Wednesday, 10 May 2006
Third Annual Report of the European Union (Scrutiny) Act 2002: Statements.
The starting point for any discussion on the European Union invariably should be that it has been a successful journey from war and destruction to peace and relative prosperity. That journey has not ended. Institutional, evolutionary and increasing expansion has left some citizens asking legitimate questions about the Union. We dealt with those earlier in the discussion on the proposed legislation. Citizens of member states cannot be expected to be taken on the European journey without being kept informed of the destination and the itinerary.
The success of the European project has been primarily grounded in economic success and its legitimacy derived from the support of the citizens of member states. That legitimacy has been questioned in recent times and the Convention on the Future of Europe considered the options as to how best to underpin the institutional processes of the European Union.
The constitutional treaty was drafted following a uniquely open and transparent process. It represents a carefully balanced compromise between the member states. It was, therefore, appropriate that the constitutional treaty sought to advance the existing work of the national parliaments in monitoring respect of the principle of subsidiarity. The role of national parliaments with respect to subsidiarity was previously recognised in the Amsterdam treaty and the Joint Committee on European Affairs Sub-Committee on European Scrutiny takes its role seriously under the current legal arrangements in that regard. It is therefore regrettable that there is not a greater appreciation of the work of the committee, the dedicated efforts of its members and those of the staff who support it. I am amazed at the volume of work two civil servants must go through in preparing for these meetings on a regular basis and that they can deal with that volume of work.
In October 2002, the oversight work of the Sub-Committee on European Scrutiny began under my predecessor Deputy Gay Mitchell who is also an MEP. Under my chairmanship and the chairmanship of my predecessor the committee has considered more than 1,500 legislative documents, a considerable achievement by any measure. In terms of the sub-committee's work load last year, 440 documents were dealt with, which included 105 from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, 109 documents from the Department of Foreign Affairs and 39 from the Department of Agriculture and Food ranging over many issues. It amazes me how even the preparatory work for the sittings of the sub-committee can be undertaken by such a small group of people.
It is unthinkable that Ireland would be outside the European Union and accessing the Single Market as a legislative taker rather than as a member state with the ability to influence the legislative process. Part of that process, and a part that will increasingly have its voice heard, is the scrutiny process within the national parliaments of the Union. Each national parliament, in conformity with the principle of subsidiarity, determines how it will play its part within the European institutional architecture.
Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann have determined that the membership of the sectoral joint committees bring their expertise and experience to bear on the European legislative proposals, which will impact directly on the lives of the citizens of the Union. Without the co-operation of the sectoral committees, the scrutiny system in the Houses of the Oireachtas would be far less effective. I pay tribute again to the considerable work the sectoral committees have undertaken since 2002. I also thank those in the Departments who assist in the scrutiny through their ongoing co-operation and assistance, particularly the officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs who assist in co-ordinating the circulation of the legislative proposals.
Scrutiny within the Oireachtas is also part of a Europe-wide process that operates under the umbrella of COSAC, which will meet in Vienna on 20 to 21 May. Through this body the Joint Committee on European Affairs has made its views on subsidiarity issues known to the European institutions.
The scrutiny committee has considered many worthwhile and valuable proposals that were correctly advanced at the level of the European Union, such as those in regard to environmental protection. Given that pollution knows no boundaries, there is a need for co-operation among all member states and other countries on this issue. It has also considered matters on which there was a broad consensus that the issues might be better determined at national level such as the proposals concerning GM foods and the third railway package.
As chairman of that committee, I do not believe there is a one size fits all mechanism to deal with the questions that come before us. Each parliament must address the position based on its experiences.
The Progressive Democrats is a strong supporter of the EU project and recognises the positive impact the EU has had on Irish development and society and the positive role Ireland has played and continues to play at EU level.
Today, Europe Day, is only one small part of the important larger project, that of encouraging and engaging the citizens of Europe to inform them about European affairs and to demystify and clarify the relationship between the Union and Ireland, particularly in light of the proposed constitutional referendum and its recent rejection in France and in the Netherlands.
