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Committee system within the European Parliament

PETER LEONARD: One of the features of the Australian Parliament inherited from the Westminster tradition is the committee system. It's an inheritance also for the Parliament of the European Community. The former President of the European Parliament, Lord Plumb of Coleshill, recently visited Australia. He talked with John Rogers about the committee system within the European Parliament.

JOHN ROGERS: The committee system has been described as a way of taking Parliament to the people, but it is sometimes accused of losing touch with the people. Lord Plumb, who still represents the Cotswolds in the European Parliament, says that Parliament maintains a close touch with its constituents, including through its committees.

LORD PLUMB: The members of the European Parliament, each of course are elected from among their own constituents. The method of election, of course, is different in different countries. And yet there is a responsibility, either through the party system or certainly a responsibility to their people. The difficulty we have taking the British representation, for instance, is that the 81 members in Britain each have very large, geographically, constituencies, each containing 500,000 people, or thereabouts. And so it's very difficult to relate to those people.

What one has to do to be effective is relate to all the organisations, to the industrial bodies, to the institutions, to the trade unions, to the different groups of people who represent them. And I can only tell you that my post bag, as a member, is full of letters from people who are asking me a particular view, what I am doing about this, that or the other. If you take a Westminster committee, for instance whether it's in the House of Commons or in the House of Lords, you will there have select committees specially set up to deal with a specific issue. And they can spend whatever time they spend in determining their view on one thing or another.

The difference is, in the European Parliament, this is part, every member is a member of a particular committee. He may be a member of one, two or three committees, but they're all members of committees and it's all like part of the parliamentary work. In other words, every committee is just like a mini-parliament.

JOHN ROGERS: Lord Plumb says the European Parliament's committees have a totally different workload to that of the British Parliament.

LORD PLUMB: The committees themselves are like part of the Parliament in the European sense. The European Parliament meets as a full Parliament, in plenary fashion, for one week every month. The committees are at work, therefore, preparing their reports which then go to the plenary for full reporting. So there's a difference in that sense between Westminster and European Community. And so, as those reports come forward, the workload will depend, for each committee, on the sort of issues that are coming forward from the Commission. The committees probably that are most active therefore are in agriculture, certainly in environment because environmental issues now are becoming, dominating the scene in fact. Everything we deal with in everyday use is environmentally sensitive in one form or another. The economic and monetary committee, again a very important committee; the legal committee looking at all the ramifications of this. And of course, over all these, the budget committee and the budget control committee.

JOHN ROGERS: And Lord Plumb says much use is made of specialist advisers.

LORD PLUMB: What happens is the representatives of the Commission sit in on all the committees. They're specialists because they're spending all their time working on these particular issues. But in addition to that, all the committees will take evidence from a specialist, from advisers, people who are concerned in environmental issues, or in economic issues and agricultural matters and so on and so forth. They'll bring in those specialists so they listen to them. And, in addition to that of course, all the members themselves will be heavily lobbied by people who have a particular interest in the issue they're dealing with. And many of those lobbyists of course will themselves be specialists.

JOHN ROGERS: What about bipartisanship?

LORD PLUMB: Well, the committee is always made up of representatives of different political groups, and it's always weighted according to the size of the political group. In other words, the Socialists have the largest number of members in any one political group, so therefore they may have on a committee five members as against the Christian Democrats who may have four, as against the Liberals who may have three. In other words, it's weighted in that sense of the committees themselves. Similarly, the chairmanships and vice-chairmanships of those committees are determined on the system of, it's like a pecking order - the larger the group, they have the first choice of the chairmanship of a committee, and so on down the line, according to the size of the political group.

JOHN ROGERS: As in the Australian Parliament, there are often majority and dissenting reports from within committees. But Lord Plumb says since the signing of the Single Act by all countries, the European Parliament has had much more power and responsibility.

LORD PLUMB: A report which is coming forward, before it goes to the Council of Ministers comes before the Parliament, and if the Parliament approves it with a majority of 260 or more votes, and then the Commission agrees with the amended version of that report, then the Council of Ministers will make its decision on the basis of a majority. If we don't agree with the Commission, then that leaves the Council free to make its decision on the basis of unanimity. And so that's giving the Parliament itself, it's closing the democratic deficit and it's giving the Parliament itself much more power.

PETER LEONARD: Lord Plumb, former President of the European Parliament.