Select Committee on European Scrutiny Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420 - 438)



  420. I am not suggesting you should track every document. I am suggesting you should do it by exception.
  (Sir Stephen Wall) We do track the failures. We do try to ensure that the occasions when agreement is reached without the scrutiny having been completed are kept to a minimum. Ministers are very open to trying to avoid in particular the issue which arose over provisional agreement to try to prevent that happening in future if we can. There is also the hope that we can have some understanding with the Committee for those occasions which I agree should be very rare when there is a piece of legislation which is needed urgently and which we as a government or as a country actually have an interest in seeing adopted swiftly.

  Mr Connarty: We may want to call Sir Stephen back to grill him on the performance of his unit, but that is not the purpose of this investigation.

Mr Steen

  421. I am one of those who wonders whether this Committee gets in the way, that although we are set up to do what we should do the other countries, other than Denmark, do not have such an advanced scrutiny situation. I am just wondering whether you have given some thought to whether all countries should have scrutiny and therefore the whole legislative process will slow up inevitably and whether it matters and whether that is something you are going to feed into the Convention as something which needs to be discussed or whether there should be another mechanism for democracy or the backbenches getting a view because it is so cumbersome and so slow. There is an immense amount of paper and an immense number of people here and we are always chasing after rules and regulations and legislation. I am just wondering whether we do get in the way.
  (Sir Stephen Wall) As a civil servant, and my colleagues feel the same, we regard it as one of our primary responsibilities to try to make sure this system works effectively. As a citizen I would feel that it was a bad thing if scrutiny were not happening. It is quite difficult for us to force our colleagues to adopt a particular system within their democracies if they do not want to, although if anything the pressure on all of them from within national parliaments is increasing rather than the reverse. My sense is, for example, that scrutiny within the French National Assembly has increased rather than the reverse over the last few years. There are things which we could discuss for your consideration in terms of whether for example the documents which are prepared when there is a joint meeting between the Council and, say, one of the candidate countries of a formal kind, are documents you consider that you need to see. That would be for your decision, but one could discuss streamlining the process, so that it is easier for you to focus on the key legislative documents that you want to focus on. One could certainly do that and I am sure the issue of national parliamentary scrutiny would be an issue in the Convention, not least because the whole question of national parliamentary supervision of the issue of subsidiarity is very much on the agenda.

Mr Davis

  422. If you do not want me to pursue that line of questioning I will not, but may I just ask Sir Stephen about the letter which Mr Blair and Mr Schröder sent? There is a reference in there to agreeing deadlines for decisions by sectoral councils. Is that likely to lead to last-minute drafting and therefore in that way prevent scrutiny?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) I do not think so because generally speaking where the European Council is setting deadlines it is because the system has got bogged down rather than the reverse and what the European Council is doing effectively is trying to use its bully pulpit role to get action where action has not been taken. The Community patent would be an example, where there is a political drive from the European Council to try to get it settled; energy liberalisation is perhaps another example where what the European Council has done is not speeding up the legislative process in a way that is curtailing scrutiny, it is speeding up a legislative process which had got bogged down in disagreement.

Miss McIntosh

  423. You alluded to the use of electronic transmission of documents. In 1996 the Government did tell this Committee that the Council Secretariat was minded to move to an electronic system for submission of documents to Member States. Is that happening on a large scale? To be frank, we are getting documents on a quite frequent basis, sometimes from the Home Office, sometimes from other departments because of delays in the Council Secretariat sending them to the Foreign Office. I just wondered what plans you had to remove this delay and why it is apparently so difficult to transmit electronically.
  (Mr Roberts) You are right in saying that this issue has been around for a very long time. There are still difficulties—it seems unbelievable to have to say so—still problems in Brussels with the transmission of Commission proposals to the Council Secretariat in electronic form. Some are so transmitted, others are not. Indeed there are still some teething problems with the Council Secretariat unhappy about sending documents electronically to multiple addressees in Member States. I am afraid these problems have not been resolved but we are pushing them and indeed intend to push them hard now.

  424. My particular hobbyhorse, having been a rapporteur in Brussels as an MEP on the first road trans-European network conciliation process, is that I firmly believe that there should still be a role for this Committee to scrutinise the conciliation process. It is knowing what time it is best to intervene and what time we get the documents. Can you assist the Committee in that regard?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) I think the answer is yes. It was a point I touched on earlier. We already have some system in place whereby the Committee is kept informed of the progress through the various stages of their decision, but I accept that this is an area where we probably need to do more to come to terms with the significance of co-decision and the difference it has made to the legislative process and the fact that the point where the Council reaches its common position is literally no more than half way through the process and that the final result may be considerably different from the position adopted by the Council in what ten years ago would effectively have been the end legislature.

