HC Deb 26 June 1991 vol 193 cc1092-109 10.15 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John MacGregor)

I beg to move, That Standing Order No. 102 (European Standing Committees) be further amended as follows: in paragraph (8), leave out lines 64 to 66 and insert— The chairman shall thereupon report to the House any resolution to which the committee has come, or that it has come to no resolution, without any further question being put.'; and in paragraph (9), line 69, leave out 'a resolution has been reported' and insert 'a report has been made.'.

Mr. Speaker

I have selected amendments (a) and (b) in the names of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and others.

Mr. MacGregor

I shall not detain the House long with my opening remarks. This is a—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I ask hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quietly, especially those who are below the Gangway.

Mr. MacGregor

I propose that a minor amendment be made to Standing Order No. 102. It does no more than correct a procedural anomaly. On 26 March, European Standing Committee B debated an EC document on the debt of African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. At the end of the debate there was a vote on the Opposition's amendment, followed by a debate on the Government's motion. Both votes were tied and as the Chairman cast his vote against in each Division, both the amendment and the motion were defeated. Therefore, the Committee came to no resolution and no report could be made to the House. The document was stuck in a procedural limbo and the scrutiny process could not be completed. The proposed amendment would solve the problem.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I thank the Leader of the House for displaying his characteristic courtesy and allowing me to intervene. I believe that he has been engaged in some correspondence with the Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee. I believe also that there was an informal discussion with some members of European Standing Committees A and B. Why did he choose not to enter into formal consultations with the permanent members of the two Committees, or with representatives of those Members? Speaking as a member of one of the Committees, I find that disappointing to say the least. Does it not reveal a flaw in the structure of the Committees, which is that they do not have permanent Chairmen?

Mr. MacGregor

I do not believe that such a conclusion could be drawn. It is correct that I have been in correspondence with the Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee. It is correct also that I have had informal discussions with both Standing Committees. I mentioned this matter and other more wide-ranging issues that perhaps are more important. I shall not take up any of the wider issues because I think that they will form part of the wider review in which I shall wish to engage at the end of the summer, when I shall wish to consult more broadly.

The proposed amendment is a simple matter and one that I explained to the members of the Committees. I do not think that it has any of the implications that the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) suggested. When I have explained how simple the matter is, I think that the House will understand the reasoning that lies behind the amendment. I shall explain the point before I go any further.

The amendment which we have tabled would solve the problem by allowing a report to be made that the Standing Committee had come to no resolution. Following that report, a motion could be moved on the Floor of the House in the usual way. In effect, the amendment restores the position to what it was under the previous version of Standing Order No. 102 before the start of the Session. Under the old system, a document was reported back together with any Resolution to which the Committee had come". That meant that the document could be reported back in the absence of a resolution.

We are dealing with a technical and procedural anomaly. Rather than devise some new system, such as obliging the Standing Committee to rerun the debate—I doubt whether I would be thanked for that, given the pressures on Standing Committees, and what their members have said to me—it seems sensible to restore the previous position by means of a simple amendment.

When Standing Orders were changed last October, the Government had assumed—wrongly, as it turned out—that in the event of a tied vote in a European Standing Committee the Chairman would cast his vote for the motion. That is the normal position when such circumstances arise in Committees. When we later sought confirmation of that from the House authorities, we were told that the Chairman would in practice be advised to vote with the Noes. The possibility of a tied vote leading to no report being made had therefore not been catered for in the new Standing Order. As I said, a tied vote was what transpired in Standing Committee B.

All that we are doing is giving the opportunity, where there is a tied vote and therefore no resolution, for the matter to come back to the House rather than staying in a procedural limbo. We are introducing nothing different from what has been done in Standing Committee on previous occasions. It is as simple and technical as that.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, when the Government have lost an amendment in Committee, the changes will have no effect? Will he clarify what the position is when a motion comes back to the Floor of the House in such circumstances?

Mr. MacGregor

Yes, I can confirm that, if the Government had lost, tonight's proposal would not bite. It would not be relevant then; it applies only when, as the result of a tied vote, nothing can come back to the Floor of the House.

With regard to what might be done when the Government have lost, I have received one or two suggestions. That is the sort of situation that we could consider in the context of the review at the end of the summer. There is nothing in Standing Orders at present to prevent the Government from putting down a motion and enabling amendments to be tabled to that motion when it comes back to the House. I do not propose any change in that position tonight.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)


Mr. MacGregor

I am sure that my hon. Friend, who is saying, "Shame," will wish to raise that matter on another occasion, but it is not relevant tonight. I have already discussed the subject with members of the Standing Committee, and it will be relevant to the wider review that we shall carry out later. It has nothing to do with the amendment before us tonight.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

The right hon. Gentleman's reply is rather dispiriting. Every change in our procedure is relevant to what we do in the Committees. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that it was at an early stage that the whole Committee, irrespective of party allegiance, took a certain view and found itself unable to proceed because of the procedural change.

I am happy to debate narrow points of procedure, but the right hon. Gentleman has been in the House for a long time, and he knows that procedural points have a real political impact. We are sorry that the measure covers such a narrow point.

