HL Deb 04 March 1997 vol 578 cc1699-702

2.45 p.m.

Lord Renton asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many EU directives and regulations respectively are now binding on the United Kingdom.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, I regret that there is no comprehensive list collated centrally. However, the European Commission CELEX database, which is available in the Library of the House, contains some of the information needed.

Lord Renton

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for her remarkable Answer, I am sorry to say that it does not deal with the question of the vast number of directives and regulations that are issued by the European Union and are binding upon this country. Nevertheless, I thank my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor for an encouraging letter that I have just received from him affirming the view that there should be less and better legislation on the part of the European Union. Will the Government point out at the forthcoming meetings of the IGC that attempted harmonisation results in the passing of unnecessary laws which are confusing and that it is difficult to reach an agreement between 15 nations with different systems and 11 different languages if we want sensible laws?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I agree with much of what my noble friend has just said. The Government's approach to regulation is best summed up as: fewer, better and simpler rules. However, we must take account of the purpose of those rules. When the Foreign Secretary spoke yesterday he said that it was an illusion to believe that one could construct a single market for six countries, let alone 15, without some supra-national rules and institutions to enforce them. I fully agree with my noble friend that, despite the fall in the number of proposals for primary legislation from 61 in 1990 to 19 in the pipeline this year, there is a tendency for increased secondary legislation. Much of that secondary legislation is related to CAP management. I am glad to say that the Commission agrees with us that the CAP must be simplified.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that I and, I believe, many others are very surprised that there is no record of the legislation that is passed by the European Union? Does she agree that it runs into tens of thousands of pages, many of which are unreadable and incomprehensible? Would it not be better for the House to make progress with the Bill presented to this House on 31st January by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, which obtained a Second Reading to amend the European Communities Act by the deletion of Sections 2 and 3? In that event, would we not be spared many, if not all, of these sometimes ridiculous regulations?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, one of the problems is that there is no single record but a number of records. Those records relate to many regulations that have been overtaken in the process of updating. The whole purpose of improving the quality of regulation is to make sure that it is kept to a minimum—as I said to my noble friend, the approach of the Government is that there should be fewer, better and simpler regulations—and that the burden of regulation which damages competitiveness is as light as possible. It is for that reason that the UK, with its experience of being as deregulated as any country in Europe, is pushing the SLIM initiative which Commissioner Monti brought forward to simplify the legislation of the internal market. That is a serious commitment to administrative simplification. Referring to my noble friend's Bill, I believe that the views of the whole House on that matter may be slightly different from those expressed at Second Reading.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, can my noble friend reveal, to the nearest thousand or so, how many bureaucrats in Brussels have little else to do but to concoct these pernicious laws? Can she say whether their number has increased or decreased over recent years? Can she give us any prospect that redundancy is in store for any of them?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I wish that I could give my noble friend the answer that he seeks to the question. I cannot, because no bureaucrat in Brussels, as he puts it, is concerned solely with producing regulations. Regulations are part of the way in which the EU works. There has been no greater advocate in Brussels of budgetary rigour and the need to control the running costs of the European institutions than the UK. The good thing is that a number of member states have now joined us in that. My noble friend should be pleased that we are making progress and that we are not only reducing primary legislation but are also simplifying and improving secondary legislation.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the total number of civil servants in the European Commission is considerably less than those in the Scottish Office? Does she agree that if the aim is to have less and simpler legislation, charity might begin at home for the Government?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I wondered how long it would be before someone reminded us that we have fewer civil servants in the European Commission than in the Scottish Office. However, we have of course been reducing the number of civil servants in British government service over the years, and making them more efficient. If we could take to Brussels some of the efficiency that the UK Civil Service has achieved, I would be even happier.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the reference to the Scottish Office is somewhat of a canard, because Civil Service numbers given for the Scottish Office include all the prison staff in the prisons and all the nurses in Carstairs Hospital, the equivalent of Broadmoor, for some reason, which come to about 14,000, whereas the number of civil servants who work in the Scottish Office, as we know it, is only 7,000.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, try as I might, I am not eloquent on Scottish matters. I leave the explanation of the figures to my noble friend.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the seven days ending 1st March there arrived from the Commission to the UK six draft directives, three draft decisions, nine draft regulations, and a miscellany of reports, opinions, green papers and other communications, totalling 15, being 33 altogether? Is the Minister sure that the figures that were given to her, presumably as up to date, are correct?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, yes, because in fact we are talking about apples and pears, if I may put it like that. I was giving the figures for primary legislation, and explaining that the secondary legislation is being improved, and is therefore superseding old secondary legislation. Much of what comes forward is a result of the single market for which the UK was fundamental in pushing. That single market has achieved the sort of liberalisation which has helped to put this country so much ahead in production and in receiving investment for overseas. The reality is simple. We cannot have a single market without an obligation to play by its rules. That means accepting some decisions which we would rather not have. It means having rules to ensure that everyone plays on a level playing field.