28th October—4th November 1992







Wednesday 4 November 1992

Col. 22, line 18, after "manuscript" insert "amendment"

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1 European Standing Committee B Wednesday 28 October 1992

[SIR JOHN HUNT in the Chair]


10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. Robert Key): On a point of order, Sir John. Instead of proceeding with consideration of these documents, I suggest that the Committee ought to adjourn. You will recall that yesterday afternoon in the Chamber the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall), and the hon. Members for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) raised with Madam Speaker the fact that the Select Committee on National Heritage is investigating the issues raised by the documents that the Scrutiny Committee is considering today. The right hon. Gentleman and others also made a reasonable point about the availability of documents. In those circumstances, I think that it would be convenient for the Committee Members, and certainly helpful to the Government and to me, if the Committee adjourned. I understand that the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow and my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) would be willing to propose an adjournment.

Mr. Pendry: Further to that point of order, Sir John. On behalf of Labour Committee Members I thank the Minister for responding in the way that he has to the representations of my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton and others. We have discovered during the past few days that many organisations and individuals did not know that the Committee was to meet today. An adjournment would give them more time to make representations. It has been said that a week is a long time in politics. Although we should prefer to have longer than a week, it would give us more time to listen to those representations.

Mr. Wigley: Further to that point of order, Sir John. I object in the strongest possible terms to the way in which the postponement has been proposed. I accept that the Minister has done his best, but to be notified by a handwritten note at 8 or 9 o'clock last night that a meeting, for which one has been working for a long time, has been moved to next Wednesday, which is not its scheduled day, is a shambles. Papers for the Committee were made available late in the day, which meant that much time had to be devoted to dealing with them. People with an interest in this matter may have come here from various parts of the United Kingdom and will not have been notified that the Committee meeting is to be moved to next week. I want it to be put on record that I object to a postponement.

Mr. Peter Bottomley: Further to that point of order, Sir John. I shall not move an Adjournment motion because it would be appropriate for the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) to do that. 2 The reason for having the Scrutiny Committee is so that it can scrutinise, after hearing representations. I assume that those who want to make representations would welcome extra time. It would ensure that the Government and the Select Committee have a chance to listen more carefully and that this Committee is better informed. If a motion to adjourn is accepted, it will be a debatable motion on which the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) may make points that he would have made, had we been considering the substantive motion.

The Chairman: Order. The Minister has suggested that he would like the Committee to adjourn. Is a Committee member prepared to move such a motion?

Dr. Godman: I beg to move, That the Committee do now adjourn for one week.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot qualify the motion for an adjournment.

Dr. Godman: Then I beg to move, That this Committee do now adjourn. May I put my reasons for doing so to the Committee?

The Chairman: Yes.

Dr. Godman: I move the Adjournment motion with mixed feelings. I have great sympathy for what my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) said. I, too, readily appreciate that there may be persons with a deep interest in this subject who have travelled perhaps hundreds of miles to listen to our deliberations today. However, the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) made good sense when he said that the same persons may be given the opportunity to offer their comments to the Select Committee on National Heritage when it meets tomorrow and on Tuesday of next week. In its report on this subject the Select Committee on European Legislation strongly recommended that evidence be taken from interested parties because of the controversial nature of the directive. I move the Adjournment of the Committee with mixed feelings. We have a responsibility to persons outwith the Committee I am anxious to ensure that the precedent of a Minister being able to adjourn his cross-examination is not created. I should not be happy about that, but the Minister has behaved in a fair-minded way in response to a request made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton, the Chairman of the Select Committee on National Heritage, and, I believe, one of his hon. Friends, who is a member of that Committee.

Mr. Wigley: I am sorry to have to speak against the motion, even if I am the single voice doing so. It does not reflect well on the way in which Parliament should undertake its responsibilities—in an orderly fashion. It was known long before last night that the Select Committee is to meet tomorrow. Arrangements could have been made well in advance to ensure that the scheduling of this Committee in relation to the sitting of the Select Committee avoided the difficulties that have been related. There was no need for this decision to be taken without consultation, as far as I am concerned, at 8 or 9 o'clock last night. There is the question of the Council of Ministers deliberations on 10 November. For a third of the time between the sitting of this Committee and that date the Committee hearing will be postponed; moreover, the sitting of the Committee may be postponed not until next 3 Wednesday but to some future date. A date is not proposed in the motion, so we could lose the opportunity to influence the Council of Minister's decision on this matter. If a delay beyond 10 November is agreed, at the European level, that will be a different matter, but as far as I know—the Minister is shaking his head—there is not such indication. Next Wednesday could be a very busy day in Parliament. It may be decided that that is not an appropriate day for the Committee to meet—we do not know. We are postponing our sitting on an open-ended basis to an uncertain date that may preclude the Committee being able to hold this discussion before the Council of Ministers meeting takes place. Furthermore, if the request to adjourn had come in the first place from the Front Bench spokesperson or from the Chairman of the Select Committee and if the Government had agreed to that request, at the least there should have been discussion so that all the parties involved, both the Select Committee and this Committee, would know well in advance. This was not decided yesterday over a cup of tea. If it was decided last week, why on earth was it not possible to talk about it last week? We have a lot of preparation to do for Committee meetings. It makes a farce of our planning when decisions such as this are brought out of the hat at the last moment.

