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Council Of Ministers Of European Union: Accountability To Parliament

Volume 592: debated on Tuesday 28 July 1998

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(" .—(1) Before any Minister of the Crown attends a meeting of the Council of Ministers of the European Union at which consideration is to be given to any issue related to devolved matters, the Secretary of State shall consult the Parliament and seek its views on the issue.

(2) Following a meeting of the Council of Ministers at which any issue related to a devolved matter has been discussed, the Secretary of State shall forthwith make a report to the Parliament on the substance and the outcome of the meeting and shall respond to any questions that members of the Parliament may put to him.").

The noble Lord said: In this amendment we return again to the subject of the relationship between the Scottish parliament and indeed Scotland, and the Council of Ministers of the European Union. We discussed this rather late on the night of the fourth day of Committee when we debated the relationship between the Scottish parliament and the executive and the European Union. As far as I can gather, the Government have no clear view as to how that relationship will be developed, other than that it will be via the UK Government and, in some mysterious way of which I am not entirely sure, the Scottish executive will play a part in the UK government delegations.

On the night of the fourth day—this becomes a little like Genesis—I discussed my amendment specifically in relation to agriculture and fisheries. I do not want to repeat what I said then, though I do not believe that the answer I received was in the least satisfactory. However, in the light of the answer I received, I have tried, in Amendment No. 249A, to firm up the arrangement; to build a bridge between the Scottish parliament and the Scottish executive and the European Union and its Council of Ministers and make that bridge the Secretary of State. In fact I mean the Secretary of State for Scotland though, in the conventional manner, I did not specify that. If it were related to agriculture or fisheries matters, it could be the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. But I am not specifying that.

I am looking at the reality, which is that members of the Scottish executive will not be able to attend the Council of Ministers and lead and speak for the United Kingdom. I am still left with the two examples sent to me by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, after our debates on the Government of Wales Bill. They were supposed to satisfy me as to the attendance of ministers of governments—not the member states' governments—at meetings of the Council of Ministers. At the risk of being accused of repetition, I should like to read out the important parts of the letter I received from the noble Lord, Lord Williams. I asked him to give examples of where members of German Länder or provisional governments elsewhere in Europe, like Spain, actually attended the Council of Ministers and

spoke on behalf of their countries on subjects like agriculture and fisheries where serious decisions are made and policies taken. The letter of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said this:

"The more obvious instances which have been identified relate to the German Länder. Because of its particular expertise, Bavaria, for example, has represented the German government at EU meetings where cultural issues have been the main agenda item. Similarly, members of the Catalan autonomous government have attended meetings on behalf of the Spanish, where language issues were under consideration. I trust this information goes some way to removing your scepticism that in practice it would not be possible for an assembly member to be part of a UK government delegation, nor indeed to lead such a delegation, if that was the view reached by the UK government".—[Official Report, 1/7/98; col. 736.]

I am afraid my scepticism remains. I see that there may be some issues in a European Union meeting which are specifically Scottish and the UK Government may decide to send a minister from the Scottish executive. But the issues that worry me do not relate to culture and language where no hard policy decisions are taken which are binding on all the member states of the European Union. My concerns relate more to agriculture, fisheries, transport, Department of Trade and Industry matters, assisted area status and all those subjects which are important to the economic life of our country. Those are the issues that bother me and on those issues it is almost inconceivable—I go further; it is inconceivable—that there will be a policy item for a whole Council of Ministers meeting which will be only of relevance to Scotland and not relevant to any other part of the United Kingdom.

I am afraid, therefore, that I am as unconvinced as I have ever been about these rather vague statements that Scottish ministers, members of the Scottish executive, will somehow be able to play a full part as though Scotland were a member state of the European Union in meetings of the Council of Ministers and the peripheral meetings which are so important. I have therefore devised Amendment No. 249A. I accept that is not the most satisfactory arrangement but, short of reserving some major issues to the United Kingdom Parliament, which I know the Government will not do, my amendment makes the Secretary of State the bridge. It proposes that before meetings of the Council of Ministers, in addition to the usual round-robins which circulate in Whitehall,

"the Secretary of State shall consult the Parliament and seek its views on the issue".

