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House of Commons Hansard
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Transparency and Accountability (European Union)
03 May 2016
Volume 609

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No.23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish an independent commission of inquiry to examine ways of improving parliamentary and other public scrutiny of ministerial mandates and outcomes in relation to European Union institutions, policies and legislation; and for connected purposes.

In 50 days, this country will go to the polls to take the most important single decision of a generation, namely that of whether to remain in the EU or to leave. I am strongly in favour of staying in, and I will continue to make the case that we are stronger in, greener in and fairer in. In today’s globalised world, we can achieve so much more by working together with our closest neighbours than we can by going it alone.

I make this speech not as a lover of everything about the EU. Indeed, I understand it when some constituents ask, “Why stay part of an institution that has faults?” or, “Why spend time reforming the EU when we could leave it instead?” Many concerns about the EU and how it operates are valid—as, indeed, are concerns about how Westminster operates—but they are not a reason to walk away.

Moreover, such concerns are often exploited by populist political opportunists with toxic xenophobic messages. Outright fearmongering about foreigners is again rearing its ugly head across the continent. What worries me most about the rise of this divisive politics is that it erases from history the series of events that led to the formation of the EU, and it is also remarkably complacent about the future.

The EU is not an abstract project born of idle philosophising in continental think-tanks. The imperative to share sovereignty in Europe and to ensure that economic competition does not again spill over into conflict was built on the blood and bones of the Europeans killed in the terrible first half of the 20th century. The EU is a pragmatic response to our failure to manage the forces of nationalism and industrialisation, and I would argue that it has done much to reduce the aggressive ambitions of European elites who have disputed control of the continent for centuries. For me, one of the foremost reasons for staying in the EU is that it makes peace more likely. We cannot wish away the EU’s problems, however, and nor can we simply urge people to love it because of its history of peace making. Instead, we must be bold in reforming how the EU works and making sure that our constituents have more of a say over what happens at EU level.

Data suggest that British people are among the least knowledgeable about the EU. That is not their fault, but it highlights the urgent need to ensure that the public are able to be more engaged with EU policy and legislation. The fundamental point is that there are dozens of things that can be done unilaterally here in the UK radically to improve the accountability for, and engagement with, EU decision making, and that is what my Bill is about.

After 10 years working as an MEP in the European Parliament, I am in no doubt that the EU needs far-reaching reform. One major set of reforms could happen tomorrow, because implementation is entirely in the gift of the UK Government. No agreement or even discussion with other EU countries is required, and those reforms are the subject of my Bill. They build on proposals from the Electoral Reform Society, the Hansard Society, the House of Lords European Union Committee and the Commons European Scrutiny Committee, which have already done much important work in this area.

One of the proposals is that the UK Parliament should engage with the Government’s negotiating position before European Council meetings as well as after—that practice is routine in many member states. We need a more effective model of scrutiny to allow Parliament to hold the Government fully to account regarding its dealings with other European states. The Hansard Society has pointed to the fact that our system is largely one of document-based scrutiny that takes place only once policy is decided. We could easily improve the scrutiny of Ministers at monthly departmental oral questions—including topical questions—by setting aside specific time for the coverage of European issues related to their policy areas.

Our Select Committee system should also provide a high-profile powerhouse for scrutinising EU policies. To make that happen, the European Scrutiny Committee should not just be reactive; it should have the capacity proactively to choose what to follow up, in the same way as a departmental Select Committee. We need to raise the profile of the House’s three European Committees, which cover particular Departments. I have much sympathy with the suggestion that the membership of those committees should be made permanent so that experience and expertise can be built up.

The Electoral Reform Society points out that the House of Lords is considered to provide exemplary scrutiny of the EU, with six Sub-Committees covering various aspects of EU policy, as well as the stand-alone European Union Committee. It is an irony that the part of the British Parliament that provides the greatest scrutiny of the EU is the part that is both unelected and unaccountable, and it is time for that to change.

Credit should be given to the European Scrutiny Committee, which has for some time been reviewing its links with departmental Select Committees. For example, it has examined the role of an informal network of EU contact points on each Select Committee team, as happens in the Scottish Parliament. The European Scrutiny Committee can require our Select Committees to develop and provide an opinion on a particular document. However, Commons Select Committees often do not look at legislation, and they do not have the capacity to do so, which means that coverage of European Union matters may be patchy and inconsistent.

