Official Report (Hansard)
Date: Tuesday, 28 April 2009
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Tom Elliott
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Michael Connarty ) House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee
The Deputy Chairperson (Mrs Long):
Lord Roper, Chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union, is unable to attend today’s meeting but has forwarded formal evidence papers to the Committee, which are tabled for members’ information.
I welcome Michael Connarty to the Committee. Michael, I suggest that you start by giving a short presentation to the Committee, after which members will be free to ask questions.
Mr Michael Connarty (House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee):
I am very aware that the European Scrutiny Committee of the House of Commons represents a sovereign Parliament, and its role is slightly different from the role of Committees in any of the devolved institutions, whether those are Assemblies or Parliaments. The role that we perform is probably much more intense, in the sense that many of the Committees of the devolved Assemblies or the devolved Parliament focus on a consultation process that is undertaken by Government Departments, rather than holding a Government Department or Minister directly to account in the UK sovereign Parliament, as is the case for us.
I have provided to the Committee copies of the document that explains the procedures of the European Scrutiny Committee. The main tool that gives strength to the scrutiny process in the UK Parliament is the scrutiny reserve. That is a process whereby a Minister cannot agree a policy in a meeting of the European Council until we have lifted that reserve.
Our reserve is based on a decision being made by the Committee that all the relevant information necessary for the Parliament and other stakeholders has been made available and has been completed to our satisfaction. That could be done in a good explanatory memorandum that gives the Commission’s proposal, the Department’s position on that proposal, and advice from our Committee Clerk, as amended by the Committee, regarding our judgement on whether that information is adequate for the Parliament to allow the Minister to make a decision, either for or against supporting that proposal in the Council.
We can do that by writing to the Minister if we are not happy after we have held the scrutiny reserve, which means that the proposal is not cleared, to use our terminology. Alternatively, we can raise it with the Minister in an evidence session and interrogate him or her in some detail. We can also decide to send the proposal to one of our three Committees — they used to be called Standing Committees, but are now called European Committees — that have the right to question the Minister and debate the issue for up to two and a half hours. Any Members of Parliament can attend those Committee meetings, be involved in the questioning session and make speeches, but they cannot vote on the decision on whether the Minister’s position should be approved.
When we are dealing with a very important issue, it is referred for a debate on the Floor of the House. For example, we recently had a debate about the European proposal to deal with the financial crisis, which came from the Council on 6 December 2008. Every year, we have debates on the audited accounts of the European Union and we have a debate on either the annual policy strategy document or the work programme — whichever we decide is the more important in that year.
Our Committee regularly refers issues for debate on the Floor of the House. Sometimes, such referrals are for what might be called crisis debates, which are about issues of very strong importance. Those are the ways in which we try to elicit from the Government all the information that we require to assure us that all the points of contradiction and concern are in the public domain.
It is not our Committee’s job to make policy; that is done by the sovereign Parliament, either through voting on resolutions in the Standing Committees or when proposals come back to the UK Parliament to be transcribed into legislation. Our job is to ensure that adequate information is available and that any contradictions are interrogated and opened up for scrutiny by the Parliament.
The Deputy Chairperson:
Thank you. You mentioned that your Committee scrutinises the work of the Ministers of the sovereign Parliament, but that it does not deal regularly with devolved matters. Some of the targets that are set by the European Parliament through directives, for example, are on devolved matters. How does your Committee take account of instances when the devolved legislatures have their own perspectives on particular issues or their own responsibilities to deliver against certain targets to ensure that the UK complies with European directives? How has that affected the work of your Committee?
We have refined our response. I have been a member of the Committee since 1998; therefore, I have been on it since before the devolved legislatures were set up and operating. As a result of constant pressure on, correspondence with, and criticism of Departments, we now ensure that the devolved legislatures are consulted regarding all the matters for which they have a responsibility to implement legislation or to legislate on.
We receive a report every week on all issues that come before us. Such issues can be of political and legal importance or, if they are not, they will simply be noted as a heading, with the papers being placed on file. The devolved legislatures now have their own column in the reports, and that will say either “consulted” or “not applicable”. Therefore, Departments have to ensure that the legislatures have been consulted.
The interesting fact about that process is that regardless of who is running the Administration, we never get told what was said during those consultations; we simply get told that the consultation has taken place. That was the case with the Scottish Parliament when the Labour Party was in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and it is now the case with the Scottish National Party.
