§ 11 am
§ Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope that I have the right protocol, because, like many hon. Members, I am somewhat of a novice in that regard. None the less, it is a great pleasure to appear before you for the first time in this new Chamber.
I also thank the Minister for coming here today and for getting off his bus. I understand that he has been touring the country in it and that it is called Eunice—perhaps it should be called EU nice. I suspect that he will have discovered the European Union's deep unpopularity as he travelled in his bus outside the world of Westminster and Whitehall. He shakes his head, but he might not have visited the parts of the country that I and my hon. Friends inhabit. In any case, I welcome the Minister, who is off his bus and, no doubt, off to Helsinki. I hope that he will not sign up to some of the changes that have been forecast for the new intergovernmental conference agenda.
I hope that the Government will not sign up for more qualified majority voting and that they do not move into areas such as the European defence structure. In particular, I hope that they will not deal with the revision of the treaties, about which we have read in today's papers, because that would give the European Union some competence over our tax affairs. The Government want to limit the IGC agenda to matters that are called the leftovers from Amsterdam. However, my fear, and that of many of my colleagues, is that the Minister will not succeed and that the European Union will manage to advance integration and federalism at the next IGC.
One issue that will be missing from the IGC agenda next year will be the power of national Parliaments and their ability to scrutinise the European Union's affairs. That is a great pity, and the Government should seek to strengthen Parliament's role in scrutinising European legislation.
The European Union reminds me of one of the old London Routemaster buses which still run past this building. They were designed in the mid-1950s, at about the same time that Europe was born, to replace trolleybuses in the city. London Transport has a wonderful desire to keep them for ever and over the years it has re-engineered them in one form or another, keeping the same old pre-war design, which is totally unsuitable for the modern London traveller. The European Union is doing exactly the same.
§ Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)
As a user of the type of bus that my hon. Friend described, I have just one question. Does he agree that the ability to hop on and off while the bus is on the move matches the flexibility that our party seeks in its dealings with Europe?
§ Mr. Atkinson
That is an ingenious way of taking the Routemaster further into the question of Europe. The problem is that, although my right hon. Friend might be able to hop on and off, it is quite difficult to do so if one has a child, a pushchair or some shopping, or if one is somewhat infirm.
237WH Europe is doing exactly what I have described: it is repeating the mistakes that it made in the past. On the important issue of enlargement, the machine that Europe is seeking to build simply will not work.
The new democracies of eastern Europe, which we shall, I hope, welcome into the European Union, are relatively fragile. The countries in that area have not long had proper democracy. Their political parties have still not properly bedded down or coalesced. There is a danger that they will lose their enthusiasm for their new democracy if the European Union forces too much acquis communautaire on them. That is the great danger in the proposals for the intergovernmental conference.
The problems were well identified in the report by the three wise men—Mr. Dehaene, Mr. von Weizsäcker and Lord Simon. That paper is worth reading, if only because it identifies the problems very well. It does not, of course, identify any of the correct solutions. The authors stress that the European Union should find ways of connecting or reconnecting to the people of Europe. That is important for the way in which we scrutinise the affairs of Europe.
The present system is wholly inadequate to deal with the volume of rules, regulations and decisions that come out of Europe. I speak as someone who had some experience in the previous Parliament of serving on the Select Committee on European Legislation. It has now been renamed the Select Committee on European Scrutiny, although it works in much the same way. I attended a meeting—you may have been to such a meeting yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker—at which we completed our agenda in four minutes. We had about 60 or 70 items to consider, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) will recall. We whizzed through the matters without any sensible debate. That is not to criticise those who work in the Department. Some of our most excellent staff work is done by those who have joined the European scrutiny process and who examine European legislation. Previously, those involved were largely retired civil servants who had rejoined us and who thought of nothing better than getting back at their masters. They had the knowledge to do so and they provided an excellent service.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stone)
I have been on the Scrutiny Committee since 1985 and have seen quite a wide range of activity on it. The people on the Committee—I mean no disrespect to them personally—appear to have been hand-picked to encourage the process of integration. In the previous Parliament, the views of a significant number of people were well known to be favourable to the direction in which the establishment wanted to go. That is a great pity. We need to be sure that people in the Scrutiny Committee, as in the Public Accounts Committee, are intent on asking serious questions all the way down the line.
§ Mr. Atkinson
I echo my hon. Friend's comments. That is correct. I got some instructive figures from the Library about the number of pieces of paper that emanate from Europe. For instance, in 1996, 39 directives, 2,341 regulations and 2,806 decisions came from the Commission. Among the papers from the Council, which are more important, were 58 directives, 247 regulations and 179 decisions. It is totally impossible for our existing scrutiny system to deal with 238WH those. The Scrutiny Committee considers about 1,000 documents a year, which sometimes go round in circles, perhaps two or three times. It reports on about 475 documents and recommends debate on about 60. It recommends that 12 of those debates should be held on the Floor of the House. I have not discovered exactly how many of those recommendations are carried out. My suspicion is that far fewer than 12 of those debates take place on the Floor of the House.
§ Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)
I have had the honour and privilege of being on the Select Committee on European Legislation. I forget how long it has been, but it has been a long time. Is my hon. Friend aware that the Committee is supposed to approve directives, rules and regulations that add up to a couple of hundred sheets of paper most weeks? Does he agree that there must be a serious question mark in our minds as to whether it can have any value at all when it simply rubber-stamps hundreds and thousands of documents, which it is quite incapable of reading and studying and on which it is quite incapable of making any judgments? Even if it disagrees with the subjects of the rules and regulations, it has no powers. All that it can do is write a letter to the Minister to ask for more information or that the matter be debated in a Standing Committee. Does the Committee have any value at all? Is it just a front and a pretence?
§ Mr. Atkinson
My hon. Friend reinforces the point more eloquently than I am making it. I agree entirely, but I do not want to imply any criticism of members of staff, because we rely on them to make decisions on our behalf.
§ Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman because I must shortly leave on an urgent constituency matter. However, I want to interject one matter from the viewpoint of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. Following recommendations made by the Modernisation Committee in 1998, the Scrutiny Committee no longer only pursues bits of paper, as he suggests: it is entitled to examine related matters. That raises the question of the parliamentary scrutiny of European affairs as a whole. For example, the Foreign Affairs Committee, on which I serve, has in its remit the intergovernmental conference. The Scrutiny Committee went ahead without consulting us. There is a clear need to clarify the roles of different Select Committees, even if we do not go down the road of having a full European Committee.