It will therefore be the direct responsibility of the Secretary of State for Scotland to seek views on those issues. Then he would be able easily to represent them to his colleagues and, if necessary, he could accompany a colleague to a meeting of the Council of Ministers in order to speak on behalf of Scotland as a Minister of the United Kingdom Government.

I see that my noble friend Lord Lang of Monkton has returned to us. I have no doubt that he, as Secretary of State for Scotland, attended Council of Ministers' meetings. I know that I did. I know that my noble friend Lord Sanderson of Bowden—who I also see in the Committee—attended meetings on agriculture and fishery matters. I certainly did, especially on fishery matters, which are so important to Scotland. That is the first part of the amendment.

The second part is that after the business is done in Brussels, in which any matter relating to Scotland and a devolved issue has been discussed and perhaps resolved, the Secretary of State should report to the parliament and should be available to answer questions from members of the parliament. "Answerability" is also important.

I still have not had an answer to my question. If a negotiation takes place in Brussels, on any subject, and the Minister comes back to the House of Commons, and it is a devolved subject, and the Minister makes a statement and answers questions, what does he do when a Scottish Member of Parliament pops up and asks a question about Scotland on a matter which has been devolved? Does the Speaker of the other place rule that out of order because the subject has now been devolved in the legislation we are discussing? Does the Minister—especially if it is a difficult question—simply duck it and say, "That is not a matter for me. It is a matter for the Scottish parliament and for the Minister there"? I do not know the answer to that question. I have failed miserably to get out of the Government any positive indication of what will happen in those circumstances on the question of answerability.

I am saying here that the Secretary of State would report to the Scottish parliament and would answer questions that any members of the Scottish parliament might put to him. That would lead to the kind of accountability that is essential if Scotland is to be properly represented at the Council of Ministers and in the councils of the European Union.

Brussels is no longer some sort of peripheral place where people go for a nice day out and the business does not matter terribly much. It matters hugely over a whole raft of policies. I am deeply concerned, whether it be Wales—and I see the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, in his place—or whether it be Scotland, that one of the results, unintended I grant the Government, of these devolutionary proposals will be that Scotland will lose its direct representation, its clout and influence at Council of Ministers' meetings in Brussels. I beg to move.

I wonder whether it will be convenient to discuss Amendments Nos. 268 and 269 at the same time because they are on the same topic. If I may say, modestly, to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, our amendment is rather better than his. It is on the same subject and I do not see why we should debate it twice.

With enormous respect, there is a difficulty. The opportunity to group was available earlier and they were not grouped together. It would be more appropriate to take them as they are presently grouped.

Perhaps I can intervene on this amendment. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, that there is not much difference in the sentiment behind what my noble friend is suggesting here and the amendment of the Liberal Democrats. They refer to the very difficult situation that arises as a result of this Bill.

Those of us who have had experience in Brussels know only too well—and I said this at Second Reading—how difficult it is to get government departments, whether north or south of the Border, whether Irish or Welsh, to agree on matters even when they are of the same party. We are passing this Bill when we do not know in the future whether the party in government in Westminster will be of the same colour as that north of the Border. We have to be particularly careful when we are dealing with the situation in relation to the European Union.

There is no easy answer. I have no doubt that the Minister will tell us that there will be a very sensible concordat between Ministers in Westminster and the Scottish parliament. I am afraid that this will be a very difficult situation, particularly in agriculture and fishing, which rely so very heavily on good relationships between Brussels and the United Kingdom.

My noble friend is taking a step in the right direction. As he said, it is not an ideal step because it is a very difficult situation to resolve. As I said at Second Reading, I am very concerned about one aspect. Unrepresented though it is in this Chamber, the Scottish National Party will look at this very closely indeed. If it sees the president of the National Farmers Union of Scotland and the chairman of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation deciding that there is absolutely no point in discussing matters with the Minister in the Scottish parliament with responsibilities for agriculture and fishing and that the best thing they can do is go straight to London to see the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who has the clout in Brussels, that is doing no good service to the new Scottish parliament. It will weaken the whole thing.