The Third Annual Report of the European Union Scrutiny Act, the subject of the discussion, reviews part of the work of the Oireachtas, in an attempt to be more transparent to the citizen and to highlight the relationship between the Union and Ireland. The EU Sub-Committee on European Scrutiny has dealt with nearly 1,500 documents originating at EU level and the Joint Committee on European Affairs has held many pre-Council meetings with relevant Ministers, all necessary and important work, but in regard to the most pressing challenge facing Ireland and the Union, they are in some ways peripheral.
The focus of the White Paper on European Communication Policy is on delivering tangible results in areas that are important to the European citizen, the secondary objective being to make the EU framework more democratic. While the second objective complements the scrutiny role, it becomes somewhat academic if we do not get the first part right. The work of the Sub-Committee on European Scrutiny, the new communication action plan, the so-called D plan on democracy, dialogue and debate, and the White Paper are all welcome, but are they enough in the current context?
Ireland's relationship with the Union is changing. During the years we have benefited greatly from the EU, particularly in agricultural subsidies and Structural Funds. However, because of reforms of the CAP and our improved economic performance that picture is changing. Coupled with the fact that Ireland will soon become a net contributor to the EU, there has been and will continue to be immediate consequences for our citizens as a result of developments at Union level.
I refer to three examples. The European Central Bank interest rates will increase by a percentage point over the next 12 months, and Irish home owners will feel the financial impact of that increase. Second, changes at EU level to price structures and support subsidies for the sugar beet industry have meant the closure of the sugar industry here. Third, people in this country have increasing fears about so-called jobs displacement. I welcome the proposed review of the period of reflection by EU Foreign Ministers at the June meeting. One could ask what de facto tangible results have emerged from the work that has been done to date. What results are evident for the ordinary citizen? If the objective of the period of reflection, and the subsequent review to take place this June, was to help to clear the way for progress on the successful ratification of the proposed EU constitution, how far have we come in that respect?
It is worth examining a recent measure of how the EU is perceived in Ireland. I refer to a survey that was conducted in autumn 2005. I remind the House of the three issues I mentioned earlier — interest rates, the sugar beet industry and the displacement of jobs. I acknowledge that statistics can be interpreted in many ways. One report might point out that 75% of people are happy, whereas another report will say that one in four people is discontent. The same is true of Eurobarometer figures. I am concerned that, during this period of evaluation of the benefits of Ireland's membership of the EU, there has been a four-point decrease in the percentage of Irish people who regard EU membership as a good thing. The findings of the survey have some other worrying aspects. While the absolutely fantastic work of the Forum on Europe and other groups which promote the EU is to be commended, we need to consider whether that work is having an impact. Could it be argued that we are engaging with the usual suspects — Departments and local, regional and national Government agencies? Some 56% of Irish people are in favour of the proposed EU constitution, 31% are undecided and just 13% are opposed to it. These figures are extremely good by comparison to our European neighbours, some of which have turn-outs of just 35% in elections.
During the recent series of statements on the March meeting of the European Council, it was interesting to hear the Council's view that since the French and Dutch referendums on the proposed EU constitution there has been a particular focus on showing EU citizens that the EU works on their behalf. The relaunch of the Lisbon Agenda and the renewal of the EU's emphasis on jobs and growth took place in that context. What tangible results have been realised as a result of this focus, however? It was intended that the period of reflection and the new White Paper would represent adequate responses to the concerns which have been voiced by EU citizens and would clear the way for the progress to be made in respect of the ratification of the proposed constitution. Are we making progress with cynical and disinterested citizens, those between the ages of 18 and 25, who have been statistically shown to be less likely to be in favour of the proposed constitution, or those who have fears of jobs displacement? How will the placing of renewed emphasis on the Lisbon Agenda, as well as on jobs and growth, encourage the three groups of people I have mentioned to support the proposed constitution?
The Third Annual Report on the Operation of the European Union (Scrutiny) Act 2002 highlights some of the efforts being made in this House to clarify the relationship between Ireland and the EU. That is important, as is the celebration of Europe Day, but specific efforts have to be made to show Irish and EU citizens who have a negative view of the European project that such matters are as important as we think they are. I do not agree with the suggestion in the White Paper that it is too simplistic to think that advertising is the way to breach the confidence deficit. While it might be true to suggest we should not concentrate our efforts to contact or target young people on newspapers, never mind White Papers, we could make better use of the Internet, podcasting, the Bebo website, text messaging, sports events, fashion, popular presenters, television shows and funded youth exchanges, all of which are popular mediums which are widely accessible and accessed by the young. If we cannot think outside the box to address these serious matters, we will continue to preach to the converted. Not only will we risk a repeat of the result of the first referendum on the Nice treaty, but we will also put in danger what the EU has to offer to Ireland and Ireland has to offer to the EU in the future.
