Skip to main content

European Union Committee

Volume 762: debated on Monday 8 June 2015

Membership Motion

Moved by

That a Select Committee be appointed:

(1) To consider European Union documents deposited in the House by a Minister, and other matters relating to the European Union; The expression “European Union document” includes in particular:

(a) a document submitted by an institution of the European Union to another institution and put by either into the public domain;

(b) a draft legislative act or a proposal for amendment of such an act; and

(c) a draft decision relating to the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union under Title V of the Treaty on European Union;

The Committee may waive the requirement to deposit a document, or class of documents, by agreement with the European Scrutiny Committee of the House of Commons;

(2) To assist the House in relation to the procedure for the submission of Reasoned Opinions under Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union and the Protocol on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality;

(3) To represent the House as appropriate in interparliamentary cooperation within the European Union; That, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following members be appointed to the Committee:

B Armstrong of Hill Top, L Blair of Boughton, L Borwick, L Boswell of Aynho (Chairman), E Caithness, B Falkner of Margravine, L Green of Hurstpierpoint, L Jay of Ewelme, B Kennedy of The Shaws, L Liddle, L Mawson, B Prashar, B Scott of Needham Market, B Suttie, L Trees, L Tugendhat, L Whitty, B Wilcox;

That the Committee have power to appoint sub-committees and to refer to them any matters within its terms of reference;

That the Committee have power to appoint the Chairmen of sub-committees, but that the sub-committees have power to appoint their own Chairmen for the purpose of particular inquiries; that the quorum of each sub-committee be two;

That the Committee have power to co-opt any member to serve on a sub-committee;

That the Committee and its sub-committees have power to send for persons, papers and records;

That the Committee have power to appoint specialist advisers;

That the Committee and its sub-committees have power to adjourn from place to place;

That the Committee have leave to report from time to time;

That the reports of the Committee be printed, regardless of any adjournment of the House;

That the evidence taken by the Committee or its sub-committees in the last session of Parliament be referred to the Committee or its sub-committees;

That the evidence taken by the Committee or its sub-committee be published, if the Committee so wishes.

My Lords, I beg to move the seventh Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Manuscript Amendment to the Motion

Moved by

Leave out the sections relating to the membership of the Committee, and the power to appoint sub-committees and refer to them any matters within its terms of reference, and insert: “That the Committee have power to appoint up to two sub-committees, one of which shall deal with European Union constitutional affairs and one of which shall deal with European Union economic matters; that the membership of the Committee and its sub-committees be balanced between members who favour the United Kingdom leaving the European Union and those who favour staying in it;”.

Noble Lords appear to be aware that in recent years I have regularly raised the balance, effectiveness and number of our European Union Select Committees before we agreed their appointment. For students of this important but perhaps refined subject, I last raised it on 16 May 2013 at col. 544 and on 12 June 2014 at col. 528.

As to balance, this proposed new committee appears to be just as Europhile as its predecessors. I do not pretend to know all their views, but of its 16 members I can detect only three who I would describe as mildly Eurosceptic and six who are among the most ardent Europhiles in your Lordships’ House. This is more important than usual in a year when we are approaching an EU referendum. Your Lordships’ other Select Committee reports are widely respected, and if our EU reports suffer from a Europhile slant, that will not be helpful to any fair outcome. I want to put the public on alert now, and I hope that I do not have to come back to this point too often in future.

I admit that the second part of my amendment, that our committees should be balanced between those who want to leave the EU and those who want to stay in, will not be easy to achieve. I put it down to underline what a Europhile place your Lordships’ House is when compared to public sentiment on this matter. In fact I can think of only perhaps a dozen of your Lordships who would be prepared to say publicly that we should leave the European Union whatever the outcome of the current negotiations. However, we should at least try to make our committees as balanced as we can, and at the moment we do not.

