Tuesday, June 9, 2015

More from the House of Lords

Tomorrow or whenever I can get through the turgid stuff they spout in Another Place, will be the turn of that place, to wit the House of Commons. Today, however, I concentrate on the House of Lords. Well, for one more posting.

One of the procedures in the House at the start of a session is the appointment of Select Committees who will then spend a good deal of time (for which the members do not get paid) studying various subjects and producing reports, which are almost invariably informative and well argued. Indeed, more attention ought to be paid to them. This blog has tried to do so but has failed miserably. Perhaps, a new resolution to that effect is in order.

The one Select Committee over which there was a debate was the European Union one and that is because Lord Pearson of Rannoch has rightly raised an objection or two, which he does every time simply because these things need to be put on record.

The following peers were named as members of the Committee but they do have the right both in full and in sub-Committees to co-opt others: 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.

They can all be looked up but I have to admit that on immediate perusal I can see two peers whose attitude to the European Union is mildly sceptical, a subject that both Lord Pearson and Lord Stoddart raised in the subsequent debate.

It all started with the following proposed amendment:
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.
Setting aside the question as to how many sub-committees there ought to be, which is a somewhat esoteric point, let us look at what Lord Pearson said about the membership:
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.
He is not wrong about the membership though I have always found that the Committee's and the various Sub-Committees' reports rather more critical of HMG and of the EU than the membership of those bodies would suggest. In fact, I seem to recall being asked on the BBC Russian Service how it was possible for a Parliamentary Committee to produce quite such a hard-hitting and critical report as the one on HMG's and the EU's preparedness to the Ukraine crisis was.

Lord Pearson's other point about the usefulness of those discussions and reports is sadly true. In the first place, as I have pointed out too many times to count, scrutinizing legislation is not quite the same thing as legislating or being able to reverse legislation.

Going on from there:
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.
I may add that though Lord Pearson's other points were debated, this highly important one, about powerlessness was not discussed.

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