Sir Teddy Taylor


Mr. MacGregor

I think that my hon. Friend is going overboard when he says, "Disgraceful." I repeat what I have said several times during business questions—that I intend to carry out a review of the Standing Committees at the end of the summer. There are many points that we could consider. I have already had discussions with members of the Standing Committee and will take their views into account; but I have also said that where obvious anomalies and narrow points could be dealt with in advance of the review, I would be prepared to do that. Today I am simply taking action on one such anomaly, which was not intended when the original Standing Orders were made. The amendment restores the position to what it always had been. That is all that we are debating. I assure the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) that that does not mean that I am not prepared to consider the wider issues—of course I am—but this is a narrow issue.

Mr. Lewis Stevens (Nuneaton)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that, when the resolution comes back to the House, it will not come back for debate, but merely for voting upon, in the normal way?

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Stevens) and I can confirm that.

The hon. Member for Newham, South has tabled what would appear to be two alternative amendments. The first would effectively mean that, if the Committee came to no resolution, a further one-and-a-half hour debate on the Floor of the House would be required—precisely the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton was making. In my view, that would be contrary to the whole point of shifting scrutiny of European business away from late-night debates on the Floor of the House to the new Standing Committees. We have already debated that matter, and the House has agreed to the European Standing Committees.

The hon. Gentleman's second amendment represents a novel procedural addition whereby the Minister and an opposing speaker would each make a brief explanatory statement on the Floor of the House before the motion was moved. That would constitute a sort of mini-debate. I see no need to require even that extra stage as the relevant document will already have been fully considered in a Standing Committee. I do not, therefore, propose to accept either of the hon. Gentleman's amendments.

Let me come back to my simple point: what is proposed is a technical change to put matters right and to re-establish what was always intended to be the position.

10.26 pm
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

The proposal touches on matters of considerable concern to members of European Standing Committees A and B. The Leader of the House said that the motion is a narrow technical proposal to deal with circumstances in which a Committee does not reach a decision and the Chairman has to cast his vote against the motion, which was not the position that the Government intended when the new Standing Orders were agreed in October. Nevertheless, members of the two Committees feel strongly about the matter.

During his short speech, the Leader of the House took several interventions, in which it was said that perhaps even more controversial than circumstances in which no decision is reached are circumstances in which the Committee agrees something unanimously and then discovers that the motion tabled by the Government—after the Committee's decision has been reported—is worded differently from that which it has agreed. Strong feelings have been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the Committees who regard that as entirely wrong.

On one occasion, for example, European Standing Committee A unanimously agreed an amendment—which was initially accepted by the Minister—but found that, ultimately, a different motion was put before the House. In fairness to the Minister for Roads and Traffic, I should point out that he notified members of the Committee that that was what he intended to do. If he had not done so, it would have been for members of the Committee to spot the discrepancy between the motion on the Order Paper and the motion that they had agreed. That is totally wrong.

The important point that has emerged tonight is that the Leader of the House has said that the workings of the Committees are to be reviewed. That undertaking must be honoured, and the review must take place within the time scale that the right hon. Gentleman suggests. Whatever decisions are taken tonight, they should not preclude an examination of the proposals in the two amendments. I hope that the Leader of the House will tell us that, whatever is decided tonight, the Government will not say that they are not prepared to consider those proposals. I do not intend to develop the case tonight.

I heard the Leader of the House say that the Government's proposal was intended to remove the necessity for late-night debates on the Floor of the House and that the European Standing Committees were considered to be a better way of proceeding. It could be argued, however, that if a Committee cannot reach a decision—or reaches a decision that the Government do not like—on such important issues, the House should have an opportunity to debate them. After all, we are deciding what Britain's viewpoint in the Community should be; that is what the Committees were established to do.

Mr. Robert Hayward (Kingswood)

I was interested by what the hon. Gentleman said about the amendments. Has he discussed them with the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), who tabled them? If so, did the hon. Member for Newham, South say anything to suggest that, if we were told tonight that further discussion might take place, he might withdraw them?

Mr. Pike

I have engaged in no such discussions. I would not wish to prevent my hon. Friend—who does an extremely good job in scrutinising European legislation —from presenting his case.

I am merely saying that, whatever is decided tonight, the review should take these questions into consideration. If our Ministers, who represent our country in Europe, are to express their views as strongly as possible in the interests of this country, they should know what the House feels, regardless of whether the Committee has reached a decision.

The second amendment gives us another option: a speech from a Minister lasting a couple of minutes, and another of the same length from the Opposition spokesman.

At present, motions such as this are decided forthwith. We can table amendments if we wish, but there is no time for a debate. No doubt the Leader of the House would argue that, once hon. Members have seen the Order Paper, it is up to them to read the Official Report and find out why such amendments have been tabled. None the less, given the importance of the issues, I feel that the review should deal with them; it should also consider other matters, such as the way in which Ministers may be questioned and the advice that they receive.

The European Standing Committees are an experiment, but I believe that their members are beginning to feel that they are serving a useful purpose and working for Britain's interests. Almost identical views have been expressed by members of opposing parties: it is generally felt that the British interests of, for example, the food and farming industries should be protected, and that the strongest possible case should be put in the negotiations.