We have said, particularly to Members of the Scottish Parliament, that if they want to know what their Ministers said, they must ask them. The Ministers now say that though they are from a different party, they cannot reveal what was said because although there is a protocol to ensure that they are consulted, there is also a protocol that neither the UK Department or Minister nor the Scottish Department or Minister will reveal what was said in the consultation process; they will say only that they were consulted. That stance has been incorporated into a UK position that applies also when they go to the Council.
You are very welcome, Michael. Thank you for your presentation. I want to find out how the UK Parliament can be of assistance to us, because I do not feel that a small, regional Assembly such as this one has the resources and capabilities to deal with issues in the way that your Committee does. I am looking for your assistance and advice on how you can help us, how we can feed into your processes, or how you can keep us better informed of what you are doing. Is there any way that you can help us to set up a two-way process that would streamline what we in the Assembly have to do?
I would love to reach out and build a bridge between our resources and yours. However, I refer you to the document that was produced by the Welsh Assembly about the question of subsidiarity, which concluded that it was not the responsibility of the UK Parliament to be its conduit on any issues. That Assembly concluded that it had to be self-sustaining.
We do not see ourselves as being a parliamentary consultative body that absorbs information for other bodies. I would love to say that we could be, but I do not think that we could resource that. Our Committee has quite a substantial staff, but their time is more than fully taken up with the work that that Committee generates. The reality of devolution is that the information that is available — much of which is on the Internet — must be accessed. If the issue of Europe is taken seriously, it must be resourced and a mechanism must be set up that allows issues to be responded to. Information is available very quickly through the IPEX system, and it must then be decided whether to give that information priority so that something is done with it.
I do not think that it would be possible, in relation to resources, for us to absorb all the views of other Committees or to become the supplier of what we thought was relevant information to the devolved legislatures. I would love to be able to build a great intranet of parliamentarians in the United Kingdom, but I do not think that that is possible.
I was not trying to say that the UK Parliament has to tell us everything or do everything for us; my hope is that it would, at least, tell us specifically what it is considering. My problem is that the UK is the member state that deals with Europe, rather than us as a regional Assembly doing that. We have some powers, but they are very restricted. The UK is the member state, so my expectation is that its Parliament would, at least, give us a heads up on what it may be finding —
The Deputy Chairperson:
Do you mean in relation to priorities, and so on?
Yes; in relation to priorities.
It does that anyway. If something relates to a devolved matter, the relevant UK Department is charged with consulting with all of the devolved legislatures. The UK Departments have to do that — it is part of the agreed process.
From a parliamentary point of view, one could very quickly find out from our weekly remit which matters were being labelled as “consulted” or “not applicable”. That would allow the devolved legislatures to quite considerably narrow down how much information is relevant to them. That option is available.
I do not know whether that information can be transmitted by our Committee Clerks to yours, or whether it is a matter of your Committee Clerks seeking out that information. That matter would have to be discussed with our Committee Clerks, and they would assess it on a resource basis. However, we, as a Committee, are always pressing for more evidence, are conducting more inquiries and referring more issues for debate. There is always a pressure from the Committee. Just as they did last week, our Committee Clerks have to explain again and again that they do not have the resources to take on yet another remit.
We try to send matters on to our Select Committees based on the Department or issue involved, rather than taking them on board ourselves. Our members would like us to take on certain extra issues, but we are not supplied with enough staff to do so. The Northern Ireland Assembly needs a system that involves its Committee Clerks. If you prioritise Europe, you must resource it at Government and parliamentary level. Perhaps I will say something later about that.
To follow on from Tom Elliott’s question, it emerged from our visit to Westminster that the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels is contacted, but not necessarily the Assembly, and this Committee must follow up on that.
What advice can you give our Committee about putting in place appropriate systems that would help it to see what issues are coming down the line from Europe? There is no point in our dealing with directives that affect us today; we need to consider directives that will affect us in five years’ time. Are there any particular approaches that the Committee could take to enable it to have an input at the appropriate time, rather than after legislation has been passed?
I made notes on areas that I thought I might be asked about, and I return to the point that I made about prioritising Europe. If the Assembly were to make Europe a priority — as I believe it should — that would probably mean that it would need to identify one person as having responsibility for communicating European issues. That person could, for example, be the European rapporteur for your Committee. I do not want make a suggestion about what structures should be put in place because you know your limitations on numbers and resources; however, Europe must be someone’s raison d’être.
