Select Committee on European Union First Report


PART 4: OUR WORKING METHODS

Introduction

98. The Select Committee currently has six Sub-Committees, which scrutinise particular policy areas and present draft reports to the Select Committee, which in turn agrees reports and presents them to the House. This part of our report considers the balance of work between the Sub-Committees, and between the Select Committee and the Sub-Committees. We also examine whether scrutiny of the Council of Ministers is adequate. We conclude this part by examining our relationship with other scrutineers, including the House of Commons, other national parliaments and the European Parliament.

Sub-Committee Structure

99. 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 this review, we have considered whether the present balance of work between the Sub-Committees is right, given the likely future priorities of the Union and the adjustments to the formations of the Council of Ministers agreed at the European Council in Seville. An alternative model would be to match the 23 Directorates General in the Commission and the similar number of EP Committees. Tables 1 and 2 set out the present structure and compare it both with the structure of the Council of Ministers and the United Kingdom Government Departments.

THE CURRENT SUB-COMMITTEES ARE:

Table 1: Distribution of Competencies

Council of Ministers
EU Sub-Committee
UK Government Depart
General Affairs and External Relations
A, E, C
Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Dept. for International Development; Ministry of Defence
Economic and Financial Affairs
A, E
HM Treasury
Justice and Home Affairs
E, F
Home Office;
Lord Chancellor's Dept.
Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs
D, F, E
Dept. for Education and Skills;
Dept. of Health;
Dept. of Trade and Industry;
Dept. for Work and Pensions
Competitiveness (Internal Market, Industry and Research)
A, B, E
Dept. of Trade and Industry
Transport, Telecommunications and Energy
B
Dept. for Transport;
Dept. of Trade and Industry
Agriculture and Fisheries
D
Dept. for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Environment
D, E
Dept. for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Education, Youth and Culture
F
Dept. for Education and Skills; Dept. for Culture, Media and Sport; Home Office



Table 2

EU Sub-CommitteeCouncil of Ministers UK Government Depart
A - Economic and Financial Affairs, Trade and External Relations 2.Economic and Financial Affairs;
5.Competitiveness (Internal Market, Industry and Research)
HM Treasury;
Dept. of Trade and Industry
B - Energy, Industry and Transport5.Competitiveness (Internal Market, Industry and Research);
6.Transport, Telecommunications and Energy
Dept. of Trade and Industry; Dept. for Transport
C - Common Foreign and Security Policy 1.General Affairs and External RelationsForeign and Commonwealth Office;
Ministry of Defence;
Dept. for International Development
D - Environment, Agriculture, Public Health and Consumer Protection 4.Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs;
7.Agriculture and Fisheries;
8.Environment
Dept. for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs;
Dept. of Health;
Dept. of Trade and Industry
E - Law and Institutions1.General Affairs and External Relations;
3.Justice and Home Affairs
4.Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs;
5.Compettitiveness
Home Office;
Lord Chancellor's Dept.;
Law Officers Dept.
F - Social Affairs, Education and Home Affairs 3.Justice and Home Affairs;
4.Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs;
9.Education, Youth and Culture
Dept. for Work and Pensions;
Dept. for Education and Skills;
Home Office;
Depart. for Culture, Media and Sport;


The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is not covered in this table.

  

100. For Dr Cygan, a strength of the Sub-Committee structure was that it allowed multiple inquiries on a range of topics, providing both flexibility and the development of expertise to provide continuity. He suggested, however, that there should be provisions for ad hoc sub-committees on general matters which cut across the existing Sub-Committee boundaries (pp 54-55).

101. Some of our witnesses suggested that we should vary the work between Sub-Committees: the European Policy Centre, for example, suggested that there should be one Sub-Committee looking at justice and home affairs alone; and that the Sub-Committee on law and institutions should focus on strengthening the European Court of Justice, particularly if the European Charter on Fundamental Rights became legally binding or if the European Union acceded to the European Convention on Human Rights (p 50).

INTEGRATION OF POLICY

102. It should be noted that, unlike the House of Commons, the House of Lords has very few Select Committees on individual policy areas (known in the House of Commons as Departmental Select Committees and sometimes referred to as "sectoral committees"). There is therefore little danger that our work in scrutinising European legislation on particular policy areas will overlap with or duplicate that of other Committees of the House of Lords. In our view this integration of substantive policy into European scrutiny is a strength of our Sub-Committee system, which must be maintained. And if Members of the House wish to be considered for membership of our Sub-Committees because of interest and expertise in particular policy areas, and not just because of expertise in European affairs, so much the better.