§ Mr. Atkinson
No one knows scrutiny byways better than the hon. Gentleman. He put his finger on precisely the point that I was trying to make. There is so much material to debate that we cannot concentrate on the key issues. We do not separate the wheat from the chaff, and there is too much to deal with properly.
The gold-plating of regulations is an additional problem that occurs after we have dealt with them. Legislation may be nodded through the Scrutiny Committee; it may go through a brief debate in a European Standing Committee; but it may be thoroughly gold-plated when it eventually comes into force. The directive on abattoirs is an example. It originally took up two sides of A4, but the final version 239WH produced by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was a book. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) knows all about that.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill: (Ludlow)
I want to talk not about the abattoirs directive specifically, but about directives in general. Would it not be a good idea for Members of Parliament to see the original directive and compare it directly with what is translated into legislation in this country? Both documents should be made available at the same time so that a useful comparison may be made and Members of Parliament can see the score, determining to what extent the directive has been gold-plated by our own Departments.
§ Mr. Atkinson
I agree absolutely. There is still too much material from Europe for us to scrutinise it properly.
Things can be done. For example, the Danes have a system that may be applicable to ours: Ministers are called before their scrutiny committee and must face questions. In essence—and this is the heart of our policy—we should be doing far less in Europe. That is one of the central differences between the Opposition and the Government. We believe that the only way in which we can scrutinise Europe properly and citizens can have confidence in their national Parliaments is for Europe to do far less.
The national Parliament—which voters elect and kick out—is one of the great safety valves of democracy. Kicking out the Government is one of the ordinary citizen's greatest democratic weapons. Without doubt, my backside is still smarting after 1997; that, however, is the nature of the democratic safety valve. If more and more decisions are apparently taken by an unaccountable Commission or institution in Europe, the public will experience genuine frustration at not being able to influence decisions.
One of the worst things for a Member of Parliament is having to say, "I'm awfully sorry, but I can't do anything about this because it's a European matter." In that context, it is depressing to face a farmer suffering genuine financial problems. Even if the Government wanted to help, they cannot because of the European structure. I urge the Minister and the Foreign Secretary—when he goes to Helsinki—to press the case for a wider, shallower Europe, which does less, but does it better.
§ Mr. Steen
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way: he will be doing so again to many of my hon. Friends, who have valid points to make.
Two matters concern me. Is my hon. Friend aware that the Scrutiny Committee sits in private? The public and press are not given an opportunity to learn about some of the directives, rules and regulations that it considers. For example, there was a draft directive aiming to change the technical specifications on farm tractor passenger seats to take account of the wide and varied work now undertaken by farm tractor passengers. Should the public not hear about those absurd rules and regulations?
§ Mr. Atkinson
That is exactly the trouble with Europe's image. For the majority of people—as the 240WH Minister will discover when he is driving around in Eunice—the image of Europe involves tractor seats, square bananas and carrot jam. Of course, that is quite wrong and damages Europe's reputation.
Several things must be done, apart from Europe doing less and doing it better. Europe needs some proper institutions and should look across the Atlantic for ideas about that. For a start, Europe needs an equivalent of the National Audit Office; the European Parliament could create something strong along those lines. Also urgent is reform of the European Court of Justice, which polices the single market and is of enormous importance to this country's role as a free trading country, but is ultimately a cumbersome and almost hobbled institution. The fact that French defiance in relation to the importation of British beef may take the court up to two years to deal with makes nonsense of the whole procedure. Substantial reform of the court is required, and that, again, may reduce the burden of material emanating from Europe.
The most important thing to set up is an independent competition authority, as outlined in a speech last week by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), who is shadow spokesman on foreign affairs. We need a competition guardian to snuff out regulations such as those on tractor seats, thus stopping them coming to national Parliaments.
§ Mr. Atkinson
Several of my hon. Friends wish to speak, so I would be grateful if my hon. Friend keeps his intervention short.
§ Mr. Steen
Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to worry about more than the lack of transparency in the Scrutiny Committee? I mentioned tractor seats, but the Committee has just approved, by the Chairman's casting vote, a £5 million grant enabling the 11 official EU languages to be learned by all member states. As a result, Lëtzebuergesch, the language of Luxembourg, can be taught in Ireland—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)
Order. It is improper to raise in this debate proceedings of Select Committees that have not been reported to the House.
§ Mr. Steen
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The item that I mentioned was considered, voted on and approved by the Scrutiny Committee, so it is now part of that Committee's legal arrangements. Surely it is not a secret matter and may be referred to. There is nothing wrong in mentioning in Westminster Hall an item that has already passed through a Select Committee.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Regardless of whether a vote has taken place in Committee, the matter has not been reported to the House, so it is not relevant to raise it in this Chamber. In any event, we do not want overly lengthy interventions.
§ Mr. Atkinson
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I believe that the lack of efficient scrutiny damages the reputation of national Parliaments. If the reputations of national Parliaments are damaged, the reputations of 241WH the institutions of Europe are also damaged, by proxy. A proper system of scrutiny is vital. The avalanche or blizzard of legislation that comes to Parliament cannot be properly scrutinised. We have to turn off the tap. It can be turned off by having a wider and more flexible system in Europe.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
A number of hon. Members have sought to catch my eye. The winding-up speeches, which will start with the representative of the Liberal Democrat party, will be about 12 o'clock, followed by speeches from the main Opposition and then the Government.
§ Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)
May I first congratulate you on your appointment, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and express my delight at seeing you in the Chair for our proceedings this morning?
I come to the debate as a former Fisheries Minister who had a lot of dealings with European business involving both the Council and the United Kingdom Government, and now as a humble member of European Standing Committee C, which is the tail-end Charlie of scrutiny procedures before Ministers go to Council to agree various matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) is right to draw our attention to the volume of European paper. Anyone who goes to the Vote Office daily can pick up a yellow piece of paper which lists sometimes hundreds of documents on which we might wish to comment. It is difficult enough for us to keep up with the volume of UK legislation, never mind trying to keep up, understand, comment on and react to the volume of European legislation.
If we look at such documents, we are struck by one area in which our current parliamentary scrutiny procedures do not act. Our present system is centred on legislation that is making its way through the institutions of Europe—usually the Council or the European Parliament. When the Government of the day produce a White Paper or a Green Paper, we can comment and shape the Government's views before final legislation becomes cast in concrete. Any legislature always finds it easier to change its mind before it has come to firm and final conclusions. Our parliamentary scrutiny procedure does not cater for dealing with draft material. Given the volume of stuff coming from Europe, one way of heading off some of the material at the pass would be for us to become involved at an earlier stage. That raises the fundamental question of how to keep track of all the material.
