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

5  Limité documents

41. An associated issue arising out of the Scrutiny Reform Report has been the provision of limité papers for the Committee. The limité classification is not uncommon for EU documents, particularly for legislative proposals during the period when they are being discussed by the European Parliament and the Council, and so access to them can inform the scrutiny process. It is not a security classification, but prohibits the further release of the document to those not entitled to receive this class of papers.

42. EU documents deposited in Parliament are automatically made public, so those bearing the limité classification cannot be made available to us in this way. However, under certain circumstances they are provided to the Committee-at the Government's discretion-sometimes with a letter from the Minister setting out a public summary of their contents.

43. The problem is, as we pointed out in our Scrutiny Reform Report, that we rely on the Government to make us aware of limité documents; and while we are told that we can ask to see them, we may not know that they exist. We noted that EU affairs committees in some other Member States receive limité documents as a matter of course.31F[32] The Report recommended that "the Government sends both Houses a weekly list of the limité documents which have been issued", and that "the Government alerts the Committees whenever a limité document is produced on a document which is still under scrutiny, including a short summary of the limité text."32F[33]

44. The Government rejected what we considered to be a modest recommendation, stating that it did "not think that providing a weekly list of limité documents would serve Parliament well."33F[34]

45. We took this forward with the Minister for Europe when he appeared before us in January 2015. He told us that "as far as a list is concerned, I think I am right in saying—officials will correct me if I am wrong—that there is a list of all such documents that is published online by the European Union."34F[35]

46. Following the session the Minister wrote to us noting that:

    "the public register of Council documents … can be accessed via the Council's homepage at: . This register provides access to official documents produced by the Council or submitted to it since 1999. Where these documents have been made publicly available, they can be accessed directly through the register. Where they have not been made public, as is the case with Limité documents, only the title and reference number are given. As well as a standard search tool, the register has a 'latest documents page' which lists the documents produced in the last fortnight."

47. While the public register of Council documents includes limité documents—with their name, title and a reference number, the search function does not permit the user to sort or filter the list by document type (e.g. public or limité). Therefore it is only possible to see all recent Council documents organised by date, which the user would have to then scroll through in its entirety to pick out the limité ones. To give an idea of the practicalities, on Monday 2 February 2015, 78 documents were added to the register, of which 34 were limité.

48. The Committee is asking the Government for clearer and more complete information on available limité documents. Directing Committee Members towards a public website to look at a long, generic document list is not a satisfactory solution. In contrast, the UK Government has access to the Extranet database (the Council's internal documents database), as do all other Member State Governments. Using Extranet it is possible to use the search function so that the results list only displays limité documents, making it relatively simple for the Government to find out exactly which limité documents have been published recently.

49. At the same oral evidence session, the Minister undertook to "write shortly with the draft guidance for all Government Departments to follow in terms of sharing limité documents with the Committee." Despite this undertaking being made on 14 January, the draft guidance was not received until 5 March. Despite this delay, we are grateful for sight of the guidance which we publish as an Appendix to this Report. We welcome the emphasis placed by the Government on Departments pressing for the removal of the limité classification on particular documents. We make the following observations:

·  The guidance does fully not reflect the practice—which is more frequent than the provision of an unnumbered EM—of Ministers updating the Committee by a letter which reports, in a publicly disclosable form, the relevant contents of the limité document.

·  The tone of the following paragraph does not, in our view, give due weight to the Committee's right to request limité documents: "The fact that the Committees are aware of a given document and asked for it to be shared with them indicates that they believe it to be of interest and/or relevant to their scrutiny of other documents. It is advisable to find out why the Committee believe the limité document is of value, and then to consider the document against these 'share' and 'what not to share' guidelines."

·  With regard to the paragraph that refers to the likely non-deposit of "revised versions of documents that have already been deposited for scrutiny, but have been subject to only minor amendments. For example, minor changes to wording. This risks overburdening the Committees and their Clerks with documents that would not help them in their work," we take the view that we would expect to be consulted about this category, and that it is for the Committee to decide what changes are "minor" and whether this risks "overburdening" Members and the secretariat.

50. The draft guidance issued by the Government on making limité documents available to the Committee places a welcome emphasis on the need for the Government to press at EU level for the removal of the limité classification on particular documents. We ask the Government to reflect on our other observations on the guidance and bring back an improved text to our successor Committee.

51. We continue to take the view that the Government should be making access by Parliament to limité documents more straightforward, and the first step is for Parliament to know which limité documents have been issued. We stress that the Government would retain its discretion over whether or not to release them to us.

52. Despite the modest nature of our request the Government's replies have been both evasive and frustrating. We recommend that our successor Committee demands the simple weekly list this Government has seemingly found it impossible to provide.

32   Scrutiny Reform Report, para 87 Back

33   Scrutiny Reform Report, para 91 Back

34   Scrutiny Reform Government Response, p 7 Back

35   Oral evidence taken on 14 January 2015, HC 918, Q 40 Back

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Prepared 25 March 2015