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Leader of the House

Volume 473: debated on Thursday 20 March 2008

The Leader of the House was asked—

European Union (Scrutiny)

28. What plans she has for new procedures to enable the House to conduct the scrutiny function for national Parliaments set out in the treaty of Lisbon. (195472)

As I said to the House during the debate on 26 February on the Bill to enable ratification of the EU treaty,

“We will work with both Houses to ensure that there is an effective mechanism, and we will also ensure that there is an opportunity for a decision before the Lisbon treaty comes into force.”

I also said that we would examine this alongside the review of

“the new scrutiny arrangements that we established last month.”—[Official Report, 26 February 2008; Vol. 472, c. 977.]

On 13 March, the Lords European Union Committee published a report, “The Treaty of Lisbon: an impact assessment”, setting out its views on the yellow and orange card mechanism. We will take that into account, alongside the findings of the forthcoming inquiry by the Commons European Scrutiny Committee.

I think that it is fair to say that opinions differed on the treaty of Lisbon, but the one thing that was welcomed in all parts of the House was the additional powers of scrutiny conferred by the treaty—not on the Executive but on Parliament, giving Parliament the chance to constrain some of the activities of the European Union when it did not show subsidiarity. Will the hon. Lady ensure that we have an appropriate mechanism that does not just send this to some Committee a long way away from the Floor of the House where nobody knows exactly what is going on, but gives this House and this Chamber centrality in the issue of what should be decided at European level and what should be decided by this Parliament?

The hon. Gentleman makes some reasonable points. As I said, it will be a matter for each House to decide how it plays its cards. Of course, the European Scrutiny Committee will maintain its role in making an initial scrutiny of the documents, and we anticipate that the explanatory memorandums produced by Government Departments will highlight the subsidiarity point more fully than is the case currently. Furthermore, when we come to look at this we will consider a number of issues, including the role of the whole House, what to do during long recesses, and the scope that there may be for inter-parliamentary co-operation through the COSAC mechanism.

Parliamentary Questions

29. What assessment she has made of the completeness of information given in answers to parliamentary questions. (195473)

The Minister will be aware that certain Ministers within each Department take lead responsibility for written questions. Do those Ministers meet and share best practice, and is there a document that outlines that best practice, or do Government Departments operate in silos, given that certain Departments are much better than others?

As the hon. Gentleman understands, where Government Departments have shared interests and shared policy responsibilities, of course they carry those forward together and discuss not only policy development but what appropriate announcements should be made to this House.

Topical Questions

May I urge the hon. Lady to undertake an assessment to highlight some of the problems that we are having with topical questions? For example, under the old system, in any typical 60-minute departmental Question Time each Member of this House had the opportunity to ask one question. Now, it is increasingly the case that some Members get the chance to ask two questions, while others lose out altogether.

Obviously, who is called during topical questions is a matter for the Speaker. However, I think that there was a consensus that the introduction of topical questions would help to ensure that questions that had arisen very shortly before Question Time could be answered fully. Notwithstanding the points that the hon. Gentleman makes, by and large most hon. Members are happy with the current practice.

Topical Debates

31. If she will take steps to pass responsibility for the arrangements for the selection of matters for topical debate to the Chairman of Ways and Means; and if she will make a statement. (195475)

My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House announced a review of the operation of topical debates in a written ministerial statement on 7 February. The hon. Gentleman can submit his views to that review. The results will be published before the summer recess.

These are my views, so I hope that the Leader of the House will take note of them. I suggested the Chairman of Ways and Means in my question because I know that you are very busy, Mr. Speaker. The point is, however, that topical debates are currently decided by the Government based on what they feel like—what announcement the Prime Minister made on Monday—instead of issues of topicality. If these debates are to be topical and useful to the House of Commons, we should have issues that can be debated seriously in this House, that mean something and that are topical, instead of some Government stooge debate. We need proper debates: ones that the House wants, not ones that the Leader of the House or the Government want.

The hon. Gentleman should take a more balanced view of the matter. On 7 February, the topical debate was on NHS staffing—a suggestion of his colleague, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). We have also discussed Holocaust memorial day, Kenya, preventive health services, availability of financial services for low-income families, the health consequences of the availability of cheap alcohol, future prospects for apprenticeships and climate change. The first topical debate was also based on a suggestion from his right hon. Friend; it was on immigration.