§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chapman.]
§ [Relevant documents: Fourth Report from the Select Committee on Procedure, Session 1988–89, on the Scrutiny of European Legislation (HC 622, Vols. I and II) and the Government response (Cm. 1081); First Special Report from the Select Committee on European Legislation Session 1989–90, on the Scrutiny of European Legislation (HC 512)]
§ Mr. Speaker
A large number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to participate in this debate. I hope that it will be possible to accommodate them all, so I ask for brief contributions.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Sir Geoffrey Howe)
The Order Paper identifies as relevant to the debate the fourth report from the Select Committee on Procedure, and the Government's response to it. Both are important and constructive contributions to a continuing debate about how to improve the input of national Parliaments—in this case the House—to the formulation of European Community legislation as adopted by the Council of Ministers.
The Council, composed of Ministers drawn from national Governments, is of course the principal law-making body of the Community, so it is important that those Ministers should be fully sensitised to the views and interests of national Parliaments. Hence our belief that the House should be given the best means reasonably possible to achieve that. The Government's response to the Procedure committee's report is meant in that spirit.
This afternoon's report by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the outcome of the Dublin European council emphasised the degree to which the EC is embarked upon a period of dynamic change. It involves the strengthening of Community institutions, the evolution of some form of European monetary union—stage 1 of which begins this Sunday, 1 July—and the completion of the single market by the end of 1992. The Community has to cope, too, with a challenging series of external issues, ranging from the unification of Germany, to the successful completion of the Uruguay round.
Taken together, these simultaneous challenges amount to what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has called the labours of Hercules. So we are quite naturally committed as well to a more effective, more democratic Community whose institutions are well adjusted to cope with the challenges of change.
Against that backdrop, we welcome the opportunity that the Procedure Committee report offered to review the participation of the House, through its relationship with Ministers, in the law-making process of the Community. We have witnessed during recent months a growing interest in the role of national Parliaments in that process, linked to the more general debate about possible institutional reform, which will now carry through to the intergovernmental conferences that will begin in Rome in December.
In stressing the role of national Parliaments vis-a-vis the Council, I do not underestimate the real and growing significance of the European Parliament. But we should 524 view the two Parliaments as complements, not competitors, in the process of enhancing democratic accountability within the Community. The European Parliament has a valuable part to play in suggesting amendments to the Council. Our proposals for institutional reform also suggest that it should play an enhanced role in holding the Commission to account, in overseeing its administration of agreed Community policy and helping to ensure proper financial accountability.
§ Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)
My right hon. and learned Friend speaks of the enhanced role that he sees for the European Parliament, yet one of the most vital roles that this Parliament has to play in scrutinising legislation depends on Ministers giving accurate information to right hon. and hon. Members. On 23 April 1986, my right hon. and learned Friend told the House that he derided as "children with fantasies"—I think was the phrase he used—those who feared the European Parliament, the European Court, and other European institutions taking increased powers. All the ridicule that flowed from my right hon. and learned Friend on that occasion has proved to be totally and utterly wrong. When it comes to the question of scrutiny, it is vital that the House is given accurate information from the Dispatch Box.
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe
The essential and most accurate information that is the foundation of comprehension here is given in a written answer in today's Hansard by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, which sets out clearly the extent to which, for example, the issues arising from the case reported last week flow directly from the European Communities Act 1972, which itself implements article 5 of the treaty in that respect, which was not significantly altered by the Single European Act. All those matters flow from the decision by Parliament at that time and from the development of European Community law as part of the directly applicable law in this country.
The systems for national parliamentary scrutiny of draft EC law that we already have in this House and in another place are often cited as models from which other national Parliaments can learn. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) is right to want them improved still further, and this debate is designed to achieve just that.
§ Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West)
May I emphasise that many of us who are pro-European Community believe that national Parliaments are of premier concern rather than the growth of the European Parliament, and that the best way of ensuring that the views of national Parliaments are communicated to the European Parliament would be some form of second chamber, such as exists in Germany and Sweden? It is a long tradition in Europe that the individual constituent's interests are reflected in a second chamber. National Parliaments could have direct representation in the European Parliament in that way.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the current process does not mark the end of his thinking and that he will consider in the intergovernmental conferences to come a major institutional switch of the kind that I described?
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe
That is a broader question, which I have no doubt that my hon. Friend can develop in his own speech, if he is lucky enough to catch the Chair's eye. I must today deal with the procedures of this House.
On anyone's analysis it is important that this House should be as well equipped as possible to focus on new issues of concern to the United Kingdom as they arise in the Community, so that the Government can take proper account of the views of the House in negotiations leading up to legislative decisions by the Council of Ministers. That is the essence of what we have come to call parliamentary scrutiny.
It does not of course mean—this is common ground on both sides of the House—that the United Kingdom's views will necessarily prevail in those deliberations. The widespread use of majority voting inevitably means that the United Kingdom will sometimes find itself in the minority, but the best way to influence the course of negotiations, and so secure the best result for the United Kingdom, is to have clear objectives from an early stage. Parliamentary scrutiny of the intentions and objectives of the Ministers concerned makes a crucial contribution to that process.
The present procedures were designed by a Committee under the chairmanship of our former colleague as Member for Northwich, the late Sir John Foster, in 1973. Although they were reviewed in 1978 by the Select Committee on Procedure, they have remained largely unchanged since our accession to the Community. However, with the adoption of the Single European Act in 1986, and the subsequent enactment by Parliament of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1986, it was clearly timely for the Procedure Committee to examine the options for bringing the scrutiny process up to date.
The Government, indeed the whole House, are therefore most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and his Committee for this timely, thorough and well judged report. I shall draw attention to three or four of its key findings.
First, and perhaps surprisingly, the report notes in paragraphs 11 and 12 that neither the volume of European documents coming before the House, nor the number recommended for debate, has risen significantly in recent years. That puts in perspective any suggestion that we are being overwhelmed by a rising tide of documents from Brussels.
Secondly, the report found in paragraph 15 that the adoption, before completion of the scrutiny process, of proposals designated as legally or politically important was comparatively unusual. In 1988–89 there were no such occasions, and there have been only two so far this Session, both of which involved urgent measures for aid to Poland and Hungary. So debates are normally being held in time to influence the United Kingdom's negotiating objectives at the relevant meeting of the Council of Ministers.
Thirdly, the report contains the following important conclusion in paragraph 116:The notion that the House of Commons lags behind other EEC Parliaments in the effectveness of its scrutiny machinery was not corroborated in any of the evidence we received and, indeed, was contradicted by a number of authoritative witnesses.That is encouraging. Several other member states have been examining our system with a view to strengthening their own procedures. But of course we must not be complacent in this respect.
§ Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)
I concur with the conclusion of the Committee, based on the evidence presented to it, but the conclusion could be read in an entirely different way—one which suggests that throughout the Community there is no effective scrutiny of this legislation in any member state.
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe
It can be read to support the proposition with which I started: that there is growing interest throughout the Community in the establishment of more effective scrutiny of this kind. The House has what is widely regarded by other Parliaments as an exemplary system, but I do not think that we should regard our system with such complacency—hence this debate and this report.
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I should like to make a little headway.
Finally, the report notes:We have been struck by the unanimity of the evidence submitted to us about the continuing need for a body to perform the sifting functions of the Scrutiny Committee.So, again, on behalf of the Government, and the whole House, I gladly record our view that the Scrutiny Committee, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), performs that essential task thoroughly, effectively and conscientiously.
The Government therefore welcome the fact that the report of the Procedure Committee seeks to build on and improve the existing system, rather than trying to start again from scratch. We are also grateful to the Scrutiny Committee for its special report, published only yesterday, and we will look carefully at the points that it makes when formulating our final proposals.
§ Mr. Leighton
Is it not true that we can scrutinise until we are blue in the face, but the point is that power is being taken away from this Parliament?
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe
To the extent that the treaty makes provisions for decisions to be taken by majority votes—as I have already said—we cannot ensure that our will will prevail. That has been the position from the moment we acceded to the European Community's treaty in the first place.
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe
It was confirmed by referendum and modestly extended in the subsequent provisions of the Single European Act. That is the point that I have already made. Scrutiny is important to ensure that British Ministers who attend the Councils go there armed as effectively as possible with the views of the House to see whether they can get those views to prevail.
§ Mr. Leighton
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman recall that, in that referendum, the Government of the day issued a manifesto which said that no important decision would be taken without the agreement of a British Minister, answerable to the House of Commons.
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe
I was not a member of the Government of the day because it was a Labour Government: The position is as I have described it. 527 Majority voting was provided for from the outset in some 40 articles of the treaty of Rome and in about a dozen more articles under the Single European Act.
As hon. Members will know, the Select Committee rejected the idea of a single Select or Grand Committee for Community matters, and proposed instead the creation of a new system of European Standing Committees—as we think they might be called—with specific subject areas. It recommended closer informal contacts between Members of Parliament and MEPs. It suggested that the Scrutiny Committee's remit, as well as the range of documents available to it, should be widened. It wanted more forward-looking general debate before European Councils, but it shared the near-universal recognition by those who gave evidence to the Committee that the late night, one-and-a-half hour debates on the Floor of the House on EC documents have become progressively less useful for their declared purpose, and progressively more inconvenient for the House.
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)
I intervene in this encouraging and optimistic speech because there are hundreds of ladies outside asking if there is anything that we can do to prevent the Common Market from removing the restrictions on the export of live horses and ponies to the continent. As I have advised them—rightly or wrongly—that there is nothing that I or any other hon. Member can do about that, can the Secretary of State say whether the new arrangements will make any difference? It is important that people who take the trouble to come to the House of Commons to complain about something be given some idea about whether we have such power now—I understand that we do not—or will have under the new arrangements.
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe
Nothing that we are debating today will alter the provisions of the treaty and associated provisions on that issue. I am not in a position to offer precise advice about the exact state of national or Community law on it. I suspect that the outcome may depend, in some respects, on how far we are able to persuade our Community partners to accept a general framework of law that would meet the objectives that my hon. Friend has in mind. To that extent, this debate is relevant, because if the improved procedures that we are discussing enable my hon. Friend—with even more assiduity than usual—to arm Ministers from this country with stronger arguments, the debate will have been of advantage. I cannot answer about the precise provisions of Community law on that topic without notice.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
Perhaps I can help the Leader of the House. The hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) could suggest to his constituents that, if the European Parliament were given a greater legislative role, they might be able to lobby it more effectively, and see their lobbying translated into action. It is the actions of hon. Members such as the hon. Gentleman that have prevented that change, which many of my hon. Friends have wanted.
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe
I am afraid that I cannot give way to answer further questions from my hon. Friend. I remind him that I am not speaking as the Secretary of State—still 528 less as the Foreign Secretary or the Solicitor-General. I am merely the Leader of the House and there is a limit to my imputed knowledge in respect of these matters. There is even a limit to my omniscience as deputy Prime Minister.
That insight about the importance and effectiveness of the late-night debates will form the central basis of the Government's response. In offering our response, however, we did not wish to pre-empt the views of the House. That is why we have not yet moved to make any detailed amendments to the Standing Orders. We shall certainly consider all the points that may be raised in this debate before putting our detailed proposals before the House later this Session, with the aim of operating any new arrangements from the start of next Session.
I am pleased to say that the Government are willing to accept the great majority of recommendations in the Procedure Committee report.
The main change, which I have already mentioned, would be the establishment of a series of new European Standing Committees, each of them specialising in particular subjects. Unlike the ad hoc Standing Committees on EC documents, which are selected afresh for each debate, the new Committees would have members appointed for a Session, so that they could build up expertise in particular subjects. We have also accepted that the new Committees should have powers to question Ministers for up to an hour about the relevant EC proposals before debating the documents.
The Procedure Committee report recommended the establishment of five such Committees, but, as the report acknowledges, there is a limit to the number of hon. Members who could be expected to make such a commitment. So, for strictly practical and not for philosophical reasons, we propose to start by setting up three Committees and to review the matter at the end of the first Session. Given the uncertainty involved in any new system, I hope that that approach will commend itself to the House.
§ Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)
Is my right hon. and learned Friend suggesting—it is not clear to me from the report—that the Committees will enjoy the same continuity that Select Committees enjoy and will be established for a Parliament?
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe
As I explained, the present intention is to establish them for one Session. That is in contrast to the existing Standing Committees on EC documents, which are established on a one-off, ad hoc basis. It has not yet been concluded whether Members will be reappointed and I look forward to hearing the views of the House on such matters during the debate.
Like the Procedure Committee, we felt that a single Standing Committee or a Grand Committee would be unable to handle the number and variety of debates—about 50 per Session—that are recommended by the Scrutiny Committee.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
May I comment on that in the presence of the Chairman of the Procedure Committee? We spent a lot of time on the matter and I had strong views in favour of a European Grand Committee. It was argued that we would not get the necessary membership. But could not we have had a Committee with a fixed quorum, an established membership and, in addition, a rotating membership? Such a Committee could have become a forum for debate on European matters where hon. 529 Members could come and go and debate these matters. I think that such a Committee would always have been manned.
The problem with the recommendation is that we may have a lot of trouble in attracting hon. Members who want to question Ministers, as the Leader of the House suggested, and to fulfil the responsibilities that we recommend in our report.
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe
I am trying to give way as often as I sensibly can, but I would rather not give way to hon. Members who have already fought these battles in the Select Committee. It is important that I should try and conclude my speech, and, although I respect the wisdom of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), I hope that he will forgive me if I move on.
It is important to stress that, under our proposals, any hon. Member would be free to attend the Committees' debates if they wished. To encourage that, I am considering another recommendation on the best way of drawing attention to the Committees' forthcoming debates in my weekly business statement.
The establishment of the new Committees is central to the new system. We foresee a number of benefits. First, the new system will allow most debates to take place at a civilised hour and reduce the number of late-night, sparsely attended EC debates, which are all too frequent at present.
Secondly, it will offer hon. Members, including those who are not members of the Committees, the opportunity to play a more effective role by allowing them to question Ministers and thus to assess and influence Government policy more fully.
We are still considering the breakdown among the three Committees—of the matters to be considered—and in particular whether the division should be on a subject or on a departmental basis. We should welcome the views of the House on that. Clearly, however, it will be desirable that the number of debates is split as evenly as possible between the Committees, although allowances must be made for variations in the subjects on which proposals are emerging from Brussels. That matter, too, would be subject to review at the end of the Session.
There is one point on which we have gone beyond what the Procedure Committee recommended and on which I know the Scrutiny Committee takes a different view from the Government. It relates to the system of referring documents to the Committees. We believe that the new arrangements will allow more effective scrutiny in Committee and to allow them to prove their effectiveness we wish to work on the presumption that the majority of debates will in future be taken in Committee instead of on the Floor of the House as at present.
To that end, we propose to change the balance of the present referral system so that all documents will automatically stand referred to a Committee unless, after discussion through the usual channels, a motion is tabled to hold the debate on the Floor of the House. I expect that to change the proportion so that about two thirds of the debates will take place in Committee rather than on the Floor of the House as they are at present. It will be open to the Scrutiny Committee to recommend that a particular document should be debated on the Floor of the House if it regards that as especially important, and the Government would naturally take that into account.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
It might be better to clear this matter up now rather than later. The difference between the Scrutiny Committee's views and those of the Leader of the House is rather less than he supposes. I think that, for the reasons that he explained, it is likely that the majority of referrals from the Scrutiny Committee will be to the new Standing Committees, and the presumption ought to be that they should be so referred. The difference between us has to do with whether the judgment should ultimately lie with the House, or with the Government, in consultation. For all sorts of reasons, the House would prefer that the judgment should remain with it, although, in all honesty, I think that if that happened, we should still achieve the result that the right hon. and learned Gentleman seeks.
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that compact and courteous intervention. I have studied the report that the Scrutiny Committee produced yesterday on this very topic. What emerges from the analysis in that report is that our proposals go with the grain of actuality, which is another way of saying that the outcome may be much the same. It is our judgment that it is best to tilt the balance of decision making in that way, and that is perhaps an understandable difference of judgment between us. No doubt views will be expressed on the matter during the debate.
The Government's response also confirms our continued intention to try to bring proposals before the Scrutiny Committee rapidly and to arrange prompt debates when that Committee so recommends. We have, in general, steadily improved our record in that respect. On occasion, there may be a balance to be struck, as the report notes: a debate too early in the life of a proposal increases the risk that it may be approved in a substantially different form. Even so, we expect that a presumption in favour of early debates will make it increasingly rare for proposals to come to a Council for adoption before the House has had a chance to debate them. Because of that, the Government have not accepted the suggestion that Ministers might make oral statements before a Council as a substitute for a debate.
The Procedure Committee report also advocated that improved opportunities should be provided for hon. Members to debate general developments in the EC—as opposed to specific legislative proposals before the Council of Ministers. The Government welcome that. The most recent six-monthly debate was already more forward-looking and took place before the Dublin summit. In future, such debates might be renamed simply "European Community debates" and would give the House an opportunity to express its views on issues that are expected to be considered at European Council meetings.
On a more technical point, we have accepted the recommendation for a modest extension in the terms of reference of the Scrutiny Committee. That will regularise the Committee's position by giving it a more formal mandate to carry out inquiries which the Government felt that it was already able to conduct. The hon. Member for Newham, South has been suggesting such a change for a number of years and, as suggested in yesterday's special report from his Committee, we shall be discussing with him the precise wording.
The Government response recognises the benefits to be gained by building up informal links between this Parliament and Members of the European Parliament. We 531 fully support initiatives such as the conference of scrutiny committee chairmen from the 12 member states—with European Parliament representation—held in Cork last month and the proposed parliamentary "assizes" at which both European Parliament and national Parliament representatives would be present, which is to be held in Italy later in the year to discuss preparations for the intergovernmental conference.
§ Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)
I simply seek information from the Leader of the House about the idea of assizes, which has been put forward by the European Parliament. Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell the House more about that proposal? When is it likely to be held, will there be a delegation to it from this Parliament, and how will it be chosen?
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe
I thought for a moment that I was going to be cross-examined about the linguistic background to the use of the word "assizes" in this context. As a former member of the Wales and Chester circuit, I have a clear understanding of what the assize commission is like. I doubt whether this assize will be anything like that. It is an interesting example of a possible mistranslation of the word "assize", which means something quite different from what we used to know at the Lampeter assizes.
This gathering is likely to take place in October, during the Italian presidency—which is the next one. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has already commended it in concept to the House, in the debate the other day. On that basis, we hope that representatives from this Parliament will be present. I cannot yet give the House any more information, save to say that both he and I have given a favourable response to it, so one hopes that there will be a reasonably favourable outcome.
Various channels are already in operation between Members of Parliament and Members of the European Parliament. Many of those are on a party basis for contact and for the exchange of views between hon. Members and Members of the European Parliament. The European Democratic group now meets regularly in the Palace of Westminster. It meets proudly, progressively and effectively here. I hope that such contacts can be cultivated and that more contacts and channels can be opened.
I know that the recommendation in the report on telephone and postal charges for communications with Community institutions will be especially valued by hon. Members, and the Services Committee has commissioned further work on both. I hope to make further progress on all of this in the not-too-distant future. We are also looking at the question of wider access for Members of the European Parliament to the House facilities in other respects.
The principles on which the Government have based their response to the report are first, that Britain wants to maximise its influence in the Community, secondly, that the House wants to play a constructive part in influencing the content of Community legislation and thirdly, that Westminster and the European Parliament can, each in its own distinctive ways, significantly increase the democratic accountability of both the Council and the Commission.
Against that background, the Government hope and believe that this response will help to bring our scrutiny 532 procedures up to date and will allow the House to play a proper role in the consideration of Community legislation. For these to work effectively requires a positive commitment by the Government—which I give—and a commitment by the House. On that basis, our combined input can be substantial, and I commend these documents for consideration by the House.
§ 6.2 pm
§ Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)
It is good that this debate is taking place on a motion for the Adjournment of the House, because that provides an opportunity for all of us to reflect on the documents before us: the report of the Select Committee on Procedure of November 1989, the Government response of May of this year, and, last but not least, the report by the Select Committee on European Legislation which was published yesterday. I welcome the opportunity spelt out in the speech of the Leader of the House for us to give our observations and comments, and for the Government to take them away and to consider them before any definitive proposals are brought to the House for a decision.
There is general agreement about the need for improved procedures for scrutiny of European business and legislation. That must be so, not only in the present circumstances but because of the increasing momentum of change in Europe, the completion of the single market in 1992 and the developing debate on economic and monetary union. The debate on the social charter is of particular importance to Labour Members and I deplore the Prime Minister's description of it as "piffling little powers". There are many important issues embodied in the social charter and we want to see an informed debate about them. When we also consider the possible enlargement of the Community and the dramatic changes in eastern Europe, we can only conclude that all this vital—and often exciting—train of events will demand and deserve more time for debate and consideration in the House of Commons.
Today, we have had the latest example of the need to have more effective and more wide-ranging financial scrutiny and control of our own Government in respect of their dealings involving the European Community. I wish to put on record the fact that no Labour Member decried or denounced the achievements of Rover under the ownership of British Aerospace. That was not the issue. The issue was a deception of Parliament and the European Community by the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the predecessor of the present holder of that high and important office.
The Leader of the House made the point that our existing procedures for scrutiny have barely changed since they were introduced in 1973. I agree that we should see the Strasbourg Parliament and this House as complementary—as working in co-operation on these important issues of policy and these important developments—and not as being in conflict. There is ample opportunity for both Parliaments to improve the scrutiny and control of legislation.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stafford)
I have been looking at the wonderful document, "Looking into the Future", produced by the Labour party as a run-up to the next general election. The Labour party has a great deal to say there about the European Community. Can the hon. Gentleman give us some idea how this so-called 533 "complementary relationship" would function if the Labour party agreed to allow the Community institutions to acquire a higher function—in relation, for example, to a central bank than Conservative Members would be prepared to allow? Can he comment on the way in which that scrutiny would operate?
§ Dr. Cunningham
That intervention has nothing to do with the debate. As the hon. Gentleman has not even got the title of the document right, I do not have much confidence in his analysis of the contents. [HON. MEMBERS: "What are they?"] I am quite happy to depart into a debate about the Labour party policy and the document "Looking to the Future." That is not one of the documents on the Table of the House for discussion today, but if the Leader of the House will provide time, we may be able to come to that matter.
I recognise the importance of the work of the Procedure Committee in preparing its recommendations to the House under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and improvements in procedures are always welcome to me personally. I take no pleasure—this week is a perfect example—in sitting here until the early hours of the morning scrutinising legislation, whether it be United Kingdom legislation or legislation from the European Community. It is an unsatisfactory way for any Parliament to operate, and anything which improves that is, in principle, welcome to me and, I believe, to most Opposition Members.
I also applaud the work of the Select Committee on European Legislation under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), who is indefatigable in devoting himself to his responsibilities in these matters. He is always skilful and certainly always tireless in his pursuit of the issues, and we are grateful to him and to his Committee for the publication of their report yesterday in time for discussion today.
§ Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that keeping the House up for an hour voting last night was a waste of time and simply used up hon. Members' energy? That was in the power of the Labour Chief Whip.
§ Dr. Cunningham
In the midst of controversial legislation, the House often has many Divisions. I cannot say that I enjoy it, but it is often important for political parties to put on record their views of particular issues—and the hon. Gentleman's party is no exception. As there is such a wide gulf between the Labour party and the Government on issues involving the national health service, in the judgment of my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) it was important for us to record our position in the Division Lobby last night. Like the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston), I cannot say that I enjoyed it, but sometimes it is important to put matters on record.
Despite all the hours that many hon. Members spend in this place and all the work that we put in, the House of Commons is a relatively weak and deficient legislature—in many respects, not just in its scrutiny of European legislation. In the past decade, the momentum of legislative change has increased dramatically. From a Government who came to office professing less government, we have had more government and more legislation than ever before. Yet our democratic processes 534 and political and constitutional arrangements have apparently been beyond question, protected on some mythical high ground as a tidal wave of change washes over everything and everyone else. I welcome debates of this kind, because at least we are talking about the need for a strengthened, modernised and better informed House of Commons, which can begin to redress the imbalance between a centralising executive Government and the House which has the duty to examine, question and hold them to account.
As I have said, we have just witnessed an example of that imbalance in the totally inadequate statement and responses from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on the Government's deception with regard to the sell-off of Rover to British Aerospace. That was ironic when just last month, following the European Community summit meeting, the Prime Minister said that she would do her best to see that as much information as possible comes before the House. Her message certainly did not get through to her Trade and Industry Secretary—or perhaps it did and, characteristically, he simply dismissed it.
Accountability in decision-taking at whatever level is a basic requirement of democracy. If the European Community is to be more effective, it must develop an improved system for making decisions. Over the years, the Community has gained powers from this and other national Parliaments. That process has not been accompanied by greater accountability and scrutiny. Where decisions are rightly made at the European level, the decision makers must be accountable.
We believe that the European Parliament should also be given the powers that it needs to complement and not replace national parliaments. The scrutiny of European Community legislation is an important aspect of our work and it will continue to grow in importance. At present, the House deals with European business in what is universally regarded as an inadequate fashion. As the volume and importance of decision-making in Europe has increased, we in the House have failed to keep pace with developments.
The Opposition therefore welcome the debate on specific proposals to improve the procedures with which we scrutinise that business. I should make it clear that in my view, whatever Ministers may say—the Leader of the House seemed somewhat complacent—the way in which the Government have restricted opportunities for hon. Members to question Ministers on European matters over the past decade has not been a good example of how to proceed. Statements on Ministerial Councils have become a rarity, being made only when a Minister wants to publicise a so-called success, usually blocking a progressive move for co-ordinated action on the environment, for example.
Twice-yearly debates on Community developments often occur months after the period reported, but I am pleased to welcome the proposed changes, the suggestion that we should have a European affairs general debate and the proposal that the Leader of the House should announce at business question time each Thursday what European business will be coming before the House.
As a result of the Single European Act, the Council of Ministers can decide on measures to implement the 1992 single market by a qualified majority vote. That may have focused our minds on the fact that our scrutiny of European legislation has become somewhat out of date, 535 but it has made the status quo even more unacceptable in the process. We therefore have to move to a new, better and more effective system of dealing with such matters.
The practice of regular ministerial statements after important Council of Ministers meetings has almost disappeared and nothing has been done to fill the gap and to enable Parliament to question Ministers. That remains a major problem. The decisions taken by the Councils are to important for the House not to have adequate opportunities to influence them or to express an opinion on their work. Hon. Members need more information and access to what is happening in the European Community. Given the increasing volume and speed of decision-taking at Council levels, the House needs to be far more alert.
§ Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)
In that connection, do the Opposition support the idea of postage and telephone call facilities? Without any disrespect to the way in which the Services Committee operates, the danger is that the consideration and study of the matter will mean further weeks and months of delay while a relatively simple system is put in place which most other Parliaments have adopted long since as a matter of routine. Will the Opposition undertake to support celerity and haste in this matter?
§ Dr. Cunningham
The short answer to that is yes, but I will explain in more detail a little later.
I commend to the House the memorandum submitted for consideration by my Friends the Members for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) to the Procedure Committee. Here lies the major difference between the Government and the Labour party. As I have said, I welcome much of what the Leader of the House has said, but I do not welcome the proposal for three Committees. We adhere to our view that a Grand Committee on European affairs is a far better and more practicable approach. It is a matter not of ideology but of having a practicable system for working in the House.
I have reservations, which are shared by the Whips Office, about the ability permanently to provide sufficient hon. Members to man the Committees in the way envisaged by the Leader of the House. Inevitably, there would be some pretty serious differences of opinion about the distribution of places on those committees between the parties. I do not believe that anything like sufficient consideration has been given to those matters.
I share the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) in an earlier intervention about the Government deciding automatically whether a matter should be discussed in Committee rather than on the Floor of the House. That is a proposal to take power away from the House of Commons and vest it in the Executive. I have considerable hesitation about agreeing to that proposal. There is no record of the House being obstinate or obdurate about these matters, so I ask the Leader of the House to reconsider that proposal.
§ Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that point, would his objection be overcome if the Committee upstairs were accessible to all hon. Members, so that they are not frozen out by it being moved upstairs?
§ Mr. Cunningham
That is the proposal, but it does not meet the point that I am making. The whole House should have the opportunity to discuss these matters, and I put that on the record for further consideration. With a little more discussion, we may be able to reach agreement.
I welcome what the Leader of the House said about improving relations between hon. Members and Members of the Strasbourg Parliament. I understand the historic angst about Members being appointed or indirectly elected, but now there are democratically elected Members of the European Parliament representing Britain and we must have sensible working relations with them. The way in which they are treated when they come to this House is appalling. When I visit the European Parliament, I am made welcome as a guest. I have wide-ranging access to its facilities, yet Members of the European Parliament must queue like anyone else to get into this place. They have no access to the Galleries of the Chamber.
We have a Gallery for distinguished strangers, a Gallery for Peers, and other designated Galleries. I cannot for the life of me understand why we cannot have a row in the Gallery designated for Members of the European Parliament. That would be a simple way of showing the determination of the House to seek better relations with our colleagues. There are other ways in which we should enable elected Members of the Strasbourg Parliament to have access to other facilities in the House, but I shall not go into detail now.
I turn to the point made by the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes). It is a matter of astonishment to everyone, particularly business people, when I explain that if my Euro-Member of Parliament writes to me, he does so in effect at the taxpayer's expense, but if I reply to him I do so at my own expense. If he telephones me—he is a Conservative Member, but never mind—from Strasbourg or Brussels, the call is paid by the European Parliament from public funds. If I telephone him in Brussels or Strasbourg, I receive a bill. That is surely nonsense, and I hope that the procedures can be accelerated so that we can resolve it soon.
As the Leader of the House knows, European Members of Parliament can travel anywhere in Europe on legitimate parliamentary business. I see no reason why hon. Members should not be able to make a limited number of visits to Strasbourg or Brussels, at public expense, in pursuit of legitimate business on behalf of their constituents. Until we involve ourselves in what is happening in Europe and other member states, we shall always be seen as reluctant, or we shall lose out because we are not using the institutions of the European Community half so effectively as the national Parliaments of other member states.
I hope that my response to the introduction to the debate by the Leader of the House, much of which I agreed with, has been helpful and constructive. I further hope that, when we finally decide how the procedures should be changed, there will be much agreement across the Floor on the changes that should be implemented.
§ Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)
The debate is on two considerable matters of importance, and one follows from the other. First, we must make people understand, whether Members of Parliament like it or not, that major parts of British sovereignty and the direct control of part of the 537 British law have passed from the British Parliament to the European Economic Community. That is a fair but bland statement to make, but one that frequently is not clearly understood. Therefore, it is of greater importance than in the past, when British Ministers could veto EC directives and regulations, that the House should be able to examine carefully and, where necessary, debate the new laws passed by Brussels.
However, it must be understood that changes in procedure, which we are debating today, will do nothing to lessen our treaty obligations or the overall effect of the Single European Act. The fact that the Council of Ministers determines more and more issues under the majority voting procedure does not, nor should it, lessen the importance of the House maintaining proper scrutiny of the action of British Ministers. The expansion of majority voting may mean that there is a need to examine, and perhaps develop, new channels of influence. Therefore, two of the recommendations in the report deal with links with the European Parliament. None of that lessens the essential requirement for Ministers to be answerable 10, and examined by, the House for their action on European matters.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) for the kind remarks that they have made about me and the Select Committee on Procedure. The Committee does the work; I am only its instrument. I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for agreeing with my request that the Government's response to our report on the scrutiny of European legislation should be in the form of a White Paper rather than a letter to the Committee. That has allowed hon. Members to enter the debate fully informed of the Government's views and able to react to the report rather than having to listen to the speech and make judgments on a prima facie basis. Without wishing to sound pompous, I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on providing a response to every one of the 28 recommendations and not side-stepping any of them.
I need not repeat that the report is the first in-depth report providing detailed consideration of how the House deals with and scrutinises European legislation since the Procedure Committee report in 1978. We attempted to do a thorough job so that perhaps it will not be necessary to carry out a further investigation for another 10 years.
May I therefore divide my analysis of our report's recommendations into four different sections. First, I refer the House to paragraph 43 of our report:.
In the evidence submitted to us there was general agreement that the way in which the House currently debates European legislation is profoundly unsatisfactory. Particular criticism focused on the amount of time spent by the House after Ten o'clock on European business, notably in the form of debates subject to a 1½ hour limit under Standing Order No. 14. These were variously described as 'cursory' and 'not very well attended'. In addition, the then Leader of the House referred to the tendency of such debates to attract Members more interested in rekindling the embers of the argument over the principle of membership of the Community than in examining the detailed merits of a particular proposal … Stress was also laid during questioning on the great unpopularity of these late night occasions, particularly amongst backbench Members whipped for divisions which seldom materialise.We were impressed by the strength of feeling about debates on Europe being set for a late hour and the sterility of major debates, which are taken twice a year in prime 538 time and were, until today, set only to consider matters in retrospect. Equally, we realised that to make demands on prime time for all the matters that the Scrutiny Committee considered and recommended for debate by hon. Members could not be practical.
We therefore recommended that the two major debates should be organised in the two weeks prior to the twice-yearly summit meeting, that the debate should be on a substantive motion and that the Government should be responsible for providing the House, prior to the debate, with a list of the matters likely to be on the summit agenda. Obviously it would be helpful if we could have the exact summit agenda, but I am informed that that is frequently not available until a few days before the summit meeting. However, the Foreign Office must know approximately what is likely to be debated at the summit meetings and it is obviously right and proper that the House should know about that before our debates take place.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
Is not the description that my hon. Friend has just given of late night attendances equally true of attendances at 6.30 pm? That strengthens our point about having such debates upstairs in Committee rather than in an almost empty House.
§ Sir Peter Emery
My hon. Friend may well be right. I was hoping that the two debates every six months on European matters would attract a greater number of hon. Members interested in them if hon. Members were to be debating matters for the future rather than referring to things that had happened weeks or months previously and upon which the views of the House could have no effect.
The second major alteration to procedure is our recommendation that the new special European Standing Committees should be established, with the same membership, for a year instead of for the duration of a Parliament. We thought that it would be too much to ask someone to commit himself to such a Committee for the length of a Parliament. We thought that it was reasonable for someone to commit himself for a year to consider upstairs the bulk of the matters which the Scrutiny Committee recommended should be considered by the House.
Those special European Standing Committees should have power to hear statements from Ministers and to cross-exaine them on the relevant documents before the Committee before proceeding to the normal consideration by way of a debate on the documents. We considered whether those Committees should be given powers to call for papers and persons, but we thought that that would duplicate the work of the departmental Select Committees. We thought that it was necessary to have details about the documents before the Committee and that that could best be achieved by cross-examining the Minister responsible.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of our important recommendations in the report was that there should, as far as possible, be a link between the new Committees—the Government have accepted at least three of those—and the departmental Select Committees which cover the same subjects? Would it not be unfortunate if, for example, the Select Committee on Agriculture did not know what the special scrutiny Committee on Agriculture was doing? There should be a link, and that is why we suggested that at least two members of a departmental Select Committee should be members of the special Standing Committees 539 that we are recommending. That linkage is important because, if it does not exist, the two Committees will not know what is going on.
