§ The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Government's plans for enhancing the role of Parliament in European Union matters and in respect of other developments in the European Union. This is set to be an important year for the EU. Ten new members join on I May, and the elections for a new European Parliament take place in June. We also have the initial proposals on the financing of the European Union after 2006, the continuing efforts to reform the European economy so that it can better deliver jobs and prosperity, and the outstanding matter of the intergovernmental conference. By the end of this year, we hope to conclude accession negotiations with Romania and Bulgaria, and make a decision on whether to launch such negotiations with Turkey. Meanwhile, discussions began yesterday in New York on the scope for a reunited Cyprus joining the EU in May.
Those and other EU developments are of profound importance to Britain and British interests. It is therefore vital that the House, and Parliament as a whole, have an integral role in debating, influencing and agreeing the policies of the British Government. Together with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and other colleagues, I was concerned to ensure that there was regular and rigorous parliamentary discussion of the intergovernmental conference following the publication of the draft constitutional treaty last summer. We therefore laid a White Paper on the draft treaty before the House last September. Ministers and officials attended a total of 13 sessions with Committees in this House and the Lords on the Convention on the Future of Europe and the IGC, and responded to 16 Select Committee reports. From last May onwards, when the successive parts of the Convention text of the draft treaty were published, we had more than a dozen debates on EU issues on the Floors of both Houses and three sittings of the Standing Committee on the Intergovernmental Conference.
That parliamentary engagement in the IGC process helped to develop a better understanding of the issues at stake, and strengthened our negotiating position at the EU table. On energy, to take just one example, the strength of opinion in Parliament helped us to secure an acceptable amendment from the Italian EU presidency. This level of scrutiny and debate on the IGC should, in my view, become the norm for providing Parliament with the opportunity to oversee the work of the European Union and the British Government's role in it. Indeed, given the range of issues that the EU now covers—from trade to the environment, from cross-border crime to consumer protection—it is vital that we enhance national democratic scrutiny in this way.
I greatly applaud the diligent and valuable work of the scrutiny Committees in both Houses. However, I am sure that they would agree that we need a broader and earlier focus, across Parliament as a whole, on the forthcoming plans of the Commission and the European Council, sufficiently in advance that all Members of the House and of the other place have an opportunity to raise concerns and to influence policy before it is set in stone.
1416 First, therefore, starting in April this year, then each January thereafter, the Government will lay before Parliament a White Paper looking at the year ahead for the EU's legislative and other activities. The paper will set out the Government's priorities in the light of the European Commission's legislative and work programme for the year ahead, as well as the operational programme for the forthcoming EU presidencies agreed each December by the European Council. At the same time, subject to your agreement, Mr. Speaker, I plan to make an oral statement to the House summarising the White Paper's main themes. In addition, each July we will publish as a Command Paper an interim report to take stock of progress and to look ahead to the second six-month presidency of the year. Those papers will subsume our existing retrospective reviews of developments in the European Union.
Secondly, to build on the Standing Committee that was set up to look at the Convention, then at the IGC, the Government favour creating a successor Committee whose remit would be extended to cover the whole of the EU's work. To that end, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House hopes shortly to present proposals to the Modernisation Committee for its consideration. Our aim is that the new Committee would be open to Members of both Houses, and that Ministers involved in EU work, from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and from other Departments, would give statements, respond to questions and participate in debates. I hope that the House might also consider whether ways might be found to allow European Commissioners to make statements and answer questions before the new body, and perhaps for UK Members of the European Parliament to attend. I look forward to the Modernisation Committee's findings, and hope that it might include in its inquiry the operation of the European Standing Committees A, B and C, which, if I may express a purely personal view, seem never to have worked fully as intended.
Decisions on any new Committees are of course a matter for the House, with the other place. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I have discussed the idea informally with the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee; indeed, it reflects much of the thinking contained in that Committee's report of 22 May 2002, "European Scrutiny in the Commons". I have also raised the idea with the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and discussed it informally with the Chairman of the European Union Committee in the Lords.
Let me turn to a number of other proposals. The first is a more strategic approach to EU business in the form of the three-year strategic programme that was adopted by the European Council last December, which we have made available to the Chairmen of the scrutiny Committees of both Houses. That is designed to overcome the inherent difficulties posed by the existing system of six-month EU presidencies by setting out agreed objectives and priorities for the EU, and time frames for their implementation.