These issues that the House must consider most carefully before the Bill is passed. They are capable of undermining the good sense that I hope to see, although I have reservations, from a Scottish parliament. These are the aspects of the legislation that worry me intensely. Those of us who have had experience know how difficult negotiations in Brussels are; how long they take; and how much give and take there has to be. The Minister knows that; he is doing it.

There is perhaps a note attached to the Minister's briefing which says, "Resist these amendments". He may well resist today but perhaps over the summer holidays he will consider the matter more closely. I do not believe that concordats are necessary. They may be good but they do not get to the root of the problem. If agriculture and fishing are to be devolved, the Scottish parliament must have some say, somewhere, in the chain of command.

9 p.m.

I recognise that many noble Lords regard this as a very important issue, as I do myself. A number have direct experience of representing Scotland in negotiations with colleagues in UK departments and then as part of the UK team in Brussels. I freely recognise that this is a sincere attempt to try and "protect" Scotland's interest in Europe in the context of the devolved settlement.

In an attempt to build a bridge, as he described it, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, has created something of a constitutional mishmash; a failure to recognise that UK Ministers are accountable to a UK Parliament and Scottish Ministers are accountable to the Scottish parliament. Those are the two direct lines of accountability. Nothing is to be gained by trying to blur the structure by saying that a UK Minister is required to consult the parliament and then subsequently that a UK Minister has a duty to report to the parliament on the substance of the outcome of the negotiations and to answer the questions of the parliament. That is a significant blurring of the lines of accountability between Ministers and Parliament. As I have said, the basic line is between the Scottish Minister and the Scottish parliament and between the UK Minister and the UK Parliament. I believe that that should be preserved.

Scottish ministers and UK Ministers will agree the UK line on negotiations in Brussels. That is the whole point. It is the responsibility of Scottish ministers to report to the Scottish parliament and of UK Ministers to answer to the UK Parliament for the conduct of EU negotiations even when they affect devolved matters. If the Fisheries Council were deciding questions of TACs and quotas—many of us have been involved in long nights of macho negotiations on quotas—it would be perfectly proper for a Westminster MP to ask the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food a question on TACs and quotas, perhaps on how they affected Scottish interests. Similarly, a question on dairy quotas and the Agriculture Council could quite properly be asked of the Minister by a Scottish Member of Parliament at Westminster.

We have consistently made it clear both in the White Paper and during the passage of this Bill that Scottish ministers will be closely involved in the formulation of the UK position as presented to our EU partners at Council meetings. They may also attend the Council and, where appropriate, speak on behalf of the UK. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, tends to mock that formulation. I ask him not to do so because it is offered in good faith as a way forward and as a way of ensuring that Scottish interests are properly represented. The noble Lord quoted back to us the figure from his letter from the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn. It has to be said that the right of members of regional parliaments to attend Council meetings was obtained only as recently as the Treaty of Amsterdam. I understand that the noble Lord is not awfully keen on that treaty at the moment. However, that is something on which we can build because it now provides the European framework in which this type of representation can be accommodated and expressed.

Throughout the whole European process Scottish ministers will be accountable for their actions to the Scottish parliament. That is how the Scottish parliament will be able to call the executive to account in its handling of EU business—not by trying in some rather strange way, which I do not understand, through questioning and report to make the Secretary of State accountable to the Scottish parliament, but by directly making Scottish ministers accountable to the Scottish parliament for their conduct and involvement in negotiations.

If we keep it like that, the lines of accountability are clear and easily understood. I see nothing to be gained by muddying the waters. I should point out in addition that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish—drawing upon his experience, which I recognise, as a former agriculture and fisheries Minister in the Scottish Office—consistently warns that the position of Scottish agriculture in relation to Europe will be undermined as a result of the Bill. That is not my view. That is not the view of the president of the National Farmers Union of Scotland, who enjoys the support of his members. His electors clearly knew his position on this. He believes very strongly that the way forward that we have indicated means that Scottish agricultural interests will have a much more clearly focused forum in which to be debated and that what we have set down provides a means by which the Scottish voice will be heard more consistently in Brussels, particularly through the informal regional organisations.