I have been impressed by a publication which the European Commission makes available to Members of Parliament and the public, called "The Week in Europe". Two sides of A4 are produced, summarising some of the key events that are taking place in Europe. As a result of the changes introduced by the Modernisation Committee, the House of Commons has established an office in the European Parliament to try to develop links and liaison with Europe to keep an eye on what is going on. Over time, we shall develop an expertise in keeping better track of European business. In view of our electronic communication—the parliamentary intranet—we should start to develop the 242WH equivalent of the weekly bulletin that we have in the UK Parliament. In one document, we can keep track of what is happening in this Parliament. Sensible editorial control would help to keep us better posted about what is going on from the inception of a consultative document through to the passage of legislation in the European Parliament. However much we may desire to comment on everything, we cannot do it. We need more help to be able to comment on the issues that matter to our constituents. To do that, we need to keep better track on what is going on.
Even within the Scrutiny Committee, there is difficulty in keeping up with the volume of legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham made that point. One of the new developments, which I welcome, is post-Council scrutiny. A Minister reports back on what has happened. I caught sight of a contribution made on 10 December 1998 by a former Treasury Minister, now the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce. In the negotiations on the European budget, a measure that would have cost the UK £500 million had been successfully fought off. One of the tasks of scrutiny is to help parliamentarians and the wider public to become better acquainted with the workings of the European institutions. I am sure that other hon. Members found it as frustrating as I did, during the general election campaign, trying to show that national Parliaments had at least some ability to temper the activities of the Commission and the European Parliament. The extent to which that can be done should be the subject of another debate at another time. To help in the process of educating people on how Europe's institutions work, the more we know about what is happening, the better.
I shall now make some observations about the way in which European Standing Committee C operates to highlight some of the difficulties that right hon. and hon. Members who are not Ministers or members of the Select Committee on European Scrutiny, have in dealing with these matters, some of which are extremely sensitive, and which arouse deep passions in our constituents.
In the end of vehicle life directive, for example, there was a point of detail that could have affected the future prospects of the TVR car company, which manufactures sports cars and is adjacent to Fylde. As a result of probing that directive, two meetings were arranged between the Department of Trade and Industry and the company to develop further some of the points of detail that Ministers were going on to discuss. That cameo illustrates one of the problems. We lift the scrutiny reserve in the House when we have dealt with a particular matter, but it is often only the beginning of a very long process. Sometimes the House returns to the matter, but sometimes it does not. We must become more disciplined about reviewing how Ministers are getting on as a directive or regulation progresses.
We poor members of European Standing Committee C are usually given about 10 days' notice about business, if we are lucky. The Selection Committee informs us that we shall be dealing with that particular business 10 days hence. As a result of a huge amount of work by the parliamentary Clerk and the DTI, a vast file of papers appears. We then have a limited amount of time to wade through it and call for other information from the Library to try to get up to speed on the detail.
243WH Every Department needs to make a major improvement in its explanatory memorandums. Too often—I also plead guilty—Ministers who receive a draft explanatory memorandum from their Departments give it an occasional look, but it is usually only a cursory glance. It does not contain the detail that is required to enable Members of Parliament to have the equivalent of notes on clauses, so that we can really understand what the directive means. Many directives and documents from Europe are written in a language that I describe as Euro-speak, which is a formulation of words designed sometimes to be flexible and fuzzy at the edges to accommodate 15 different points of view. It is difficult for Members of Parliament to understand the difference that should be attached to the recitals at the beginning of a directive or a regulation, as opposed to the body of the text. To know what it really means—in our language, rather than the language in which it is written—requires a better quality of explanatory memorandum and, whenever possible, a better overview.
The best that we have is the Scrutiny Committee's report, but that report is the distillation of the work of a group of people working under pressure of time. They are able to pose various further questions to be asked of Ministers; but, as we heard, they do not have the power to ask for documents to be revised or to comment in more detail. Explanatory memorandums should be improved to help us better understand and cope with the technicalities of European legislation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham mentioned gold-plating. That takes us into a wider area, which is further investigation on how Parliament handles statutory instruments. We have an objective legislative system; by and large, Europe operates a purposive system. We need to give serious consideration to that difference in our analysis of how we implement European legislation. We should avoid overdoing it.
The House has little opportunity to scrutinise the implementation of European legislation. At the risk of imposing yet another burden on ourselves, once a piece of legislation has been agreed in Europe and before we implement it, we might consider giving guidance to officials before they cast it in concrete.
Time will not permit me to go into more detail about what happens in the European Parliament. However, just as I asked for a weekly bulletin on what is happening in Europe, so I ask for guidance about proceedings in the European Parliament. We need to be better informed about our links with it. It is time that we had a directory of the members of the European Parliament, with their telephone and fax numbers. We should be told how to keep in touch with them and how to obtain information from parliamentary officials. We also need to know how to obtain more information and data from within Europe other than through the internet.
The more transparency, the more knowledge and the more contacts that we legislators can develop, the better we shall be able to improve our scrutiny of what is going on in Europe. The House must continue to take the matter seriously, but Members need more help and better information. I hope that my suggestions find favour with both the Scrutiny Committee and the Minister.
§ Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on securing this debate. It is a most important subject.
This is my first speech in this Chamber, but I must point out that we would all have fitted into the familiar surroundings of Committee Room 14. That would have saved the British taxpayer £800,000. However, the move is in some ways symbolic, because in recent years we have seen a complete change in the way in which legislation is imposed on our afflicted citizenry.
Many people believe that all law is made by their Members of Parliament. They are sent to London from the counties; indeed, apart from the first two Parliaments, which were held in Shropshire itself, people have been sent from Shropshire since the 1240s. They came with good ideas for legislation, which was initiated in Parliament. In close collaboration with interested parties, they worked through legislation line by line, scrutinising it so that, when it was finally handed on to civil servants, it was workable and had the approval of those affected by it and those who had to pay for it.
Another huge merit of our traditional system of making law is that, if the legislators get it wrong, we have ways of amending or repealing it. Our system for dealing with European legislation is an extraordinary parody of the Westminster original. Legislation is cobbled together in secret by civil servants, it is rubber-stamped by exhausted peripatetic Ministers in a secretive Council and then sent here for a charade of a scrutiny process. The House is not involved in the initiation of that legislation. I wholeheartedly concur with my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who pointed out that we are reactive and ought to be involved in the making of European legislation at a much earlier stage.