§ Sir Peter Emery
The hon. Gentleman has kindly dealt with a whole paragraph of my speech, to which I now need not refer.
We saw the importance of the hon. Gentleman's point. My only criticism of having three special Committees instead of five is that it will be difficult to ensure a link with two Committees, perhaps between finance and trade and industry, which would involve four members of the Select Committee, so that only six other members would be left on that Select Committee. There are difficulties, but I agree that there must be seen to be a link between the departmental Select Committees and the work of the specialist European Standing Committees.
To encourage greater interest in European regulations, we believe that matters on the same subject being considered by those with a particular interest and whom we hoped would want to serve on those Special European Committees would provide better and more expert consideration, especially as service over the year built up and the committee members understood the problems that they had to consider.
There must be no misunderstanding about the fact that all hon. Members can attend and speak at the special European Committees. We want to encourage all hon. Members interested in particular subjects to do that. The only limitation is that they will have to catch the Chairman's eye and they would not be able to vote on the motion before the Committee because that would be the responsibility of the members appointed to the Committee. Hon. Members would have full powers to attend the Committee and to question the Minister so long as the Chair recognised them.
§ Mr. Wells
With regard to linkages, the Select Committee on European Legislation has the power to call for persons and papers. Indeed, the British sausage was discussed in the House today and the European Legislation Committee undertook considerable investigations to inform the House about that issue. Therefore, such information would be available to the special European Standing Committee before it sat.
§ Sir Peter Emery
My hon. Friend is right, and that is why there should be co-operation between the two bodies. That underlines the point made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick).
We have asked the Leader of the House to announce in his weekly business statement what documents will be considered by each of the special European Standing Committees, the day on which the debates will take place and which matters will be considered. This information should also be included in the party Whips. That would encourage hon. Members to attend the special Committees. It would also provide them with an opportunity to attend. We hope that this will provide a regeneration of interest among hon. Members instead of leaving those important matters to hon. Members who have been described as the "European buffs". The availability of such information would stimulate full and proper interest in the matter before the Committee instead 540 of leading to a debate which degenerated into arguments about whether we should or should not have signed the treaty of Rome.
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor
My hon. Friend continues to make assessments of those late night debates as comprising a bunch of idiots talking about past events, but I cannot recall his presence at many of those late night sittings.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I suggest that my hon. Friend is much too interested in taking part in such arguments to observe the number of people who must be kept here late at night as a result of his arguments. He fails to notice the number of people sitting about the Chamber or in the Corridors listening to those quite useless debates.
The Government have responded to our recommendation about the members of the special European Standing Committees by suggesting the appointment of only three instead of the five recommended by the Procedure Committee. My Committee recommends five because the vast majority of the work falls reasonably into the subject headings of agriculture, finance and treasury, trade and industry, transport and the environment and, finally, other subjects. That would seem to spread the load fairly evenly, although most of the work in the past has been on finance and agriculture.
We understand the arguments about limiting the number to three Committees, but it is essential that they are subject oriented. They should not all be general Committees. Indeed, the division might be agriculture; finance, Treasury and trade and industry; environment and transport with other subjects referred to whichever Committee seems most appropriate.
In order to attract hon. Members to serve on the new committees, it is essential that they know what major subjects each committee will consider. They must know when they ask to serve on one of the three Committees what subjects they will be asked to consider.
I must make it clear that the recommendations of the Procedure Commitee do not mean that every matter referred for consideration by the Standing Committee must be considered in Committee. There are bound to be some subjects—I am glad that the Leader of the House realises this—which both the Government and the House consider to be of sufficient importance to demand consideration on the Floor of the House. The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, can debate more clearly than me who should make that decision.
I hope that when matters are considered on the Floor of the House there will be perhaps more than one debate on one day and they will be arranged to take place before 10 o'clock at night. If the debates are sufficiently important to be considered on the Floor of the House, they are important enough to attract some part of prime time.
The shadow Leader of the House referred to the possibility of creating a European Grand Committee. We studied that closely. As the members of the Committee will know, there was a divergence of views on the matter. The suggested rolling membership of the Grand Committee seemed to some of us to have a disadvantage. We were attempting to set up committees of people with specialist knowledge who could understand and deal in depth with specific subject matters that came before them. It seemed that such matters could be dealt with more sensibly by specific Committees than by a European Grand 541 Committee. On the difficulty of appointing members to the new Committees and obtaining volunteers, I remind the House that we already man a considerable number of Standing Committees on European Community documents each year. Such Committees may have different members, but the manning, or womaning—
§ Sir Peter Emery
Indeed, the staffing of such Committees is undertaken at present. The difficulty of finding members for the new Committees need be no greater than for Standing Committees now and hon. Members should be more willing volunteers.
§ Dr. Cunningham
I do not want to go into too much detail, but there are some important unanswered questions. For example, what will be the role of Opposition spokesmen in the Procedure Committee's proposals, which were largely endorsed by the Leader of the House? What will be the breakdown of the membership of the new Committees between the parties? It would be much easier to find members for one Grand Committee and maintain it with a reasonably limited quorum. If necessary, the Grand Committee could have sub-committees. That seems a far more practicable way to proceed. It will allow the creation of a forum in which both Ministers and members of the Committees can work. It is not clear whether the hon. Gentleman envisages that Ministers will be members of the Committees. Where would that leave Opposition spokesmen? If we had a Grand Committee the lines would be much more clearly drawn. It would be much more likely to lead to agreement between the parties.
§ Sir Peter Emery
Clearly, a Minister would have to be a member of the Committee because he would be cross-examined. We considered that it was obviously necessary to include an Opposition spokesman, whether the primary shadow Minister or a number two. That happens already in the manning of Standing Committees on European Community Documents. There is no great difficulty there. I hope that there will be no greater difficulty in future with the new committees than in the past. Of course, I understand that matters such as the hon. Gentleman mentioned would have to be dealt with. It would be foolish of me to suggest that there will be no complications. There are always complications when any change is made. But I hope that by creating new Committees, the change will be of considerable benefit.
I have not yet touched on our recommendations for the Scrutiny Committee. I understand that the Chairman of that Committee will seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. He can speak for himself; he does not need me to speak for him. He does an admirable amount of work for the House, and his new report published only yesterday is worthy of thorough consideration by the House. Although my Committee has not considered the recommendations of the Scrutiny Committee, I think we would basically agree with them.
Five other matters are worthy of note. The House is not behind other European Parliaments in the scope and detail of the consideration that it gives to European regulations. We are further ahead in our detailed consideration of scrutiny than any other Parliament. That does not mean that we are perfect, but we are further ahead than any other Parliament. The only nation that has a joint 542 parliamentary and MEP committee is Belgium. We considered the possibility of setting up such a committee. However, it was interesting to note that the Belgian committee does not consider any of the proposed regulations in detail. Mainly it holds general discussions on broad-brush issues affecting the EEC.
Among my Committee's witnesses there was almost a universal view that late-night one-and-a-half-hour debates have become ineffectual. We need to provide a means by which important European matters, and often new laws for Britain, can be considered by a much larger number of Members of Parliament than is the case at present. Lastly, the remit of the Scrutiny Committee should be extended somewhat.
I now turn to the relationship between Parliament and the European Parliament. The relations and contacts between Members of Parliament and MEPs are dealt with at the end of our report. As greater power passes to the European Parliament, as ways of questioning majority decisions by the Council of Ministers now lie with the European Parliament, and as members of the Commission and Commission decisions can be questioned by Members of the European Parliament, it behoves Parliament and Members of the House to work more closely with British MEPs than ever before. If not, the influence of Parliament on EEC decisions will become less and less. I believe that MEPs wish to encourage that closer relationship. We Members of Parliament should reverse our past general indifference to MEPs and warmly welcome greater contact and co-operation with them.
To some of my colleagues I must say that it is too late to fight past battles. We are now part of Europe. Let us help to lead the EEC, not sit and complain about it.
This debate will not be world shattering, nor are our recommendations and the Government's acceptance of them revolutionary. However, I honestly believe that there is a great need to improve present consideration by the House of European regulations as they affect Great Britain. Our present procedure has become moribund. The proper working of the suggested improvements, if considered and used by Members of Parliament, will provide a more detailed scrutiny and debate of European regulations and directives than ever previously achieved by the House.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me at this stage. It enables me, as Chairman of the Select Committee on European Legislation—commonly called the Scrutiny Committee—to thank the Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure and his colleagues for all their work last autumn in producing a comprehensive report on matters relating to EEC scrutiny. Without that, the Government White Paper—to which the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) referred—would probably not have been of the same quality. I also thank the Leader of the House not only for presenting that document as a White Paper, but for arranging today's Adjournment debate, which allows broad discussion. I thank him especially for what he said in his speech about proposed further discussions with me—I would represent my colleagues on the Committee—with a view to reaching a common agreement about changes in the Committee's 543 terms of reference, and in the all-important resolution of 1980 under which the Government operate, by order of the House.
The Committee did not issue its report until 7 o'clock last night. The delay was due to the crush of European legislation. In his speech less than 24 hours later, the Leader of the House has accepted at least one of the Committee's important requests and recommendations. I am tempted to say, "Is that a record?" Our special report HC 512 of this Session deals only with matters relating specifically to our terms of reference. I shall refer to that in a moment.
Publicity is the petrol of politics. It may not be well known to some hon. Members or to the public, but while the House is in session we publish a weekly report summarising important documents published by the Commission. Every week the report lists at the back the documents that are still lying on the Table of the House awaiting debate. They are listed in departmental order. That is an example of glasnost and visibility. Unfortunately, as not enough hon. Members know of the report, when European documents are debated in Committee or late at night in the House, some hon. Members are not so well prepared as they might be.
The Committee agreed with many of the recommendations of the Procedure Committee, especially the idea of turning the six-monthly debates into prospective views rather than discussions of a report which, of course, should still be laid. It also agreed with the request for more publicity for debates, and an undertaking by the Leader of the House—which he has repeated today—that during business questions he would announce what Committees will be in progress the following week.
§ Sir Russell Johnston
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the debates to which he has referred, although supposed to be about the report, have largely been concerned with the future and what was taking place at the time in the Community?
§ Mr. Spearing
Yes. The twice-yearly debates were invented when the then Ted Short was Leader of the House. We want the debates—as does everyone—a week or two before the official twice-yearly European Council meeting, but the agenda of that meeting is not always known. I shall not go off my track and talk about the arrangements and procedures adopted by the Council, but they sometimes make it difficult for the House to debate subjects which may come up at short notice.
The report of the Scrutiny Committee has been published and speaks for itself: I have a copy here for hon. Members who wish to read it. However, I should like the House to be aware of one or two important matters. The terms of reference of our Committee are still too narrow. As long ago as 1986, when we read about the Single European Act, we suggested that our terms of reference should be wider, and the Government have come some way towards that. We are grateful to them for saying that we may be able to see working documents and others that are not formally published but which come into the Government's hands. That would be helpful.
We would also like to see the Commission make documents available to interested parties in the United Kingdom. Why should trade associations or anyone else 544 be better informed than the House about the Commission's thinking? I hope that the Government will bear that request in mind, not just for the benefit of the Scrutiny Committee but for the benefit of other Select Committees—if not in the terms of reference, at least in terms of conduct.
The Committee welcomes the suggestion, in recommendations 17 to 19, that a Minister should be subject to perhaps an hour's questioning in Committee. Although various procedural matters may need to be worked out, I think that everyone agrees with the principle. However—as I said when I intervened in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham)—the Committee is unanimously opposed to the Government's suggestion that all documents should be referred automatically by Standing Order to a Committee. As I said to the Leader of the House in another intervention, I believe that many will be referred in any case, and the Committee would welcome that.
In the appendix to the Committee's report—published yesterday—we show that that is an increasing trend. A good morning Committee debate—especially if it is well publicised—can be more effective than a debate on the Floor of the House late at night, especially as hon. Members can speak more than once, which they cannot do in formal debates in the House. Nevertheless, there should still be a formal agreement on the Floor of the House to refer matters to a Committee. If there are any differences of opinion, they will be known, and the House will retain control.
I can give the Leader of the House good reason why that should be the case, if only to back up Government policy. When we meet our committee counterparts in other Parliaments, they are sometimes surprised at our powers, and amazed to learn that we can approach Ministers any time we like, although in reality they are usually contacted by our clerks on the telephone or by letter. While the powers of our Committees may not be as extensive as we would wish, they are none the less the subject of admiration. If there were automaticity, we could not make those claims. The Foreign Secretary has rightly said that we are beefing up the procedures of our Committees. It would be a pity if they were diminished. I hope that the Leader of the House will reconsider automaticity, because we would welcome the results.
The important resolution of 30 October 1980 considerably changed the way in which the House related to the Government. There have been major changes since 1975. That resolution still refers only to documents of legislation. The Government guarantee to have debates before a decision in Brussels, other things being equal, on legislative documents only. What is such a document? A White Paper is a notice of legislation. We all know that effective decisions are taken on a White Paper and that a debate on the subsequent Bill is not so effective as it might have been if one has not had a debate on the White Paper. The Select Committee on European Legislation is still unhappy that some matters of great importance are not necessarily debated. There was a little trouble over the Delors report because we did not debate it although we recommended such a debate. Unfortunately, the resolution did not bite.
The Scrutiny Committee has no competence under its terms of reference regarding the proposed three Standing Committees. My colleagues on the Select Committee share my belief that there could be practical problems if three 545 Committees only are appointed. We are more aware than anyone else of the volume of legislation which comes out as we wade through those documents every week. If that volume of legislation is channeled to the three Committees, albeit changed every Session and fortified—I was glad to hear from the Leader of the House that any Member attending will be attached to the Committee, which is what the Procedure Committee suggested—it may impose too great a work load on the Committee members. If a Committee dealt with trade and industry policy, the environment or various forms of transport ranging from air to shipping, one can imagine the volume and complexity of the issues to be dealt with by that one Committee. We know that Members have special knowledge or expertise in such matters, but the volume of work could present difficulties.
Perhaps we could undertake an experiment based on the present procedure for nomination to Committees undertaken by the Committee of Selection. I know that I might be calling horses for courses in that respect. More hon. Members than currently envisaged would be involved, but the number of documents and debates would be the same. Those hon. Members could be selected because of their specialist knowledge. Similarly, we could perhaps have a panel of volunteers available, selected by the usual organisers of our business. Plenty of notice should also be given to those hon. Members who have an interest in a particular subject but are not appointed members of the relevant Committee.
I thank the Leader of the House for the innovation evidenced on the Order Paper about which the Scrutiny Committee has been writing to him for some time. Last week there were no fewer than nine motions on the Order Paper which gave plenty of notice of the documents going upstairs. Today there are six such motions on the Order Paper—about cadmium in water, milk, meat safety and the rules relating to game and rabbit meat. They relate to specialised topics, but any citizen or hon. Member who reads our Order Paper will know that such topics will be debated in the near future. That will give hon. Members the opportunity to look up the relevant documents and to contact interested groups. It also gives the public the opportunity to contact hon. Members. Such interested hon. Members may volunteer to sit on the relevant new special Committee and perhaps the usual channels will go about their usual business. Those Committees mean that the Minister has an hour to set out his case and there is an hour of debate afterwards. That could lead to more effective scrutiny.
It is important to remember what the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) said. At the end of the day, we are only advising Ministers who go to the Council of Ministers to partake in discussions. They then come back to the House with what they have or have not achieved.
§ Sir Peter Emery
It is important that the proposed Committees consider various issues because they will not only advise Ministers, but allow Members of the European Parliament to know our views. It is important for British Members of the European Parliament who are debating specific matters to know that they have been considered in Westminster and to know our views.
§ Mr. Spearing
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The Second European Reading is equivalent to the second round, and it is most important that MEPs should know 546 what Members of this place think. If they read the Standing Committee record, they will have that information. I am sure that some members of the public—and, even important, people in industry and local government—are unaware that the Standing Committee proceedings are published within a couple of days of the sitting. The undertakings given by Ministers and the concerns expressed by hon. Members are published for the public to read. I hope that our colleagues in the European Parliament read those records before they take them to their respective committees. A great deal of work in the European Parliament is undertaken in such committees, and our records might prompt amendments to documents under discussion.
§ Mr. Leighton
We are torturing ourselves tonight talking about the unsatisfactory present situation and whether we should have one large Committee, three smaller ones or even more. We are doing so because we are trying to square the circle. We are trying to do the impossible. The truth is that the European Community and parliamentary democracy are incompatible. I do not know how many people read the Standing Committee records. Suppose a Committee considered the common agricultural policy and concluded it was a bad one because it put up food prices and damaged the third world. What effect would that have? It is difficult for the Whips to get hon. Members on to such Committees because of the essential futility of the scrutiny undertaken by them. It leads to nothing.
§ Mr. Spearing
I am grateful to my hon. Friend because I was about to say that, while I had made a speech which, I hope, was in the tradition of Chairmen of Select Committees and faithfully transmitted the Committee's views—my hon. Friends will let me know at the next meeting if I failed—I hope that it is in order to make a few more personal remarks with "Newham, South" across my head.
The first Member from West Ham, South was the founder of the party of which I have the privilege to be a member. The people of West Ham are not highly capitalised in terms of money, but in terms of skill and the expression of their opinions. They sent that man to represent their interests and to change the law because the law was the only protection that they had. That man came here on the day of the Loyal Address. He put down an amendment to it because it did not mention unemployment. It was selected and he divided the House.
The people of east London saw Parliament as their salvation, as it could change and make law. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) is right that the attraction of the debate depends on the effectiveness of the decision reached. If one can only influence rather than decide, debates are marked by a low attendance—that follows as night follows day. To that extent I agree with my hon. Friend.