I congratulate Deputy Allen, Chairman of the Sub-Committee on EU Scrutiny, on all the work that has been done by the committee under his remit. The Third Annual Report on the Operation of the European Union (Scrutiny) Act 2002 is a most impressive document. It highlights the sub-committee's enormous workload, including the number of meetings during which documents were considered, issues which were decided on and discussions with various officials took place. Page 11 of the report gives a breakdown of the number of adopted measures, legislative proposals, directives, regulations, decisions, Green Papers, White Papers, Common Foreign and Security Policy measures, Title 4 measures and early warning notes which were considered by the sub-committee. Such a workload would be quite onerous for any committee. It is a particularly enormous workload for the staff who work on the sub-committee.
We must pay tribute to the incredible work that has been done by the sub-committee, as well as by the various joint committees which consider the documents and directives which are referred to them. The figures quoted in the report are quite startling. In the four years since 2002, approximately 1,452 documents of one type or another have passed through the hands of the sub-committee. Some 75%, or 329 of the 440 documents which were considered in 2005 were legislative documents, such as directives, regulations or decisions. For the sub-committee to examine such an enormous number of legislative provisions requires an incredible amount of work. I often wonder whether the sub-committee, and the various joint committees to which the various matters are referred, are properly resourced to deal with such a workload. One could contrast the sub-committee's workload with the number of Bills which have been passed in this House over the last four years since the Government took office.
Just 148 Bills have been passed in that time, which is approximately one tenth of the 1,452 documents which have been considered by the sub-committee since 2002. Not all of the 1,452 documents are legislative provisions, but approximately three quarters of them are. That means, in effect, that we are being legislated for from Europe. This House spends most of its time dealing with and teasing out domestic legislation, while EU documents appear on the Order Paper only to be referred to the sub-committee without debate and considered by the sub-committee in the bunker before being sent back to this House to be passed without debate. EU legislation never sees the floor of this House to any great extent unless EU directives have to be formally transposed into legislation. Ministers take or do not take direction on a given matter from the sub-committee, before making or not making an input on the matter at the Council of Ministers. We have no way of checking whether a Minister makes an input at EU level. We do not really have any full and thorough pre-scrutiny and post-scrutiny mechanisms. We have to consider whether the current process is able to deal adequately with the enormity of the material that comes before the Oireachtas. Are the resources in place to deal with such material? Have we considered sufficiently the seriousness of the work that is being done?
I compliment the Minister and Deputy Allen on the enormous amount that has been done in this respect. This is the third annual report. I suggest that a future report should involve an examination of and a statement on whether the sub-committee has the resources it needs to conduct its work properly and tease out the various matters sufficiently. Can we be sure that what is being done is being followed through? Perhaps the next report should include a set of recommendations on the further actions which might be needed to ensure the full terms of the 2002 Act are fulfilled in their entirety.
I wish to share time with Deputies Eamon Ryan and Morgan.
Once again I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words about the work of the scrutiny sub-committee. I was a member of the scrutiny sub-committee in the Oireachtas for two years. It is appropriate we are discussing this matter on Europe Day, when we are talking about bringing Europe closer to the citizens. In some ways people can be reassured that national politicians have a small input into European legislation. At least they can make comments and somehow feed into the system. Of course the fact the Minister of State attends meetings of the Joint Committee on European Affairs before Council meetings is important. He can act as a conduit for the views of the national representatives so that when he attends those meetings at least he is aware of what is being said.