Planning for the British EU presidency in the second half of next year is already well under way. That will give us a valuable chance to keep the EU agenda focused on delivering economic reform, jobs and growth. As he announced in the House on 10 December last year, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is 1417 already working with his Irish, Dutch and Luxembourg colleagues, as those countries have the next presidencies, to achieve better regulation in the EU. For Europe to remain competitive, we must make faster progress on deregulation and more flexible labour, capital and product markets. According to the International Monetary Fund. an improved EU regulatory framework could deliver as much as a 7 per cent. increase in the EU's gross domestic product and a 3 per cent. increase in productivity in the longer term.
Transposition of EU legislation into national law also needs attention. The risk of gold-plating the original texts, thereby imposing on British businesses more stringent conditions than those that their competitors in other member states face, is real. With that in mind, 18 months ago I commissioned the distinguished European lawyer, Robin Bellis, to prepare a report on our implementation of EU legislation and I published it on 24 November last year. In December I held a seminar to discuss its recommendations with representatives from across Government, the House, the EU institutions and the Confederation of British Industry. I have asked the relevant Departments to report back to me in six months on the steps that they have taken to implement the recommendations. Of course, I also welcome the views of the House.
Britain's national interests are best served by an active engagement with our partners in the European Union. However, just as issues such as trade, the environment and organised crime require effective cross-border action throughout the EU, it is imperative that national democratic bodies are fully engaged on those issues. I therefore hope that the proposals that I have set out today will go some way towards ensuring that the House and Parliament can be more effective in doing that.
§ Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con)
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and for advanced sight of it. I, too, welcome the discussions in New York on the reunification of Cyprus, and we wish them every success.
We welcome the concept of enhancing the role of Parliament in European Union matters. However, overall, the Foreign Secretary's statement is gravely disappointing, not so much for what it says but for what it fails to say. The context is not new. The backdrop is the constantly increasing flood of directives and regulations from Brussels, with which Parliament is increasingly unable to cope.
In 2002–03, the European Scrutiny Committee considered 1,327 documents, of which only 3.5 per cent. were referred to the European Standing Committees that the Foreign Secretary mentioned, and only five were debated on the Floor of the House. The test of today's statement is therefore twofold. First, will the measures do anything to stem the tide of European regulations and directives that are imposed on the United Kingdom? Secondly, will they do anything to increase our national Parliament's powers to stop or change them? I fear that, as is so often the case with the Government, despite the fine language, the answer to both questions is no.
We welcome the promise of an annual White Paper. I hope that it will keep Parliament more fully informed of the Government's and the Commission's intentions. 1418 However, will it give Parliament any more influence? Will it in any way echo the Danish principle of seeking Parliament's approval before decisions are made in the Council? Again, the answer appears to be no.
We welcome, as far as it goes, the proposed new Standing Committee, which, from reading between the lines, appears to be some sort of Grand Committee, rather in the old style. Of course increased debating and questioning is desirable, but will the Committee have the power to alter or stop anything? Once again, the answer appears to be no. We all want an end to gold-plating. Although I appreciate the need to take account of our laws, I cannot for the life of me understand why it is taking so long to end an unfair and unsatisfactory practice. Why should action take another six months?
The genuine significance of the statement is the dogs that have not barked. Why did it not include a response to the conclusions of last June's European Scrutiny Committee's report? They are relevant to the subject of the statement, which is greater parliamentary involvement in EU work. Why did the Foreign Secretary say nothing about the need to tighten up the scrutiny reserve procedure against the abuses that continue to undermine Parliament's authority? Why was there no mention of strengthening Parliament's rights, not only to seek a review of EU legislation that offends against the principles of subsidiarity—the so-called yellow card—but to block such legislation under a red card procedure, which the Foreign Secretary has previously said that he favours?
Why is there no move to ensure that major European issues are dealt with on the Floor of the House? Should not at least the European Court of Auditors report and all budgetary matters be dealt with in this way? Why does the Foreign Secretary not address the serious undermining of the authority of Parliament through what is known as the comitology process?
There is a serious and growing democratic deficit in relation to the flood of European legislation. The European Parliament alone cannot fill that deficit. This statement does far too little to enable this national Parliament to do so better. It is an opportunity regrettably missed—even more regrettably in the light of the threat of the constitution, which will make the deficit worse.
