Select Committee on European Union First Report


The Impact Of Our Work


136. One way of judging our impact is to hear what people tell us. The Leader of the House said our work was extremely important and well regarded in Europe but had less significance in the UK Parliament (Q 4). Commissioner Barnier wrote that "the Commission has always found the work of the Committee of value" (p 49). Dr Cygan cited specific examples of influence in the areas of fraud, unfair contract terms and the Court of Auditors and called our "influence unquestionable" (p 55). The Government praised the Comitology report (Q39); and Lord Howell of Guildford that on CAP reform (Q 82).

137. Dr Caroline Jackson MEP on the other hand, while stressing that our reports were "very important and useful" for European policymakers, concluded that our work "has an ephemeral impact and little long term effect". She offered specific suggestions for improvement reflected elsewhere in this report (pp 60, 62 see also paragraphs 86, 93, 110). Lord Stoddart of Swindon made his view clear: we cannot influence the outcome of proposals and are at best a weak advisory body (p 64). This is a serious accusation, with which other witnesses did not agree.

138. Dr Cygan suggested our reports were read because they were strong on expertise, influence and independence from the Government but measuring this was hard, especially where reports were of specialist interest. He nevertheless praised our work for providing at least an opportunity for citizen participation: detailed inquiries, expert evidence and wide consultation all contributed to this. Such accountability was a primary role of national parliaments (pp 52-53, 55).

139. Another way of judging whether our work is valued is whether those interested in setting up scrutiny systems have asked us for advice (see paragraph 133 above). Another is to analyse how far our conclusions have been reflected in changes to the Government's position on a particular dossier or on the various versions, although even the fact that changes that we proposed have been made is not firm evidence that we caused them.

140. Contributing to a climate of opinion forming is a key way in which we can have an impact, by analysing issues and presenting a range of evidence combined with our own conclusions on it. We hope, however, that it is not only our reports that have an impact: the very act of preparing an EM provides a discipline on Whitehall and the need for every EM to be signed by Ministers (as we recommend in paragraph 49 above) provides a check. We have indicated above (paragraph 86) that we will in future do more to follow up our work.


141. As requested by the Leader's Group, we have also considered the arguments for and against long-running inquiries leading to substantial reports, and shorter reports more obviously focused on a limited point or points of policy in a particular area. The Leader of the House told us that the Government found focused reports "more challenging" as they provided a necessary irritant to the Government especially when on topics that cut across more than one Department. All our reports were of value but the more reflective reports had less immediate impact (QQ 22-3).

142. We consider that there is no necessary correlation between the shortness of a report and its focus. A quite substantial report can be very neatly focussed on a complex series of issues while a short report can present its arguments in a muddled and diffuse way. In our work, short reports on specific topics are already common. We also produce short reports in which a series of letters to and from Ministers are gathered together, sometimes with evidence, under cover of a short summary, to present a volume which has all the material on a particular topic.

143. As far as style is concerned, Dr Caroline Jackson MEP called for our reports to be more forceful and pointed, with general conclusions combined with "political conclusions—imperatives really—that ministers could not ignore" (p 62). We have also heard a presentation by outside researchers into the impact and dissemination of our reports. We were told that shorter, sharper and better directed reports are more likely to have an impact on decision-makers.

144. We agree that reports should be presented to have the most impact. Internal improvements to the layout and presentation of reports are under way. We accept that our readership is not the general public, and we would not wish to see any sacrifice of the rigour and expertise that we aim to impart to our work. Nevertheless, even the busy experts to whom many of our reports are directed are more likely to read them if they are well presented.

145. We have accordingly considered how in practice a focused and readable report can actually be produced. To this end we will aim to ensure that all our substantive reports accord with the following standards:


146. Correspondence with Ministers is the means by which much of our day to day scrutiny work is conducted, including scrutiny of those proposals which are cleared but where the Sub-Committee asks to be kept informed of developments. We propose to make the following improvements to the correspondence process:

147. We also propose that regular digests of significant scrutiny by correspondence be made freely and publicly available.

Impact in the House


148. A key question for this review was what notice does the House take of our work? Lord Inglewood MEP noted that debates on EU topics tended to be held out of prime time and usually attracted the same speakers. He suggested debates in Committee meetings open to all Members and the public (p 59). Lord Howell of Guildford criticised the lack of time the House spent debating our reports and the delays that could make them lose their freshness (Q 43).

