Select Committee on European Scrutiny Thirtieth Report



DSCs and the EU

  1. Previous Reports on European scrutiny have sought to increase the attention paid by DSCs to developments in the EU, with varying degrees of gloom about the prospects for doing so.[79] Such increased attention would be particularly valuable because of their high profile and therefore their ability to bring EU matters to the attention of a relatively wide audience; DSCs are also able to investigate subjects in far more detail than we can. According to Lord Norton, 'By undertaking inquiries, committees have the potential to raise awareness among MPs, to influence deliberations in Brussels (indeed, in some cases, to set the agenda) and to inform a wider public, or rather attentive publics, as to what is going on within the EU. Select Committees may also serve as important conduits for the transmission of the views of the public (or, rather, particular publics) to EU institutions'.[80]
  2. Our predecessors stated in 1996 that 'when the likely timetable for a document allowed, we would much appreciate being able to take our decisions about further consideration on the basis of the views of the appropriate Departmental Select Committee; and any Report by that Committee would make an excellent basis for a debate.'[81] The eventual outcome in 1998 was paragraph (11) of our standing order,[82] giving us power to seek from other Committees their opinion on any EU document and to require a reply within such time as we specify. This is an unusually strong power for one select committee to have in respect of others, and we have used it sparingly (as recommended by the Modernisation Committee).[83] Three such 'opinions' have been received from DSCs and one from the Committee of Public Accounts, of which the first below was in the form of a Report and the other three by letter from the Committee:

  • Defence Committee, April 2000, on a Presidency Progress Report on the Common European Policy on Security and Defence:[84]

  • Trade and Industry Committee, December 2000, on fair trade;[85]

  • Committee of Public Accounts, March 2001, on the EC's Financial Regulation;[86]

  • International Development Committee, April 2002, on reform of European development assistance.[87]

These have been useful, and we are grateful to the Committees involved. However, taken together, they do not amount to a significant increase in DSCs' work on EU subjects.

  1. In the current session, the list of DSC inquiries includes:

  • two on specifically EU subjects: International Development on reform of European development assistance and Transport, Local Government and the Regions on the need for a new European Regeneration Framework;

  • two specifically EU-related inquiries which involve essentially a watching brief and occasional oral evidence: Defence on European Security and Defence Policy and Foreign Affairs on the 2004 IGC;

  • two concerning the putting into effect of EU legislation in the UK: Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the disposal of refrigerators and Trade and Industry on end-of-life vehicles;

  • 17 others, by eight DSCs, which (assessed subjectively on the basis of inquiry titles) appear to include a significant EU element, such as Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the future of UK agriculture and Trade and Industry on the new WTO round.

Thus many DSC inquiries have an EU element, but there is only occasionally an inquiry specifically related to developments in the EU, and only rarely one on a specific document.

  1. We are of course well aware of the difficulties facing DSCs in this respect, especially the pressure on their limited time. We have not consulted extensively for this Report, since it will be for DSCs themselves to determine what they wish to do, but we received a helpful letter from the Chairman of the Trade and Industry Committee (Martin O'Neill). He pointed out that a crucial problem was 'synchronising a Committee's timetable to the sometimes capricious legislative timetable of the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, and the fact that Select Committees greatly prize their power to choose their own programme of activity.'[88]
  2. However, he added that while
  3. 'the scope for scrutinising draft legislation is limited by the timetabling difficulties, there is scope for looking at proposals at an earlier stage. In recent years, the Commission has been far more open in its planning of legislation, publishing Green or White Papers on many major initiatives. It usually allows a reasonable period of two or three months for responses, and it appears to take the consultation process seriously. It would therefore be possible for Departmental Select Committees to scrutinise these documents, and it is arguable that, because the legislative proposals are more malleable at this stage than after the publication of a draft instrument, the Committee's views might have more effect than later in the process ...

    'Committees also have scope for "adding value" at the other end of the process, by examining the way in which UK Departments are proposing to implement European legislation — as the Trade and Industry Select Committee is doing at the moment with the End of Life Vehicles Directive.[89]

    'In both cases, the scrutiny would play to the strengths of the Departmental Select Committees, would complement the work of the European Scrutiny Committee, and would give additional information to Members taking part in any debate on the legislation. It would also help to increase awareness of EU activities amongst the wider public, and would act as a channel for informing the EU institutions of UK public opinion.'

  4. We agree with this assessment, and we would particularly wish to see DSCs examining Commission Green and White Papers, both because this relates directly to our own remit and because of the value of DSCs gathering views within the UK and expressing views themselves to the Commission at an early stage in the legislative process, when they can have most influence. We will seek to ensure that DSCs have more time to incorporate consideration of Green and White Papers in their programmes, both by providing information drawn from the Commission's Annual Work Programme as early as possible and by pressing the Commission to implement the proposals in its White Paper on European Governance for minimum standards for consultation.[90] In addition, we would be happy to involve representatives of DSCs in any meetings on the Commission's future plans, for which the 'European Grand Committee' mechanism proposed above would be appropriate.[91]
  5. Two aspects of the Modernisation Committee's recent Report on Select Committees are also relevant:

  • It proposes a list of the objectives of DSCs, but its illustrative model (surprisingly) does not specifically mention EU matters at all.[92] Now that the House has invited the Liaison Committee to establish common objectives for select committees, taking account of the Modernisation Committee's illustrative model,[93] we recommend that the objectives include consideration of the European Commission's Green and White Papers (though we recognise that these would form part of an extensive list).