It is important to consider broader matters that may have escaped the attention of the House, especially those that the Scrutiny Committee cannot consider. What is on the menu at the moment? There is the procedural motion that the Prime Minister mentioned earlier to agree to an intergovernmental conference on political union. I do not believe that one could get a bigger procedural motion than that. We also have a report by Foreign Ministers on economic and monetary union. I do not think that the 547 Select Committee on Foreign Affairs will be dealing with such issues, and I note that the Chairman of that Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell), is in his place for the debate. We have a brace of Chairmen present this evening.
There is the question of parallel ecu currency—an issue which has caused much discussion. No doubt the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service will wish to deal with that. There is a famous court case concerning fishermen that has caused much concern, and there is the question of the intervention of the Commission on the subject of compensation to British Aerospace, about which we have had a statement today.
It is clear that more and more matters of a European Community nature are coming before us. Many of them are beyond the scope of scrutiny in terms of legislation, although they are extremely current. I am not sure whether the House realises—I am trying, although my views are well known, to be impartially descriptive—the situation in which the British Parliament now finds itself.
If I was asked to describe all this to an invited audience, I would ask my listeners to try to imagine what London was like before all the road changes had taken place. One could go and park where one liked, there were no one-way streets to speak of and, generally speaking, the traffic lights were in one's favour so that one could turn right or left almost with impunity. Today the situation on the roads is almost the reverse, with giratories, one-way streets, no parking, no right turns, no commercial vehicles, no buses and many other restrictions.
That state of affairs has been arrived at because of the situation into which Parliament has got itself in terms of law-making, with its obligations to the treaty of Rome. We brought it on ourselves, and the Leader of the House was right to refer earlier to section 2(1) of the treaty. On the water, if one goes through red traffic lights—even if those behind urge one to do so and even if fishermen say, "You must go through those lights—do not worry because we have the Queen aboard and we are all agreed, including the Queen's representatives, that it is permissible to go through those red lights"—one is liable to be booked and find oneself up before the beak. That happened in the current case concerning fishermen.
The same can be said of the British Aerospace case. A sign at the beginning of Aerospace avenue might say "No public vehicles." In defence of what we believe to be the national interest—I appreciate the position of the Government—Her Majesty's Government said, "As we cannot put up a public vehicle, we will put up a private vehicle with £40 million money aboard." Somebody noticed that, and we find ourselves in trouble.
That may be a crude illustration but, in essence, it is the position in which the Parliament of the United Kingdom is now placed. There may be offsetting advantages—that is an issue that we constantly discuss—but we must be realistic in accepting that that is the position from the point of view of our law-making activities, and things are getting more serious.
In that connection, I recall the Prime Minister's remark to me earlier today about procedural motions. A motion to which she has put her signature in the past two days 548 relates to a statement in annex 1 of the Community communiqué, which is concerned with political union. It spells out what is going on and refers tothe ongoing transfer of tasks to the Community and the corresponding increase in the power and responsibilities of its institutions.Nothing could be clearer than that.
On the question of economic and monetary union, I recall the time when Lord Cockfield appeared before a Select Committee. Those who have heard the noble Lord expound on the subject of the single market will not quickly forget his replies—I was about to say lectures—to questions asked at Select Committee meetings. He is an experienced and fascinating man to listen to. After he had been expounding on the subject to a Select Committee at which I was present, he was asked, in effect, "Surely the man on the Clapham omnibus or the lady on the Stuttgart tram says that this is a Government of bankers, by bankers for bankers—how would you reply to that?" I hope that I do Lord Cockfield no injustice when I say that he replied, in effect, "Bankers are stable, common-sense, useful people." But that is not what government is about.
It was once said in a famous speech made a long way from Brussels that government should be of the people, by the people, for the people. If this House were to disappear from the United Kingdom, that form of government would not vanish from the earth. People throughout the world want that type of government and they are attempting to create institutions which we in the United Kingdom have evolved, developed and practised for a long time. There is a danger—we can debate how great it is—that that form of government could perish from the United Kingdom and, therefore, from the institution in which we are now seated discussing these matters. Through lack of knowledge, it could perish by the votes of those who are Members of the Chamber which gave it birth.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stafford)
Many people are cynical about whether scrutiny can operate. That being so, it is up to those who have the opportunity to indulge in scrutiny to make sure that it works. That is what this House has been about for as long as history books have been written. It has been up to the House from time to time over the centuries—in relation to many matters, taking one century with another—to deal with issues that are every bit as significant as those that confront us today in relation to the European Community.
There have been times over the centuries when the House has taken stock of the situation and has made sure that it exercises the supervision—scrutiny and control—that is necessary, given the realities of the circumstances in which that generation has found itself.
The Scrutiny Committee has done a better job than many people believe. For example, on 25 June last there appeared in The House Magazine—described rightly, because it is a first-class magazine, asThe most widely read magazine in Parliamentan article—focusing on Europe, under the heading, "Europe—meaning of unity."
Several hon. Members have referred to the relationship between MPs and MEPs. I make no bones about the fact that, so long as we apply the notion of subsidiarity in the sense in which I interpret it—which is that the European Parliament remains subsidiary to the national Parliament 549 on important questions such as we are discussing tonight—there is a case for ensuring cross-reference between ourselves and MEPs. We keep them in touch and discuss matters with them. There is nothing to stop us doing that, and we should do it.
The article referred to what Lord Bethell MEP described as "an important political issue." He was talking about saving the British sausage and said, making what he obviously believed to be a serious point:What is the House of Commons doing about all this? The civil servants are hard at work on it. The European Parliament will soon have it in committee. But, as far as I know, the House of Commons is doing nothing. A £500-million-a-year British industry is at stake and the MPs Scrutiny Committee does not have it on board.After saying,This is what is meant by the 'democratic deficit'",he said, referring to our activities as Members of Parliament:
the MPs will wait until the whole thing is sprung on them as a very unpleasant surprise, involving jobs in their constituencies.There are many butchers and people involved in the meat trade in my constituency. I live in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), who knows more about the subject than the rest of us put together. The matter was raised in the Scrutiny Committee some months ago. I pressed for it to be thoroughly considered and said that we should acquire information which only certain people could provide for us so that we could have a proper and well-informed debate on the subject in the House, and perform our functions as a Scrutiny Committee and a scrutinising Parliament.
It would have been helpful if the degree of complementarity had been extended to Lord Bethell, discovering what was going on in this Parliament because we are well ahead of the game—I say that without wishing to be unkind to the noble Lord. The evidence that we have accumulated will have a significant impact on the way in which that legislation develops.
§ Mr. Cash
My hon. Friend asks how, and I shall explain. When one considers legislation in the House, of whatever kind, whether domestic or European, it is up to us to do so early enough and to take appropriate steps to ask the right questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) is a most valiant defender of the process precisely because he always asks the sort of questions that are highly relevant to finding out the truth—I admire him for that. It is essential that we do the same with European legislation and use the opportunity to ask the right questions early enough.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East would be right to say to me, "We have not been doing that very well so far." I would dispute that, because I think that we have on a number of occasions, but that does not alter the fact that it is the function of this debate and the report produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) to improve the scrutiny process in the context of the developments that have been taking place in the Community. Therefore, in a sense, this is an exercise of scrutiny about scrutiny.
The remedy lies with us. We must make it our business to find out what is going on at an earlier stage. I got hold of the Christopherson paper produced for the Ashford castle meeting on economic monetary union seven days 550 before the meeting. It gave most important information about what was being decided and discussed at that meeting in relation to economic and monetary union. I do not claim any great credit for that. I simply felt that I was doing my job and made it my business to find out about the issue because it was so essential to the on-going debate on economic and monetary union. I raised the matter in the Select Committee. It is important that we should all be vigilant.
The vast range and impact of legislation going through the European system necessitates our improving the scrutiny process for the good reason that, during the past several years the volume of legislation from the European Community, which has a direct impact on all our constituents, has grown enormously. The volume of domestic legislation often seems utterly irrelevant in comparison with the impact of that coming from Europe. The volume of, and time we spend on, legislation should be proportionate to the impact it has on our constituents.
We must also look carefully at legislation coming from other national Parliaments, and its impact on us. There should be a much more level playing field with regard to the manner in which legislation is scrutinised in other countries and here. Recently, we had a meeting with the Bundestag European affairs committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Honiton spoke about which way the other European member states scrutinise their legislation. There is no doubt that we legislate and scrutinise our legislation in a better, more comprehensive way, through our Select Committee system, than do most of the other member states. As developments take place in the European Community, it is essential that we do everything we can to talk to the other national parliamentarians to persuade them to engage in the same sort of scrutiny as this debate provides.
§ Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)
I apologise for not being present when the Leader of the House opened the debate. I was conducting a radio interview about the death of Bob Carvel. The House has lost someone who was not only a remarkable journalist, but a good man and lovable critic whom we shall all miss.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure, for the work that his Committee has done. Time, as always, is limited, so the main part of my speech will consist of five general points. First, one factor that clearly emerges from the report is that the Government, while claiming to be great defenders of Parliament—as they frequently do—against the erosion of the terrible powers from Brussels that are about to clasp us in their bureaucratic arms, have made no serious attempt to give Members of Parliament a real, effective and timely opportunity to contribute views on European policy as it is formed. The position is contradictory and not easily defended.
The Government say that they will do better. Whenever the Leader of the House says anything, I am always seduced by his cuddliness and evident good nature.
§ Sir Russell Johnston
Yes, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is an absolute pushover, but time will tell.
551 Secondly, this position is hardly surprising, since this is not the way that Parliament works anyway. We are essentially a Parliament, after the event, and respond to things once they have happened. As Lord Hailsham said, we respond to the elective dictatorship in our midst. We inveigh against, condemn and vote against it. It seems pretty intellectually indefensible to argue that Parliament should have a pre-legislative role only in respect of European legislation, when our procedures and customs—one might say rituals—deny us that in relation to domestic legislation. In the jargon of the day, I do not think that one can build a ring fence around European legislation, because there is too much overlap.
Thirdly, the report of the Select Committee on Procedure refers more than once, understandably, to the problem of finding time to deal with everything. I intervened in the speech of the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) to remind him of what the House did last night. We spent an hour after midnight, when everybody was tired and should have been tucked up in bed, engaged in voting—an entirely pointless and vacuous activity with no relevance whatever. It simply exhausted people and the time could have been spent in positive activities, such as thinking, writing or scrutinising. No doubt some hon. Members slept late this morning and those who did not will have been less effective today. The hon. Member for Copeland is a decent chap and mounted a defence which might be described in chess as the Cunningham diversion. He said that such voting formed part of the way in which this place was run, but I do not think that he believed that himself.
Fourthly, the Community is already quasi-federal in its construction. We must face that. The citizen has two routes to express an opinion on European legislation. First, he can go to Westminster in the hope of influencing the Minister, who in turn may influence the Council of Ministers. Secondly, he may go to his MEP and hope to exercise some influence through the European Parliament. We must not focus too much on our status as an institution. The issue is about how our citizens can be best enabled to have their opinions heard and their interests taken into account.
The Government prevaricate about facilities to phone the Community, and that is negative. The hon. Member for Copeland spoke about that and the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) intervened and elicited from him a clear view. I do not know what the Services Committee can dig up that we do not know already. We have been in the European Community since 1973 and have known about these things for a long time. The Government should extend to the Community institutions the free phone facilities that hon. Members enjoy in the United Kingdom. After all, hon. Members would not phone Brussels for fun. I do not pick up the phone to amuse myself but in order timeously to register constituency concerns.
I have a strong feeling that my fifth point falls into the category of crying at the moon, but I shall make it anyway. We regularly congratulate ourselves on being members of a rather unique debating Chamber, a place which is unlike the continental chambers that the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) dislikes and where every so often there is a series of set speeches. That does not lead to 552 the interplay and the give and take of debate that we expect in this place. However, we have less to be proud of than we assert.
Let us look at the form of winding-up speeches. I am not sure whether the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury), who is in the Chamber, will make the winding-up speech in this debate. Such a speech usually falls into three parts. In part one the Minister runs through the names of the Members who have spoken and says, "My hon. Friend the Member for Bloghampton, South made a fascinating and important contribution. My right hon. Friend the Member for Little Significance, North would not expect me to be over-precise in responding to his question. Turning to the Opposition, the hon. Member for Utopia, Central, made an interesting speech but it did not seem entirely to accord with my reading of his party's constitution. The Liberal party Member for Elysium with Nirvana further demonstrated his long separation from power"—and so on. One can make such speeches quite easily.
Part two of the winding-up speech is usually longer and sets out somewhat less than objectively the rectitude of the Government's position. Part three, which runs into the peroration, unequivocally damns all the persons, spokesmen, works, ideas and shibboleths connected with the official Opposition and says that they must be dismissed. It is easy not to fit into that formula. For example, federalism is central to the European debate and is espoused not only by British Liberals but by German socialists and Italian Christian Democrats. However, because it is not the policy of the Government or of the official Opposition, we do not debate it in a proper way. The House is not always good at debating ideas. We debate only major party attitudes, and I am afraid that we do that only in a confrontational way. We should spend more time dealing with arguments, and if we made the effort we could do that.
Having made those general points I shall conclude with specific references to the Select Committee's report and the Government's response. I am greatly impressed by the phrase "the Government will respond sympathetically." I have heard it many times and, although it sounds smooth and emollient, alas, such a response does not always come to pass.
Recommendation 3 deals with the availability of documents. There is no good reason why such availability should not be agreed. The Government aften regard documents as confidential and keep them close to their chest until the last minute.
I do not agree with the Committee or the Government about a separate European Community question time. There should be a slot for that during Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs questions. That matter should be reconsidered, and in that context I have the agreement of the Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee, the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing).
I am worried about more committees being established. At a certain point the burden on hon. Members becomes so great that the opportunity to challenge the Executive is reduced, although in theory this is what it is supposed to be for. I lean towards some sort of open Grand Committee rather than more Committees which hon. Members would have to man.
In future, the detail of European legislation will be dealt with in the European Parliament and not here. We shall 553 have to concentrate on broad Second Reading principles. The Scrutiny Committee is unquestionably hard working and its Chairman is a paragon of diligence, but I do not think that the Committee has succeeded in changing anything. The Leader of the House said that two thirds of European debates will go upstairs and the other third will take place here, probably at an inappropriate hour. If that happens, it will not be much of an improvement.
§ Mr. Spearing
I think that the hon. Gentleman's kind remarks about me are unjustified. The staff and members of the Committee are also involved in its work. It is not the task of the Scrutiny Committee to change or to influence the Government. Its job is to ensure that there is an opportunity for hon. Members to influence and press the Government before decisions are taken in Brussels. The Committee is procedural and provides opportunities. It is the members, in the motions and the amendments to motions that they table, who influence the Government's activities. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will consider that.
§ Sir Russell Johnston
The hon. Gentleman is not only diligent but modest. What he says is true, but at the end of the day, if the Committee is worried about something, it points it up and in that sense seeks some change to be effected.
Fourthly, there is not enough about the European Parliament in the document. The House has taken the wrong approach to the European Parliament. I do not intend to argue about the balance of power, but I agree with the hon. Member for Copeland who, speaking on behalf of the Labour party, said that our relationship should be co-operative. Could we at least open the door to its members? If we do not let them into the Chamber—I would not exclude their admission under certain thought-out circumstances—we can at least let them into the Dining Room. As the hon. Gentleman said, we should give them somewhere to sit upstairs. In short, we should treat them in as civilised a way as they treat us when we visit them.
I conclude by picking up something that the Leader of the House said towards the end of his speech. He said:Britain wants to maximise its influence within the EC.That expresses the issue in the wrong way. What he means is that the Government want to maximise their influence in the EC. The proper objective is to maximise the influence of the individual British citizen in the EC. That should be our aim.
I am a Liberal, a minority person. I have long experience of the consequences of what I think to be unfair representation in this place. The total exclusion of Liberal Democrats from the European Parliament is not simply wrong but stupidly excludes a valid British standpoint from expression there. The view of Britain is not just the view of the Government. It finds reflection in the various views of its individual people, and to give that expression must be the objective of what we are seeking to introduce.
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)
I understand that there is a tradition in the House of Commons that hon. Members do not make savage personal attacks on other hon. Members when they are not present and have not been given notice of the intention to do so. Therefore, I find it difficult to refer to the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) who, unfortunately, is no longer here.
554 But, Madam Deputy Speaker, I think that you will agree that to describe our late-night debates on European measures as useless, pointless, sterile and simply battling over the past is not a fair reflection of those constructive debates in which people with special knowledge discuss the issues.
It is interesting that the people who laugh about those debates are the people who never attend them. None of the 10 Members of that great Procedure Committee is here tonight to discuss their great proposals, and of those 10 great Members I recall only—
§ Mr. Taylor
I apologise. I have a list of 10 names and if the hon. Gentleman was a member of the Committee he has not been recorded as being present.
To refer to our debates in that way is rather unfair. The Select Committee's proposals for the consideration of EC legislation are of no real significance. The Select Committee and the House have no powers to do anything about the mass of Euro-laws which come out of Brussels, and the new Committees will also have no power.
In practice, the basic feature of the exciting recommendations is that the general embarrassment caused to the Government by the revelation of certain measures will be reduced. Instead of measures being considered late at night by a small group of difficult and critical Back Benchers, they will be considered by carefully selected Committees which will meet in the morning. Their members will be happy because they will have the power to question Ministers and, through time, they might even acquire the power to travel to Europe and elsewhere to discover more about the issues that they are describing. In effect, nothing will change, save that the Government will be a little less embarrassed and Back Benchers will be able to go to bed a little earlier.
