HL Deb 20 November 2003 vol 654 cc2048-50

11.29 a.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to ensure that both Houses of Parliament are able to influence decisions on the draft European Union constitutional treaty before it is agreed by them at the intergovernmental conference.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, Parliament has already influenced the Government's decisions on the draft treaty and will continue to do so. Two Members of this House and two Members of the other House participated in the Convention on the Future of Europe in their capacity as parliamentarians. Parliamentary committees have this year issued 14 reports on the convention and IGC, all of which have been studied carefully by the Government. Ministers are attending eight committee sittings this autumn to update Parliament on progress of the negotiations. That is, of course, in addition to debates on the Floor of both Houses.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Government have said that they do not want a referendum because Parliament must judge? How does she reconcile that with the fact that, for instance, the major report by the Select Committee on the European Union in this House has not been debated and there will be no time to debate it in the near future? It is all very well to say that the Government have studied matters; I am talking about the voice of both Houses of Parliament. As I understand it, if a treaty comes before I hem, they have to accept it or reject it in toto. They cannot then say, "We do not like this particular decision". There are some vital decisions such as the defence veto, the future of NATO and many others that I could name. So far as I know, neither House has discussed on the Floor of the House the very detailed work that has been done by the appropriate committee.

I hope that the Minister will agree with and put forward the proposition that the Government should resist pressure by the EU to reach decisions on the treaty by the end of this year. There is no need for such haste. With more time we could have proper debate.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth. There will indeed be time, on 3rd December, for debate on the excellent report from the House of Lords committee to which she refers. I hope that noble Lords will take the opportunity to participate in that debate. The Government welcome that report, as the Foreign Secretary has said. As for further scrutiny by this Parliament, a Bill to implement the new treaty will come before both Houses when parliamentary time allows.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, perhaps I may mention one paradox in this whole affair. Can my noble friend confirm that all noble Lords are able to participate in the Committee on the Intergovernmental Conference of another place, which usually attracts about a dozen Members of this House? Is it not a little odd that even on the famous occasion when the Daily Mail splashed across its front page the headline "Blueprint for Tyranny", the committee could not get a quorum to discuss it?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. It is extraordinary that, despite continual calls from noble Lords and Members of another place for more and more scrutiny, Members are not taking this unprecedented opportunity for scrutiny in both Houses. Sometimes it is difficult even to find a quorum.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart

My Lords, is it not almost unprecedented to have repeated sittings of Joint Committees of the two Houses during IGCs? The Government have introduced that novel procedure, which is welcome. Alas, it is not being adequately supported by the Members of either House. It would be very difficult for the Government to do more in these circumstances.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that. I agree that scrutiny is available and continuing. As he said, such access to a committee is unprecedented. I also thank him and my noble friend Lord Tomlinson for their excellent and expert work on this subject.

Lord Grenfell

My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness can rest assured that, as chairman of the European Union Committee, I am learning, albeit rather slowly, to accept all small mercies when it comes to finding time in the Chamber for a debate on our reports; I think that we currently have nine in the backlog. However, does she not agree that it is rather unfortunate that this particular report should not find time for what I would call a full debate? The truth of the matter is that on 3rd December we shall be taking note of the report during the foreign affairs, defence and overseas development day of the debate on the Loyal Address. I am grateful that we have even that, but, frankly, it is not enough.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, as I said in an earlier answer, the Government very much welcome the report from the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, and the work that has been done on it. I hope that we will have ample opportunity on 3rd December to discuss the report.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, does the Minister recall that the Government White Paper on the constitution says that Parliament will have the opportunity to examine the treaty line by line? It does not go on to say that we will have no opportunity, as my noble friend has reminded us, to alter a single dot or comma of the treaty. Would it not have been a shade more honest and open to have said that in the White Paper and to tell people the real position?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, the treaty, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, will know, is being discussed by governments. When it comes back to this place it will enter a process that has been used for the Maastricht Treaty, the Single European Act, the Amsterdam Treaty and all other treaties. That will not be a surprise to noble Lords.