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