On paper, we have many safeguards. A resolution of the House is always printed in the minutes of the Scrutiny Committee. It clearly states:No Minister of the Crown should give agreement in the Council or in the European Council to any proposal for European Community legislation or for a common strategy, joint action or common position under Title V or a common position, framework decision, decision or convention under Title VI of the treaty on European Union—(a) which is still subject to scrutiny … or … which is awaiting consideration by the House".One might think that to be a clear safeguard but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham pointed out, we run immediately into a time problem. Protocol 3 of the treaty of Amsterdam states:A six-week period shall elapse between a legislative proposal or a proposal for a measure to be adopted under Title VI of the Treaty on European Union being made available in all languages to the European Parliament".Protocol 1 states:All Commission consultation documents (green and white papers and communications) shall be promptly forwarded to national parliaments of the Member States.That puts appalling pressure on the staff in London who receive those documents.
About 900 new European documents a year are deposited in Parliament—that is 2,750 documents since the previous Parliament was dissolved. On average, the 245WH Scrutiny Committee judges about 450 of those to be of legal or political importance, and makes a substantive report on them. In recent years, about 40 documents a year only have been recommended for debate, with a feeble 10 on average being debated on the Floor of the House. So far, in this Parliament, 83 documents have been debated, of which 15 have been taken on the Floor of the House.
Shortly after I was elected, I had the honour of being made a member of European Standing Committee A, but it has not yet met. It has not discussed any European documents since 16 June 1999. After the recess, I had the honour of being asked to serve on the Scrutiny Committee. I would have much preferred this debate to have happened a few months hence, when I would have had a little more experience of what goes on. However, my initial reactions have some value.
It is obvious that a huge responsibility and burden are placed on the Scrutiny Committee staff, because six weeks is an extraordinarily short time. It has only 16 full-time staff and one full-time Clerk. One Clerk is shared with the Deregulation Committee, and four Clerk advisers and two legal advisers are shared with that Committee and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Of the eight secretarial staff, two are shared with the Deregulation Committee.
My initial reaction to serving on the Scrutiny Committee was awe at the sheer volume of paperwork. It is clear that the staff are enormously stretched by that volume of work, and they are forced to make a hasty precis or summary of the documents that pass through the Committee.
The procedure sounds simple. The Council secretariat in Brussels sends a document to UKREP, the United Kingdom representation in the European Union. UKREP sends that document to the Foreign Office, which forwards it to the relevant Department, which then deposits it in Parliament. Documents should in theory be deposited within two days of receipt in London and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde said, the appropriate Department should provide Parliament with an explanatory memorandum within 10 days thereafter.
The staff of the Scrutiny Committee immediately hit a problem. Should they pass on documents and memorandums as they stand? Documents are often faulty or unsatisfactory. As my right hon. Friend said, the memorandums are not always correct. The result is immediate haggling and delay. However, that process is relevant only for draft directives. Now that we have co-decision, many directives are amended at some length and in some detail by the European Parliament. As a result, the six-week delay allowed by the protocol of the treaty of Amsterdam can be easily eaten up. Regulations go straight through, because they are not amendable.
Already the effectiveness of the Scrutiny Committee is gravely limited. It is reactive only and reacts to only a limited proportion of the documents that it has to consider. Sitting on the Commitee is a strange experience. We meet every Wednesday and consider what is, in effect, a summary or a precis of the original documents that the staff have drafted in haste under tremendous pressure. They do a remarkable job in the circumstances.
246WH Receiving the papers is a problem. Sometimes I have received them minutes before the sitting starts. Although the Clerks have taken trouble to remedy that problem, the best that I can hope for is to be sent a slug of documents, probably half an inch thick, by Monday evening, probably with a follow-up on Tuesday and, sometimes, another on Wednesday, because the staff are under terrible pressure to ensure that the discussion takes place within the six-week time frame. That pressure is also felt in the Committee.
The Chairman, the hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood), is admirable in his effectiveness in getting the business through. However, without divulging too many secrets, last week I passed a comment to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) and, in that moment, missed a couple of papers on which I wanted to comment. We are under pressure not to interrupt so that the documents are approved.
Last week, a document, which is now in the public domain—I do not think that I am breaching protocol—mentioned making the temporary ban on bovine somatotropin permanent. I represent the largest milk field in western Europe, so surely I should be involved in anything that affects my dairy farmers or makes them less competitive. BST has been used in Canada and America. I received the document only on Tuesday. I should have liked to have the time to contact the National Farmers Union and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals.
By chance, the next day I received a copy of an RSPCA document that made a good case against the use of BST and showed that it is not used in other countries. I have since contacted the NFU to find out its opinion. All that action was a complete waste of time; the horse had bolted. We had a three or four-minute discussion on BST, the document was agreed to, and I had lost my chance to have an input. The point is that we are reacting to proposals; we are not initiating them, nor are we applying our knowledge and having an input, as Members of Parliament have done through the centuries.
§ Mr. Paterson
That is right. We are involved in a charade of reactive scrutiny. At best, we may get Ministers to return to the Council, if there is still time, to put their point of view, but they are also under pressure, because of the great drive to ensure that the Council passes the legislation.
§ Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)
Is not the problem the fact that Ministers are not obliged to return to the Council even if they have the time to do so and whatever the Scrutiny Committee says? Ministers are members of the Government, who have their own policy, and whatever the view of the Scrutiny Committee—whether or not it is dominated by members of the governing party—Minsters will follow the Government's agreed policy.
§ Mr. Paterson
That is true in many cases. Of course, the attitude of some of the members of the Committee does not help. At one of the first meetings that I 247WH attended, a Government Member referred to an intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone and said that it was not our business to make life difficult for Ministers when they negotiate on behalf of the United Kingdom in the Council, as though our role was to shut up and whiz the document through.
All parties are in favour of enlargement. We have a strategic and moral obligation to enlarge the European Union. Last week a report on the status of every applicant country was produced, but we received only a brief summary stating that the report existed. If any of us had had time, we could have picked up a copy of it from the Vote Office. After all, there is no point in going to the Vote Office to ask for a lengthy document that has already been agreed to and is a matter of only academic interest. The problem is worse than that because Departments are not performing as requested. They are not adhering to the 10-day limit; they are not sending documents to the staff in time, exactly as my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde said.
Annexe G of the Modernisation Committee's report on the scrutiny of European business, published on 9 June 1998, says:11 November, DfEE asks for three items to be taken urgently at the next day's meeting, because they will be considered at the Special Employment Council the next week. This has been known for some considerable time, but nothing has been said to the Committee.That trick is intended to get measures through the Committee. Documents are held back in the Ministry, then released to the Committee just inside the six-week deadline.
