HC Deb 14 July 1998 vol 316 cc182-4
12. Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

If he will make a statement on the Government's proposals to provide increased public information on the decision-making process in the European Union. [48712]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Doug Henderson)

We made good progress during our presidency of the European Union to make EU decision making more open—for example, by an agreement to establish a public register of Council documents. We shall continue to push for greater openness—for example, in measures to be drawn up for implementation of the relevant provisions of the treaty of Amsterdam.

Mr. Rammell

I thank the Minister for that response, and welcome the real progress that was made during the British presidency. Will he urge his Austrian colleagues to continue making greater transparency in European decision making a priority? Specifically, more Council of Minister meetings have to be opened up to the press and public. Will he also endorse the developing practice in the House of Ministers appearing before Select Committees both before and after Council of Minister meetings? Such measures will bring greater legitimacy to the decision-making process in Europe.

Mr. Henderson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I think that Hansard will show that Ministers from my Department have attended Select Committee sittings on many occasions—and on more occasions than our predecessors in the previous Government. We take seriously that form of scrutiny and accountability.

If the European Union is to build public support and carry the European public with it through the difficult times ahead, as the big issues of European Union enlargement are dealt with, it is crucial that the European public should know what is happening and, based on that knowledge, become committed to those events. The need for such knowledge is why we have extended open debates, and why, during our presidency, we increased public scrutiny at General Affairs Council meetings and introduced a public register. It is also why we shall continue to press for implementation of more measures arising from the Amsterdam treaty.

Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor)

In their half-time presidency report, the Government described one of their key achievements as a seminar of government press officers agreeing to disseminate more information about the EU via the internet. Will the Minister now reveal how this bold and striking achievement is progressing? Does the database include, for example, unhelpful comments such as those made in the Daily Express on 13 June by a certain Mr. Derek Draper—then still a member of the charmed circle—who, with massive irony, challenged his readers: Did you know that Britain had a Minister for Europe? Do you know his name? Can the House have some clarity on that failure to communicate with the public?

Mr. Henderson

The hon. Gentleman should by now have learnt not to believe everything that he reads in the newspapers, and perhaps not even everything that he reads on the internet. The internet is a modern form of communication. It might not be terribly open to hon. Members, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that most young people in this country use it. That is why it is important that we maximise the information about the European Union and, for that matter, other issues of parliamentary interest on the internet.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Will my hon. Friend ignore those silly comments from that member of the Opposition Front-Bench team, and agree that the internet is a very powerful tool for communication with the parliamentarians of Europe, of whom there are nearly 5,000? Will he take some interest in the group of parliamentarians entitled Interparle, which is actively campaigning and putting together a programme that will provide access, information and knowledge, as it is those things that will strengthen the European Union?

Mr. Henderson

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that he will accept that my main answer covered the matters that he raises. I found it amusing the other day that, when I told a European Union ambassador that I was going to meet another ambassador from the European Union after my meeting with him, he said that he knew I was, because it was on the internet.

Forward to