Our committees are there to hold the Government to account on the legislation that emerges from Brussels—that is what I am constantly told by noble Lords who favour the present arrangements. However, the trouble remains that that is all that these committees can do: they can only scrutinise, and the Government regularly ignore their findings.

I remind your Lordships of the scrutiny reserve, whereby successive Governments have promised not to sign up to any piece of legislation in Brussels if it is still being scrutinised by the Select Committee of either House of Parliament. Yet since July 2010, the Government have broken that promise 303 times in the Commons and 266 times in your Lordships’ House. Some 238 of those overrides were on measures being considered by both Houses. Each override means that a new EU law is being forced upon us without the consent of Parliament, because the EU juggernaut rolls on regardless. I hope the respected chairman of our EU Select Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, will not mind if I remind your Lordships of his disappointed interventions on that subject on 4 December 2014 at col. 1400 and on 17 December 2014 at col. 95. I do not know if he can reassure us now that, as a result, the scrutiny reserve is no longer broken.

I fear that our EU Select Committees do not and cannot hold the Government to account in Brussels. Since 1996, up to last year, the Government themselves have objected to and forced to a vote in the Council of Ministers 55 new measures, and they lost the vote on every single one of them. I add that the situation is just as depressing in that democratic fig-leaf, the European Parliament. Of its 1,936 most-recent Motions, a majority of all UK MEPs voted against 576 of them, but 485 still passed—a failure rate of some 84%. So it does not seem that our Select Committee reports carry much weight there either. None of that should surprise us. The big idea behind the EU has always been that member states should be diminished in favour of the unelected bureaucracy, under the pretence that that would maintain peace in Europe, which was of course, in fact, always sustained by NATO, not Brussels—but that is still at the root of our powerlessness in the EU.

Finally, my amendment would reduce our EU committees from seven to three, freeing up four committees for other work. It is those other committees that are so widely and rightly respected by the public, and which we as a House are uniquely qualified to deliver, yet we are only being allowed three new ad hoc committees and have turned down requests from noble Lords for no fewer than 42. I refer your Lordships to HL Paper 127 from our Liaison Committee, which details all those 42 committees which we will now not have. I understand that we may be making progress on a committee on foreign affairs, which would be a step forward. However, noble Lords’ suggestions from within 21 other areas of our national life are not being adhered to—the House will not be given those committees and the British public will not have your Lordships’ wisdom upon them. I therefore propose that we have four fewer, somewhat pointless EU committees, and four more to draw on the vast array of your Lordships’ knowledge and experience. I beg to move.

My Lords, I do not think that we should let the noble Lord get away with a caricature of the committee and its operation. I had the privilege of serving on the committee for the last three years and I found it very interesting. I also found it very interesting that, although Members who are not on the committee are entitled to attend, at no time did the noble Lord come along to sit in. In fact, not only can Members attend but they can ask questions. However, as I said, at no time did he take the opportunity to come. If he had done so, he would have found his caricature of the committee to be entirely wrong. Some of the people who I believed to be critical of the European Union were in fact very positive members of the committee and its sub-committees. I do not like to single out people but the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, who has a reputation for being very critical and might have us out of the European Union, was a very positive member of the committee.

We had regular sessions with the Minister for Europe, who incidentally did an extremely good job and answered our questions very well, but we put him under particular scrutiny. He came after European Council meetings, although we thought that it would have been better for him to appear before attending those meetings so that we could tell him what we thought this Parliament felt and he could represent those interests and our views at the meetings. It is interesting that the people who suggested that—I was one of them—are perceived to be more in favour of the European Union, but we wanted there to be more criticism.

I also wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, has read any of our reports. Many, if not all, contain substantial criticisms of the UK Government and the European Union, and they make suggestions again and again about the way in which the European Union should improve. The suggestion that before people are appointed to a committee we should work out whether they are in favour of or against the European Union is, in my view, manifestly unfair and total nonsense. We would have a Star Chamber that you would have to appear before, saying whether you are in favour of or against the European Union. As we know, there is a whole range of views on the European Union in this Chamber, as there is elsewhere.

