My Lords, European parliamentary rules of procedure state that joint parliamentary committees can be created only with countries that have an association agreement with the EU or pre-accession member states. While the United Kingdom is a member of the European Union, the Government therefore have no plans to create an assembly. Parliament should continue to engage through existing channels. Once we have left the EU, it will be for Parliament to consider how it wishes to engage.
I am grateful for that Answer, and I am aware of the problem at the European Parliament end. I think that everyone agrees that, following Brexit, the EU and the UK will need a very close and strong relationship both politically and economically. In that respect, it would be very useful for everyone for the EU and UK Parliaments to have a close relationship—not dissimilar to the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which was set up with a grant of £1.5 million from the Treasury. That is a useful model. Do the Government support such an approach?
My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very important point. Who could but wish that after we leave the European Union, we are able to continue the strength of our relationship with our colleagues across Europe at not only governmental but parliamentary level? The noble Lord referred to the British-Irish assembly. The House may wish to know that that assembly and three other parliamentary groups—the CPA UK, the British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the British-American Parliamentary Group—are funded by a grant from the two Houses. The funding which had been provided by Her Majesty’s Government was transferred to Parliament some years ago, so it is clearly a matter for Parliament, and I think that a lot of voices here might beat a path to the door of the relevant authorities.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that although the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Soley, is quite legitimate, in a complex negotiation such as Brexit, involving 27 nation states and where all kinds of difficult compromises will have to be made, the less that the Government have to reveal in advance about their negotiating position, the better?
Absolutely right, my Lords, but in defence of the noble Lord, Lord Soley—although my goodness, he does not need me to defend him—it is a fact that the Government simply cannot under the rules of the European Parliament take any action on this specific matter. As for the generality of my noble friend’s comments: absolutely right.
My Lords, thoroughly disagreeing with the previous question, is not the European Parliament, however much mocked in this country, showing the mother of Parliaments just what parliamentary control looks like in the modern era? Its ability to veto the Brexit deal means that the other institutions have to front-load information to the Parliament, so there have been seven position papers, as against one from our Government. Unfortunately, parliamentary scrutiny in the Westminster Parliament is still rather unstructured, despite many promises. We have things to learn from the European Parliament.
My Lords, it is recognised by countries around the world where I have visited as a Minister in the Foreign Office that other Parliaments have much to learn from the strength of scrutiny in this House and another place, and indeed, through our Select Committees, as well as the way in which the Chambers work. With regard to scrutiny of papers, I believe that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made it clear to the European Union Select Committee yesterday that further position papers are expected shortly.
My Lords, I am going to speak from a non-party point of view. Will the Government consider bringing together the existing assemblies of the Council of Europe and the OSCE with the kind of assembly that the noble Lord, Lord Soley, proposes? Would this not enable much better consideration of issues affecting the whole of Europe?
My Lords, the latter point about matters affecting the wider geographical range of Europe is an interesting one. It is not for the Government to intervene with regard to rolling up existing parliamentary bodies. We have colleagues across the House who have made a great impact in the parliamentary assemblies of both the Council of Europe and the OSCE, particularly recently. I commend those who attended because they stuck the course, whereas some representatives from other countries left a wee bit early.
My Lords, I was in Rome, as it happened—where I was introduced to tiramisu—when there was a “parliament of parliaments”: a gathering of the European Parliament with representatives of the then 15 member states during the process of the intergovernmental conferences. Parliamentarians at that stage were about to vote on what was emerging from those conferences. We now face similar complicated intergovernmental negotiations in which, in due course, as the noble Baroness says, both we and the European Parliament will vote on ratification. Although I appreciate that it is not a governmental issue, could the Minister use her best efforts with some of her friends to see whether there is a way of facilitating early discussions which would be helpful later in the process when both they and we come to vote?
My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an extremely valid point: that better exchange of information leads to better understanding in negotiations. That is why, as Ministers, we have not only engaged thoroughly with our counterparts around the European Union but encouraged Select Committee visits. I know that those visits have been thorough, and if they have been to the European Parliament, they have been supported by the secretariat and the European Parliament. The worst thing is for newspaper articles to appear giving misleading information, not necessarily intentionally but just because we have not had the opportunity to discuss with colleagues the real issues.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree, on the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Soley, that most of us can recognise what the Americans call a boondoggle when we see one? Secondly, would she be so kind as to instruct the Liberal Benches that this Parliament in this country can dismiss the Executive? Can the European Parliament dismiss the Executive?
My Lords, I find it very interesting that when I have travelled around the world as a Minister I have met Ministers who have never appeared in Parliament and never had to answer questions in Parliament. For me, it is a vital part of parliamentary accountability. But there are also occasions, I know as a Member of Parliament, when as a Minister you could get your finger caught in the nut and the screw.