  • It recommends that select committees experiment with appointing one of their number as a rapporteur on a specific task. We believe it would be helpful if DSCs (or at least those in subject areas with much EU legislation) considered appointing a European rapporteur, who could keep a watching brief on developments in the EU and whom we could consult and pass information to. Such rapporteurs could also be the DSC participants in any meetings in a European Grand Committee on the Commission's Annual Work Programme.

We ask the Liaison Committee to discuss our proposals.

 

General debates on EU matters

  1. The Minister for Europe told us that:
  2. 'Where I think we might need to be a bit more creative is finding ways in which important developments in Europe can be better discussed by Parliament as a whole, because there are big issues. Of course we have parliamentary debates and there are statements, people ask questions, but, to be frank, I would guess that the ordinary Member of Parliament is not that engaged in European business and is not following it very closely. I think that is worrying because it is such an important part of our lives and will remain so. ... when we have debates on the floor of the House, with respect to everybody, the same group of people turn up on the Conservative benches and the same group of people turn up on the Labour benches and they are a fairly small group that take an informed interest ... and I am not sure that that advances clarity to any great extent in dealing with the problem that we are discussing. We just have a problem of ensuring that the average Member of Parliament is aware of what is going on in Europe, how crucial it is, and that therefore their constituents could be aware of what is going on in Europe.'[94]

  3. We agree with the Minister that there is a problem in engaging Members in EU business, but we do not share his view of debates on the Floor of the House. Floor debates clearly have the potential to generate interest among Members and the media. In particular, we would welcome more debates on specific EU matters, such as reform of the Common Agricultural Policy or EU transport policy, which are not tied to the detail of a legislative or other text. The Leader of the House has suggested that debates on the Floor in general might be 'shorter in length but greater in number', and this might offer scope for such debates.[95]
  4. Members are of course likely to take greater interest in EU matters if there are specific opportunities available on the Floor only for the purpose of raising such matters, such as one of the weekly adjournment debates. One possibility that attracts us is an equivalent of the ten-minute procedure for EU documents, since it would take up little of the House's time but would enable a short speech in prime time. The difficulty is what would be debated: our suggestion would be a specific motion put down by the Member concerned, expressing a view on the document, in which case it would probably be convenient to apply the deferred division procedure to it. We offer this idea for the Modernisation Committee's consideration.
  5. Whether information is available in an appropriate and sufficiently accessible form to Members not directly involved in European scrutiny is a matter we have not been able to consider as part of this inquiry, but we intend to do so at some stage.
  6.  

    (5) Relationship between the scrutiny process and outside organisations and individuals

  7. The considerable effort made in the Commons to scrutinise EU legislation currently attracts relatively little attention outside the House. Moreover, as a Committee we are only occasionally lobbied in respect of a particular document. Lord Norton observed that:
  8. 'it would be very ambitious to think that the work of the Scrutiny Committee or what Parliament does generally in relation to the European Union is going to have a wide audience out there ... but where it can make quite a difference is in relation to what I call the attentive publics, organised groups out there who have some interest in what is going on or are indeed affected by what goes on in the European Union ... far more can be done in that respect.'[96]

    He linked this with a more general failure by Parliament to disseminate its work, and we note that there is activity in a number of areas — notably Commons select committees — to remedy this.[97] We recognise that the European Scrutiny Committee is only one of the channels by which people might seek to obtain information or to influence EU developments.

  9. As indicated earlier,[98] public involvement in and knowledge of the Commons' European scrutiny work is in fact crucial if the Commons is to play the part which the Government envisages for national parliaments in the EU. It could also have other advantages: raising the esteem in which the Commons is held by demonstrating that it is fully engaged in scrutinising EU legislation, enabling this Committee to benefit from independent sources of advice, contributing towards a public better-informed on EU matters, and helping to reconnect citizens and the EU.
  10. There are two preconditions for that greater public involvement and attention:

  • The House, through its committees and individual Members, must have sufficient ability to question Ministers representing the UK and influence their activity in the Council, and the EU more generally, to make lobbying committees and Members worthwhile;

  • People outside Parliament (as well as those within it) must be able to find out quickly and easily what EU documents or other EU matters are being considered in the Commons.

Elsewhere in this Report and in our Report on Democracy and accountability in the EU and the role of national parliaments we discuss the former; in this part of the Report we discuss the latter.

