European Scrutiny CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Liaison Committee (ESI 09)

1. The European Scrutiny Committee (ESC) has invited submissions to its inquiry into the European Scrutiny system in the House of Commons. This submission sets out the views of the Liaison Committee of the House of Commons in respect of the scrutiny of European issues by departmental select committees.

2. In June 2002 the Liaison Committee agreed a set of ten Core Tasks for select committees, the first of which is to examine “policy proposals from the UK Government and the European Commission in Green Papers, White Papers, draft Guidance etc, and to inquire further where the Committee considers it appropriate”. The Core Tasks provide an advisory set of objectives rather than rigid template of departmental select committees’ scrutiny activity.

3. The extent to which departmental select committees consider European issues depends on the impact of the EU on the department the departmental select committee scrutinises, and the degree of influence Members believe the Committee can achieve.

4. Since the General Election six departmental select committees have undertaken inquiries into European issues. The number of reports into European issues broadly reflects the extent to which European issues impinge upon the remit of the relevant Government Department. For example, Europe has a major impact on Defra’s remit and consequently the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s work is dominated by European issues. Five of the twelve reports published by the EFRA Committee in the 2010–12 Session related to European issues. In other areas, such as education and health, there is little EU legislation and those departmental select committees consequently do not consider European issues as a matter of course.

5. Members’ appetite to consider European topics may be influenced by their belief that such topics are scrutinised by the ESC, whose work is held in high regard both inside and outside the House. However, the ESC’s role is to sift through hundreds of European documents and highlight to the House those of particular interest or importance. The effective scrutiny of European documents and issues relies on a combination of the ESC’s work and departmental select committees undertaking inquiries into the detail of policy proposals.

6. We note that some chapters of ESC reports are drawn to the attention of the relevant DSC and that there is increasing informal contact at staff level to share information. We suggest that these informal exchanges are valuable and that they form a useful complement to the more formal system of Opinions that the ESC can require from a departmental select committee under Standing Order 143(11). This power is used around half a dozen times each year. Occasionally departmental select committees have not been able to respond to a request for an Opinion within the time limit. Nevertheless we believe that there is scope for more Opinions to be sought, so long as the right of individual committees to determine their work programmes is respected. The process of providing Opinions will be enhanced by informal contact at staff level and making use of the ability to vary the form or format of an Opinion requested under the Standing Order. We believe that the Opinions procedure would benefit from the transparency that would be achieved by publishing them on the ESC website.

7. The extent to which departmental select committees conduct inquiries into European issues will depend upon the Members’ views on the value of such inquiries and the probability of recommendations being not only accepted by the Government, but also affecting the outcome of negotiations in Brussels. There is therefore an additional and higher bar to pass before a committee commits time and resources to such an inquiry. A committee’s ability to engage at a sufficiently early stage in the policy formulation process depends on it having an accurate picture of what the Commission is working towards. The National Parliament Office in Brussels can provide some of this intelligence, but—to enable them to decide which issues to engage with at an early stage—committees depend on UKRep for horizon-scanning about developing policy within the European Commission. Committees have in the past found UKRep officials very helpful in providing informal briefings when they visit Brussels, but they have found it more difficult to get access to this expertise while at Westminster. We have had encouraging discussions with the Minister for Europe, David Lidington MP, on this matter (the correspondence is attached) and there have been promising informal discussions between UKRep and NPO. We shall be continuing to press on this, to ensure that the Minister’s undertakings are put into practice.

8. Members’ perception of the value of an inquiry is influenced by the degree to which they feel that they have all the necessary information from Government. Clearly when the UK is in negotiations with other Member States Ministers will be reluctant to reveal their negotiating strategy in a public forum such as a select committee evidence session. We consider there to be scope to make greater use of informal private briefings from departments or UKRep so that Members are kept informed of developments in a timely fashion.

9. Within the House, select committee staff should be encouraged to make more use of the resources available. This work has already started with the revival of a network of staff contacts that will meet to discuss sharing best practice and improving contacts with European institutions, for example through more systematic consideration of the Commission’s work programme and Presidency priorities. This network will also have the opportunity to consider how the information provided by the ESC, such as its “remaining business” document, could be made more useful.

10. Resource constraints are an important consideration when discussing extending the work done by select committees. Members’ time is often the most limited resource. There are a number of initiatives that would enable select committees to monitor European developments without taking undue time.

11. We believe there may be merit in adopting the Scottish Parliament Committee model of appointing a Member to act as a rapporteur to monitor developments in the European Union in their subject area. There may also be merit in considering amending Standing Order No. 152 to enable departmental select committees to appoint a sub-committee specifically to consider European matters in addition to single sub-committee that select committees may appoint at present.

12. Currently members of departmental select committees may be nominated to serve on European Committees that are considering documents relating to the select committees remit. This facility has been taken up with varying degrees of enthusiasm. A member of the ESC sets out at the beginning of a European Committee debate the reasons why the ESC has decided to refer the matter for debate. A departmental select committee that has reported on the issue being debated should apply for the report to be “tagged” to the proceedings on the Order Paper. The Chair or a member of that Committee may also attend the European Committee and have the opportunity to set out the committee’s views.

