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
(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
Activity levels between 2006-07 and 2013-14
|EU Documents scrutinised
|Reported as legally/politically important
|Debates in European Committee
|Debates on the floor of the House
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
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
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
We made an equivalent recommendation for debates in European Committee.16F
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):
were only three debates on the floor of the House, compared with
12 in the financial year 2013-14; and
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
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
|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 personsthat 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
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
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
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
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
26. In the event, only two further debates have been
scheduled on the floor of the House22F
and only three in European Committee. Less than two weeks of this
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
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
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
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
"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
For background see the Thirtieth Report of the Committee, HC 219-xxix,
Chapter 1 Back
Oral evidence taken on 7 January 2014, HC (2013-14) 975, Q 9 Back
Scrutiny Reform Report, para 159 Back
Scrutiny Reform Report, para 239 Back
See Written Ministerial Statement, HC Deb, 20 January 2011, col 52WS. Back
HC Deb, 8 January 2015, col 397 Back
HC Deb, 22 January 2015, col 399 Back
HC Deb, 5 February 2015, col 424 Back
Oral evidence taken on 11 February 2015, HC 1061, Q 1 Back
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
Oral evidence taken on 11 February 2015, HC 1061, Q 18 Back
Oral evidence taken on 11 February 2015, HC 1061, Q 19 Back
On 30 October 2014 by David Nuttall MP, HC Deb, col 418 Back