I agree with Deputy Costello that there is an enormous workload for the sub-committee. We had a presentation once from the House of Lords where they spoke of the system that obtained there. They said EU scrutiny was almost full-time work for a number of members. The truth is, however, that no Deputy has the time available to him or her——
That is true as well. The Deputy has hit the nail on the head because one could spend all day or night scrutinising European legislation and this effort means nothing to the public. The issue is about work that needs to be done, and done well, and that people may be reassured of this, but because of the system we operate we are not able to give them that guarantee. One of the recommendations in the proposed constitution was what was called the "yellow card system" whereby if a government had an issue about a subsidiarity principle being breached, this could be referred back. That is one of the positive matters that we should look at, perhaps, even if the constitution is not in place. If a million citizens were to sign a document, we might be able to have some legislative proposals put forward. Those are some of the good things that are in the constitution and perhaps we might look at bringing them forward.
I pay homage to the Deputies who work in what I see as the salt mines of this Parliament, in the Sub-Committee on European Scrutiny. We see their work passing by us as a flow of actions approved or recommended for further consideration.
It is the gulag of the willing. God bless them — I hope my day will not come. My experience has been interesting in terms of operating it. We have, on occasion, chosen legislation and had it discussed by departmental officials. This has been beneficial, I suppose, but I do not believe it has had much real effect. The Minister and his or her Department officials pass over the information, there is a nice, gentle discussion for up to an hour, but as to whether this has any real effect, I do not really believe so. We never brought in witnesses. The system might start working if persons from outside a Department were brought in. That is something we should do more regularly.
On the one occasion we had direct experience of the European Union in my four years in the House, it was inadvertent. One of the Deputies opposite was seeking to make a point on fisheries so he brought in his friends, as I shall put it, from the European Parliament to back up an internal war that was going on between the Minister and himself. That actually proved to be useful because it meant the Members of the European Parliament who were involved in the fisheries group were present in the same room as Members of the Oireachtas who were responsible for fisheries. There was a good ding-dong. I pointed out that since an individual was present who was on the relevant committee at European level, he or she should be aware of such and such. He or she could then come back and say that we should know this and that. That is one structure in which this procedure might work better if we had formal arrangements whereby Irish MEPs were statutorily required to return here to parliamentary groups that mirror the same responsibilities and give quarterly reports.
Despite the EU scrutiny reform legislation that followed the defeat of the Nice treaty, the current scrutiny procedures in this regard in Leinster House are still far from sufficient. The EU Scrutiny Act 2002 has become counter-productive as a means of democratic oversight. It has been abused by the Government to allow for less debate on EU matters, not more as promised. Under the present scrutiny Act, the Dáil does not debate matters before intergovernmental conferences, for example, EU summit or Council meetings. Deputies do not vote on proposed Irish Government positions. Those positions should be placed before the House and debated. Debates on these matters only occur after the fact——
There is lack of respect by the Government to this House in terms of policy in that it does not give us the opportunity to deal with it. It passes through here. The only opportunity that Deputies in this House have to deal with EU legislation is when it comes back from the scrutiny sub-committee. We have a vote on it but that is grossly inefficient. It is counter to what was promised.
I am glad that there is a lively debate on this matter and I am pleased to see the Deputy in this House for a change. Whatever he does at EU level, he is in this House seldom enough. I am glad to see him here at least occasionally.
This has been an interesting session and I have a number of questions for the Minister of State and, perhaps, Deputy Allen. I pay tribute to Deputy Allen and his predecessor, Deputy Gay Mitchell, who did trojan work on the scrutiny sub-committee. I have been a member of the sub-committee since it started and I pay tribute to Deputy Quinn, who was instrumental in terms of dealing with EU scrutiny. It is done differently in many jurisdictions. The consensus around Europe is that Ireland——
I would prefer if the Deputy confined himself to questions at this stage as time is limited and I have no doubt all the Members present will want to submit a question. I have a number of requests already. Perhaps the Deputy will confine himself to a brief question for the moment.
My first question is for the Minister of State and the Ceann Comhairle, as the head of the Oireachtas Commission. On the whole question of resources, I join in the praise for the herculean efforts of the staff of the scrutiny sub-committee and ask the Minister of State whether he accepts it is under-resourced in terms of the amount of work it has to do in terms of the detail it must follow through? When we tell our European colleagues about the small number of officials and experts that are on the sub-committee to do the work, they are absolutely astounded.
