§ 3.17 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on greater parliamentary involvement in European Union work made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:
"With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on the Government's plans for enhancing the role of Parliament in EU matters and in respect of other developments in the European Union.
1107 "This is set to be an important year for the European Union. Ten new members join on 1 May. 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 better delivers 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 take a decision on whether to launch such negotiations with Turkey. Meanwhile discussions began yesterday in New York on the scope for a re-united Cyprus joining the EU in May.
"These and other EU developments are of profound importance to Britain and to British interests. It is therefore vital that this 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 honourable 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 and the IGC and responded to 16 Select Committee reports. From last May onwards, when the successive parts of the convention text of the treaty were published, we had more than a dozen debates on EU issues on the Floor of both Houses and three sessions of the new IGC Standing Committee.
"This parliamentary engagement in the IGC process helped develop a better understanding of the issues at stake and strengthened our negotiating position at the EU table. On energy, for example, the strength of opinion in Parliament here 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 within it. Indeed, given the range of issues which 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. But I am sure that they would agree that we also need a broader and earlier focus across Parliament as a whole on the forthcoming plans of the Commission and the Council, and sufficiently in advance so that 1108 all Members of the House and the other place have an opportunity to raise concerns and influence policy before it is set in stone.
"So first, starting in April of this year, and 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, and subject to your agreement, Mr Speaker, I would make an oral statement to the House summarising the White Paper's main themes. In addition, we will publish, as a Command Paper, an interim report each July to take stock of progress and look ahead to the second six-month presidency of the year. These papers will subsume our existing, retrospective reviews of developments in the EU.
"Secondly, to build on the Standing Committee which was set up to look at the convention and then the IGC, the Government favour creating a successor committee, whose remit would be extended to cover the whole of the EU's work. To this end, my right honourable 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 also that the House might consider whether ways might be found to allow European commissioners to make statements and answer questions before the new body, and perhaps for United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament also to attend.
"I look forward to the modernisation committee findings and hope the committee might include in its inquiry the operation of the existing European Standing Committees A, B and C, which, to express a purely personal view, seem never to have worked fully as intended.
"Decisions on any new committee are, of course, a matter for the House, along with the other place. My right honourable friend the Leader of the House and I have discussed this idea informally with the chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, and, indeed, it reflects much of the thinking contained in the committee's report on European Scrutiny in the Commons of 22 May 2002. 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 House of 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 adopted by the European Council last December, 1109 which we have made available to the chairmen of the scrutiny committees of both Houses. This 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 2005 is already well under way. This will give us a valuable chance to keep the EU agenda focused on delivering economic reform, jobs and growth. As he announced to the House on 10 December last year, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is already working with his Irish, Dutch and Luxembourg colleagues, as the next presidencies, to achieve better regulation in the EU. For Europe to remain competitive, we must make faster progress on deregulation and on more flexible labour, capital and product markets. An improved EU regulatory framework, according to the International Monetary Fund, could deliver as much as a 7 per cent increase in the EU's GDP and a 3 per cent increase in productivity in the longer term.
"Another issue which needs attention is the transposition of EU legislation into national law. The risk of "gold-plating" the original texts and thereby imposing on British businesses more stringent conditions than those faced by their competitors in other member states is real.
"It was with this in mind that about 18 months ago I commissioned the distinguished European lawyer Robin Bellis to prepare a report on our implementation of EU legislation, which I published on 24 November last year. I held a seminar in December to discuss its recommendations with representatives from across government, this House, the EU institutions and the CBI. I have asked the relevant departments to report back to me in six months on the steps they have taken to implement them; and I would welcome the views of the House.
"Britain's national interests are best served by an active engagement with our partners in the European Union. But just as issues such as trade, the environment or organised crime require effective cross-border action through the EU, so it is imperative that national democratic bodies are fully engaged on these issues as well. I hope that the proposals I have set out today will go some way to ensuring that we in this House, and in Parliament as a whole, can be more effective in doing just that".
My Lords, that completes the Statement.
§ 3.27 p.m.
§ Lord Howell of Guildford
My Lords, I am sure we are all very grateful to the Minister for repeating this Statement from the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary. To me, it sounds constructive, in parts, especially the White Paper telling us in advance what is coming from the European Union instead of merely reporting what has happened in the past. That will be a great improvement. I favour the continuation, or 1110 development, of the Standing Committee which includes Members of the other place and your Lordships. I think the present committee has worked quite well and this would work better still, especially if it is able to persuade commissioners from Brussels to attend and answer questions. I know from experience that efforts to do so have been made in the past by parliamentary committees, frankly with not much success.
