Select Committee on European Union Twenty-Fifth Report


CHAPTER 5: adminsTrative and procedural developments

Information on Council Meetings

178.  The Committee has pressed through COSAC for greater transparency in the Council of Ministers. We expect the Government to report progress on this matter to parliament at the earliest opportunity.

179.  We commend the Government for instituting a new system of reporting to both Houses by way of Written Ministerial Statements in Hansard and the Agenda of Council Meetings in advance and outcomes shortly after meetings. We welcome this initiative.

Scrutiny and Overrides—Summary

180.  The House's Scrutiny Reserve Resolution (see Appendix 2) requires the Government to give the House time to examine proposals before agreeing them in the Council. In practice this means that our Committee must have finished its work and reported to the House and that the Government must have responded, in writing or by way of a debate as we require. In certain circumstances, the Government can override scrutiny and agree a proposal before the House's procedures are complete.

181.  We note that our Government is committed to making sure that overrides are avoided wherever possible. Some Departments make particular efforts to ensure that overrides are avoided and these we commend. We note that an override can on occasion be triggered by events outside the control of our Government, for example by the last minute presentation of a new text by the Presidency. But every Department must remain vigilant to ensure that standards do not slip. We expect the Cabinet Office to continue to take a lead in ensuring that performance improves in those Departments where the twice-yearly returns show a need for improvement. We are much heartened by the lower figures for last year so far, compared with 2004.

182.  We also note that we have a responsibility to help prevent unnecessary overrides—for example by managing our work so that documents are considered by Sub-Committees in an appropriate time-scale and not left to fester unexamined and "awaiting scrutiny". All Sub-Committees recognise that this means taking time to consider routine scrutiny items as well as spending time examining witnesses, and all Sub-Committees manage this balance in their own way.

183.  We also accept that there have been difficulties when Parliament is in recess. But we note that Departments now, as a matter of routine, put effort into planning for recesses (much helped of course by the fact that, in recent years, recess dates have been publicised much further in advance). Our scrutiny system, with the Chairman's sift, is also sufficiently flexible to allow some items to be cleared from scrutiny without a Sub-Committee being called together for a meeting, although the sift process will always of course allow Sub-Committees the opportunity to scrutinise documents where necessary.

184.  Having said all this, however, we take scrutiny overrides very seriously. In each case the Minister must write to the Committee, preferably in advance if an override is predicted, and failing that, immediately one occurs. Each case is examined by the Sub-Committee concerned and, where necessary, a letter is sent to the Minister to express our concerns. The Committee can also make a report to the House.

185.  As agreed with the Government during our review of scrutiny, we also ask the Cabinet Office to submit a six monthly summary report on overrides: the detailed explanation in each case of why an override has occurred has already been the subject of a separate letter from the Minister.

186.  The results for the first six months of 2005 demonstrated a good deal of improvement. There were no overrides in the period running up to the prorogation of Parliament on 11 April. During the Dissolution for the general election and in the period until 17 May, when the new Select Committee met for the first time, the Committee did not exist; scrutiny was not possible; and overrides were thus an unavoidable formality. Apart from noting that the House appointed our Committee very quickly after the election thus minimising the period concerned, there is no other comment to be made.

187.  Although not covered by the formal scrutiny override, we note that we received an apology from Douglas Alexander MP, Minister for Europe, over two decisions made on the EU's official languages at the General Affairs External Relations Council (GAERC) in June 2005, at the beginning of the United Kingdom's Presidency, and assurances that such decisions would not be repeated.[37]

188.  The Committee was, however, delighted at the much improved record of the Government on scrutiny overrides over the first half of the year, and we hope that they have continued to perform as well in the period following June 2005.