If experience suggests that changes are needed to strengthen the Committees, I hope that they will be made. Above all—I have said this very forcefully to the Leader of the House on several occasions, and points of order have been raised here on the subject—we must prevent Committee members from becoming disenchanted. Having spent so much time considering the issues beforehand, and then in Committee, they do not want to find that they cannot discuss the reason for any difference of view when they come to the Chamber—or, indeed, the reason for a failure to reach a decision.

Obviously the Government do not want issues to be left in limbo, with no way of reporting back and the possibility of Committee's having to consider those issues again. If the right hon. Gentleman's proposal is approved, however, the Opposition would like an assurance that the review will take place within the time scale that he has described, and that the amendments that we propose will not automatically be precluded.

10.35 pm
Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

I am a volunteer member of European Standing Committee A. I commend the Leader of the House for his persistent efforts to get these Committees set up and working well. That Committee has already covered an astonishing number of subjects, ranging from rabies to vehicle emissions and the transport of live horses and ponies. It is absolutely amazing. There is a great deal more to come. I only wish that these Committees had been set up some time ago. Then we could have properly scrutinised some of the 200 or so directives that have gone through Brussels on the creation of the single market, with another 80 or so still to come.

The hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) was right: very slowly, the Committees are beginning to function much better. That is partly due to the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give my right hon. Friend credit for that.

My right hon. Friend knows my views, which I should like to be incorporated in the review. The Committees need more members, and a balance that is a much better reflection of the membership of the House. At the moment, the balance is 7:6. That is crazy. Nowhere else in the House is the balance 7:6. We also need much more notice of meetings and of the subjects. The Leader of the House has made considerable efforts in that direction. Now we get about 10 days' notice, which is very commendable, but it is difficult to read complex documents on the mesh sizes of fishing nets in northern Scotland, for example, when one has only a few days in which to do so.

The Committees are much more important than most hon. Members realise. They have attracted an enormous amount of interest throughout Europe. We are the only Parliament in Europe that is beginning properly to scrutinise with Ministers the details of legislation before those details are agreed in Brussels. It is essential that the Committees should work well and that they should not be wrecked either by the Opposition, out to embarrass Ministers and the Government, or by those on our own side who oppose virtually anything that comes here from Europe.

That is why I am a little hesitant about the proposal that has been dealt with briefly tonight: that, if the Committees do not agree with the Minister, the proposals should be debated on the Floor of the House. That would be an incentive for those hon. Members who do not like anything to do with Europe continually to wreck the Committees and make sure that nothing can be done there so that everything has to come back to the Floor of the House. It would be an incentive to wreck every single meeting of the Committees.

We heard a lot earlier today about the sovereignty of this House and Parliament. It is in those Committees that the only vestiges of the sovereignty of this House are being exercised. They will never discuss this country's exchange rate, or what our interest rates ought to be, or what our budget deficit ought to be. Those powers have long since gone from this House. I sometimes wonder whether colleagues who have recently returned to the Back Benches have any idea what it is like most of the time for most of us when we are trying to get points across to Ministers about matters that are really being decided in Europe. However, Back-Bench members of those Committees can flex a little muscle in offering up viewpoints to the Executive at a point in the timetable when it might just make a difference. To me that is marvellous. We should try to preserve those powers.

It is so rare for any Government, of any colour, to empower Back Benchers, and it is very welcome when it happens. [Interruption.] My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, has not been a Back Bencher for a very long time. When eventually he returns to these Benches, which I hope will not be for 20 years, he will find that it is very different from what it looks like on the Bench that he occupies. It is very welcome when it happens that Ministers, particularly Ministers with some control over procedure, such as the Leader of the House, make an effort to empower Back Benchers. Everything that he is doing and everything that he is suggesting is making Ministers' lives harder. We have to recognise that fact and be very grateful to him.

If our prating about the sovereignty of this House has any substance, these Committees must be strengthened and made to work. I commend the Leader of the House for his efforts.

10.39 pm
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Unlike the earlier debate, I now speak as Chairman of the Select Committee on European Legislation. I draw the House's attention to the amendments, which I may move later, standing in the name of my hon. Friends and myself and of the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes).

I am speaking on behalf of the Committee, which, up to a point, has been consulted by the Leader of the House. Alas, we have been unable to agree; hence the two amendments.

For posterity and for any readers of Hansard, I should read part of Standing Order No. 102, which describes the setting up of Standing Committees A and E and how documents are sent to them from the Select Committee on European Legislation. Line 64 reads: The committee shall thereupon report to the House any resolution to which it has come, without further question being put…If any motion is made in the House in relation to any European Community document in respect of which a resolution has been reported to the House in accordance with paragraph (8) of this Order, Mr. Speaker shall forthwith put successively—the question and the amendments to it.

That must be read with the amendments, because, as the Leader of the House said, sometimes there is no resolution before the Committee. The Chairman, in accordance with Standing Order No. 102, cannot report, because there is nothing to report. He is empowered only to report a resolution that is passed. Therefore, we are in a state of limbo.

I dissent slightly from what the Leader of the House said about that being overlooked if there is inequality of voting. Although it has not happened yet, regardless of whether the Chairman is involved, a Committee may negative the final resolution. I suspect that that may happen in the future, which is why we are holding this debate.