 

Information on the Internet

  1. Each week we produce a Report containing detailed analysis of about 20 EU documents, on a wide range of subjects. As well as being published in hard-copy form, it is placed on the parliamentary web-site,[99] but without links or satisfactory searching or index facilities. We regard our present methods as a clumsy way of disseminating information or alerting people to matters likely to be of interest to them. Most people who might wish to express a view on documents before us or to read our analysis are unlikely to search our web-site each week or to obtain copies of our Reports. While we will continue to publish hard-copy Reports, we regard their publication on a greatly improved web-site as the main way in which we should be disseminating them. We note that the parliamentary web-site is currently being redesigned and improved.
  2. In particular we believe people need to be able to indicate their interests and receive automatic notification when a document relating to a particular subject (or Department) appears on our list of forthcoming business or in one of our Reports. This sort of automatic notification by electronic means is becoming commonplace in the commercial world. We understand that such a facility is being considered as part of the Parliamentary Information Management Services study, but if it does not become generally available in that way we will request funding from the House authorities for the purpose.
  3. Some other information about European scrutiny is also difficult for anyone outside the House (and for most within it) to find. For example, the meetings of European Standing Committees are announced in the Chamber as part of the weekly Business Statement on Thursdays, and the dates are therefore available in the Official Report if one knows to look there (though only if one is lucky enough to pick the right Thursday). However, they are otherwise published only in the weekly list of documents referred to European Standing Committees, which is hard to find, and in the Weekly Information Bulletin, which for many people is not an obvious source. Similarly, the motion to be debated in a European Standing Committee is published once in the Vote Bundle when put down and once on the day of the meeting. We plan to bring together this sort of information in our web-site, together with information on Council meetings, the list of outstanding business before the Committee, our guide to the Committee's work, and links to material in the Commons Library's web-site and to the EU institutions' own web-sites. For European Standing Committee debates we would seek to provide links to as many as possible of the relevant papers on our web-site.
  4. We have not considered in this inquiry whether the Commons should play a wider role in disseminating impartial information about the EU and EU legislation, as the Danish Parliament does. However, we may do so at a later stage. Another issue is what role the Commons should play in promoting public debate on the issues being discussed by the Convention on the Future of Europe.
  5.  

    Meetings in public

  6. Oral evidence sessions can help to raise the profile of the Committee and of the scrutiny process generally, though the time we have available for such meetings is limited. The new types of meeting discussed above would also help to increase awareness of the Commons' role in EU matters. We have discussed above the possibility of opening our deliberative meetings to the public.[100]
  7.  

    Annual report

  8. We intend in future to follow the practice of other select committees in producing an annual report on our activities. We do not expect this to be a best-seller, but it will provide an opportunity to draw attention to our work.
  9.  

    Evidence to the Committee

  10. We take this opportunity to emphasise that we welcome short memoranda from organisations or individuals (not normally more than two A4 sides) submitted in electronic form[101] on documents we are about to consider, provided that they arrive in time and that they deal with matters relevant to our examination, such as:

  • how important is the proposal?

  • which aspects of the proposal give cause for concern?

  • would a debate serve a useful purpose, and what matters might be covered by such a debate?

The deadline for receipt of such memoranda is noon on Thursday for any document which might be considered at our meeting the following Wednesday (i.e. any document on which we have an Explanatory Memorandum from the Government).

 


79   HC 51-xxvii, 1995-96, paragraphs 246-9; HC 77, 1996-97, paragraphs 55-61; HC 791, 1997-98, paragraphs 32-6 and pp. xxviii-xxx. Back

80   Ev 22. Back

81   HC 51-xxvii, 1995-96, paragraph 248. Back

82   Standing order No. 143. Back

83   HC 791, 1997-98, paragraph 35. Back

84   Eighth Report from the Defence Committee, 1999-2000, HC 264, European security and defence. Back

85   ESC, 2000-01, HC 28-viii, paragraph 16. Back

86   ESC, 2000-01, HC 28-xiii, paragraph 5. Back

87   ESC, 2001-02, HC 152-xxvii, paragraphs 10-12. Back

88   Appendix to this Report. See also HC 791, 1997-98, paragraph 34. Back

89   Since published as First Report from the Trade and Industry Committee, 2001-02, HC 299. Back

90   Commission of the European Communities, European governance: a White Paper, July 2001, p.4. Back

91   Paragraphs 78-9 above. Back

92   HC 224, 2001-02, paragraph 34. Back

93   Votes and Proceedings, 14 May 2002, pp. 864-5. Back

94   QQ. 323, 326. Back

95   Memorandum, HC 440, 2001-02, paragraph 11. Back

96   Q. 26. Back

97   See e.g. HC 224, 2001-02, paragraphs 53-5; HC 692, 2001-02, paragraphs 41-6. Back

98   Paragraph 3 above. Back

99   www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmeuleg.htm  Back

100   Paragraphs 39-41 above. Back

101   To [email protected]  Back

 
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