European Scrutiny CommitteeSupplementary written evidence from Foreign & Commonwealth Office (ESI 16)

I wanted to thank you for the illuminating discussion on scrutiny reform at the evidence session on 31 October. I am writing to address some of the outstanding issues raised by the Committee, including the decision to override the Directive on controlling Hazards Involving Dangerous Substances before a debate had been held. I agreed to look into this particular override and provide your Committee with my views.

I have seen the correspondence between the Committee and Ministerial colleagues in which the Committee expressed criticisms and the government explained why, following the acceleration of the timetable set by the Danish Presidency, it was important to support agreement reached in Brussels before a parliamentary debate could be held.

I understand that the key reason for this override was to maintain the UK’s credibility in future negotiations in Europe. Given the instrumental role the UK played in securing improvements to the original proposal, withholding support for this important Directive could have sent the wrong signals to our partners ad the Commission, leaving the UK open to accusations of having negotiated in bad faith. Given the importance of the Directive in preventing major accidents and limiting the consequences to both people and the environment, it was important to agree this directive quickly. The Minister for Employment wrote to the Committees on 11 July to inform them of this decision, and the debate subsequently took place on 23 October.

Let me reassure you that I agree that debates should be timetabled as swiftly as possible. There will be occasions where this may not be possible, but I know that the Business Managers always try to facilitate early debates.

Your Committee also sought confirmation that a general waiver of scrutiny for action plans will be dropped as an idea for scrutiny reform. As I commented at the session, I think it important that we consider each case on its merits. Wherever an action plan or a strategy is put forward in a document caught by the scrutiny process, like a Council Decision or a Commission Communication to the Council, we will continue to submit it for scrutiny. The treaties do not define strategies and action plans. Those terms can be used for both genuinely strategic plans and quite routine working drafts. Where we have assessed a “strategy” or “action plan” as not subject to the usual rules for deposit we have usually sent it to the Committee with a covering letter or provided the information within an EM on a related topic. In this way I want to provide as much scope for proper consideration by Parliament as possible. I am however open to a discussion on how we can develop some clarity around handling such issues.

I would also like to respond to questions we did not have time to cover during the evidence session. The Committee took an interest in the two EU missions to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I wrote to the Committees on 13 April, promising to update them on the Strategic Review. The Review was delayed until July, and was then classified “Restreint”, meaning we were unable to share a copy with the Committee. This timing also meant it was not available for the Committees before Summer Recess. I did however ensure that information from the Strategic Review was summarised in the two EMs on the Mandates for the DRC missions, which were sent to the Committees in September, to ensure that you were able to make an informed assessment of the future of the missions. This was not however flagged up clearly enough in the EMs, and I apologise for the confusion.

You also asked what responses we have received from the European External Action Service to my letters reminding Baroness ,Ashton about the timeliness of information. I have written to Baroness Ashton about this issue several times over the past two years, most recently on 22 October 2012, I have also raised this with her in person, and my officials reinforce these messages at working level. Baroness Ashton has always expressed support for the role of national parliaments—as one might expect from someone who has been closely involved in Parliamentary oversight of EU issues during her time in the House of Lords. It is clear, however, that we will need to continue to monitor this issue, and raise concerns on individual dossiers when necessary.

I want to assure you that the government takes scrutiny very seriously, and welcomes the Committee’s inquiry as an opportunity to review the scrutiny process as a whole. There are lessons to be learnt from examples when the scrutiny process encounters difficulties. An active network of departmental scrutiny coordinators meets regularly to discuss scrutiny issues and to share best practice. I hope that we can find ways for your clerks to work even more closely with this network to build closer relationships, help clarify issues at an early stage, and further build a greater sense of a shared objective in effective Parliamentary oversight of EU issues.

Prepared 28th November 2013