I notice that the Minister is praying in aid the president of the National Farmers Union of Scotland. Is it not a fact that, unusually for presidents of the National Farmers Union of Scotland, he has taken a party political role and is a candidate for the Liberal Democrat Party for the Scottish parliament? I simply ask: can a man serve two masters, the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish parliament and the NFU? I am not alone in wondering about that. Many senior farmers wonder exactly the same thing. I am afraid that praying him in aid increases, rather than decreases, my concern.

On the business about serving two masters, I believe that the convener of the hill livestock committee is trying to do the same thing. He is seeking nomination in the Conservative interest for the Scottish parliament while serving the National Farmers Union.

Does the Minister have it in mind to accept Amendment No. 268 when we reach it? If not, why is he not reading out his reply to that amendment when dealing with this grouping, because it is on precisely the same subject? I do not know what the Minister's ploy is in knocking down this amendment when we do not know what he will say about the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, who said that he wants his amendment to be considered in this group and who asked whether he could speak to it now. Is the Minister going to accept Amendment No. 268?

That is a false accusation if ever there was one. I offered the view that the opportunity was available earlier in the day for amendments to be grouped by agreement. I received no requests—I do not believe that the usual channels received any requests— for Amendment No. 268 to be grouped with this amendment. Members of the Committee may wish to speak to the later amendment, but not to this earlier amendment. We have our arrangements. Amendments are grouped and we work through the groupings.

When noble Lords want amendments to be grouped, unless the Government have major difficulty in turning the page and referring to another brief, they are usually allowed to do it. I would have been very greatly helped had that occurred in this case. This is one of the major faults of the Bill to which we want to find a solution. We have heard everything that is thought to be wrong about my noble friend's amendment, which I believe is a possible solution. However, I see that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has another good idea. Can we not deal with it now?

The Government are responsible for grouping amendments. I believe I am right in saying that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, was tabled after my amendment which appears later in the Marshalled List. I did not immediately notice that it dealt with much the same subject. They should have been grouped together. But I believe that my amendment which comes later offers a much more logical solution and does not trespass on what the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, has rightly referred to as the blurring of responsibilities as between Scottish and UK Ministers. I do not know whether the noble Lord wishes me to pursue my amendment now. I am quite happy to wait until later.

I do not agree with the strictures of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, about the president of the National Farmers' Union of Scotland. Both he and the chairman of the hill livestock committee are perfectly entitled to stand as candidates. It is not without precedent. I suspect the reason why the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, is annoyed is that the people of Argyll and Bute have decided to dispense with his services and are likely to embrace the services of Mr. George Lyon. That appears to be more down to his temper than anything else.

Since the noble Lord has referred to precedents, can he name a former president of the NFU who while in office has become a candidate for a political party?

I shall check but I am fairly certain that I am correct in what I say. I do not want to name names and get it wrong. I have someone in mind who is also a member of my party. The fact is that he was elected president by his own members, who knew of his political allegiance. Some of us believe that Scottish Ministers attending European Council meetings will enhance the voice of Scotland in Europe, not detract from it. They will not be tag-end Charlies to UK delegations but will have their own status as Ministers of the Scottish parliament. I believe that that is a better solution. I shall reserve my fire until I come to my own amendment.

Does the noble Lord agree that a man can serve two masters if both are benign?

I see that the Minister has completed his remarks. I shall sum up and decide what to do with my amendment. I believe that there is little difference between the president and the chairman of the hill livestock committee. Mr. Scott, as chairman of the hill livestock committee, considered very seriously whether or not the two offices were compatible. A year ago he would not have considered that they were compatible and would have resigned as chairman. He did not resign as chairman simply because the president had already introduced politics into the senior offices of the NFU. This is a serious matter and I look forward to hearing about the precedents to which the noble Lord has alluded. I have spoken to the immediate past three presidents, none of whom was in any doubt that they should not be members of or be active in any political party while they held the presidency of an organisation whose constitution said that it should be non-political. But that is another matter. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats are not political.

Interestingly enough, the Minister has helped me, and for that I am grateful. He appreciates that this amendment does not seek to wreck anything. Like my noble friend Lord Sanderson, as someone who has been involved in these negotiations I am extremely concerned that the important role that Scottish fisheries Ministers, agricultural Ministers and other Ministers—for example, industry Ministers play in these issues should continue after devolution.