My life revolves around being the Chairperson of the European Scrutiny Committee. I do not scrutinise Bills or sit on any other Select Committees. I read every single document that comes from the European Union. One year, that amounted to 1,600 documents, but this year, thank goodness, there have been only 900. However, that is still a heavy workload, and someone must take on that responsibility, which means asking the Assembly for the backup to enable them to do so.
The House of Lords has many subcommittees. As part of the strange structure in the Lords, there is one salaried person who has the responsibility of being Chairperson of the European Union scrutiny Committee. That job is deemed so important that a paid official is appointed by the House of Lords to do it, and that person also becomes a Deputy Speaker of the House, although he or she never sits on the Woolsack.
It is always assumed that the Chairperson of a Select Committee will make that role their priority. My position as Chairperson takes up about half of my week; from about 6.00 pm on a Monday night until the Committee meeting is over at 4.00 pm on a Wednesday, my focus is on European matters. I have a large staff to support me, probably much larger than could be provided by a devolved Assembly or Parliament, but it is important that you have at least some specific focus on Europe.
In relation to Tom’s question, the process of sifting must be a priority. Someone has to sift through the documents to determine the key issues that are relevant to your Administration’s responsibilities. That person must then ensure that those issues are considered, given a high enough priority, and are taken forward and extrapolated. There should be some forward visioning about where, if your Administration chooses to follow the line coming from Europe, that will take you. That probably presents a greater difficulty for a smaller devolved Assembly or Parliament than for the UK Parliament, but, at the end of the day, it is important.
In my Committee, we always say that there will never be another fridge mountain. If you recall, the fridge mountain problem was caused because all of the foam in fridges had to be removed. The issue came to the European Scrutiny Committee, having seemed to have passed through the Department of Trade and Industry and the Environment Committee in the blink of an eye. Ultimately, it cost the UK £40 million to export fridges to be decontaminated. If no other Committee will do it, we will ensure that no fridge mountains pass through the European Scrutiny Committee.
You do not want that size of omission in any area for which you have devolved responsibility, nor do you want to miss an opportunity to do something very positive simply because you have not provided enough resources to deal with European issues. It is up to the devolved legislatures to take that message seriously and to fight for the resources that they require to do their jobs.
How might this regional Assembly make best use of our three MEPs to maximise our influence in the European Union?
Members of the European Parliament can become isolated — they go native. Sometimes, they go to the European Parliament and become European parliamentarians. It becomes very difficult for them to maintain a relationship with the region that they are representing. We have often said in our Committee that the loss of constituency-based MEPs in the UK was a disaster and has completely marginalised people, who have come to feel that they do not know their European representatives. In Scotland, for example, people do not feel that they know any of the seven — soon to be six — MEPs, nor do they know which of the MEPs represent them, because they are not constituency based. We went over to the European system to the great detriment of democracy.
People who are involved in European politics have to understand the processes that are involved, such as the system of first readings that is coming, which will be the normal method of legislation if the Lisbon Treaty is passed. Legislation will be passed by the Council and co-decision making will be done in the European Parliament. Many decisions will be made in negotiation between the Committee of the European Parliament and the Council. Your MEPs will be vital to that because they are the people who are conscious of the Assembly’s agenda and of the needs of your area of the UK. They will argue in the first reading committee for compromises or amendments that will be to the advantage of Northern Ireland citizens. Therefore, the Assembly should help them to retain a focus as being representatives of Northern Ireland.
The tendency in Europe is for MEPs to see themselves as members of party groups — for example, as ALDE members, PSE members, or European People’s Party members — and take that perspective when they sit in the European Parliament. You will have to keep your MEPs together. I am not sure that anyone has thought about that; it occurred to me when I was reflecting on what questions the Committee might ask. You must give them support or, to use a modern phrase, big them up.
You must make your MEPs realise that they are important. They are the three people who can influence the normal method of legislation in Europe to the advantage of the people of Northern Ireland. However, they will have to work together. If they fragment and see themselves as party voices in Europe, they will lose that perspective. You will have to work very closely with them.
When our Minister for Europe was a former MEP, we suggested that we should have grand committee debates and invite the European parliamentarians. The German Parliament invites its MEPs to its chamber to debate European issues. Sadly, we did not adopt such an approach; however, we try to keep in contact with MEPs. For example, we go across to tripartite meetings, and they come to tripartite meetings in the Lords and the Commons. The Assembly must keep your MEPs focused on their role as European parliamentary representatives of Northern Ireland and make a big thing of their importance. They are important, and they will be more so when the Lisbon Treaty is passed.