However, while we support all attempts to increase accountability and parliamentary surveillance of European Union law-making, it will be all in vain if new powers accumulate at the level of the EU institutions faster than we can call them to account or even keep track of them. It becomes a "finger in the dyke" exercise against increasingly unfavourable trends. Yet that is exactly what the Government were ready to sign up to in the new draft constitution, prevented only by Poland and Spain, who were blamed for their intransigence. In that constitution, no fewer than 40 new policy domains are brought into majority voting and the central powers of the EU institutions are hugely extended by shared competences and other devices.
I have some questions for the Minister against that background and in the context of those potential dangers. Do the proposed procedures actually return powers to national Parliaments? Everyone is in favour of broader and earlier focus on plans from the European Commission and the Council, but will there be powers to change or halt proposals, either by working alone or in combination with other Parliaments in other member states?
I recall that the draft constitution proposes a Commission review if parliamentary committees challenge the competence of the European Union in the new areas and with new proposals—if enough Parliaments in enough member states make that challenge. That is what is called the yellow card procedure. Many of us took the view—including representatives on the former convention and some Ministers—that the yellow card was not really enough and that a red card was needed to enable the committees of the Parliaments to halt or prevent extension of new competencies and new powers being exercised by European Union institutions. Do the new procedures do anything on that front?
Secondly, although there is talk about scrutiny in the Statement, there is no mention of the process of scrutiny reserve to which Members of this House attach much importance and on which your Lordships reported in detail back in December 2002 in an excellent report from the European Union Select Committee. The report suggested that there should be much tougher hurdles before scrutiny reserve is simply overturned by the Government for this or that reason. In fact, last year, 1,327 EU instruments were placed before the scrutiny committees of both Houses. I do not know how many reserves were placed on those but I do not think that there were very many. However, I know that no fewer than 71 of those reserves were simply overruled by Ministers. That is why your Lordships rightly argued in the Select Committee that 1111 the process needed toughening up. That suggestion is not included in the Statement, which is a great pity, especially as the numbers of instruments will obviously be greater still in an enlarged Community.
My next question concerns the comotology process, the process by which the Commission and committees of the European Parliament—as your Lordships know—in effect decide the shape of new legislation and new instruments. When some of them reach us it is of course a fait accompli—we have only the chance to say yes or no and usually have to say yes. In some cases, legislation does not reach us at all and simply passes unseen and unscrutinised into our law. That is totally unsatisfactory. It is essential that ways are found of involving national parliaments in the law-making process before it is all sewn up elsewhere. I would like the Government to employ their minds to that important area.
I was extremely glad that gold plating was referred to in the Statement. Again, the Lords Select Committee to which I referred had some very strong views and was kind enough to quote my own on this matter. I query why we need a report, by however distinguished a lawyer, about the proposition that our implementation tends to be gold plating in some areas and need not be. Members of the European Parliament—whom it is suggested should be involved in the Standing Committee—could tell us pretty quickly and clearly whether we were overegging this pudding. They are very well informed about the way in which laws are implemented and observed or not observed in different countries. We should not adopt another vast review, but the Select Committees recommendation. When the Government want to bring in another EU-inspired law, they should explain in the initial explanatory memorandum to Parliament exactly how they intend to implement it. We should be able to debate that. That is all we need. We do not need a vast inquiry.
Many other issues are raised by this significant set of proposals. Does the Minister agree that there are three key points that should be kept in mind in meeting the ever growing democratic deficit—the gap between the people of Europe and the activities and proposals of the EU institutions? First, the European Parliament, however hard it works, is not able to achieve that on its own. Secondly, national parliaments must have the real power to change or halt bad and intrusive EU laws and must be involved as early as possible in the process that leads to those laws. Thirdly, the draft constitution now threatening to return to us again will make the whole problem very much worse.
§ 3.35 p.m.
§ Lord Maclennan of Rogart
My Lords, may I join in emphasising the constructive nature of these proposals announced by the Foreign Secretary this afternoon and repeated here? They bear testimony to the truth that it is possible to move quite far down the road of accepting the practicalities of many of the proposals made by the convention and reflected in the draft constitution at the hand of the Government and 1112 Parliament. I also welcome the Government's recognition that time is needed to set up proceedings to make the proposals effective. Many of them reflect and are entirely conformable with the draft protocol on the national Parliaments in the European Union which was appended to the draft treaty.
