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Volume 226: debated on Wednesday 16 June 1993

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To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what plans he has to consider legislation passed since 1986 for possible amendment or repeal on the grounds of subsidiarity and unsuitability for the United Kingdom, after the Brussels European Council of December 1993.

We are discussing with the Commission and member states action to ensure that subsidiarity is made to work in practice and that legislation is amended or repealed where necessary. The Commission has been instructed to present the outcome of its review on the subject at Brussels in December.

Will my hon. Friend undertake to double and redouble his efforts to apply subsidiarity not only prospectively but retrospectively after the Brussels summit? If he finds difficulty in applying the principle retrospectively because there is no mechanism to do so, will my hon. Friend work with his European colleagues to try to find such a mechanism?

As a matter of law, the subsidiarity clause in the Maastricht treaty is not retrospective—the House respects that principle in its own legislation. But the Edinburgh Council agreed that the Commission should examine existing legislation with a view to amending or repealing it if it conflicted with the principle of subsidiarity or minimum interference, as it should perhaps be called. As a Government, we are looking at the European statute book with the same end in mind.

If the Government like what the European Community is doing they say that it is in line with the principle of subsidiarity. If they dislike what is being done they claim that it contravenes the principle of subsidiarity and that matters should be determined at national level. Therefore, the principle means anything that anybody wants it to. Would not it be better to have greater control over the activities of the Council of Ministers, which is supposed to decide whether subsidiary operates? It would help the House if the voting records of the Council of Ministers were systematically printed in Hansard when reports are made of Council meetings. In response to me, the Prime Minister said that that would be done, but it is not being done. Can we ensure that all Departments act on that issue in future? In fact, there are never any votes taken in Council meetings because, even when matters are to be decided by qualified majority voting, they are always passed on the nod.

The principle of subsidiarity applies to all the institutions of the EC—not just to the Commission and the Parliament, but to the Council of Ministers. Under Maastricht, it will be a legally binding principle, ultimately 'enforceable at law. But in order to make it a binding principle we first need to ratify the treaty. I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would assist us with that process.

Is my hon. Friend aware that we welcome his cautious approach as outlined in response to the original question? As the 1986 legislation was mostly to do with the implementation of the single market, based on majority voting, and pursued for the most part by this Government, the question of subsidiarity did not arise as much as people might now think. Does he agree that the amount of legislation coming from the Commission is in any case much less than hitherto?

Even before the treaty has been ratified the Commission is respecting the principle of subsidiarity. That has led to a noticeable reduction in the number of instruments that it proposes. But we are also anxious to look back at existing legislation because, despite what my hon. Friend says, there have been some breaches of the principle in that legislation and we wish to amend or appeal it as appropriate.

May I take this opportunity of welcoming the new Minister to the Dispatch Box? He is the 24th Foreign Office Minister whom I have sat opposite, so I advise him not to get too comfortable or he will go the same way as the rest of them did.

Does not the distinct smell of deceit and hypocrisy come from the Government when they talk about subsidiarity, openness and transparency? What they champion is usually the precise opposite of what they practise. For instance, why, last week, did the new Minister go along with the deliberate decision by the Council of Ministers not to publish voting figures for Council meetings? That was not only in breach of what my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) was told in a parliamentary answer, but in direct breach of what the Danish people were told. This new Minister actually proposed that the European ombudsman should not have access to correspondence between the Council of Ministers and the European Commission, thereby undermining the principle of openness.

Is not it a fact that the Minister, who was the Deputy Chief Whip, is taking into Europe the same old bad habits of that secret society, the Tory Whips Office, when what the people of Europe want is an open, accountable Community?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind welcome. I was indeed privileged to be in the Whips Office for the past year, where I tried to rescue the Maastricht treaty from the political manoeuvrings of the hon. Gentleman—culminating in that heroic abstention on Third Reading.

I entirely reject the idea that the Government take the view that proceedings should be anything less than open and helpful. The hon. Gentleman entirely misunderstands what happened last week in Luxembourg. We said, and we received support from all other member states, that the powers of the future European ombudsman should, in this respect, be the same as those of our own ombudsman—powers which work well in respect of access to secret and confidential documents.

It was a matter of great regret that the European Parliament used that excuse not to agree to extend the subsidiarity principle to its own proceedings.