Mrs D Kelly:
My question follows from the last. It is important to encourage a greater understanding of, and greater engagement with, the EU in the community and among citizens. The referendum on the Lisbon Treaty at least kicked off that debate in the Republic of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, in the midst of the gloom and doom of economic recession, many people are inward looking. How do we maximise the potential of Europe and raise awareness of it among our citizens?
Some people have tried other models, such as creating a grand forum where people come together. There may be an argument for doing that. If people can genuinely see the synergy between their interests and those of their elected representatives and Government, that can be very beneficial and can create a stronger unity of purpose. It would be very good if that purpose could be decided on and if the communities could decide what they want to make a priority and put aside their internal conflicts and difficulties, rather than presenting them every time and thus dividing their focus. That would allow the possibility of having an overarching European grouping.
I have not seen that done very well anywhere. There is a European movement in the UK, but there is quite a lot of conflict around the matter of Europe and people have not come together with a unity of purpose in the way that pro-Europeans — Europhiles — would like.
Is that because a lot of UK citizens do not feel that they are Europeans?
That is the great difficulty that we face. There is a history of substantial media ownership being held by a disgruntled former Commonwealth — and now American — citizen who has taken a completely anti-European stance in that media for a long time. That stance has taken quite a hold.
Furthermore, there has been a substantial investment by people in other organisations who have anti-European views and are determined to only play up the negatives. Other organisations are clearly unhappy with EU immigration and employment policies and open entry for workers from the A8 countries has reinforced that stance. One of the problems that we face is that a lot of negative forces have come out in opposition to Europe.
The overarching position of organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry and other business organisations is very pro-Europe. However, those organisations also have gripes about there being too much EU legislation and regulation, and that splits up the consensus.
If you cannot create an overarching grouping in Northern Ireland with a European agenda that everyone can sign up to, you must ensure that there is complete and open debate on European issues. It is just as attractive to have a situation whereby people are informed, believe that they have a voice, are able to make their voice known through a recognised process and know to whom they should express their views. We in the European Committees have a problem in that respect at the moment, because there is no fixed membership and people do not know whom they should lobby.
The important thing is that people know that, even if their views are different from the view of the Government, they are respected. You must communicate to them that, although you do not promise to take all of their views on board to create a blancmange of thoughts, you will definitely try to operate in a manner that respects those views. It is only possible to make a clear statement of where you stand once you have absorbed people’s views. At the moment, people feel that they do not know enough, do not get to say enough and are not told that their perspective on Europe is valued. That is true at the UK-wide level and, in my experience, in the others parts, regions and countries of the UK.
The Deputy Chairperson:
You mentioned that a lot of people get their information on issues such as Europe through the media, which often has its own perspective. Is the UK Government doing anything to enhance and promote awareness of the European Union, including issues such as its impact on citizens and how people can interact with it? Regardless of what people’s perspectives are of Europe and what our involvement is, the fact is that awareness of Europe and the influence that it has are matters that sovereign Governments should take forward.
Given the importance of Europe to the UK, both economically and socially, it is amazing how little we have done to make people understand what Europe is about. There has been a tremendous amount of European legislation that we either led on or have taken account of by amending some of our existing legislation; we are great at gold-plating to take on every nuance of the EU’s view of social policy. It is amazing how little we have done to make people understand what Europe is about.
Recently, I have been involved with the Scottish European Educational Trust, which is a very marginally funded voluntary organisation that runs various EU-related events including competitions in primary schools, debates in secondary schools, and very serious debates in universities. The trust would love to do activities throughout society but it does not have the resources to do so. I have tried to find out why it is so badly funded. There was a concept of encouraging communication across Europe and there was supposed to be a European office in every part of the UK, but I cannot find any evidence of that being done.
It is as if we are afraid, as a Government, to be proselytising. When members of my Committee discussed the communication documents, the counterargument was that we did not want to have one-way communication about the benefits of Europe. We wanted to have a debate, so that they could have the right, or Open Europe could have the right, to debate. We were assured that money would be available for a debate, rather than just a one-way transmission of information from the EU, but I have not found that to be available.
There is a great information office. We used to say that if you write to the Chinese Embassy, they will never stop sending material. The information office in the EU Parliament is similar, but it is all about how Europe works. In a sense, it seems to operate on the basis of requests.
