right or updated documents.
The motion formalises the practice which has been used in this House for some time, although there have been some breaches of it. The motion is quite all right as far as it goes, although I think it was only the other day that we were asked to debate railway accounts when the document had already been adopted. That is the sort of thing we must try to prevent—not that I think that it was a vastly important matter. But it is an example, nevertheless, of what we should try to prevent.
It is very dull always "to take note" of motions. Could not the Government say that they approve something, or approve in general or disapprove, and put a little spice into the whole debate? There might then be a greater attendance at these debates.
When we have debated something in this House and the Minister goes forward on a "take note" motion, the matter is debated, and then an alteration is made in the document at the Council of Ministers, I believe that the Minister concerned should only agree to it there and then ad referendum to this House. That is a fundamental point which the Danes have insisted on, although I do not agree with their system, because the Danish Minister has to ring up the chairman of the Danish scrutiny committee at maybe 3 a.m. I should not like to have that system imposed on his counterpart here. Once a matter has been debated in this House, if it is then changed at the Council of Ministers it should be brought back to this House, but without the necessity of disturbing anyone's sleep.
After all, there is no hurry in regard to nearly all this legislation. Many of the things which we have before us in this House have been coming along nicely over a period of two years. What does one more month matter? It matters not at all. But Ministers ought to be more tightly controlled, when they go off to Brussels, than they are at the moment. After a "take note" motion has been before the House, the Minister, when he gets to Brussels, can do something entirely different, because there has been no consensus vote or declaration. There 77 has merely been an expression of individual Back-Bench views, and the Minister is not tied at all.
When a draft document from the Commission is before this House we should be allowed to amend it. We ought to be allowed to propose the deletion, for example, of article 5 of such-and-such a document. I do not think that we do that at the moment.
When Ministers have had their meetings in Brussels they ought to be required to make statements here about what they have been up to. The worst offender is the Treasury, which went off to Brussels and agreed the sixth directive on value added tax. No statement was made to this House. All that happened was that a Written Question was planted by a supporter of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the information was given by way of a Written Answer in the House of Commons. That is a monstrous way in which to treat the House on such a very important point. The net result is that right hon. and hon. Members on the Conservative side have never understood the sixth directive. They are always saying that the exemption limits should be £10,000, but if they had read the directive they would know that it is impossible to have an exemption limit of £10,000. It has to be lower than that. If there had been a statement to the House they would not all be under that illusion.
I agree with the contention that the Council of Ministers should sit in the open. It is absolutely inexusable that it should sit in secret. It is not a Cabinet. It is not a Government. Why not open it up and make it more democratic? We are to have direct elections in order to make the Community more democratic. Let the Council of Ministers make a start there. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) would agree with that.
This is an important debate because the motion seeks to lay down something which has to be obeyed. The practice has been carried out fairly well in the past but the motion seeks to lay down something quite firmly. I hope that it will be accepted by both sides of the House. I shall be deeply suspicious if it is turned down by either side. In the 78 Common Market as a whole I think we are now at a turning point, and this is one of the wedges that we ought to put down.
We now know that the Conservative Party and the Government will give no additional powers to the European Parliament without a specific Act of Parliament. We shall not have these powers increased by smuggling through Section 1 or Section 2 of the European Communities Act. This is a major victory. I think that the feeling from today's debate is that we should have more control over Ministers. That would be a good thing. Last Thursday we had a statement from the Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party that he was against a federal Europe. That is another milestone in our progress. At last that has become clear.
When the EEC develops with the addition of three new member countries, I think we shall have to look again at all the procedures and state what the Common Market is to mean in terms of the enforcement of all these regulations. If regulations or laws are made and cannot be enforced, the whole thing breaks down. I often wonder how the Community proposes to monitor and enforce the evisceration of chicken on the Macedonian frontier and, if Turkey joins the EEC, in Central Anatolia. It may sound absurd, but that is the essence of it. If the EEC cannot supervise the evisceration of chicken on the Macedonian frontier and in Central Anatolia, the law will not be carried out. What is the purpose of having laws if they cannot be enforced? If this legislative function were taken from the Community there would be far less of the sort of trouble that we are talking about today, and we should be able to have co-operation between the various countries in a wider Europe.
§ 5.36 p.m.
§ Mr. Tom Arnold (Hazel Grove)
I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) may find me the odd man out, not because we both signed the Select Committee report but because I think we have probably drawn different conclusions from one or two things in it.
In this debate the House is once again faced with the important and difficult problem of reconciling our traditional 79 methods of dealing with these matters in this House with the still relatively new system—to us—of legislative activity which is prevalent in the Community. The very sovereignty of our parliamentary institutions within the British constitution continues to pose what I would suggest are virtually intractable problems in terms of dealing with the motion before us today.
The use of scarce parliamentary time, jealously fought over by Government and Opposition alike—and itself a reflection of the keenness of the party political battle in the country—frequently gives rise to a situation where the notion of the parliamentary control of legislation and, indeed, the notion of what constitutes parliamentary accountability, mean very different things to different people.
To state the problem at its most obvious, it is very much a matter of judgment, depending upon the position of each individual Member, since, whereas to the committed Back Bencher, accountability means influencing the executive decisions of Government before they are taken, to Ministers, accountability may well mean parliamentary approval of Government action after the event. The two are not necessarily the same, and they reflect the difference between the representative function of the individual Member and the executive function of a Minister of Crown who is also a Member of this House. The distinction goes right to the heart of what we are discussing here today.
By his motion the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) submits that, where the Select Committee has recommended a matter for debate, no Minister shall give his agreement to that proposal in the Council of Ministers until such time as the House has had a chance to debate the topic on a motion relating to that proposal.
The Select Committee, on the other hand, submitted in its first special report of May last year a resolution saying that we should not be so prohibitive as to prevent Ministers from coming to an urgent decision in Brussels provided always that the Minister concerned would at the first opportunity give his reasons to the House for taking such precipitate action. Specifically this dates back to 4th 80 August 1976 when the Lord President restated the terms of the Government undertaking about the holding of debates in words that were used earlier by the hon. Member for Newham, South.