The Foreign Secretary's statement is a finger in the dyke when the floodwaters are rising. I cannot help wondering whether its timing has anything to do with the fact that the Prime Minister is about to embark, with France and Germany, on another round of old-fashioned integrationist planning. I am reminded of the saying, "The more they talk of their honour, the more we count the spoons," and I advise my hon. Friends to regard the statement in that light.
§ Mr. Straw
The statement was about what it said it was about: strengthening the role of Parliament in the European Union. I point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that at any stage between 1979 and 1997, he and his colleagues in the then Government could have introduced changes of this kind. They wholly failed to do so. I also point out that as a result of a lack of proper engagement in the European Union when his party was in power, we have ended up with some really serious difficulties with the drafting of directives and regulations.
1419 For example, the problems with the Data Protection Act 1998, with which I had to deal in relation to implementation, were caused by what the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his colleagues in government had signed up to lock, stock and barrel between 1990 and 1997, and we are still facing those problems. The same applies to the inadequate drafting and consideration of aspects of the working time directive. The Conservative Government could and should have dealt with those matters, and they failed to do so. I therefore greatly regret the grudging and churlish tone of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's remarks about proposals that are designed to increase the role and effectiveness of this House and the other place in dealing with EU business.
Let me deal with some of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's specific questions. He asked whether Parliament should have a greater role than it does now. I very much hope so, and we are open to proposals to strengthen the role of Parliament further. It is for Ministers to propose, and for Parliament to dispose. I referred to the problems with European Standing Committees A, B and C, which were introduced with all-party support in the early 1990s. The idea was that they should better scrutinise European regulations, and I attended them when I was in opposition. The truth, however, is that they are not working, and they do not get proper attendance. We therefore need to look at ways in which the scrutiny of such documents can be enhanced.
I have no fear whatever about Parliament being involved much earlier, not just in the scrutiny of documents but in establishing policy in advance. It strengthens our hand when we go to Brussels or Luxembourg if we know what Parliament wants and what it does not want. That was our experience in respect of both the Convention and, above all, the IGC. I mention just one example of that among many: energy policy. The express strength of sentiment on both sides of the House about the inadequacy of the articles relating to energy in the draft Convention enabled me simply to say to my colleagues in the European Union that we could not tolerate those proposals and that we must have something different, and we ended up with something different. That is the approach that I want for the future.
One of the key proposals that I am announcing today is to extend back in time the point at which Parliament gets involved in the development of EU policy. The European Scrutiny Committees play an important role, but that happens when draft legislation is brought forward. Often, by that stage, issues are set in stone. In relation to the White Paper, the reason why I want a long prospective look to be taken at the European Union equivalent of the Queen's Speech is so that Parliament as a whole can better help us get a grip on issues. We can therefore intervene when policy decisions can properly be influenced, rather than after they have been taken.
§ Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD)
I should have thought that no one could do other than endorse, in principle, proposals for better parliamentary scrutiny of European affairs, and a more strategic approach on the part of the United Kingdom Government. The Modernisation Committee will no 1420 doubt seek representations from political parties in the House, and we shall of course respond in detail in due course.
The statement made no express mention of the Prime Minister. Is it expected that he will be an active participant in the procedures outlined by the Foreign Secretary? On Cyprus and Turkey, the Foreign Secretary enjoys my support and that of my colleagues. Turkey's accession will of course have to be subject to its fulfilling all the necessary criteria, including the Copenhagen criteria, but that seems to us to be an effort well worth making.
The Foreign Secretary's proposals doubtless allow for better scrutiny of constitutional change in Europe. I thought he was uncharacteristically coy in saying nothing about the progress of the constitution. Perhaps he could say what discussions he has had recently with the Irish Government, and what progress, if any, he anticipates.
I hope the proposals also allow for greater scrutiny of the European Union's budget, but there was no particular reference to that in the statement. We are at one with the Government in believing that there should be no increase in the central budget, and that Britain's rebate should be maintained; but does the Foreign Secretary agree that the fundamental issue—the issue at the heart of financial considerations of the European Union—remains the unreformed common agricultural policy? Until that is dealt with properly, discussions of the kind that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been having over the last two or three days are likely to continue.