TABLE 1: Scrutiny Overrides - Summary
Dept[38] Jan- April April- June Total Overrides as a percentage of proposals covered by scrutiny reserve resolution*
DTIO 22 2.06 % (5.15%)
DEFRA0 88 13.33 % (30.00%)
HMT0 22 2.50% (6.25%)
FCO0 99 12.00% (18.67%)
HO0 11 1.56% (3.13%)
DFT0 00 0% (0%)
DFID0 33 11.11% (22.22%)
DFES0 11 14.29% (14.29%)
DCMS0 00 0% (0%)
DCA0 00 0% (0%)
HMRC0 00 0% (0%)
DWP0 00 0% (0%)
CO0 00 0% (0%)
HEALTH0 00 0% (0%)
ONS0 00 0% (0%)
FC0 00 0% (0%)
Totals0 2626 5.37 % (10.54%)

* () Equivalent figure for scrutiny reserve overrides in the Commons

Co-operation with the Commons Scrutiny Committee

189.  We have continued to co-operate with colleagues in the Commons European Scrutiny Committee both at official level and in twice yearly meetings with MEPs. We await with interest the Government's Response to the report from the Commons Modernisation Committee on enhancing European Scrutiny in that House[39] and in particular to formal proposals for a joint European Committee to be our Procedure Committee and the House for consideration.

Contact with MEPs

190.  We will continue to co-operate with our counterparts in the European Parliament, and value their sensible perspectives on the EC legislative processes. We regularly invite MEPs to give evidence to our inquiries and twice a year hold meetings with United Kingdom MEPs and the Commons Scrutiny Committee on policy matters of mutual interest.

Contact with other national parliaments

191.  This year for the first time, the Committee has had a permanent representative in Brussels (see below, Resources), who liaises frequently with the representatives of other national parliaments. This has had great success in developing closer ties and faster communication between the parliaments on an informal level.

192.  The Committee also held separate joint meetings with delegations from the Swedish and the Danish parliaments, as mentioned above, and a high level of consultations with other Member State national parliaments will be central to the Committee's inquiry into explaining the EU to its citizens.

Visits

193.  Members of Sub-Committee A visited Brussels for a meeting of the European Parliament and national parliaments on the Financial Perspectives on 2005.

194.  Five members of Sub-Committee B visited Brussels, Berlin and Warsaw from 14-17 March 2005 to hear evidence in connection with the inquiry into the draft services directive.

195.  Members of Sub-Committee C visited Brussels from 17-18 January 2005 to receive evidence from witnesses for both the inquiry into the EU's non-proliferation strategy and the inquiry into the European Defence Agency.

196.  On 6 June, members of Sub-Committee C visited Brussels to receive evidence from witnesses, including External Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner for the inquiry into the EU's role at the Millennium Review Summit.

197.  Members of Sub-Committee D travelled to Brussels on 2-3 March 2005 as part of their CAP inquiry and met officials from the farming representative bodies the ELO and COPA; senior officials from the Commission's budget and agriculture DGs; and the rapporteur and vice-chairman of the relevant European Parliament committee. During their visit, the Sub-Committee also met informally with Members of the European Parliament

198.  On 6 October, members of Sub-Committee D travelled to Brussels as a part of its sugar inquiry and met with the Agriculture Commissioner and Ambassadors of ACP countries, as well as officials from UKrep. The Commissioner was adamant of the need for reform; the ACP Ambassadors spoke emotively of the impact reform would have on their countries.

199.  The Chairman and Clerk of Sub-Committee E visited Romania on 13-14 June 2005 at the invitation of the Chairman of the Romanian Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.

200.  Members of Sub-Committee F visited Lyon on 23 January 2005 to visit Interpol in connection with the terrorism inquiry.

201.  On 4-5 July 2005, members of Sub-Committee F visited Brussels to take evidence for the inquiry into Economic migration to the EU.

202.  Members of Sub-Committee F visited Brussels on 17-18 October 2005 to meet with the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs.

203.  The Chairman, accompanied by the Clerk of the Select Committee visited Zagreb on 24-25 February 2005 at the request of the Croatian Parliament to discuss the methodology of parliamentary scrutiny of European documents.