Annexe G continues:17 November, Tessa Jowell writes about advertising of tobacco products, on which the Committee is due to take evidence on 19 November.Her letter is addressed on the envelope to the Chairman by name, and is sent second class. It arrives on 20 November, the day after the evidence session. The annexe continues:26 November, Dawn Primarolo takes debate in European Standing Committee B on harmful tax competition; appears unaware of any difference between the Select Committee and the Standing Committee, quoting EMs that have been referred to 'the committee'… and assuring the Standing Committee that it will have a full opportunity to scrutinise future EMs.28 November, John Battle's letter of 1 September on renewable sources of energy is faxed at our request. The original was addressed to the Chairman and never received. No Clerk's copy received. Existence of letter only discovered afer a subsequent letter referred to it.Not only do we have an unhappy system of scrutiny, which is under terrible pressure, but the Government are not delivering documents to the relevant people on time as they are required to do under their own standards.
I shall refer to three measures that have dramatically damaged businesses and people in this country, the first of which barely touched Parliament—the introduction of the working time directive. The directive came into force on 1 October 1998. The then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, laid the regulations before Parliament on 30 July, but the House went into recess on 31 July. The House of Commons did not debate the 248WH regulations until 27 October and the House of Lords did not do so until 4 November. That shows total contempt for Parliament.
The working time regulations could be described as the most expensive legislative measure ever imposed on the British citizenry. The Government estimate that the regulations will cost £1.9 billion in the first year and £2.3 billion a year after November 1999. It is assumed that the enforcement of working time regulations could increase the work load of industrial tribunals and the number of tribunals could rise from 3,000 to 6,000 a year.
The measure has caused total consternation in business groups, to which the Government are supposedly so friendly. The Construction Federation believes that the measure would increase labour costs by 2 to 3 per cent. The Federation of Small Businesses argued that the measure would require burdensome record keeping. The Institute of Directors undertook a survey and found that only 3 per cent. said that the directive would help their business. Overall, the IOD said that the working time directive would harm British companies' competitiveness and ability to create jobs.
The Government's favourite business man, Lord Haskins, described the measure as "a dog's dinner", asserting that the Government had ignored the warning that the directive could result in a plethora of law suits. The problem is worse than that because the interpretation and implementation of the directives are entirely in the hands of civil servants. No mechanism for amendment or repeal exists.
The Federation of Small Businesses stated in its annual report:the major worry was that the final regulations were only published on 30th July 1999, just two months before they became law, which left many business owners unaware of the full provisions … Employers' understanding of the regulations was further affected due to the Department of Trade and Industry's original guide containing serious errors. The guide included the wrong formula for working out compliance with the 48-hour week and an arithmetical error in an example of night work calculation.Ruth Lea, the head of the IOD's policy unit said that the measuresimpose costly new obligations and to make matters worse … business has only had two months to comply with the new regulations, some of which are far from clear.That could not have happened under our traditional system, in which such slack drafting and faults in the original legislation would have been ironed out in our exhaustive system of Second and Third Readings and in Committee.
The working time directive shows how Parliament can be effectively excluded from serious participation in a measure that will have huge consequences for millions of people. The Pollution Prevention and Control Bill shows that, despite a Bill having been considered in both Houses of Parliament, all the effective discussion had taken place when drafting the directive, which reflects what my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde said. Parliament proved incapable of amending the Bill in any worthwhile way, because Ministers always fell back on the argument that the amendment in question was incompatible with the directive—directive 96/61, which gives enormous powers to the Environment Agency to 249WH introduce virtually any regulation that it wants and to change the nature of certain substantial industries. In the other place, Lord Peyton said:I do not believe that I have ever seen a Bill which shows more manifestly a deep and profound contempt for Parliament."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 February 1999; Vol. 597, c. 471.]Back in the real world, I received a fax yesterday from a substantial poultry producer on the Welsh border. It was originally thought that the poultry industry would not be covered by the environmental legislation. However, the effect on him is catastrophic. He said:The expected cost to our business at current rates will be approximately £100,000 registration fee and £40,000 annually thereafter.He also said:Nobody can tell me what is involved and what impact this will have on my business bearing in mind we are meeting all current environmental legislation.He is worried about theCost of registration and ongoing fees being completely out of line with current agricultural cost.I have received similar comments from the National Pig Association, which points out that integrated pollution controls were not conceived for agricultural industries, the pig and poultry industries being arbitrarily specified at the last minute. The National Farmers Union makes an even more telling comment in a memo to me on the integrated pollution prevention and control directive. It refers tothe difficulty of interpreting European environmental directives"—which brings us back to the issue of gold-plating—which are phrased in very broad and imprecise terms with no statement of how they are intended to actually operate. This contrasts with UK legislation whch tends to be much more precise and detailed, and is backed by formal government guidance as to the intention of how the details should operate.The memo ends by stating:A significant problem with European environmental legislation is that where unintended or unanticipated effects arise, changes can only be implemented where member states are unanimous. This means that for practical purposes, most mistakes or unintended consequences cannot be remedied. The Commission's zealous attitude towards compliance with the letter of the law means that the financial consequences of mistakes or unintended consequences from European environmental legislation tend to fully impact on the affected sectors. In combination with UK legislation requiring the costs of regulation to be fully recovered from industry, this means that in the agricultural sector farmers bear the full financial consequences of deficiencies in the drafting of European environmental legislation.Two critical points should be made. First, there is no means of repeal or amendment; and, secondly, hon. Members have no say in the implementation of such hugely costly and vindictive measures for our constituents.
Even more bizarrely, the new system allows laws that all three parties oppose to be imposed on this country. As topical examples, I would cite droit de suite and the withholding tax, on which the Scrutiny Commitee has touched. There is no demand for the former in the art world—I should declare an interest, as my wife works for Sotheby's—and it could cost the art world £68 million in revenues. The auction trade will disappear to New York, because works of art are easily 250WH transported. The latter could have a catastrophic effect on the City of London and could change the nature of the south of England. Bizarrely, the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party all oppose it. As I said at the beginning, we are reacting to legislation initiated in another place, and we have no role in the initiation procedure.
The Scrutiny Committee's report was taken up by the Modernisation Commiittee. Improvements have been made, the terms of reference have been expanded, and Ministers are now required to report before and after Council meetings, although we have had the pleasure of seeing only one Minister, who sits before us.