The commission of inquiry provided for in the Bill would examine the very strong case for expanding the Commons Select Committee system so that it could proactively scrutinise EU proposals and legislation. I recognise that in order to manage the workload, some kind of Sub-Committee process would be needed, and the whole system would need to be properly resourced, but putting that in place could make a real difference to scrutiny and accountability. We also need better mechanisms to give devolved Parliaments and Assemblies the ability to hold UK Ministers to account on EU negotiations, and devolved Ministers should have the right to participate in European Council meetings. Those are just some examples of changes the UK could unilaterally make to improve accountability and our scrutiny of EU decision making. Indeed, a House of Lords EU Committee report in 2015 identified no fewer than 35 such measures.

Under the Bill, we should also consider reforms that UK Ministers could champion at an EU level. The same House of Lords Committee report has repeated its previous call for a formally recognised green card system. At present, that is just an informal mechanism that is intended to enable the Parliaments of EU member states to join forces to make proposals to the European Commission to initiate EU policy and legislation. The first green card, on food waste, was proposed by the House of Lords and submitted to the Commission last year. This is an important means of strengthening national Parliaments’ ability to take joint action proactively to make proposals, not just to react to them, and of revitalising our democracy in Europe. It also means strengthening the role and work of the offices of national Parliaments in Brussels so that we can enhance parliamentary co-operation among member states on a wide range of issues.

The European Commission is one of the less democratic parts of the EU and we urgently need better ways to hold our European Commissioners to account. The 28 European Commissioners appointed by Governments act almost as a Cabinet, with each Commissioner being responsible for a certain brief. The Commission is too powerful—it proposes EU legislation, manages and implements EU budgets and policies, and enforces EU decisions—yet the channels of representation are byzantine, and there is a serious lack of transparency about how we select our Commissioners. The significant gap between the European Commission and the people obscures channels of accountability, but we can do something about that. The remit of the commission proposed by my Bill should include an assessment of what mechanisms we could use in the UK better to hold our EU Commissioner to account, and to allow for transparency in and scrutiny of their role. In that way, we could begin to remedy the situation in which most voters neither know nor care who our European Commissioners are or what they stand for.

We need new mechanisms to ensure that Parliaments can undertake a more proactive role. It is unacceptably and unnecessarily difficult to follow what our Ministers are doing on our behalf in the EU, let alone for parliamentarians and the public to have meaningful input to shape it. That is a big part of the perceived democratic deficit associated with EU decision making. There is so much that we could and should do, unilaterally in the UK, to make that better, and there are actions that we can take at EU level.

Of course, much bigger reforms are needed, such as with regard to the relative powers of the European Parliament and the European Commission, but the Bill’s purpose is to identify the measures that we can take here and now in the UK, if there is sufficient political will. We already have powers to make the EU more democratic and accountable, if we choose to take them, and there are clear steps we could and should take in this House. I hope that, on 24 June, the UK not only will have voted to remain part of the EU, but will grasp the opportunity to reform our continued participation, and that we in this House will create a positive gateway to a new and revived strand of vital political transparency, participation and accountability. The reforms I have outlined will not, in themselves, save the EU from a crisis of accountability, but they will make a big difference and will certainly help.

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We are a week from Parliament being prorogued prior to the Queen’s Speech. If we entered some kind of green dreamland, with the Opposition and the Government agreeing to accept the Bill and it becoming law—of course, we all know that that is not going to happen—do you know what I think would be the result, Mr Deputy Speaker? I think the effect on the European Union would be “nul points”—absolute zero.

We could have as many Select Committees as we like. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) has spent a lifetime on Select Committees scrutinising the European Union. It is true that we already summon the Prime Minister to our Chamber after European Council meetings and he spends two hours answering our questions, but how much difference does that make? We could also summon him to appear before such meetings. We could do all the things that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) wants—and nothing would change.

What is the structure of the European Union? It is a unique construct in terms of democracy and world history. We have a Parliament representing the people of the EU that has no ability to initiate legislation, which can be initiated only by an unaccountable bureaucracy— the Commission. In what Parliament or nation is that replicated?

What of the Council of Ministers? I have served, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), on the Council. Were we—or is it now —concerned overtly about what was being discussed by deputies in the various national Parliaments? No. It is all done by making deals through the night.

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Is not the Bill simply putting a colourful and pretty ribbon on the tail of a very hungry tiger, the EU, that will go on eating up our powers, taking our taxes and forcing up taxes on green products?

