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European Scrutiny Committee Report

Volume 571: debated on Thursday 28 November 2013

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the publication of the Twenty-fourth Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, on Reforming the European Scrutiny System in the House of Commons, HC 109-I.

The European Scrutiny Committee’s unanimous report is the most radical since the passing of the European Communities Act 1972. It raises fundamental questions about the operation of the Act, which are of great significance to the public and the electors, who have to obey the laws made under and by virtue of it, and the scrutiny of the European legislation that flows from it. I propose to make a short statement without interventions in order to set out the basic issues. I will then give way on specific questions as they arise.

Emphasising the supremacy of the Westminster Parliament on behalf of the electors, the Committee makes proposals relating to a veto to be deployed at national level and asks the Government to respond to our conclusion that parallel provision should be made to enable the House of Commons to disapply existing European legislation. We specifically state that

“there should be a mechanism whereby the House of Commons can decide that a particular EU legislative proposal should not apply to the United Kingdom”

and that

“if such a Motion was passed the UK Government would be expected to express opposition to the proposal in the strongest possible terms, including voting against it.”

A further conclusion of the Committee is that parallel provision should be made to enable a decision of the House of Commons to disapply parts of the existing acquis communautaire, the body of European law that exists under the treaties.

The Committee proposes greater involvement in European legislation by departmental Select Committees, as a whole and individually, including the appointment of a Member of Parliament as a specialist reporter on each and every Committee as a means of focusing the Committees on the enormous body of law constantly arising in relation to policy making and law making within their individual purview. We state that there should be permanent chairs and members of newly created European document debate committees that replace the European Standing Committees. We also propose the reintroduction of EU oral questions on the Floor of the House.

We propose that there should be greater accountability of Ministers, specifically in relation to the problems that arise concerning the activities of United Kingdom representatives in Brussels, including their interaction with the Committee of Permanent Representatives who represent the European Union institutions as a whole, because we believe that there is a significant gap in accountability in that context. We also propose measures to improve debates on the Floor of the House.

There is another concern and it relates to the treatment of European matters in the media, particularly television and broadcasting. We note the importance of providing balanced and informed media coverage on the EU in general, and the scrutiny process in particular, and criticise the chairman of the BBC Trust for refusing to give oral evidence to the Committee. For example, this morning the “Today” programme dealt with a whole range of matters of enormous immediate interest, including tobacco packaging and green levies. There is a stack of stuff that comes up continuously, but there was no mention whatsoever of the EU basis on which those matters are dealt with.

With regard to what is going on in the European Union as a whole—the report refers to this—the body under the treaties that represents the national Chairmen of each of the 28 member states with responsibility for European scrutiny meets about once every eight weeks. There has been increasing awareness over the past year, in the light of increasing European integration, demands for political union and so on, of the need for democratic legitimacy in national Parliaments. When the Prime Minister said in his Bloomberg speech, in relation to his fourth principle, that the national Parliaments are the root of our democracy, I am sure that he spoke for the whole of this House. It is vital that our Parliament gives effect to that principle.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful statement. Will he confirm that this was a unanimous and cross-party report? I note that the Leader of the House, the Deputy Leader of the House, the Minister for Europe and the Chief Whip are all here. Can we take that as an indication that they are keen to implement these recommendations at the earliest moment?

I would be extremely interested to know why they would not be interested in supporting the Committee’s proposals, particularly the basis on which they are derived, which is that we are putting our national Parliament at the heart of the process, because that is the basis on which Members of this House are elected by the people we have the honour of representing.

It is remarkable that this is a unanimous report. Indeed, it is supported by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), the previous Chairman of the Committee. It comes up with a radical but soundly based proposal

“whereby the House of Commons can decide that a particular EU legislative proposal should not apply to the United Kingdom”

even it is voted through by the Council of Ministers under qualified majority voting. It also suggests that

“parallel provision…to disapply…the acquis”

communautaire should be made available to the House of Commons. That is based on Professor Damian Chalmers’ analysis regarding the creation of a form of unilateral red card of national Parliaments that is, in turn, based on the EU treaties themselves, which

“shall respect the essential State functions”

of member states. I commend the report and congratulate my hon. Friend on it. He highlights something of a scandal in this House in that we do not scrutinise European legislation in this way already.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s contribution to this discussion. In our report we reject the proposals from the Minister for Europe and the Foreign Secretary regarding a collective red card with a threshold. We believe that if the principle of veto is to be accepted, because it does not apply in the national interest, that should be a unilateral decision taken by an individual Parliament. The 1972 Act is based on the White Paper of 1971. That document, which created all the consequences that flowed from the Act, specifically stated that the veto must be retained in the national interest, not only for the sake of the individual nation states—the United Kingdom, in particular—but because to do otherwise would endanger the very fabric of the Community. It recognised that imposing a compression chamber on the whole of the European Union would lead to the kinds of problems that have recently emerged with the charter of fundamental rights, immigration questions and the rest.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on this report and on the work of his Committee. Apart from what was suggested in the treaties in the early ’70s, we need better scrutiny not only because the organisation now called the EU has fundamentally changed since we first joined it, or because there has been a salami-slicing of our sovereignty under Governments of all parties in the past, but because the British electorate expect us to be scrutinising EU legislation in this place, as the proposals suggest?

