HL Deb 28 November 1989 vol 513 cc307-10

2.50 p.m.

The Earl of Kinnoull asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied that the European Parliament has sufficient powers to scrutinise the European Commission effectively.

Lord Reay

My Lords, we believe that the Single European Act provided a satisfactory allocation of responsibilities for the European Parliament. National parliaments and the European Parliament have complementary roles in ensuring the essential scrutiny of proposals for European Community legislation.

The Earl of Kinnoull

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Can he say whether under the new powers a European parliamentary committee can summon an individual member of the Commission to attend to explain some action, as it could previously? Secondly, can he advise whether the system of scrutiny at Westminster is being re-examined?

Lord Reay

My Lords, the European Commission may be dismissed as a whole by the European Parliament. That has never happened but the power serves as a constant reminder to all commissioners of their collective accountability to that body. My recollection is of commissioners being very assiduous in their attendance at sessions of the European Parliament. I should have thought that if there were any deficiencies in the working relationship between the European Parliament and the Commission—and I must add that I am not aware of any—that is a matter which in the first instance should be taken up between those two institutions.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will the noble Lord be good enough to confirm that the European Commission has substantially amended the social charter and that that is opposed in the European Parliament by a very large number of members? Furthermore, will he not agree that if that is the case it could possibly lead to a grave constitutional crisis in the Community? Will he further confirm that the watering down of the social charter was the result of an agreement in Paris last month between Mrs. Thatcher and President Mitterrand?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I think that the subject of a social charter is rather wide of the Question on the Order Paper. I am not aware of the state of the relationship between the Commission and the European Parliament on the question of the social charter. The European Parliament was given substantial new responsibilities under the Single European Act. Those have been developing satisfactorily and we see no case for extending the European Parliament's powers once again at the present time.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that he is completely wrong in suggesting that my supplementary question was wide of the original Question? It is absolutely on the nail. Will he be good enough to answer my supplementary questions?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I tried to suggest that the substantive issue of the social charter was not part of my noble friend's original Question. I do not at present have information about the relationship between the Commission and the European Parliament on this point, but I shall let the noble Lord know the answer.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that both the Question and his Answer contain a misnomer? There is not a European Parliament; there is a European Assembly. To attribute to that Assembly parliamentary powers as we understand them in this country can be dangerous. Is not the Council of Ministers the proper force to ensure that the Commission is scrutinised and kept in order?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I believe that I am correct in saying that, whereas the term "European Assembly" was used until the introduction of the Single European Act, since that date the term "European Parliament" has had legislative validity.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the excellent reports which are provided by the committees of this House which scrutinise European legislation are available to Members of the European Parliament? Are they read? Have they any impact?—because they should have.

Lord Reay

My Lords, the reports of the Select Committee on European affairs of your Lordships' House are considered by many throughout the Community to be exemplary models of the form which constructive scrutiny of proposed European Community legislation should take.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the criticisms which are often levelled at the Commission for being unduly bureaucratic are best dealt with by giving the European Parliament greater powers and by seeing that the procedures by which it is elected are based on a common threshold?

Lord Reay

My Lords, the European Parliament was given substantial new powers under the Single European Act which came into force on 1st July 1987. We believe that the best course now is for the European Parliament to make effective use of those powers rather than to consider new powers for it at the present time.

Baroness Serota

My Lords, following the previous supplementary question, is the noble Lord aware that not only are the reports of the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities available to the European Parliament but their contents pages are regularly translated into Italian for the benefit of the Italian Senate? Is he also aware that the committee's major report on fraud against the Community was reprinted in full for the Italian Senate?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for that additional information.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, further to the question that was put by the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, is my noble friend aware that it is generally accepted throughout the whole of the Community that the scrutiny work of your Lordships' House is the most effective and objective scrutiny conducted anywhere? Is he also aware that those reports are read throughout the Community? If anyone doubts that, he can inquire about sales of Hansard.

Lord Reay

My Lords, I am grateful for what my noble friend has said, which corroborates the answer that I gave earlier.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Luxembourg has six seats in the European Parliament whereas on a per capita basis it would have only one, that the Republic of Ireland has 15 seats whereas on a per capita basis it would have only six, and so on, and that in contrast the United Kingdom, France and West Germany are under-represented on a per capita basis? Does the noble Lord agree that it is quite unthinkable that the European Parliament should be given more powers over our lives until such time as the normal democratic principle of one man one vote of equal value applies in the elections to that parliament?

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Reay

My Lords, the noble Lord has raised issues which go deeper and wider than the Question on the Order Paper. I can only repeat that at the present time we do not see a case for extending the powers of the European Parliament.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, would the problem not be solved if initiating powers were taken away from the Commission and given to the Council of Ministers? In that case the Council of Ministers would be answerable to national parliaments in a proper way.

Lord Reay

My Lords, the noble Lord has taken the matter wider still. I do not think that those are questions which are on the agenda at present.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, in view of the good work which it is acknowledged is done by the Select Committee, is the Minister satisfied that enough time is allowed for those committees to study the Commission's proposals?

Lord Reay

My Lords, we believe that the current arrangements enable Parliament to give effective consideration to proposals for European Community legislation. However, perhaps I should add that the Lord President of the Council has been holding discussions with the Select Committees on Procedure and on European Legislation in another place to examine whether procedures may be improved. The Select Committee on Procedure is expected to report soon and the Government will give careful consideration to its conclusions.