I think that what we have heard from the noble Lord is complete nonsense and I hope that it will be thrown out comprehensively.

My Lords, I, too, want to speak against the acceptance of this amendment. Every year we hear from the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, his objections to the European Union Committee and every year he makes it quite clear that he does not understand how it works. He talks about the reputation of other Select Committees. Having been a member of the European Union Select Committee but being no longer a member and not proposed to be a member, I have to say to the noble Lord that the reputation of this committee is such that it is widely respected across the whole of the European Union in other member states and other member parliaments. He clearly does not appreciate the amount of work that is done, and the suggestion that the sub-committees could be reduced from the current six to the number that he proposes is manifestly ridiculous, given the amount of scrutiny work that has to be done on all the draft legislation that comes from the European Union.

The committee has two roles: one is to scrutinise the European Union and the second is to hold the Government to account. I remind your Lordships that the existing structure already provides for a sub-committee to deal with economic matters and that there is already a sub-committee dealing with institutional and constitutional matters, as well as the Select Committee itself. As for endeavouring to divide your Lordships’ House on making an early judgment as to whether somebody is in favour of or against the European Union or a particular measure, it is clear that that proposal is absolutely unworkable.

We have a reputation for producing objective reports, which, as I said, are referred to across the European Union. To throw to the winds one of the most valuable institutions and pieces of work that your Lordships’ House is engaged in would be positively unfortunate to say the least, and I hope that the House will reject this amendment.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, on once again drawing attention to the overrepresentation of people who are very much in favour of our membership of Europe on the European Union Committee, to the detriment of those who believe otherwise.

I thought, in fact, that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, was very restrained. He did not take the opportunity to point out that, at the last election, 3.9 million people, by voting for UKIP, voted against our membership of the European Union. They voted for UKIP, I imagine, because UKIP was the only party putting forward the proposal that we should withdraw from the European Union. Those 3.9 million people obviously voted to support that proposition. If they did not, what on earth else were they doing? The Labour Party is in favour of our membership of Europe. The Conservative Party is in favour of our membership of Europe. The Liberal party is in favour of our membership of Europe.

They say, “Hear, hear”, so they are confirming what I am saying.

All the other political parties that it was possible to vote for were in favour of remaining in Europe; UKIP was the only one saying that we should come out. Therefore, whatever objections noble Lords may have to my saying it, it is reasonable that one would expect that people who voted UKIP wish to come out of the EU. Indeed, there are many people—including people belonging to the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and even some in the Liberal party—who would vote to come out.

As I said, the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, was very measured. He did not take the opportunity to point out that, in this House, there is now a grave discrepancy of UKIP noble Lords. On the basis of the 3.9 million votes cast for UKIP, it would be entitled to 80 seats in this House. In fact, it has none, except for those who have left other parties to take on the UKIP cause. It is quite true that UKIP has only one Member in the House of Commons, but it is entitled to much better representation in this House—let us bear in mind that the Liberal Democrats, with only 2.9 million votes, have only eight Members in the House of Commons and 101 Members in this House. I think that the House needs a little balancing. I hope that the Prime Minister will take that into account when making further nominations to this House.

I served for a brief and happy time on Sub-Committee B of the European Union Committee, and we are talking about doing away with it. Under the skilful chairmanship of my noble friend Lady O’Cathain, we objected in strenuous terms to a number of regulations that were sent from Europe on the understanding that, if a stated number of other countries did the same, the Commission would have to think again. If that were exceeded, the Commission would have to lay a new order.

I dare say that my question will put into context the efficacy of these committees. On how many occasions have similar objections actually been acted on by the Government and received a change of policy from the European Council?

My Lords, I had the privilege of sitting on the EU Economic and Financial Affairs Sub-Committee for four years. All the members got on extremely well and produced some very good papers. But there was quite a strong underlying Europhile bias to it, excellently chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, though it was. To completely neglect the point that has been raised is wrong, but I would also say that from my experience there was a fairly open discussion, even if people’s starting points were predominantly on one side.

