Select Committee on European Communities Twenty-Third Report


Letter from Lord Tordoff to John Battle MP, Minister for Science, Energy and Industry, Department of Trade and Industry

  As you may be aware, Sub-Committee B is currently conducting an enquiry into the above proposal. At an informal briefing meeting with officials from the Department of Trade and Industry on 19 March, the Committee became aware that the Government now hope to reach political agreement on the proposal at the Industry Council in May.

  As I am sure you will appreciate this puts the Committee in a very difficult position. On the one hand, the Committee does not wish to obstruct the UK Government by maintaining the scrutiny reserve on a matter which they wish to see resolved while they hold the Presidency of the European Union. On the other hand we believe that the subject matter is a serious one which qualifies for a significant enquiry which it would be impossible to complete before the 7 May Industry Council meeting.

  The chronology in this context may help to explain the origin of our problem. Your Explanatory Memorandum (EM) of 4 November states that the proposals were "expected to be presented to the next meeting of the Industry Council on 13 November" (1997). The Committee has received no other official communication from you on the timetable for agreeing this proposal although your EM of 14 November 1997 on "Commission Communication - Towards a new shipbuilding policy" spoke of decisions being "deferred to a later Council".

  The Select Committee took the decision to conduct the enquiry in December 1997 and your Department was so advised in January 1998. The enquiry actually started in February 1998. I accept that a theoretical period December 1997 to May 1998 would normally have provided sufficient time for an enquiry. However, when the decision was taken in December 1997 to conduct an enquiry, we had received no indication that the UK Government was pressing for a decision at Council in May 1998. Rather, we had every indication that the timetable was for a decision in November 1998 and other apparently more urgent matters were given priority.

  In February 1998, just as our enquiry was starting, we elicited an indication from your Department that the Government were intending to take the proposal to the May 1998 Council, but that indication was coupled with doubt as to whether Member States would then reach political agreement.

  Had the Committee received an indication in January or even February 1998, (ie, early on in the Presidency), that the Government took the position that it now does, we might well have reconsidered conducting the enquiry. In fact, it was not until around 12 March 1998 that indication was received that the Government were pushing for political agreement on 7 May 1998 and that there was a good chance of achieving this. This was confirmed by Mrs Ann Wilks during the informal briefing of 19 March.

  As I have said, this puts the Committee in a dilemma.

  I should much appreciate first, your comments regarding the total lack of official and the late unofficial notification of revised timetable; secondly, your advice on what is the present timetable; and thirdly, what is the likelihood of reaching political agreement on 7 May 1998? My Committee can then decide on whether to drop the whole enquiry now or take very limited evidence with the aim of lifting the scrutiny reserve by way of a letter before 7 May 1998 or continue with a full enquiry, thereby maintaining the scrutiny reserve beyond 7 May 1998.

27 March 1998

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