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Reforming the European Scrutiny System in the House of Commons - European Scrutiny Committee Contents


7  European Committees

220.  European Committees play a key role in the scrutiny process as currently constructed —being the mechanism for the House to debate and determine its political judgement on those documents judged as particularly important by this Committee.

History

221.  Until the early 1990s referred documents were automatically debated on the floor of the House unless the Government tabled a motion to refer them to a Standing Committee. The default was then changed to referral to European Standing Committees. The then European Legislation Committee was still able to recommend that a document be debated on the floor of the House, but the decision on whether or not that floor debate took place was in the Government's hands. This remains the case today.

222.  Until 1998 there were two European Standing Committees; this number was increased to three in 1998 in response to criticism that the committees' portfolios were too large. Those European Standing Committees had permanent memberships of 13, appointed sessionally until 1998 and thereafter for the length of the Parliament.

223.  The Minister for Europe spoke in glowing terms about this period when giving evidence to us in 2011, stating that:

There is no doubt that under that system, with genuine Standing Committees, Members were able to acquire a working knowledge or expertise in a particular area of European policy. One just became familiar with the various acronyms and pieces of jargon—for example those embodied in measures on agricultural policy.[231]

224.  The then ESC Chairman wrote to core members of the Standing Committees in June 2004, noting criticisms of the system made in the Leader of the House's memorandum to the Modernisation Committee inquiry, and noting also that the Scrutiny Committee had put forward a series of reform proposals, including elected Chairmen.[232] The Modernisation Committee recommended in 2005 that the number of Committees should increase to five, retaining their permanent membership.[233]

225.  But the situation changed, much for the worse, following the 2005 General Election. Sessional Orders were made to set aside the requirement of Standing Order No. 119 for a permanent membership and to replace this with a provision for the Committee of Selection to nominate new and different members to the Committees for each debate. We were told that the change was necessary because of problems with poor attendance and difficulties getting Members to serve on the Committees; the Minister for Europe commented:

My own view is that permanent membership would be an improvement provided you genuinely had the commitment from those members appointed to it. As I understand it, the system was changed because the Government of the day, and I suppose it was the usual channels of the day, were finding it more and more difficult to get members of all parties who were willing to give that degree of commitment ... they found that attendance was slipping badly in the latter years of the permanent committee membership.[234]

226.  The statistics tend to bear out this overall picture, with overall attendance figures for the then Committees A, B and C being as follows in the 2001-05 Parliament:


227.  Following 2005 Sessional Orders were made each year until ad hoc membership was made permanent from 1 January 2009 as part of the package of reforms to the House's scrutiny system which saw the Committees renamed European Committees. These reforms were meant to make ad hoc membership more targeted — with two European Scrutiny Committee members, two Departmental Select Committee members, whips and spokesmen.[235] Those members of the House who have not been nominated to the Committee remain able to attend, speak and move amendments to the Government's motion. They cannot vote.

228.  The potential of the system is clear. We heard particularly powerful evidence from Gisela Stuart MP about her time as a Minister preparing for a debate in European Committee:

When I first became a Minister, Jeff Rooker, who was then a fellow Birmingham MP, said to me 'Kiddo, you had better go into one of those and watch them, because sooner or later you will have to appear in front of them, and they are the toughest Committees to appear in front of'. Structurally, I think they are the scariest meetings you can go to as a Minister, because you have to answer and relentlessly answer follow-up questions. You do not even know who is going to be there ... They are really good Committees—potentially, I think, a real nuclear weapon, because you are really exposed as a Minister, you really cannot hide anywhere.[236]

229.  Yet we were also told that the Committees were "off the radar" of the broadcasters;[237] and there was further, broad, consensus that the current system has significant problems, with some going so far as to describe it as "dysfunctional."[238] The FCO commented that some debates "have been sparsely attended or have been concluded very quickly".[239] The Liberal Democrat PPC on International Affairs recommended scrapping the Committees altogether, citing a lack of engagement and poor timetabling.[240] Chris Bryant MP spoke about the problem of long delays in scheduling debates which rendered them pointless when they took place, likening the eventual debates to "when somebody writes to the MP about the planning decision that was taken last night by the council".[241] In September 2013 there was a striking example of this when European Committee B debated a set of documents, relating to measures to reduce financial fraud against the EU, which had been adopted by the Council in February.[242]

230.  Others spoke of further practical problems - short notice of meetings[243] and too many papers.[244] 66% of the Members who responded to our survey agreed that one of the weaknesses of the current system was that "Members do not know enough about the subjects covered".