204.  On 29 June the Chairman, accompanied by the Clerk, participated in a working session of the French Senate's committee on European Union Affairs.

205.  On 17 November, the Chairman co-chaired the British and Dutch Government's first Conference on Power Sharing in Europe (Subsidiarity) at The Hague.

Debates

206.  The Committee has continued to exercise restraint in recommending reports for debate in the House. We have also continued to seek opportunities to debate our reports other than through seeking separate debates. For example on 1 December our report on the WTO was debated during a general debate on the issue[40].

Resources

207.  In our Annual Report 2004 (paragraphs 145-46)[41], we reported to the House that a member of staff would be seconded to Brussels on a trial basis to help to implement our Scrutiny Review. From 1 January 2005 the post-holder has been acting as the United Kingdom representative on the COSAC secretariat: under COSAC's rules this is a routine appointment for the United Kingdom Parliament given the assumption of the Presidency by the United Kingdom. We set out the achievements of COSAC under the United Kingdom Presidency elsewhere in this report.

208.  Together with two House of Commons staff, our liaison officer in Brussels makes up the United Kingdom National Parliament Office (NPO) in Brussels. The main function of the Office is to assist the European Union Committee and the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee in the tasks which they carry out on behalf of each House in relation to European matters. The NPO acts an observation post in Brussels for both Houses, operating as the "eyes and ears" of the two committees. Staff there provide us with early warning on issues of particular interest or importance and supply information on EU legislation and other matters which may not be readily available in London. The national parliaments of all other Member States with the exception of Cyprus, Malta, Portugal and Spain have similar arrangements. United Kingdom regions, the London Assembly, the Welsh Assembly, and the Scottish Parliament also all have offices in Brussels.

209.  Having a member of staff working for the Committee in Brussels is proving to be a valuable support for our scrutiny work and we recommend the continuation of the post. The Committee's effectiveness is enhanced by having a presence on the ground in Brussels. We have instructed the post-holder to focus in particular on:

  • Obtaining information for the Committee (and in particular advance intelligence of Commission proposals);
  • Explaining and promoting the work of the House in relation to EU affairs;
  • Strengthening relations with the Brussels offices of the devolved administrations and other national parliaments; and
  • Fostering personal and face-to-face contacts with people in the EU Institutions in order to enhance further the reputation of the House among EU decision makers and gain influence for the Committee's recommendations.[42]

210.  We have also expanded the capacity of our documents team to two people in order to enable us deal with the substantial volume of documents deposited in the most efficient possible way. The expanded team has already produced noticeable improvements in the speed and efficiency with which the weekly sift is handled and is in particular working on e-delivery initiatives including request of EU documents and government memoranda electronically; improved internal communication; and more effective electronic distribution of material.

211.  We urge Her Majesty's Government to establish a dedicated website where the public can easily access all explanatory memoranda and regulatory impact assessments. These documents are invaluable to all those engaged in scrutiny of EU matters and, although publicly available on request, could in this way be considerably more easily accessible.

  1. During 2006 we will take forward the commitment in our Review of Scrutiny to enhance scrutiny of the human rights implication of EU legislation and have recruited a Committee Specialist to help in this area working closely with the secretariat of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.



37   For the Correspondence from the Minister to the Chairman, see the forthcoming Correspondence with Ministers, March-December 2005, Session 05-06. Back

38   For a Glossary of Government Departments, please see Appendix 4 Back

39   Scrutiny of European Business (Second Report of Session 2004-05, HC 465-I and HC 465-II)
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200405/cmselect/cmmodern/465/465i.pdf 
Back

40   HL Deb. 1 December 2005. Cols. 307-335. Back

41   "The Annual Report" Thirty-Second Report (2003-4) HL 186
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200304/ldselect/ldeucom/186/18602.htm 
Back

42   Primary Task 13 of the Administration's Business Plan as approved by the House Committee makes clear that the House's administration will "Develop relationships at the administrative level with … European Union institutions and Parliaments." Back


 
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