In particular, the Lord President said that the Minister concerned could go ahead and reach agreement in Brussels provided that he would then come to the House immediately thereafter and give his reasons even if the Select Committee had recommended a document for debate in advance of his going to the EEC. I believe that the Committee came to its conclusion not because it wished to make life easy for the Government but because it realised that it is virtually impossible under our present constitutional arrangements to impose upon the Government of the day a notion of accountability which conflicts with the desire of that Government to do their business in accordance with the wishes of the parliamentary majority that they are able to secure in the Lobbies, and whose Members may sometimes require decisions to be taken in Brussels in advance of parliamentary approval.
If there is a problem with regard to EEC legislation I venture to suggest to the hon. Member for Newham, South that it is because not many Members of Parliament show the same kind of interest in the nuts and bolts of Community legislation as he does. In those circumstances it is hardly fair to ask the Government of the day to do the work of Back Benchers for them. We shall not be able to cope with this problem satisfactorily until EEC debates, and the whole question of how to deal with the EEC legislation, arouse much greater interest and involve a much greater number of Members than has been the case so far.
It may well be argued that the Select Committee recommendation—that the terms of the Government's undertaking about the holding of debates should be embodied in a resolution of the House provided that a satisfactory draft can be agreed upon—still leaves the House in a situation where there is a great deal of power invested in the Executive and, through the Executive, a great deal of authority vested in the institutions of the Community. However, I do not see how in practice a British Government can properly defend or advance the interests 81 of our country if they are prevented from taking action which they believe vital by virtue of being forced to wait for parliamentary approval. It might well be that this situation will continue to arise when our partners in the Community are on the verge of making an arrangement which could be valuable to our own point of view and when the absolute blocking of a document by the Select Committee would positively prohibit action taking place which could well be to the benefit of our country.
§ Sir Derek Walker-Smith (Hertfordshire, East)
May I ask my hon. Friend where he finds the reference to "approval" in the motion, which states only,until such time as this House has debated the topic on a motion relating to that proposal."?
§ Mr. Arnold
Either way I think the result is the same because we are seeking to prohibit action by a Minister in Brussels until such time as a document recommended by the Select Committee has come to the Floor of the House. My contention is that there may well be circumstances where the real progress of negotiations will indeed require decisions to be taken in advance of parliamentary approval.
§ Mr. Spearing
Perhaps I was not sufficiently explicit in what I was saying. In the case of the agricultural package and the milk document, to which I referred in my speech, the Select Committee specifically gave up the right to say "Go to the House" and said: "Yes, we understand". But surely it is right that the judgment should be with the Select Committee and not with the Minister?
§ Mr. Arnold
Of course the Select Committee must do its job properly. Equally, Ministers must do their jobs properly. If Ministers do not do their jobs properly, then the House ought to take much tougher action than it takes at present.
When we had the debate in April there was an exchange between the Chairman of the Select Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury. specifically said that he did not think parliamentary accountability mattered very much because whenever Ministers came back they did not in practice face 82 the sack. While I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Select Committee must do its work of scrutinising properly, it is the case that both sides should do work in an efficient and coherent manner. That is not always the case, but that is a matter of judgment depending on the ability of the individual Members and the Ministers involved.
I can quite see that those Members who remain unreconciled to British membership of the Community should wish to weaken the whole principle of membership since that membership implies constant negotiation between national Governments and not, as has been suggested, national Parliaments.
In France, for example, scrutiny of Community documents is extremely perfunctory by our own standards—we have very much higher standards than operate there—but that is because membership of the Community is viewed as being derived from a treaty obligation and treaty obligations are the sole responsibility of government under the French constitution.
I do not see how in practice the House of Commons can seek to take over the role of government in dealing with EEC legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, for whom I have a great deal of affection, is constantly telling us that he is primarily concerned with the defence of British interests. But those interests are not necessarily served by a procedure which defines accountability in an extremely narrow way.
Lest the House should be in any doubt, I entirely agree with the findings of my colleagues on the Select Committee that, while welcoming the recent improvements in the number of debates held in the House on EEC legislation, and in their timing, the Committee hopes that the situation will not be allowed to slip back if and when pressures from domestic legislation give rise to further problems. Equally, I agree that a trial should be given to a system under which one full day per month of parliamentary time should be given to European legislation and that the arrangements for keeping the House informed about the results of Council meetings should be formalised.
But this is only another way of saying that the methods adopted for dealing with European legislation must inevitably reflect to a large extent the character of 83 the personal relationship between Members within this House and the constitutional relationship between Government and Parliament.
To sum up, the Select Committee pointed out that suggestions have been made from time to time that the House should pass a resolution embodying the terms of the Government's undertaking about the holding of debates—the main argument being that it is too important a matter to remain in force merely as a result of having been included in a Written Answer to a Question. The Committee concluded that there would be value in a proceeding of this kind, and I concur with my colleagues in that judgment. I hope that the Government will agree that a resolution should be accepted by the House.
§ 5.48 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)
We are all indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) for raising this subject, which is of very great interest, not only as it affects EEC matters. It is one example of a general problem, that of the relationship between Parliament and Government in a world that is becoming increasingly more complicated.
That is what is at the heart of the matter. The world is becoming more complicated. There are more things for people concerned with government to think about and talk about. How on earth do they manage it? We have to observe one general principle in this regard. It is not the duty, or within the capacity, of this House to govern the country. The relationship between this House and government is that it is possible for a Government to be created by there being enough people in the House who are prepared to take on the responsibility—as a rule there is no shortage of such people—and there has to be sufficient agreement in the House to sustain some sort of Government. Next, we can criticise that Government and, finally, in the last resort we can sack them, but we should not try, while the Government are in power, to take from them the actual job of governing.
A fair criticism of my hon. Friend's motion is that he goes too far in that direction. He himself gave a metaphor 84 when he said no one would stand behind someone playing cards and say "You must not play that card at this juncture." Having given us that metaphor, he rejected it, I think on the ground that it was undignified and trivial compared with the vast human issues with which the Community is concerned. I offer him a rather more dignified metaphor. It is that one does not stand beside a surgeon while he is conducting a life and death operation and say "You must not use that instrument at this juncture."
My point is that, having given someone the responsibility of doing certain jobs, we must not be continually breathing down his neck. That is what the passing of this resolution, as it stands, would do. It would compel a Minister to refrain from agreeing to a proposal in the Common Market until a specific procedure of this House had been gone through. This would apply to every major proposal.
§ Mr. Bryan Gould (Southampton, Test)
Will not my right hon. Friend accept that what we are dealing with in this debate and in the work of the Scrutiny Committee is legislation? It is not governmental action. It is the process of legislation, in which this House necessarily must be involved.