My Lords, as we have seen over recent weeks, there are few certainties in politics, so it is reassuring to know that one continues to exist: the annual criticism by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, of the establishment and composition of the EU Select Committee and its sub- committees. I will deal with the points that he raised.

The House considered the number and scope of the EU Committee and its various sub-committees in a debate on a Liaison Committee report on 26 March 2012. The noble Lord may wish to write to the Liaison Committee—I offer him this invitation—if he is really serious about making substantive proposals on how the EU Select Committee should address the various issues that it has to consider. I say “substantive proposals” rather than just flag waving and cheering from the side from time to time.

However, in the context of reducing the number of sub-committees, I believe that this House greatly benefits from the various sub-committees and the expertise that they bring to bear on a wide range of issues, including home affairs, justice, agriculture, fisheries and business. A decision to reduce the capacity to scrutinise the whole range of EU draft legislation, certainly coming from an acknowledged critic of the EU, seems to be utterly perverse. I fail to understand the logic in the noble Lord’s argument. The point about composition, the Star Chamber and having to swear before you get on to a committee that you are in favour of or against continued British membership of the EU, is utterly wrong and nonsense, and I am sure that the House agrees. The point is that we make nominations to Select Committees based on the views taken by individual parties on the worth of individual Members of this House. That is the way it should remain.

On the issue about the future of Sub-Committee B, I am at a loss. I have not the slightest knowledge—and I do not think that it is true although I will check—of any attempt to abolish Sub-Committee B. It does important work. A recent report, Women on Boards, received strong and supportive comments, not just in this country but elsewhere. The sub-committee will, I am sure, continue with its good work. The noble Lord asked for a list of examples of how recommendations from our EU Select Committee and its various sub-committees have affected policy. I can think of some, and I will write to the noble Lord with a fuller list. However, I can certainly remember from my experience that the basic reform of the common fisheries policy was led by a sub-committee of the EU Committee of this House. I, of course, happened to be the chair of that sub-committee.

My Lords, on the last point made by the Chairman of Committees, I understand that in fact the change to the common fisheries policy came from a television series by Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall that was very hard-hitting.

I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken, and in particular to the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Bowness. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that if these EU committees are critical of things that are going on in the EU, it does not seem to make any difference. I do have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, that from 1992 to 1996 I did in fact serve on your Lordships’ European Union Select Committee and I even employed a young man who is now an eminent Member of the other place to wade through the papers for me so that when I went to the committee meetings I could see the bits that had been outlined in yellow and concentrate on them. Over the whole of the four or five years that I served on the Select Committee, I have to say that I did not see through it—I did not see that it was a waste of time—and I regret that.

As to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, I can answer that by saying that virtually no yellow card has made any difference whatever, and of course it will not. As to the red card, it really will not be much use unless we are able to repeal legislation that has already gone through instead of just looking at new legislation as it comes gushing forth.

I have to repeat that since 1996 some 55 votes have been forced in the Council of Ministers by the United Kingdom Government and they have lost every one of them. That is quite a telling point and casts doubt on the position not only of our Select Committees but of the Government themselves. I am disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, did not contribute to the debate because I was hoping that he could reassure your Lordships that the scrutiny reserve is now occasionally respected by the Government—

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. I would invite him to exercise a degree of patience for a week or two, when once again we will be presenting the annual report of my committee—and, by inference, that of its sub-committees—for the attention of the House. He will then, as he has in the past, have the opportunity to debate the report. I hope very much that on this occasion he will engage with it.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his most helpful contribution and I look forward to the result.

Of course I am not going to press this to a vote. All I can say is that I hope that our debate has done something to rectify the situation for the next Session of Parliament. Again, I am most grateful to noble Lords who have spoken and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.

Motion agreed.