Scrutiny Reform follow-up and Legacy Report - European Scrutiny Contents

2  Delays in scheduling debates

13. Our Committee is empowered under the Standing Orders of the House of Commons to recommend debates on EU documents. Standing Order No. 143 states:

    "(1) There shall be a select committee, to be called the European Scrutiny Committee, to examine European Union documents and

    (a) to report its opinion on the legal and political importance of each such document and, where it considers appropriate, to report also on the reasons for its opinion and on any matters of principle, policy or law which may be affected;

    (b) to make recommendations for the further consideration of any such document pursuant to Standing Order No. 119 (European Committees); and

    (c) to consider any issue arising upon any such document or group of documents, or related matters."

14. Standing Order No. 119, on European Committees, is similarly clear:

    "(1)There shall be three general committees, called European 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."

15. We recommend that the Government holds certain debates on the floor of the House if the document is of particular importance or wider interest.

16. Our Scrutiny Reform Report noted that during 2013 there had been problems with the Government's scheduling of debates, commenting on "long delays" and noting "something of a war of attrition with HM Treasury in particular, which at one point had a series of floor debates outstanding."12F[13]

Activity levels between 2006-07 and 2013-14
Financial year 2006-07 2007-08 2008-09 2009-10 2010-11 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14
EU Documents scrutinised 1,0451,044 941915 1,0131,138 9801,136
Reported as legally/politically important 484472 443416 454643 506608
Debates in European Committee 4234 32 33 4035 3839
Debates on the floor of the House 63 51 610 1212

17. We noted that there had been an increase in the number of debates on the floor of the House in the 2010-15 Parliament, compared with the 2005-2010 Parliament-as can be seen in the Table on the preceding page-but observed that this was due in considerable part to new debates on EU justice and home affairs opt-in motions (offered by the Government) and on Reasoned Opinions relating to subsidiarity (a new power for national Parliaments provided for under the Lisbon Treaty).13F[14] The Minister for Europe acknowledged this factor in January 2014, telling us that "I accept that Lisbon has made a difference, and the agreement the Government gave to enhanced scrutiny of Justice and Home Affairs accounts for a number of these debates."14F[15]

18. In other words, as of November 2013 there was no cause for complacency that the Government was somehow being over-generous in its provision of time for EU document debates.

19. Given the delays we were experiencing at that time we recommended in the Scrutiny Reform Report that "the Government should undertake to make time available in the House within four sitting weeks of a Committee recommendation for a floor debate (unless the Committee has for any reason waived this requirement or has recommended a more urgent timescale)."15F[16] We made an equivalent recommendation for debates in European Committee.16F[17]

20. But instead of the situation improving after publication of our Report it got significantly worse. In the financial year 2014-15 up until the agreement of this Report (a week and a half before the dissolution of Parliament and some three weeks short of the end of the financial year):

·  there were only three debates on the floor of the House, compared with 12 in the financial year 2013-14; and

·  there were 20 European Committee debates, compared with 39 in 2013-14.

21. There were no floor debates at all between 9 June 2014 and 9 March 2015.

22. At the time we heard from the Leader of the House in February 2015 there were eight debates outstanding for the floor of the House, on such issues as the Free Movement of EU Citizens, the Rule of Law in EU Member States and the Ports Regulation, and nine debates outstanding for European Committee, on such subjects as the EU and the post-2015 Development Agenda and EU Merger Control. One delayed debate was on the Government's Justice and Home Affairs opt-in decision on the European Police College, a particularly disappointing example given that the Government had specifically offered such debates to improve parliamentary scrutiny.17F[18]

23. At the beginning of 2015 we asked a series of Ministers the reason for the apparent Government 'lockdown' of EU document debates. We set out some of the answers below and overleaf:
Home and Justice Secretaries, 12 January 2015

"Q33 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Will you raise them positively, rather than negatively? That is to say, to encourage him, rather than to discourage him?

Chair: Say, "We really do want to discuss free movement of citizens, don't we?"

Mrs May: Chairman, I, more than anybody probably, understand the importance of the issue of free movement and the impact that it has. There are a number of debates, obviously, that Nia Griffith referred to in relation to this. I am sure the Justice Secretary will be willing to join me in doing this, in speaking to the leader of the House, and indicating to him that this Committee is very concerned about the fact that it has not yet been able to debate a number of matters that it has requested debates on, and that time is running out.

Q34 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Do you, Home Secretary, think this is a good thing? Lord Chancellor, perhaps you would encourage this as well. Do you both think that it would be a good thing to have these debates?

Mrs May: As I have said, I am very happy to debate free movement. I absolutely understand the importance of free movement as an issue. I deal with it on a regular basis.

Q35 Chair: You are telling us that you would like to see that debated. Is that right?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Yes, I think we have got that answer.

Mrs May: I think we are both indicating that we would be positive about this."

Minister for Europe, 14 January 2015

"Q8 Stephen Phillips: Here is an issue which is of cardinal importance to the constituents of every single Member of Parliament, and a year after we recommended it for debate on the Floor of the House, that debate has not happened. What explanation can you possibly give, Minister?