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Absolutely. There is one way in which we can genuinely reform the EU. The Prime Minister tells us that we should remain in a reformed EU. Is there a single hon. Member on either side of this argument, or on either side of the House, who believes that the Prime Minister has reformed the EU? Despite his best efforts, no one believes that. Everyone knows that the negotiation was, to all intents and purposes, a sham to enable him to come back to the British people and try to convince them that this unreformed and unreformable body had indeed been reformed. Everyone in Europe knows that it is unreformed and unreformable, because of the very structure that I have talked about.

The fundamental problem is that we can have as many Select Committees as we like, and summon Ministers here as often as possible, but this Parliament is not supreme. That was the fundamental dilemma that our predecessors, the Labour Government in 1948 and the Conservative Government in 1957, were faced with. They were very happy to try to create European free trade—more free trade in iron and steel in 1948, and more free trade in 1957—but it was made clear to them by Mr Schuman, Mr Monnet and others that this was a project that would inevitably lead to federation. That is what it is about—it is, in the terms of the book by Hugo Young, this blessed plot. The people of Europe are not being consulted. The European construct is designed to ensure that the deals and the progress towards European federation are made in secret. When I was Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, we went to the European Court of Auditors. The accounts have never been signed off. The EU is a body riddled not only with waste and incompetence, but with corruption.

Even if the Bill were to become law, it would achieve nothing, but there is one way in which we can achieve something. I simply pose a question: if one of the most important countries in the European Union were to vote to leave it, what would happen? We would not be talking about some little ten-minute rule Bill that would be ignored by the rest of the European Union, even if it became law. Do we not think that there would be a most profound electric shock through the whole system? Do we not think that our leaders in Europe might then sit down for a moment, ponder the fate of their construct and say that it should be designed to achieve what the European peoples want, which is peace and friendship?

Peace and friendship have, fundamentally, been created by NATO—at this point, I commend to Members an excellent article by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) making that precise point. NATO is a construct that we can indeed emulate because it is not a supranational body. It is a treaty-based body, but it does not impose its laws or supremacy on the peoples of Europe.

What the peoples of Europe want is what our own people really want: free trade. If we were to take this historic opportunity in June, I do not think for a moment that the world would fall in—it is moving towards European free trade. The very worst thing that could happen would be that we would have most favoured nation status and would have to pay tariffs of 5% on most of our exports to the European Union, but that is not going to happen anyway, because there is a massive balance of trade surplus against us. A deal can be constructed, based on free trade.

Much more important than what we think or want, however, is what might be created in the rest of Europe: a Europe of nation states; a Europe that was the original vision of General de Gaulle; a Europe where national Parliaments have genuine powers, and a genuine veto; a genuinely democratic Europe. That is our challenge, and there are millions of people in this country who will seize that challenge and vote for freedom in the referendum in June.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Caroline Lucas, Mr Pat McFadden, Tim Farron, Mr Graham Allen, Stephen Gethins, Stephen Kinnock, Hywel Williams, Greg Mulholland and Ms Margaret Ritchie present the Bill.

Caroline Lucas accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 13 May, and to be printed (Bill 171).

Housing And Planning Bill (Ways and Means)

Resolved,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Housing and Planning Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment of sums into the Consolidated Fund.—(Brandon Lewis.)

HOUSING AND PLANNING BILL (PROGRAMME) (NO. 3)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Housing and Planning Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 2 November 2015 (Housing and Planning Bill (Programme)) and 5 January 2016 (Housing and Planning Bill (Programme) (No. 2)):

Consideration of Lords Amendments

(1) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to an end at the moment of interruption.

(2) The proceedings shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table.

(3) The proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.

Table

Lords Amendments

Time for conclusion of proceedings

Nos. 1, 9, 10, 37, 184, 47, 54, 55, 57, 58, 2 to 8, 11 to 36, 38 to 46, 48 to 53, 56, 59 to 96, 182, 183, 185 to 188, 190, 191 and 195 to 239

Three hours after the commencement of

proceedings on consideration of Lords

Amendments

Nos. 97, 100, 108 to 110, 98, 99, 101 to 107, 111 to 181, 189, 192 to 194 and 240 to 282

The moment of interruption

Subsequent stages

(4) Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

(5) The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Brandon Lewis.)

Question agreed to.