§ Mr. Straw
I was about to explain. The Prime Minister—this is unusual for Ministers involved in EU business—routinely makes an oral statement to the House the day after, or two days after, every European Council; I refer to the key European Union sessions. He attends those, unlike other members of the Cabinet, who go back and forth to and from Brussels and Luxembourg much more regularly.
The negotiations on Cyprus and Turkey began in New York yesterday. They are likely to prove difficult because the issue is difficult. but I am grateful for the support that has been given by Members throughout the House. We have actively supported Turkey and the start of its negotiations. It should be recognised that Turkey has made significant strides towards ensuring that it can meet the Copenhagen criteria. We will continue to work with our colleagues in the EU 15, and subsequently the 25, towards a date for the start of the negotiations being set by the European Council at the end of this year. I happen to think that that is very important.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that I had been coy about the IGC, and I plead guilty. The reason is that it is impossible to say whether the IGC negotiations will or will not be reopened. I have had many discussions with my Irish counterpart, as the 1421 Prime Minister has with the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and with many other colleagues across Europe. The Irish Presidency is collecting voices on the issue—[HON. MEMBERS: "What?"] Collecting voices, that is what they say they are doing. [HON. MEMBERS: "A big conversation?"] No, I think it is a series of small conversations. Having collected these voices and digested them, they intend then to come forward, with either a sense that the IGC' can be reopened or a sense that it cannot. All I can say to any Members on either side of the House who are of this tendency is that I would not put any money on either result. That is why I was being coy. I hope that that explanation helps.
As for the budget, I am glad to have the Liberal Democrats' support for the position taken by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) is right about the state of the common agricultural policy, apart from the fact that some important changes in principle have been made to detach subsidy from production. Over time, they will make a difference. However, there is also the issue of the distribution of the cohesion and structural funds, which is bound to have to be considered if we are going to keep the budget down to 1 per cent. of EU GDP, as I believe we should.
§ Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North) (Lab)
In welcoming my right hon. Friend's statement, may I say that I hope that there will be a satisfactory conclusion to the Cyprus problem, which is a blot on our country too, because we were one of the guaranteeing powers for the first Republic of Cyprus? With regard to my right hon. Friend's statements about control for the House, I strongly welcome his decision to have a new strong Standing Committee. Too often, Back Benchers have complained that decisions have been made without their being able to influence policy. The fact that programmes are going to be brought before us that we will be able to discuss, and, we hope, to amend—we hope to change the Government's position on that—is important for our role in Parliament, and strengthens our position particularly. It will also be an opportunity for people to discuss events in Europe properly, so that we will not see the hysteria that we have seen in the past few weeks about entrants from new countries, particularly the vicious and nasty statements in the tabloid press about our fellow European citizens, the Roma.
§ Mr. Straw
I agree with my hon. Friend's sentiments, and I am grateful for his support. As he will not mind me saying, he is an assiduous attender of all the Committees of which he is a member. We have our responsibilities to involve Parliament better, but Parliament has its responsibilities too. It is a matter for regret that many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have failed to attend relevant Standing Committees, even when the business that they were dealing with has been important. I want to make it clear that we regard the role of the House, including this Chamber, and its Committees in EU business as extremely important but I hope that as we get this going, that is reciprocated by better attendance at such Committees.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con)
Does the Foreign Secretary accept that one of the reasons why the 1422 European Standing Committees have not received the enthusiastic support that was originally anticipated is that when votes are taken and a Standing Committee decision goes against what the Government want, it is reversed on the Floor of the House? That has been the regular pattern. Does he accept that in the Standing Committee on the Intergovernmental Conference, which he and I attended regularly, there were no votes? Can he therefore, in the context of what he has just announced, assure us that decisions can be taken and votes will be cast in respect of decisions that come before the new Committee? Will he reaffirm what the Minister for Europe said to me on 15 December in a written answer—that Parliament is guaranteed its supremacy, so we can and will continue to reject proposals from the European Union in this Parliament, and to amend or to repeal European legislation, because that is the prerogative of this House?
