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EU: Balance of Competences Review

Volume 750: debated on Thursday 9 January 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what options for change they have so far identified in respect of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union as a result of their balance of competences review; and when they intend to announce their plans for any such change.

My Lords, the balance of competences review provides an informed and objective analysis of what EU membership means for the UK and our national interests. It draws on contributions from a wide spectrum of interested parties, detailing where the EU helps and where it hinders, and it provides a valuable contribution to our national debate. It does not examine alternatives to EU membership and is not tasked with making new policy recommendations.

Does my noble friend the Minister agree that, when it comes to negotiating the repatriation of powers, an essential first step will be to rework the acquis communautaire throughout the treaty of Rome?

This is an issue that my noble friend has raised in the past. I think that he will take great comfort from the fact that legislation has been passed to ensure that no further powers pass to the European Union without the say-so of the British people. I think that he will also take great comfort from the fact that, wherever the opportunity has arisen, this Government and this Prime Minister have chosen to try to win back those powers. I am sure that he will also be supportive of the Bill that will come before your Lordships’ House tomorrow in terms of giving the people a right to decide on our future relationship with the EU.

Will the Minister confirm that the first report of the balance of competences review, which, as I recall, covered Defra and food, came to the conclusion that it was to the overwhelming advantage of the United Kingdom that we remained a full member of the European Union in respect of those subjects?

A number of subject areas were dealt with in the first set of reports, which looked at legal competences and how they were being exercised. Many of the areas were non-contentious and it was felt that the balance of competences was right in those areas. However, even where those areas of competences were supported, suggestions were still made by a number of organisations and individuals about how they could be improved. For example, there was much support for a single market but it was felt that that market could be broader and deeper.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us of any area of our national life which the EU administers with competence? Would it not be more honest to describe this exercise as the Government’s EU incompetence review? Now that even the mildly Eurosceptic Mayor of London, Mr Boris Johnson, has come to see that the project of European integration has failed and is outdated, is not the answer to wrap the whole thing up and throw it away?

It is always interesting to hear the noble Lord’s views on the issue of Europe. I am sure that he was pleased that UKIP representatives had an opportunity to feed into the first set of reports. The Government fundamentally believe that we can have a better Europe and that we should have and push for further reform. It is obvious from the first set of reports that have come through in the balance of competences review that many of the issues that have been raised by the Prime Minister’s and the Government’s existing reform agenda came out as part of those reports.

My Lords, following on from the noble Baroness’s talk about the need for a programme of reform to create a better Europe, can she clarify what the Government’s objective is? Is it to put together a comprehensive programme of reform which, on this side of the House, we would be happy to engage in discussion about, or is it to demand, as the noble Lord, Lord Spicer, hinted, special deals on repatriations, opt-outs and derogations, which frankly is a road to nowhere? It is likely to be a set of impossible demands which eventually leads to British exit.

The Government’s position has been clear: reform is an ongoing process and we can have a better Europe. For example, one of things that came out of the balance of competences review is how different competences and different regulations were being implemented by member states. There were concerns about the UK’s gold-plating, for example, of much that was coming out of Europe. We feel that that is an ongoing process. I think that the noble Lord and noble Lords opposite will accept that there is a great democratic deficit at the moment in support for the European Union. Therefore it is not only about making the case for whether we need to be in or out of Europe but about making the case for how we can have a better Europe, renegotiating a new settlement and then going to the people and saying to them, “You have the final decision”.

My Lords, will my noble friend tell the House how many EU partners and which EU institutions have contributed evidence to this review? If the answer is low, as I suspect it is, could that possibly be because it is suspected that the motives of the review are not necessarily to be objective but to be the basis for what the noble Lord, Lord Spicer, has suggested?

There have been a number of contributions: from, in the United Kingdom, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Demos, city councils, the Northern Ireland Executive, UN agencies and the TaxPayers’ Alliance, for example; from countries such as Bulgaria, Macedonia, Switzerland and other countries outside the European Union; and from the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee and the House of Lords EU Committee. We have had a wide range of contributions in relation to this first set of reports.

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that, as in the wording of her original reply to the noble Lord, Lord Spicer, the key word is “objectivity”? I declare an interest as the chair of a group that has submitted material to the balance of competences review. It was the need to achieve such objectivity that resulted in the extremely negative reaction that the first published documents of this exercise provoked, which has been echoed today by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. Will she stick to objectivity right the way through the exercise?

I accept the fact that there are strong feelings, passions and views on this subject on all sides of the argument. However, it is important that when the British people get an opportunity to decide—and I sincerely hope that noble Lords will support the Bill tomorrow to allow the people of Britain to have that say—it is done on the basis of objective evidence; on an analysis of where the EU helps and where it hinders, and what is the best deal for Britain.