My second question is a broader one about the scrutiny of Council meetings. Deputy Treacy will know that as Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, he comes before the joint committee pre-GAERC, and we discuss Council meetings before they happen, which of course are not open to the public. Some of these are mentioned in questions that I was asked to highlight here——
——by the public. Will he agree that there might be some logic if the Minister of State, after Council and GAERC meetings, could come back either to the Joint Committee on European Affairs or, indeed, the scrutiny sub-committee to report what happened at those meetings so that the decisions taken can feed back into the system? I am sorry to be long-winded, but this is important. What happens is——
I am sure the Minister of State is aware of the answers. The purpose of questions and answers is to elicit information from the Minister of State. If Deputies start to impart information to the Minister of State, we will not be able to facilitate all those with questions. Perhaps the Deputy will confine himself to the question.
I fully accept the Chairman and members of the scrutiny committee do an outstanding job. I also fully accept that the staff who work there, are highly productive and efficient and I have no objection to providing more resources to assist the committee. Obviously, it is a matter for the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission to decide on the allocation and priority of resources. That is not a function of the Government, or of any individual Minister, but I admire the work done and commend everybody involved.
We very much enjoy our interaction with the Joint Committee on European Affairs and like to attend it. This proves useful for us before we attend meetings in Europe. It is also good for the committee and those Members who are involved in debates here, including Members of the European Parliament, who are able to attend here from time to time as it provides them with extra information on the common position of Ireland. We take on board the advice, guidance and consensus that is usually there on European issues across this House. I would not have any difficulty coming back to discuss the outcome of various Council meetings but in many cases no absolute conclusion is reached on each issue on the agenda at these Council meetings. These issues can remain on the agenda for a long period and reappear at subsequent meetings of the joint committee. I would not have any difficulty, nor do I think would any of my colleagues, in coming back to discuss issues again post-Council meetings.
The Minister of State is aware that we put together a website in recent weeks to facilitate members of the public to ask questions. Some of the questions directly relate to the issue of EU scrutiny and subsidiarity. One question asked was: Why was the war film, Waterloo, never shown in the Republic of Ireland, or at least in the three channel region and——
——can the European Broadcasting Union, or whoever oversees such matters, do anything about this? I do not expect an answer right now.
We also received some questions relating to subsidiarity. For example: Banking requirements for the general public and business are the same Europe-wide, in particular in the eurozone; the war against money laundering is also the same, however, banks do not operate across borders, mainly due to individual member states' financial regulations, so why is there not an EU financial regulation system in place, as opposed to individual member states' implementing their own systems?
The European project has evolved thus far. We are talking about enlargement today and having a detailed debate on the future of Europe which is very much on the agenda for subsequent debate into the future. The euro has evolved as a new currency for 12 member states under the control of the European Central Bank. It is very important that strict criteria be laid down and that all banks operate in a transparent way to ensure that equity and choice will prevail for consumers, that they can change banks if they so wish, and that there be no prohibition for any bank operating within the eurozone in particular, and the European Union in general, to operate in any member state or deliver a service to that member state.
Some progress has been made in this area but the process is still evolving. We have not reached a final conclusion on it. As the boundaries of Europe and the eurozone expand in future the rules will change. I hope that sooner rather than later there will be a common criteria under which all banks will operate to serve consumers in a clear, transparent, fair and open way. That would be important for us all.
The Joint Committee on European Affairs took the trouble to invite the public to ask questions. This really is in the way of scrutiny. I would like to put the following question to the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, whose presence is most welcome. It relates to the decision making process which is at the core of the democratic legitimacy of the entire European Union and Ireland's role in it. The question is in section 5 of the questions submitted by the public under the title, Decision Making. The question reads as follows:
Referring to the decision by Foreign Ministers of the EU to withhold any further payments to the Palestinian people following their recent elections, I wish to ask:
(a) Who voted for the payment to stop and who voted against it?
(b) How was the decision made? Was it with a single majority or a qualified majority?
(c) Is it possible when decisions have been made for the public to get a press release on who voted and how, as all of these meetings are held in camera and there is no transparency?
[The final part of this question is most pertinent to what is happening in the Middle East at present.]
(d) When will decisions of such importance for all of Europe be debated in the European Parliament?