I do not see any change in the ordinary citizens’ or schoolchildren’s understanding and knowledge of the Europe that they are in. Europe is another country to lots of people, and we have to do a lot more. The Government are seen by Europe as being quite resistant to change. We have that Anglo-Saxon approach to Europe, which is that we are part of it, but we are not going to change at all; Europe is over there and we are over here. Therefore, we need to do a lot more as a Government. I am disappointed, and I have to say that I have no great praise for UK Governments of any party, including that of the past 10 years, in going on the front foot and at least giving people the facts about what Europe is about, how it operates and what it does for, or to, the citizen, and if it constrains the citizen in ways that can be justified. Therefore, I would like to see more debate on European issues generated by the UK Government, but we seem to be slightly distant from the reality of being full European citizens.
Many Governments have hidden behind Europe. They will never say that they were involved in drafting European legislation; they will always say that they get diktats from Europe, which blames Europe.
The European Scrutiny Committee publishes a weekly European report. What criteria do you use to decide what documents are legally or politically important?
The document that I have given you is quite clear about the criteria used to decide what documents are legally or politically important. We have summarised them, obviously. Something that is politically important might be signified by whether, if the proposals were enacted, there would be any significant impact, including financially, on the UK, and/or whether the document raises controversial issues on which there are serious differences of opinion in the House and in the country. That would be something of political importance. I gave the example of the fridge mountain, where we did not spot that there was a serious financial interest, and the Committees of the House did not spot that either.
Legal importance might be signified by any suggestion of misuse of the powers that are given under the European treaties; whether the proposal appears to go beyond the competence of the European community or the European Union or offends against the principle of subsidiarity — in other words, it does something at EU level that could be better done at local level; whether the legal base appears doubtful, and we have had lots of debates about legal bases; whether the decision of the Commission to try to do something is outwith the competence that it has, under legal powers, for example, to represent all the countries of the EU on a particular body, and whether that gives them the power to make policy in that area. In some respects, we argue that they have the right to sit on bodies, but they cannot make legislation in relation to the body on which they sit.
Article 308 is overarching. If the treaties have not provided the necessary powers, article 308 can be used. We have gone to the European Court, and we have gone to the European Commission, to analyse why they think that article 308 can be used to expand their competences. When they try to use article 308, we challenge them, because it also has another attachment. If it is used, it is a codecision procedure, and the European Court of Justice then judges whether the legislation has been breached. We are not happy with that, because it takes the judgement of what is competent, and who is right, out of the UK courts and into the European courts.
We will also challenge a proposal if it is ambiguous or its effects are uncertain, or if it might import a new concept into our legal system from another European system that has been favoured by the Commission and that would change the basis of our laws.
Those are the two major reasons why we would consider a matter to be what we call an “A brief” — a matter on which we will report to the House and interrogate Ministers.
What happens to matters that are not dealt with by the Committee and are set aside?
We refer to those as “B briefs”, which are not legally or politically important enough to require a report to the House. They are listed in our weekly report, but they are not reported on in detail. The weekly report simply lists any documents that are considered to be not important. However, if anyone wants to follow up on them, it is not as if they disappear; they are just not recorded in a separate chapter in our report. Last year, we reported on nearly 900 A briefs, and, in the heaviest year, there were 1,600.
The Deputy Chairperson:
At what stage of the EU’s development of those proposals do you consider the documents?
Most documents are considered several times, not always at one particular point. Scrutiny begins at an early stage. Every document is scrutinised, including the Commission’s consultation documents. Therefore, Green Papers and White Papers, as well as the Commission’s annual policy and strategy document and work programme, are put down for our consideration. We examine every document as it goes to the Council for the first time. When a document comes from the Commission, we respond to it, apart from, for example, prior consultation documents.
Every proposal that might lead to legislation — whether that is a directive or a regulation — is put forward for consideration, along with the Commission’s proposal and the relevant Department’s response — Departments have a specified time in which to respond — and our advisers then analyse those documents and advise on any contradictions or matters that we should examine.
Sometimes, we report on uncontroversial matters. For example, we recently decided to report on the progress of the latest changes to the common agricultural policy, because it is of interest to a large number of people. We have also decided to do something about the European telecommunications strategy. It does not contain anything controversial, so it will not go for debate and we will not have to interrogate Ministers, but it is important enough, if not for Parliament, for large sections of the business and civil population to see. Therefore, it will go into our reports along with controversial matters.
I am sorry that I missed your initial evidence. Sometimes, a lot of things happen at the same time; please accept my apologies for not being here on time.