The proposals are simply another example of the policy that we have adopted for years on Euro-matters—simply pretending that reality should be ignored and looking on the brighter side of things. To pretend that we can make the way in which the Community works more democratic is simply kidding ourselves. That is why we have hardly any representation here from the Select Committee and why it has put forward the measures as though they are some exciting new development.
The day-dreaming goes on all the time. We had it this afternoon in that quite splendid statement by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the discussion which stemmed from it. We found agreement almost all over that we should have no surrender and would fight to the death to hold on to what powers we have. But I think that we all knew in our hearts that the power was slipping away all the time.
For example, we found that if the ladies outside tonight, who are so rightly concerned about the rights, liberties and freedoms of ponies and horses come to us, we will be able to do nothing, and if they take the advice of the Liberal party and go to see their MEPs, they will tell them that they passed a unanimous amendment which was sent to the Commission and that a respectable man called Mr. MacSharry threw out their recommendation, so nothing 555 happened. Democratically, those poor ladies who are so rightly worried about the export of live cattle can do nothing at all.
§ Mr. Spearing
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that on 11 January this year a Standing Committee considered that matter and the Government moved a motion for which they sought the support of the House which said:supports the Government in their intention to negotiate a satisfactory welfare standard.The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Council will not agree to the maintenance of our minimum value export order. But, even more important, is he aware that sections 40 to 49 or the Animal Health Act 1981, which imposed those rules, will be negatived by a regulation, and that the repeal of that Act will not come before the House unless it is directed for agreement to repeal? Therefore, the powers of which he speaks are even greater than perhaps he supposed.
§ Mr. Taylor
The hon. Gentleman is right. That shows how much democracy is basically disappearing almost completely. For the liberal party, even with its smiling face, to tell people not to worry, because if they cannot do anything the nice people in the European Parliament will be able to, is to mislead people wholeheartedly.
§ Mr. Taylor
No, my hon. Friend will probably make the point that there are a number of amendments, but that is a load of rubbish because the ones that are accepted are the ones that come from the Commission anyway, as he well knows.
We must not try to pretend that things are what they are not. We talk about free trade in 1992, but we all know that that is basically a joke. For example, we heard today that insurance will be on the basis of free trade, but we know that nothing of the sort is contained in the proposals. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) will support with great rejoicing an EC initiative to spend a great deal of money on the promotion of lower-tar tobacco and the Anti-Cancer Year. I think that will cost about £60 million. Yet we ignore the fact that this year the EC is spending more money than ever on dumping high-tar tobacco on east Europe, Africa and the third world. Such things go on and no one wants to know. Basically, we try to pretend to ourselves that things are being sold. Despite what we are doing, power is going away without our deciding it.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
When the hon. Gentleman debates parliamentary democracy with his constituents, how does he explain the massive indifference shown by hon. Members to these important matters? I remind him that, even on the night that we debated the interim judgment of the president of the European Court of Justice on section 14 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, there were very few more souls in this place than there are at the moment.
§ Mr. Taylor
I well remember that debate, and the hon. Gentleman was present, as he usually is when an important issue is discussed. It was tragic that, when we were tearing up a United Kingdom law for no good reason, only a handful of hon. Members were present. 556 Difficult, complex and controversial issues are debated late at night or referred to a safe Standing Committee comprised of safe Members who will cause no embarrassment to anyone, but usually with one statutory "difficult" Member included. That is not done because the Government are trying to hide anything from the public, for the same practice would be adopted by a Government of a different party.
§ Mr. Cash
I am very interested by my hon. Friend's line of argument. The new ad hoc Committees will have the power to ask Ministers to appear before them. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if a Committee has the power also to ask for papers and records, it will be able to get at the root of issues early enough in the day, as I know my hon. Friend would want it to do? Does he really believe that that is possible?
§ Mr. Taylor
It simply will not be possible. My hon. Friend knows very well that, even if the Committees had the power to ask for every paper and to see very Minister, or, if things got difficult, to send a deputation, at the end of the day they could achieve nothing, because power is slipping away from us. My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House said that even if some power leaves us, there is still the protection given by the Single European Act, but we know that the Commission is taking unto itself more and more legislation by exercising the majority vote provision in article 100A, and there is nothing we can do about that.
§ Mr. Dykes
I am glad that my hon. Friend is giving way at long last. He referred to me a number of times, or at least once. Why does he not have the courage to extend his analysis and say that the logic would be that, if the European Parliament and MEPs had more power, the ladies who came to the House today concerned about the safety and welfare of export animals would be able to work with Members of Parliament and Members of the European Parliament conjointly to achieve the results that my hon. Friend seeks? My hon. Friend is not prepared to admit that the European Parliament should have increased powers and work with national Parliaments.
§ Mr. Taylor
I never like to give way, because it simply takes up time. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend has a total obsession with the EEC. He knows that there is no way that the European Parliament could take effective powers unless there were a European Government, including a European Foreign Secretary, Transport Secretary, and Minister for Health. To pretend that we are being given new powers of inspection and supervision, and to make proposals, is all kidology. As the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) said, we are kidding ourselves if we try to pretend that we can enhance our democracy.
You heard for yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, about the new decision on interim relief. As the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) said, that issue arose a few months ago. The European Court assumed a power—whether or not it had the right to do so we do not know—in respect of interim relief from British laws. A second case arose today. I received a lovely letter from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the 557 Home Department saying that the German state lottery company is taking action in the British courts that could give it the power to question the validity of the Lotteries and Amusements Act 1976, which prevents lottery tickets from being sold in Britain. It is taking that action on the basis that that legislation contravenes the treaty of Rome. It may be right or wrong, but if that company applies for interim relief, our law will be scrapped for up to two years—and then my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East will have the pleasure of advising his constituents to buy German lottery tickets so that they can help finance the German health service, even though Parliament voted against the running of lotteries in this country.
Let us not pretend that we can solve anything by changing from late night debates to carefully selected Committees that will meet in the morning, and which will appear to be very wise and pontificate but get nowhere at all. Remember the ladies who came to the House today. If any of us had to speak to them, what could we say as democrats? One would have to say, "We can do nothing to protect horses and ponies; nor can the MEPs." Democracy is at risk.
§ Dr. Godman
I was unable to be present earlier for this debate because I did not leave a Standing Committee until 7.15 pm, but is not the hon. Gentleman being too defeatist? Surely he should be arguing for a change in the structure of the relationship between the European Parliament, national legislatures, the Council of Ministers, and the Commission.
§ Mr. Taylor
That would be a joke, unless one could establish the basis on which proposals from the Commission are decided by the Council of Ministers. Nothing can be done unless two steps are taken. We are looking at monetary union, and Labour Members talk about the ecu and all the rest of it. If the Opposition's supporters do not like the present Tory Government and their economic policies, they can chuck the Government out. If there is a Labour Government and the electorate feel they are being unfair to Southend or to Scotland, that Government, too, could be chucked out. However, if powers are given to a central bank—as Labour is tempted to do—and it follows economic policies that are bad for Britain and for jobs, or which are unfair by comparison with Germany or France, the public could do nothing.
We should not kid ourselves with silly Committees, because there are only two ways we can go. First, we could adopt what one might loosely call the Ridley plan, saying, "Please do not let us move any further away from democracy. The other European nations can take that path, but we will not follow." Secondly, the next time that the Common Market has no cash, we could impose conditions on extra cash from Britain, and in that way try to introduce some semblance of democracy.
I know that I speak a lot about such issues, but after many years in the House representing people of all political opinions, I find it tragic that we are slowly destroying our democracy. No one seems to notice or to care. That is not being done by a Conservative Government because they are nasty people, but we have the responsibility for starting the whole thing off. Labour does not want to talk about it because it is a changed party now and basically supports the Common Market. The Liberals do not want to talk about it because they were in favour of the Common Market before anyone else.
558 Rather than blame the Conservatives or Labour, or anyone else, we should try to ensure that our democracy does not fade away. That cannot be done by transferring powers to the European Parliament. That is a joke unless one goes all the way and establishes a European Government. Instead of establishing new Committees and saying that late night debates are useless, and instead of members of the Procedure Committee telling us what to do and then not attending the subsequent debate on their proposals, it will be far better if we look at the basis of democracy in the EEC. It is a big issue, but not a party issue, and it will not go away. We should all consider it.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
I may tell the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) that I am a member of the Procedure Committee, so obviously I want to hear the views expressed this evening. I have not listened to every speech, but I shall certainly read Hansard very carefully. The hon. Member for Southend, East appears to be checking the list of the Committee's members. He will find my name among them.
§ Mr. Banks
I do not know to which document the hon. Gentleman is referring, but if he examines the Select Committee's report, "The Scrutiny of European Legislation", he will see that my name appears first in the list of members, in alphabetical order. Let us assume that the hon. Gentleman is capable of scrutinising EEC legislation more accurately than he is of scrutinising the report of the Select Committee.
The doggedness of the hon. Member for Southend, East is legendary, so it was a little rich of him to accuse the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) of having an obsession with the EC. However, the hon. Gentleman's most important point came at the end of his speech, when he said that if we are to scrutinise EC legislation properly and to give powers to the European Parliament, we would have to move towards adopting a form of federal structure, with a European Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary, and so on. That is precisely the way that we are going. No doubt the hon. Member for Southend, East deplores that fact, as do many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), to whom I pay tribute for his dogged chairing of the Scrutiny Committee.
I am one of those people who, if they have not precisely had a change of heart about the EC, have been caught up by the developments in eastern Europe, to the extent that I want to see the boundaries of Europe stretch rapidly beyond the narrow limits of the Twelve towards a greater Europe. I like the idea of being a European in a European federal state that stretches from the Atlantic to the Urals—it excites me.
I realise that there is a long way to go before we reach that stage, but, it is the way of the future. I do not need to apologise to the House for the views that I have held about the EC. My opposition to it was, and remains, based on the fact that the EC was essentially an economic and political entity to confront the east. That was the important point about it—it was a political entity which was intended to give western capitalism the greatest 559 possible firing power when confronting socialism in the east. But there has been such a change in eastern Europe, and that is why I want a wider Europe.
However, a wider Europe has to be democratic. In this place we have the worst of all possible worlds. We have a bureaucratic structure in Brussels that pumps out more and more legislation affecting people in this country. Hon. Members who are elected to look after the interests of their constituents cannot do so any more. I understand exactly what the hon. Member for Southend, East and my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South mean when they complain that power is leaving this place. In the long run that is inevitable, but that does not mean that we should allow power to haemorrhage away. We have to ask how we can control events.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
I am interested by the hon. Gentleman's use of the word "power". Surely he agrees that a loss of power only results because we have ceded so much cash to the European Community. So many of the ideals that the hon. Gentleman and many hon. Members on both sides of the House support and admire could be achieved without such an immense transfer of cash to the European Community. It is that transfer of cash to the Community that gives it the power that the hon. Gentleman is now criticising.
§ Mr. Banks
No, legislative power is the key. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South will have the budget figures more at his fingertips, but this country's contribution to the EC budget, compared with our total gross national product, is not massively significant. We are talking about legislation, not money, when we talk in terms of power leaving the House.
The other aspect of the EC that makes it so unacceptable to many hon. Members on both sides of the House is that 60 per cent. of the EC budget goes to the common agricultural policy, and it ends up in enormous food mountains in my constituency, where we have an intervention store. I find that obscene, given the proverty in the borough.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) was talking about the Common Market, and my hon. Friend was referring to money. We have spent about £12 billion on being a member of that outfit since this Prime Minister came to power. She is supposed to have brought back barrel-loads of money from the Common Market, yet it has cost the British taxpayer £12,000 million. That farmer on the Conservative Benches is one of the people who is making money out of it. Every family in Britain contributes £16 a day to the common agricultural policy to line the pockets of the hon. Member for Ludlow and the rest of them.
On top of that there is fraud—about £7 billion of it—or what is known as the "gravy train". God knows how much money they are making out of that, and out of the set-aside scheme for farmers, which is a kind way of saying, "Here's a payment of £80 an acre for farmers to watch the grass grow."
§ Mr. Banks
When my hon. Friend describes the EC, I could cheerfully kick it to pieces. The scandals in the EC make it such an abhorrent institution to so many hon. Members. But I am trying to argue that we should go 560 beyond that. The EC is not merely the common agricultural policy—or it should not be—and it is not merely the fraud which is taking place within the 12 states, and which must be stopped. It is so much more than that.
I do not want to talk for long, because I know that many hon. Gentlemen, and perhaps the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), want to speak, but I must tell the hon. Member for Southend, East that, whether we like it or not, we are in the EC up to our ears. It is a question of where we go from here. Withdrawal from the EC is no longer a viable political objective, or a viable political statement to make. Although withdrawal certainly remains Labour party policy, according to previous manifesto commitments and conference decisions, I do not think that even Labour Members who are most vituperatively opposed to the EC believe that a future Labour Government will take us out of the Common Market.
We have to decide whether we will end up standing on the sidelines, complaining about the erosion of power from this place—which I readily accept is happening—or start doing something about it. We must say that we do not like the EC institutions, but we are going to consider the concept of a wider Europe—we must capture the imagination that flows from people such as Gorbachev and respond in an imaginative way. We must say that we want a peaceful redrawing of the map of Europe which would be one of the most blessed events that any of us could experience in our lifetime—especially as many hon. Members have seen Europe plunged into war at least once this century.
Recommendation 10 of the Select Committee's report is that an oral statement should be made to the House before the Council of Ministers' meeting, and it is important that that be accepted fully. We all feel frustrated when we realise that we are often impotent over EC legislation, and we are not even given the opportunity to voice our opinions before major events take place. In many cases, we are not even given the ample opportunity that we should have to voice our opinions after momentous decisions have been taken.
We must find more time for debate. After all, that is all that the Opposition can do. At least, as the Government control the time of the House and have the majority vote, Conservative Members can do something. As Opposition Members—although we will not be in opposition for much longer, I am glad to say—we have to confine ourselves to going on about legislation that we do not like, whether it is domestic legislation or EC legislation. We can only query decisions that the Prime Minister has made up her mind on and told the House about subsequently.
The more time we have to discuss the major events that are taking place in eastern Europe, the more we shall be able to influence them and the less we shall be regarded as a bunch of whingers, standing at the fringes of Europe wringing our hands and saying, "We do not like what is going on but we shall not throw ourselves enthusiastically into trying to influence future events."
In the end, the Select Committee did not recommend that we should have a special EC Question Time, although I spoke in favour of such a recommendation because I think that we should. The Government are never in the mood to give a Select Committee more than it asks for, so they have naturally endorsed recommendation 15. I think that we should have a specific time for EC questions, as we did until 1985, because questions represent an effective 561 way of raising issues. It is not necessarily a question of getting answers from Ministers, as Ministers always have the last word and can give us any answer or no answer at all. But questions are fully understood by those outside this place and are an effective way of keeping the Government in check.
§ The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Francis Maude)
Is there any reason why the hon. Gentleman should not ask EC questions of individual Ministers at their own departmental Question Time? After all, no single Minister has overall responsibility for European Community matters.
§ Mr. Banks
Of course not, and that is precisely what one does. I suspect that most of today's questions to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food were about the impact of EC legislation on British agriculture, and that is so for all the other Departments. But, with the random selection of questions and the shuffle at 4 o'clock, there is no guarantee that one will find, within the reachable confines of the list of questions, those that directly address EC matters. There is an element of pot luck involved.
We could have sections of Question Time allocated to EC matters or just one general EC Question Time at which all the Ministers were lined up. I understand that that is what happens in the Australian Parliament, where one can ask anything of any Minister at any time. The best thing is to choose the Minister who is nodding off and ask him to answer a question off the top of his head. Usually, the poor soul wakes up to realise that he has been asked a question. No doubt the Government would oppose the idea of having all the Ministers there at once, but the fact remains that questions are a useful way of holding the Government to account, and I am sorry that the Select Committee—of which, I regret, the hon. Member for Southend, East did not realise I am a member—did not recommend that.
I realise that there are divisions on the Opposition Benches, but many of them are more imagined than real. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South knows more about the EC than I do. When he and I get into a detailed argument, we generally find—after we have cleared away the important minutiae of the way in which the EC operates at present and started to think about the concept of a wider political entity stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals—that we can join hands on the ideal of a socialist United States of Europe. That is the sort of thing that we are looking for and, in the end, that is what history will give us.
§ Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)
First, I wish to pick up the general philosophical point, which most hon. Members have made, that we are concerned about democracy. We want to ensure that constituents, companies and groups throughout the country can influence legislation which they must, by law, obey. I shall concentrate on one aspect of democracy—consent. The idea that has informed our democracy in Britain is that we all have the ability to discuss any proposal that the Executive may place before us, and we agree that when we have debated the matter, the majority will rule and the minority will accept and abide by the majority's decision.
562 If Europe is to succeed, we must ensure that the same applies there. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) does not like the European Community, but as we are in it and intend to go ahead with it, he wants to ensure that it is both sucessful and democratic. We must find ways to achieve that aim through this House and, if it is not presumptuous to say so, we must find ways of helping our fellow members of the Economic Community to do the same.
It is alarming to see what happens in Italy. The Italians are well behind in implementing many of the European directives and resolutions that will come into force when the single European market is completed in 1992. The punter in Naples, or further south in Sardinia or Brindisi, has absolutely no idea what his parliamentarians have agreed in Strasbourg or Brussels. Even the parliamentarians who meet in the Italian Parliament in Rome have not considered many of the European directives.
I understand that the directives are all considered and passed once a year on the same day. That means that the ordinary man in the street in Naples will suddenly find himself having to adhere to a law of which he has no knowledge and on which he has been unable to consult Members of his own Parliament, let alone Members of the European Parliament. What will be his reaction when he is told that he must serve fish in one particular way or make sausages in another, or perhaps adhere to European legislation on more important issues?