103. We note that the Convention's Working Group on National Parliaments stresses the role of sectoral committees as a key element in strengthening parliamentary scrutiny of European business. We believe that our Sub-Committees, which examine sectoral policy issues in the European context, provide a model for a national parliament wishing to scrutinise European legislation in depth and on the basis of genuine expertise. There is, in our view, a weakness in any system which confines "European scrutiny" to a small group of specialists. There is a danger that scrutiny could be conducted in a mechanistic way with Members not having the time to do more than draw attention to matters which they think are important. Such a system can of course work well, if a plenary, or the sectoral committees, to which matters are referred have the time and inclination to take them seriously. Neither of these can be taken for granted. It is accordingly our view that European scrutiny is strengthened if undertaken by those with a range of policy specialism and expertise.

THE NUMBER OF SUB-COMMITTEES

104. As part of this review, we asked individual Sub-Committees to consider what they were doing. It clearly emerged that many Members feel that the current remits of the Sub-Committees are too broad. Some Sub-Committees, for example, are expected to cover the work of four or more significant policy areas. Members accordingly feel that they can never give adequate attention to them all. There is thus a prima facie case for expanding the number of our Sub-Committees to ensure that better attention can be paid to a wider range of policy areas.

105. We would, however, not wish expansion of the number of our Sub-Committees to take place unless a sufficient number of Members of the House were clearly 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 have no wish, however, to increase the number of Members serving on individual Sub-Committees. Indeed, we have no objection to Members serving on more than one Sub-Committee or to having smaller Sub-Committees if there are more of them. We do, however, support the rotation rule in its present form although we would welcome a wider pool of names coming forward to allow us greater flexibility in co-opting members to Sub-Committees.

106. We will accordingly propose to the Liaison Committee a plan for restructuring our Sub-Committees' work. This will be based on a practical assessment of the requirements for scrutiny in different policy areas. Our Sub-Committee structure would need to be expanded to nine to match more closely the formations of the Council of Ministers. Such an arrangement would, however, not cover the areas of Law and Institutions currently covered by Sub-Committee E, which we would not wish to lose. The Convention's work on subsidiarity may lead to other new tasks for national parliaments. We are willing to take on additional work in this and other areas. For the moment, we will formalise the experimental arrangement we have been operating under which Sub-Committee C has been considering international development. External relations - currently with Sub-Committee A—will fall to Sub-Committee C too.

The Role of the Select Committee

107. The Select Committee at present performs the following tasks:

108. The Chairman of the Select Committee performs specific tasks too including the sift (see paragraph 16 above) and signing all correspondence on behalf of the Sub-Committees. We endorse this system of correspondence, as it provides a focus for bringing our work together and a single point of contact for the Government.

109. We note evidence received that our sessions with the Ambassadors were not a contribution to scrutiny (EPC p 109), although Lord Howell of Guildford found them very useful and wished to see more (Q 74). We nevertheless consider that gathering information at an early stage during a Presidency's life assists the Chairmen and Members of Sub-Committees in their subsequent scrutiny work. We will, of course, review these sessions if there is a change to the six monthly rotating Presidency system. We consider our sessions with the Minister of Europe after the European Council provide an opportunity for thorough scrutiny across policy areas. We are, however, concerned at the lack of interaction between this work and the House's only opportunity to debate European Councils, by way of a Ministerial Statement repeated in the Lords usually within a day or so of the Council concluding. We accordingly recommend that a general debate on European affairs is held in the House within one month of every European Council. The House will then have the opportunity to digest the Ministerial statement, and the mini-debate that takes place on it, and return to the issues in more detail subsequently. We would undertake to ensure that the results of our evidence session with the Minister for Europe were available in good time for such a debate, to better inform the House and so enable it to make the best use of its time.

Do our Sub-Committees operate in the most effective way?

EVIDENCE

110. Evidence has long been the basis of our work. The process of taking evidence can assist scrutiny if it is properly condensed and properly analysed. We would not wish to move away from an evidence-based system of scrutiny, particularly given that the Government itself is stressing the need for "evidence based policy making"[35]. We are constantly alive to the need to ensure that we take evidence from the widest possible range of interests, as suggested by Baroness Williams of Crosby (Q 172). We note criticism from Dr Caroline Jackson MEP that our questioning of witnesses, particularly from the Commission, could be tighter (p 60) and that we should pay more attention to the objections to proposed legislation. We undertake to ensure that our questioning of witnesses is based on the best possible information and makes the best possible use of the time we spend with them, noting Baroness Williams' suggestion that we might focus our oral evidence more; and take more written evidence (Q 175). We also intend to ensure that our scrutiny of individual legislative proposals, even where these are not the subject of a full inquiry, are where necessary based on examination at least of the relevant government officials.

