Letter from Lord Grenfell, Chairman of
the European Union Committee, to Mr Bob Ainsworth MP, Parliamentary
Under Secretary of State, Home Office
Thank you for your letter of 27 March in which
you requested that the draft EU/US Agreements be examined by Sub-Committee
E (Law and Institutions). The Committee considered your letter
(but not the Agreements, for the reasons I shall explain below)
at its meeting yesterday.
While we are aware of the urgency of the matter
and are grateful for the efforts you are making to provide an
unclassified version of the documents for Parliamentary scrutiny,
we cannot agree to proceeding in the way you propose in your letter.
Our primary role is to scrutinise EU measures
which would become legally applicable or have legal effects, direct
or indirect, in this country. It is apparent from the terms of
your letter that the Agreements are such measures. We will accordingly
need to scrutinise them.
You have, however, suggested that Sub-Committee
E should examine the documents in camera. We would not be allowed
to take the views of experts and other interested parties. We
would only be able to meet and discuss the matter with you and
your officials in private. Seemingly we would not be able to publish
correspondence or a Report which disclosed the content of the
Agreements. We would not be able to show the documents to other
Members of the House. There could be no free and open debate of
Such an approach would be inconsistent with
the principles of Parliamentary scrutiny and how they have been
practised in this Parliament for many years. We do not rule out
the possibility that some overriding public interest might exceptionally
require a document to be kept out of the public domain and for
scrutiny to be conducted in such a restricted way. But to expect
the Committee to agree to this in the absence of a clearly identified
and overriding public interest is unacceptable.
Your letter offers no explanation as to why
the documents (which appear to be in near final form and will
be published after signature) should remain classified as "confidential".
We would be grateful if you could explain the position more fully
and in particular identify the reasons why these documents, which
will have implications not just for the security but also the
fundamental rights of citizens not only of this country but of
all EU countries, cannot now be placed in the public domain. We
are sure that you will bear in mind that, as Lord Goff of Chieveley
said in the Spycatcher case,  1 AC at page 283, when
commenting on the Government's attempts to restrain publication
of allegedly confidential information:
". . . in a free society there is a continuing
public interest that the working of government should be open
to scrutiny and criticism."
Lord Goff's observation applies at least as
strongly to the workings of the EU as it does to the workings
of our domestic Government.
My letter of 24 March recalled the Government's
earlier undertakings and the conclusions of the 27-28 February
Justice and Home Affairs Council. The way in which the Council
of Ministers (and the Greek Presidency) is now dealing with this
matter and your proposal, pragmatic and well-intentioned as it
is, for how this Parliament should scrutinise the Agreements in
question, raise issues of substantial constitutional significance
both for the Union and the UK.
We stand ready to undertake the necessary scrutiny
work when the documents are deposited with Parliament in the usual
way. In the meantime I do hope you will understand and appreciate
our position from which, in the present circumstances, we cannot
3 April 2003