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EU: Parliamentary Scrutiny

Volume 699: debated on Tuesday 11 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether, in the light of the Lisbon treaty, they will put forward any proposals to change the parliamentary scrutiny of European Union legislation.

My Lords, the Government work closely with the European Union Committee to ensure that the scrutiny process continues to develop and meets the needs of Parliament. While it is up to both Houses to decide how to scrutinise EU legislation, the Government are also committed to ensuring that the new provisions in relation to national parliaments in the Lisbon treaty operate effectively, and will work with both Houses of Parliament and scrutiny committees to achieve this.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that I mean absolutely no criticism whatever of the EU scrutiny committees in either House, having been chairman of the one in the other place, and that I recognise what is well known throughout Europe; that is, the quality and standing of our own scrutiny committee in this House? But why, having promised full and detailed examination of the Lisbon treaty, did the Government contrive to curtail debates in the other place? In that way they reneged on that undertaking in the same way that they broke their promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty.

My Lords, it is completely wrong to say that we tried to curtail debate. Noble Lords can see the statistics for themselves if they look at the comparators between the different treaties. They can look at the number of interventions, which was more than 1,000, and the number of amendments, of which I think 274 were tabled by representatives of the opposition parties. There was a lot of debate. It was interesting that the debate in the other place concerned what the treaty would do on issues such as climate change. For the first time children were discussed within a treaty. That is to the benefit of the House.

My Lords, surely the noble Baroness must concede that it is a matter of record that the Government pushed through a Motion preventing proper scrutiny, demanding that most of each day should be taken up with what was described by a journalist recently as vapid debates on subjects such as climate change, some of which were hardly touched on in the treaty. Is it not correct that no time at all was allowed for any discussion on asylum or immigration, and only half a day for the whole of justice and home affairs? How on earth can the noble Baroness say with a straight face that the Government allowed proper scrutiny?

My Lords, the programme Motions of the other place are for the other place. I am in absolutely no doubt that Members of the other place had the opportunity to discuss the issues before them. The noble Lord need worry not, for I am sure that we in your Lordships’ House will have the opportunity to debate and discuss issues such as asylum, immigration, justice and home affairs and other issues of great concern. I do not always listen to what journalists say in relation to debates; I believe that the quality of some of the debates in the other place was extremely high.

My Lords, will my noble friend ignore the selective memory of those who forget the precedent of Maastricht in the Single European Act and look instead at the fact that we in the UK are held as a model by our European partners in terms of scrutiny of EU legislation? Now there are new opportunities under the Lisbon treaty in terms of the necessary consultation of national parliaments, the right to be consulted and the right to comment. Given these new, exciting challenges, is my noble friend confident that we are ready to meet them and remain a model for our partner parliaments?

My Lords, I completely agree with my noble friend about the opportunity that is now presented. There are seven sub-committees in your Lordships’ House, involving 75 Members. As my noble friend has said and as other noble Lords have commented, they are renowned across Europe for the work that they do. What is important both in your Lordships’ House and in the other place is the opportunity that Parliament will have to review and look at further opportunities in the light of the exciting and challenging opportunities to consider further European legislation.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of one of the sub-committees of the European Union Scrutiny Committee. The Question on the Order Paper asks about changing the parliamentary scrutiny of European Union legislation. Is it not the case that the protocols of the Lisbon treaty will strengthen the power of national parliaments, including this Parliament, by allowing this Parliament for the first time to have access to the European Court of Justice if it is considered that EU legislation breaches the principle of subsidiarity? Is that not a way of enhancing our democratic system of government?

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, says, the Lisbon treaty gives national parliaments a direct say in EU law-making procedures and a direct role in deciding whether EU legislation is necessary. Where there are votes of one-third of national parliaments against a proposal, it has to be reviewed and considered. If there are further votes, it is possible to make sure that the proposal is dropped. This is new. It is extremely important that parliaments take the opportunities that have been given to look at EU legislation and scrutiny. The noble Lord is correct that one is able to take this to court.

My Lords, what is the mechanism by which either the British people or their Parliament may veto a law that comes from the Council of Ministers and has been approved by national Governments?

My Lords, I have been very clear that the proposals that come forward from the European Commission can be debated and discussed in Parliament. I know that is not what the noble Lord asked me; he asked me about vetoing what national Governments have put forward. The national Government, in collaboration with the other 26 members, will debate and discuss issues of concern and will represent this country appropriately in the national interest of this country.

We are also clear, as we will say when we debate the legislation, that we have the red lines, the opt-ins and the opt-outs that will ensure that where there are particular issues of concern they are dealt with effectively. The noble Lord can smile; the noble Lord was part of a Government who did more to enhance the cause of Europe than probably any other.

My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that the institution of the yellow and orange card systems, giving a greater role to this national Parliament, will extend the opportunities for us to speak on these issues? Is it not high time that we showed the red card to the Opposition, who are against the Lisbon treaty as a whole?

My Lords, I will not get into my own football analogies. We have to be clear in your Lordships’ House about the debate we are having. It is about the ratification of a treaty that is an important part of the development of the European Union, in which this country should be very proud to play a prominent role. One has only to look at the agenda coming forward for the informal council this weekend to recognise that all the issues before the 27 nations need to be addressed from a position of working together, not one of isolation.

My Lords, is there not a big difference? As the one who took the Maastricht treaty in the other place—

My Lords, I very rashly said that there would be time for both noble Lords to speak. However, I regret to say that we are now in the 24th minute of Questions.