Through the Committee’s scrutiny and questions, the evidence that we have gathered indicates that it is important to have parliamentary contact at every level, whether through the Assemblies, Westminster or contact with our neighbours in the Republic. We are keen to hear your views on how we might enhance and improve that parliamentary contact with respect to European issues.
There are many things that you could do. As I said before you arrived, it is important to decide that Europe is a priority. I am not saying that just because the EU is my particular speciality and, therefore, the centre of the universe; the European Union is a reality.
Sometimes, we take on board good practice in our society, such as our court procedures, and spread them into Europe. There are true stories and myths about people getting banged up in European jails for misdemeanours and then languishing for months without due process. Hopefully, such tales will be swept away by the decisions on court procedures, which we would consider to be normal, that are going through the EU. There are many other things, such as health and safety.
That is why we should make the EU a priority. I have explained that that requires somebody who is willing to take on the responsibility to sift, as we do, and to be supported in doing so in order to alert the appropriate Members of Parliament, this Committee, or any other.
The other reason is that, in the process during the debates on the Lisbon Treaty and the European constitution, there was a clear perception in Europe that Anglo-Saxons had a particular view — we were resistant, dragging our heels, and not as enthusiastic as the Italians and others who wanted to ram the treaty through.
However, the European Scrutiny Committee has worked diligently under me and its previous chairs, Lord Grenfell and Lord Roper, in making contacts at COSAC (Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees of Parliaments of the European Union). We have very active tripartite meetings with MEPs in the Lords and Commons on a circular basis. We also have lots of bilateral contacts with other countries with common interests and which want to come to talk to us or invite us to go to see them.
When we were doing that, at a time when we were seen to be having some trouble with the Lisbon Treaty, the growing warmth of those relationships was not affected, even with the Italians and others who at first regarded the UK Government’s position as a bit difficult. That strain did not transfer to the parliamentarians. We got a hearing when, for example, we expressed our concern about France’s lack of haste in opening up its domestic electricity market, which it did on the last day of the last month and under the threat of being taken to the European Court of Justice by the Commission. We kept hammering away for a free market — our own had been freed up many years previously — but we were still treated as parliamentarians and friends. That happens only when one takes the trouble to go to a country, meet people, look them in the eye and make them realise that one is not against the project or them just because they hold different views.
My committee has found that a tremendous help as it has gone more often to COSAC. We have members who go to the Committee of the Regions to look for, and support others who get, benefits from the European project. Similarly, we go to policy conferences of the Council of Europe. Everyone is invited. We get four delegates to most of the policy conferences — it comes through the Speaker of the House. We encourage members of the appropriate Select Committees to go to the conferences; we go, the Lords go, we make our contribution to the debate, which is, hopefully, listened to and sometimes leads to amendments and changes.
There are lots of ways in which to build networks. I urge the devolved Assemblies not to be afraid of travelling. The press are crawling all over the Scottish Parliament, questioning whether its Members go here or there. Business cannot be done in Europe by sitting at home. One must go to Europe to participate in the process.
In other words, the Anglo-Saxons, Ulster Scots and fiery Mediterraneans have different personalities and characters —
Do not forget the Gaels. [Laughter.]
The Scots are all Gaels. [Laughter.]
We need a row.
The clear point is that there are a lot of things on which we can agree, and perhaps this process is part of that — we look to what we can agree and move forward on. I appreciate that there are lessons to be learnt from that.
I have always said that it would not worry me at all if devolved Assemblies and Parliaments were to have what is called privileged access to the Commission. There is no reason why people should have their voice heard only through ours, either at the level of Government or of Parliament. The Commission is open to contact from the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments right across Europe. I spoke last night at the Scientific Advisory Committees of Europe, and the person who proposed the vote of thanks was from Catalonia — not the Spanish Government; Catalonia has a scientific committee in its own right.
You will find that, in many organisations, there are places at the table for devolved Assemblies in regions of Europe, and those seats should be taken up. Also, you should ask for more and more contact at a higher level. If you cannot get it yourselves, your MEPs are your voice. You have already talked about your MEPs. They have access and the ability to get in the door and maybe take you with them in a way that is not always obvious at first.
When you are seen to be a participant you do not have to agree with everything that is going on. I am amazed by just how respectful the European process is to people from small countries and people with different perspectives. It is much more consensual than our parliamentary system has ever been. Vice-president Wallström said that if about four countries object to a proposal in a council meeting, they would rather take the proposal away and try to find a consensus than force it through. They want people to feel that they are all engaged and all respected in the process, which is something that we could learn from.