231.  Our suggestions for the ESC Members to serve on particular European Committees have not always been accepted by the Committee of Selection, and there have been recent examples of European Committees meeting at the same time as the Select Committees with the same portfolio or as the ESC.[245] We have taken this up in correspondence both with the Committee of Selection and the Government Chief Whip. The Chairman of the Committee of Selection undertook in response that his Committee would use its "best endeavours to ensure that wherever possible members on the European Scrutiny Committee who volunteer for European Committees are chosen to do so" — and we have noted improvements since the letter was received.[246]

232.  On the timing point, the Government Chief Whip replied:

I can assure you that every effort is made to avoid committees clashing with European Scrutiny Committee meetings, but there will be occasions where this may be difficult ... A further complication is the change to the sitting times which makes it difficult to provide a two and a half hour slot during those mornings on which the House meets earlier ... The European Scrutiny Committee may want to give consideration to a change in the Standing Orders to reduce the time available for committee debates to one and a half hours in line with other general committees. This would provide far more flexibility as to when committee debates could be scheduled in the future.[247]

233.  Despite the evidence of very real problems with the operation of and Member engagement with the European Committees as currently constituted we do not believe it is time to abolish them. Not every referred document can be debated on the floor of the House, but there must be a mechanism for an informed debate on the Government's approach. We therefore recommend a combination of old and new measures which in our view would reinvigorate this component of the system.

Conclusions

Membership

234.  We remain of the opinion that the best solution would be to revert to the previous system of permanent membership. Moreover, giving European Committees a permanent membership, with a permanent Chair, would enable them to make decisions about their business and timetabling, as well as developing expertise among their members and potentially making them more independent from the Whips. It would also give interest groups the opportunity to make their views known in advance to members of the relevant Committee. Given the impact of EU legislation on the voter, and the fact that many matters which come before European Committees would be the equivalent of an Act of Parliament—and have not necessarily originated from Government policy—we recommend that European Committees should not be whipped.

NOMENCLATURE

235.  The FCO memorandum proposed, in the context of transparency, that the "Standing Committees [sic] might also consider for instance designating themselves by names that clearly indicate their functional ambit, rather than letters ... We recognise however that it is difficult to come up with a generic name for the three committees given the range of departments covered."[248]

236.  It is difficult to see how the change proposed by the FCO could be brought about. However, it is clear that there is often confusion between the European Scrutiny Committee and the European Committees (and confusion with the House of Lords EU Committee), so in our view there is a strong case for a change of name. The role of these Committees is questioning the Government about its negotiating approach on particular documents, and considering the wording of the motion to be considered on the floor of the House about the Government's position on those documents. We therefore recommend that they should be renamed as EU Document Debate Committees.

CHAIRS AND PROCEDURES

237.  Our new EU Document Debate Committees should also have permanent Chairs. We see considerable merit in these Chairs being elected, and possibly the Committee Members too. We also believe that Members of the House who are not members of the Committee should be permitted not just to attend and move amendments, but also—crucially—to vote. In this way the independence of the Committees would be guaranteed and it would enable all Members of the House to determine, not merely suggest, the form of the motion which goes to the floor of the House (on the assumption that the Government accepts our recommendation later in this chapter that it should commit to tabling in the House the motion agreed to by the Committee).

238.   We further recommend that EU Document Debate Committees should be given power to vary the way they conduct their business, for example: to dispense with the Ministerial statement, and proceed straight after the explanatory statement by the ESC Member to the debate on the Motion; to agree to reduce the length of the sitting of the Committee from two and a half hours to an hour and a half; to debate certain documents together; or to permit a member other than the Minister to move the motion (for example, in the case of a Reasoned Opinion, to allow this to be moved by a member of the European Scrutiny Committee). In order to do this the Committee would deliberate in public in exactly the same way as a Public Bill Committee considering a Programme Motion.

239.  We recommend that similar provisions on timing should apply to EU Document Debate Committees as we have recommended for debates on the floor of the House: that the Government should undertake to ensure that the debate takes place within four sitting weeks of a Committee recommendation (unless the Committee has for any reason waived this requirement, or—indeed—has suggested a tighter timescale).