§ Mr. Stewart
Yes, but it is Government agreement to legislative proposals of the Common Market. The objection to this is that, if a Minister is hampered to that extent, he will be unable to carry out properly the job of negotiation. This is not restricted to the Common Market. It applies to foreign policy generally. If we take a certain action which we know may be unwelcome to certain other Governments, the Government have to consider always how it will affect the sum total of our relations with those Governments. In the conduct of foreign affairs, whether in the European Community or elsewhere, the action is always a continuous process. If a Minister is held up by our saying "You cannot agree to this until the House has gone through a certain procedure", it becomes almost impossible for him to conduct negotiations with foreign powers, whether in the EEC or outside it.
§ Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Erdington)
Surely it is the basis of the existence of the Scrutiny Committee that there should be a certain procedure gone 85 through before a Minister gives his consent in the Council of Ministers.
§ Mr. Stewart
I was coming to the Scrutiny Committee in a moment. It would be more possible to consider the restriction which is imposed if the House was prepared to give a high priority to going through these procedures. But if the Minister is to be told "You cannot do this until the House has gone through a certain procedure", and the Leader of the House has continually to say "Not next week", we put the Minister in a very difficult position.
§ Sir J. Eden
Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that the work of the Scrutiny Committee becomes almost worthless? He seems to be recommending that Ministers should be free to agree to a proposition in the Council of Ministers even though the Scrutiny Committee has recommended the subject for debate by this House.
§ Mr. Stewart
I shall be coming to the rôle of the Scrutiny Committee in a moment, if right hon. and hon. Members will let me get on with my speech.
If a Minister is told "You cannot agree to something until the House has gone through a certain procedure", and we cannot be sure when the House will be prepared to make time for that, it is an unreasonable restriction on the Minister.
It may be said, therefore, is not the remedy a Scrutiny Committee with a larger membership and with greater powers so that the Minister will not have to wait until we have had time to do something on the Floor of the House—in other words, so that we need wait only until certain procedures are gone through in the Scrutiny Committee? That is one possible answer. I mention that as one possible way out of the dilemma of how to balance the need sometimes for speedy action by Ministers and the ultimate right of criticism by this House.
There are several ways out, in fact. Some people suggest that the way out is for this country to leave the European Community. But I do not believe that that would solve the problem, apart from anything else. If we came out of the Community, that would not mean that we should not have to conduct commercial negotiations and make commercial treaties with other countries for the 86 enforcement of which some legislative instruments would be necessary. A Minister might find himself engaged in more complicated and elaborate negotiations if we were out than if we remained in the Community. So I do not believe that that is the remedy.
Another remedy would be to try to urge the Community not to pass quite so much legislation. As I ventured to say last Thursday, I think that there is a good deal in this and that Ministers themselves, with their colleagues from the other countries of the Nine, should apply their minds to it. The Commission and the Council of Ministers—and the Council of Ministers ought to be able to do it—should think about what legislation means at home and whether there will be time to consider it properly, before they make all these legislative instruments in the first place. That is another possible remedy.
I have referred already to the possibility of an increase in the powers and membership of the Scrutiny Committee. That might be another answer.
Even if we apply some of these remedies, there will be the problem still of giving the House of Commons sufficient time to exercise any proper criticism—not necessarily control, but criticism—over the conduct of Ministers in matters affecting the European Community. That must mean that if we are to have the proper time for that we have to spend less time on something else.
The public sometimes ask, casually, why the House does not work in the mornings like everyone else, unaware of the large extent to which many right hon. and hon. Members are working in the mornings. I am reminded of Beatrice Webb's comment in 1908, "We shall never get anywhere until we have Ministers prepared to work an eight-hour day". Ministers work considerably more than an eight-hour day nowadays, and Parliament works very long hours, especially those right hon. and hon. Members who devote themselves to its work. So the prospect of increasing the total hours that we work is not on.
What can go—or perhaps I should say what can he squeezed—which is what we have to do? We have this problem of our commercial relations with foreign powers, 87 especially the EEC, and they should take more of our time than they do. So we have to adjust. Some people hope that if the devolution Bills are passed we shall be freed of much of the business which now occupies us.
§ Mr. Stewart
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South does not agree. I have thought about this, and I think that there is some business of which we should be freed. If my hon. Friend will look back over what we have spent our time on in the past year or two, he will see that there is a good deal which could be taken out of the purview of this House. That is one possibility.
I find it very difficult to suggest any other subject which could be extracted from our business. But it seems to me that the more frequent use of timetable motions on major Bills is now the direction in which this House ought to move. Having in my time taken part in a large number of debates on guillotine motions, both for and against, I think that I know by heart all the arguments which can be advanced both for and against introducing guillotines. I have come to the conclusion that I shall not speak in any such debate in future because the arguments are becoming a bit mechanical and repetitive and also because it is common sense that we should now accept as a general principle that there should be a timetable on a major Bill.
A timetable motion does not mean the unreasonable squeezing of debate. It means removing from the Opposition the temptation to waste time. Without a guillotine, it is a virtue in opposition in hon. Members to waste time. With a guillotine, it is a virtue in all hon. Members to apply their minds to arguing about what really matters in the Bill. We could get rid of the licensed wasting of time which unguillotined major Bills involve. That would give us some time to dispose of in other ways, one of which would be the more diligent scrutiny of our relations with the European Community.
I have been trying to suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South has put his finger on a real problem but that I do not think that the remedy which he suggests will work and 88 that there are other possible remedies which the House might consider.
§ 6.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)
Other hon. Members have suggested that the motion before us is modest and mild. With those comments I concur, and I find it hard to understand how the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) can say that this motion goes too far. One could not have a more innocuous and mild motion. The motion simply requires that the House should debate the topic on a motion relating to that proposal. It simply requires that what is largely an existing practice should be carried out as a general rule, and that the scrutiny procedure which this House has approved should be translated into reality on all occasions. I find it hard to understand how that can be going too far.
Of course, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is not the task of the House of Commons or Parliament to govern, but it is our task to try to the best of our endeavours to control government. That is what this debate has been about. It has been about exercising a very modest amount of control over the Executive, whether the Executive be in Whitehall or in Brussels. Generally the discussion has not been about the Common Market as such.