149. One of the key points made in our submission to the Leader's Group, and a matter on which the Committee felt most strongly, was that there should be more time for debates on the floor of the House on our Committee's reports. We accept that it is not unknown for major reports from our Committee to receive prime time debates lasting a whole afternoon, although these more often than not occur early in the year when the legislative programme is at its least busy. In addition, as the recent debate on the European Arrest Warrant has shown[42], if the Government really feels that something needs urgent debate (most probably because of an imminent Council) it is on occasion possible to secure this.

150. We recognise that the "usual channels" do their level best to make quality time available, and on occasion make emergency arrangements even at short notice, but we nevertheless conclude that better arrangements could be made. The delays in securing debates and the backlogs that occur can be thought to be a sign that the work we put into reports is not as valued as it should be. We propose that there should be a presumption that Government responses are produced within 6 weeks of publication of a report; and that reports are usually debated within 8 weeks of publication, although earlier or later debates may on occasion be required.

151. We also urge better planning of our debates, and more advance notice. The lack of a clear timetable announced in advance hampers the Government at the negotiating table: not knowing when the scrutiny reserve will be lifted by debate is a disadvantage for UK Ministers in the Council.

152. If the House values our work then appropriate time should be made available for debates. Friday debates, while good for publicity, are inconvenient (as the Leader of the House recognised - Q 3) and would weaken the impact of our work; and a dinner break Unstarred Question—while useful for reports on very specific points of detail[43]—cannot provide sufficient time in the majority of cases.

153. We welcome the Leader's Group's package of reforms, if, in freeing more time on the floor of the House, they ensure greater opportunities for debates on committee work. The opportunities provided by the new pattern of sittings (and by the greater use of Grand Committees on bills) should be explored and exploited to ensure better time for our debates. We also urge the House to review the current balloted Wednesday debates: does having two balloted two and a half hour debates rather than just one really make the best use of prime time? We further recommend that consideration be given to a regular time-limited slot on Thursday mornings allowing a two and a half hour debate on those reports on which we have no objection to a time limit.


154. In a broader context, we asked ourselves how we can encourage the House to make more use of our work outside the set-piece debates. The question is a simple one: do Members of the House as a whole make as much use of our work as they could in scrutinising the Government and, if not, how could the position be improved? Based on our experience, our view is that Members of the House make very little use of our work outside the set piece debates. So what steps can be taken to encourage Members to "mainstream" our work more into the House's broader consideration of EU matters? Baroness Williams of Crosby suggested that our Committee's members should make more use of topical and unstarred questions (Q 164). Lord Howell of Guildford suggested a regular EU question time (Q 57). We do not support this particular suggestion. Instead, we urge all our members, as individual Members of the House, to make more use of Question Time (and the new topical questions) to raise European matters of concern on the floor of the House.

155. We also propose to produce an annual report from the Committee, giving an account of our activity, drawing attention to any problems in the scrutiny process and outlining key emerging issues in a short and punchy document produced in time for the debate on the Queen's Speech. We note that the Leader of the House supported the suggestion for an annual review (Q37). We also recommend that those taking part in the debate on the Queen's Speech pay close attention to European Affairs, on all areas of policy. Baroness Williams of Crosby suggested twice yearly debates on the Commission's Annual Work Programme and Annual Policy Strategy (Q 160). We have recommended above twice yearly debates on the outcome of European Councils (see paragraph 109).

156. We also undertake to look at administrative questions such as finding ways to improve the availability and accessibility of our work by means that Members of the House actually notice, namely through their party whips, the Crossbench notices and the Forthcoming Business document.

Impact: outside the House

157. More generally, it was suggested to us that if EU affairs had a higher profile in the country our work would be more noticed. Dr Cygan suggested a department of European Affairs which we could scrutinise (p 55). We note this suggestion.

158. We have heard from our colleagues in Denmark that the Folketing has a public information service which provides documentation and impartial information on EU affairs to all citizens. The service includes an extensive website; and staff dedicated to answering questions (Q 111). We plan to discuss the establishment of an information service on EU issues, perhaps based on an expansion of our website to include more information of interest to the public.

159. In the meantime, we are pleased to note the appointment of an Information Officer for Select Committees to strengthen the support provided to the House's Committees. We have heard several specific examples of how publicity and information provisions on our work may be enhanced, including Baroness Williams of Crosby's suggestions that we should send copies to major universities and that publication of every report should be accompanied by a press conference to include European newspapers and the specialised press (Q 164). We will consider these with the Information Officer for Select Committees. In addition we would wish to see copies of our reports made as freely and easily available as possible by the House.

42   HL Deb 19 November 2001, col 948. Back

43   See the debate on provisional agreement HL Deb. 14 October 2002, Col. 672. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002