The Select Committee believed that that matter could be resolved in two ways. If a two-and-a-half hour debate had been held upstairs, the prospect of another hour and a half on the Floor, which would be the result of amendment (a), might not be appetising. As the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) said, if the Committee cannot not reach a decision on an important matter, there is at least a case for it to be debated on the Floor. That is the Select Committee's first preference; it would at least show democracy and freedom of speech in action. However, we all want to avoid too many debates being held on the Floor, which is why all the documents are automatically being sent upstairs.

Amendment (b) would provide an opportunity for the Minister who is moving the motion, of for an hon. Member who is moving an amendment, to explain it before the vote. Without such an opportunity, the motion that the Government table, regardless of what happened upstairs, may be different from the one that was originally tabled. For example, they may have second thoughts because of the debate upstairs or because something had been brought to their attention by an outside body.

If there was to be a vote without voice in those circumstances, the basic procedures of the House of some form of debate before a decision was taken would have been broken. When looking for an alternative, it was suggested that the mover of the motion and perhaps another hon. Member selected by Mr. Speaker could make a brief statement explaining what was happening. Then, at least, when the Division was called, even those reading Hansard would have some idea of the relative merits of what had happened. In those circumstances there would also be a record of the Committee proceedings upstairs.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

How brief is a brief explanation? Is the speech that the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) is making now a brief speech? Does he know of a precedent where a brief explanatory statement is referred to in the Standing Orders?

Mr. Spearing

There are two precedents for such a procedure. The first is when a motion is moved on the Floor of the House for committal to a Select Committee or Special Bill Committee, of which, alas, we have few these days. In those circumstances, a short statement can be made. That procedure is not used very often, but it exists. The other precedent is better known and is a slightly lengthier procedure: it is the ten-minute Bill. We all know that the so-called ten-minute rule does not exist. However, I think that the relevant Standing Order refers to a short speech or statement by the mover of the motion and by anyone who wishes to oppose it. By a sensible convention, speeches are made more or less within the 10-minute period. Mr. Speaker has the power to determine matters. As the ten-minute Bill procedure works reasonably well, a similar procedure might be applied in these circumstances.

Dr. Godman

There is another example of the short statement. Ministers in the European Standing Committees make brief speeches. The Chairman of European Standing Committee B, of which I am a member, have specified succinctly and distinctly that a brief speech is one that takes up less than 10 minutes of the Committee's time. As a result of those Committees, Ministers are getting into the habit of making brief statements that take less than 10 minutes.

Mr. Spearing

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of that procedure which is built into the European Standing Committees. Being slightly venturesome, I suggest that that development and my proposal show how the House, by agreement—I hope that the Leader of the House will think again tonight—evolves to the needs of new situations. Whether or not we welcome those situations, the House builds into its procedures, according to need, precedent upon precedent.

Mr. Hayward

What about the presentation of petitions? I think that there is no specific timetable identified in the Standing Orders for the presentation of petitions, but convention requires a brief speech to one.

Mr. Spearing

This is what the House of Commons is all about. We are pooling our experience and ideas. I am grateful for all those points because they support amendment (b).

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

What about applications under Standing Order No. 20? The time for those is regularised at about three minutes in which an hon. Member must make a statement about an extremely important matter and get his message across in that extremely short space of time.

Mr. Spearing

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We should have thought of Standing Order No. 20 applications—goodness me. Of course, there is a distinction between making a case and making a statement. We are discussing statements. They may involve a little bit of argument, but the conventions of the House are quite clear. All those matters have worked so successfully that we must be reminded of them. Standing Order No. 20 applications might be an excellent precedent, although the procedure is limited to three minutes, which is a more recent rule. As we proceed, we find that there is a case for amendment (b).

I take up another point with the Leader of the House which is not entirely accurate. He said that the motion would restore the position to what it was before. It is quite correct that it restores the position in the old Standing Orders. There was an opportunity when the old Standing Committees—the ones that met only once—came to a decision and it came down to the Floor of the House, for a motion to be moved without report from the Chair. However, I remind the Leader of the House that we are dealing with a different procedure in the round, in particularly the vexed question of ultimaticity, about which the Select Committee on European Legislation was particularly concerned.

Everything now goes upstairs unless the Government or the Minister moves it on the Floor of the House. Under the old procedure, everything had to go upstairs on a motion at 3.30 pm unless any 20 hon. Members rose or the usual channels were involved. Therefore, there is now a slight difference, in that it is more likely that more controversial matters will go upstairs directly which might have been taken on the Floor of the House, with either 20 hon. Members standing or, as we know in these matters, an indication that 20 hon. Members would do so. We are not quite in parallel positions.

Indeed, the likelihood of a defeat may not be quite as rare as some people suppose. First, such matters are rather more controversial than before. Secondly, they are not at the initiative of the Government—in other words, the document under discussion and the arguments for or against it are not entirely originated by the Commission and the Council. The opinion of the Government is their opinion, but that complicates the matter. Thirdly, the motion or the decision of the Committee or of the House is only an opinion and not a final decision, and is not subject to post-Council report or catechism of the Minister. Fourthly, the Government may be in negotiation.