It was only my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Arnold) who, I think, implied that the bargaining between national executives was an essential feature of the philosophy of the Community. Many of us have previously described it as a bureaucratic process. My hon. Friend implies that it has to be so and that it is almost impossible to have democratic control and scrutiny over those essentially bureaucratic procedures. Many of us have tried to argue that, and it has been denied. But whoever is right, it must be right, surely, to try to exercise greater control over those processes.
The control that we are talking about is essentially very limited. It is limited to legislative proposals. This is vital. We are not talking generally about major policy arguments. By and large, we are talking about legislative proposals which have already been put to the Scrutiny Committee. This deals to a certain extent with the argument of urgency. If we were 89 talking about great urgency, I do not think that we would be talking about this creature at all.
We are talking about a proposal which has already proceeded through several stages of its life and has come to the Scrutiny Committee in a draft form. There must be time. It is proposed that the House should debate the motion. If somehow the time scales become compressed, if the Minister has to go to Brussels and negotiate before we have had a debate, it is most likely not the fault of this House, but one has to say that it is the fault of the Leader of the House. The burden is not upon the Minister who has to go and negotiate or who cannot negotiate because there has been no debate. The burden is upon the Leader of the House to find time, to give extra priority to these matters which a Select Committee of the House has already recommended should be debated.
I find the idea put forward by the right hon. Member for Fulham of guillotining debates as a regular part of our life, horrifying. It would give more time to debate other matters, but it would also give the Executive Bills in virtually unamended form, whenever it wished. But that is a different argument, for a different time. It is essential that priority be given to matters recommended for debate by the Select Committee.
We have heard of criticism of the Scrutiny Committee, but it has been clearly shown that that criticism ought to be directed not at the Committee but at the terms of reference of that Committee and at the use that the House makes of the Committee reports once those reports have been made. I am sure that we ought to see those powers strengthened. The proposal that we have before us today is a very modest step in the right direction.
I hope that the Leader of the House will tell us that he accepts that—I should be surprised if he did not—but that we see this only as a trailer to a much broader debate when we consider the proposals that the Government, I hope, will be putting forward before long generally to strengthen our powers over EEC legislation. The Prime Minister has promised us proposals. In his letter 90 to the General Secretary of the Labour Party he has attached great priority to this matter which, as I understand it—the Prime Minister has told me this—is Government policy. What surprises me is that the Government have not yet put the proposals before us, because they definitely have power to do so.
I hope that the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister have an equal determination to bring positive proposals before the House of Commons fairly soon. That would allay some of the anxieties that many of us feel, which have been increased by the introduction of the direct-elections legislation. I hope that this motion is just a taste of what is to come.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) on bringing this proposal before us in this way. It allows the opportunity to debate an important matter; even more important, it allows us, if the motion be passed, to put into the procedures of the House a specified and meaningful ruling. Private Members' motions are often criticised as not being a sensible use of our time. But this is a very sensible and useful way of using Private Members' time, and I hope that the motion will be accepted by the House.
I believe that Select Committee powers and terms of reference, both in this case and generally, have to be tightened up and considered much more deeply. It is fashionable to talk about the setting up of Select Committees on almost every subject under the sun, and there may be a case for that. But a Select Committee is only useful if its conclusions are translated back to the Floor of the House. In other words, we should set up a Select Committee only if it is virtually under orders from the House to bring back a meaningful motion to the Floor of the House, and if the Leader of the House is under an injunction from the House to ensure that the motion is debated within a reasonable time.
Thus, motions put to the House by Select Committees would have power and meaning, whereas at the moment those Committees are merely disembodied parts of the House, and their reports, however valuable, are often consigned to a pigeon hole. Let us have Select Committees with genuine powers and ensure that they have to bring back their conclusions to the 91 House, which must act upon them. That is the procedure which should be followed with the Scrutiny Committee.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) said that he disliked the idea of extending the powers to the point held by the Danish Parliament. But there is no evidence that I know of that constraints upon Danish Ministers hold up negotiating procedures. It is not often that we hear Denmark accused of dragging its feet. More often than not, it is perhaps this country that is so accused. There is no evidence that the Danes find this system too difficult to work.
It may be that this House would not tolerate the Danish system, whereby a Committee virtually mandates the Minister, but we would welcome a system whereby, in certain legislative respects, this Chamber mandated the Minister. Again, it would not be a matter of general policy on which we mandated him. It would be on the basis of legislative proposals that he had already brought to the House. That might limit his negotiating freedom, but that would not necessarily be an unreasonable situation. I think that it would be a feasible and sensible operation, and there is no reason why it should seriously impair the effectiveness of a Minister in the Council of Ministers.
There are, however, some occasions when I would believe that a Minister should be so limited, and I quote one example to emphasise the point. Earlier in the debate, we were told about specific problems of the House in dealing with proposals that were not yet complete, that were still being negotiated and were in a constant state of change. I do not know how we can deal with that problem because, even if we pass this motion, as I am sure we shall, we shall then have a debate on a proposal put to us via the Scrutiny Committee—but then the document changes. In such circumstances, by rights we should have a further debate or a further means of approving or disapproving the proposal.
My example is the question of drivers' hours and the distance limit on heavy vehicles. This case was considered by the Scrutiny Committee in 1976. The Scrutiny Committee recommended it for debate in the House. But on 1st January 92 next, distance limits are to be imposed and certain vehicles will not be able to be driven more than 450 kilometres without a tachograph, which is a different story. In the Scrutiny Committee, the Minister said:Although there is provision for exemption from the universally unpopular and frequently unenforced 450 kilometre limit for heavy non rigid vehicles we still hope to see this Article dropped completely.But it is coming in on 1st January.
Earlier this year, we had a debate when we considered yet another explanatory memorandum from the Minister. Again referring to the distance limit, that memorandum said:It should be abolished unconditionally".In a later memorandum, we had another brief reference but were told that that did not really apply to the United Kingdom. In the debate—which was the sort of debate we are talking about—the Minister gave us a further answer. He said:There is a general recognition of the need for a change in Regulation No. 543, which is not as wide or as fundamental as that suggested in the hon. Gentleman's remarks. This particularly relates to the 450-kilometre rule that my hon. Friend pointed out…"[Official Report, 4th April 1977; Vol. 929, c. 1069.]There was statement after statement that that particular feature was likely to disappear. Yet, without further debate, this vitally important restriction is to come into effect on 1st January.
It was my impression that most nations in the Community had virtually accepted that the restriction was to go. The Minister had freedom to negotiate, which is what we have been told he needs. Might he not have been in a stronger bargaining position had he not been able to give away that concession? His position might not have been weakened but strengthened.