The particular emphasis of the Statement on advance notice of pending legislation is extremely welcome. The measures for the scrutiny of proposals in advance are broadly welcome, although I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that it is the Government's preference to seek to establish a joint committee of the two Houses, because that is not entirely clear in the Foreign Secretary's Statement. What precise proposals have the Government in mind for responding to the invitation of the draft protocol that the national Parliaments should send a reasoned opinion on whether legislation conforms with the principles of subsidiarity? There is no specific reference to that in the Statement. A timescale is proposed that is quite short. It will therefore need to be reflected in the procedures of the two Houses if it is to be effectively advanced.
Gold-plating is a subject of some importance. Like the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, I welcome what the Statement says. This House has a continuing interest in the matter, but has not to my knowledge been formally involved, save through the informal discussions of the chairman of the scrutiny committee on how this House might be effective. In particular, in addition to the views of the distinguished lawyer, Mr Bellis, what are the views of the parliamentary draftsmen who have such an important role to play in this regard?
Finally, what steps do the Government propose to enhance the transparency of proceedings in the Council in accordance with the provisions in Title IV, Article 49 of the proposed draft treaty requiring Ministers to meet in public when examining and adopting legislative proposals? Without that provision full effective scrutiny of the actions of European legislatures will not be possible.
§ 3.40 p.m.
§ Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean
My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Howell of Guildford and Lord Maclennan of Rogart, for their constructive interventions.
The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, asked about the White Paper being issued in advance of any particular year's proceedings of the two presidencies. He said that this was the opportunity to comment. I am sure that he will have noted from my right honourable friend's Statement that there will be not only a White Paper, but we shall also seek an opportunity to deliver an oral Statement that will give immediacy to comment from both Houses on the proposal. He is right that this is a continuation of the style that was developed as regards the convention and the IGC, much in the way with which the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, agreed. However, it is important that both Houses have the opportunity to comment on 1113 what are essentially government suggestions. The noble Lords said that there was a little ambiguity in some of the phraseology of the Statement. In so far as there has been any ambiguity, it is because it is essential for these proposals to go before the Modernisation Committee in another place and before your Lordships own Procedure Committee.
The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, said that all of this would be in vain if new powers accrued to the European Union and we were essentially using a parliamentary device, trying to claw back those powers. I very much disagreed with his subsequent comments on the draft treaty. The issue, which the noble Lord and I have debated on a number of occasions, is that the text reinforces the role of national Parliaments. I am surprised that he is not keen on the draft treaty in that respect. I think that it more clearly defines the fact that powers derive from the member states. For the first time, it states that any powers not conferred on the Union by member states remain with those member states. That is an enormously important area. If we are able at the IGC to bring forward the draft treaty in due course, as we hope may be possible under this Irish presidency, I hope that we shall see that desire become a reality.
The exact nature of the powers of any committee would, as I indicated, be a matter for the modernisation committee of the other place, your Lordships' Procedure Committee and the committee itself. Its relationship with the national Parliament—that is to say the committee's relationship with the Floor of the House—would be a matter for discussion. The real point is that, in the absence of the draft treaty, the Government are doing what we can to involve Parliament as fully as possible. I do not know how many times I have stood at the Dispatch Box while noble Lords from all parts of the House have told me that it is vital to have the opportunity to comment before matters are set in stone. I cannot think how many times that point has been made forcefully, notably from the Benches opposite. This is the opportunity. Here it is. We are a listening Government and we are trying to meet precisely that desire.
The problem of scrutiny in another place is alluded to, somewhat decorously, in the Statement in my right honourable friend's comments on committees in another place. He said that it is time to review that issue. By contrast, I think that our Procedure Committee has an outstanding record. I would venture to suggest that the European Union Committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, has an outstanding record throughout the European Union in the way in which it has been able to comment on developments in the convention and the IGC as they have progressed. That has been of enormous help and importance to us.
Both noble Lords commented on the issue of gold-plating. I suggest that that is evidence that the Government have listened very particularly to what your Lordships' committee has said on this issue and, by extension, to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford. The noble Lord asked whether we need to have a lawyer dealing with this. 1114 These are legal matters within the European issue so that is important. Members of the European Parliament are welcome to give their views on this subject, but there is a legal context for gold-plating. The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, said that he hoped that parliamentary draftsmen and your Lordships" House would be involved in this process. The Statement makes it clear that departments need to give a view on what is happening. It will not be a vast inquiry, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, said. The inquiry will report back in six months and it must do its job properly.
