Select Committee on European Scrutiny Thirtieth Report



PART 4: OTHER ASPECTS OF SCRUTINY

 

House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union

  1. Our Lords counterparts have been reviewing their work, examining among other matters the degree of 'complementarity' with the European Scrutiny Committee (including the use made of Commons scrutiny work on individual proposals), the format of reports, relations with MEPs, the scrutiny reserve, and the balance between detailed scrutiny work and more general inquiries. As indicated above, the work of the Commons and Lords committees is generally complementary, and there is nothing in this Report or the proposals being discussed by the Lords Committee which would undermine that. We look forward to continuing to work closely with our Lords counterparts.
  2.  

    The devolved institutions

  3. We enjoy friendly relations with the European committees of the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Chairmen of those three committees and the two Westminster committees meet twice a year to discuss matters of mutual interest, and we have occasional ad hoc meetings with the committees themselves. However, the five committees operate in very different ways, so the scope for co-operation is limited. One possibility, if we start to examine the Commission's Annual Work Programme more thoroughly, is to invite the devolved assemblies to contribute to that examination. We note that the fundamental needs of the devolved assemblies are similar to our own — adequate information and time to consider it — and we will take their needs into account in our Report on Democracy and accountability in the EU and the role of national parliaments.
  4. It is a matter of concern that not all information about EU discussions relevant to the devolved administrations and legislatures has been forwarded to them by UK Departments. Correspondence between two Departments and this Committee has confirmed that important documentation regarding Council of Ministers meetings was not being sent to the devolved administrations and legislatures.[102]
  5. A matter of interest both to us and to the devolved assemblies is the availability of information about meetings between UK Ministers and Ministers from the devolved administrations on EU matters. The concordat between the UK and the devolved administrations provides that
  6. 'The UK Government will involve the devolved administrations as fully as possible in discussions about the formulation of the UK's policy position on all EU and international issues which touch on devolved matters. This must, obviously, be subject to mutual respect for the confidentiality of those discussions and adherence to the resultant UK line, without which it would be impossible to maintain such close working relationships.'[103]

  7. It clearly is the case that confidentiality is required for discussions about the UK's negotiating position in the Council. However, it is far from clear that every aspect of those discussions, including whether they are taking place at all, must remain secret, and accountability to Parliament and the devolved assemblies requires some information to be made available. The European Committee in the Scottish Parliament has been active in pressing for further information,[104] but the principle of parliamentary accountability also applies at the UK level. We note that the Scottish Executive proposes to discuss with the UK Government 'the possibility of at least being able to share some of the items on the agenda'.[105] While recognising the importance of confidentiality in determining the UK's negotiating positions, we recommend that the Government relax the confidentiality provision in the concordat sufficiently to be able to indicate in EMs whether discussions have taken place with the devolved institutions and, as far as possible, on what subjects.
  8.  

    Relations with MEPs

  9. We occasionally meet some of the UK's 87 MEPs in Brussels, and took evidence from several of them there as part of our inquiry into Democracy and accountability in the EU and the role of national parliaments. However, such meetings have been only occasional. Most contact between MPs and MEPs is on a party basis, but we believe the promotion of the UK's interests in the EU and the effectiveness of the UK's scrutiny process could be improved by wider contacts. We envisage regular meetings with MEPs, perhaps every six months, related where possible to specific EU activity, such as the Commission's Annual Work Programme or a Presidency's priorities, and possibly involving representatives of DSCs. We are currently discussing this possibility with the leaders of the three largest UK parties in the European Parliament.
  10.  

    Reform of COSAC

  11. National parliamentary scrutiny could be more effective if COSAC, the Conference of European Affairs Committee of the EU's parliaments, was reformed, so that it had the clear purpose of contributing to the effectiveness of such scrutiny and had a small secretariat. It could exchange best practice and other information, discuss changes in EU practices and procedures which affect national parliamentary scrutiny and act as a pressure group in relation to the EU institutions. We will discuss this in our Report on Democracy and accountability in the EU and the role of national parliaments.
  12.  

    National Parliament Office

  13. The National Parliament Office was established in 1999. We have no hesitation in describing it as a successful innovation. In addition to providing us with a weekly bulletin, which we greatly value, it is helpful in tracking down specific information and documents and alerting us to important developments. In fact it acts exactly as envisaged by the Modernisation Committee in 1998, 'as a forward observation post for the House, and ... as the eyes and ears of the European [Scrutiny] Committee acting on the House's behalf.'[106] In these ways the National Parliament Office contributes significantly to the effectiveness of the scrutiny process. In addition, it is currently providing some support to the UK's representatives on the Convention on the Future of Europe.
  14.  