Indeed. These very radical proposals on changing Standing Orders and the whole mechanism and process would greatly improve our scrutiny. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his contribution.

The British public not only expect us to scrutinise EU legislation in this place but want to see us doing it. Does my hon. Friend find it extraordinary that the chairman of the BBC Trust should refuse to appear before his Committee? Does that not send a very bad signal to all the other Select Committees of this House, and what can we, as the House of Commons, do about it?

This is all covered in the report—we make extensive reference to it and include the correspondence that was exchanged between the chairman of the BBC Trust and me, as Chairman of the Committee. I think that most people would conclude that his not appearing voluntarily before the Committee to give evidence was really quite disgraceful.

I congratulate the Committee on achieving such cross-party consensus on many of its proposals, including better scrutiny by departmental Select Committees. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that improved media coverage of European politics by all public service broadcasters, not just the BBC, would help to inform the European debate whichever side one takes?

I entirely agree—that is absolutely the case. It does not follow that anyone has a complete monopoly of wisdom in relation to these issues; what matters is that we have a proper and informed debate based on central principles. The principle of the supremacy of this Parliament is so fundamental that there cannot be any dispute about it. A central element of that principle and of our decision making is that the United Kingdom electorate should not have imposed on them legislation that is not in the national interest and that they do not want.

I certainly welcome some of these findings. My hon. Friend is aware that I conducted my own study into this and became very conscious of the fact that we do not scrutinise EU legislation as well as other European countries. We are good at complaining about it but we are not engaging upstream in implementing this legislation or even preventing some of it. Will he expand on his proposed so-called European document debate committees? I would be pleased if European Committees A, B and C were replaced, because they have not done a good job. I also agree that there should be more time for us to question the Minister for Europe on the Floor of the House.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There was a time when membership of these Committees was permanent, which meant that they had people who really knew and understood the context in which these matters were being debated. They were not just shoved on them by the Whips at short notice to sit there writing correspondence, or whatever; they took an enormously coherent interest in those matters. The idea of having permanent Chairs and permanent members of the Committee, in parallel with the arrangements for specialist MP rapporteurs—or reporters, as we call them—to serve on the departmental Select Committees, is to create an integrated approach so that the whole House is properly informed at every policy level and can therefore ask the right questions of departmental Ministers on the Floor of the House and in public Committee sittings.

At the risk of testing the patience of the House, I note that, as my hon. Friend will be aware, my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) has tabled a new clause to the Immigration Bill that touches on these matters in relation to the lifting of restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants coming into this country under the EU free movement of people provisions. Is it appropriate on this occasion for me to draw my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) into any thoughts about how these principles might apply to a new clause to the Bill that would be effective in upholding the sovereignty of this House?

Order. Given that the time limit on this debate is 20 minutes, of which there is only about one minute to go, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not want to be drawn off his subject and into the wider debate.

I am certainly prepared to say that important questions of principle arise about the existence of European legislation, as it stands, and what changes would need to be made in order to amend it. This is part of what could be a disapplication provision or a “notwithstanding” arrangement to ensure that legislation fitted in with what the British people wanted.

I think we are personal friends but perhaps not friends in the political sense.

I am most grateful for this opportunity to say a few words. I strongly support the report and endorse everything that the Chairman of the Committee has said. It is an excellent report that goes a long way towards satisfying what I think Members across the House have wanted for a long time. Does he agree that one component of our system that really does work is the European Scrutiny Committee itself, with the Clerk, the legal advisers and the Clerk advisers doing an absolutely first-class job? That kind of scrutiny, which we undertake every week, is a fundamental part of what we do.

The hon. Gentleman—as he prefers to be called in this context—is completely right that we are extremely well served by the Clerks of and advisers and legal advisers to our Committee and, through that service, so is the House. I simply cannot believe that we could have a better service.

Does my hon. Friend agree that in order for the Committee to do its job it needs to be told what is going on, and that the Government should pay heed to the distinguished academic opinion we received, which said that limité documents should be made available to the Committee—apparently that happens in other European Parliaments—so that it can report on them to the House?

As my hon. Friend knows, we deal with that issue in the report. A limité document is one that is heavily restricted as a matter of confidentiality. We believe very strongly that, given that other member states appear to get these documents and can make them public, so should we. It is monstrous that Committees should be gagged on matters of great public interest and importance by imposing a limité tag on them.

On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood)—this is my very last point—there is at the back of the report a complete analysis of all the scrutiny systems of all 28 member states in comparison with ours, so that people can form a judgment about the effectiveness of European Union scrutiny as a whole. Obviously, if the scrutiny system of some member states is wanting, one might have reasonable grounds to worry, when it goes through the majority voting system, that not all the arguments have been taken into account.

I am glad to have had this opportunity to speak and I am deeply grateful to all the members of my Committee for all the hard work they have put in. They agreed unanimously and I look forward to the Government’s response.

Question put and agreed to.