  425. Can I extract from that a commitment that your office, your department within the Cabinet Office, will liaise with the Foreign Office to make sure we do get the documents?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) Yes.

  426. There is another vexed area and that is when responsibility falls or is shared between two departments and who is responsible for being the lead department can pose problems. I just wondered whether you had any particular plans to reduce delays in that case, which obviously can hamper the scrutiny process.
  (Sir Stephen Wall) It is one of the things that Michael and other colleagues in the Secretariat are doing on a day to day basis. It is pretty rare that it cannot be sorted out, but there have been one or two occasions when we have had to bang heads together and we shall obviously continue to do that.

  427. You did mention the six-week deadline. We are particularly sensitive to the timescale. Just an assurance from you that we will get the documents in time and who is responsible for that.
  (Sir Stephen Wall) The system is one in which the actual physical act of depositing documents is done by the Foreign Office, but we have overall responsibility for ensuring that the system works and particular responsibility for pillar one documents from within the European Secretariat. We do have an overview of the whole system and although it would be a mistake to detract from the responsibility of the Foreign Office in respect of CFSP documents and the Home Office in respect of JHA documents, it is important that departments should have responsibility, ownership as it were, of the issues. We do track them very carefully and therefore can see if something has not happened which should happen and can and do then get onto the department concerned and remind and if necessary chivvy.

Mr Steen

  428. The Convention office is going to be discussing the role of the national parliaments and the question of subsidiarity and whether national parliaments should obtain responsibilities back from Brussels for work which they normally would have carried out but which under the rule of subsidiarity more national parliaments would assume responsibility for. I wonder at what point that would happen in the Commission's work. Would it be a case for closer involvement in the Commission's work programme, would it be the annual policy strategy? Is the Government still pushing the idea of national parliaments meeting to discuss subsidiarity? Is that not just our feeling, but is it the feeling of other European Member States that we want to resume—I do not use the word "repatriate"—what we used to be doing and limit the Commission's work to matters which are of benefit to all the countries involved rather than just passing laws for all where they do not need to.
  (Sir Stephen Wall) It certainly remains our view that we need a system whereby national parliaments can be involved in policing subsidiarity because we think that is in practice going to be a more effective way of doing it than relying on being able to take a case to the European Court and wait for a Court judgment. The Prime Minister put forward the idea in a speech some months ago of a second chamber of the European Parliament—although the notion of a second chamber of the European Parliament is one on which people have quite strong views—and within that, the core of his idea, which is just that, that there should be a group of national parliamentarians responsible for policing subsidiarity, that idea has a lot of support across a lot of Member States. Our idea has been and it is obviously one for discussion that when the Commission bring forward a proposal, that body of national parliamentarians would then be able to say, if it is a financial services directive that is within the single market, that is what we want; the dangerous dogs directive, frankly we think this is something which should be left to national governments if they want to do it. There is then a question on which we have an open mind as to whether that view then expressed by national parliaments is a red card or a yellow card in terms of what the procedure would be. In one form or another it would require the Commission to go back to the drawing board, either to abandon it, not bring it forward again for a period, or to have to bring it forward again in an amended form if the national parliaments had commented in that direction. It would be really before the legislative process had really started. We were not seeking in any way to interfere with the co-decision process once that was in frame. My sense from the discussions we have had is that there is a strong sense round the European Union that something along those lines is desirable.

  429. You would not necessarily then see the Commission handing stuff back to the national parliaments, it would be the Council of Ministers or somebody directing that particular item to go back to the national parliaments.
  (Sir Stephen Wall) I think what we are envisaging is a kind of automatic process where proposals for legislation would be considered by this group of national parliamentarians, so effectively if they said it was not something the European Union should be dealing with in their view, that then would in some form halt the process.

Mr David

  430. Although there does not seem to be much support in other Member States for the idea of a second chamber, nevertheless it has been quite useful in that it has placed the involvement of national parliaments very firmly on the agenda. Would you see any role for a body such as COSAC for example fulfilling the role you were describing? Do you see some other mechanism?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) It would depend whether COSAC could fulfil the kind of function that I have described. My understanding of the work of COSAC is that it does not do that at the moment. We are certainly open to increasing the role of COSAC in that sense but it has to be a mechanism which is fairly rapid and, more particularly, is effective. I do not know enough about the operation of COSAC to know whether COSAC as an organisation lends itself to that kind of change.