§ Mr. Wells
I think that that is true, and if so, it is a dagger at the heart of the European Community and its success. If we all begin to say that, none of the directives or laws of the European Community will be implemented. We shall have massive problems in achieving a European Community governed by the rule of law, consented to by its people and with its member states willing to implement even those laws with which they do not agree.
§ Mr. Dykes
I realise that this is a generalisation and that there may be variations, but it would seem that in Italy men and women in the street operate directly through their MEPs. My hon. Friend will have noted that, in the European elections in June 1989, the turnout in Italy was 89 per cent., and that 92 per cent. also voted in a referendum for greater European union. There is a general enthusiasm there, which we may not have here.
§ Mr. Wells
My hon. Friend is entirely right. One of the difficulties in persuading the Italians to take a closer interest in the legislation of the European Community is that there is enormous enthusiasm for the general concept. The same is true in Spain. Those countries do not take an interest in what is actually being proposed. They simply pass the legislation en bloc and say, "Hooray! That is what we joined the Community for." The adherence of the ordinary person in the street to European directives and law is much more widespread in Britain than it is in Italy or Spain because of the procedures, however inadequate, that we have used in this House.
For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) has for many years played a valuable role in the Select Committee on European Legislation. We are trying to improve the way in which we deal with European legislation, so as to achieve what my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) wants 563 —to ensure that we at least are being as democratic as possible. We have not yet achieved that—even with the report.
I wish to refer briefly to the terms of reference and the resolution. As the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) said, taken together they prevent the House from considering anything recommended by the Scrutiny Committee which does not directly refer to a legislative document coming from the Community. We must be able to debate issues that are coming before the European Council which, since the passage of the Single European Act, has become the major policy-making instrument of the Community.
Our Committee must be able to consider those matters, to call for persons and papers if the matter requires it and to make a report to the House to enable the House to discuss matters before the Prime Minister goes to any European Council meetings or before she or other Ministers attend Council of Ministers meetings. We are not in that position and my right hon. and learned Friend's proposal does not make that explicit. He says that he will consider adapting and adopting the terms of reference and the resolution.
§ Mr. Wells
I would prefer not to.
We must adopt and adapt the resolution of the House and extend the terms of reference of the Select Committee to permit us to have such a debate. When the Madrid Council met, we all knew, because of what had been happening at the European Council meeting at Hamburg, that the questions of European monetary union and of the Delors report would be discussed. The Select Committee considered that, as did the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service. Both Committees presented reports to the House before the Prime Minister was due to take off for Madrid. However, we were unable to command, to recommend or to get the Leader of the House to institute a debate before the Prime Minister departed.
That is a thorough-going undermining of the privileges of the House. Parliament was unable to take a part or to influence or advise the Prime Minister before she made very important decisions on our behalf. Although she came back to tell us what she had done, that is not exactly being accountable to this Parliament. We must put that right. I hope that when my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House considers the terms of reference of the Select Committee on European Legislation and the resolution that follows, he will make certain that the Committee can consider such matters and recommend them for debate.
The setting up of special Standing Committees leave a great deal to be desired. In the debate this evening, other Members, such as the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), have said that they believe that a European Grand Committee might be the right answer. If we do not get the construction of the proposed three Committees right, we shall need something like a European Grand Committee to do the job for us.
We must consider the membership in detail. On some matters, the new Committees may need members from the relevant Select Committees. Can we therefore appoint the 564 members of all 10 of the Committees for the whole of a Parliament? Should there not be some core members, the Committees then being added to as the subject matter changes? If we have just three Committees and the subject matter is varied, we shall need other hon. Members in them. It is essential that other hon. Members can attend and speak, and I welcome that suggestion.
How will we staff the Committees? They will need expert and continuing staff so that they can build up the expertise of both staff and regular members of the Committees. No reference has been made to how the committees will be staffed. I suggest that they are staffed at least as well as Select Committees, and possibly better.
Another question that has not been addressed is what the chairmanship will be. Will the Chairman be chosen from the Chairmen's Panel, or will he or she be selected from among the members of the Committee, as is the case for Select Committees? There needs to be a Chairman for the Session, so that he or she builds up expertise in a particular area for the Committee.
I endorse what the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) said about automaticity. It must remain possible for a matter of strong political debate and discussion to be taken on the Floor of the House and not in Committee. The committees would not be a good forum for such debates. We need only 20 hon. Members to be standing in their places to insist that a debate takes place on the Floor of the House, and I recommend that.
The size of the Committees also needs to be considered. I am not certain that 10 is a sufficient number if a Committee is to sit constantly. If the European Legislation Committee is to be given the additional powers to which I have just referred, the number of members must be increased from the present 16.
§ Sir Peter Emery
My hon. Friend talks about 20 Members being able to ensure that a matter is debated on the Floor of the House, but how often does he think that that might happen? If it is to be a frequent occurrence, we shall return far more to the debates from 10 pm to 11.30 pm that we are trying to avoid. We must achieve a balance between the two.
§ Mr. Wells
I could not agree more. My hon. Friend is quite right, but the record shows that it is only on rare occasions—I do not think that there has been one in this Parliament—that 20 hon. Members have risen to insist on a debate on the Floor of the House when a matter has been proposed for reference to a Committee.
§ Mr. Skinner
There is a problem about time in this place and about fitting in the agenda. The Common Market gets pushed to the back because the Government know only a few hon. Members on either side of the argument take part in the debates, and most are anti-market.
Another part of the agenda, called the private Bill procedure, has been increasingly used—in fact, it has been abused. We have a private Bill almost every week. In my time in the House—you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will confirm this—the procedure has been growing apace. We could adopt the report on the private Bill procedure which recommends that we change it and make promoters go back to planning authorities to get permission for port Bills and so forth. There is another private Bill on Monday. There are three hours in the palm of the 565 Chairman of Ways and Means. Without private Bills, we could have Common Market debates on the various issues and we might be able to have six or eight a year.
The hon. Gentleman spoke of telling the Prime Minister what to do before she went to a meeting. I know that he is not after a knighthood. If he were, and he told the Prime Minister what to do, he could forget the knighthood and the peerage because she will chop his legs off.
§ Mr. Wells
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the question of a knighthood has long since gone. I have already tried the procedures that he has suggested and been rejected. None the less, I will continue to give my right hon. Friend advice.
Whether we shall have more debates on the Floor of the House is a matter of time. We should have most of the debates in the enhanced Committees, but there should be a relatively easy way to override the normal direction and ensure that debates are held on the Floor of the House. Politically contentious matters are properly dealt with on the Floor of the House.
Brief mention has been made of the special Standing Committees and whether Ministers and shadow Ministers should be members of those Committees. That matter must be addressed, especially when important legislative matters are being considered. I remember when my hon. Friend the Minister, when he was at the Department of Trade and Industry, used the procedures of the House to influence the debate in the European Parliament by ensuring that we had debates here on, for example, the insurance directive, well in advance.
I remember when my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Lilley) arranged early debates which were read by the Commission and which strengthened the negotiating hand of my hon. Friend in the Council of Ministers. That early use of debates in the Chamber should overcome the pessimism of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor). If we use the procedures and set up the Committees properly, it is possible to influence the course of events and the legislation which goes through the European Parliament.
We should give serious consideration to offering membership of the special Standing Committees to European Members of Parliament. We have been unable to get European Members of Parliament informally to attend the European Legislation Committee because that involves procedures within the European Parliament as to who should be sent and whether only British Members of the European Parliament should attend the British Parliament. Sometimes the European Parliament gets in a muddle and suggests that its spokesman on a particular subject should be sent to the British Parliament. I believe that instead of approaching the European Parliament we should offer membership of our Committees dealing with European matters directly to European Members of Parliament. Perhaps they should not be able to vote in those Committees, but they should be invited to attend them.
In conclusion, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary suggested, we have to develop the European Parliament to check the Commission and to make the Commission accountable to the European Parliament. In that connection, our Ministers have had to accept a Commission decision in relation to today's statement on British Aerospace. But who is to bring the Commission to account? Where is the Committee which examines the 566 Commission as to how and why it took that decision? At the moment the Commission is not subject to such examination. The European Parliament should do that job.
Equally, our national Parliament should be related directly to the Council of Ministers. Procedures such as those that we are debating today can bring our Ministers to account. If all the national Parliaments represented at the Council of Ministers did that, we should begin to regain democratic control over Community institutions. It is vital that we continue to strive to make Europe the democratic organisation that we all want it to be.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)
It might be too dramatic to say that we are discussing the future of the House of Commons, although my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) spoke about the combined future of eastern and western Europe. however, the documents that we are considering deal with some aspects of the future framework of the House of Commons.
At one time, one could say that Britain did not have a constitution and was dependent on its past statutes. Nothing was binding for the future, as the House could change the law. However, the treaty of Rome, the Single European Act and other measures that have flowed from the operation of the treaty of Rome make that argument no longer feasible. Although we cannot bind the future, our treaty obligations, the decisions of the European Commission and the deals and discussions within the Council of Ministers can bind our future and limit the power of the House. The more we bed down into the European Community, the greater the legislative restrictions that bear down upon us. The saga of the Spanish fishermen is merely the beginning and is a logical consequence of our entry into the European Community.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West, who said that we were in the worst of all possible worlds in regard to the European Community institutions. We do not have democratic provisions, so the democratic bandwagons must move either towards pan-European democracy and a reformed Europe, or towards trying to return sovereignty to the House and to remove those restrictions. It is not always easy to see which alternative is the most feasible.
The Government's response to the documents from the Procedure Committee and from the Scrutiny Committee was fairly grudging, especially on matters concerning democracy, scrutiny examination and knowledge. Democracy does not involve simply formal legislative decision-making and democratic rights and procedures. Knowledge and information build upon democratic rights and procedures, and remain important.
Some of the current developments in Britain are anti-democratic. The ancient right of petitioning, which existed long before the democratic franchise, has acquired greater significance as it is being eroded. Sometimes the weaker aspects of democracy need to be defended to advance the democratic process. That is why the reports that we are considering are not futile. They should not be disregarded, as they provide levers and avenues by which to extend understanding, which is an important part of democratic procedures.
567 The Government's response was not in keeping with the spirit of the report by the Scrutiny Committee and the Procedure Committee. The Government's clearest responses to the Procedure Committee dismissed certain proposals or made negative ones. The Procedure Committee said that there should be no change in Question Time and the Government agreed. I believe that the Procedure Committee and the Government are entirely wrong. The Scrutiny Committee suggested that there should be slots, and other proposals have also been put forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West suggested the Australian pattern in which Members could question several Ministers. That system also operates in Canada where the Opposition ask the questions and the Ministers decide among themselves who should respond to each question. That is not necessarily better than our system, but it could operate for European Community questions by having all the relevant Ministers present and open questioning as we have in Prime Minister's Question Time.
The Government agreed with the Procedure Committee in dismissing some proposals and endorsed its rejection of others. There is to be no European Community Grand Committee as that proposal was rejected by the Procedure Committee and the Government jumped on that bandwagon. They seem to have reached a compromise on the proposal that one European Grand Committee should deal with all European affairs and the suggestion from the Procedure Committee that there should be five special Standing Committees. The Government agreed that there should be three Committees. That resembles their compromise on whether we should be out of the European Community or be part of a grand pan-European democratic structure. The result is a bureaucratic, undemocratic system which is deemed to deal with unitary control from the centre and on which we have few democratic checks.
I could mention other aspects of the Government's response which are negative. It was suggested that there should be no formal links with MEPs and the Government agreed with that. The Government accepted certain proposals only with qualifications as they hummed and hah-ed over various proposals. They accepted extending the Committees' terms of reference but then stated that that should be strictly in relation to deposited documents and that there should be no free-standing studies on broad policy issues. However the Leader of the House suggested that there might be some discussion on broadening the terms of reference to make them more acceptable to the Scrutiny Committee than had ever been imagined.
The language of the Government's response is not very inspiring. The Government tend to say, "We are already doing many of the things that have been suggested." When more documents are requested by a Committee, they say, "We have been doing this for a while. You can trust us." It is partly because there has been no trust in the procedures and partly because the Executive are tied in with the activities in Europe that reports such as this have been prepared.
The report suggests that there should be business-type statements to allow general discussion to take place. The Government reject that. The proposal made by the 568 Procedure Committee for automatic referral to the new special Standing Committees, which the Scrutiny Committee does not like, suggests that 40 hon. Members standing in their place should be able to force a debate on the Floor of the House. The Scrutiny Committee says that 20 hon. Members is appropriate. We can argue whether 20 or 40 is appropriate, but, whatever the figure, it gives hon. Members the opportunity of some control on significant measures.
If the procedures that are adopted lead to greater knowledge of European affairs, more hon. Members will want to say to the Government, for example, "You are wrong about the recommendations from the Scrutiny Committee, and there are enough of us to force a debate on the Floor of the House."
Other parts of the report are acceptable and are in line with the recommendations made by the Procedure Committee. They are not of staggering significance, but they will be worth while. Business statements will mention special Standing Committee meetings so that hon. Members are aware of them. But when business statements are made, most hon. Members ask a prepared question and say, "Why will not this, that or the other be discussed this week?"
The report mentions how pressure groups will be able to scrutinise parliamentary activity and inform hon. Members what is taking place. That adds to the checks and balances of a democratic system.
Given the problems, it is little wonder that the Scrutiny Committee has said that it is looking for changes to its terms of reference that are not merely cosmetic. It hopes that its recommendations about pre-legislative documents being available will be accepted in a positive spirit, and it rejects automatic referral to the new Committees and stresses the point quite strongly.
What should the House do about these measures? Paragraph 117 of the report shows what is required, mentions the volume of work andthe fact that a small number of documents continue to be adopted before scrutiny is complete; the ineffectiveness of late night debates on European documents; and the impact of the increased use of majority voting on individual member states' ability to block legislation to which they are opposed.It acknowledgesthe inevitable constraints imposed by the United Kingdom's treaty commitments on the House's ability to improve the effectiveness of scrutiny and the corresponding need to approach the subject with realistically modest expectations.That paragraph shows what will be required in terms of information, knowledge and understanding to enable hon. Members at least to check what is taking place elsewhere.
The issue of democratising Europe is much wider than the issue in front of us. It might be suggested that the report proposes rather nit-picking and insignificant measures. That is not so, and must run with what is available. If we do that, we may begin to open many wider issues. Luckily, democracy is not just about formal voting procedures, the right to vote or other legislative avenues; other aspects are associated with it. The principal aspects are the formal arrangements and, whether they are being attacked in Europe or in this country, we must consider them closely.
I hope that hon. Members who have spoken strongly about democracy will pay some attention to what is happening in this country, such as the disfranchisement of 569 many people. About 600,000 people are missing from the electoral roll. That is an important point to make, even if it is not immediately relevant to the debate.
§ Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)
As the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) moved towards the end of his remarks, I found myself in more agreement with him than I had been at the beginning, although he ended on a note with which I am not immediately sympathetic. The hon. Gentleman was unfair to accuse the Government of being grudging in their response to the report of the Select Committee on Procedure. Rather, the hon. Gentleman was grudging about the report and the commentary of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House on it.
The Procedure Committee recommended what it believed to be the right approach—an all-party Committee—and the Government seem to have made a generous response to the report. We should be grateful for that and for this debate. I hope that it will be the first of a series of debates. We cannot consider only the issues disclosed by the report and those that have been tagged on to it in the debate, in the belief that we can settle them in one series of discussions with Government, produce new procedures and that we shall be all right for the next 10 or 20 years. Clearly we will not be, because events are moving very fast.
The characteristic of the scrutiny offered by the Select Committee on European Legislation is that it is very meticulous but highly restrictive. We are confined to a somewhat blinkered approach. We have the document and nothing but the document, unless, by a sidelong glance, it is yet another document that we can link to it. That role is too suffocating for the Committee.
I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House will not accuse me of ingratitude if I concentrate on the points on which I disagree with the Government's response, because I acknowledge that there has been a welcome move by the Government to realise that more must be done to improve the scrutiny of European legislation. I am delighted that the Government are willing to move on the terms of reference, but I am disappointed that apparently they are not prepared to move far enough.
My right hon. and learned Friend said that he was introducing some modest measures. I should like to persuade him to be immodest. I do not invite him to make a major change because the Scrutiny Committee is not seeking that. However, we need to break the link with documents. If we cannot do that, our role will continue to be stultified. If I heard my right hon. and learned Friend correctly, he said that in the process of scrutiny we should be trying to focus on the new issues that should concern the House. The Scrutiny Committee would like to have that role. For example, two important intergovernmental conferences were agreed at the Dublin summit. However, we will not be allowed to comment on those.
The Select Committee on European Legislation's second special report of the 1985–86 Session—and the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), has already referred to it—stated:as a Scrutiny Committee, we were never able to report on the Act"—the Single European Act—or on the Inter-Governmental Conference held in accordance with the Treaty in autumn 1985 which produced 570 it, because both were outside our terms of reference. A similar situation has occurred from time to time in the budgetary affairs of the Community, when an Inter-Governmental Agreement has been used to supplement Community funds.We will be similarly confined as other events occur.
In their response to the Procedure Committee, the Government appear to be worried by the thought that the Scrutiny Committee might become involved infree-standing studies of broad policy issues which might tend to duplicate the work of other Committees.Let me reassure my right hon. and learned Friend: we want only a modest extension of our role. Would he consider a quota which might be allocated to us of special investigations that we might carry out?
Let us experiment. There is a spirit of experimentation infusing some aspects of the Government's response to the Procedure Committee. Why cannot that spirit of experimentation overflow into this area as well? If it does not work, or if—perish the thought—the Government are uncomfortable with the product of an investigation by the Scrutiny Committee, the Leader of the House can come back to the House and tell us that it is not working and that he wants to suggest another change. However, let us experiment. We should not adopt the attitude at the outset that there cannot be any change.
