Select Committee on Procedure of the House Third Report

Appendix: Letter from Lord Grenfell, chairman of the select committee on the european union, to the chairman of the procedure committee

I write to you in my capacity as Chairman of the European Union Committee about the arrangements made for debates on Select Committee reports. Although my concern is primarily with debates on reports from the European Union Committee, I have shown this letter in draft to the Chairs of the other Select Committees and have received expressions of support.

My letter is prompted by concerns in my own Committee that existing arrangements could be made to work better; and by the recommendations of the Leader's Group which the Procedure Committee will be considering.

The Procedure Committee's discussion of this topic is timely. The forthcoming UK Presidency of the EU (from July 2005) will mean that the House will want to devote a considerable amount of time to holding the Government to account for the EU legislation it seeks to agree. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary has said, in a recent Command Paper,[4] "The British negotiating hand is stronger when it is clear that it reflects the concerns of Parliament". In addition, a number of EU Committee reports will be ready for debate in the coming months. For these reasons, now is the time for the House to enhance the arrangements made to debate EU Committee reports.

The Leader's Group's report makes two recommendations regarding debates on reports:

1) That Committees should be "rigorous" in deciding which reports they recommend for debate;

2) That the Chairmen of Committees should be offered the option of having reports debated "in the Moses Room".

After dealing with these two points I make one further suggestion that I hope the Committee will consider in deciding how to take forward the Leader's Group's report.

On the first point, it is my judgement that Committees are already very rigorous in determining which reports should be debated. And in the case of the EU Committee, such selectivity extends further than merely deciding whether or not a debate should be held. We debate some reports in the dinner hour as Unstarred questions and some on Fridays, neither of which can be considered prime time but both of which are certainly eminently suited to some of our reports. We are also willing to hold debates jointly with related motions.

The case for even further rigour in the Leader's Group report seems to be based on an analysis of the numbers of Peers attending debates on reports. Many categories of business in the House attract varying levels of attendance and I do not believe that an argument based on numbers takes us very far. It is the importance of the subject matter and the quality of the contributions that really matter.

In deciding whether a report ought to be debated, my Committee accordingly already takes account of the significance of the matter. We do so against the background that a considerable volume of our law emerges from the EU, and there are often no - or very limited - opportunities for the House to debate or change subsequent secondary legislation implementing that law. There is thus a strong argument that debates on EU Committee reports on legislative instruments fulfil a significant constitutional function in allowing this House its only real opportunity to influence the negotiating position of our Government in Council - a fact acknowledged by the Foreign Secretary as quoted above.

A related argument is that of transparency. Given the strongly held views on European Affairs held on all sides of the House, would the House really welcome the work of its European Committee going all but un-scrutinised in the Chamber?

For these reasons, I do not believe that the House would expect my Committee to be too selective in recommending reports for debate, and that the balance is in fact about right as it stands.

I should add that, as the Procedure Committee will be aware, when my Committee recommends a report for debate it is only by holding such a debate that the Government can lift the parliamentary scrutiny reserve. This provides a strong and effective check on the work of Ministers. I am sure that a call for greater selectivity in debates is in no way motivated by a desire to reduce the inconvenience that this House's Scrutiny Reserve no doubt places on the government of the day.

I turn now to the suggestion that reports might be debated in the Moses Room. For several reasons, my Committee is strongly of the view that Committee reports should not be debated in Grand Committee. I leave aside for the moment the possibility that such a debate might not constitute a lifting of the scrutiny reserve. That is a matter which the Procedure Committee will have to consider. Unless a Moses Room debate does lift the scrutiny reserve, then further proceedings on the Floor will be needed.

Perhaps more significantly, if the House values the work of the Committees it establishes, and on which we have a queue of members waiting to serve, then the House itself deserves the opportunity to debate the reports of that work. In addition, arguments about transparency (as set out above) argue against this option. In this context I note that the Leader's Group have concluded that proceedings in the Moses Room should not even be televised (paragraph 22). Would the House really accept that European affairs be debated, and the House's own position determined, in such a secretive way?

For these reasons, the Moses Room is not an option for Committee debates. In our view, the real argument arising from the use of Grand Committee is that, given the volume of legislation now being taken in that procedure, there ought to be a greater amount of time available for the House to conduct other business on the floor including debates on Committee reports. The Leader's Group appears to accept (paragraph 27) that this has been difficult to achieve. That is perhaps the real mischief which the Procedure Committee may wish to investigate.

Against this background, I make one practical suggestion for changing the House's arrangements of business to provide further opportunities for debate on Committee reports. This would be in addition to existing arrangements including occasional "prime time" debates, Unstarred questions and Fridays, all of which work well and which have been applied with goodwill and flexibility on all sides. The aim of my proposal is to build an additional element of regularity and predictability into the availability of time for debates on Committee reports.

At present, one Wednesday a month (till June) is set aside for two balloted debates of two and a half hours each. We propose that the 5 hour period be extended to 6 hours; and that on each occasion there be three time-limited debates of two hours each, two balloted and one on a Committee report. The order of the three debates would also be chosen by ballot. In my view, this would not significantly diminish backbench rights.

I invite the Procedure Committee to consider this suggestion and I look forward to our discussion.

14 October 2004

4   Update on Prospects for the EU in 2004, Cm 6310 September 2004, Foreward Page 4. Back

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