Mrs D Kelly:
I was interested in what you said about the interrogation of Ministers, given that we are a scrutiny Committee on a broader basis. Does your European scrutiny committee interrogate Ministers from all Government Departments? Essentially, we deal with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. What is the nature and type of questioning or the policies that you would ask of those Ministers?
During the Lisbon process, I won the parliamentary inquisitor of the year award on behalf of my Committee — an award that is not always given to Select Committees, but is given to Select Committee Chairpersons every now and then. The award was given because the basis of the Committee’s interrogation was seeking evidence and fact and trying to dispel a lot of the propaganda that had been put around. The conclusions, which we published, were quite strong: basically, the Lisbon treaty, in its effect, would be the same as the constitution, which the Government did not want to hear. However, we could not conclude anything else, having taken the Ministers to task in some detail.
We do not have Ministers from all Departments. We have Ministers from Departments where we think that there are relevant matters to be pursued in evidence. Normally, that evidence will be supplied to the debate that takes place. It is a much more intense process than people just standing up and asking questions. We work much more like a Select Committee, and that is transferred into the European Committees. It is not a matter of someone asking a question and then sitting down. We can pursue a Minister, and that is something that I initiated. A member can be on the trail of a hidden fact that the Minister will not come up with, and we will let the member run with the question until the Minister is in a corner and has to answer yes or no or say whether it is right or wrong. That is very effective.
Mrs D Kelly:
I am sure that it is.
Our job is to put before Parliament all the available facts. It is not about making the policy; it is about ensuring that the facts that are necessary to make the decision about the Government’s position are out in the public domain. We have had some very stormy sessions with Ministers who refused to accept that if they make a decision in a common position, it is the same as breaching scrutiny. They had another terminology, which was exactly the same thing, because it never altered after they made that agreement. They really reached agreements and tried to duck under the barrier.
We have had two major successes recently. One is that that is now also considered to be a breach of scrutiny, even though the Minister came become us and tried, on two or three occasions, to deny that it was. That has all been changed and, in a sense, the democratic process won. Also, we have an assurance from the Government that when we opt in to anything that we have not previously opted into in immigration or home affairs, it will be put before our committee for scrutiny before they agree to opt in. The process that we got them to agree to will happen after Lisbon, which they are now implementing.
The Committee has one outstanding major point, which is that it does not get to see draft conclusions of the European Council, which the Prime Ministers attend. We say that we should see them, and the Council says that they are limitée — privileged documents — until they are finally agreed. The Scandinavian countries get them, because they mandate their Ministers. We will not be silly or foolish about it, but we want to see those draft conclusions. Ministers have to be called forward to give evidence, so that Parliament is aware of what they are going to do at that Council meeting. We would take evidence in that way as well. It is seeking to put the full facts before Parliament. If a Minister has been advised or briefed by officials, or is leaning towards hiding, obfuscating, or even denying the facts, we will pursue the Minister quite vigorously.
Page 14 of your guide states that:
“Each year the Scrutiny Committee recommends for debate on the Floor of the House about three documents”.
In the current situation, what do you see coming down the line that would require that level of attention by the House of Commons?
Possibly, we will be looking for a debate on the regulation of the financial sector and the de la Rosiere proposals. We have already determined that we will have the appropriate Minister, Lord Myners, in for evidence, and then we will go for a debate on the Floor of the House, because we think that that is a fundamental debate. Some people say that there are prejudices against the open hedge-fund-based system that has been very beneficial to the financial markets in London; other people say that it is about time. Whatever opinion you take, no one can deny that there has been a fundamental change in the approach to regulating the financial markets. De la Rosiere will probably have the final say, and he has been asked to come back with specific proposals before June. We will probably have the Minister in then, and we will have a debate on that issue before the summer. That is one issue that is definitely in our sights for a debate on the Floor of the House.
The Deputy Chairperson:
You mentioned policy conferences. You are the first witness to do so, and I would be interested to hear some background on how those operate and what sort of areas they cover.
