Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Parliamentary Scrutiny of European Affairs

The isue arose in a question on Monday by Lord Wallace of Saltaire when he asked the Chairman of Committees what steps are being taken to improve co-operation between the House of Lords and United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament in scrutinising the policy-making process of the European Union and the implementation of EU policies.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, there is already substantial co-operation between this House and UK MEPs. For example, there are regular tripartite meetings between your Lordships’ EU Committee, its Commons counterpart and UK MEPs. In addition, our own Brussels-based EU liaison officer is responsible for facilitating the exchange of information between the EU Committee and MEPs. Finally, the EU Committee regularly seeks evidence from UK MEPs.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I thank the Chairman of Committees for that Answer. I welcome the establishment of an office in Brussels and the improvement of relations between British MEPs and this House. We share the common purpose of improving scrutiny of both national and European proposals as they go into and out of Brussels. I remember well that, after the last European election, the head of services of the British chair of a new European Parliament committee proposed that he should read two reports from our EU Committee before he started. We have the opportunity to make this a closer relationship. What further measures can we take to make sure that Members of the European Parliament are welcome to sit in on EU Committee meetings in this House; and that when we go to Brussels we, in turn, catch up with what they are doing?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, as I said in my original Answer, there is high co-operation already. If noble Lords wish to propose any additional forms of co-operation, I undertake to pass them on to the Chairman of the European Union committee. Sadly, as your Lordships are aware, he is not here today; he is recovering from surgery and we hope to see him back before the end of the month.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, while we are on the subject of scrutinising EU policy-making activities, has by any chance the Chairman of Committees received any information on when the new Minister for Europe will take up her portfolio or when she might be entering this House?

The Chairman of Committees: Sadly not, my Lords. I should make it very clear at the beginning of this Question that I am answering it on behalf of the administration of the House, and I shall not be able to answer any questions on events in the European Union elections last Thursday.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, the continued development of the European security and defence policy argues the case for even closer co-operation, because the work straddles the responsibilities of this Parliament and of the European Parliament. Although there has been progress, the two Parliaments are in many ways almost on different planets. Can there not be a series of measures that include ensuring that, as a matter of course, the committees of this House send their work programmes and reports to the relevant British Members of the European Parliament and vice-versa.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, the reports of our European Union Committee are already sent to all those in the European Parliament who are interested. That is one reason why we have a European Union liaison officer who is responsible in Brussels for dealing with exactly that kind of thing.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, given that the EU Parliament only has the power of co-decision, while the monopoly for proposing all EU legislation remains with the Commission, and given that the Government have overridden the scrutiny reserve some 500 times in the past six years, and because, by the Government’s own admission, Brussels pays no attention to the views of our Select Committees, would it not be more sensible to close down our EU committees and redistribute their excellent resources to other Select Committee work, which is of such value to the nation?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, that is just the kind of question which I am not going to answer this afternoon.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, does the Chairman of Committees agree that the connections that have been made between the committees, particularly some of the sub-committees, and Members of the European Parliament have influenced the outcome of much of the legislation? I speak as the chair of Sub-Committee G, which has published a number of reports which have changed the proposed legislation.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, that is very good news which proves the worth of the European Union Committee and of our contacts with MEPs.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, does the noble Lord not agree that the taxpayer would save a load of money, and it would be a very good thing, if we reverted to the old system of indirect elections to the European Parliament? We would have no need of new procedures, such as those mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and the MEPs would be among us here at Westminster. Surely the present set-up can be attractive only to those who look upon the Commission as a sort of government accountable to the people of Europe. It should be treated as a bureaucracy that serves the community’s sovereign member states so that they can work more effectively together.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, that is an interesting view. However, it goes somewhat wide of the Question on the Order Paper, which asks what co-operation this House has with our MEPs who were elected yesterday. We have to work with the system as it is, rather than with what the noble Lord may consider to be a better one.