I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, and congratulate him on his appointment. As Chairman of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, I am pleased to present its report on the enhanced role of national parliaments in the Lisbon reform treaty. I thank the Whips for agreeing to the committee's request for an urgent debate on the report. A debate such as this is important for communicating to the public how its public representatives are actively working on important policy matters.
I will start by giving a brief overview of the work of the European scrutiny committee so I can put the Lisbon treaty provisions in context. The role of the committee is to examine the implications of all proposed EU legislation. That legislation, in the form of directives and regulations, has a real impact on the every day lives of all Irish citizens, be they on the farm, in business or consumers. The scrutiny committee makes recommendations to the Government on the negotiating position to be adopted in Brussels. It alerts the Oireachtas to any legislative proposals with a significant impact for Ireland. It is most important that people are alerted to concerns regarding proposed legislation.
Since its formation in November 2007 the committee has considered 586 documents. Of those, the committee recommended that 54 warranted further scrutiny. Scrutiny means that representatives of NGOs, stakeholders and interest groups are invited to a public hearing held by the committee and a thorough investigation is carried out, similar to that which takes place in the Committee of Public Accounts. It is an important exercise. The committee requested the opinions of sectoral committees on 29 of the proposals. It carried out a detailed analysis of 22 of the proposals, which included getting expert opinion, and produced scrutiny reports on 16 proposals.
The committee has also specifically sought a debate in the House on two of its scrutiny reports; they are Nos. 15 and 16 on today's Order Paper. No. 15 is a proposal to remove certain HACCP hygiene requirements from small food businesses. It is important to have a directive that reduces the amount of red tape. No. 16 is about proposals for a common regulatory framework for electronic communications networks and services, which is a huge industry in Europe. Our report has concluded that the telecommunications proposals breach the principle of subsidiarity as they would shift regulatory power from ComReg to the commission in Europe. The Lisbon treaty, if ratified, will give formal powers to national parliaments to have proposals such as this amended or struck down if necessary. That is an important power in the enhanced role of national parliaments but it is subject to the referendum being carried next week.
There is careful selection by the committee of proposals that have a significant impact on the Irish people. Due diligence is carried out. The democratic deficit arose because in the past this careful selection was not carried out. The scrutiny of NGOs, vested interests and Government officials and holding the Government to account are very important.
The Lisbon treaty is a package of proposals intended to modernise the EU's institutions to ensure they work better for the Irish citizen. This is particularly important in the expanded Union of 27 member states representing over 500 million citizens. The Union will be totally modernised and the impact of having accountability in Leinster House is critical. As part of the overall package the Lisbon treaty seeks to involve national parliaments more closely in EU policy making. The treaty aims to encourage the involvement of national parliaments as a means of ensuring that decisions are taken as closely as possible to citizens of the Union. This will address the democratic deficit.
The treaty contains a new title on democratic provisions which will, for the first time, give national parliaments a formal standing within the EU's institutional architecture. We have a right and duty, and we will have a mandate if the treaty is passed, to take part fully in the scrutiny of EU legislation. According to Article 5, national parliaments will become the guardians of the principle of subsidiarity, which is formulated to ensure the EU only acts within the limits of the powers conferred on it by member states. Under subsidiarity, it is critical that if laws can be enacted in the Houses of the Oireachtas, they should not be enacted in Europe. That is a simple but important principle.
Under the Lisbon treaty, all draft EU laws will have to be forwarded to national parliaments for scrutiny. Eight weeks will have to pass before draft laws can be put on the legislative agenda and a further ten days must elapse before a position can be adopted. Under a yellow and orange card mechanism, national parliaments can oblige the European Commission to re-think a draft legislative proposal. The proposal can be defeated if the Council of Ministers or the European Parliament supports the opinion of a majority of the national parliaments. It is simple. There are 27 countries and two votes per country, giving a total of 54 votes. There is total equality. The booklet on the treaty is informative and explains the yellow and orange card principle.
Article 12 includes a number of rights for national parliaments. It is important that this be made clear because it has been lost in the national debate. They have the right to receipt of information and draft legislation direct from the EU institutions. Once a measure is produced by the Commission it will be before Dáil Éireann in the same week. National parliaments have the right to ensure that draft legislation complies with the subsidiarity principle and to take part in any future treaty revision. If the proposed treaty amendment involves a change in the areas covered by qualified majority voting, QMV, or co-decision, an individual parliament has the right to veto the proposal and block the change. Parliaments can take part in the evaluation of EU policies in the area of freedom, security and justice and in monitoring and scrutinising the activities of Europol and Eurojust. This is an important role given the drug culture in Europe.
The scrutiny committee decided to consider the enhanced role of national parliaments in detail to facilitate a debate and increase public awareness. The resulting report is based on the available evidence and the views expressed by committee members. Copies of the report and a detailed information note have been circulated to Members of the Houses. I hope they will use them as a reference. The report is due to be discussed in the Seanad tomorrow. The report outlines in detail the four main treaty changes relating to national parliaments, the current role of the Committee on European Scrutiny, how the new treaty provisions would affect the work of the Oireachtas on EU matters and the conclusions of the committee on the treaty changes.