I do not know if the Minister was at that meeting. I suspect he probably was not because the issue relates to foreign affairs. However, this question could apply to many issues. The European Union had been sustaining and supporting the Palestinian Authority as part of the quartet but a decision was made by the Foreign Ministers to suspend payment because of the position of Hamas — the recently elected government of the Palestinian Authority — which refused to recognise the legitimacy of the state of Israel and which vowed and is prepared to physically eliminate it. This citizen's question relates to how the decision was made by the Foreign Ministers and how the formality of its communication was conveyed to the wider public. Is there a voting list?
Anybody can come into this Chamber after any debate and by viewing the necessary records see which way any of us have voted here. The same question is being posed in regard to how decisions are reached in Europe. I do not know if the Minister of State is in a position to answer this question.
I am not in a position to give a de facto answer to the question but from experience I am aware that once a decision is taken, the decision is reported, but information is not given on what way people voted. I do not think it is revealed how anyone votes in any of the communications or conclusions that are arrived at.
Ireland and the European Union are very much at one on the situation in the Middle East. We regard the democratic decision taken by the Palestinian people to elect a new government as a legitimate decision. The government is in place and the desire is that people would respect that fact, and that the Palestinian Authority in turn would respect the sovereign government in the adjoining state of Israel and that there would be mutual respect. As we speak there is a European Union initiative through the Austrian Presidency where every effort is being made to engage in dialogue to ensure we can continue to find a formula to transfer resources so that the Palestinian people will not be the victims of a change of government vis-À-vis the cash transfers from which the country has benefitted from the European Union and other countries.
The question Deputy Quinn asked is valid and does not relate to the general issue. We do not need a discussion on Palestine, we need an answer to the question of why it is that, unlike here, where it is for everyone to see how we vote, such decisions made in a democratic structure in Europe are not clearly evident?
The situation is most obvious. There is a clearly defined structure of institutions, such as the European Parliament, the various councils and the European Council which take their decisions. A conclusion is arrived at and is published. Apart from the European Parliament, the councils sit in private. We fully support the European constitutional proposals to open up the process so that there will be a transparent communication and that people can see the decisions being taken. That is what we want to achieve in the future.
I welcome the intervention. Because the constitutional treaty has been stopped by virtue of the decisions in a couple of member states, is it not now opportune for the actual process of decision making — this is but one example but the question applies to any Council decision being made — for the European electorate to hear how individual member states voted on any particular measure, as they can in Galway or Dublin city councils and in Dáil Éireann? People can tune in and find out which way people voted and, accordingly, draw their own conclusions.
What the Minister of State said about the past is correct, that institutionally it was a bit like having confidentiality, there was a frank and full debate internally when the decision was made but there was no breakdown as to who voted in what way. This is a question from the public, it is not from Deputies Ruairí Quinn or Eamon Ryan as to why, how and who. Deputy Treacy is an experienced Minister. Following the period of reflection, what institutionally can prevent Council decisions being published with a description of how people voted to illustrate them?
I presume there is a legal impediment under treaties or otherwise. The decision making process remains the same as when the EEC was established. The European constitution will address this issue once it is implemented. I do not have a problem with this because it is important that every citizen should know his or her representative's position prior to arriving at a decision at European Council on any topic.
When we conclude meetings of the Council, we are obliged by tradition rather than by rule to meet the Irish media. We are asked questions on the issues and we outline our stance on them. We must justify why we took that stance and how the conclusion was reached. It is a matter for them to communicate that to the people. However, we do not respond on the view taken by other states on an issue. Two large countries could adopt an attitude on an issue while three countries could take a different attitude. That is not obvious or clear but it is important that decisions should be publicised so that every citizen in the Union is aware of the representation made on his or her behalf and how the decisions were reached. That is good for democracy and fair to each citizen.
We should have a better opportunity in future to put the public's questions to the Government. For example, members of the public cannot find out how the Minister for Foreign Affairs voted on the Palestinian issue nor can I, despite searching for a number of weeks. If it is difficult for us, as Members, it must be impossible for the public. The issue will be raised on the Adjournment later and I hope clarity will be provided on Ireland's position on the Palestinian Authority.