13. Motions in European Committee debates are amendable. When a Departmental Select Committee is asked to consider whether it wishes to nominate a Member to serve on a European Committee it might also have the opportunity to table an amendment to the European Committee Motion in the name of the Chair, which would indicate an amendment on behalf of the Select Committee.

14. When a departmental select committee has scrutinised a European issue it frequently relates to a Directive that has been or will be transposed into UK law through delegated legislation. The Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee has advocated the introduction of amendable motions, akin to those in European committees, in delegated legislation committees. Such an approach would enable Members to express a view on the desirability of the instrument, or highlight concerns about gold plating, without being fatal to the Government’s legislation progressing through the House.

Liaison Committee

25 October 2012



Letter from the Minister for Europe to the Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith

Scrutiny of European Business

1. Further to my letter of 4 May, I, would like to offer a more substantive response and further thought on your letter of 23 February.

2. On the basis of your letter, officials in UKRep Brussels met clerks in the National Parliamentary Office (NPO) in Brussels. Recognising the importance of the NPO as the “eyes and ears of Parliament in Brussels, UKRep plans to instigate more systematic engagement with the clerks to flag up forthcoming issues and explain the background and negotiating dynamics on particular files. This will require NPO agreement. We made facilities available for them within UKRep last year to allow them to take advantage of this relationship.

3. I am sure this new arrangement would go a considerable way towards meeting your concern and help keep Parliament better informed about live issues in Brussels.

4. However, as we discussed when we last met, I think there is a lot more that could be done to improve scrutiny. For example, UKRep’s real expertise lies in the negotiation of the various portfolios in Brussels. Their insight would prove very valuable to the committees. However, it is, of course, officials from many government departments in London who are responsible for the development and shaping of the policies which they negotiate. UKRep are unable to speak for these officials. As Minister, I have said on several numerous occasions that I want to see officials interact more with Parliament and Parliamentarians.

5. In your letter of 24 October 2011, you recorded the Liaison Committee’s belief that there was scope for improvement in the scrutiny of EU business at Westminster. You noted that Departmental Select Committees would welcome Government assistance in pursuing matters early enough to influence policy-making at the EU level. I am still keen to work with you and Committees to make any practical ideas for improvement into a reality.

6. I remain open to any suggestions you or other committees have and to a meeting to discuss the challenges and possibilities further. Alternatively, I would be happy for any of this exploratory work to begin between your clerks and my officials if you thought that more suitable.

Letter from the Minister for Europe to the Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith

Scrutiny of European Business

7. Thank you for your letter of 23 February 2012. I apologise for the delay in responding. The ideas you put forward very much accord with my own and indeed with the change of practice that I have been introducing in the FCO and encouraging more widely across Whitehall. As you know, I have been trying to instil in officials a culture of better engagement with Parliament as this brings benefits to Government too, in the form of better development of policy and in better advocacy—in those instances where Parliament is persuaded by the Government’s arguments.

8. I also agree your suggestions that contact be in a light-touch, easy fashion for minimal impact on stretched resources and that the National Parliament Office in Brussels should be part of the equation.

9. I see this very much as part of the wider review of scrutiny and in keeping with its themes. I have asked my officials to look at the issues you raise in greater depth and I will respond within the next month with some thoughts on how we might better work together. There is, as you say, a considerable amount of useful knowledge in UKRep, which is at the very heart of the EU machine. But I want to make sure that the most appropriate officials engage at the right time and I suspect these officials will not always be those in Brussels.

Letter from the Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith to the Minister for Europe

Scrutiny of European Business

10. Thank you for your letter of 30 January, following up our meeting in December, in which you offer Committees informal briefings from the FCO on EU institutions and how best to influence them.

11. Committees might occasionally find a background briefing of this kind helpful, particularly at the beginning of a Parliament, but — as I mentioned to you when we met briefly — this is not the kind of briefing that we are pressing for. What we would find most useful is for UKREP to highlight for us those parts of the European Commission’s work programme which are being actively pursued and on which the committee’s intervention would be useful and timely.

12. When we visit Brussels UKREP officials are always very helpful, and very well-informed about what is happening within the Commission. We have in mind that the relevant UKREP lead might brief committees informally when they are in London. Alternatively, the FCO in London might encourage UKREP policy teams to flag up relevant upcoming issues to the National Parliament Office in Brussels which it would then feed back to committee clerks. I understand that this does happen to some extent already, but it could be more systematic. We are not looking to add to UKREP’s workload, merely to make more effective use of their knowledge.

Letter from the Minister for Europe to the Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith

Briefings on the European Union

13. In our meeting of 8 December when I discussed scrutiny of EU business with your committee, a number of Chairs of Committees floated the idea of discussing with the FCO the workings of the European Union. I would be very happy for officials to provide an informal briefing for any select committees or their staff that would welcome and value a discussion on the European Union, its institutions and the ways in which it can be influenced.

14. The exact format of these talks would be for discussion with individual committees but they would, of course, take place under the established rules regarding the role of officials.

15. XXXX would be pleased to discuss this further with the clerks of any committees who might be interested.

Prepared 28th November 2013