Fifthly, there is a good deal of cross-party view. Often, such matters are not a party matter at all, other than the view of the Government, which may or may not please all their supporters in the Committee. Sixthly, the timing is in the hands of the European Council. The material that is being discussed in those Committees is entirely different from that to which we were hitherto accustomed. Perhaps such events may be a little more frequent in future, although a tied vote may of course be rare.

I ask the Leader of the House again to consider the option of amendment (b). I can understand why he would be hesitant about amendment (a), because that could take an enormous chunk of time and would be a re-run. Certainly, short statements would have the advantage that those who read Hansard—it is an official document of this House; it contains the reason why decisions are taken—will be able to read the record. It would take a relatively short time and, above all, would connect voice and vote, which historically has been the procedure of the House.

10.53 pm
Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

I shall be very brief. The House will accept that the work of myself and of my Committee are the factors that brought about the appointment of the European Committees. The House should be grateful to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for his interest in those Committees, the way in which he brought them forward and his attempts to ensure that they will work, which perhaps was not the case with previous Leaders of the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) mentioned the volume of work. In the review that the Select Committee on Procedure stated that it would carry out, it was orginally envisaged that there should be five committees doing the volume of work which is having to be carried out by two.

While I would not cross swords with my colleague, the Chairman of the European Standing Committee, the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), I assure the House that the amendment moved by the Leader of the House would restore the working of the committees to the way that it was originally intended that they should report. That may not be right, but he is returning to the recommendations of the Procedure Committee.

Amendment (b) tabled by the chairman of the European Standing Committee, may have some special value. I would like to consider it in depth. This is not the time to introduce it, but it should be considered in the review.

As far as the House is concerned, the recommendations of the Leader of the House today—I am grateful that he is making them—would restore the working of such committees to the method of reporting envisaged by the Procedure Committee when we made our report and when those recommendations were accepted by the House.

10.56 pm
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I assure the Leader of the House that the reason why I made what might have appeared to be a somewhat critical comment in an earlier intervention was because of my belief that permanent members of those Committees work extremely hard—that comment may seem to reflect a lack of modesty, as I serve on such a Committee. Therefore, it is right and proper that those members should be consulted, even when the matter before the House is of a technical nature, as the Leader of the House claims is the case tonight.

With respect, that is where the right hon. Gentleman and I part company. Apart from all else, his amendment highlights a certain weakness in the modus operandi of the two Committees. I put my name to these amendments and I think that they would improve matters. I favour the brief statement made by a Minister at the Dispatch Box. We have been given examples of precedents of such statements from both sides of the House.

Sadly, the Committees are getting used to brief ministerial statements, as I said in an intervention. If the Leader of the House rejects amendment (b) this evening, it is certainly worth returning to when the consultations on the review that he has promised for the late summer takes place. I am grateful for his promise on the consultations with, among others, the permanent members of the Committees.

The Committees have some structural weaknesses. I regret the absence of specialist advisers and I also think that they should have permanent Chairmen, although the Chairmen of Standing Committee B have left me with no complaints.

As regards amendment (a), I do not envisage any massive problems in bringing a subject to the House for a 90-minute debate late at night. Hon. Members can choose to stay or to go, but some of us are sufficiently interested in such matters to take part in debates, whatever the hour. I remind those present that when we debated the astonishing verdict of the President of the European Court of Justice vis-a-vis the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, there were fewer than 35 hon. Members here.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) referred several times—I have some sympathy with her remarks—to the sovereignty of the House. When the Minister for Shipping came to the Dispatch Box to announce the interim verdict, what he said was significant in terms of a diminution in the sovereignty of the House. Power now belongs to the supreme court that sits over the 12 legal systems, although the United Kingdom has a Scottish and an English system. The House's sovereignty is slipping away, as I have said many times.

The Committees deal with some matters which are less than important. However, I am given to understand—perhaps the Leader of the House will correct me if I am wrong—that Standing Committee B will soon debate a proposal from the European Commission to the effect that the European Community is to become a signatory to the European convention on human rights. If that matter comes before Standing Committee B, it will be a remarkable recommendation from the 17 unconstrained civil servants in Brussels.

I stress that amendment (b), which deals with the brief speech and the rejoinder from the hon. Member who disagrees in Committee, should be accepted. We must also examine the issue of permanent chairmen and, equally important, that of specialist advisers being appointed to the Committees to assist the permanent members to carry out their functions more competently.

11.1 pm

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

The Leader of the House said that we were dealing with a narrow, technical point and that anything other than than technical point is not relevant to the debate. However, I hope that he will appreciate that the issue is so fundamental that we cannot let it go at that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) rightly told the Committees that people all over Europe are watching them. I confirm that they are the main talking point in the pubs of Southend, and for that reason we do not intend to let the matter go so easily. The Leader of the House is the guardian of democracy, so we must get it right. I sometimes think that, in relation to the Committees, he is like the public relations officer of a tobacco company.