Every presidency decides what key issues they will try to tackle in their term. Conferences are always held in the European Parliament — sometimes, if there is a large attendance, in the hemicycle. Therefore, they will agree, with the Commission and the European Parliament, that they want to have conferences on those key issues, and the appropriate directorate-general and Commissioner will be brought in. Each conference will be chaired by the appropriate person. For example, a recent conference concerned with foreign affairs, such as the Eastern Partnership, was obviously of interest to the Czech Republic. Therefore, it was chaired by the Czech Foreign Minister under the Presidency of the Czech Republic. If an economic matter is concerned, such as the current financial crisis, it will be chaired by an economic Minister, and there will be speakers from the European Central Bank and so on.
At the conferences, some people make considered and prepared speeches, the text of which will be written by their Parliament and read into the minutes. Others will genuinely get involved in contributing from a certain perspective or position of knowledge, and, of course, there will be contributions from the European parliamentarians who chair the Committees in the European Parliament.
I find the process to be fantastic for learning and for being listened to. It is not just about what happens at the conference, it is the discussions at the dinner table and during coffee breaks. You get to know who has something to contribute, who is sympathetic, and who can extend your ideas and take them to the decision-making process.
Some Members of the European Parliament are key people at those conferences. When they stand up to speak, they are listened to, encouraged and supported. I will not mention any names, but I can think of some who have a good grasp of constitutional issues, and others who have a very good grasp of free-market issues. When they speak, people listen. I think that that is what is required of MEPs. Looking at those Members, it is quite clear that they have been encouraged by their Governments and their colleagues from their home nations. Their expertise has been recognised, and they have been put forward to chair Committees and report on issues. That is something that you have to think about for your own MEPs.
Your Government should brief your MEPs so that they are able to represent a Northern Ireland perspective; I do not know whether you call it Government here, but we use that term in Scotland. Your MEPs need proper support to ensure that they can make relevant and telling contributions to such conferences, and, if you can, please try to get invited along yourselves.
The Deputy Chairperson:
You mentioned the gold-plating of EU legislation. Are you aware of the perception that, while people in other countries are very enthusiastic EU citizens but are not enthusiastic EU legislators, we are more enthusiastic about EU legislation than EU citizenship? Do you think that it is right that we fulfil legislative requirements, but do not celebrate being European? Alternatively, do you think that other countries focus too much on being European citizens and not enough on the legislative consequences?
We are by no means perfect; indeed, the Commission’s analysis of implementation rates indicates that we have been quite slow in some areas. However, there is no doubt that, historically, the UK has implemented EU legislation as soon as it has come forward. Norway is the best at transposing every EU directive as quickly as possible, even though it is not even in the EU. The Norwegians are happy to legislate, but they will not let us get their fish. [Laughter.]
I bought a second-hand book called ‘The Mad Officials: How the Bureaucrats are Strangling Britain’. It was written in the 1990s, and it is about how British Government officials gold-plated every EU rule. There have been some interesting examples recently of our going further than necessary and producing very strong legislation by combining EU directives with our own officials’ reports.
We try to be honest by implementing EU legislation quickly, probably because we believe in it much more than some of the central European countries. The anglicised model is a free-market model, and we believe in doing things in line with the liberal markets of Europe. Everyone has rowed back from that somewhat, particularly in the Lisbon debates, although it has come too late to prevent the meltdown of the free-market system. The French would have liked the liberal free markets to have been much more constrained, whereas the British and the Germans would probably have opted for much stronger liberal free markets being the overarching purpose of EU economic policy. Over the last 10 years, we have enthusiastically put through every piece of EU legislation as quickly as possible, particularly those that relate to the free market, such as the directives on postal services and domestic electricity. We see the free-market model as being more beneficial than others.
Our attitude to European citizenship has been a problem. Europe is still regarded as being another country, and I am not sure how that perception can be changed. However, we have taken advantage of some EU legislation, and many British citizens live in other European countries. Indeed, half a million people from the UK own timeshares in Spain alone, and a number of timeshare directives have protected British people from scams. We have been quite happy to use the legislation to our advantage, but we somehow view ourselves as expats rather than European citizens. I do not know why that is the case, and it would be very useful if I could get to the root of it.
I feel very much Scottish, but I also feel very much European. There is perhaps a contradiction in England because it had an empire. People whose empire has disappeared do not want to be absorbed into something else, because they feel that they will lose their historical personality. That is a psychological problem for a lot of people in England, but perhaps not for people in Wales or Scotland who have never been the main nation in an empire.
Mrs D Kelly:
We will not go into that one.
The Deputy Chairperson:
That is an astute observation, but we will not open it up for discussion because we could be here for the rest of the week. Thank you very much for your helpful and enlightening contribution.
It was a pleasure to meet you all.