I will consider the main conclusions in the report. The committee strongly supports the Lisbon treaty provisions that would enhance the role of national parliaments in the EU political process. It notes the proposals have been supported by the European Parliament, other national parliaments, the majority of Oireachtas Members and a large number of Irish representative groups. The committee welcomes the new subsidiarity policing role for the Dáil. This is a significant new power which will bring national parliaments into the day-to-day decision making process of the EU and should result in better legislation, greater consultation, more integration, enhanced debate and greater public awareness.
The committee welcomes the initiative whereby national parliaments are given a defined role in EU matters separate to that of the national governments. It welcomes the commitment by the Government to consult with the committee on the legislative and procedural changes necessary to implement the treaty. Dáil Éireann will have an independent voice, separate from Government, and the committee will hold the Government to account on legislative matters through discussions with Ministers on issues of greater interest to Ireland. The committee strongly recommends that significant reforms are made to Dáil and Seanad procedures to ensure regular consideration of EU matters in sessions of both Houses. As an important start we recommend that the Dáil and Seanad should allocate a specific day once a month to consider EU business. That is most important in light of the democratic deficit and given the huge impact of Europe and the importance of information on Europe. I believe that if there were more debate in the Houses on EU matters the "Yes" campaign would not be experiencing its current difficulties. It is critical to hold the Government to account for its actions.
There is a need to promote greater public awareness about the important work done by the Oireachtas on European matters. The committee is actively considering how to better communicate our message to the public and interested parties. We need initiatives to address the information deficit that exists. In the modern media age we must be far more proactive in communicating our activities. There is a need to set up an EU information office under the autonomy of the Houses of the Oireachtas that would deal with European issues. It would provide impartial information on the role of the EU. I have seen such an office operate effectively in the Danish Parliament. In time, a dedicated television channel would be of great benefit to the European debate.
When Ireland joined the EEC in 1973 there were nine members. Now that the Union has expanded to 27 member states, common sense dictates that a larger organisation needs to revise its rules to advance the common good. Streamlining the decision-making process of the EU institutions will make them more effective, efficient and flexible. It is important to provide better awareness of how we do our business. There have been criticisms in some quarters to the effect that the proposed powers for national parliaments are not significant and do not go far enough. This includes a committee member who is on the "No" side of the referendum campaign. I do not agree with that view. The committee's report is the consensus view of members representing a large majority of political parties and opinion in the Oireachtas. The committee has examined the treaty provisions in great detail and it is our considered view that they represent a significant improvement for national parliaments. The committee, made up of elected public representatives, has a responsibility to put its considered opinion into the public domain. Today's report is our contribution to provide the public with information about the content of the treaty.
In the run-up to the referendum, it is important that the people are given clear and factual information about the treaty provisions. Much of the campaign to date has been side-tracked by inaccurate claims about negative aspects of the treaty. I welcome the way in which the referendum commission has come out in the public interest to clarify some of the issues that have arisen during the campaign. Various inaccurate claims have been made about how the treaty would affect Ireland's position on abortion, neutrality and taxation. Those issues are obvious headline grabbers, which can be used play on people's concerns. The unfortunate part is that the damage is usually done by the time the factual position about the treaty is clarified. It is markedly more difficult to engage people on the benefits of improving the structure and workings of the EU, but that is precisely what we need to do. We have a responsibility to inform people about what is in the treaty and to counter efforts to make divisive claims on issues that are not in the treaty. The Irish people can then make an informed choice in the referendum based on the facts.
It is important to record that the treaty provisions on national parliaments have significant support in Ireland and the EU. Twenty seven member state parliaments have endorsed the treaty. Representative groups such as IBEC, Chambers Ireland, the ICMSA and ICOS, all large employers and job creators, are in favour of the Lisbon treaty. The Joint Committee on European Affairs published its report this week and the committee found that the new powers for national parliaments were among the most outstanding features of the treaty.
We have been a huge success in Europe for 35 years. The Irish people have a unique chance in eight days to give their verdict on the proposed modernisation of the EU institutions as set out in the Lisbon treaty. It is often said that all politics is local. The referendum campaign has certainly shown a healthy interest in matters of Irish interest. The treaty offers the best deal for Ireland and for Europe. It represents the best balance between co-operation with other EU member states and protection of our national interests. We should recall the success of the European currency, the Single Market and job creation. The perception of Ireland and our ability to attract foreign direct investment is critical. I look forward to hearing the views of Members of the Dáil and Seanad in the near future. This is a very important issue and I am delighted we have an opportunity to discuss the report in the Dáil because I believe that, unfortunately, the debate has been side-tracked. The report clearly specifies the new powers of subsidiarity, the giving back of power to the people through the elected Members who represent them.