Select Committees should have a much stronger role to enable them to call Ministers before and after Council meetings. The big democratic hole is that Council meetings are held in secret. It was a pity that the proposal for five Standing Committees was reduced to three, but, having sat on one, I realise that they do not change anything. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde said, hon. Members can listen to a long debate, go to the Library and mug up after 10 days, but after the vote. The Minister returns to the Council and nothing is changed. It is shameful that the Government's business managers rejected the Scrutiny Committee's recommendation that measures proposed to be debated on the Floor of the House should be, and that a special motion should be necessary to enable them to be debated in Committee.
The real place for reform is Brussels, at the time of initiation. It is entirely positive that we have now established a parliamentary office in Brussels and that Members of Parliament should be involved at the very earliest stage, when legislation is being drafted. Once legislation has gone to the Council, it is almost invariably too late. MPs should work very closely with that new office—which is independent of UKREP—on the development of legislation from the beginning.
If a measure presented to the House were subject to a free vote, and 100 Members opposed it, that should constitute a veto, and the Minister should not be allowed to propose the measure in the Council. I cannot conceive of a stronger weapon than for the Minister to go to Brussels next week to discuss the withholding tax and say that 100 Members of the oldest continuously running Parliament in western civilization had voted in a free vote against it. That would concur with the Modernisation Committee's summary:We agree with the Government that any review of the Scrutiny system should strengthen the role of Parliament, improve democratic oversight, and increase transparency and Parliamentary awareness.That should be debated at the IGC and built into the next treaty.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I fear that the next speaker will be the last before the winding-up speeches, unless those who are winding up for the Liberal Democrats or for the official Opposition are prepared to donate some of their time.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stone)
After 15 years on the Scrutiny Committee, this is the first opportunity that I have had to speak in such a debate, and I have three 251WH minutes, if I am lucky. Having said that, I am sure that hon. Members who have not yet spoken will be good enough to take account of the fact that I have accumulated a certain amount of experience and anxiety, as well as judgment, on the scrutiny of European legislation and its impact on our constituents.
The fundamental question is who governs us and how. The scrutiny of legislation is the result of the system that has evolved since we entered the European Community in 1972 and is at the heart of the future conduct of our parliamentary system. I am sure that we shall need another opportunity to consider the matter.
I speak as one who took a fairly active part in resisting encroachments on our national sovereignty under the previous Government, and who regards the matter as one of national interest rather than exclusively of party politics. I am woefully aware of the resistance on the part of Governments of all shapes, sizes and varieties to any attempt to scrutinise effectively and amend legislation that emanates from the system that has evolved since 1972 for the United Kingdom. I had to cross-examine the Leader of the House of the previous Parliament on resistance to holding important debates on the Floor of the House, and got absolutely nowhere. The same applies to this Government and the current Leader of the House.
There is a serious resistance to holding proper debates on European legislation, because the Government want to manipulate it. We wanted to debate fisheries in the previous Parliament, but we were refused. There was no doubt whatever in my mind that the delivery of the papers in relation to fisheries and matters concerned with monetary union was orchestrated so that the minimum amount of time would be available, and so that decisions would be taken in the Council of Ministers at a time that would preclude our being able to organise debates on the Floor of the House. The issue relates to the manner in which the Leader of the House organises business in conjunction with the Whips.
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) mentioned the free vote, an issue that I raised in a previous debate. If we are to be governed in a democratic system in which the people of this country have confidence, it seems absolutely fundamental that they should not have laws imposed on them under section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972 without those laws being properly scrutinised after the Council of Ministers has considered them. There should also be a verifiable pre-Council system to give the people of this country confidence that, if enough Members of Parliament resist the Council's proposals, there will be an opportunity at the avant-projet stage to consider them on the Floor of the House, in the national interest and without regard to the whipping system.
I am being blunt about that. In the words of Lord Hailsham, we are faced with an elective dictatorship, and it is made much worse by the introduction of the European aspect. We have an elective dictatorship not only in terms of legislation that comes through the British Cabinet, in the name of the electorate and those elected in general elections who represent and are 252WH accountable to them, but in terms of the majority voting of other countries, which denies us any real means to put up some resistance or serious diversion of the proposals.
If we argue, as we did in Amsterdam on the declaration on national Parliaments, that those Parliaments have an important role to play, it is axiomatic that muscles should be provided to enable them to have a free vote. If that were laid down by Standing Orders, as it should be, the Whips would be in breach of parliamentary procedures and privilege if they put pressure on hon. Members to vote in a specific way.
That may seem radical, although perhaps only to the Whips Office. I suggest that the same rules should apply as normally apply to Select Committees. We are dealing with a cascade of legislation over which we have increasingly less control. If 100 or 150 Members of Parliament tabled a motion, a free vote should be allowed under Standing Orders. We would then have a proper and effective means of demonstrating that the veto must be used in such circumstances.
I propose a fundamental and radical solution. It is essential for us to remember that what was relevant in 1972 is not relevant now. We have had a vast engagement in European government since the Maastricht treaty, which was why I opposed it so vigorously. Now we have the Amsterdam treaty and a new IGC to come.
I do not buy the argument that we are not in European government yet. We are. We have to stand up for our constituents in the national Parliament, and we should devise procedures that will be effective in dealing with European government. We must not merely end up with a talking shop.
§ 12.4 pm
§ Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on securing what is an apposite debate, coming shortly before the Helsinki meeting. It is also an appropriate time to reconsider the seventh report of the Scrutiny Committee, which has changed some of our procedures. Many of us think that it has not gone far enough.
I did not feel, however, that the hon. Gentleman developed the theme of the effect of scrutiny to any great extent. I am indebted to the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) and the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), who addressed the issue of how we effectively or otherwise scrutinise European business. The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) was not entirely generous to his colleagues in his use of time, but he amply demonstrated the difficulties that he has experienced in keeping pace with European scrutiny.
What do we want in a system for Parliament to do its job effectively? We need to be able to scrutinise the vast quantity of material that emerges from the European Union—I agree with the hon. Member for Hexham that there is far too much of it. We must deal with the legislation effectively before it becomes part of British law.
As the right hon. Member for Fylde mentioned, we should also consider effectively the pre-legislation material, such as the draft directives. We need to see what is coming down the track. If we do not do so at that 253WH stage, as a Parliament we have no means of influencing decisions taken or positions adopted on behalf of this country by the Government. We must also consider the foreign policy aspects and the diplomatic interface that we have with our European partners.
Effective scrutiny and information are required so that all hon. Members—not merely those involved in the relevant Committees—have access to information that they need to do their jobs on behalf of their constituents and to be aware of events. We must have intelligence as to what happens elsewhere. We need to know not only what is proposed by Ministers in this Parliament, but what other Parliaments say about legislation and what is likely to appear before us in future. Too often, we react to proposals far too late, rather than being proactive in taking positions of our own or influencing decisions at an early stage.