Mr Lidington: This is ultimately a matter for the lead Department concerned. It is for the Department with responsibility for a particular area of policy, primarily, to engage in discussions with the business managers and others in government about the scheduling of debates when referred from this Committee …

Q9 Stephen Phillips: You will remember that we asked you about this when you came to give evidence in January 2014 about the scheduling of debates. Just before that session took place, the staff of this Committee were told by a number of Government Departments that a new procedure, in which No. 10 had to approve the date of every debate in the European Committee, was causing delays. Is that procedure, perhaps extending also to debates on the Floor of the House, the real explanation as to why these debates are not being scheduled in the way that Parliament is entitled to expect they should be and in accordance with the commitments that you made about the way in which the Government should be scheduling them?

Mr Lidington: As I said a few minutes ago, there is an internal process within Government to get collective agreement on the scheduling of debates. I do not think it would be right for me to go into detail about how that operates."

Foreign Secretary, 20 January 2015

"I did read the transcript of the Minister for Europe's fascinating session with the Committee. I can only repeat what he set out: there is a cross-Government process for the scheduling of debates. There is a lead Department and, in this case, it is the Home Office that is the lead Department. I know, however, that the Minister for Europe, with his extraordinarily sensitive antennae, picked up, during his session, that this was an issue that the Committee is exercised about, and I know that he has gone away to see what he can do about it. I believe you have called the Leader of the House and, of course, the Leader of the House will, hopefully, be able to say more about this." (Q31)

24. Over the same period, when asked at Business Questions when these debates would take place, the Leader of the House would not give a firm commitment:
Business Questions 8 January 2015

"Sir William Cash: Yesterday, my Committee deeply deplored the fact that the Prime Minister, despite promises given, provided a mere written statement regarding the most recent European Council. That is greatly to be deplored, but another matter of grave concern to my Committee is the failure to schedule debates on the Floor of the House and to carry those through. I recently asked a similar question of the Leader of the House and he said that he would try to do something about this. We have only recommended 11 debates, including on matters as important as the free movement of persons—that has not been debated, despite the fact that we made the recommendation one whole year ago. It simply will not do. In the circumstances, will he agree to appear before my Committee to explain the situation, because, frankly, we have just about had enough?

Mr Hague: On the first point about a written statement, the Prime Minister has a very strong record in coming to the House to deliver statements, including after the great majority of European Councils. As my hon. Friend knows, this particular Council meeting took place after the end of Parliament's sitting, so it would not have been possible to come straight to the House about it. I think there are some Councils and occasions when it is appropriate to give a written statement instead, but on the vast majority of occasions an oral statement is made. I understand the point my hon. Friend is making about the range of reports and requests from the European Scrutiny Committee. It has not been possible to schedule those debates as things stand, but of course I am happy to discuss that further with him."18F[19]

Business Questions 22 January 2015

"Jacob Rees-Mogg: In this year of anniversaries, may I draw to the Leader of the House's attention the fact that today is the first anniversary of the European Scrutiny Committee's request for a debate on European papers relating to the free movement of people? In the past couple of weeks, the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe have all appeared before the Committee and told us that, although they have a particular love of parliamentary scrutiny, they cannot explain why the motion has not been brought forward. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend, as First Secretary of State and therefore senior in the hierarchy, might be able to bring this delay to an end, or are Her Majesty's Government in fact celebrating this anniversary by a party enjoining upon itself the joys of evading parliamentary scrutiny?

Mr Hague: This was an anniversary that Mr Speaker unaccountably omitted to mention yesterday. My hon. Friend has an acute sense of the seniority within the Government, which I appreciate. As he well knows, the European Scrutiny Committee has submitted a number of requests for debates on the Floor of the House and in Committee, and we are working to ensure that some of those requests are dealt with. I have also agreed to come to the Committee to discuss these matters." 19F[20]

Business Questions 5 February 2015

"Jacob Rees-Mogg: I apologise for boring the Leader of the House on this subject, but I must bring him back to the debate requested by the European Scrutiny Committee one year and two weeks ago on the free movement of EU citizens. In answering my previous questions, my right hon. Friend has been immeasurably emollient and tactful, but nothing happens. It is a grave discourtesy to this House that the Government do not follow the proper scrutiny procedures. It is about time we had this debate, and it is a considerable disappointment that it was not in his announcement.

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend is never boring. [Hon. Members: "Oh yes he is!"] Well, only occasionally then, in the view of the House. In my view, he is never boring. I always try to be emollient and tactful. Indeed, I am going to the European Scrutiny Committee to discuss some of these things next week. I certainly intend that some of the debates that the European Scrutiny Committee is waiting for will take place on the Floor of the House or in Committee in the coming weeks."20F[21]

25. We took the view that these unprecedented circumstances required the Leader of the House to appear before us, which he did on 11 February, and acknowledged:

    "Certainly, there has been a difficulty in this Session, and as you have gathered from the Minister for Europe and the Foreign Secretary, there has not been collective agreement in the Government to proceed with debates that the Committee has recommended … I can tell the Committee now that I have also secured agreement to break the logjam, as it were, and bring to the Floor of the House some of the recommended debates, as well as to deal with more of them in Committee, and that will happen over the short remainder of the Session. Some of those will be able to be considered."21F[22]

26. In the event, only two further debates have been scheduled on the floor of the House22F[23] and only three in European Committee. Less than two weeks of this Parliament remain.