The noble Lord went on to raise various issues that he felt were important in relation to our Parliament being involved as soon as possible. 1 have covered that point. I have also covered the point that the draft constitution, that is to say the draft treaty, will be enabling on the very points about which the noble Lord is worried, rather than the reverse.
I hope that I have covered a number of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan. He also raised the issue of whether it would be a Joint Committee of both Houses. Let us be clear that that is the Government's preference. That is what we, as Ministers, have discussed and it is our clear preference. The reason it is not absolutely crystal clear in the Statement is that the final decision on that rests in this House and in another place. It is for your Lordships and for another place to decide how committees should be put together. The Government's belief is that it would be best done as a Joint Committee.
The noble Lord asked about the legislation on the principles of subsidiarity and said that we would have to look at the timetable carefully, because of the brevity of the time gaps involved. I undertake to ask my honourable friend the Minister for Europe to look at that issue. It is important. Indeed, we have been talking about trying to garner views and it would be a shame if sufficient time were not allowed.
I hope that I have answered the main points in the replies of both noble Lords to the Statement.
§ 3.46 p.m.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I very much welcome the emphasis that is placed on national democratic scrutiny of the work of the European Union and the British Government's role within it. I welcome with equal enthusiasm the fact that they will produce White Papers twice a year and lay them before the House. I also thank her for her kind remarks about the work of the European Union Select Committee. It is true that we are already working upstream, reviewing the Commission's annual work programme and its Green and White Papers. We are reviewing at a very early stage the budget and also priorities of the incoming presidencies.
Regarding a possible successor to the Joint Standing Committee, I shall, of course, consult my Select Committee. However, will the Minister give us an assurance that it will be a genuine Joint Committee, allowing this House to play a full and equal role with 1115 the other place? Secondly, given the fact that there are existing European scrutiny mechanisms in both Houses, I must ask what value a new committee will add. Would there not be value in having the new committee discuss the White Papers, without precluding proper debate in the existing committees? Finally, will the Minister assure the House that any proposals that go to the Modernisation Committee in another place will simultaneously be presented to this House so that the appropriate forums in this House can consider them in parallel, and not after the other place has come to conclusions?
§ Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, for his comments. Like my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary I pay tribute to the valuable work done by the EU committees in both Houses. We value that work far too much to allow anything that we propose to trespass on it. However, as I have indicated to your Lordships, the nature of the new Standing Committee will, of course, be a matter for the relevant committees in both Houses to look at.
The noble Lord asked whether there would be a genuine Joint Committee. As I hope I have made clear, the Government would welcome a fully Joint Committee. However, that is a matter for Parliament. I understand that that would require some procedural changes. I hope that the Procedure Committee in your Lordships' House and the appropriate committee in another place can find a way to bring this about. It is very much to be desired, and I fully endorse the noble Lord's remarks about your Lordships' House, and Members of your Lordships' House, having an equal role.
The noble Lord went on to ask about the added value that such a new committee would bring, and he asked about the value of having a committee to discuss new White Papers without precluding a proper debate. The precise role of the committee is of course a matter for consultation and discussion, but the Government see great benefit in any new committee serving as a forum for the new White Papers on the Commission's future work programme and presidency prospects. The possibility of involving commissioners and MEPs would broaden the basis of that sort of discussion; there would be real added value from the different voices, in addition to the voices of your Lordships and Members in another place.
Finally, the noble Lord asked about the proposals going to the Modernisation Committee being simultaneously presented to this House. I agree with the spirit of the question. Without wishing to offend any of the usual channels in your Lordships House, the proposals for a new committee are matters for the House to discuss. Again, however, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and I have both made clear, we want both Houses to be fully informed. We believe that the value of having both 1116 Houses working as they did on the convention and the IGC shows the importance of both Houses having a say on how the matter is to be taken forward.
§ Lord Tomlinson
My Lords, would my noble friend agree that the devil may well be in the detail? In this afternoon's Statement, which I broadly welcome as a very constructive approach, we do not have any knowledge at all of the precise proposals being made to the modernisation committee. I emphasise what the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, said—that in those circumstances, this House, and in particular the noble Lord and his committee, should be involved. I can use the words of the Statement to speak of the degree to which they ought to be involved. In another context, the Statement refers to,an opportunity to raise concerns and influence policy before it is set in stone".Those are appropriate words for how the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, and his committee ought to engaged.