§ Mr. Spearing
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said. However, I believe that his case about quotas is even stronger than he is making it. Does he recall that in the year to which he referred an arrangement had been reached with the Select Committees that, if they did not want to consider a particular matter, there was no reason why an enlarged preference for our Scrutiny Committee could not be used to investigate that matter? Without such a power, there is a visible gap in Select Committee investigations.
§ Mr. Haselhurst
I was trying not to be too immodest in the proposal that I was putting before my right hon. and learned Friend. If the Government are concerned about the Scrutiny Committee spreading its wings, is it really wrong to suggest that it should be allowed to flutter them a little? Let us see how such a modest extension of the role, perhaps on a quota basis, would work out. That is an essential move if scrutiny is to take on a more comprehensive meaning.
I support the Scrutiny Committee's view about the special European Standing Committees and the power of referral. I suggest that the Government should see how we get on with the new European Standing Committees before they reach a final view on automatic referral. They should step back from that proposal at the moment. Let us run the new Committees for a year and see how the system works. If it goes wrong, the Government's case is made and the House will no doubt accept their view. However, they should not press the matter before we have seen how the new Committees work.
I endorse my colleagues' opinion that we should accept the Procedure Committee's view and have five of those Committees. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), I believe that the burden on three Committees would be too much. It would be wise to spread the load and see how we go. I understand the problem about whether hon. Members will turn up to the Committees. It is a matter of how seriously the House as a whole believes that the job must be taken.
I do not want to sound too censorious, but in some ways the tone is set by the Government. If there is any 571 feeling of ambivalence about the Government's commitment, some hon. Members might not believe that this is the most important thing that the House can be doing. It is clear from everyone who has spoken today, particularly from those who are most hostile to the Community, that there is a realisation that the process must be taken seriously and that, if we are to make a success of scrutiny, we must all be committed to it.
As I said, the tone must be set by the Government. However, I do not believe that those who are still fighting in principle the battle of 1971 are doing much good. They are not helping to develop a serious approach to scrutiny in the House. They are not helping us move on to more effective control of European legislation. They intone about the solemnity of this Parliament, but what is Parliament but the embodiment of the will of the people? The will of the people has been determined on the matter of whether we should be involved in the European Community. They should trust what the people have decided and put those arguments behind them.
In the spirit of experiment, I hope that the Government, after they have reflected on this debate, will follow the Procedure Committee's recommendations. I want to refer to several minor points. They are minor in comparison to the Procedure Committee's recommendations, and they are dealt with in what amount to footnotes in the report.
I endorse what the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said about the use of telephones. He made his point very well and we must pay attention to it. I am glad that the Services Committee has been asked to consider that matter, and I hope that we will have positive and not grudging action.
With regard to the relationship with Members of the European Parliament, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells). Perhaps the new European Standing Committees will be the vehicles by which MEPs are introduced into our proceedings. The Procedure Committee said that that would require primary legislation. If that is so, we should face up to it. If we are taking scrutiny seriously, perhaps we should have a little primary legislation. If primary legislation will strengthen the role of this House, we would not make a meal of it; let us get on with it. It is just possible that the creation of the new Committees could evolve to allow in MEPs in certain prescribed circumstances. That would help us to liaise effectively on the whole question of scrutiny.
A point was made earlier about travel. I would not necessarily want to go as far as the suggestion of the hon. Member for Copeland that individual Members should have the right to travel. I am not unsympathetic to what he said, but I said to myself in parenthesis that to call for individual hon. Members to have the right to travel on the continent when currently it is proposed to tax them on travelling within their own constituency seems a bold call. If we cannot go as far as the hon. Member for Copeland suggested, perhaps we should consider special arrangements for the Scrutiny Committee.
§ Mr. Robertson
I was waiting to see whether the hon. Gentleman would confine the largesse to members of the Committee. Many of them are in the Chamber tonight. With regard to the taxation of benefits and the threat that all travel by hon. Members will come within the tax net, I 572 wonder whether there would be more enthusiasm for taxing hon. Members' travel in their constituencies if Ministers' cars were treated on the same basis.
§ Mr. Haselhurst
I gave way to the hon. Gentleman in a spirit of good will—I have a great deal of respect for him—but it was clearly a mistake. He pursued the parenthesis that I had embarked on. I do not wish to be drawn any further on it.
The hon. Gentleman anticipated me. I was about to suggest that a more modest proposal than to allow everyone to travel on the continent would be to adjust the terms affecting the Scrutiny Committee. I do not suggest that out of any selfish reason. I simply wish to put it on record that the Scrutiny Committee needs to travel within Europe to a degree to do the job with which it is charged. It is not a matter of the Committee deciding, for example, that it needs to study how the dairy industry in New Zealand is faring. The Committee must meet the European Parliament, the Commission, and the United Kingdom permanent representative in Brussels and liase with parliamentarians in countries which are about to hold the presidency. That is a modest proposal.
It would be helpful to keep the expense of the Scrutiny Committee's travel apart from the normal expenses of the departmental Select Committees. By implication, we should have to include in that the members of the European Standing Committees.
§ Mr. Dykes
My hon. Friend makes an important point. He seems to suggest that members of the Scrutiny Committee are no longer nervous about going abroad and meeting foreigners, that they feel much more at ease when they do and that those journeys can no longer be classified in conventional terms as visits abroad because we go to the Community and meet other parliamentarians. Does he agree that his suggestions are even more relevant and unavoidable in the context of the European Parliament's response to various initiatives? The assizes in Italy are coming up in the autumn and other developments are going ahead fast. It appears that the European Parliament will respond positively to the idea of receiving Scrutiny Committees from national Parliaments in a formal sense on regular visits and, indeed, individual members of the Committee when they visit the Strasbourg Parliament. Would he encourage that process, too?
§ Mr. Haselhurst
I hear what my hon. Friend says. I would certainly encourage that process. We must recognise that we are part of the Community. We ought occasionally to be seen in other parts of it if we are to appear a credible force and be taken seriously when perhaps we object to some aspects of developments with which the majority of our colleagues in the Community agree. We must be seen as serious players in the game. That does not just mean Heads of Government and Ministers. Increasingly, Members of this House must be seen abroad. Those who lament the loss of power of this House should heed the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes).
The ever-closer union of the European peoples is coming ever closer, whether it is perceived to be inching towards us or galloping towards us. It will happen. Those who worry that that takes away the sovereignty and power of this Parliament should pause to wonder what power and what sovereignty will be left in this Parliament if Britain stands outside a Community that goes from strength to 573 strength, whether it stretches from the Atlantic to the Urals or there is merely a modest increase in the present number of member states.
If we are to command proper control of events that will affect the destiny of this country, we must consider our procedure ever more carefully and ever more regularly. I say to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House, again in a spirit of experiment and flexibility, that if he is prepared to take a few chances with some of the suggestions put to him both by the Procedure Committee and in the debate today, there is no reason why there should not be a supplementary report from the Procedure Committee or the Scrutiny Committee after 12 months. We could then debate the further report.
We have had a useful debate today, but it is unfinished business. We must return to the subject again and again in fast-changing circumstances to ensure that the relationship of this Parliament with other Parliaments of the Community and the European Parliament is as right as it may be.
§ 9.4 pm
§ Mr. Michael Knowles (Nottingham, East)
My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) made his case in a gentle and kindly way—understanding the Government's point of view—that was illustrative of his character. Perhaps I could put my points more robustly. After all, today's Order Paper refers to "Scrutiny of European Legislation", as does the Select Committee report.
The Government's proposals were very well taken apart by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes). His criticisms of them were, in my view, absolutely right. My biggest criticism is this: perhaps they are all right if one considers that scrutiny is enough, but I do not.
I am a member of the Select Committee on European Legislation, and agree with its report. I endorse what was said by our Chairman, the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing)—at least in the first part of his speech—but I believe that we should go much further: we must return to the idea of some form of Grand Committee to examine forward policy. At present, any scrutiny policy means looking at a piece of paper that has already been produced; the policy is already well down the path. It is already half committed, and secret deals have been done in the Council before it ever sees the light of day. The problem for the House is that it does not get ahead of the game as far as European policy is concerned. That is the challenge that we must face.
If the Government had introduced their proposals 10 years ago, they would have been fine, but they are not good enough now. We are promised that in the future something will be done about the nonsense of telephoning or posting a letter to anywhere else in the Community. The sums concerned are trivial; hon. Members are more than prepared to pay themselves. However, it betrays an attitude that has not changed, judging by the Government's response to the proposals. We have a major battle to advance an inch, whereas it should be something that happens automatically with virtually no discussion.
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe
I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend refer with such enthusiasm to these matters. I want to convey to him the clear impression that the Government would be delighted to press ahead as quickly as possible, 574 but—until recently—that proved difficult because the attitude to which he has referred lingered in some parts of the House. The Government's attitude is "the quicker the better" in regard to most of these practical and sensible proposals. I would find the general tone of the debate encouraging if it were less critical of the Government.
§ Mr. Knowles
I understand my right hon. and learned Friend's position. In these matters we are all pushed into role playing: he sits on the Front Bench and defends the Executive, whereas I sit on the Back Bench as a legislator. It is natural that I should wield the tools I have to bring pressure to bear.
When have we debated in the House recent reports from the European Parliament? Recently, there has been the Martin report, which was concerned with where the European Parliament wants to go; the Colombo report—the new draft treaty for European union; the Giscard d'Estaing report on the principle of subsidiarity—we have endless discussions in the House on subsidiarity and federalism, and I recommend that fascinating report on those topics; and the Devuager report and the assizes, which were mentioned in passing earlier. There was an offhand reference to discussions through the usual channels. European Parliaments are supposed to be represented in the assizes, rather than the two Front Benches.
When will the House discuss those matters and who will represent the House in Rome in October? That must be decided within the next month because the House will not return from the recess in time to reach a decision. We need to keep a weather eye on that.
§ Mr. Knowles
I thank my hon. Friend for that kind thought. At all times he is a kind and generous man.
Some of today's speeches have betrayed the fact that hon. Members have an arrogant attitude towards the European Parliament. It is as though this Parliament were the only representative assembly not only in Europe, but in the world. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) suggested that we did the job of scrutiny so well that the other 11 national Parliaments should copy us—they would then be all right. I find that arrogance stunning. Usually it is preceded by the misquote that this is the mother of Parliaments, but it is England that is supposed to be that mother. I must admit that some of our offspring do much better than us on occasions.
I understand the 19th century classical parliamentary system where members of the Executive sit in the Chamber and answer to the legislature. I understand the separation of powers. The modern British political system is characterised by tight control by the Executive and tight party systems. That means that the Executive virtually controls the legislature. I am not sure that we shall be lecturing other people much longer. The idea that the British system is the best at all times and in all circumstances is remarkable. We should consider the Parliaments of our European partners.
In Denmark, Ministers appear two or three days before a Council of Ministers meeting with the agenda and go through it with the relevant committee so that it has some idea about what will be discussed. That is a vast 575 improvement on the parliamentary control excercised by the Executive. We can learn from other Parliaments, and we must give up our arrogant attitude.
One of my hon. Friends spoke about checking the Commission. That is right, and the only body to do that is the European Parliament, but who checks the Council of Ministers? At one time, the idea was that national Parliaments checked the Council because every individual Government had the power of veto that came with the Single European Act. Earlier, my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House said that the Council is a legislative chamber, but it is the only one I know in the western world that meets in secret. That is a cause not for pride but for criticism.
We must grapple with the principles that lie behind the arguments on subsidiarity and the federal system. I agree with the hon. Member for Inverness, North and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston). I would rather move to a federal system where powers are delineated so we know where we are. It is also argued that legislatures can control the Executive at two levels. Power has now slipped from the national level, but it has not been acquired at the European level. If we are not careful, the power of scrutiny will not be exercised by either tier.
We must stop looking on our colleagues in the European Parliament as opponents. They are our colleagues and we are in the same business together. Let us get on with that business and ensure that we establish a democratic Europe.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
It may not be an exaggeration to say that 1990 may prove to be a watershed in the history of European affairs considering the dramatic events in eastern Europe and the developments within the European Community—demonstrated by the fact that two intergovernmental conferences are planned. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also made a significant statement this afternoon, which was followed by a most interesting set of exchanges. My right hon. Friend gave us one of the clearest expositions of Britain's position in the EC that the House has yet heard.
This debate is significant for two reasons. First, we are demonstrating that the will of Parliament can be heard. I take issue with the contention of Lord Bethell, who was quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) and who implied that European legislation was not properly scrutinised. It is well known that hon. Members can obtain from the Vote Office a piece of paper—I have a copy of it in my hand—each week which explains practically everything going on in the European Commission. It is possible by that means for hon. Members to appraise themselves of the legislation that is coming to this House and to take steps to ensure that, at some stage of our procedure, it gets adequate consideration.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) was critical of the way in which we consider European legislation. He thought that the pass had been sold and that our deliberations today about change were neither here nor there. I do not regard that as sufficient reasons for not making changes.
576 As my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Waldon (Mr. Haselhurst) pointed out, if the changes prove insufficient, there is no reason why we should not make further changes later. Like others, I was glad to hear the Leader of the House say that there was no reluctance by the Government to review the situation and perhaps to go faster in future.
The second important feature of the debate is that at last we are sending out the right message to the nation about the importance that we attach to the consideration of European business. For too long, the nation has heard too little about our consideration of such matters, mainly because our debates take place late at night when the press have gone home, so our remarks are not reported in yesterday's or tomorrow's papers, when the radio stations have closed down and when the prospects of getting coverage for our deliberations are slim. As hon. Members have said, our debates often occur at the eleventh hour and we are debating matters in retrospect.
I welcome the positive commitment of the Government to improve the procedures for scrutiny. The proposed changes recognise the realities of the situation, and not before time. While much of what we discuss by way of European legislation and directives is mundane, it includes important issues. There are matters of principle and policy at stake. In addition, much of the legislation, because of practical considerations, is irreversible and takes precedence over national law.
I welcome the determination to debate future events. Looking to the future, it is vital for Britain to make a success of our membership, and to do that we must demonstrate to the country that we have the will power and determination to do what is necessary.
I shall sound a word of caution—the exchange rate mechanism and the European currency unit will not do more for us in this country than we are prepared to do for ourselves. If we want to create sound money—I am sure that we do—lower interest and inflation rates and better exchange rates, those aims are all within our control. No one must run away with the idea that because we join the exchange rate mechanism, those things will be done for us. It depends so much on the political will of this Parliament and House, and the individual will of men and women throughout the country, whether as managers of our industries or members of the work force within industry. We should make no bones about it: competent countries will go ahead within the Community regardless.
I accept that the Council of Ministers will have to remain the main decision-making organisation in the European Community. I have frequently spoken about the importance of protecting the principle of subsidiarity, and I do not intend to speak about that any more this evening.
There was an interesting exchange some time ago involving power and the relationship between the powers of this House and those of the European Community. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) seemed reluctant to accept that power and cash were inseparable and indivisible components, and that one cannot have power without cash. He implied that legislation could be passed without costing money. I strongly question that. That old-fashioned and outdated idiom that power came out of the barrel of a gun is now a dead letter. That has been epitomised in eastern Europe. Power today, in modern Europe and the modern world, means economic power.
577 The hon. Member of Newham, North-West said that divisions among Opposition Members in relation to Europe were more apparent than real. Does he really mean that? Where was he this afternoon when we saw the phenomenal spectacle of the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) agreeing with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister? I do not think that it was possible for the Prime Minister to include the Leader of the Opposition in that. No doubt the divisions that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West declines to recognise were recognised by Conservative Members.
The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) intervened on the issue of structural funds—he would because it is an essential plank of socialism to have large central funds that can be dispersed for those purposes that socialist politicians feel that the state can serve best. Socialists support the structural funds; I do not.
The hon. Member for Bolsover also said that that was the means by which farmers lined their pockets. He suggested that agriculture did well out of the structural funds. However, the state of British agriculture today is the poorer as a result of the structural funds. I am certainly not reluctant for the common agricultural policy to be dismantled. I believe—I have said this to the House many times—that structural funds are totally unnecessary in the context of what wer are trying to do in Europe. We can create a prosperous and peaceful Europe without structural funds.
Europe needs us for our pragmatism, our experience, our sense of history and our acceptance of the rule of law. Above all, they need us for our courage. That is well personified by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who is not afraid to say no when unacceptable proposals are put to us.
§ Mr. Dykes
I shall be brief. The winding-up speeches are awaited with great anticipation because we are anxious to see whether there is a meeting of minds between the Government and the Opposition on the scrutiny proposals. I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House for the Government's positive response to the suggestions of the Procedure Committee and the Scrutiny Committee. However, I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will reconsider the automatic referral syndrome that is proposed as part of the Government's response, because that would be an extension of the Executive's power over Parliament. That is the kernel of the debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) said, perhaps the matter could be considered in a year or two, depending on how matters turn out.
In the debate there has been a realistic recognition that we are part of the European Community. I was struck by a leader in a newspaper on Sunday which said:
If Britain had been well governed over the decades and had enjoyed decades … of steady economic growth, combined with social harmony, the decision … about our membership would be more difficult. In almost every way our European partners have done better and continue to do better than us.When my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House was Foreign Secretary, he was acknowledged as an enthusiastic exponent of our membership of the Community. He served Britain well in that role by 578 defending our interests and recognising the reality of our membership of Europe. That is what the central scrutiny procedure is to be about.
Like other hon. Members, I am pleased that we have got away from pretending that scrutiny is a fringe activity, carried out originally, because for some hon. Members the form and structure of our legislation for entering the Community was controversial. That is why the Foster committee was set up.