111. We accordingly invite the Government to ensure that all Departments are made aware of the need to ensure that officials are available to give evidence to our Sub-Committees, often at short notice and on particular aspects of individual legislative items. We have also noted the suggestion by Lord Howell of Guildford[36] that the Committee holds a "second reading debate on EU possibilities". We take this to mean that we should hold more regular scrutiny with Ministers on the general issues coming before Council. We undertake to conduct more regular scrutiny of the Council. In particular, Sub-Committee C will in future invite Ministerial evidence on the outcome of every General Affairs Council. Lord Howell of Guildford has also suggested more regular sessions with Commissioners (Q 74-75). We will make greater use of techniques such as video-conferencing to get round some of the practical problems of hearing busy witnesses. We recommend that the House equips a committee room for the purpose of video-conferencing by Lords Committees.

EXPERTISE

112. The Leader of the House told us we were fortunate in having Members of the House with the expertise, time and commitment to perform an effective role on Committees (Q 5). It has been suggested that it is inappropriate for the same members of Sub-Committees both to conduct wide-ranging inquiries into policy and more detailed scrutiny into individual documents[37]. We reject this suggestion, as did Baroness Williams of Crosby in evidence to us (Q 172). This argument, however, appears to be based on the assumption that in giving their time to one of these functions our members could not give adequate time to the other. If the work of a Sub-Committee is properly planned, there will be sufficient time for all its activities. For example, scrutiny of individual legislative documents cannot as a matter of course be tagged on to the end of a meeting during which members have taken an hour and a half of oral evidence. Proper time needs to be available for this work, even if it appears less exciting. It follows that Sub-Committees need to limit the amount of time spent on oral evidence and cross-examining witnesses, in order to ensure that adequate time is made available for other work.

113. Jimmy Hood thought it was one of the great strengths of our system that we had specialist committees that could look at proposals on their merits (Q 138). We are not, however, complacent about the expertise of our members. Many Members of the House have been appointed because of their expertise in particular areas, but that expertise needs to be kept up to date. We accordingly consider that it is of positive benefit to those conducting scrutiny of specific legislative items that they have also conducted in-depth inquiries into general policy.

PLANNING

114. Sub-Committees at present set their own agenda, on the basis of documents sifted for examination by the Chairman of the Select Committee and having regard to general policy issues and developments. In order to continue to operate in the most effective way possible, Sub-Committees will continue to need to take into account the work the Select Committee undertakes in scrutinising the Commission's Annual Work Programme and the European Council, and any similar cross-cutting initiatives. This work will help the Select Committee to inform the planning of work by the Sub-Committees. The aim will be to ensure that members of Sub-Committees do not find their incentive to contribute diminished by inquiries which are, for example, only of interest to a small persuasive minority of their own members. The Select Committee, on which all the Sub-Committees are represented, is in a position to take the broader picture of developments in the European Union and to carry that through in the work of the Sub-Committees.

115. We also note concerns that scrutiny suffers during the long parliamentary summer recess. The Leader of the House has proposed a September sitting for the House and it has been agreed that this will happen in 2003. A sitting in September would allow Sub-Committees to examine matters arising towards the end of July. This is because there is usually a gap of a few weeks while the Government's Explanatory Memoranda are prepared (QQ 13, 25). We note that it has been suggested in the House that we should consider whether the revised sitting times, particularly if the House rises earlier for the Summer Recess, might adversely affect our scrutiny[38]. We are confident that this will not be the case.

116. We will consider further the opportunities for greater openness in our meetings. We have already proposed (paragraph 110 above) an increase in the number of sessions with officials. These would normally be public sessions, on the record.

Co-operation with other Scrutineers

THE HOUSE OF COMMONS: THE EUROPEAN SCRUTINY COMMITTEE

117. Our Committee and the Commons European Scrutiny Committee do quite different jobs, although we do both work "for a common cause" (to quote the Chairman of the Commons Committee, Jimmy Hood MP (Q 122)). In order to examine the opportunities for co-operation, it is necessary to understand our different working methods. The principal difference is that the Commons Committee does not ostensibly examine the merits of a particular document but considers each document against the criteria of whether it is politically and legally important and should accordingly be debated. We examine all documents on their policy merits, and we consider a number of documents in detail and based on evidence. The Commons Committee produces few reports based on evidence.

118. A second major difference between our two committees is that we appoint Sub-Committees, including ad hoc Sub-Committees. It is through the vehicle of the Sub-Committees that our Committee both conducts scrutiny of individual documents, often involving correspondence with Ministers, and substantial inquiries. The Sub-Committee system allows our members to bring and develop expertise; to hear outside views on proposals; and to consider the merits of a policy. We can accordingly focus in detail on specific policy areas at every stage. In the Commons that detailed policy work is left to departmental Select Committees.