240.  Finally, we recommend that delegated legislation introduced under the European Communities Act which requires affirmative resolution (and would therefore normally fall to be considered by a Delegated Legislation Committee) should also be taken in the relevant EU Document Debate Committee. This would be one way of accommodating the recommendations from the Chair of the EFRA Committee about introducing amendable motions in Delegated Legislation Committees cited earlier in this Report.

MOTIONS IN EUROPEAN COMMITTEE

241.  Currently only a Minister can move a motion in European Committee. However, other members of the Committee and, indeed, other members of the House, may table amendments. There has been discussion about what should happen if the Committee amends the Government motion ever since European Standing Committees were established.

242.  The Procedure Committee stated in 1991 that the fact that the Government could move the original motion on the floor following amendment in Committee made "a mockery of the scrutiny process and constitutes a waste of the Standing Committee's time and effort."[249] Our predecessor Committee's 2002 Report on the scrutiny system recommended that "the motion moved in the House on an EU document should always be that agreed by the European Standing Committee, that if the Government does not wish to move it another Member should do so, and that in such circumstances a brief explanatory statement by the mover and a Minister should be permitted".[250] The Government's response stated that it disagreed with this proposal.[251]

243.  The then Deputy Leader of the House noted in 2008 that the then Government "recognise[d] the long running view expressed by previous Committees, including by the Modernisation Committee in 2005, that the motion tabled [in the House] should be the one agreed by the [European] Committee." We recommend that the Government should set out a commitment that the motion tabled in the House should be the motion agreed by the EU Document Debate Committee.

244.  A particular issue has arisen with Reasoned Opinions, where there have been cases where a Minister has had to move a motion relating to a Reasoned Opinion proposed by the ESC, even when the Government did not agree with it. As we have already noted, the Procedure Committee reported in 2011 and recommended that in these cases the "motion [should] appear in the name of the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee or in the name of another member of the Committee acting on its behalf." The Government's response rejected this. We ask the Government to reconsider its opposition to this change.

245.  We recommend that a new resolution of the House provide that any motion tabled following a debate in EU Document Debate Committee for consideration without debate on the floor of the House should appear in the European Business section of the Order Paper for at least one sitting day before it is put on the main Order Paper for decision, so that Members have the opportunity to consider whether or not to table amendments.

GUIDANCE AND ADVICE

246.  It is noteworthy that on a number of recent occasions there has been confusion about the procedures involved in European Committee sessions. We therefore intend to work with the House authorities to produce further guidance on this process.

DRAFT REVISED FORM OF STANDING ORDER NO. 119
119. —

(1) There shall be three general committees, called EU Document Debate Committees, to which shall stand referred for consideration on motion, unless the House otherwise orders, such European Union documents as defined in Standing Order No. 143 (European Scrutiny Committee) as may be recommended by the European Scrutiny Committee for further consideration. [252]

(2) Each EU Document Debate Committee shall consist of sixteen Members nominated for the duration of a Parliament by the Committee of Selection; and in nominating such Members, the Committee of Selection shall —

(a) have regard to the qualifications of the Members nominated and to the composition of the House;

(b) shall nominate at least two members of the European Scrutiny Committee, and members of select committees appointed under Standing Order No. 152 whose responsibilities most closely relate to the subject matter of the Committee.

(c) have power to discharge Members from time to time, and to appoint others in substitution.

(4) The Chair of each EU Document Debate Committee shall be appointed from the Panel of Chairs for the duration of the Parliament.

(5) The quorum of an EU Document Debate Committee shall be five, excluding the chair.

(6) Any Member, though not nominated to a EU Document Debate Committee, may take part in the committee's proceedings and may move amendments to any motion made as provided in paragraphs (9) and (10) below, make a motion as provided in paragraphs (9) and (10) below, and vote, but such a Member shall not be counted in the quorum.

(7) The EU Document Debate Committees, and the principal subject matter of the European Union documents to be referred to each, shall be as set out below; and, in making recommendations for further consideration, the European Scrutiny Committee shall specify the committee to which in its opinion the documents ought to be referred; and, subject to paragraph (2) of this order, the documents shall be referred to that committee accordingly

EU Document Debate Committees

Principal subject matter

Matters within the responsibility of the following Departments

A

Energy and Climate Change, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Transport; Communities and Local Government; Forestry Commission; and analogous responsibilities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Offices.