We need to tighten up these procedures, and I look forward to the Government's proposals to strengthen control even more. It is not an argument about the Common Market as such, but about control over the Executive, wherever it may be, by this democratic Assembly. In this modest motion, we ask only to debate these matters. It is a modest extension of control by this House, but even then, as I have demonstrated by the serious and worrying example that I quoted, that does 93 not mean that this House would have the effective power which it should have and can have without calling into question our membership or the rules of the Community. I believe that this debate is just a trailer to a wider debate on how we continue to exercise democratic control.
§ 6.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Bryan Gould (Southampton, Test)
Anyone who has spoken regularly in these debates must have the feeling that he is playing fairground games in which, however often the target is knocked over, it springs up again. One of the most resilient arguments in this context, no matter how often it is knocked down in this Chamber or in leading articles in the Press, is the notion that, in the important business of democratising the EEC, this House has no part to play and that the only way to make progress is by a directly-elected Assembly.
This might be true if one postulates the Community as already operating supra-national authority, overriding national Governments and making steady progress towards European union. The argument might then follow. But if one looks at the constitutional structure of the Community as it is, and contemplates the Europe of alliances which the Labour Party is committed to seeking, one finds, if one is interested in democratising the Community, that the more direct, simpler and more effective means lies directly to hand—by using the procedures of this House to strengthen our control over Ministers.
The major decisions in the Community are taken by the Council of Ministers. Each Minister has a veto, and I hope that it remains Government policy to maintain that veto. The Minister is there precisely because he is a Minister. He is responsible to this House. As soon as he ceases to be a Minister or to command the confidence of the House, he is no longer a member of the Council of Ministers.
There is an obvious way to strengthen the chain of control which already exists, to make sure that Ministers know in advance what they are supposed to do, in accordance with the will of the House, when they go to Brussels and to ensure that they are brought to account if by mischance they fail to carry out their 94 task. This course would have considerable advantages. It is the course proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) in his motion. The major advantage is that it would represent, for this House, a means of making progress which was true to its traditions and principles. It would represent a determined effort to bring the Executive back within the control of the House of Commons, even though it had flown to Brussels. Equally, it would mean that the House of Commons was again relevant to the legislative process, which, in EEC matters, it clearly is not at the moment.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) pointed out that, as well as legislating, Ministers negotiate when they go to Brussels. Our concern is with the legislative aspects of that process. If we are to do our job properly in deciding what is law in this country we must make ourselves relevant to that process. I believe that my right hon. Friend was slightly mistaken in suggesting that if we accepted the motion we would, by that step alone, be undertaking a considerable extra burden. As has been made clear, the time is already made available for these debates. All that we are asking is that they should be made more effective.
A further advantage of the course proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South is that it is one which is entirely within our competence to pursue. It requires no consent from our EEC colleagues and no amendment of the Treaty of Rome. It is entirely consistent with that treaty. It is argued that if we were to adopt the proposed procedure we would be setting up obstacles and slowing down the process of decision-making in Brussels. We can find a complete answer to that when we consider how the Danes manage affairs. They operate a more rigid and circumscribed system than is proposed here.
There is no evidence that the Danes have held up the decision-making process in Brussels very much. Even if there were to be such delay and such obstacles, this is surely the price to be paid for some element of democratic control over what is the law and over the taxes paid in this country. If it requires a little delay and inconvenience here and there 95 for the Executive, that is something which we should accept.
It may also be that this procedure, if accepted, will have a useful prophylactic effect so that Ministers and their civil servants in Whitehall and Brussels, knowing that they will have to get more measures through the House in the sense that they will have to be debated and given a seal of approval, will be a little less prepared to bring forward some of the nonsense with which we are currently faced. Ministers might learn to use this procedure in the way suggested by the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate). They may learn to use it as a negotiating weapon to strengthen rather than weaken their position.
This debate is not one which divides party from party or Marketeer from anti-Marketeer. It concerns a House of Commons matter. The view to be found in the motion is broadly supported in principle by the Scrutiny Committee and the Select Committee on Procedure which reported a year or two ago. It virtually represents the undertaking which Ministers have already given. It is entirely supported by the logic of the Prime Minister's letter to the National Executive Committee. In these circumstances I see no reason for the Government to oppose the motion even if, as I hope is the case, they have better and more far reaching proposals to bring forward in due course.
§ 6.19 p.m.
§ Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)
The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould) is right to remind us that this debate concerns a House of Commons matter. It is in that spirit that I shall endeavour to reply from the Opposition Front Bench. The tributes have already been paid to the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). His decision was well worth while and has given rise to a most interesting, valuable and sometimes entertaining debate.
The hon. Member for Newham, South started by frankly pointing out to us that national parliaments have no rights under the treaties. One might add that even the European Assembly is only consultative and advisory. But surely no one can deprive that Assembly or any national Parliament, or this House, of the opportunity of influencing, persuading, encouraging, 96 even threatening Ministers. It is the Ministers who can, subject to our pressure, influence their colleagues in the Council of Ministers and through them the Commission. It is worth noting that the veto is not without some value in the "last resort".
I find it strange that it is so often said by people who should know better that our parliamentary procedures are out of date, inflexible and so on. That is not true. The fallacy has been exploded by the way in which we, with the help of the Leader of the House, have been able continuously to evolve new procedures enabling us to survey and influence quite powerfully the legislation of the Commission and the decisions of the Council of Ministers.
I pay tribute to what the right hon. Gentleman has done. I have often criticised him in other contexts. The right hon. Gentleman summed it up quite aptly when, giving his oral evidence to the Scrutiny Committee on 5th April, he said:I believe that only the British House of Commons could make an edible dish out of chalk and cheese…".I could not put it better.
I endorse the tribute the right hon. Gentleman paid to the work of the Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden), who made such an interesting and challenging contribution today. My right hon. Friend presented a memorandum to the Select Committee on Procedure, the Committee of which the hon. Member for Newham, South and I are members—the "everlasting" one, not the sessional one. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West gave evidence to us on 18th July.
His memorandum is worthy of everyone's attention. Some references have been made to it today. I hope that it will be studied carefully in Brussels. In it my right hon. Friend thoroughly reviewed present methods of scrutiny and debate and suggested various improvements, each one of them greatly needed. I hope that the Government and the House will broadly accept them.