Mr. Bottomley: It is sensible to discuss whether the Committee should adjourn. For those who follow its track record, the Committee once adjourned against the wishes of the Government. Last week it voted narrowly not to adjourn, because more information was needed or, more precisely, because papers arrived late. The Committee will have listened with concern and care to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), who argues against the motion to adjourn. I shall put the arguments for it. As far as I know, the suggestion of an adjournment came yesterday, not before. The decision to adjourn is not one for the Chairman of the Select Committee on National Heritage or for my hon. Friend the Minister. It is for the Committee. That power is retained here. If the majority of Committee members decided that the Committee should not adjourn, questions would start, there would have to be injury time, debate would follow and the Committee would come to a conclusion. My guess is that the Government motion would be rejected. The amendments might be accepted. That would be an acceptable way of rejecting the suggestion that the Committee should approve what the Council of Ministers has in mind. Without going into the merits of the arguments—it would be inappropriate to the motion to do so—most members of the Committee would, if it were relevant to declare their interests, say that they had received an almost worthless coin which might require an export licence. The auction houses have made various points. The United Kingdom is the centre of the auction trade in Europe. The effect of the European proposals as they stand might be that the European auction trade moves around not within Europe but outside Europe. The Select Committee will want to study such points. The Committee would be well advised to consider any report that the Select Committee makes. Whether or not it is precisely next Wednesday, I will vote for the—


Mr. Wigley: The hon. Member says that we should have time to consider a report made by the Select Committee. Is he suggesting that we should wait not just until the hearing has taken place but until the report is published?

Mr. Bottomley: I believe that there will be a fairly instant report from the Select Committee. As the Council of Ministers is likely to come to a determination, the report should appear in a week or so. The point of the process is that we want to modify what the Council of Ministers would otherwise regard as the best compromise agreement. The present proposed compromise agreement is unacceptable, and works against the interests of the European Community and of the United Kingdom. Those are points to be taken up by the Select Committee and, afterwards, by us. I shall make two brief, additional points, I am sorry to have taken more time than I think the Motion necessarily deserves, despite the disagreement. First, we need to have a formal or informal mechanism by which, each week, the Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee or the Leader of the House, when announcing that some business will come before one of our European Committees—either a week in advance, or preferably two—gives a public briefing to the press to say what the issues and the areas of agreement and controversy appear to be so that more people can make representations to members of the Committee and to other hon. Members who can attend the Committee. That is important. My second point is a procedural one to be considered at a later stage, so I shall not go into it in depth. Will this Committee or the European Scrutiny Committee be able to take evidence from officials in the European Commission? The officials have the job of trying to broker and negotiate things that will make the European Community, especially business and social affairs in the Community, work more effectively. Those people do not come to our discussions and we cannot ask them questions. I do not think that the European Parliament sufficiently questions the officials and the Council of Ministers. I should like some thought to be given to ways in which to bring them to this Committee so that we can air our concerns with them directly.

Ms. Quin: I also support the postponement for the various reasons that have been given, although I appreciate the sense of anger that was expressed by the hon. Member for Caernarfon. His point about people having travelled specially to hear the proceedings of the Committee is valid and gives a reason why, in future, we should avoid this kind of last-minute switch. Yesterday, the Vote Office still did not have the full set of documents which had been sent directly to each member of the Committee. Since other hon. Members have the right to come to the Committees, that is unsatisfactory and should be avoided in future. The Department sent out at least one correction—possibly two—to the documents sent to each Committee member. That should be avoided in future because it is clearly unsatisfactory. Although the hon. Member for Caernarfon is right when he says that the timetable is rather short, given when the Council of Ministers is likely to come to a decision, I urge the Minister to ensure that as much consultation as possible is crammed into that period because there are many people outside who are concerned about the proposals.


Mr. Enright: I support the Adjournment motion, but I wish to make it clear that, contrary to what the Minister said at the beginning, I have no desire to ease his path, and certainly not that of the Government. It is simply for reasons of efficiencey that I support the motion.

Mr. Quentin Davies: I support the motion for the Adjournment for the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham. I endorse what the hon. Member for Gateshead, East said about the way in which the papers have been presented. We have at least had the papers within the proper deadline but, as she rightly said, we had subsequent papers. It would be enormously helpful to us—I have said this before in Committee and in other contexts—if the papers could be presented by all Departments, as they are by some, in a binder and in chronological order, so that there is no duplication and so that if one paper overtakes another, the fact is clearly marked. That would help us a great deal. I am sure that 6 officials would not dream of presenting papers to their Ministers in the disorderly, haphazard fashion in which they have presented the papers to us.

Question put:

The Committee divided Ayes 10, Noes 1.

Bottomley, Mr. Peter Hendry, Mr. Charles
Davies, Mr. Quentin Jenkin, Mr. Bernard
Dave, Mr. Nirj Joseph Lait, Mrs. Jacqui
Enright, Mr. Derek Milligan, Mr. Stephen
Godman, Dr. Norman A. Quin, Ms. Joyce
Wigley, Mr. Dafydd

Question accordingly agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to eleven o 'clock.


Hunt, Sir John (Chairman)

Bottomley, Mr. Peter

Davies, Mr. Quentin

Deva, Mr.

Enright, Mr.

Flynn, Mr.

Godman, Dr.

Hendry, Mr.

Jenkin, Mr.

Lait, Mrs.

Milligan, Mr.

Quin, Ms.

Wigley, Mr.


Key, Mr. Robert (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage)

Pendry, Mr. Tom (Stalybridge and Hyde)