I read in the newspapers this morning that to try to obtain our good will for the European Community, we shall all be offered two free trips to the continent. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South is delighted, but when I think of the poor pensioners in Southend who are doing so badly and who are so hard up these days, it seems outrageous for the Government to spend taxpayers' money by allowing every hon. Member two free trips to Europe, whether he needs them or not, and free hotel accommodation. I am sure that the Chief Whip would never have agreed if he had been involved.

Mrs. Currie: My hon. Friend has mentioned me twice, and I am grateful for his giving way so quickly. I recently had to go to the European Parliament in Strasbourg to plead the case of my constituents who work for Toyota. I was glad that I was able to do so, but I did it courtesy of the European Democratic Group. That is not right—such trips should be paid for by the House, especially as the European Member of Parliament for the constituency—Mr. George Stevenson—turned out to be absolutely useless and did not raise the issue at all.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. In responding to that, the hon. Gentleman must remember that we are dealing with a comparatively narrow motion.

Sir Teddy Taylor

I will not pursue the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South. The point that I was making was, as you rightly said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we must think of our duties as Members of Parliament on this narrow issue. I am sure that if my hon. Friend, or anyone else, has to go to the continent, or anywhere else, provision should be made. That is rather different from offering a free trip, whether people need to go or not. I do not think that taxpayers' funds should be offered for people to go to Europe. Why just Europe? What about Africa and other places? If we are to offer free trips to everyone, that should not be done only on the restricted issue of Europe.

The Leader of the House has proposed the motion late at night; it is now 11.4 pm. What on earth did he need the motion for? What difference does it make whether the House is told that the Committee has not come to a resolution? What is the point? Whether the Committee passes a resolution or not, the same procedures go ahead. Ministers sit round the table in Brussels and arrive at a decision. It is nothing to do with us. Whether the Committee has reported or not, and whether the issue has been discussed does not make the slightest difference. Why do we need the motion?

The Leader of the House may say that the motion will make a difference and that we want to be tidy. He may say that we have had a wonderful report from the Select Committee saying that we had to have five Committees, and that as we have appointed only two, it is a big issue. If the issue is tidiness, why on earth can we not tell the House of Commons what the Committee has decided?

As other speakers have rightly said, Standing Committee A came to a unanimous decision. It was worried and perplexed about the Minister for Roads and Traffic, who goes rushing over to Europe to do all kinds of things and to pass all kinds of laws. He did it again only a couple of days ago. We have had the agreement on the mutual recognition of driving licences which means that anyone from Greece, Portugal, Portuguese Macao or from French Guiana will, in 1996, be able to come here and drive round our roads if he has a driving licence from any of those places. This person was out of control, and the Committee said that it must do something.

We passed a unanimous amendment—not only the Conservative Members, but all the Labour Members and an Ulster Unionist—saying to the House, "Please watch out for this guy. He is a danger to our democracy." Everyone agreed to that. What happened? The House of Commons was not told, because the Government say that they will report only the decisions of Committees with which they agree. If they do not agree, they will not tell the House of Commons the decision. If the Leader of the House has tabled the motion for tidiness and to be consistent, why not tell the House when the Committee comes to a decision and not just when it has a tied vote?

I have a feeling that there is something very strange here. If the Leader of the House is a guardian of democracy and he wants to tell us every time the Committee comes to a decision, including when it has a tied vote, why will not he tell us when the Committee passes an amendment? Why will he not give it the chance to decide?

It is rather sad. I have not been here for 900 years, but the House of Commons has. I do not know of any time in the history of Parliament at which a Committee has not been able to tell the House of Commons what it has done. The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman), one of the most hard-working people in the House, studies all the issues very carefully in Standing Committee B, but he has no guarantee that what his Committee decides will be reported to the House. That is terrible.

If the position is as I have described, why the hurry? A tied vote might not happen again for five years; it might never happen again in the history of these Committees, so what the heck is the hurry? If the Leader of the House wants the motion to go through, why will he not do something about the amendments that we agree to? Something very funny is going on. When we discuss the proposal at 11.8 pm, after a very busy day, and when there are all these free trips to Europe with taxpayers' money, whether we want them or not, the House should ask itself carefully what is going on. Is there something strange and mysterious?

Will the Leader of the House tell us: why, why, why did he introduce the motion tonight? Why only cover such a narrow point which arises rarely? Why is it important, constitutionally, that we should report to the House the fact that the Committee has not made a resolution, when it does not make the slightest bit of difference?

There is a big constitutional issue here somewhere. I am not one of the clever people who can identify it, but I have often found that when an hon. Member raises such a point, the clever people—and some very clever people are here tonight—will say, "Gosh, I've got it." Something strange and unusual is going on—I wish that we could find out what it is.

11.9 pm

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

I am a member of European Standing Committee B and am finding its work of considerable interest. The Committee is an interesting innovation.

Some important points have been made. It was suggested a moment ago that the eyes and ears of Europe are on our Committees—[Interruption.] —and those of the people of Southend. I was reminded of G. K. Chesterton's poem to F. E. Smith at the time of disestablishment at the turn of the century. F. E. Smith had said that the conscience of Christendom was concerned about the disestablishment of the Church. As will be recalled, the poem ended with the famous words, "Chuck it, Smith." I suspect that not as many people in the pubs of Southend or other parts of the country are as concerned about these matters as they should be.