There is an ever-growing democratic deficit. The answer to that is in our hands, as it is the job of national parliaments, is it not, to take their own powers to control their own governments? In the sense that in the broader areas of forward-looking policy this Statement gives us the opportunity to do that, then I welcome it. However, would my noble friend agree that that should not be confused with the existing scrutiny role undertaken in such different ways between this House and another place? Does she agree that the role that is foreseen is very proactive, and that it is additional and complementary to, rather than an alternative to, the scrutiny that is currently done?
On the role of Members of the European Parliament, much as I admire them, increasingly from afar, can my noble friend tell me what care is taken to avoid any role confusion? Just as it is our role and the role of the British Parliament to control the ministerial input to the Council of Ministers, is not the role of the European Parliament and its parliamentarians limited to control of the Commission and to the Commissions role? It has more than enough work on its plate at the moment to fulfil that role adequately and in totality.
§ Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean
My Lords, I agree with my noble friend Lord Tomlinson, that the devil is in the detail. It nearly always is. On the question of the precise proposals to be put to the modernisation committee and to the Procedure Committee in your Lordships House, I agree that these are matters about which your Lordships are free to give advice and to offer the Foreign Secretary some thoughts about how details might be addressed.
The noble Lord referred to what he described as the "democratic deficit", and urged noble Lords to take the opportunities afforded to them for engaging in these issues. I endorse everything that he said. The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, has an enviable record of attendance at the IGC. He attended on every occasion on which he was meant to attend, although I am not sure that the same could be said for some of his honourable and right honourable friends in another place. My point is that it is important that 1117 those of your Lordships who are really concerned about these matters take up the opportunities when they are available to engage in this sort of debate.
On the question of scrutiny, nothing in the Government's proposals should be seen as an alternative to the opportunities for scrutiny that are currently available. As for MEPs and role confusion, as I understand it the Statement suggests that UK Members of the European Parliament might also attend such a meeting. It does not say that they should necessarily become members. The detail of how the process might be handled, if it were to find favour with both the relevant committees, would have to be thrashed out.
§ Lord Pearson of Rannoch
My Lords, may I press the Minister on a question put to her by my noble friend Lord Howell? Will there be any return of powers to national parliaments, as opposed to toothless scrutiny? To be more precise, will there be any change to the treaties, which allow the unelected bureaucracy—the Commission—a monopoly of proposing new laws, for instance? Will there be any change to the system whereby when our executive, the Government, have been outvoted or have agreed a new law in Brussels, the House of Commons must enact that law on pain of unlimited fines in the Luxembourg court? Powers ceded to Brussels cannot be returned to national parliaments. Will there be any change in that? Will the acquis communautaire be reversed in any way?
Finally, the Minister was bullish about the draft constitution but, even under that, national parliaments are given only a formal right to express an opinion on whether a proposed measure complies with the principles of subsidiarity. The new privilege does not go any wider than that—and, even then, if one-third of national parliaments do object, the Commission is obliged only to review the measure. After that, it may maintain, amend or withdraw its proposal as it pleases.
To return to my noble friend's question, is any real power being returned to national parliaments, or is this all just more window dressing?
§ Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean
My Lords, there is the power to influence. I do not know how many times the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, has challenged me and said that what we were doing was not good enough because we keep on presenting Parliament with a fait accompli. I am telling him that here is an opportunity, for him and for others, to put forward their point of view before issues are "set in stone"—to use the language in my right honourable friend's Statement.
The noble Lord is far too old a hand to ask me whether this means a treaty change; of course it does not. The noble Lord must give your Lordships credit for some common sense. A treaty can be changed only, as the noble Lord knows, by unanimous decision by those who signed up to it. Of course, that does not mean that Parliament loses its sovereign powers to take decisions that a sovereign power is entitled to take, but it does mean that there might be a quite heavy 1118 price to pay in those circumstances. In and of itself, of course that does not mean any "return of powers", to use the noble Lord's language. He says, "Well then so what?" It does mean that he will have the opportunity, which he has said over and over again that he wanted, to get in on the ground floor and try to influence the way in which future treaties are drawn up.
§ Baroness Crawley
My Lords, perhaps we could hear from the Liberal Democrat Benches and then the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart.
§ Lord Tordoff
My Lords, the Minister will recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, is not seeking information to make this thing work, but flying a kite to try to get us out of the European Union, as he does every time.