B

Work and Pensions; Foreign and Commonwealth Office; International Development; Home Office; Ministry of Justice (excluding those responsibilities of the Scotland and Wales Offices which fall to European Committee A); together with any matters not otherwise allocated by this Order.

C

Business, Innovation and Skills; Education; Culture, Media and Sport; Health; HM Treasury (including HM Revenue & Customs);

(8) The chair may permit a member of the European Scrutiny Committee to make a brief statement of no more than five minutes, at the beginning of the sitting, explaining that committee's decision to refer the document or documents to an EU Document Debate Committee.

(9) The chair may permit Ministers of the Crown, or, in the case of a motion for a reasoned opinion under Protocol (No. 2) to the Lisbon Treaty, the chair or a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, to make statements and to answer questions thereon put by Members, in respect of each motion relative to a European Union document or documents referred to an EU Document Debate Committee of which a Minister shall have given notice; but no question shall be taken after the expiry of a period of one hour from the commencement of proceedings: Provided that the chair may, if he sees fit, allow questions to be taken for a further period of not more than half an hour after the expiry of that period.

(10) Following the conclusion of the proceedings under the previous paragraph, the motion referred to therein may be made, to which amendments may be moved; and, if proceedings thereon have not been previously concluded, the chair shall interrupt the consideration of such motion and amendments when the committee shall have sat for a period of two and a half hours, and shall then put forthwith successively

(a) the question on any amendment already proposed from the chair; and

(b) the main question (or the main question, as amended).

The chair shall thereupon report to the House any resolution to which the committee has come, or that it has come to no resolution, without any further question being put.

(11) The Committee may resolve to vary the timings in paragraphs (9) and (10) of this Order on the basis of a motion which can be moved by any member of the Committee.

(12) If any motion is made in the House in relation to any European Union document in respect of which a report has been made to the House in accordance with paragraph (10) of this order, the Speaker shall forthwith put successively

(a) the question on any amendment selected by him which may be moved;

(b) the main question (or the main question, as amended);

and proceedings in pursuance of this paragraph, though opposed, may be decided after the expiration of the time for opposed business.

(14) With the modifications provided in this order, the following Standing Orders shall apply to EU Document Debate Committees

No. 85 (Chair of general committees);

No. 88 (Meetings of general committees); and

No. 89 (Procedure in general committees).


231   Q 80; Thirtieth Report of Session 2010-12, Opting into international agreements and enhanced scrutiny of opt-in decisions, HC 955 Back

232   Letter from Jimmy Hood MP, European Standing Committees and the Modernisation Committee inquiry, dated 9 June 2004. Back

233   Modernisation Committee, Second Report of Session 2004-05, Scrutiny of European Business, HC 465-I, paras 92-94 Back

234   Q 8 Back

235   See para 7 Back

236   Q 251 Back

237   Q 209 Back

238   Q 307. See also Ev w13, para 17.  Back

239   Ev w7, para 18 Back

240   Ev w20, para 9 Back

241   Q 280 Back

242   Gen Co Deb, European Committee B, Financial management and audit, 3 September 2013 Back

243   Q 277 and Q 282 [Andrea Leadsom MP] Back

244   Q 285 [Martin Horwood MP] Back

245   Q 176 [Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP] Back

246   Ev w43 Back

247   Ev w40 Back

248   Ev w8, para 22 Back

249   Procedure Committee, First Report of Session 1991-92, Review of European Standing Committees, HC 31, para 41 Back

250   European Scrutiny Committee, Thirtieth Report of Session 2001-02, European Scrutiny in the Commons, HC 152-xxx, para 73 Back

251   Second Special Report of Session 2001-02, European Scrutiny in the Commons: Government Observations on the Committee's Thirtieth Report of Session 2001-02, HC 1256. The reference in para 243 is to HC Deb, 7 February 2008, col 1181; and the references in para 244 are to para 159 (See also Gen CO Deb, European Committee B, Investor Compensation Schemes, 21 October 2010.) and to the Procedure Committee, First Special Report of Session 2012-13, HC 712. Back

252   Note: 119(4) is drafted on the basis of a permanent appointed Chair. See also para 237. This Standing Order also proposes a re-allocation of HM Treasury business from Committee B to Committee C. Back


 
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Prepared 28 November 2013