27. The Leader of the House made two comments in his oral evidence which we particularly contest. The first was that, he said, there was a "background" that when debates took place "they have not always been that well subscribed";23F[24] the second was that there was not concern about the situation from other Members of the House: "there has been no [request] from outside this Committee at all, from the rest of the House, for these debates to be scheduled. The opposition has not asked for that. Other Members have not asked at Business questions. Other Members do not ask me in the Lobby or the Tea Room."24F[25]

28. On the Leader's first point, we note that if the Government chooses to schedule debates we have recommended only after several months, six months, or even over a year, by which time the proposal itself may well have been passed at EU level, it is not surprising that Members may not attend the debate. By devaluing the debate process the Government ensures that there are fewer reasons for Members to attend.

29. We also contest the Leader's comment that other Members are not concerned about this. We note that, contrary to the Leader's assertion, these delays have been raised at Business Questions by a Member not on the European Scrutiny Committee.25F[26] They are also a matter of concern to the Procedure Committee, which engaged with the Government on a more moderate set of proposals relating to EU scrutiny reform at the beginning of 2015, but was similarly rebuffed. Its frustration is clear from the letter sent to us, which we set out in full below:

    "Following our meeting with you in December 2014 the Committee has been considering how best to proceed with changes to the House's European scrutiny procedures. In January we held a discussion in private with the Leader of the House to try to make progress on the matters we had discussed in December.

    "As you will have seen from the copy of my letter of 11 February to the Leader of the House our proposals for change did not find favour with the Government. The Government is not supportive of the suggestion that there be six slots each Session on the floor of the House where the European Scrutiny Committee could recommend debates on an "expanded take-note" motion. As we pointed out to the Leader of the House this would remove a degree of pressure on the Government for finding time for such debates on the floor of the House and may even decrease the number of slots that were available to your Committee. However, the Leader of the House explained that a fixed number of debates each Session was not attractive to the Government and suggested that it might in fact place a burden on your Committee to fill the allotted time.

    "The Government is also not supportive of the proposal that a proportion of Foreign and Commonwealth Office oral questions should be reserved for European matters. We explained that this would have been a sensible way to allow all Members of the House to hold Ministers to account and to scrutinise Government decisions on such matters. The Leader drew on his time as Foreign Secretary, noting that FCO questions were always very oversubscribed but that there was not great demand for questioning on European matters.

    "The Committee has asked me to express its support in principle for improvements to the European scrutiny procedures, specifically the timetabling of European business in Committee and on the floor of the House. We too have experienced difficulty with getting the Government to timetable our Reports for debate on the floor of the House in a timely fashion. It will be necessary to develop a means of ensuring timely debate which attracts widespread support.

    "The Committee and I are very disappointed at the lack of support from the Government, especially as this latest set of proposals represents a considerable compromise on the recommendations made by your Committee in its Report. We would expect our successor Committee in the new Parliament to wish to continue to work with your successor Committee to seek changes which can command broad support."

30. The Government's collective failure to schedule so many debates on EU documents over the past year is deplorable, and is a discourtesy to this Committee and to all Members of the House. We have not yet received an adequate explanation, and we doubt one will be forthcoming. Such a scenario must never be allowed to happen again. At the very least we expect a new Government to follow previous practice and ensure that all the outstanding debates are scheduled within a month of the debate recommendation being confirmed by the new Committee.

31. We welcome the letter from the Procedure Committee which shares our disappointment at the Government's approach. We look to our successor Committee to engage with the new Procedure Committee in the next Parliament to pursue reform.

13   Scrutiny Reform Report, para 152 Back

14   For background see the Thirtieth Report of the Committee, HC 219-xxix, Chapter 1 Back

15   Oral evidence taken on 7 January 2014, HC (2013-14) 975, Q 9 Back

16   Scrutiny Reform Report, para 159 Back

17   Scrutiny Reform Report, para 239 Back

18   See Written Ministerial Statement, HC Deb, 20 January 2011, col 52WS. Back

19   HC Deb, 8 January 2015, col 397 Back

20   HC Deb, 22 January 2015, col 399 Back

21   HC Deb, 5 February 2015, col 424 Back

22   Oral evidence taken on 11 February 2015, HC 1061, Q 1 Back

23   On the Commission Work Programme 2015, Monday 9 March 2015, HC Deb cols 76-99 and on Relations between the Commission and national parliaments and subsidiarity and proportionality, Tuesday 10 March 2015, HC Deb cols 231-251 Back

24   Oral evidence taken on 11 February 2015, HC 1061, Q 18 Back

25   Oral evidence taken on 11 February 2015, HC 1061, Q 19 Back

26   On 30 October 2014 by David Nuttall MP, HC Deb, col 418 Back

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Prepared 25 March 2015