Mrs. Currie

I share the hon. Gentleman's scepticism. However, when I arrived in Strasbourg a couple of weeks ago, everybody there knew about the European Standing Committees, what they do and that I am a member. They knew more about them than I did.

Mr. Wigley

We must all be moved that our work, which is not under a microscope, let alone a television camera, is reaching parts that we had not expected.

I accept that something must be done about matters that have not reached a conclusion and which are in limbo. However, as hon. Members of all parties have said, if there is a stalemate in Committee or if the Government are defeated in Committee, that is a good enough reason to warrant those subjects being given more attention on the Floor of the House. If we are to be told that, after spending an hour in Committee questioning and receiving answers from Ministers, and a further hour and a half debating them and reaching a conclusion, our conclusion can suddenly be overturned in the House by a Government motion and without any debate, we may be led to believe that we are wasting our time in Committee and that no note is being taken of our work.

I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) that when Ministers go to Brussels and Strasbourg they are not bound in the same way as the Government are bound here by the outcome of a debate in Committee or by a resolution made on the Floor of the House. I accept that that is the way in which we are moving forward, but if a resolution is to be changed on the Floor of the House, I should be happier if hon. Members had an opportunity to speak to it.

It is all very well to say, "Read the Hansard of the Committee," but we know that very few hon. Members who come to such debates have done so. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago, the motion at the end of the Hansard report on our debate on the life of patents was incorrect, so those reading the report would have been misled. I understand that that is to be corrected and that the report will be reissued, but that is the sort of thing that can go wrong.

We are grateful for the consultations that the Leader of the House has had and doubtless will have again on this matter, but I urge him to take on board the need to ensure that, if a motion is to be reversed, those hon. Members who have an opinion on the matter should have an opportunity to voice it before a final conclusion is reached.

11.13 pm
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

It seems a little hard when the Leader of the House is sitting there looking as reliable as Thomas the Tank Engine that he appears to be attacked from all sides. However, the point that we seek to make is important. The European Standing Committees are very Anglo-Saxon in the sense that they are developing all the time and change as we go along. Therefore, I hope that the Leader of the House will understand that if we raise points with him it is because if the Committees are to do a good job, some of their procedures will have to be altered in order to report their work to the rest of the House of Commons.

Over many years, the Community has deluged the Committees of its so-called European Parliament with paper and thrown out both directives and regulations at the speed of sound. Therefore, the House will have to look at ever more paper. Much of that paper is uneven. Some of the issues have already proved to be politically extremely sensitive and some have been of only minor or relative importance. It is clear that the work of the European Standing Committees is developing because there is a cross-party ability to examine carefully the content of what comes before them. So the Committees will be irate if they find that their opinions are disregarded in as much as they are not reported to the House.

Despite some Conservative Members, our Committee is more interested in the content of the EC regulations and directives than in fighting imaginary battles. The Leader of the House will know that, in one instance, the Committee came to a unanimous, cross-party conclusion. That conclusion was governed by the interests and needs of the British and not those of any party or group. Therefore, we were extremely discomforted to find that the conclusion had not been reported to the House. I do not accuse the Leader of the House of quite the degree of conspiracy of which some of his hon. Friends accuse him. The procedures meant that the Committee's conclusion was not reported to the House and the House was not made aware of the work which had been done in the Committee.

The Leader of the House has been very good; he has consulted the members of the Committees and is continuing that process. However, he should be aware of one of the reasons why we are so worried. If, as the recess approaches, the House does not debate in any more detail than has been possible in this short debate the changes that are needed in the procedures of the Committees, and if all the points that have been raised tonight and many others that we should like to emphasise are not taken into account in the review, we shall fear that the Committees have been set up more as decoys than as genuine scrutiny Committees. I do not believe that that is the case. The Committees are doing a good job. They have a vital job to do.

Many of the hon. Members who have spoken about sovereignty seem to forget that power is stolen day by day. When one reads about the extension of the powers of the Commons one clearly sees that it was through the ability to take away from kings control of taxation that this House and another place took control of the political decisions of the United Kingdom. That is the way in which, if we are not careful, we shall see power leaking away from this Chamber to establishments elsewhere. The scrutiny Committees are important and they will become more important. They need to change and to operate in a way which means that at the end of the day the House of Commons is aware of the work that is going on in Committee.

If the Leader of the House feels that we have been rotten to him tonight, I assure him of one thing. We are aware of his good points and we are grateful for them. We shall continue to be rotten to him only to the degree that he does not respond to the points that we raise in the House.

11.17 pm
Mr. Lewis Stevens (Nuneaton)

I have a question for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House which follows from what the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said. I seek clarification of what happens if one of the Standing Committees accepts an amendment with which the Government basically disagree. Is it not possible under the existing regulations that the decision of the Committee could be reported in the procedures of the House even if the Government wanted to add an amemdment or comment?

11.18 pm
Mr. MacGregor

I am glad that we have had the opportunity of this short debate. It has done a service in drawing the attention of the to the important work of the European Standing Committees. I am pleased that almost all the hon. Members who serve on a Committee and who spoke tonight said that they felt that the work was important and that the Committees were serving a useful purpose.