Now that we have had several years' experience of membership of the EEC and the working of their institutions I suggest that the time has come for us 97 to let them know, diplomatically, of course, of ways in which they could improve their procedures and so enable us as a House of Commons, and no doubt other national parliaments too, to facilitate our work of liaison, scrutiny and influence. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) made the positive suggestion that, instead of getting about 300 documents a week, we might be rationed to 10. I do not know whether we could go as far as that, but if it were to happen, it might cause some joy for the officials concerned in Brussels, of whom there are many, who could go home at lunch time and not come back.
In paragraphs 15 and 16 of the memorandum to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West referred he pointed out two defects in Community procedures. First, he referred to the habit in Brussels of rushing through some legislation so that sometimes only a week elapses between the submission of a proposal by the Commission to the Council of Ministers and the Council's approval of it. That process, in effect, bypasses our own scrutiny procedure. It does not happen very often, but it can have a bad effect when it does.
My hon. Friend also pointed out that the opposite sometimes happens and that there are interminable delays when documents are frequently amended by confidential working groups within the ambit of the Council of Ministers. I suggest that the Government should draw the attention of the Commission to those two defects.
I suggest that harmonisation is being overdone. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) complained about this, and I join with him and other hon. Members who have pointed out some of the ridiculous things that are happening. Harmonisation is good when it brings us all up to the standard of the best, like the recent directive on bird conservation, which was debated in the House on a Friday and which is based on United Kingdom legislation. In that way we have been able to influence Europe, and I hope that there will be increasing opportunities for Europe to learn from our better practices, but there is no point in the Com- 98 mission being bureaucratically overzealous with harmonisation.
I strongly suspect that there is an assumption in Brussels that, if one or two countries have highly developed and restrictive, mandatory laws on a subject, those laws should be applied throughout the Community, whereas it might be very much better if there were more simple measures or, better still, no laws at all. There is much too much legislation here and in all European countries. There is a case for reasonabe restraint on harmonisation.
We have been given some remarkable examples of over-zealous attempts at it and I, too, have come across one or two. For example, there is a draft directive on the approximation of laws relating to drivers' seats on wheeled agricultural or forestry tractors. What can be the purpose of standardisation on that subject? Are we to have exactly the same seating arrangements? It is too absurd.
There is also a draft directive on the harmonisation of provisions laid down in respect of the standard exchange of goods exported for repair. How will it be enforced by the various European countries? I have also been told that there is a move to harmonise doorstep selling, which is practised only in Germany and in this country. I do not see why other European countries should be saddled with laws on that subject.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury reminded me of the proposal for approximation of laws relating to hot-water meters to guarantee their free movement. No one is trying to stop the free movement of hot-water meters. If we are to legislate on that, why not legislate for the free movement of everything under the sun? It does not seem to be sensible. But the most remarkable one of all was the proposal for a Council regulation amending Regulation EEC 316/68 fixing the quality standards of fresh-cut flowers and fresh ornamental foliage. Tell that to the barrow boys and flower girls! No sub-standard orchids for Miss Blandish!
I am a keen European and I was quite prepared for a good deal of this kind of nonsense, but I hoped that our entry into the EEC would diminish it somewhat. I still hope that it will diminish. Last week the Chairman of the Commission blamed 99 Whitehall for being bureaucratic, as if he were a snow-white innocent in the matter of bureaucracy before he became chairman and afterwards. But the Foreign Secretary should ask him to look at the harmonisation practices of the Commission to see whether he can make them less bureaucratic.
I want to mention particularly the question that has loomed large in our discussions, that of debates in the House. As I said in tribute to the Leader of the House, the position has improved steadily, but there is need for still more improvement, as suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West. I am sure that the Leader of the House will agree. We especially need debates in good time, time enough to influence the ultimate decisions. We also need them earlier in the day whenever possible.
I suggest five specific improvements. They are already in my right hon. Friend's memorandum to which I have referred, so the Leader of the House is not unfamiliar with them. It is important that we should have the following. First, bearing in mind that we already have six days a year on the Floor of the House devoted to EEC matters and that the Scrutiny Committee suggested one a month, I think that the six should be increased to eight.
Secondly, the Community budget should always have a whole day to itself, even though it deals to a great extent with agriculture. Thirdly, when an EEC matter overlaps major United Kingdom policy, the two should be debated together. I give as an example energy, which is of great concern to the EEC and is the subject of a great policy formation. It is also of immense concern to us, and there is no reason why we should not have our energy debate and the EEC energy debate on the same day. There should also be a full day's debate of the price review, combined with a debate on United Kingdom agriculture.
Fourthly, there should be more debates on consultative documents well before legislation has been drafted by the Commission. We have profited from such debates in our own affairs, and that suggestion could be helpful. Fifthly, but not 100 least, debates should not start late at night on anything of real substance.
I now come to the motion. We fully agree with its spirit, but there are some snags about the strict wording. In the first line the hon. Member for Newham, South refers togreater Parliamentary control of legislation".I hope that I am not being legalistic when I remind him of what he himself said, that control by national Parliaments of EEC legislation is not strictly within the Treaty of Rome, so one would find difficulty about the word "control". But if the hon. Gentleman means "influence", which is what I mean, there is no problem.
There is also no problem aboutfull accountability by Her Majesty's Ministers for their actionsin the Council of Ministers. Indeed, we have succeeded in getting our Ministers to answer more regularly, and sometimes more fully, on EEC affairs than we require them to do on some of our domestic affairs. Therefore, I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point, I have no complaint to make.
I come now to the burning question of the word "debated". When I first thought about this proposition, I thought that it was good. One should try to go along with it. We on this side of the House wish that it were invariably possible to debate both legislation by the Commission and decisions by the Council of Ministers before finality is reached. But there are genuine practical difficulties about tying Ministers' hands in the way suggested in the motion. For example, we have the long recess, which this year lasted for three months. I am delighted that it did. It enabled us to do all kinds of useful things without having to come here.
There are other circumstances. For example a Government, perhaps even a Conservative Government, might find that there was an urgent EEC matter to debate but the Committee stage of the Finance Bill on the Floor of the House was in progress. There might also be an emergency debate on an important foreign topic. To require that the debate on the EEC matter should take place within four days might be unreasonable.