I am grateful to the Minister for answering a question that the Government failed to answer in relation to the Government of Wales Bill both in the other place and in this Chamber; namely, whether it would be in order for Members to ask UK government Ministers questions on devolved matters. The Minister has made an interesting revelation which I failed to extract from the two Ministers who dealt with the Government of Wales Bill.

For the avoidance of doubt, I was very careful in what I said. It would be perfectly proper and reasonable for a Scottish Member of Parliament and a Member of this House to ask a UK Minister questions on the outcome of Council meetings; for example, in relation to tax or dairy quotas.

We discussed this matter when considering Clause 29. I believe that at that time the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, gave us the benefit of his reminiscences of the period during which the Stormont Parliament was in operation. He recounted how the Table Clerk next door would tell Northern Ireland Members what questions they could and could not ask. I thought that the Government had given us an assurance that that would be the convention with regard to the devolved parliaments. Therefore, the vast majority of questions, and certainly all questions with regard to devolved matters, would be, by convention, ultra vires in this Parliament.

9.15 p.m.

I am grateful to the noble Viscount for renewing my concerns about this issue, as he has just done. The Clerks in the other place and, indeed, the Clerks here are mindful of the vires of questions. The Speaker is also mindful, as seen the other day when someone was pulled up for asking the Prime Minister a question about the Scottish National Party, for which the Prime Minister, of course, has no responsibility. The Speaker actually asked the questioner to resume his seat and said it would be a long time before he was called again, so it did not do him any good being "on message" with the Labour Party; he will not be "on message" for some considerable time, I gather.

The noble Viscount re-emphasised my worry. In fact, the Minister has not helped me either. The point is that before Ministers go to Council meetings there are often debates. After their return there are debates and there are questions. What I am concerned about is whether Scottish MPs and, indeed, Members of your Lordships' House will be able to take a full part in those debates and questions on matters relating to any subject which has been devolved but which comes within the ambit of one or other of the Council of Ministers of the European Union. Agriculture and fisheries are key subjects. For a while I had thought that the Minister was helping me. However, I am not sure that the noble Viscount has not dashed the lifebelt away from under me. I am still as concerned as I was.

I shall read what the Minister said. Perhaps he can read it as well and, if he cares, we have an opportunity for clarification later this evening, which means that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, is useful, and we also have the long Summer Recess during which the Minister can correspond with me. He can also, perhaps, correspond with me about the Treaty of Amsterdam, because that argument was not used by the two Welsh Ministers. The question, therefore, is which Ministers are giving the correct steer. Perhaps I can have a letter about that; some noble Lords might be interested.

With later amendments in mind, I shall withdraw my amendment. However, the Minister will not be surprised to know that I shall be thinking about the matter during the Summer Recess.

Perhaps I can help finally to put this particular matter to bed. It starts from the basis that the conduct of foreign relations, including EU negotiations, is a reserved matter. That is the starting-off point. UK Ministers, therefore, can properly be made accountable to the Westminster Parliament for that, even when the content affects devolved matters. They are answerable to all Members of the Westminster Parliament.

Before the noble Lord sits down, I asked him a specific question and he did not answer it. I completely accept what he has just said in relation to foreign affairs. That was not my question. My question was whether the summation I gave and the answer I thought he gave the other day was correct in relation to devolved matters. If he can confirm that, I shall be most grateful.

We are talking about Europe, and at the moment I am happy to clarify the position about Europe. I shall be more than happy to clarify other positions at later stages.

We have made some serious progress in the last 34 minutes, and in the last minute. I am grateful to the Minister. I understand the point he made. He has discussed philosophically the different heads from which matters come. I can understand that if matters relating to the European Union are reserved to the United Kingdom Government, the United Kingdom Ministers are answerable to this Parliament on any matter which is debated and discussed or negotiated in the European Union, even if it is a devolved matter. I believe that that will be of considerable interest to many of the Members of the other place, Members of your Lordships' House and to many people in the world outside. That has not been very clear up to now. I am grateful to the Minister. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 36 agreed to.

After Clause 36, insert the following new clause—