European Scrutiny CommitteeWritten evidence from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (ESI 10)

1. This submission sets out the views of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee on the scrutiny of European matters by departmental select committees.

2. Much of the EFRA Committee’s work relates to European issues. In this Parliament, for example, we have devoted two inquiries each to CAP and CFP reform and reported on Commission’s proposals for the dairy sector as well as reporting on the Commission’s imposition of a ban on the production of desinewed meat in the UK and the implementation of the Directive on improving the welfare of caged hens. In addition, several of our inquiries into UK Government policy have an EU angle. For example, our work on the Government’s Natural Environment White Paper, water management and air quality issues have been set in the context of the UK’s obligations to meet requirements set out in a number of EU environmental protection Directives. Finally, our financial scrutiny of Defra has often focussed on the levels of disallowance and potential fines relating to breaches of European legislation.

3. As a result of this European focus we have relatively high level of engagement with European institutions. We have taken evidence from the European Commission and European Parliamentarians. The Committee Chair and members have undertaken a number of visits to Brussels and countries holding the Presidency of the European Council. In the course of those visits we have met Commissioners, officials and MEPs.

4. We are conscious that while the Government may accept our conclusions on European issues it is not in its gift to implement them. We have consistently emphasised the importance of the Government engaging constructively with European institutions and other Member States to garner support for a UK position. Similarly, it is important that Select Committees cultivate working relationships with the Commission and colleagues on counterpart committees in the European Parliament and national Parliaments. We consider it essential that we make our case not only to the UK’s Government but also to the European Commission and Parliament.

5. A critical issue for the Committee is the extent to which our scrutiny can influence events in the European Union. The UK Government is, of course, required to respond to our reports, however, whether or not the Government agrees with the Committee we are to some extent reliant on the Government then making our case with other Member States and the Commission. The established process of select committee report and Government response is therefore removed from the decision-making process to greater extent than for purely domestic issues.

6. This distance is exacerbated in terms of press coverage. In some instances a select committee has greater influence by prompting media interest in an issue than directly through making recommendations. In those instances where the issues have a strong European element the media coverage may result less in putting in pressure on the UK Government to change its position than in reinforcing stereotypical views of the European Union.

7. There is a widely held view that Committees are likely to be more effective in relation to European issues if they engage earlier in the policy development process. We agree with that view and make good use of the National Parliament Office and UKRep to provide an “ear to the ground” on developments within our remit. We note the positive developments made by the FCO to increase engagement with UKRep and we would support this continuing and deepening in the future.

8. For a number of reasons the Government can be reluctant to discuss these issues with select committees. We have frequently been told that Ministers would not wish to discuss their negotiating positions in the public forum of a select committee evidence session. While we recognise the argument we are not convinced that in the majority of cases the UK’s interests would be harmed by departments being more open with select committees.

9. While we have taken evidence from the Commission on a number of occasions we have also had experience of the Commission being unwilling to provide oral evidence. This has highlighted the inconsistency of select committee powers in relation to the executive. A select committee may require an individual citizen to appear to provide evidence. Ministers are accountable to Parliament and it is rare for a reasonable request for a Minister to appear to be rebuffed. However, the Commission cannot be compelled to provide oral evidence despite it being able to instigate legislation that will have a direct impact on UK citizens.

10. We have not found a resolution to this difficulty and would urge the European Scrutiny Committee to consider recommending that the UK Government seek a protocol with the Commission that would establish the right of national parliaments to take evidence from the Commission.

11. The ESC has not asked the EFRA committee to provide an opinion on a document in this Parliament. The ESC does consult at staff level to ascertain whether particular documents are being considered by the EFRA committee. This arrangement has worked well to date. We have also corresponded on issues of interest to both Committees. For example, the Chair of the EFRA Committee wrote to her counterpart on the ESC on the moratorium on desinewed meat imposed by the Commission. We are in favour of departmental select committees providing their views to the ESC, whether through formal opinions or less formal correspondence.

12. “Gold-plating” of EU regulations is a complaint we have heard frequently, particularly in relation to regulations impacting on farmers. There are circumstances in which potential “gold-plating” has been identified in delegated legislation that transposes a Directive into UK law. We consider that there would be merit in introducing of amendable motions, akin to those in European committees, in delegated legislation committees. Members would thereby have an opportunity 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.

January 2013

Prepared 28th November 2013