§ Sir D. Renton
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. What I am saying applies only to the exceptional case where something has not been going round for years, to the matter which is really urgent and important. It would be unreasonable to insist that it should be held up indefinitely when Parliament was not sitting, for example. If it were urgent, the four operative days might include a Friday which had already been pre-empted for Private Members' Business. The imagination does not need to run far to see that to tie the Government down as closely as the motion intends would not be reasonable in all cases.
Let us take comfort in the fact that the written undertaking given by the Leader of the House on 4th August of last year goes a long way. It contains safeguards to protect Ministers against the position that I have tried to describe. As the Scrutiny Committee said:The Government have continued to stick to the letter of this undertaking".I am prepared to go further and say that they appear to have stuck to its spirit as well. Indeed, I think that in the whole matter of influencing EEC legislation, although there is still some way to go, we are getting nearer to the stage of "having our cake and eating it". I do not think that by making rigid rules, which would logically have to be followed by an amendment of Standing Orders, we are likely to improve the position to the benefit of all concerned.
§ Sir D. Renton
I cannot give way, because I promised the Leader of the House that I would sit down at 6.40 p.m., and I have one more minute to go.
In conclusion, may I quickly say that it is satisfactory to note that on this vital topic there is broad agreement between Government and Opposition, between pro-Marketeers and anti-Marketeers. We all want to see our procedures continue to develop so that, whatever our view of the Community, we may truly claim that 102 in our pooling of sovereignty with others we not only gained a stake in Europe, but established in the House of Commons effective ways of influencing what happens there.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Michael Foot)
Naturally, I am extremely grateful to the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) for the way in which he spoke and for his acknowledgment that the Government have sought to meet the representations which have come from all parts of the House asking that we try to improve the way we deal with EEC matters. That does not mean, of course, that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and I are to be taken as saying that we think that the present procedures are fully satisfactory. I certainly do not think that they are, and I believe that we must make a fresh effort to ensure that they are made so. However, as I said, I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for what he said.
I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will excuse me, especially since he was in such an amiable mood, if I do not reply to all his detailed questions about extra time for various debates. It is true that those suggestions have been made before, but I think that if he added up all the extra parliamentary time which would have to be afforded to meet his full request, the total would be quite considerable and it would raise all the questions which, I am sure, hon. Members on both sides recognise. However, I entirely agree that we must make a fresh approach to the matter.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman said at the outset that this was a House of Commons matter. Sometimes when that is said it is construed as meaning that the matter is of interest only to Members of the House. I am sure that we all agree that this is quite different from that. It is a matter which touches the power of the House of Commons itself, touching it at a series of very sensitive points, and in that sense it touches also on the representation of the people as a whole. I believe that it is of major importance that we make a fresh effort to see whether we can establish a better arrangement and a better accord 103 between the procedures of the House and the procedures of the Common Market.
That is not an easy objective to achieve, since those procedures derive from different sources, different origins and different incompatibilities. It is not, therefore, easy to achieve, but we must make a fresh effort to do so. That was the meaning of the letter that the Prime Minister sent to the General Secretary of the Labour Party, the letter which has been referred to often in the debate. That was a major initiative taken by the Prime Minister, and, as a result of it, fresh discussions are taking place within the Labour Party as well as within the Government. The Government are conducting a fresh examination of all these procedures, and I hope that it will not be too long before we can put to the House proposals by which we may make a fresh approach to the matter.
That brings me at once to the speech of the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden), since he asked for a specific undertaking that if there are to be fresh procedures the matter should be discussed with the Scrutiny Committee. That is a most reasonable request. In any case, it would be an absurdity for the Government to embark upon a new method, and a new relationship between the Scrutiny Committee, the House of Commons and the EEC itself, without taking into account the experience of the Scrutiny Committee and without giving that Committee the opportunity to comment on any proposals that the Government might make. I give the right hon. Gentleman that undertaking, therefore, and, in so doing, I join with other hon. Members who have seen the work of the Scrutiny Committee and commended it. We are most grateful, as the House and the country must be grateful, for the way in which that Committee has dealt with these matters. It is not an example of how one can deal with the whole problem—I do not believe that we have dealt with the whole problem—but it is an example of how the House of Commons can adapt itself to deal with extremely awkward problems. As I have said, I agree with all those who say that we must go much further.
Whether we should go fully in the manner of the Danish system I would not 104 say now. That is part of the examination which the Government are undertaking. We shall give the most detailed examination to the Danish system to see, if we do not adopt it fully, how much of that system could be adapted to suit our own methods and our own interests. That is one of the aspects of the matter which will be discussed. I do not exclude moving much further in that direction than we have so far gone, but there are some problems.
I think that there are special problems relating to this House. I say this not because of any prejudice on my part against Select Committees, although I readily acknowledge that I have some prejudice against them; but what I insist upon in regard to Select Committees is that, whatever happens in that field, and whatever powers they are given—it may be that a fully established Select Committee is the best way to proceed—it is the relationship between the Select Committee and the House of Commons that remains the essential matter, and access to the House on the part of individual Members, whether members of the Select Committee or not, is one of the central problems. Although this problem may not always arise in other Parliaments, it can never be escaped in this. It is for that reason that this has been almost the only suggestion approved by the Scrutiny Committee which I have resisted, namely, the suggestion that there should be substantive motions in the Select Committee. I believe that that would injure the relationship with the House, and that was why I opposed that as the way in which we should proceed.
However, as I say, I believe that we must have a fuller approach to the matter. We should examine it afresh as a whole. That is what the Government are doing, and this debate will be fully taken into account in any decision about proposals which we should make to the House.
I hope, therefore—I shall explain the matter more fully in a moment—that the House will allow us to take this motion away now and incorporate consideration of it, or a variation of it, in our proposals. I may say something further in a moment or two which, I hope, will carry the matter even further and assist my hon. Friends even more on their view 105 of the matter. However, I wish first to comment on how the implications of the motion have worked so far.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) referred to my statement of 4th August 1976 when, as he believed, I had taken action which eroded the previous pledge which had been given. He has made that criticism before, and I do not complain at that since I think that it is true. I think that anyone who compares what I said in my statement with what had been said in some of the previous statements would say that there is some erosion. I have never sought to conceal that fact, and I do not seek to conceal it now. I do not take the view that we must stand for ever on that declaration of 4th August 1976. It was not written in tablets of stone—certainly, it was not dictated by Moses, if he was in charge of the operation—though it was not exactly written in water. At any rate, it might be altered.
