Box 2: Role of the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee
The Committee assesses the legal and/or political importance of draft EU legislation deposited in Parliament by the Government. This amounts to around 1,100 documents a session. The Committee receives an Explanatory Memorandum on each document from the relevant Minister. It then looks at the significance of the proposal and decides whether to clear the document from scrutiny or withhold clearance and ask questions of the Government. All documents deemed politically or legally important are reported on in the Committee’s weekly Reports.
53.While there may be a lack of central information about Council processes, national parliaments can shed light on their own government’s positions. For example, both the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee (see Box 2) and the House of Lords European Union Committee publish reports and correspondence between the Committees and Ministers. The Government’s Explanatory Memorandum on each document and subsequent correspondence from Ministers are all published online by the Cabinet Office.
54.Dr Hagemann observed that “the governments that have parliaments with strong committees scrutinising their behaviour in Council […] tend to vote no or submit formal statements much more than governments that have less strong parliaments.”
55.The Minister for Europe considered “national parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislation to be a key element of transparency and democratic accountability” and that there is “a need to balance efficient and fit for purpose decision-making with democratic legitimacy, including in the form of parliamentary scrutiny.”
56.In terms of the efforts made by Government to assist Parliament in its scrutiny, the Minister highlighted:
57.Dame Margaret Beckett considered that Ministers could be more open with Parliament both before and after Councils on the decisions taken. We note that, while welcome in themselves, the Government’s commitments do not directly address the issue of transparency. The Government could do far more to ensure that the information it provides to us helps both us, and the general reader, to understand the Government’s position on particular pieces of European legislation.
58.It will be seen from our Reports that the Committee regularly presses the Government to release more information than it initially makes available and expresses almost on a weekly basis its frustration at the tardiness and incompleteness of Ministerial responses and the failure to secure time for recommended debates either in Committee or on the floor of the House. A recent example was our scrutiny of the Commission’s proposal for a Directive on the accessibility of public sector bodies’ websites. This proposal first emerged in 2012, but negotiations did not get going properly until autumn 2015. It was not until March 2016, however, that the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, Matthew Hancock, told us that negotiations had been kick-started and that a mandate had already been agreed by Coreper in December 2015 to begin trilogue negotiations with the European Parliament. Following our prompting, the Minister has provided us with more timely and comprehensive updates.
59.This iterative process means that while our scrutiny of proposals is, in one sense, transparent, in that it is published promptly and in full, the outsider needs to trace multiple documents to get a clear view of our scrutiny of the Government’s position on a particular dossier. Once negotiations have begun, there are often delays in providing information—we regularly receive information after negotiations have taken place, making scrutiny difficult.
60.Our witnesses suggested improvements in the House of Commons scrutiny system, which included:
61.In the last Parliament the Committee looked at the scrutiny system, and our witnesses’ recommendations recall many of the recommendations in that Report. We have already been working to increase the awareness of EU legislation in departmental committees, and have been pressing the Government to schedule the serious backlog of debates in the House on European documents that we have recommended for debate. We will return to this matter once the referendum is over.
62.Regardless of any progress made by the Council in improving the transparency, accountability and efficiency of EU legislative processes, we consider that the Government could and should take action itself to make more information available to Parliament and to the public. At the European Union level, it could take the lead in making public statements of the reason for its vote more frequently.
63.We accept that Parliament could take a lead in increasing the transparency of negotiations and decisions taken by the Council. That will only succeed if the Government matches its own commitments to support the scrutiny system by providing complete and timely information and scheduling debates when they are still timely.
64.Transparency is not simply a matter of making information available, but of ensuring it is usable. In taking forward our 2013 Scrutiny Reform Report recommendations, we will reflect further on improvements that we might make to our own procedures and to the usability of the information we make available.
84 Minister for Europe ()
85 Minister for Europe ()
86 Instances in which the Government agrees to an EU proposal which is still under scrutiny by this Committee or its Lords counterpart
87 Qq 111, 114.
89 Thirty-third Report HC 342-xxxii (2015–16), chapter 4 (11 May 2016)
90 Q90 [Mr Lebrecht]
91 Q18 [Professor Hix]
92 Qq 9 [Dr Hagemann], 34 [Sir Edward Davey]
93 Senior European Experts, , October 2015
94 Q53 [Ms Lambert]
24 May 2016