Like previous speakers, I would like to ask a few questions submitted by the public. One person asks why they have to pay vehicle registration tax on a second-hand camper van imported to Ireland from the EU. If they export from Ireland to the EU, they do not have to pay. Another person says there is too much interference from the EU in local affairs, asks why the EU seems to think all areas of life must conform to one model, for example, food, medicines, etc. and rejects both the proposition that the European Union is competent to be involved in most areas and any moves to a federal and more united Europe. A third person, while commending the Forum on Europe's work with transition year students, would like to know what efforts the Government intends to make to stir and harness the interest of young people in European affairs.
What will happen to all the questions submitted? What agency or Department will respond to these people? Since they have gone to the trouble of submitting questions, they should be entitled to a reply.
I commend the committee's initiative and it is a matter for the committee to reply. However, the Department will do everything it can to assist in providing the necessary information in reply to the people.
The vehicle registration tax rate is based on a Government decision taken a number of years ago, which was approved by the House, to provide sustainability in the revenue base and to ensure the domestic market would not be flooded with second-hand cars from different parts of the world. The tax is under review and can be kept under review over time.
On the question of the EU involving itself in local affairs, the Union is clear that it has no desire at any time to meddle in the affairs of a member state unless there is a desire within that state for the Union to get involved. The Union only gets involved where national governments do not take the necessary action to protect the interests of their citizens in particular areas of activity.
Equality legislation has been one of the Union's greatest successes. It was a European initiative because national governments were not taking decisions to provide equal rights, pay and opportunity to women in society. A major culture change resulted for the benefit of mankind and each member state and tribute must be paid to the Union in this regard. The Union sometimes gets involved as a result of complaints by individual citizens that their local authority or government has not taken action in a certain area. In addition, if legislation is not in place, the Union will create a basis on which laws can be introduced through different directives. They are examined by the scrutiny committee, debated in national parliaments, enshrined in legislation and become uniform throughout the Union. That is the only reason the Union takes action. It has no desire to get involved unless we, as a Government, are not taking the necessary action.
The European Commission and every European leader are anxious to involve young people. Margot Wallström, the communications Commissioner, is responsible for the communicating Europe initiative and she is anxious to ensure young people are engaged in European affairs, activities and politics so that they are fully aware of their rights and the opportunities available and the importance of the Union for all member states. A number of initiatives aimed at young people have been taken since the foundation of the Union and additional resources are provided in the budget annually, including the most recent budget agreed last December. More money was provided for exchanges and new initiatives. It is critically important for the good of our political system and democracy and the good of Europe that we all ensure we engage significantly with young people. Great progress has been made and I pay tribute to the Forum on Europe in this regard. It is playing its part to ensure we engage with our young people. That is only as it should be and we all have a duty to support the forum.
We have led Europe in this area over the years. Free travel is available to our senior citizens. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs is examining other opportunities to expand the scheme. There is a demand that there should be equity in the system on an all-island basis. If the scheme is expanded, all European citizens will have to be offered free travel in Ireland. However, the system is usually flexible to take account of a particular situation so that if somebody is seriously ill, he or she would get a concession. If a citizen has a problem in this regard, it could be addressed on an individual basis but it could not be addressed on a universal basis.
As far as I understand it, concessions can be granted and there is enough flexibility to take account of particular difficult cases. However, a standard opportunity is not provided for people to avail of a concession.
I have knowledge of this area because when I was Minister for Finance and Proinsias De Rossa was Minister for Social Welfare, we attempted to extend the free travel scheme to cover pensioners in the North. When efforts were made in recent times to extend the same facility to Irish-born people living in England — the DION constituency — we ran into a problem because a state cannot discriminate between one nationality and another within the Union. One cannot discriminate between one nationality and another across the EU. If free travel for pensioners was to be extended, it would have to be for all 25 member states. There could be capacity implications resulting from that. Surely the number of people across the EU that might qualify for free travel due to a health impediment will be smaller than the cohort of pensioners. Their physical condition is such that they will not be doing long-distance journeys for the sheer fun of it.
This is about rights. If a European citizen has a right to free travel by virtue of a health impediment, that person should have that right across the Union, even though it is unlikely he or she will exercise it from Malta to Finland. However, a Polish family may be living here with a relative in Poland who has that entitlement. These rights would help to consolidate families in those circumstances. This question has clearly come from a citizen of this State who has a direct experience of this impediment.