I wish to show what has happened under the provisions which we made. The right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire was good enough to say that we had carried out our undertaking not only in the letter but in the spirit. I think that that is true. It is certainly the way in which the Government and I myself have sought to carry it out. I wish now to give the House some figures to show what has occurred in this respect. They partly justify not the suspicions—I do not say that—but perhaps the anxieties of some of my hon. Friends, since the figures will indicate that we have not had a complete coverage on every point, but I believe that they show that in the main we have carried out what we promised.
My hon. Friend's motion asks for an absolute ban on any agreement in Brussels on any of these matters till there has been a debate in the House on the subject, whereas what my statement of 4th August did was to allow one loophole, a loophole whereby, even though the Scrutiny Committee asked that a debate should take place beforehand, a Minister might in certain extreme circumstances be able to make an agreement in Brussels so long as—this is what I said on 4th August—he came back to the House as soon as possible to give an explanation and an indication of why he did it.
106 What I asked for, amongst other things, was an opportunity to try to discover how this would work over this period, and I give the House the figures. Some can use them on one side of the argument to prove how fully we have carried out the obligation, whilst others might use them to ask "What about these important exceptions?". Nevertheless, I give the figures because the House is entitled to know the facts.
As far as I can discover, in the last Session there was one proposal dealing with animal health, and three or four dealing with fisheries, on which the Ministers concerned decided to take the action of making an agreement in Brussels and then coming to the House and giving an explanation of what they had done. They took advantage of a loophole in the statement that I made on 4th August, but those cases must be set in the context of more than 100 documents that were debated in the House last Session. Therefore, the undertaking that was given was overwhelmingly carried out, although it might be argued that there were two or three important exceptions. I can understand that that might be the case, because it is the very pressure of wishing to reach an agreement at some stage that might lead to that happening.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South is proposing that the loophole should be closed altogether, but not in the sense of having parliamentary approval. In that connection the motion is modest, and in that sense I grant what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), My hon. Friend is not even asking that absolute approval shall be given by the House, although in my opinion that is a matter that we should consider. In fact, it is one of the issues that should be examined by the Government when we are looking into this matter, and by the House when we return to it afresh. It was one of the major questions that was discussed by the Committee that examined our relationship to European legislation soon after we were in the Common Market, and it was one of the recommendations that we examined then. I believe that that recommendation should be examined afresh: that it should be not only a question of discussion, but possibly of approval, too.
107 That would carry the matter considerably further. I do not give an undertaking that that is the conclusion that we shall reach, but I think that we should see whether that is a possibility, because what the House wants—and this has emerged even more clearly in this debate than ever before—is a full examination of parliamentary control over EEC legislation. We want to see whether there is a better way of doing it, and I believe that we should be prepared to move in that direction.
I am not slamming any door on what my hon. Friends say. I promise them that in our consideration of all of these matters we shall take account of this motion and see whether we can come back to the House with a recommendation that can go some way towards meeting what they are saying. I agree with my hon. Friends that, in the end, it is highly desirable that this matter should be incorporated in a resolution of the House rather than in a ministerial declaration, Therefore, what I am proposing is that we should take into account a resolution of the House and not solely the question of a ministerial declaration, although, as I have indicated, the pledge about ministerial declarations has been openly and honestly carried out.
§ Mr. Spearing
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a loophole via the Scrutiny Committee which, like the Privy Council, sometimes meets during a recess? My right hon. Friend has undertaken to put the Government's proposals in motion form. What timetable has he in mind?
§ Mr. Foot
I accept that my hon. Friend does not want to fail to press his motion—as he is entitled to do—unless he can see some progress being made. I understand that. We have carried out the previous undertaking, and I believe that we have thereby assisted in establishing parliamentary control over some of these matters. I want to see that carried further, and this is only one item of it. I should like to see the reaction to this proposal incorporated in some form or another in the general, fresh proposals for establishing better parliamentary control. That touches on some of the earlier matters to which I referred, such as the future 108 powers and terms of reference of the Scrutiny Committee, or whether it is to be altered in a more general form. It would be sensible to incorporate all these matters in one general proposition, because that would be more likely to satisfy the House as a whole, and more likely to achieve all the results that we want.
If we find that that examination is taking much longer than at the moment it appears it will, I shall consider bringing this motion back to the House in some form so that the House can debate the matter afresh before the rest of the discussions take place. I give that undertaking. I do not think that I can fix an absolute timetable to it but, as I said at the beginning, as a result of the Prime Minister's statement—
§ Mrs. Lena Jeger (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)
My right hon. Friend suggested that the motion in some form or other might come back to the House. He must know that this motion is before us today because of our hon. Friend's luck in the Ballot. How can anyone give an undertaking that a similar motion will come back to the House, unless it is brought in by the Government?
§ Mr. Foot
My hon. Friend is right. I was not suggesting—and if I had been I do not think I should have got away with it—that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South must win another Ballot—although he is good at winning them. I am suggesting, and I believe that this is a more sensible way of proceeding, that the whole question of better parliamentary control over EEC matters should be considered. That is what I should like to see us do. That would incorporate the other matters to which I have been referring. If we find that such an examination is taking so long that my hon. Friends begin to say that the procedure is being used as a device to avoid considering this kind of motion, we shall have to bring the matter back to the House. That would be done by the Government, and not by individual Members.
I hope very much that all the proposals that we have for better parliamentary control will be brought forward in this Session, 109 but I give the undertaking that if that is not possible the House will have an opportunity of deciding this matter if we have not been able to reach agreement on the more general question.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North said that one of the problems with which we are perpetually involved in all these matters is that the process of dealing with the EEC is one partly of negotiation and partly of legislation, that there is always a mixture of the two, and that nobody knows exactly what form of procedure it is that we are being asked to approve. It is extremely difficult to mix legislation and negotiation, and it is because of that difficulty, and because of that mixture, that we get these problems. I have already said that it is a remarkable achievement of the House that we have been able to manage this control so far, although I know that there are still many deficiences.
One of the major deficiences concerns the question of time. It is easy for hon. Members to say "Why do you not provide more time?"—for this that or the other. I do not believe the House will ever secure the situation where we shall have as extensive debates as we should on the mass of legislation flowing from the EEC, or on the long series of negotiations that are taking place there. If the House of Commons were to demand that it should give adequate time to all these matters, precious little time would be left—
§ It being Seven o'clock, proceedings on the motion lapsed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 6 (Precedence of Government business).