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House Committee: Parliamentary Passes

Volume 714: debated on Tuesday 10 November 2009

Motion to Agree

Moved By

That the report from the Select Committee on Parliamentary Passes for UK Members of the European Parliament (4th Report, HL Paper 170) be agreed to.

My Lords, I beg to move that the fourth report from the House Committee be agreed to. This report has been put before your Lordships because of the decision taken by the House of Commons in October to stop granting parliamentary security passes to UK Members of the European Parliament. However, because both Houses have the power to issue security passes, the decision to deny MEPs passes granting access to the parliamentary estate can take effect only if this House also stops granting passes. This in turn can happen only if your Lordships agree to overturn the resolutions referred to in the second paragraph of the report. It is for the House to decide whether our previous resolution should be rescinded, and this report is a mechanism to allow the House to take that decision.

I have noted the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson. If the amendment is accepted, the House Committee will of course reconsider the matter. Any subsequent decision that this House should continue granting passes to UK MEPs would present obvious practical difficulties, but officials of both Houses would doubtless strive to identify a mutually acceptable way forward.

Finally, I should highlight one error in the report. UK MEPs are not in fact entitled to access to the Peers’ Guest Room. Although they were granted that privilege for the 1992-97 Parliament, it was not renewed thereafter and has consequently expired. I look forward to hearing the views of the noble Lords and I beg to move.

Amendment to the Motion

Moved by

As an amendment to the above Motion, to leave out “agreed to” and insert “referred back to the Committee for further consideration”.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, for the way in which he has moved the Motion. The House Committee performs invaluable service to your Lordships' House, and I am usually loath to disagree with it, but on this occasion, I believe that it has got it wrong, although it may have made its decision with the best of motives. Paragraph 4 in the committee's report is the only justification issued for withdrawing MEPs’ passes. It states:

“The decision of the House of Commons in practice cannot take effect without the assent of this House”.

That is surely the case for almost every decision that the House of Commons makes. We challenge its right to make unilateral decisions in all sorts of important legislative proposals. We say to the House of Commons, “Think again. Have another look”, because we think that it is not necessarily following the best course. If we can do that on anti-terrorist legislation, the abolition of certain trials without jury, identity cards or length of detention without trial, surely we are entitled to say to the other place, “Look at this rather messy, shoddy administrative proposal to deny passes to Members of the European Parliament, who have enjoyed them for past 29 years”—without, as far as I am aware, having produced any problems.

Of all the issues on which we can say, “Think again”, this is one of the least significant but symbolically most important. As I said, our system has worked for nearly 30 years without problem. It is important, because one or two noble Lords suggested to me that there is no reciprocity, to know the terms of the letter written by the three party leaders in the European Parliament to Mr John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, in which they state:

“For the record, Westminster MPs visiting the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg can make a one-off application for a pass which then gives them completely free access to both sites of the European Parliament”.

They suggest in their letter alternative ways of approaching this problem. I do not want to go into them in any detail today, but merely say to the House Committee that it should take this back for the sake of good government and good decision-making, look at it again and suggest to the House of Commons that it does the same.

I say in conclusion, as I said at the outset, that I very much appreciate the way in which the Chairman of Committees has approached this today. With that sort of spirit, the House Committee can find a resolution for this small issue, which will otherwise become a serious irritant between ourselves and the European Parliament at a time when, with the extension of codecision in the Lisbon treaty that we have now approved, there ought to be a closer relationship with European parliamentarians, not a more distant one. I beg to move.

My Lords, I got the impression that the way in which the Chairman of Committees explained this matter was largely sympathetic to the point being made by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson. I have an antique interest in the proposition because when I was Leader of the House in another place, the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, who is not in his place, and I introduced access rights for Members of the European Parliament in response to a pressing need. Access rights became necessary as the dual mandate disappeared: as there were no longer people belonging to both Parliaments, it became necessary to open up a bridge of this kind. I notice that I later wrote:

“More than in any other national parliament, British MEPs were still treated by their Westminster colleagues almost like pariahs, strictly forbidden to enter any of the working parts of the Palace”.

It was in order to remedy that along the lines that are agreed by the Chairman of Committees and the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, that these passes were introduced. It is certainly possible that their existence in their present form gives rise to problems in the security field that need to be resolved, but I hope that the House will endorse the generous tone with which the Chairman of Committees introduced this matter. It deserves to be re-examined because a regular, fertile, free cross-relationship between the European Parliament and this Parliament is good for almost everything I can think of.

My Lords, this is extremely discourteous. I spent some time yesterday with Malcolm Harbour MEP who had to hurry to a meeting here afterwards. He now has to clear security properly. He probably has to do that regularly when he is in this country because he appears at European committees and is very involved in legislation. This is sending out completely the wrong message because as the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, said, under the Lisbon treaty, we are now much closer. The EU publication, Your Guide to the Lisbon Treaty, states:

“Co-decision will become the ‘ordinary legislative procedure’. It will extend to new policy areas such as freedom, security and justice”.

That means there will be a closer relationship. If we want to influence some of the laws that come out of Europe that we have to implement in our local legislation, I suggest we cosy up a little bit to the MEPs, not alienate them. The German Parliament has a room that MEPs can rest in, and they are made very welcome. On a practical basis, we have to do something about this. I sometimes wonder whether the other place has removed itself to another planet.