     

    Direct relations with the Commission

  15. As already indicated, our main role is to seek to influence UK Ministers. However, we have always acknowledged that our Reports may have an informal influence on the EU institutions, including the Commission. We note that the Commission is calling for a 'reinforced culture of consultation and dialogue' and believes that 'the involvement of national parliaments and their specialised European affairs committees ... could ... be encouraged'.[107] We welcome this, though we will need to consider further how we could contribute in this way without being deflected from our main role of seeking to influence UK Ministers.[108]
  16.  

    Streamlining the system

  17. Many documents are of such minor importance (at least to the UK) that we require only a few lines of briefing from our staff. Examples can be found in the final paragraph of virtually all our weekly Reports. Nevertheless, in each case a civil servant has to write an Explanatory Memorandum and our staff have to satisfy themselves that there are no significant UK implications. In individual cases this cannot be helped. We would not wish to give wide discretion to Departments to decide what to deposit, though we recognise that there are many grey areas where, despite the apparent precision of our standing order, Departments have to exercise discretion. However, there are also whole categories of documents which we rarely or never find to be of legal or political importance. In one case — transfers between Budget lines — arrangements have already made for such documents not to be deposited.[109] Instead, the Treasury sends us a consolidated list of them once a quarter. We propose that a similar procedure of regular lists instead of depositing be applied to:

  • Community positions on rules of procedure for various Councils and Committees, including those established under Association Agreements;

  • Proposals to extend Common Positions imposing sanctions (without making substantive changes) in pursuance of UN Security Council resolutions;

  • Proposals making minor changes to lists of people or organisations subject to restrictive provisions in existing measures;

  • draft Council Decisions relating to decisions already made in Association Councils or Committees;

  • reappointment of members to EU organisations;

  • documents on anti-dumping measures.

We would expect to receive regular lists of such documents and to be kept informed by Ministers' letters of any broader issues or general developments or trends in respect of Association Councils and Committees and anti-dumping, and we would reserve the right to require the deposit of any of these documents if we considered this necessary. We will discuss this further with the Cabinet Office. We invite our sister Committee in the Lords to consider this proposal, so that procedures in the two Houses can remain in step.

Transposition and implementation of EU legislation in the UK

  1. It is not part of our role to monitor the transposition or implementation of EU legislation in the UK, and we would not have the time to do so. However, no other committee has this responsibility either, and much EU legislation is implemented by statutory instruments subject to the negative procedure,[110] with the result that there may be no parliamentary scrutiny at all. Several witnesses believed there was a problem of 'gold-plating' when implementing EU legislation in the UK.[111]
  2. There are three ways in which the gap as regards implementation might be filled:

  • DSCs can examine the ways in which Departments are proposing to implement EU legislation, as suggested by the Chairman of the Trade and Industry Committee and done by his Committee in respect of the End of Life Vehicles Directive;[112]

  • The range of measures which have to be implemented by Acts rather than statutory instruments could be increased, as proposed by Martin Howe QC, or some procedure simpler than an Act but involving more scrutiny than statutory instruments currently receive could be devised for EU-related measures;[113]

  • There could be a Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee to sift statutory instruments in the same way that we sift EU documents and to recommend the most important for debate, as proposed most recently (for an experimental period) by the Leader of the House.[114]

All of these have attractions, but we regard the last as the best option, since it would be the most systematic. We support the Leader of the House's proposal for a Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and for debates on statutory instruments it recommends for debate.

 


102   Letters from officials of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of 20 March 2002 and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of 26 March 2002 relating to Council agendas. Back

103   Memorandum of understanding and supplementary agreements, Cm 4444, 1999, paragraph 19. Back

104   e.g. in 9th Report, 2001, The governance of the European Union and the future of Europe: what role for Scotland?, SP Paper 466, paragraphs 178-83, 240-1. Back

105   QQ. 359, 364. See also the Scottish Executive response to the Scottish Parliament's European Committee on its 9th report of 2001, 20 February 2002, pp. 8-9. Back

106   HC 791, 1997-98, paragraph 42. Back

107   Commission of the European Communities, European governance: a White Paper, July 2001, pp. 16-17. Back

108   See our forthcoming Report on Democracy and accountability in the EU and the role of national parliamentsBack

109   See Twentieth Report from the Select Committee on European Legislation, 1997-98, HC 155-xx, Scrutiny of the EC Budget, paragraph 41 and p.6. Back

110   Under which no action by either House is required but the instrument is annulled if either House passes a motion within a specified time calling for annulment. Back

111   Ev 20, 150; Q. 467. Back

112   Paragraph 85 above; First Report from the Trade and Industry Committee, 2001-02, HC 299, End of Life Vehicles DirectiveBack

113   Ev 150; Q. 469. Back

114   Memorandum, HC 440, 2001-02, paragraph 25. Back

 
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