I can inform the hon. Member for Crew and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) that I, the House, and certainly the Procedure Committee have never seen the Committees as decoys—to use her word. Rather, they are a more effective way to scrutinise European draft directives than the methods available until now. However, it is important that the Committee's work is highlighted and that the House recognises it. That is one of the advantages of this very short debate, which has ranged more widely than the technical matter that I am putting before the House.

I am grateful for the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). I agree with her that we were already in advance of most other national Parliaments and, with this procedure, the way in which we scrutinise European legislation is now even more advanced. I should like to see other national Parliaments playing a similar role—that subject forms part of the discussions in the intergovernmental conferences—and we already have good experience in that respect.

I regard the Committees as important and pay tribute to all hon. Members who already play a constructive part in them. Other Members of the House who are not Committee Members can participate in discussions on individual directives in the European Standing Committees if they happen to be of interest to them. That is not yet happening on a wide scale, and I should like to see it happen more regularly. I recognise that the Committees involve much hard work by Committee Members, because there is a great deal of material to go through. After all, I spent four years of my life negotiating in the European Community, and I know how much material there is and how often it arrives at short notice.

I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South for recognising that I am trying to help the Committees to deal with their work load by ensuring that Committee members receive the papers on time. It does not always happen, but we make every endeavour to ensure that Departments distribute the relevant papers on time. Moreover, I hope that the change that I have made, within the rules of the House, to try to give Committee Members more notice of meetings will be helpful.

I am anxious to help the Committees in their work and to co-operate with them. However, I must point out to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich that that does not mean that I can respond positively to every point that is made. Clearly, that cannot be expected and, in any case, points sometimes conflict.

Tonight's debate concerns the narrow issue of occasions on which the Committee does not reach a conclusion. We are not discussing what happens when the Committee votes against a motion, although I shall consider that in the wider review. There are some complications in reaching an answer. For example, if we follow the approach that some hon. Members have suggested of putting on the Order Paper the motion that the Committee has reached and the Government then table the amendment that they believe is necessary to make it accurate or to reflect properly the Government's position, that excludes any other amendments being tabled and voted on in the House. Therefore, there are issues that we must all consider.

In the review at the end of the summer, I am prepared to look at any suggestions which I hope will come from the Committees. Some suggestions have already been made in the meetings that I have had so far. I am also prepared to look at the comments that have been made tonight.

Mr. Spearing

Will the Leader of the House extend that undertaking, since the motion does not mention the issue that he just mentioned, to the limbo question? In view of the remarks of the Chairman of the Procedure Committee and the strong feelings expressed by Members of Committees A and B, will the Leader of the House add the question of what happens to limbo? Will he look at amendment (b) as part of the review? I do not ask him to accept it but simply to reconsider it. Such an undertaking would constitute a happy outcome of our debate because I would then not need to move the amendment formally.

Mr. MacGregor

I shall certainly undertake that, in the review at the end of the summer, I am prepared to look at the points that have been made tonight. I am prepared to consider the point that the hon. Gentleman raises in amendment (b) about what happens when the Committee reaches a different conclusion at the end of its deliberations. However, as I am sure the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), will appreciate, that must be without a commitment to accepting it, because there are other, wider considerations.

I am under pretty constant pressure from some of my colleagues to ensure that the House rises earlier than it does at present. The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) said that he would be happy to go on debating some of the issues for some considerable time into the night, but a number of other hon. Members are applying pressure to me to do the opposite. That is just one of the considerations that I have to take into account, but I am certainly prepared to consider the point.

I sometimes feel that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) sees a conspiracy under every European pebble. I assure him that there is no conspiracy on this matter; and the position is absolutely plain, and I will repeat it so that he understands it. He made it clear that he felt that, when a Committee reaches a decision, it should be reported to the House so that it was known to the House. I agree with that. At present, we have a problem that was not predicted because we thought that we had solved it. When a Committee does not reach a conclusion, nothing can be reported to the House, so the matter is in limbo and the scrutiny is not completed. That is simply not satisfactory, and I am anxious to avoid that happening again.

I repeat the simple fact that tonight we are discussing a way of completing the scrutiny process when a Committee does not reach a conclusion. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), and we are doing what the Select Committee on Procedure recommended, and what he and I thought that we had originally achieved. Therefore, it is a simple and straightforward amendment.

I believe that the debate has been useful, but I have heard nothing to suggest that our amendment is wrong. On the contrary, I believe that the conclusion of the debate is that it is right to put right this technical anomaly, and that we should proceed on that basis. As we are simply dealing with the position when a Committee has not reached a conclusion, I wish to resist amendments (a) and (b) and to commend the motion to the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Does the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) wish to move either amendment (a) or amendment (b)?

Mr. Spearing

I do not wish to move amendment (a), and in view of the qualified undertaking given by the Leader of the House, not amendment (b) either.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That Standing Order No. 102 (European Standing Committees) be further amended as follows: in paragraph (8), leave out lines 64 to 66 and insert—'The chairman shall thereupon report to the House any resolution to which the committee has come, or that it has come to no resolution, without any further question being put.'; and in paragraph (9), line 69, leave out 'a resolution has been reported' and insert 'a report has been made.'.

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