Roger Casale

  431. What is attractive about increasing the role of national parliaments is that for many people the European institutions themselves are simply too remote. If we are serious about reconnecting the European citizen with European decision making, perhaps national parliaments can play a very important intermediate role as well as 15 April 2002 national parliamentarians. I think we are probably all agreed about that as a strategic aim. There remains the question of what particular mechanisms we can agree on to achieve that greater role for them. One idea which has been put forward by Simon Hix is that national parliamentarians should be involved, perhaps through an electoral college, in electing the Commission President. I wonder whether you might comment first of all on that proposal.
  (Sir Stephen Wall) I am aware of Simon Hix's proposal and the Government has not taken a view on it. Just one reflection on it and that is that in any decisions which are taken one of the issues which will be discussed in the Convention is how the President of the European Commission in particular is chosen and there are various ideas around. One factor is the importance that although the Commission is not the same as a national bureaucracy, and it does under the treaties have a role which is more than that of a bureaucracy, nonetheless its political neutrality in a partisan sense is an important factor. In other words, if the Commission say we as the Commission take such and such a view on a competition matter, it is pretty important that by and large the Member States accept that the Commission is behaving as a neutral competition authority. If the President of the Commission were seen in any way to be a partisan figure, and that is the problem we have with the idea of the President of the Commission being chosen by the majority group in the European Parliament, you undermine that. The other factor is that he is obviously what is the kind of balance of democratic legitimacy between the institutions. At the moment democratic legitimacy lies with the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament and ultimate democratic accountability primarily with the Council through national governments who are responsible before their electorates and basically pay the price at the polls for European policy if the electorate do not like it. Doing something which changed that balance and made effectively the President of the Commission potentially an independent political figure on the European stage, does have quite important implications in terms of the balance of the institutions that we would need to think about quite carefully.

  432. Turning to the Convention itself, one of the strong aspects from the perspective of national parliaments is that national parliamentarians form the majority of members of the Convention. So certainly the Convention is involving national parliamentarians very closely in its work. If the Convention, which has a very specific task and is time limited, proves to be successful, do you think it may become a model for involving national parliamentarians on a more permanent basis in the future?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) In the Convention we have certainly effectively done something which is pretty novel in institutional terms because although the Convention would be followed by an intergovernmental conference and it is governments ultimately who will decide treaty changes and recommend those treaty changes to their national parliaments, it is quite clear that the work of the Convention is going to be crucial to the eventual outcome. In that respect the parliamentarians involved are effectively having a bigger opportunity to influence treaty change than has ever been the case in the past. This is a personal guess, but my guess is that having now got this system, unless in a year's time people concluded that it had not worked, that system will be the one we now have for the future.

  433. The Convention is also a very important opportunity for us to review our own approach to scrutiny in this Parliament and while of course that is more a matter for the House of Commons, I am sure you would share with us the view that more accountable government is stronger government we can improve the accountability of European decision making as it affects the British Government through developing the role of this Committee and perhaps developing new forms of scrutiny in this House. One of the ideas we have been discussing and will be discussing is perhaps the possibility of setting up a Grand Committee to look at European issues. One advantage of that approach would be that it would give a much higher profile to the work of scrutiny. I am always astonished that we do not get lobbied more as members of this Committee by outside organisations because of the work we do. By giving a much higher profile to the work of scrutiny we can demonstrate that there are mechanisms through the national parliaments for this House of Commons to raise public concerns about matters which are being decided in Europe. I wonder whether you would comment on that particular proposal.
  (Sir Stephen Wall) On a particular proposal it would be a matter for Ministers and the Government to take a view. I do think that the Government and those of us who serve it and are involved in European issues all have a real interest in people feeling that they understand better what it is that the European Union does and how its individual mechanisms work. I was very struck during my time in Brussels when MEPs in particular brought out groups of constituents to see how Brussels worked that at the end of two or three days most of them went away reassured frankly, because what they saw happening was much less sinister than they feared was happening. I do believe it is in everybody's interests that people should understand what the European Union does and have a great opportunity to see the process. I used to feel this when I sat in the Committee of Permanent Representatives. What you actually have is 15 people sitting round a table trying both to pursue their national interest and at the same time to reconcile national interests because they feel at the end of the day there is a gain from doing so. That is something which I personally believe is a good thing and I should be perfectly happy for members of the public to sit there seeing me doing it. I would rather they were bored to death than frightened to death.

  Mr Connarty: When I read your words and when I heard them I laughed the first time and I am laughing the second. I think it is just an example of where a little knowledge is dangerous. Having spent three days in Brussels if they think they understand the European Union then that is not exactly a good exercise. If it gets some interest then it is maybe not a bad idea.

