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As you know, the European Union Committee has recently concluded a review of scrutiny, which began last session under your chairmanship. The Leader's Group indicated that we should report our findings to the Liaison Committee. I accordingly enclose a copy of our report as published.
This letter makes the case for an increase in the number of the Sub-Committees of the European Union Committee, on which the Committee would welcome the views of the Liaison Committee.
I would be happy to discuss these issues further at the next meeting of the Liaison Committee on 17 February.
At present, the Select Committee itself performs the following functions:
Scrutinising the Commission's Annual Work Programme and in future possibly the Council's Strategic Agenda as well;
Hearing evidence from the Minister for Europe after every major European Council;
Hearing evidence from the Ambassador of every incoming Presidency;
Inquiring into matters which do not efficiently fall to an individual Sub-Committee, including major institutional questions (such as the report on the Second Chamber) and crosscutting inquiries (such as the review of scrutiny);
Approving reports prepared by the Sub-Committees;
Considering Government responses to our reports;
Appointing the members of Sub-Committees;
Appointing specialist advisers for the Sub-Committees.
The Committee currently has six Sub-Committees, of up to 12 members. The individual Sub-Committees at present scrutinise policy in the following areas:
Economic and Financial Affairs, and External Relations (A).
Energy, Industry and Transport (B).
Common Foreign and Security Policy and International Development (C).
Environment, Agriculture, Public Health and Consumer Protection (D).
Law and Institutions (E).
Social Affairs, Education and Home Affairs (F).
Drivers for change
There are three drivers for change that have drawn us to the conclusion that the number of our Sub-Committees should be increased: our own sense of the case for change, given existing work; our own willingness to make scrutiny more effective by doing more; and external pressures.
First, it is clear that our members feel that the present division of policy responsibilities means that each Sub-Committee is examining too wide a range of policy areas and cannot always give proper attention to them all. This is supported by the relentless increase in the number of documents deposited for scrutiny: since the Jellicoe review of our work in 1992 the number of documents deposited each year for scrutiny has increased from around 800 to about 1400. Our review has recommended that certain documents no longer be deposited for scrutiny but as these are documents which would normally be cleared by the Chairman's sift this change will not noticeably cut the workload of Sub-Committees.
Secondly, our review has endorsed the fundamental principles on which we work, namely that documents are sifted by the Chairman and referred to expert policy Sub-Committees for examination. Our review nevertheless proposed new areas of activity designed to enhance and strengthen the House's scrutiny of European legislation. These will mean increased responsibilities for Sub-Committees including:
more regular scrutiny in advance of Council meetings, including of Government officials;
more short studies to complement major inquiries;
more emphasis on the follow-up of work;
more analysis of cost impact assessments;
more scrutiny of Comitology decisions;
more emphasis on ensuring that our work is of use to the House;
a greater effort to disseminate our work in the outside world.
As we recognise that these are additional responsibilities, we have also accepted that we need to make the best use of the time we spend with witnesses. We nevertheless conclude that these new functions will, overall, mean an increased workload for Sub-Committees.
Thirdly, there are outside pressures for change which, we believe, will lead to an increase in our workload. It is a clear and significant theme in the Convention on the Future of Europe that there should be an enhanced role for national parliaments in the European Union, to help redress the disconnection between the citizen and those governing the Union. There are already specific proposals for national parliaments to have a more formal role in monitoring subsidiarity; and suggestions that matters of Justice and Home Affairs might be brought under the Community method, requiring an enhanced scrutiny of an increased. number of documents. Enlargement too may mean more legislation to consider. There is also pressure for closer working with other national parliaments (through COSAC) and for a closer working relationship with our colleagues in the Commons, which we have welcomed.
We have always kept under review the balance of work between our Sub-Committees and the number of Sub-Committees has varied over the years. As part of our recent review, we have considered whether the present balance of work between the Sub-Committees is right, given the likely future priorities of the Union. We have concluded that there is a prima facie case for increasing the number of our Sub-Committees and we make a proposal to that effect.
One way of deciding which policy areas Sub-Committees should cover would be to examine the existing structure of Government departments. Another would be to mirror the Council of Ministers which now operates in nine formations (see annex). It would therefore be possible to argue that each Council should be scrutinised by one of our Sub-Committees, giving a total of nine.
We rejected this idea, however, for two reasons. First, none of these existing Councils uniquely fits with the work of our Sub-committee E (Law and Institutions) which, chaired by a Law Lord, provides valuable scrutiny of legal matters across the board. Secondly, two of the Councils (Education, Youth and Culture; and Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs) do not in our view generate a full Sub-Committee's worth of scrutiny work.
Our proposal is accordingly for eight Sub-Committees combining policy areas (such as environment and agriculture) but to a lesser extent than with our present six Sub-Committees, as follows:
1. Economic and Financial Affairs (elements of existing A)
2. Transport, Telecommunications and Energy (elements of existing B and D)
3. General Affairs and External Relations (existing C)
4. Environment and Agriculture (elements of existing D)
5. Law and Institutions (existing E)
6. Justice and Home Affairs (most of existing F)
7. Social Policy and Consumer Affairsincluding Healthcare and Education (most of existing D and F)
8. Competitiveness and International Trade Policy - including the Internal Market, Industry, Worker Protection and Research (elements of existing A and B)
It would be our intention that these be the areas of primary responsibility for each Sub-Committee; but that, as now, flexibility is maintained to ensure the best deployment of resources by agreement between Sub-Committees.
We would not, however, wish any expansion of the number of our Sub-Committees to take place unless a sufficient number of Members of the House were available with both the expertise and time necessary to do the work and put it to good use. We stress here that we believe expertise and commitment to be more important factors than party balance.
We support the rotation rule in its present form although we would welcome a wider pool of names coming forward to allow us great flexibility in co-opting members to Sub-Committees. We have no wish, however, to increase the number of Members serving on individual Sub-Committees. Indeed, if there are to be more Sub-Committees, we would welcome smaller Sub-Committees, each with an expert and active membership. We also have no objection to members of the House serving on more than one Sub-Committee.
Our six Sub-Committees currently have a maximum total membership of 12, meaning up to 72 Members of the House can serve on our Sub-Committees (although a few places have deliberately been kept vacant to assist flexibility if the overall number changes).
It is our view that ten members is about the right size for a Sub-Committee (provided that all members are reasonably regular attendees). Dividing our current 72 among our proposed eight Sub-Committees would mean finding only eight more Members of the House to reach the desired number.
Any change in the number and responsibilities of Sub-Committees would, of course, mean a consequential need to redistribute our existing members among a new series of Sub-Committees.
As far as staff are concerned, the Leader of the House told us that he hoped the House would "will the means" to deliver the necessary resources for our work, although he stressed that the time taken to recruit clerks of a suitable calibre would always be a factor.
We would not wish to see extra work being undertaken without the necessary resources to undertake it. Each Sub-Committee needs their own dedicated Clerk and Assistant. The work of our three new European Policy Researchers has assisted the Select Committee and the Sub-Committees but with only three posts it has not been possible to allocate a researcher to each SubCommittee. Our Sub-Committees accordingly remain much less intensively resourced than the Commons departmental select committees which they in some ways mirror.
We recognise that, even if there is acceptance of the need to increase the number of Sub-Committees, the need to find suitable members and recruit suitable staff may mean a timetabled introduction of any additional Sub-Committees. We nevertheless consider that the present division of work overloads the Sub-Committees; that changes are needed to enhance the House's scrutiny of EU legislation; and that existing problems will only get worse in the future. The time to act is now, to ensure that the House is ready to meet the new challenges we will face.
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