Select Committee on European Union First Report


Our Working Methods

Our Committee was set up in 1974 after a thorough analysis by a specially appointed Committee of the House into what parliamentary scrutiny of European legislation would be required when Britain joined the European Community. That Committee was chaired by Lord Maybray-King[44]. Maybray-King started from the principle that, as a consequence of the United Kingdom's membership of the European Community, the United Kingdom Parliament would give to Ministers acting in Council the ability to make law binding on the United Kingdom and its citizens. The fact that EC membership has involved the transfer of a measure of national sovereignty has lain at the heart of European scrutiny by this House for nearly thirty years.

Maybray-King said "the purpose of Parliamentary scrutiny is to influence United Kingdom Ministers prior to discussions in the Council on Community proposals in which they take final form; and to examine ministerial actions in their Community legislative function on decisions reached in the Council on draft proposals. Parliamentary scrutiny is also a means-

  • To give public opinions and interests affected sufficient opportunity for expression;
  • To inform United Kingdom members of the European Parliament of the views of their colleagues in the national Parliament before the Council consults the European Parliament; and
  • To obtain information about technical and political evolution of the Community, for parliamentary comment and debate."

Role of the Committee

Our 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.

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.

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 salaried Officer of the House (the Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees). It has 19 members, each of whom (other than the Chairman) serves on one or more of the subject-area sub-committees through which the Committee conducts its investigations. Other members of the House are also co-opted to the sub-committees, so that a total of around 70 Members are actively involved in the work of the Committee or sub-committees.

The Sub-Committees are:

Economic and Financial Affairs, Trade and External Relations (A)

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)

Additional sub-committees may be set up ad hoc to examine specific proposals.

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.

About 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":

1. The European Community and its legislation.

2. A Common Foreign and Security Policy.

3. 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. Over 1000 documents are deposited each year, 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". The Chairman 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 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.

Wide-Ranging Scrutiny

Since establishment 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.

Other Activities

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).

The Scrutiny Reserve Resolution

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 text is as follows:

Resolved, That—

    (1) No Minister of the Crown should give agreement in the Council to any proposal for European Community legislation or for a common strategy, joint action or common position under Title V or a common position, framework decision, decision or convention under Title VI of the Treaty on European Union-

      (a) which is still subject to scrutiny (that is, on which the European Union Committee has not completed its scrutiny);

      (b) on which the European Union Committee has made a report to the House for debate, but on which the debate has not yet taken place.

    (2) In this Resolution, any reference to agreement to a proposal includes -

      (a) agreement to a programme, plan or recommendation for European Community legislation;

      (b) political agreement;

      (c) in the case of a proposal on which the Council acts in accordance with the procedure referred to in Article 251 of the Treaty establishing the European Community (co-decision), agreement to a common position, to an act in the form of a common position incorporating amendments proposed by the European Parliament, and to a joint text; and

      (d)in the case of a proposal on which the Council acts in accordance with the procedure referred to in Article 252 of the Treaty establishing the European Community (co-operation), agreement to a common position.

    (3) The Minister concerned may, however, give agreement to a proposal which is still subject to scrutiny or which is awaiting debate in the House -

      (a) if he considers that it is confidential, routine or trivial or is substantially the same as a proposal on which scrutiny has been completed;

      (b) if the European Union Committee has indicated that agreement need not be withheld pending completion of scrutiny or the holding of the debate.

    (4) The Minister concerned may also give agreement to a proposal which is still subject to scrutiny or awaiting debate in the House if he decides that for special reasons agreement should be given; but he should explain his reasons -

      (a) in every such case, to the European Union Committee at the first opportunity after reaching his decision; and

      (b) in the case of a proposal awaiting debate in the House, to the House at the opening of the debate on the Committee's Report.

    (5) In relation to any proposal which requires adoption by unanimity, abstention shall, for the purposes of paragraph (4), be treated as giving agreement.

44   See n. 10 above. Back

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