H O U S E of L O R D S
SCRUTINISING EUROPEAN LEGISLATION - THE EUROPEAN UNION COMMITTEE
Role of the Committee
The House of Lords, as part of the national parliament, performs a valuable service for the United Kingdom in scrutinising and reporting on proposed European legislation.
It does this through its European Union Committee. The Committee is the successor to the European Communities Committee, first established in 1974, the year after the United Kingdom joined the Community. The Committee’s title was changed in December 1999 to reflect the changes agreed in the Treaties of Maastricht and Amsterdam.
Remit and Organisation of the Committee
The Committee is appointed at the beginning of every parliamentary session. Its terms of reference are:
"To consider European Union documents and other matters relating to the European Union."
The Committee is chaired by a Lord who is a salaried Officer of the House (the Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees). It has about 20 members, each of whom serves on one or more of the subject-area sub-committees through which the Committee conducts its investigations. Other lords are also co-opted to the sub-committees, so that a total of around 70 lords are actively involved in the work of the Committee or sub-committees.
Economic and Financial Affairs, Trade and External Relations(A) Additional sub-committees may be set up ad hoc to examine specific
Energy, Industry and Transport (B)
Common Foreign and Security Policy (C)
Environment, Agriculture, Public Health and Consumer Protection (D)
Law and Institutions (E)
Social Affairs, Education and Home Affairs (F)
How the Sub-Committees Work
The sub-committees meet regularly when the House of Lords is in session to conduct inquiries based either on the scrutiny of EU documents or into subjects chosen by the sub-committees from within their field of activity. The sub-committees are assisted by clerks, and by consultant specialist advisers appointed for their expert knowledge of the subject under inquiry. The sub-committees operate in the same way as other select committees of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. They invite written and oral evidence from government departments, Community institutions and other interested bodies and individuals, in order to consider a wide range of points of view before reaching conclusions. Draft reports setting out conclusions and recommendations are then prepared and agreed by the sub-committees, and approved by the Select Committee before they are published.
Over half the reports published are subsequently debated in the House. The Government has undertaken to reply to all reports, whether debated or not, within two months of publication.
Scrutiny of the Three Pillars of the European Union
The Treaty of Maastricht, which came into effect in 1993, set
up the European Union comprising three "pillars":
- The European Community and its legislation.
- A Common Foreign and Security Policy.
- Justice and Home Affairs.
Scrutiny of the first pillar was the committee’s main activity from 1974 to 1993.
The second and third "pillars" are based on inter-governmental co-operation. Instruments adopted under these two inter-governmental pillars, where they are legally binding, are binding under international law and not as Community law.
From 1993 to 1998, the Committee scrutinised "Pillar" documents on an informal basis. Following a review of procedures in the House of Commons, the arrangements for scrutiny of the pillars were formalised in November 1998. Since that date arrangements for the deposit of "pillar" documents have been formalised and a scrutiny reserve (see below) has applied to proposals under the inter-governmental pillars.
The Committee has always adopted the same procedure for scrutiny of inter-governmental pillar documents as that for Community legislation. This procedure is described in more detail in the following paragraph.
How the Scrutiny System Works
The Committee considers a wide range of documents under all three pillars. They include not only proposals for legislation under the first pillar and proposals for binding legal instruments under the second and third pillars, but also discussion documents such as white and green papers.
These documents are deposited in the United Kingdom Parliament by the Government. Some 1000 documents annually are deposited, along with an explanatory memorandum, signed by a Government Minister. This sets out the legal, financial and policy implications of every document, and the procedure and timetable for its consideration and adoption. Many of the documents are routine or of comparatively minor importance (for example, minor adjustments to existing policies); in any case the number of documents is too great for the Committee to give detailed consideration to them all.
The Chairman of the Committee therefore conducts a "sift". He considers all the explanatory memoranda, sifts the more significant documents from the less important ones, and decides which should be referred to the sub-committees for further examination. About a quarter of the documents deposited are referred to the sub-committees.
Each sub-committee then examines the documents which have been referred to it. A sub-committee will usually simply take note of many of them, choosing a few each year on which to conduct a substantial enquiry and make a report.
The Committee may sometimes set out its views in a letter to the appropriate Government Minister if its views can be expressed succinctly without the need for extensive evidence (for example, by reference to an earlier report) or where Council decision on a proposal is likely to be reached quickly. The Committee’s correspondence with ministers is published at regular intervals in a report to the House.
The scrutiny system originally rested on an undertaking given by the Government that they will not, except in special circumstances, agree to any proposal in the Council until it has been cleared by the Committee. This has now been formalised in a Resolution of the House of Lords agreed on 6 December 1999.
This "scrutiny reserve" gives the House an opportunity to influence the position which the Government adopts on the proposal in negotiation with other Member States of the Community.
The protection of personal data
Since it was set up the Committee has scrutinised and reported on a wide range of issues which affect people’s everyday lives and the longer-term future of both the United Kingdom and Europe. Examples include:
Delegation of law-making power to the EC Commission
Fraud and mismanagement of the Community’s finances
Reform of the Common Agriculture Policy
Tourism in the EU
Biodiversity in the EU
Genetically modified organisms in food
The European Central Bank and EMU
Enlargement of the EU
The Select Committee, in addition to considering draft reports prepared by the sub-committees, also hears regular sessions of evidence from Foreign Office ministers, particularly following each European Council. The Committee plays an active role in the Conference of European Affairs Committees of National Parliaments (COSAC).
For general enquiries on membership, reports, programme of work
The House of Lords European Union Committee
Telephone: 020 7219 5791/3150 Fax: 020 7219 6715
The full list of all reports since February 1997 is available at www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/ld/ldeucom.htm.
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