Angus Robertson

  434. We have had a lot of mention of national parliaments so far. I perhaps take a different view from some of the other members of the Committee in that the national parliament of my country sits in Edinburgh and not this place. As you will be aware the overwhelming majority of the policy areas which have to be implemented by government in Scotland is not done by the British Government it is done by the Scottish Executive. I was very intrigued by your initial comments after Mr Connarty asked you about the role of the Cabinet Office European Secretariat and its inter-relationship with other departments. You talked at length and I think the record will show that all of them are Whitehall departments. No mention was made of devolved institutions. What role does your department play in co-ordinating policy with the elected governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) In doing that I was guilty of using the language I have used for most of my career, but I can promise you that for all the co-ordination meetings we hold all those concerned, including those concerned from the devolved administrations, are invited to take part and do take part when they have an interest at stake. That is what is required of us under the concordats and it is a system which we are endeavouring to make work effectively and efficiently.

  435. Could you explain exactly how your department co-ordinates with the various devolved administrations? Is the lead taken by different Whitehall departments or is it taken by your department in co-ordinating policy?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) Take an issue such as an agricultural issue. In terms of the co-ordination on the specifics, that would be a lead by DEFRA in the case of Whitehall. Where you get an issue where it has not been possible to find a resolution among government departments as a whole, that is where we come in. Our task at that stage is to get everybody round the table, all departments, involved so that we can try to reach an agreed view and make a recommendation to Ministers. If it is not possible to do that at official level, then it goes to Ministers for resolution at ministerial level.

  Mr Connarty: May I make the point again that we may want to call Sir Stephen some time to discuss the role of his department but we are here to talk about the future democracy and accountability in Europe. Could you keep your questions in that context?

Angus Robertson

  436. Looking at this, one of the issues which we discussed in Brussels, and we took evidence from various people there recently on this subject, was that there is consideration about the way in which sub Member States, regions or stateless nations with legislative power should have enhanced access to the Commission for example. What thought is the Government giving to this, to the so-called partners for union status? Is that something the Government will perhaps be formulating a positive view on?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) You referred to the powers the devolved administrations have. At the same time there is in terms of EU policy and negotiation in Brussels a co-ordinated position of the United Kingdom which is expressed both at official level and in the Council at ministerial level with the possibility and the practice of the participation of Ministers from the devolved administrations. The devolved administrations have offices in Brussels. Those offices work very closely with the UK representation and certainly in my experience that has been a productive relationship. At the same time, within the terms of the Concordat and the overall policy I have described, those offices do have their own dealings with the Commission, they have their own dealings with other institutions. Our job as civil servants is to work within that framework. My understanding at the moment is that that framework is working well.

  437. We took evidence on Monday in Edinburgh from the Deputy First Minister, Jim Wallace, who is also the Minister with responsibility for Europe and External Affairs. He indicated to our Committee that the confidentiality provisions in the Concordat could be somewhat relaxed, so that what items were under discussion between the Scottish Executive and the UK Government might be revealed. Do you think it is necessary from the UK Government's point of view for all information about discussions between itself and devolved administrations and EU matters to be confidential?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) It is important that in formulating what at the end of the day is an agreed UK position in the European Union government in Whitehall has the ability to discuss and negotiate with the devolved administrations in a way that is confidential. If Jim Wallace has said that he is open to some movement on that, then that would be a matter for him to raise with Ministers in the terms of the Concordat.

Mr Connarty

  438. I volunteered to come on this Committee with great enthusiasm, having spent some time on standing committees of the European Scrutiny Committee. The question always in my mind and maybe in the mind of a lot of people in the UK is whether, if we really are going to be a part of Europe, at the heart of Europe, it is not time to stop regarding policy towards the European Union as foreign policy. There does seem to be a dilemma here. When are we going to start treating the process of engaging with Europe as a separate and different matter from foreign policy?
  (Sir Stephen Wall) I agree with the sentiment in that self-evidently almost everything which is done at European Union level is of enormous domestic importance and that which is legislation finds its way into our own domestic legislation. As we have seen on areas like the fight against international crime and terrorism, the premium on greater co-operation across the European Union is an enormous one. It is obviously not for me to suggest how you organise your business in that respect. Within Whitehall we have, at the Prime Minister's instruction, tried over the last few years in the process which is known as step change to raise our game. All departments are under instruction right the way from the top downwards to improve their contact across the board with their opposite numbers, both so that we can form alliances either for or against particular bits of legislation, but also so that we are not taken by surprise by where our partners are coming from on particular issues. There is always scope to do more on that, but if you look at what happened before Barcelona, where there were about seven different joint initiatives or joint articles written by the Prime Minister with other heads of government, in the majority of cases those governments were coming to us saying this was something they would like to do with us. I do not think that would have happened without that kind of process of engagement.

  Mr Connarty: Thank you for your time and attention to detail in your replies. I think all the Committee would wish to thank you and Mr Budden and Mr Roberts for the well-prepared way you have come to this Committee. Hopefully we shall see you again at some other time to discuss the question of the role of this Committee.

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