I refer to a point that my noble friend Lord Maclennan made. Are we any nearer to getting to grips with what goes on in the Council? This is the Achilles heel of the whole situation at the moment. We know that in some countries Ministers are mandated before they go to Council meetings. I doubt whether that works quite as well as they sometimes pretend that it does, but are we any nearer to reaching a position where Parliament knows before Ministers go to Council meetings what is on the agenda and what positions they are going to take up—not necessarily the detailed positions but the general principles—so that Parliament can express itself either through its committees or through the House itself?
One of the problems in another place is that the amount of time that Members get to debate matters that have been referred to them by their excellent Select Committee—which does a rather different job from the one here—is very limited indeed. It refers matters to a Standing Committee or very, very occasionally has its reports debated on the Floor of the House. That seems to me another area where perhaps our colleagues in another place might lean on the authorities there.
I come back to the question of what will be the role of Members of this House in this new committee. We cannot any longer allow the crumbs that drop from the Commons table to be the only thing that we are allowed to taste. The idea that noble Lords are allowed to attend on sufferance seems to me to be unacceptable. I hope that the Government will use their influence with the authorities in another place to make sure that the committee really becomes a Joint Committee. I am sure that noble Lords feel quite strongly about that.
§ Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean
My Lords, I put my cards on the table—I feel quite strongly about the matter. When this was suggested, I as the Foreign Office spokesman in your Lordships' House, and having had the honour to be so over a number of years, was very clear what I thought. I am very clear what 1119 noble Lords would think were they not to be put in that position. However, I say to your Lordships that this is not a matter for me. This is a matter for both Houses to decide. I can say what the Government's position is and how much I am committed to that position, but I am not in a position to deliver on it, as the noble Lord knows. However, that is not the only opportunity for the noble Lord and his colleagues to get to better grips—to use his words—with what goes on at the Council. An opportunity will be afforded by the two White Papers to which the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, alluded earlier. One will give the outlook for the year and will be delivered in April this year but in January in succeeding years. The other will conduct a kind of stock take in July after the first presidency.
Quite apart from the normal reporting back after EU summits which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister undertakes, there will be the opportunity for your Lordships to engage at an early stage with the menu of what will be on the EU agenda for the following year. As regards the noble Lord's remarks about the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, I know that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, was not really seeking information but it is good fun answering his questions anyway.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, it was a long Statement and I want to study it in great depth because there was a lot in it. The Minister will know my views on Europe and that I do not believe we can really control this burgeoning European colossus, but nevertheless there are some interesting proposals in the Statement. I want to concentrate on two of them. First, exactly how effective will the Standing Committee be irrespective of the role the Lords have to play? We shall have to deal with our role ourselves; the noble Baroness cannot do that, as she said.
However, it is the power of the Standing Committee itself that will count. I attended all the Standing Committee meetings on the convention and the draft constitution so I know exactly how it works. In fact, it was completely and utterly ineffective. Therefore, what powers will the new body have? Will it merely be able to take note as the previous ones did or will it be able to make recommendations to Ministers and to the Government, if not give instructions to the Government? Those questions need to be answered if the committee is to be seen to be effective. I should also ask whether Ministers of the Crown will always be present at the relevant meetings to take part in and answer the debates. Those questions are relevant and important.
The second proposal involves the question of MEPs. The noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, put the matter in a nutshell. They have their role and we have our role. If the twain shall meet, both those roles will not be clear—they will be blurred. As we have seen with the committee of Members of Parliament from the various countries who meet with the European Parliament, 1120 COSAC, the European Parliament tends to want to dominate. I should like to hear the Minister's comments on that point too.
§ Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean
My Lords, I shall do my best to reply at top speed. I am very aware of the views of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon. I do not think that there is a burgeoning European colossus. In any case, the Statement is about the Government, not about the European Union. As regards how effective the Standing Committee will be, that is a matter for the Standing Committee, your Lordships' House and another place. As Members of Parliament you have it within your power to make this committee effective, if that is what you wish to see. Ministers will take the matter very seriously. This is not an exercise in presentational skills; it is serious in intent. We took the convention and the IGC seriously. We took part in 13 sessions and responded to 16 Select Committee reports and more than a dozen debates on the Floors of both Houses.
The questions that the noble Lord asks about the powers of the committee are matters for the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee in this House. I say with absolute clarity to the noble Lord that the powers of any committee stop short of treaty change, to go back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. Ministers of the Crown will attend the relevant meetings if requested; I refer not only to Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers but also to Ministers from other government departments. The question of MEPs will be dealt with by the Procedure Committees.