We need to know what Her Majesty's Government's intentions are in negotiating on our behalf. We must be able to judge their performance in meeting their intentions as stated before a Council meeting.
The mechanism to scrutinise foreign policy effectively is provided through the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I was pleased to be a member for some time. Its position should be clarified, vis-a-vis other Committees. The consideration of the presidency's intentions and the proceedings of the European Council should clearly be matters for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its Committee.
The new Scrutiny Committees are rightly constituted to consider the details of legislation but are far too general in scope. They are built on the architectural notion of Europe's three pillars, which I dislike and which is not what the Modernisation Committee first recommended. It suggested that the Scrutiny Committees be closely focused on specific subject matters. If that were so, they would do their job much more effectively. They are overwhelmed by a mass of material on which they cannot be expert. Can there be appropriate scrutiny of, for instance, the detailed agricultural measures proposed by the European Union in a Committee that has so many other responsibilities?
There is a danger of ghettoising European issues in establishing Scrutiny Committees to do the job. Many hon. Members do not have the privilege of serving on them, so they become something that merely involves someone else. That is not a satisfactory way in which to proceed. We need a much clearer mechanism than that to ensure that matters are discussed fully on the Floor of the House. When certain matters are of concern to a wide range of hon. Members, it should be for Parliament, not for Ministers, to decide whether they are debated by the House. There should be a better mechanism by which such decisions are taken.
One of the main problems concerning information is filtering the quantity of material so that we have in a digest form that which is relevant to our business as Members of Parliament. I agree with the right hon. Member for Fylde: something along the lines of the regular publication "The Week in Europe" would be of enormous help to us. The parliamentary office in Brussels must be one of the best kept secrets in the House. It is almost as though it had been considered to be exempt material under the Freedom of Information Bill. Few hon. Members know of the existence of that 254WH new office, and even fewer know how to access it. I know that it exists, but I do not have the slightest idea how to access information from it, or to relay information to it. It needs to be publicised much better than it has been and there must be a more transparent mechanism for getting in touch with it.
It is absolutely essential that, before Ministers attend Councils of Ministers, they give an account to Parliament about what they are to discuss and report back after those discussions have taken place. We must have the option of interrogation. I am no longer a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but I remember when that Committee interrogated the Foreign Secretary. Such action has not become commonplace by the Scrutiny Committees. Our proceedings in Westminster Hall give us more scope in how to work out ways in which to present such matters to Parliament and will allow for a wider position to be taken.
If the subsidiarity protocols are to mean anything, the House must occasionally be able to affirm the principle of subsidiarity and say that a matter is one on which it wants to make a decision. If we do not have the mechanisms for property scrutiny, Parliament cannot do that and we will be less well served as a result.
§ Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on securing this debate and other right hon. and hon. Friends for their powerful contributions to it, some of which I shall refer to in my remarks. Important issues have been raised that affect all hon. Members because they concern the effectiveness of the House and our role in it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) said, it is a question of who governs us and how. It is also important to recognise that that issue is becoming more important as the volume of regulation and directives from the European Union increases.
In Amsterdam, the Government surrendered our veto in 16 areas and it is evident that they propose in the next treaty to surrender our veto in a further 19. As a result, as Mr. Prodi, the President of the Commission, said, qualified majority voting will become the norm. It was interesting that, in last week's European debate, the Foreign Secretary said that majority voting was already the rule in the European Union.
Given that many proposed directives are being cooked up in the Commission, the volume of regulations and directives from Brussels will increase, not diminish, in the next two years to a new high, so how we scrutinise, get ahead of, examine and discuss those new regulations and laws more openly with people throughout the country is fundamental. Let us remember that there is a substantial democratic deficit in that regard.
The Minister will no doubt have experienced on his bus trips the widespread disillusionment that is felt in the business community about the whole conduct of regulation from Brussels. Regulatory issues for small and large businesses, as I know from my experience, pose a bigger problem than any other matter that concerns the future of the European Union. A poll published in the Financial Times last week showed that 51 per cent. of the population would like to withdraw from the European Union—an opinion that we should 255WH take extremely seriously. A complete failure of the democratic process to scrutinise and examine European legislation is part of the reason for that disillusionment.
How Governments of both parties have implemented European legislation leaves much to be desired. My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) referred graphically to examples when this House failed the country because of its inability to examine in detail regulations and directives as they are proposed. Our standard of implementation is poor. We have a global reputation for gold-plating, which is nothing to be proud of; it has affected small businesses, jobs and individuals. The problem is not confined to Conservative Members. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made an extremely insightful and thoughtful speech and I agree with much of what he said.
It is also true that Ministers have previously expressed concern about the matter. I wish to cite one example. Six months ago, in his Jean Monnet lecture, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry gave a commitment and stated specifically:I want to see all new European regulation independently appraised for its impact on small businesses and certified as being small business friendly. I think this would make a real difference to small businesses here and in the whole of Europe.Most of us—both Government and Opposition Members—would endorse this view. Given the fact that six months have now elapsed and that we have heard precious little since then, I hope that the Minister will tell us what progress has been made towards the establishment of that independent appraisal process.
Although our parliamentary process is often held up as a model of modern western democracy, in the area of European legislation, which now accounts for a large proportion of total new regulation in Britain, the record is poor and is arguably worse than in some other member states. For example, Denmark and Sweden have adopted the approach of ensuring that they are more proactive and that their Parliaments can get ahead of the regulation as opposed to reacting to it after it has been passed.
Serious questions have been raised in the debate by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), as well as by my hon. Friends the Members for North Shropshire and for Stone about the workings of the Scrutiny Committee and Standing Committees and I hope that the Minister will deal with them specifically in his response. It is hard to avoid the impression that the whole process adds up to regulation by stealth and is tantamount to contempt for parliamentary practice. We have heard about the failure to debate important issues on the Floor of the House and to provide papers in advance of discussion and adequate briefings. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire said, the process is close to a charade and degenerates to a farce.
I trust that the Minister will address such matters seriously and that he will depart from the prepared text that is in front of him. Important questions have been asked, and to refresh his memory I shall summarise some of them. What steps will he take to strengthen the 256WH role and effectiveness of the House of Commons in the context of enlargement and the forthcoming increase in European regulations? Given the institutional changes in Europe, now is a good time to deal with that. What assurances can he give us that the inadequacies of the scrutiny process will be dealt with? How will he address the need for a better mechanism for getting issues on to the Floor of the House? What is being done to implement the commitment of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to hold a business-friendly audit of EU regulation?
