Select Committee on European Union Thirty-Seventh Report


Letter from Rt Hon Geoff Hoon MP, Minister for Europe, Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Chairman

  Thank you for your letter of 2 March to Douglas Alexander, enclosing a copy of your Committee's Annual Report for 2005. Douglas provided evidence to the Committee on the outcome of the UK Presidency on 17 January and I look forward to continuing contacts with the Committee.

  The Government welcomes the quality of analysis and expertise, reflected in this annual report, that the Committee contributes on European issues.

  Your letter highlighted a number of areas, set out in the Report on which you requested Government responses. I attach a short note covering these points.

11 May 2006

Government Response

  1.  Explanatory note: Where the Committee has asked for a specific response from the Government the relevant paragraph from the Report has been included in italics. For more general Government responses the relevant paragraph numbers have been listed.


  2.  The Government welcomes the Committee's work on subsidiarity and the Committee's 14th and 15th Reports. We support a greater role for national parliaments in monitoring the application of subsidiarity. This was part of the motivation behind the Sharing Power in Europe Conference held in The Hague in November 2005 and the Government was grateful for Lord Grenfell's involvement.

  3.  The Government is aware that the Committee has some remaining concerns about Article 8 of the Protocol on Subsidiarity and Proportionality in the Constitutional Treaty. Whether or not the Protocol comes into force through the Treaty, the Government would want to ensure that it retained its right of access to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as well as ensuring a significant role for Parliament. The Government and Parliament would need to work together to devise a system to ensure that unrepresentative claims were not forwarded to the ECJ.

  4.  Given the current uncertainty of the Treaty our focus should now be on what we can do to increase the role of national Parliaments within the current treaties. The Austrian Presidency held a conference in St Poelten in April 2006 on this. The Government acknowledges and welcomes COSAC's proactive contribution in this area.


  5.  The Government welcomes the progress made on better regulation during 2005—including during the UK's Presidency—and believes that this provides a sound basis for ensuring better regulatory outcomes on individual policy dossiers in the future.

  6.  The Government will continue to give high priority to the better regulation agenda in Europe. We will work with the Commission and other member states to embed the use of impact assessment in the work of the Institutions, including through the measurement of administrative costs of proposals and use of impact assessment during discussions on proposals in the Council.

  7.  In line with the conclusions of the Spring European Council, the Government supports the increased focus on SMEs and looks forward to seeing robust Commission proposals to encourage SME growth and development.

  8.  The Government strongly supports the Commission's efforts to simplify existing EU legislation. During 2006, we shall encourage progress to implement on time the Commission's October 2005 Communication, in particular adoption by the Commission of simplification proposals contained in its rolling programme and agreement to these by the Council and Parliament at an early stage. As the Committee may be aware, the Commission carried out extensive consultation with both member states and stakeholders for its Simplification Communication. The Government believes it is important that the Commission continues to involve stakeholders in the initiative.

  9.  The Government welcomes the interest in better regulation—in particular simplification—shown by the European Parliament, following the recent adoption of four reports by the Internal Market and Legislative Affairs Committees and the debate at the plenary session on 4 April 2006. The European Parliament, as the co-legislator, has an important role to play in simplification and will have responsibility for scrutinising proposals as part of the co-decision process. Proposals simplifying EU legislation will be subject to the usual Parliamentary scrutiny procedure at national level.


  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. (Report para 178)

  10.  The Minister for Europe wrote to Jimmy Hood MP, copied to Lord Grenfell, on the issue of Council Transparency on 13 March setting out progress under the UK Presidency and longer-term goals. The Government will continue to keep the Committee updated on this matter.


  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. (Report para 181)

  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. (Report para 182)

  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. (Report para 188)

  11.  The Government welcomes the Committee's remarks about the much improved record in the first half of 2005. We remain committed to keeping the number of scrutiny overrides to a minimum and the figure of 22 overrides for the second half of 2005, including 19 where scrutiny could not have been completed in the House of Lords, shows that figures remain lower. Of these 19 overrides, 11 occurred at times when the Committee was not sitting because of the Parliamentary recess. The Cabinet Office continues to work with Departments to promote the benefit of forward planning and working closely with the Committee to ensure that as much business as possible is cleared before periods of recess, and in ensuring that items listed in the Committee's Progress of Scrutiny document are reviewed regularly and that responses to the Committee's questions are responded to as quickly as possible.


  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. (Report para 209)

  12.  The Government acknowledges the value of the Committee's representation in Brussels and agrees with the Committee's assessment of the focus for the post in the year ahead.

  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. (Report para 211)

  13.  The Government agrees that in the interests of full transparency Explanatory. Memoranda (EMs) on EU proposals should be easier to access than they are currently. The Cabinet Office is working to set up a website where EMs can be consulted and hopes that this can be established shortly.

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