HC Deb 14 January 1980 vol 976 cc1198-201
33. Mr. John Evans

asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he is satisfied with the way in which this House scrutinises European Economic Community legislation.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The existing scrutiny procedures are in accordance with decisions of the House. The Procedure Committee in its First Report (Session 1977–78) proposed certain changes and I hope there will soon be an opportunity to debate these.

Mr. Evans

Will the Lord President tell the House how soon is soon? Does he not accept that there is widespread discontent in all parts of the House about the appalling lack of time spent in scrutinising European legislation? Will he implement that report very quickly?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Soon is soonest, and by that I mean that as soon as consultations have been completed, and as soon as I have assessed the view of the House on European legislation procedure and other issues, we hope to make progress.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I point out that I am not Lord President of the Council nor am I, as the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes) suggested, Lord Privy Seal. I am quite content to be Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

Does my right hon. Friend seriously contend that we can maintain effective scrutiny of EEC legislation or anything else while we continue to be virtually the only major legislature in the West that denies itself the assistance of modern data processing techniques and information technology?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I shall certainly look into that important point which is raised not for the first time by my hon. Friend.

34. Mr. Spearing

asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster how many European Economic Community documents have been referred to the House for debate by the European Economic Community Scrutiny Committee; and what is his estimate of the number of debates required to dispose of them.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Since the start of the new Parliament, 51 Community documents have been referred to the House for debate and 42 recommendations for debate remain from the previous Parlia- ment. Seventeen documents have been debated. It is not practicable to estimate the number of debates required for the remaining 76 documents.

Mr. Spearing

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that authoritative estimates put the number of debates at about 30? Is it not high time that he told the House why the proposals of the Procedure Committee for discussing the merits of these documents upstairs have not been accepted? Does he agree that, if he told the House what the objections were, consultations would proceed apace to get the business off the Floor of the House and upstairs into Committee?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I hope that the situation is not as bad as the hon. Gentleman thinks.

Mr. Spearing


Mr. St. John-Stevas

No, it is not worse. I think that it is rather better. Fifty-two of the 76 documents have been recommended for debate in 11 groups and there is another group of 30 documents concerned with fisheries, and I hope that we shall be able to make progress there. Meanwhile, may I pay tribute to the Committee and the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) for this tedious but important work.

Mr. Dykes

Would it be wise to consider less important matters upstairs in Committee and deal with more important subjects, such as fisheries, on the Floor of the House?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I shall certainly look into the matter to see how we can expedite procedures.

Mr. Flannery

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is insufficient time to debate this vast number of EEC documents? Most of them tend to go through in the hour and a half when our ranks have thinned after the 10 o'clock Division. The vast majority of our people are now clearly opposed to membership of the EEC. Does the right hon. Gentleman therefore agree that it is not the right way to handle the matter?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I do not wish to get into a discussion of general political issues concerning the European Economic Community. These matters are important, but they are largely technical and it is not possible to debate them in what I might call prime time. I hope that we can dispose of quite a number of the documents in the next few weeks.

Mr. Thompson

Perhaps my right hon. Friend will ask members of the Labour Party why, if they are so worried about these matters, the recent GATT documents went through on the nod, thus allowing us all to go home at 9.20 pm.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

We must be thankful for small mercies.

Mr. Jay

Will the right hon. Gentleman please assure us that the Government will not allow decisions to be taken on these orders in Brussels while we are waiting to discuss them here?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

We have given an undertaking. We try to ensure that, unless there are particular circumstances, important matters are debated here before any decision is taken in Brussels.