HL Deb 11 October 2000 vol 617 cc331-4

3.6 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they intend to consult Parliament on the proposal for a European second chamber drawn from national parliaments, floated by the Prime Minister in his speech in Warsaw on 6th October.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, by floating the proposal for a second chamber of the European Parliament, the Prime Minister intended to launch a debate, not set a blue-print, on how to reconnect national Parliaments to EU decision making. We are sure that this debate will be as vigorous here in Westminster as anywhere else. Indeed, the European Union Select Committee addressed this issue with the Minister for Europe only yesterday.

This is a proposal for the longer term. In the mean time, our door is open, and we warmly welcome contributions from all parliamentarians.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that some Members of this House and of the other place will be going to the next meeting of the Conference of European Scrutiny Committees—COSAC—next Sunday and will no doubt be asked what the Prime Minister meant by that? If we do not know what the Prime Minister meant by that, we may not be able to give very intelligent answers to our colleagues. Is she further aware that there are Members in both Houses with some experience of managing "double hatting" of European assemblies, both positive experience and negative experience, and that it might be sensible to call on them to give their advice? Does the Minister agree that if this proposal is intended to strengthen the role of national Parliaments at the European level, it is extremely important to carry members of national Parliaments, including this one, with the Government, including, in particular, senior members of parties not currently in government?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I certainly agree with the latter comments of the noble Lord. I re-emphasise what I said in my first Answer: the Prime Minister intended to launch a debate on this subject and did so. We welcome contributions from all parliamentarians, particularly those who have had experience of "double hatting" in the past. It is a longer-term proposal. The next IGC is not likely until the middle of the next decade. The primary purpose is to reconnect national Parliaments with decision making in Europe, especially in the new areas of Europe—defence, crime and so on. We need to reflect on the details. Our inclination is that such a chamber would be small. But we are starting a process of dialogue. I know from debates in this House and in the other place that that dialogue will be vigorous, intense and well-informed.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, as my noble friend said, the Prime Minister intended to launch a debate rather than set a blue-print. But there is an example of a blue-print that is up and running now. I refer to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Western European Union. The great strength of that Parliamentary Assembly is that it brings in members from outside the European Union and from outside NATO as well. Those parliamentarians take part in a vigorous debate on defence matters. Does my noble friend see the Parliamentary Assembly of the WEU as a possible blue-print for a second chamber?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I agree that the WEU plays an extremely valuable role, but a second chamber is proposed for the medium term. For the moment, we are not proposing any change to the WEU assembly which, as my noble friend has rightly pointed out, undertakes very valuable work. This proposal is intended to open up discussion. Obviously we shall examine all the models that are already in place with a view to taking decisions on which new models to adopt which could take advantage of the best of the established systems.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the Minister believe that the European Parliament, as currently constituted, is an excellent example for parliamentarians everywhere?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I would certainly state that the European Parliament is a parliament of great value.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, in bringing forward this proposal, has the Prime Minister secured support from specific leading parliamentarians in other member states, or is this simply an initiative of his own?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, this issue has been widely debated. The Prime Minister is spearheading a view that has been expressed by others and is shared by him. It is an important debate. That is because one of the issues that we must address is whether parliamentarians in nation states are as fully engaged in this process as they should be. We are examining the proposal as an option for the future.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords—

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords—

Lord Carter

My Lords, I believe that my noble friend Lord Tomlinson rose to speak first.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, if the objective of this proposal is to reconnect national parliaments with the process of decision-making in Europe, a number of actions should be taken in the short term, as well as possibly considering what should be done in the long term? That should include the need to keep parliaments better informed as regards what is happening in Europe. They should be involved far more in pre-legislative and well as post-legislative decisions on European issues. Does she further agree that, as a result, the national parliaments would then not feel so detached and the need for such a second chamber would diminish?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I understand the import of my noble friend's view. He is right to point out that we are seeking ways in which to reconnect parliamentarians. His view is one that has been strongly expressed and listened to by the Government on several occasions.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, we on this side of the House are strongly in favour of all measures to involve national parliaments more intimately in calling the European institutions to account. However, is the noble Baroness aware that this idea is not only not new—it has been suggested many times before—but that in fact it has been tried out before? That took place in the early 1990s when the decision was taken to experiment with the establishment of a European assizes, or assises. That took place in Rome. I have to tell the noble Baroness that it was a pretty good disaster. Surely we need to concentrate on finding the means by which your Lordships' House and the other place can further develop their already excellent machinery—that is particularly the case as regards your Lordships' House—for scrutinising and holding to account Community instruments? Is not this an area in which a great deal more could be done? Furthermore, would that not be far more in line with helping the nation states and their peoples to relate to the European Union rather than by inventing another airy-fairy central institution?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am disappointed that the noble Lord should so describe this proposal. I should remind him that we are now living in a different age. The experiment so vividly outlined by the noble Lord was mooted in a very different environment from that in which we now find ourselves. Although I know that it is difficult for Members of the Opposition to understand, Europe has moved on in an extremely progressive way. For that reason, with great openness we are considering changes which may benefit our nation and may be advantageous to Europe. That openness provides an opportunity which should be grasped rather than cavilled at.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I am glad that the Minister has begun to answer the questions I put to her a week last Friday. Is she aware that, since that date, the Select Committee of your Lordships' House has taken evidence? I am sure that she is, because she has mentioned it. We intend to carry out an inquiry into this subject. However, we have the gravest reservations. Perhaps the Minister will read the report published five years ago by the Select Committee. She will learn from that the reasons why, all that time ago, we set our face against such an organisation. I have to say that, for the life of me, I cannot see that anything has changed.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, obviously we shall be very interested to read the decisions of the European Union Committee and we are grateful that the matter has attracted the committee's attention. Circumstances have changed and we believe that this proposal needs to be looked at again. We hope that the committee will examine the proposals coming from the Commission to see whether they respect the statement of principles as regards what is best dealt with at European, national or regional level; in other words, to try to reach a political judgment on whether a proposal respected the competencies of the EU. The Government think that that is a useful role and should be explored. We very much welcome the vision that might be shared by others, and in particular we would welcome the erudite and informed way in which the committee has examined such matters in the past. We shall certainly give such views our deepest consideration.

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