My Lords, I thank the Chairman of Committees for his statement, which I support, and the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, for his sensible amendment. The real background to this is that overhasty action in another place has indicated once again that even if there are MEPs from an obnoxious party that most democrats do not like, they should none the less be given equal rights.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, I do not make a habit of contesting the opinion of the Chairman of Committees when he comes before the House. I have not done so in the eight years in which I have been here, but the proposal to withdraw certain access privileges from MEPs is a bad one. It is wrong in principle, it is quite disproportionate to the objective pursued, it is untimely, and it reflects an attempted imposition of its will by the other place that is not justified in these circumstances.

Others have stated that, as the EU Select Committee has recommended to the House, we need closer links now that we are moving into a period in which the European Parliament influences more of the legislation that we, too, consider. The proposal is disproportionate because all British MEPs are to be deprived of privileges in order to exclude a very small number of them. I do not object to that narrower objective being pursued, although one could argue that not much is to be gained by locking that particular door shortly after the BBC has let the horse bolt, but there must be better ways of achieving it than wielding a sledgehammer and landing it on our own foot. The proposal is untimely because the proposed exclusion would take place just when the Lisbon treaty is about to give the Parliament more powers. Finally, does it make any sense at all for us meekly to allow the other place to impose on us a decision that I regard as aberrant and about which it did not even consult us in advance?

For all those reasons, I hope that we will not need to put this matter to a vote but that the Chairman of Committees will look further into this matter, as he very generously offered to do in his introduction, before any action is proposed. That would surely be the best option.

My Lords, I speak as a member of the House Committee, partly because the Chairman of Committees often complains that, when he has a tough job to do, he is left to swing on his own. From what he has said and the mood of the House, there is a desire for the House Committee to look at this again, but we cannot do so on our own. I hope that, if the report is referred back to the House Committee, the Leader of this House will talk to the Leader of the House of Commons and the Lord Speaker will speak to Mr Speaker. We cannot run security and issue passes in this place on the basis that one end of the building does one thing and the other end of the building does another; we must have proper co-ordination. If, as the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, said when he read out his letter, the leaders of parties in the European Parliament have made suggestions, will he submit that letter to the House Committee so that we can see whether one of those suggestions actually works?

My Lords, it is rare to speak from these Benches in support of an amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, but I do so in a spirit of general support from this House for everything that he said and everything that everyone else has said in the context of the threatened withdrawal of passes for Members of the European Parliament. It is obvious to all of us that this is a knee-jerk reaction to the BBC’s “Question Time” production and the decision taken then in the other House that certain people should be prevented from coming into the Houses at Westminster. It was a bad decision, and I was delighted when the Chairman of Committees said in his introduction that, given the support for the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, he would reconsider the decision that has been taken.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, has just said, it is perfectly obvious that Members of the European Parliament should be allowed to come to this House to give an account of their stewardship, but perhaps more importantly to listen to those of us who have certain positions and views in this House on matters European. That being so, liaison is more important now than it has ever been, so I hope that everyone will support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, and that the decision will be reversed so that MEPs can come here, as they should, as directly elected people from this country.

My Lords, the decision of the House of Commons not to make parliamentary passes available to British Members of the European Parliament prejudiced the recommendation of our House Committee and the House Committee has followed the House of Commons. This is easily understandable, but, like all those who have spoken, I could support the relatively mild amendment to refer the issue back to the House Committee and I hope that the Chairman of Committees will follow it.

Whatever the outcome of the discussion today, it is important that we should maintain close relations with the European Parliament. Sometimes I think that public and parliamentary opinion simply has not caught up with who makes laws in the European Union, particularly where many people repeat the error of stating that most important laws are now made by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. In any event, changes in treaties and in practice now mean that almost all significant primary legislation in the European Union, apart from certain competition issues, is made in codecision between our representatives in the Council of Ministers and the representatives of the public in the European Parliament.

The European Parliament has become much more important for Britain. Although our work here in this Parliament is completely dominated by national legislation, contrary to the impression sometimes given, it is none the less true that what comes from the European Parliament is important. I hope that a way can be found to improve our contact with the British Members of the European Parliament.

My Lords, during my six years as chairman of the European Union Committee, I travelled to about 17 or 18 of the national Parliaments in the European Union. I was always struck by the degree to which their Members of the European Parliament were integrated into their national Parliaments. In some countries, such as Denmark, there were even seats reserved for them in the Chamber so that they could be summoned there to answer questions from the national Members of Parliament.

If any progress is going to be made in trying to bring the citizen closer to the European Union and the European Union closer to the citizen, particularly in this country where there is a major problem about that, it would be utter folly to deny the right of Members of the European Parliament to come and commune with our national parliamentarians.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, will be surprised that I support his amendment. I do so on the basis that the proposals from the House of Commons are absurd and make no sense at all. One of the reasons given by the House of Commons is that there will be pressure on the services. But how can that be? The number of Euro MPs has dropped to 78 from its previous total of 84. The reason given by the House of Commons is nonsensical. I have not always believed but I now believe that it is right that we should allow Members of the European Parliament to come to this place to meet Members of both Houses and to attend party meetings with ease, and not to be blocked and have to go through the public entrance. It is correct that the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, has proposed this amendment, which I hope will be agreed. I hope that the House of Commons will be sensible and not penalise all the British Members just for the sake of two new Members of the European Parliament. If they are a security threat, that is another matter, but that should be dealt with separately and not by a blanket ban on the legitimate Members of the European Parliament.

My Lords, I think I can honestly say that I have heard enough. Seldom have I heard such unanimous opposition by noble Lords on all sides and of all political complexions to a House Committee report. I can say that the committee should indeed reconsider this matter, taking into account what has been said today, and we will therefore do just that. Perhaps I may say that the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, is absolutely correct to refer this matter back to the House Committee, so I recommend that the House should agree with his amendment.

Amendment agreed.

Motion, as amended, agreed.