Will the Minister deal with the serious proposals raised by my hon. Friends the Members for North Shropshire and for Stone for pre-discussion and proper scrutiny of our negotiating position prior to meetings of the Council of Ministers and provide us with a better opportunity to hold Ministers to account for their conduct at the Council of Ministers? What will lie do to encourage more openness in the conduct of the Council of Ministers and in the publication of voting records, agendas and so forth? Will he demonstrate a greater appetite to address seriously such issues than he has been able to do in the past few weeks? We appreciate that he has been on a bus trip around Europe and we much enjoyed the ribald remarks that he made in previous debates about that, about European issues and about my business career, but the time has come for him to deal specifically with the issues that we have raised. They are fundamental and I hope that he will respond to them.
§ The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Keith Vaz)
As this is my first appearance in this new Chamber, I welcome you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the Chair and congratulate you on your appointment.
The debate has been good, and I do not usually attract the amount of support that is present today when I make winding-up speeches. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on his good fortune in securing the debate. As with all European debates, the Eurostars—or perhaps I should call them the anti-Eurostars—are present, including the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). For him, Europe and the world are not enough, and he often comes to debates such as this one to remind us of his experience. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body) is also present. I am sorry that he was unable to participate in the debate, as I had looked forward to hearing his remarks. We also heard a contribution from another noted participant in debates such as this, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), who has unfortunately had to leave.
I shall come to other hon. Members' comments in a moment. I should restate at the outset the Government's position on Europe and the scrutiny of European legislation. I think that we all accept that Britain's position in Europe is hugely important and that decisions made at EU level have an impact on us all. That is why parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislation is so important, and why I welcome this debate. Parliament must be promptly and fully informed about European legislation and about the Government's approach to the imminent negotiations—I shall speak about Helsinki at the end of my remarks. That is why the Government conducted an overhaul of our domestic 257WH scrutiny processes. We want European decision making to be brought closer to the people whom it affects, and transparency and democratic oversight of new legislation are vital to the process.
The United Kingdom is acknowledged to have one of the most highly developed systems for scrutiny of EU business. That is why I was disappointed to hear so much criticism from members of the Scrutiny Committee. The hon. Member for Stone may find this surprising, but I pay tribute to people such as him for their work on the Committee. When I was in Brussels recently, members of the Commission were disappointed that he was not part of the team that went to meet them, because they had heard so much about him. I do not know whether his criticism of Europe extends to a refusal to visit it, but Commission members were disappointed not to meet him. All hon. Members who serve on the Scrutiny Committee play a valuable and important part in the scrutiny process.
§ Mr. Vaz
No. I am left with seven minutes, and, although I am happy to respond to hon. Members' concerns, I want to respond to at least some of the points that have already been made.
As hon. Members will know, arrangements for parliamentary oversight of European legislation have been in place since 1973. The Government built on those arrangements in our White Paper of November 1998, which was endorsed by the House on 17 November 1998. The new scrutiny arrangements, which have now been in place for almost a year, allow the House to consider new European legislation arising across the three pillars of EU activity. The commitment made by Ministers not to agree legislation that is still under scrutiny has been extended to the second and third pillars.
We have also introduced a new system of pre and post-Council scrutiny, which is enabling the Scrutiny Committee to keep abreast of developments in the Council of Ministers. The hon. Member for Stone will remember that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was able to speak to the Committee last week, before the Helsinki summit. We had a six-hour debate on the very issues that are to be discussed in Helsinki. No hon. Member can say that he or she is suffering from a lack of scrutiny of European legislation. I have spent the past two weeks heavily engaged in these matters, as have other hon. Members. The initiative undertaken by the House to establish a national parliamentary office in Brussels will also enhance Westminster's awareness of EU issues. The Government welcome the strengthening of the role of the United Kingdom Parliament in the European Union.
The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), a distinguished former Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, made several points. As a recently appointed Minister for Europe, I share some of the concerns he expressed, having had to get to grips with everything that is happening there. I found, however, that I was extremely well served by the civil servants at UKREP. During the past eight weeks, we have been served by an effective machine made up of the best civil servants 258WH dealing with European legislation of any country in the European Union. I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman does not share my view. I know that civil servants served him well and that he was able to do an effective job. I am glad to see that he joins me in paying tribute to them, as they provide an effective means of ensuring not only that Ministers are informed but that we receive and pass on documents released through Brussels mechanisms as quickly as possible. The right hon. Gentleman also asked about MEPs. I, too, would like to make better use of Members of the European Parliament. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that they regularly come to Westminster when their advice is sought and to give evidence to Select Committees.
The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) has had an unfortunate first six weeks as a member of the Committee. I hope that things can only get better for him. My civil servants make every effort that is humanly possible to ensure that Clerks receive information about European legislation as quickly as possible. I shall look into the hon. Gentleman's points about mislaid letters. As a Member of Parliament, I believe that if hon. Members are considering important legislation, relevant letters and documents should not be lost. We shall examine the system to see how it can be improved, but I do not think that it can be. The hon. Gentleman has to read the papers in question, so he knows that we have to deal with thousands of documents every year. It is very regrettable if one or two go missing, but we shall look into the reasons and try to ensure that it does not happen again.
We shall do our best, as the Clerk of the Committee tries his or her best, to ensure that improvements are made. I have discussed the possibility of telephoning Clerks to say that documents are on their way, but we could be in permanent conversation as there are so many such documents. We shall consider presentational aspects and reflect on comments about making the language of the documents even more effective.
Points were also made about procedure and about the way in which draft directives are deposited. As only two minutes remain, I shall write to all the hon. Members who expressed concerns—I am sorry to place a greater burden on those assisting me—but to whom I have not had the opportunity to reply because of the fruitful discussion that we have had.
I am looking forward to going to Helsinki and to attending tomorrow's historic European Council meeting. Hon. Members are right to say enlargement will affect the way in which the Commission is run. The Government are at the forefront of ensuring that the Commission is run as efficiently and as accountably as possible. We will ensure that such transparency is at the forefront of our campaign to improve Commission institutions.
It is sad that the message sent out by Opposition spokesmen to Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia is so negative. Last night, I met European ambassadors from central and eastern European countries. They think that the Conservative party does not want them in Europe, because of the language that it uses. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) should carefully consider his comments and those of other Opposition Members. The message that they are sending out to the rest of Europe is negative, and I hope that they will retract some of their remarks.