119. We have considered whether there is real "complementarity" between our Committee and the Commons European Scrutiny Committee and whether we succeed in avoiding unnecessary duplication of effort. We have also considered the opportunities for co-operation (including joint evidence sessions) with the Commons in order to improve scrutiny.

120. Lord Howell of Guildford argued that greater co-ordination between the two Houses was both desirable and inevitable (QQ 59-62). Dr Caroline Jackson MEP on the other hand was not alone in proposing a single European Committee of the two Houses combining the quality and range of view of our reports with an input by MPs (whose own reports she criticised for a lack of impact) to make our work "more forceful and pointed, and…with greater polemic force" (pp 61-62).

121. Dr Cygan proposed in the long term a joint committee involving both Houses equally in the whole range of scrutiny tasks, although he also suggested for the medium term that we should focus only on in-depth inquiries and the Commons should do only the mechanics of scrutiny (pp 54-55). Baroness Williams supported joint working on the Convention (Q 176).

122. The Leader of the House too floated the idea of a joint committee, although stressing that this was his own view and did not represent government policy. His proposal was based on the need to avoid duplication, and designed to ensure a more effective outcome. He suggested that a joint committee might improve scrutiny, noting that the Commons did not work "potentially as well as we can". He also noted that it was inconvenient for witnesses to appear before more than one committee on the same issue (QQ 4, 7-8, 21).

123. We can see the force in some of the arguments for a joint committee. The UK national parliament would be able to speak with one voice, although it is a matter of discussion whether that would lead to any greater impact outside Westminster than we have at present. On balance, however, the arguments advanced do not persuade us of the need for a joint committee. We nevertheless make proposals below for more joint working. We note that the Commons Committee has already rejected the suggestion for a joint committee[39]. That such a committee would enhance scrutiny has been stated but no convincing argument advanced. Indeed the Leader of the House implied that the Commons work was less effective than ours (Q 4). It therefore does not follow that adding their work to ours (or ours to theirs) would necessarily improve scrutiny: indeed it might dilute its effect in spite of minor improvements in administrative efficiency. The number of Members of this House on a joint committee would certainly be less than on our Committee at present. We would almost certainly lose our power to co-opt Members of expertise. Both of these would be weaknesses in a joint committee.

124. Another argument for a joint committee is that it is conceivable that, if two committees came to different views, the Government might be able to play them off against each other. We were pleased to hear Jimmy Hood MP say that he did not think our committees would be distracted in that way (Q 156).

125. The argument that witnesses find it inconvenient to appear twice is a good one, but as the Commons European Scrutiny Committee only occasionally takes evidence the issue almost never arises. Where they do it tends to be from a Minister and we remain firmly of the view that, in a bicameral system, scrutiny of Ministers by both Houses strengthens scrutiny. We are sure that the Leader of the House's motive for proposing a joint committee was not a desire to reduce the accountability of Ministers to Parliament.

126. As for the Commons departmental Select Committees, we are aware that, where they undertake inquiries on European topics, there can be an overlap with the work of our Sub-Committees. Our officials monitor such developments closely. The same issues arise with regard to the Scottish Parliament, and in particular its European Affairs Committee, but once again official channels provide a good means of co-operation.

127. We remain of the view that effective scrutiny is a synthesis of scrutiny based on legislation and scrutiny based on policy. The different scrutiny systems in the two Houses complement each other in this way and should continue.

128. We nevertheless warmly welcome Jimmy Hood MP's commitment to collaboration and working together and are pleased to note that his Committee finds our work on the merits of proposals helpful (Q 138). We will accordingly take up with the Commons Committee the question of whether the balance of work between the two Committees is appropriate. We will also examine ways by which we can use and build on their scrutiny work in conducting our own.

129. We have already accepted the case for joint working on specific issues, as well as building on established mechanisms for co-operation between officials. For example, co-operation between the Houses in the Standing Committee on the Convention has been a success[40]. We work with the Commons in connection with COSAC (see paragraph 133 below). We also invited the Commons to join our scrutiny of the Commission's Annual Work Programme in a joint session of evidence from the Commission. Our colleagues in the Commons, however, declined this invitation. We will, though, consider with the Commons the case for a joint meeting after each European Council to allow the two Committees to exchange views on the future planning of work on the basis of the agenda set by the European Council. We will also consider practical means for joint dissemination of our views, where they coincide, to increase our impact.

THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT

130. A number of our witnesses suggested more direct contact between national parliamentarians and members of the European Parliament. Professor Neil MacCormick MEP wanted to see direct contact between members of national parliamentary scrutiny committees and members of relevant parliamentary committees (p 63). Andrew Duff MEP wished to see MEPs joining our committees (and, incidentally, having the right to table written questions in national parliaments), as well as national parliamentarians attending European parliamentary committees (p 57). Baroness Williams of Crosby thought MEPs should be better treated at Westminster and should participate in the work of our Committees regularly (Q 177). Lord Inglewood MEP, on the other hand, while noting the important role of MEPs as conduits from the European institutions to their Member State, thought there were practical problems in any structured and formal involvement. He suggested that each political delegation at the European Parliament should give evidence to our Sub-Committees during their inquiries (p 60).

131. Dr Cygan suggested that we should co-opt MEPs for particular inquiries, as the Bundestag did. This would be a way of improving information and strengthening the United Kingdom line on particular issues (p 55). Lord Howell of Guildford wanted to see MEPs "pressed" to attend our Committees more often, and wished thought to be given to other ways of including them (QQ 73-76). Mr Larsen-Jensen, however, said that contacts between his committee and MEPs had been of little value: contacts between MEPs and individual subject committees would be more useful (Q109).

132. The European Parliament scrutinises and adopts almost all EU primary legislation, often in co-decision with the Council. We have therefore much to learn from MEPs, who have the expertise, the experience and the responsibility for deciding on this legislation. The question whether MEPs should have further rights of access to our Parliament, however, is not one that we are qualified to address. This would be a matter for the House itself. We note that the Liberal Democrats, as a Party, have regular sessions with their MEPs (Q 159). We note that the Commons Committee is considering regular meetings with MEPs (Q 132) as an enhancement of scrutiny. We undertake to ensure that relevant UK MEPs have the opportunity to give evidence to our inquiries, and that the outputs of our work are communicated directly to them.

SCRUTINY BY OTHER NATIONAL PARLIAMENTS

133. We are constantly alive to what we can learn from other national parliamentary scrutiny committees, and to what they can learn from us. To this end, we are working in particularly close operation with our Danish colleagues and the Commons European Scrutiny Committee, on proposals to reform COSAC[41], the body aimed at facilitating co-operation between national parliamentary European scrutiny committees. A key aim is a better exchange of information between national parliaments, which Mr Larsen-Jensen thought would be of value both in terms of best practice and specific policies (QQ 118, 120). In addition, our Chairman gave presentations on our behalf to both the Irish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly on how they might develop their scrutiny systems. We are happy to share our experience with any other parallel national parliamentary body among the current Member States or the incoming countries. We also undertake to follow up our session with our Danish colleagues by taking evidence from a number of national parliaments (including bicameral parliaments) whose scrutiny systems are well developed, to see what we can learn from their work.

Resources

134. In terms of Members of the House, our Committee and its Sub-Committees are extremely well resourced, not least in the expertise of our members. Some 70 Members of the House serve on our Committees: this represents about 10% of the total membership of the House, and probably a higher percentage of the active membership. Members serving on the Committee and its Sub-Committees are required to make a considerable time commitment to their work. Sub-Committees tend to meet at least once a week and Members serving on the Select Committee as well have an additional commitment (sometimes weekly). Together with the reading of papers, a hard-working and serious committee member will find that a lot of time is spent on this work.

135. In terms of staff, our resources have recently been enhanced. We are also making full use of our power to appoint specialist advisers on particular topics. But our proposals for more effective scrutiny may well require extra resources. We are pleased to note the suggestion from the Leader of the House that vigorous and powerful revision and scrutiny require the House to "will the means" over the coming months (Q 25). We expect the House to deliver the resources required to fulfil this commitment. In particular, the United Kingdom has a National Parliament Office based in Brussels, currently staffed by the House of Commons. We will consider further what support we can expect from, and offer to, the work of this valuable office.


35   See "Modernising Government" (Cm 4310) March 1999, Chapter 2. Back

36   See n. 12 above. Back

37   Lord Desai (HL Deb. 11 February 2002 col. 906). Back

38   Lord Crickhowell HL Deb. 24 July 2002 col. 394. Back

39   In their Report on Scrutiny (see n.11 above) paragraph 37.  Back

40   The four United Kingdom parliamentary representatives attend and answer questions. Although this is technically a Commons Standing Committee, any member of the Lords can attend and participate and a number have done so. Proceedings are transcribed by Commons Hansard and published in the usual way.  Back

41   Conférence des Organisations Specialisées dans Affaires Communautaires - Conference of Europe Affairs Committees. Back


 
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