I was impressed when the Spanish scrutiny committee approached us after the return of democracy to Spain. Its members said that they would like to speak to us about our work and about how they should proceed in Madrid. One of the terms of reference of the Spanish scrutiny committee in Madrid was "to promote and accelerate the development of the Community in Spain." From memory, those are the exact words. I wish that we had had such self-confidence at the beginning of our membership. However, we approached it in the classic British way which has stood the test of time.
We are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and to the members of his Committee for their excellent suggestions. I strongly agree with most of them. Unlike some hon. Members, I welcome the Government's response to the idea of individual subject Committees. Whatever the number of such Committees—and I realise that that might cause difficulties—that is a better approach than the Grand Committee idea.
We have now reached the later stage of mature scrutiny and must maximise liaison with our colleagues in the European Parliament. I should like to see Conservative Members liaising with Labour Members and Members from other parties in that Parliament. I agree with the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) that it was unfortunate that we have an election system which produces results judged by other Members of the European Parliament to be monumentally unfair. There are no Liberals in that Parliament. We may have to face that issue and in due course may well decide that for European elections it would be right to have proportional representation, even if we do not change the voting system for election to the House of Commons.
The scrutiny procedures are capable of being highly developed, provided we recognise that the additional layer of political, economic and social activity, which is the European Community layer, is not our enemy but our natural ally. The success of that depends on cross-fertilisation of ideas between the Christian Democrats, the Socialists and the Liberals in the European Parliament and their national equivalents in the Parliaments of member states. They are all struggling and/or working together for the political results that we wish to achieve, not one excluding the other, looking down on the other, describing British MEPs as of no consequence. All those days are now over. We are now into the stage of new realism.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House said with his characteristic humour just now, his chances, as a very good Leader of the House, if I may embarrass him by saying so, of promoting scrutiny in the House are now improved and enhanced because at long last the Labour party, after only 15 or 16 months, has miraculously transformed itself with some exceptions—such as one or two of those elderly hon. Members who questioned my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister today on her statement on the summit, the hon. Member for 579 Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and others—into a pro-European party for the first time. That has occurred in an extraordinarily short time.
It was the lack of such support which stalled the possibility of proper practical measures of scrutiny, telephone calls, postage and passes for MEPs. Labour Members in the Services Committee and elsewhere would have none of it. They did not want such people here with their continuing theme. I remember that it took several years to extrude a modest system of passes for MEPs. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend will remember, even then, how grudging Labour Members were at the late-night debate when they conceded that.
Now it is all roses, light and enlightenment for Labour Members. I do not refer to the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) whose views have been consistently enthusiastic. But we shall have to watch closely to see whether that change is more than skin deep in the future. I think that the Conservative party, with the Liberals, will retain their natural monopoly of enthusiasm for the EC, but perhaps Labour will come up to scratch later.
Whatever the case may be, we are now embarked on a much more serious and profound scrutiny procedure, and I hope that we shall have the practical concomitants of that—telephone calls, postage facilities and all the rest which would make that work useful not only for the House and Britain, as the Procedure Committee has recommended, but for every elector, contrary to the anxieties of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing).
§ Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)
It is nice to be able to follow the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), whose opportunism and idealism shine through, despite the fact that he was being glowered at by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash). There is a much wider gulf between them than the two and a half sword lengths that divide the two sides of the House.
This has been a remarkably even-handed debate, not given to the normal cut and thrust of partisan politics, and that is as it should be. This matter transcends party politics. We are considering how Parliament can strengthen its role within an increasingly powerful European dimension. A constructive approach has been taken, which I am sure the Leader of the House will reflect on and then bring forward his further proposals.
We have been considerably helped in our work by the report of the Procedure Committee which was expanded upon by the Chairman, the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery). He will be aware that I disagree with some of the conclusions of his report. He chose to reject the evidence and ideas that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) put forward, but that does not undervalue the strength of his recommendations. I shall deal with the question of the Grand Committee later.
We were also helped in our deliberations by the work of the Select Committee on European Legislation whose Chairman, my hon. Friend for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), graces these sessions with an assiduousness that is unparalleled. He brings a considerable clarity to our debates. He and I disagree on a number of issues relating 580 to Europe but on the key question of the importance of scrutiny and the way in which Parliament should deal with that, we are at one.
I was interested to note the approach taken by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to the question of scrutiny in our debate on the European Community a couple of weeks ago. The hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) asked whether the right hon. Gentleman could mention a single debatein which the Government changed their position as a result of the views expressed in the House?The Foreign Secretary replied:Having taken part in such debates, I am sure that the Minister's view is often shaped"—and there were cries of dismay at that point, or perhaps they were cries of disbelief. After all, the Foreign Secretary is a writer of fiction—of extremely good novels—and perhaps right hon. and hon. Members felt that he had slipped into his writing mode as distinct from his ministerial mode. Nevertheless, he went on:No, I mean that. Ministers' views are shaped and shifted by many angles of approach as a result of such debates. That is what Parliament is about. One does not expect Ministers to do 180 degree turns in public but one expects them—and this is what happens—to be influenced and to tell their officials as they leave the Box, 'I do not want to go through that again'." —[Official Report, 11 June 1990; Vol. 174, c.26.]Hansard records that there was laughter at that point, and so it should.
The new doctrine of scrutiny and accountability of the Executive is to give the Minister a sufficiently hard time that the barometer of dissent is taken to the officials in the Box, whom we are not supposed to mention, with the message that the Minister does not want to go through a similar experience again. I do not know whether that was a description or an incitement, but it certainly gave an interesting insight into the way that the Government view such matters. The Leader of the House may say that Parliaments throughout the Community, if not across a wider spectrum, view us with considerable envy, but I feel that we should have a rather more systematic method of tackling accountability.
The Government's approach is illustrated also by the Prime Minister's throwaway line when she reported to the House this afternoon on the European summit. In the off-the-cuff way in which she seems now to conduct her diplomacy, she described the social charter—against which huge battalions of Government Ministers and endless numbers of civil servants are deployed, on the grounds that the charter would jeopardise jobs and pose the threat of a Marxist regime on this nation—as conferring "piffling little powers".
That way of balancing the business that we conduct in relation to the Community has been a characteristic of the past 11 years. Although the Government have come round to the conversion of the power and role of the British Parliament, the past 11 years have been characterised by a gradual but increasingly pronounced reduction in the role of parliamentary power over the Executive.
One significant example is the reports from what used to be called the Foreign Affairs Ministerial Council, which meets monthly and is the senior Council of Ministers meeting held between the Heads of Government summits—the European Council. It has been renamed the General Affairs Council, but it retains a supervisory and almost executive role.
For many years, it was a matter of form to make an oral report to Parliament, followed by cross-examination in 581 this chamber, on reports from that Council. More recently, there was a two-and-a-half year gap between oral statements, and on 21 February this year, it was only through your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, on a request made by myself, that the Government were forced to the House on a private notice question to account for the deliberations of the extremely important Foreign Affairs Council on 19 and 20 February, when the British Government were beached on the question of sanctions against South Africa.
So, on the one hand, the Prime Minister's view, expressed in a reply on 1 May to the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) is:We should stop any more centralisation and make certain that the future of the Community is implementation of measures through the national Parliaments."—[Official Report, 1 May 1990; Vol. 171, c. 907.]That is the rhetoric but, as the Daily Mail so prosaically puts it today, the other side of the prime ministerial coin is clearly different, and we realise that Parliament has been kept constantly in the dark for 11 years. If we are witnessing a change in the Government's position, we welcome it strongly. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) made that clear in his opening remarks.
We are talking about the balance of accountability between the Executive and the legislature and about how Ministers can be held accountable, not just for their ministerial role and duty, but as legislators in the Council of Ministers—an organisation which meets behind closed doors, and whose deliberations are not open to the same scrutiny as are parliamentary affairs in this country and throughout the European Community.
The Government's response to the recommendations of the Procedure Committee goes some way towards meeting the desire, demand and need for accountability, but perhaps it does not yet go far enough. All too oftern we forget that the Community, through the Council of Ministers, deals not with peripheral, subsidiary legislation but with primary legislation which—as we have seen in the past few weeks—has supremacy over British law. That is the qualitative distinction: matters may have been considered by national or supranational Governments until now, but the Community is engaged with primary legislation, so this Parliament has a right to be involved in the process because it affects the daily lives of people in this country.
Hon. Members have dealt with a number of issues which I shall briefly touch upon. Inevitably, as Members of Parliament, we look to our own role here. The restrictions on telephone calls outside the United Kingdom and on travel have been a continual irritation. I am glad that the Leader of the House has pledged to make progress on that matter. I hope that progress will not be held up by any attempt to do package deals, which might frustrate the needs, desires and the operational effectiveness of hon. Members.
I am not suggesting an open-ended commitment to travel within the European Community, but it should not be confined to members of Select Committees. One of the regrettable features is that foreign travel is mostly confined to Select Committee members. I am not making a point as Opposition spokesman on foreign affairs and a shadow Minister, but we are one of the few categories not entitled to travel and to investigate the affairs that we have to talk 582 about. If we are to consider ability to travel within the European Community, as we should, it should not be confined to members of Select Committees.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland said, we believe that too few special Standing Committees are being proposed and not enough people will be involved. There are problems of their organisation: how will Ministers, who are members of Committees, at the same time be subject to cross-examination by those same Committees?
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South referred to the concept of automaticity. We believe that, on balance, the House should have the right to make the decision, rather than documents being referred to the Committees on a large scale.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber that we should go back to having a European Question Time slot, as there is not a single departmental Question Time that does not involve a large proportion of questions about the Community. To push European matters back to Foreign Office questions would be to restrict ourselves to institutional affairs, which would restrict hon. Members' rights to deal with other issues.
I strongly support the view expressed by the Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South and by the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) that in the interim the Scrutiny Committee should be able to consider wider issues than those to which it must confine itself at present. The hon. Member for Saffron Walden made the valid point that two intergovernmental conferences are about to start and said that the Scrutiny Committee will not be able to consider the wider issues involved because there is no document on which it can base its considerations.
§ Mr. Robertson
I am afraid that I am running out of time. On a world service broadcast that we recorded this afternoon, I told the hon. Gentleman that I should feel inclined to allow him to intervene in my speech—but not in the last minute. If I did so, it would deprive the Minister of the right to be intervened on by the chairman of the Bruges group.
I regret that the Procedure Committee rejected our idea of a European Grand Committee. I stand by that idea, as I still believe that such a Committee would have immensely good qualities. I am sure that if the House looked into the matter in greater detail, it would be attracted to the idea.
The Leader of the House was right in one important regard as well as in some of the details. This debate is, and should be, about maximising the influence of Britain in the increasingly important European law-making procedures. That is the common interest of hon. Members on both sides of the House. The Government's contribution to the debate has been positive in that regard, even if it has been slightly defective in the limited respects that we have identified.
For the moment, we reserve judgment and await the considered response to this constructive and wide-ranging debate.
§ The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Francis Maude)
When the House of Commons debates its own role and functions, there is occasionally a tendency for our discussions to lapse into 583 narcissism and introversion. There is sometimes even a sense of undue self-importance. I am happy to say that this has not been such a debate. It has been a serious and sensible debate about an important matter which concerns not only the House of Commons but the process of government and the way in which the United Kingdom operates within the European Community.
One of the many good things about the debate has been the atmosphere surrounding our discussion of specific proposals. I have some sympathy with the remarks in the Procedure Committee report about some of our late night debates. I do not want to disparage those debates, to which I shall refer later, but it seems that there is a tendency for old and general battles of principle to be refought—although, as I have said, I do not disparage those points of principle, because many of them are important. What has emerged from this debate is the sense that however we feel about the European Community—whether we are enthusiastic about it, whether we are idealistic, whether we think that it is perfect or imperfect—we are in it and we have to live with it and make the best of it. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House said, we must look at ways of maximising our influence within the Community. That concept has provided a good framework for the debate.
I was not here for the whole of the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor), but I have seen a note of it and I heard some of it. If I have a criticism of the way in which my hon. Friend puts his case, it is that he is perhaps somewhat defeatist about the role that the House can play. My hon. Friend is absolutely right when he says that the House of Commons, in the process of scrutiny, does not exercise direct legislative control and that it does not go through matters clause by clause in the way that it does on domestic legislation. However, that does not mean that the process of scrutiny is an empty process, or that it is meaningless or merely a sop to the House of Commons. I cannot emphasise too much that we take the process extremely seriously.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East and other hon. Members are right to say that qualified majority voting—both in the treaty as it was originally and as extended in the Single European Act—makes a difference. We are very rarely out-voted. Since the Single European Act was passed, we have been out-voted on three occasions. Two were on the same dossier because, far from our being dragged into something excessively European against our will, we were concerned that it was not proceeding towards fast enough integration. We were having difficulty overcoming protectionist restriction elsewhere.
Scrutiny of Community legislation has played an important part in the work of the House of Commons since we joined the Community. As the report of my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emergy) makes clear, there has not been a significant review of the procedures for the past 12 years. I am sure that the changes that the Procedure Committee has made—and the changes that the Government are canvassing—will make those procedures even more effective.
I regard myself as something of a veteran of the late night debates. In my role at the Foreign Office, I undertake few of them, but when I was a Minister at the Department 584 of Trade and Industry conducting the 1992 negotiations, it seemed as if all 50 of the scrutiny debates were conducted by me personally. There were times when I was participating in one every week and many were late at night. That was not always terribly convenient. Nevertheless, they were good debates and those who took an interest played a full part.
I was glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) drew attention to the fact that the debates increasingly take place early in the process. It has been the Government's deliberate intention to ensure that the House has an opportunity to influence and to shape the decision-making process early when it is still capable of being shaped.
I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) that it is rare for those debates to take place in retrospect. I can think of few occasions when that has happened recently. If it does happen, it is regrettable, but it is sometimes inescapable if events move very fast, and the Government are keen to ensure that the debates take place in good time.
I hope that that keenness and the fact that Ministers take those debates seriously will show my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) that the Government take this process seriously. I know of no Minister who is involved with day-to-day Community business—there are many of us now—who takes lightly the process of scrutiny and of submitting himself or herself to answer to the House of Commons for the Government's position.
§ Mr. Cash
Does my hon. Friend recall that with respect to both the Madrid summit and the Ashford castle meeting on economic and monetary union, with the paper presented by Mr. Christophersen, there did not appear to be an opportunity for the House to consider the implications, although the papers were available through the European Community?
§ Mr. Maude
That point is familiar to me, and the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) also made it. I do not think that any of us are under an illusion. As we move towards the intergovernmental conferences which begin at the end of this year, the House must have a proper opportunity to debate the position. We have already had the chance to debate economic and monetary union. It was an extremely good debate on important matters that the House of Commons should debate. Whether they fall strictly within the process of scrutiny, as the hon. Member for Newham, South and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) would wish, is a matter of secondary importance.
The process of scrutiny is effective. If I may put it personally, it certainly feels effective when one is the Minister expounding a measure to Parliament. The House contains a fund of expertise and specialist knowledge to which Ministers are exposed in scrutiny debates and cannot fail to be influenced. In many of the debates, my opening speech frequently resembled the process of giving evidence because there were frequent interventions from hon. Members asking detailed factual questions or questions of principle. It is right that Ministers should be subjected to that cross-examination and required to answer to the House of Commons on the effects of any 585 proposal and on the Government's position. The proposed improvements will make that system an even stronger discipline.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) was right to say that a good strong scrutiny process strengthens the hands of negotiators by providing a clear expression of parliamentary views. That advantage is shared by few other Ministers around the negotiating table. That is not a claim that we are the only perfect representative system in Europe, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) might suggest, but our system of scrutiny is better developed than most others within the Community. That is a fact that is recognised by others as well as being trumpeted by us.
A particular example of the strengthening of the Government's position as a result of debate was the debate on economic and monetary union to which I have referred. Last November, it became clear that a single currency in the manner of Delors stage 3 simply was not acceptable to the House of Commons. That is not to say that it will never be acceptable to a later House of Commons, but it is not acceptable to this House of Commons. That means that the Government's position in those negotiations is perfectly clear.
The pattern of scrutiny in other member states is changing. In some countries there is detailed debate. In Denmark, for example, where scrutiny has been less highly developed hitherto, there is a growing interest in developing that process. In France, the scrutiny committee meets weekly, the German committee was in London this week, to discuss our arrangements, the Dutch committee meets fortnightly and I know that new scrutiny committees have been established recently in Spain and in Greece. Many other member states now have scrutiny procedures, many of which are being reviewed.
All that work was given a renewed boost by the conclusions of the Dublin Council this week, on which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reported earlier. The documents on institutional reform prepared by the Foreign Ministers clearly stated that one of the mechanisms for improving democratic legitimacy in the Community is the greater involvement of national parliaments. Two years ago there was almost no discussion at Community level of the role of national Parliaments within the Community. We have always argued for that, 586 and Mr. Delors, the President of the Commission, helped to stimulate a wider discussion in his speech at the European Parliament last year.
It is worth examining briefly what we already do. Making Ministers answerable to the House of Commons for what they do in the European Community goes much wider than the simple process of scrutiny. The process of parliamentary questions to Ministers and to the Prime Minister involves a great degree of accountability. It is not right to condemn European Community questions to a ghetto of their own, because Ministers should answer to the House for what they do in the Community, as they do for domestic responsibilities.
I give evidence to the Scrutiny Committee every six months, at the beginning of the presidency, on the plans for the presidency and submit myself to its expert interrogation. Before going to the European Council, the Foreign Secretary gives evidence to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. The Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee has made a study of economic and monetary union, and there is a wide range of other aspects of accountability.
I know that there is much anxiety about automatic referral, and my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) suggested that the proposal might be left for a little while. We shall consider the matter carefully.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.