Based on the uniform medical cover that is available across Europe for its citizens when they are in different member states, there is no reason we could not look at the issue raised by Deputies Deasy and Quinn. I will ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to inquire if we can put free travel for people with medical problems in line with European medical cover.
In his response to Deputy's Quinn earlier question, did the Minister of State say he believes in principle that Irish Ministers should outline their voting decisions on Council decisions to the Parliament and to the public? Did he mean to say that we should do it unilaterally as a good principle of democratic behaviour and regardless of what other countries' ministers do? How many people have asked for scrutiny to take place on certain legislation? How many people have come forward as witnesses in the committees in the subsequent discussion of such legislation?
I have a question from a member of the public on scrutiny of decision making. It states that wherever decisions are made, the process of arriving at them should be fully transparent and the decisions should be adequately explained to the public. The President of the Commission and various national figures in a number of member states have referred to the fact the EU is frequently undersold. National ministers often attribute the blame for unpopular EU decisions to the EU institutions, but they claim the credit for popular decisions for themselves. This member of the public states that the European Council should adopt a code of practice, to be followed by member state governments, in conveying and commenting on EU decisions.
We are discussing the purpose of European Union scrutiny in the operation of this Act and the Minister of State should take on board the recommendations that are made. Is there any mechanism to show that a relevant Minister takes on board any recommendations that come through from the scrutiny process? Can we have a review of the pre-decision making scrutiny? What about scrutiny of Council and Commission decisions after they are made? The Act makes provision for a Minister to make a report to each House of the Oireachtas not less than twice yearly for all measures within his or her jurisdiction. That report is not debated on the floor of this House.
The report outlines that the Sub-Committee on European Scrutiny can simply agree to note a proposal. In the experience of my colleague, Deputy Ó Snodaigh, this happens disproportionately in measures related to Common Foreign and Security Policy. The documentation is then withheld from the sub-committee. Does this not reduce the sub-committee to little more than a rubber stamp? It is supposed to have a scrutiny role.
Have the chairman and the Minister of State views on the structure of the Sub-Committee on European Scrutiny? The advice of the sub-committee is just read into the record by the chairman for an hour and we agree with 99% of it. Should the structure of the sub-committee be changed so we can have more input? Deputy Mulcahy spoke about the amount of work for representatives on the sub-committee. I think the structure of the sub-committee needs to be examined.
We value the work of the sub-committee. It is a new process that is evolving. The Government takes the committee's submissions and comments very seriously. We take account of them when formulating our position. It is important the Government maintains flexibility to negotiate independently particular issues on behalf of Ireland. However, it is not just committees and Ministers who carry out this work. Our ambassadors at EU level are currently involved in these negotiations. I have no problem with changes in the structure of EU scrutiny. If the members of the sub-committee feel more attention and resources should be given, we will support that.
I listened to Deputy Harkin today and she pointed out that membership of the sub-committee may not re-elect a Deputy to Parliament and wondered how much time Deputies could, therefore, give to the committee. These are all questions we must ask ourselves as individual politicians. We always take on board the advice we are given, taking into account the legal parameters and the responsibility of the Government to get the best decision possible for the people of Ireland.
Any Minister in this House, when asked a direct question, will give an answer based on what happened on a particular occasion. There is still no formula in the EU to make this information obvious and open. Until the proposed constitution is passed, we have no formula to provide for that.
There are two strands to the scrutiny process. One strand relates to the questioning of Ministers before the General Affairs and External Relations Council meetings in Europe. The Minister comes before the sub-committee and is cross-examined on issues arising at future meetings. The other strand is the scrutiny of documents and regulations. The Department of Foreign Affairs co-ordinates these and they are sent to the sub-committee. I meet the officials before the documents are presented to the committee and then they are delegated to the relevant sectoral committees. These committees examine them and their implications for the country and they make a judgment on the contents of those reports. That is fairly in-depth scrutiny. My only reservation concerns the resources being made available to civil servants attached to the Sub-Committee on European Scrutiny, who face a horrendous amount of work.