§ Mr. Straw
It is almost an oxymoron—sorry, I mean that it is an obvious point—to say that Parliament is sovereign. Of course that is true. Parliament can pass any legislation that it wants, but that legislation may have consequences; we have had that discussion before. On the issue of votes, the procedure is a matter for the Modernisation Committee, not for me—I am making proposals—but if the hon. Gentleman thinks about it, I do not think that he would propose that what happens in Standing Committees should be the last word on votes. It would be very odd if Governments of any party were not able to reverse the vote in a Standing Committee on the Floor of the House. The Standing Committee on the Intergovernmental Conference and the Standing Committee on the Convention worked, not least because there were no votes. However, there was an expression of sentiment, which we took away and dealt with.
The hon. Gentleman said that he and I were assiduous attenders of that Committee. He is right. It is a matter of regret that as far as I recall, the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), the shadow Foreign Secretary, never turned up to one of the sittings of the Standing Committee on the Convention or the Standing Committee on the Intergovernmental Conference, notwithstanding his rather grandiloquent remarks earlier.
§ Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op)
May I ask the Foreign Secretary to ignore the churlish remarks of the shadow Foreign Secretary? Not only did he do nothing when he was in office, but he did not even call for the statement. I greatly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. As so much now, right across the board, is decided in Europe, it is important that we have accountability. However, if this Committee is to have the importance that it deserves, it is imperative that Members can attend it and attend this Chamber. Will my right hon. Friend therefore draw the issue to the attention of the Leader of the House, in the light of the possible revision of the House's sitting hours? If we go on as we are, trying to pack everything into the mornings and afternoons, the Committee will not enjoy the attendance that it deserves.
§ Mr. Straw
I think that my views are well known.
This matter will come before the House, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House knows my opinion and those of many other Members. It is a matter of record that the decision to sit on Tuesday between 11.30 am and 7 pm was passed by only seven votes, and I know of at least eight Members who have changed their minds since then.
§ Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con)
As a new member of the European Scrutiny Committee, I am horrified at the volume of EU proposals pouring through it each week. A fraction of them are examined, and they cannot be amended in any respect. Since the problem of over-regulation and excessive legislation exists higher up the food chain—in the EU itself—why are the Government arguing in the constitution for more powers for the EU and for more majority voting, which would increase the volume of legislation that the House has to deal with? Will the right hon. Gentleman explain the extra powers of the Committee that he is setting up? Otherwise, we shall simply debate again proposals that we cannot block or amend in any respect. What additional powers is he Foreign Secretary proposing for the Committee to reject proposals that the House does not want?
§ Mr. Straw
I am concerned about the volume of EU proposals and so is my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That is why, in the pre-Budget report of 10 December, he announced an important initiative, taken with the other forthcoming presidencies, through which we will try to get a grip on the volume of regulations coming out of Brussels. I should point out that the Commission is becoming increasingly aware of this issue, and it is one of the reasons why support for the EU is diminishing across Europe. We must also deal with gold-plating and drafting. Conservatives may want to excise the memory of this, but I should repeat for the right hon. Gentleman's benefit that, when they were in government for 18 years, they did nothing at all about the volume of legislation. However, we are trying to deal with it.
The European Scrutiny Committee does a very good job, and as the right hon. Gentleman knows, I have taken the trouble to attend its meetings and give evidence; indeed, I am told that I am the first Foreign Secretary to do so. However, the Committee is—to use his analogy—too far down the food chain. We want proposals to be discussed when they are in draft form. Because such proposals are, by definition, simply draft proposals, they are unlikely to be subject to a vote. However, if Parliament is alerted to them, it is possible to call for debates on them in Government or Opposition time. In any event, my ministerial colleagues and I see our role in Europe as representing not just the British Government, but the British Parliament and the 1424 British people. If we get early warning of the fact that the British Parliament and the British people are not going to stand for something, we can go in and deal with it at an early stage.
§ Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab)
I warmly welcome the excellent proposals that the Foreign Secretary has introduced today. They are a response to what Members on both sides of the House have been calling for, and they refocus the Government's European policy on the reform agenda. As he has attended many summits, he will know that it is not just a question of going to the summit and getting the conclusions; what matters is how they are implemented. What is the current status of the proposed second chamber for the European Parliament that the Prime Minister raised the possibility of in a speech in Warsaw three years ago? Does that still form part of the discussion, or is it no longer on the agenda?
§ Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP)
I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving us advance notice of his statement, and I declare an interest, like others, as a member of the European Scrutiny Committee. On behalf of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, I warmly welcome measures that will improve scrutiny and accountability. However, why has no commitment been made to ending the secrecy of relations between the UK Government and devolved Administrations, as outlined in the concordats? That would surely be a good first step towards assisting scrutiny in the House, the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and, in due time, the Northern Ireland Assembly.
In the absence of complete details about the workings of the planned Committee, will the Foreign Secretary give an assurance that the plans are not a cover to diminish the attendance of Ministers at detailed evidence sessions of the European Scrutiny Committee? Does he agree that the Conservatives, who were quick to criticise much of his statement, would have more credibility on the issue if they had a better attendance record at the Standing Committee on the Intergovernmental Conference?
§ Mr. Straw
On the last point, I entirely agree. The attendance record of the Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen at the Standing Committee on the Intergovernmental Conference was lamentable, showing that they were not interested in securing significant change and were simply trying to score points.
On the effectiveness of the body, I can say to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) that I very much hope to be able to make arrangements for EU Commissioners to attend and to make statements of the kind that I am making today. While speaking informally with commissioners about the body, I have made the point that they have a job to do simply in explaining to the British Parliament and people what their job is. If there is a great deal more communication, some of the things that come out of Brussels that cause us concern may be less likely to do so.
1425 On the point about relations between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations, it is a matter not quite of secrecy but of maintaining confidences in our relationships. That is important, and is similar to, if not quite the same as, the way in which we maintain confidences with other nation states. I chair a Cabinet Committee that includes members of the devolved Administrations. It is important that they should be fully involved in the decisions that we make on their behalf as well as on our own, and that requires confidence. The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) will know from my work with the European Scrutiny Committee that we are trying to be as open as possible about the work of the British Government, and the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament are trying to do the same.
§ Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North) (Lab)
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's proposals, which should improve the depth, quality and effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny on European issues. The fact that the possible significance of the energy chapter of the proposed European constitution was fully recognised only as a result of the diligence of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) and others is an example of why such improved scrutiny is desirable.
§ Mr. Straw
I agree, and I am happy to endorse my hon. Friend's compliment to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard). One effect of increasing Parliament's role in the process will be to ensure that the level at which EU matters are dealt with inside Government is also raised. Anyone who has been a Minister will know that the fact of having to give evidence to a Select Committee or any other body of the House, or having to taking part in a debate, raises the level and quality of consideration by their Departments. That will be an important side effect.
§ Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP)
The Foreign Secretary referred with approval to how energy was handled at the recent IGC. He said that the views expressed in Parliament greatly strengthened his hand. Would not his hand be immeasurably stronger if there were a clear arrangement, similar to that in Denmark, whereby the Government did not, in the Council of Ministers, commit the UK to any position without the prior approval of Parliament? We have a structural problem in handling these matters. It is welcome to see changes in committees, but we will not change our experience unless the structural problem is dealt with. That problem is that this Parliament is not involved in the decision-making process. Until that is changed, we will not change our experience.
§ Mr. Straw
I am genuinely open to proposals on that matter. I have seen how the Danish and Finnish systems operate, and Ministers from those countries have a clearer idea of what their Parliaments are, or are not, willing to accept. At the same time, those Ministers must have a degree of discretion because they actively participate in negotiations in the room in the same way as us. I repeat that the more that Parliament is involved, 1426 and the more that we can work out how it can endorse in advance the broad positions to be taken by the Government while still allowing sufficient negotiating room, the happier I will be.
§ Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Coop)
In welcoming these excellent proposals, and following the question from the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), is there scope in the new arrangements for European policy to be initiated here? I am thinking of issues such as animal welfare. There is a wide perception in the House that our standards on, for example, pig welfare are much higher than those in the rest of Europe. It would be welcome if the new arrangements allowed us to initiate processes to obtain wider European agreement on such matters.
§ Mr. Straw
Yes, there is. The earlier there are proposals, the earlier we can get them into draft programmes—for example, into the conclusions of sectoral councils and then into the European Council, and then that can form part of the work programme.
On animal welfare, my hon. Friend may like to know that, with our encouragement, the reference to animal welfare in the draft convention has been significantly upgraded. I was trying to find the exact text and failed to do so, but I will ensure that it is sent to him.
§ Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that every Member of this House receives a copy of a draft of every regulation, directive or other legislative instrument that will ultimately come into force and bear on our constituents? Although we can do nothing about such regulations, that would allow us to know their scale and nature. Will he confirm that it is currently impossible to obtain those documents, although I receive a copy of every statutory instrument issued by the Government? Indeed, even the European Scrutiny Committee must consider such regulations in private. If I am wrong, will he tell me how to obtain copies of the regulations? If I am right, will he confirm that that reflects the fundamentally undemocratic nature of our supranational masters?
§ Mr. Straw
The right hon. Gentleman's party invited the House to join the European Union, and the basic legislative system under which we joined is still there today. Unless there is a good reason for regulations to be confidential, they should be available to all hon. Members in the same way as other draft regulations, and I shall examine his point.
§ Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on bringing the proposals to the House. Europe will be a very different place after EU enlargement, and we must ensure that we match such changes with changes in our parliamentary proceedings. What specific talks has he had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural 1427 Affairs about factoring in sustainability and the environment in the same way as we factor in human rights issues? How will the new Committee deal with those issues?
§ Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP)
I welcome the Foreign Secretary's statement as an important step forward, although we believe that scrutiny by and accountability to Parliament must be further strengthened and deepened. May I press him on the membership of the new Standing Committee? How will members be appointed? Can he assure the House that there will be adequate representation for smaller parties to allow them proper input in this important area?
§ Mr. Straw
Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman. The proposal—this is a matter for the House and the other place—is that there should be a Standing Grand Committee on Europe. It will be open to any hon. Member to attend and take part in proceedings, so minority parties will be fully represented if they want to be.
§ Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)
I warmly welcome the Foreign Secretary's statement. He has been a long-standing and consistent advocate of the greater involvement of this House in the affairs of the European Union. In particular, I welcome the proposed Grand Committee, and I am pleased that he has mentioned the possible involvement of Members of the European Parliament. Will he consider whether Members of the devolved institutions could also be involved? That point is important because much European legislation is implemented by the devolved Administrations.
§ Mr. Straw
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome. The argument for Members of the European Parliament attending the Standing Grand Committee is stronger than that for Members of the devolved Administrations, but the matter is one for the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee, not for me.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)
May I put a specific suggestion to the Foreign Secretary with regard to gold-plating? I think that he would agree that one of the problems with gold-plating is that it is very difficult for Ministers to spot the degree to which the officials are proposing implementation in 1428 the UK that goes beyond what is proposed in Europe. I therefore suggest to him what I put into practice when I was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, namely that every set of proposals for regulations coming to Ministers should carry with regard to each of the counterpart proposals a statement made by the officials as to the extent to which what we are proposing in the UK differs from the main proposals from within Europe, so that Ministers can pick up the discrepancy and judge whether the difference is worth having.
§ Mr. Straw
The right hon. and learned Gentleman's observation is accurate; it is impossible for a busy Minister to check on such matters. I commend the report to him if he has not seen it: one of the issues that Robin Bellis examined was the practice in some other countries of "copying out". That practice would involve simply copying out the directives, and if there were an argument it would be resolved by the interpretation of the British courts and the European Court of Justice. His idea is good and, with his permission, I will take the details of how he operated it when he was a Minister and do my best to take it forward.
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con)
Given that the Prime Minister said on 18 June 1997 that the subsidiarity and proportionality protocol of the Amsterdam treaty had real teeth and that nearly six years later the Foreign Secretary told the House on 21 May last year that the protocol had in fact not proved satisfactory and that the proposal on the subject in the draft European constitution was pitifully weak, what exactly does the Foreign Secretary intend to do to ensure that in the future subsidiarity is a safeguard of national self-government and not a thin cover for the continuing legislative imperialism of the European Union?
§ Mr. Straw
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was absolutely right when he made that statement on 18 June 1997 about the proposals having real teeth. The only problem—this is not his responsibility—is that the jaw attached to the teeth has not closed sufficiently often. Although the proposals on subsidiarity in the draft convention are not perfect, they would go some way to assisting in the matter. Meanwhile, we have a responsibility as a key member state in Europe—my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer share this view—to get to grips with deregulation in Europe. Obviously, some regulations are very important, but British people and British business would welcome lighter touch regulation to try to turn round not malign forces in Brussels but the engine that produces unnecessary regulation without looking more imaginatively at how the particular task in hand could better be achieved.