Select Committee on European Scrutiny Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Letter from the Minister of State at the Home Office (Angela Eagle MP) to the Chairman of the Committee (Mr Jimmy Hood MP)


  Thank you for your letter of 18 July to David Blunkett on the outcome of the Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting on 28/29 May and the decision to override the Parliamentary Scrutiny Reserve on certain points.

  I am of course happy to meet the Committee to discuss these issues. Our offices are in contact to arrange a suitable date.

  I should wish to respond to the general points raised by the Committee about the Parliamentary Scrutiny process, delays in responding to correspondence with the Committee and the nature of agreements reached at the Justice and Home Affairs Council.

  The Government is committed to ensuring full and proper Parliamentary Scrutiny of Justice and Home Affairs Council business in accordance with the agreed arrangements. It is not our intention to override the scrutiny process except where it is, in the Government's view, unavoidable. Subject to my comments below on delays in replying to correspondence, scrutiny override on a number of items was inevitable, given the state of readiness of the dossiers at the May Council. Barbara Roche's letter of 6 June to the Leader of both Houses therefore appears to me to set out, in the context of the circumstances of a General Election period, fully justifiable reasons for overriding scrutiny.

  You questioned the arguments which the Government put forward in relation to Article 3 of the Protocol on the position of the United Kingdom and Ireland. It may be helpful to the Committee if I set them out in greater detail.

  As you know, the United Kingdom secured two protocols at Amsterdam, one protecting our position on frontiers and the other giving us the right to decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not to participate in measures on asylum, immigration, visas, borders and civil judicial co-operation. In order to maintain domestic control of the admission policy underpinning our frontier controls, we have tended not to participate in measures on legal migration and visa policy.

  We do, however, believe that it is strongly in the United Kingdom's interests to participate in measures to establish a common European asylum system and measures to combat illegal immigration and migrant smuggling. We have successfully pursued a policy of positive engagement in these areas, to the extent that we are now in a position where we have real influence in shaping the agenda. It is very important that we maintain the strength of our current position. We had been successful in pressing for tough European Union-wide measures against illegal immigration and trafficking, particularly after the deaths of 58 Chinese nationals at Dover. Successive European Councils had called for the speeding up and early completion of this work. We could not afford to be the one Member State holding up adoption at the May Justice and Home Affairs Council and risk the possibility of a debate opening up about the commitment of the United Kingdom to European Union action against illegal immigration or the possibility of the other Member States proceeding without us. We were conscious that there was a real possibility that the measures would not be considered by Parliament before October. In the circumstances, we considered that it was strongly in the United Kingdom's interests to override the Parliamentary Scrutiny Reservation.

  As part of the Justice and Home Affairs Council's discussion of ensuring the timely delivery of the Tampere agenda, the United Kingdom has been arguing for a project-management approach to the European Union's management of its business. This would provide greater clarity, at an early stage, as to which items of business would be discussed at a particular Council and thus enable us to work more effectively with the Committees to ensure that scrutiny was complete in good time. I hope that this will, if agreed, help both us and the Committees better to organise our work in the future.

  You raised in your letter a number of examples of delays in responding to correspondence which might otherwise have enabled the Committee to complete scrutiny before the May Justice and Home Affairs Council. Barbara Roche apologises for those delays in her responses and I entirely agree with her that the delays which occurred in the instances you have noted are unacceptable. We are addressing the problems which have arisen in the past; I am committed to providing the Committee with either a full response in three weeks or an explanation as to why a full reply cannot be provided within that timescale and when we expect to send a final response. I trust that we can start the new Parliamentary session on that basis. I suggest that officials here should discuss with the Clerks to your Committee how best to ensure that systems are in place to support this new arrangement.

  On the correspondence you specifically mentioned, Barbara Roche replied fully to the Committees on 11 May. I appreciate that this was after the final meeting of the Committee before the dissolution of Parliament. On the Europol agreements with Interpol and Norway, the Committee said in its report last March that these would not be cleared ahead of receipt of the opinions of the Joint Supervisory Body. These, and the opinion for the agreement with Iceland, were received shortly before the meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council last May. The three opinions have now been deposited with the scrutiny committees and an Explanatory Memorandum is in preparation. This will address outstanding concerns on data protection matters. On the Council Resolution on exchange of DNA analysis results I am afraid that we have no record of the Committee's letter of 7 February, although Barbara Roche's reply of 26 March to a letter of 1 February from Lord Tordoff on the same document was copied to your Committee. Clearly, we would provide the Commons Committee with a reply to their letter if at this stage you wished us to do so.

Your letter also questioned the use of the term "provisional agreement" in the context of three specific measures which were on the Council agenda. Ultimately there were two items where "political agreement" was reported but where the United Kingdom maintained a scrutiny reserve. In the case of both items, the Protocol to the Mutual Legal Assistance Convention and the Framework Decision on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, the Swedish Presidency was determined to push work forward rapidly and achieve an outcome which it could describe as a Presidency achievement. At the May Council, solutions were found to the points on the text of the Protocol to the Mutual Legal Assistance Convention on which the United Kingdom had previously placed substantive reservations. On the Framework Decision on Trafficking in Human Beings, the United Kingdom no longer had any reservations on the provisions which dealt with issues other than penalties. Neither text has, however, been finalised. In the case of the Protocol on Mutual Legal Assistance, one Member State has maintained a substantive reservation on the text and the European Parliament is being re-consulted. In the case of the Framework Decision, work continues on the provisions on penalties. In addition, the opinion of the European Parliament has been received but has not yet been considered.

  As is often the case, the Presidency wanted and chose to describe the outcome of the May Council as a form of agreement and a Presidency achievement. There is no realistic prospect of changing this practice. The United Kingdom has no control over the wording used in the press release issued after the Council nor over other Council documents. We did not however, consider it appropriate to override the Parliamentary Scrutiny Reserve in either case. If the Committee were to identify a new point of major importance on either instrument, the Government would be prepared to pursue it if we considered there were a realistic prospect of securing an amendment to the text and provided of course that we agreed with the Committee. The Committee is right that it is more difficult to secure changes to a text when negotiations are at an advanced stage but this is the case irrespective of the precise form of words used to describe the stage negotiations have reached.

  I hope that this further explanation, together with the Home Secretary's and my commitment to ensuring that the Department significantly improves its future performance on correspondence with the Committee will ensure that we do not encounter similar problems in the future.

  I am writing in similar terms to Lord Brabazon who has also written to us about the outcome of the May Justice and Home Affairs Council.

6 September 2001

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