House of CommonsShort guide to procedure and practice

European Union matters

The House's main roles are to influence and call to account UK Ministers in respect of Ministers' activities in the EU, to monitor the work of EU institutions which may affect the UK and to influence the form of any UK legislation needed to implement EU legislation.

EU legislation may take the form of regulations (binding in their entirety and directly applicable in member states), directives (binding as regards their results, but each member state determines the method and form of implementation) or decisions (binding on those to whom they are addressed, e.g. governments or companies). Regulations may need to be supplemented by UK legislation for full implementation, and directives require UK legislation for their implementation. Whether the UK legislation is primary (Act) or secondary (regulations or Orders in Council) varies. The House and its committees also deal with many non-legislative EU documents, e.g. Commission Green and White Papers, Communications to the Council of Ministers, draft Council Recommendations, reports from the Court of Auditors.

While the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is the lead department for EU matters, the lead on particular matters is taken by the department responsible for that policy area.

The House has the usual opportunities to influence Ministers (e.g. questions, ministerial statements, adjournment debates, select committee inquiries) but also more specific arrangements:

    (i) The European Scrutiny Committee, which examines EU documents and reports its opinion on the legal and political importance of each. It publishes a weekly report with detailed discussions of documents it considers important, incorporating information and views obtained from the Government and elsewhere. If the Committee recommends that a document be further considered, the document stands referred to a European standing committee, unless (to enable a debate on the floor of the House) the House orders otherwise. In addition, Ministers submit papers in advance of Council of Ministers meetings, and the Committee may take oral evidence both before and after such meetings.

    (ii) European standing committees. There are three of these (A, B and C), each with 13 Members nominated by the Committee of Selection for the duration of the Parliament and a Chairman appointed for each meeting from the Chairman's Panel. A deals with agriculture, fisheries and food, forestry, the environment, transport and the regions; C with trade and industry, education and employment, culture, media and sport and health; and B with the remaining departmental responsibilities. The committees consider documents referred to them by the European Scrutiny Committee, meeting at times determined by the Government and announced in the Thursday business statement.

    Normal procedure at meetings is that the Minister or Ministers make a statement and then answer questions (for up to one hour or, if the Chairman sees fit, for 1½ hours), following which the motion is debated. Amendments may be proposed to the motion. After a total of 2½ hours the question is put. Members not nominated to the Committee may attend and speak and move amendments but not vote. Subsequently a motion (not necessarily the one agreed by the committee) is moved in the House and may be amended, but there is no further opportunity for debate.

    (iii) Debates on the floor of the House relating to particular documents - usually limited to 1½ hours and now largely replaced by European standing committees.

    (iv) General debates on EU matters on the floor of the House - usually twice-yearly before each European Council (Heads of Government) meeting.

The 'scrutiny reserve resolution' passed by the House, although not formally binding, constrains UK Ministers from agreeing to EU decisions in advance of parliamentary scrutiny, though with exceptions (e.g. if the proposals are confidential, routine or trivial).

A list of EU documents currently before the House is available from the Vote Office every Monday, and is on wall-sheets placed around the Palace. A list of EU documents awaiting scrutiny is available from the European Scrutiny Committee.

Contact: Clerk of the European Scrutiny Committee, 5467, 3292; for information about European standing committees, Public Bill Office, 3251, 6758.

Further information: Information pack available from the European Scrutiny Committee.


© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 14 February 2001