Select Committee on European Union Fortieth Report


Letter from the Chairman to Meg Munn MP, Deputy Minister for Women and Equality, Department for Communities and Local Government

  Your Explanatory Memorandum (EM) dated May 2006 was considered by Sub-Committee G on 25 May.

  We note that the Commission's new Proposal is due to be considered by the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council on 1 June when political agreement is expected to be reached on a Common Position.

  As I explained in my letter to you dated 27 April, the Commission's original Proposal on the Gender Institute is held under scrutiny by the Committee until the debate in the House on the Inquiry Report on that Proposal, and on the related Report on the European Fundamental Rights Agency, takes place. As I believe you know, that debate has now been fixed for the afternoon of Thursday 8 June.

  We note that the Commission's new amended Proposal continues to favour a separate Gender Institute and that the Government continue to support that proposition, which is contrary to the view taken in our Inquiry Reports mentioned above. In these circumstances, we are unable to lift the scrutiny reserve on the amended Proposal pending the outcome of the debate on 8 June. We will want to take careful account of everything that is said in that debate, including any further information or statements provided by the Government during the debate or in preparation for it.

  Moreover, you will recall that our Inquiry Report on the Gender Institute Proposal called for further consideration of the proposed management structure if the Gender Institute were to be set up. The Report also recommended that the practice of automatically awarding seats on the Boards of such Institutions to every Member State should be questioned.

  It is not clear to us from your EM how this aspect of the amended Proposal now stands. Your EM records that the Commission has accepted the Parliament's proposal for a restricted Management Board composed of 13 members. On the other hand, it also reports that the Council supports a larger Board, with one representative for each Member State, which is directly contrary to the view taken by the Committee.

  To add to the confusion, although your EM does not say so, we understand that the Austrian Presidency may be circulating a compromise text which includes support for every Member State to have a seat on the Board. Your EM does not say what attitude the Government intends to take if size of the Management Board is discussed at Council. But we are very disappointed to learn from your officials that Government would probably go along with a consensus in favour of seats for each Member State.

  Your EM also mentions that the Government has "some concerns about the relative voting weights attributed to the Commission and the Council" on the proposed Board, although it does not explain what those concerns are or how they might be resolved.

  We also note from your EM that the question of the legal base remains unresolved and that the Government has placed a scrutiny reserve on that aspect to enable further investigations to be undertaken. Your letter to me dated 6 April recorded that the Government would review the legal base question in the light of the ECJ ruling expected in the ENISA case, but we have heard no more about that from you.

  In the circumstances, we shall expect you to record at the Council that the scrutiny reserve must remain on the amended Proposal so far as we are concerned, for the reasons given above. We will expect you to report on the result of the Council meeting in time for the debate on 8 June.

  It would also be helpful if you could explain in time for the debate on 8 June precisely what is happening about the Management Board proposal and the Government's attitude to it, as well as reporting if there have been any further developments in the Government's position on the legal base question.

25 May 2006

Letter from Meg Munn MP to the Chairman

  I am writing with regard to an amended proposal for a Regulation establishing a European Gender Institute, which is scheduled to come before the 1 June 2006 Employment and Social Policy Council for political agreement.

  The amended proposal is for a regulation to establish a European Gender Institute with the overall objective of the Institute being is to assist in the fight against discrimination based on sex and the promotion of gender equality and to raise the profile of such issues across the EU, and in doing so to share best practice across Member States.

  An Explanatory Memorandum was prepared and submitted on 19 May 2006 on the amended proposal. We have also exchanged various correspondences on this issue relating the original proposal EM 7244/05, prior to 19 May 2006. However, it has not been possible to obtain scrutiny clearance from neither the Lords nor Commons Scrutiny Committees ahead of the vote in Council on 1 June.

  The Government's position on the European Gender Institute has always been that it should be budget neutral, add value and not duplicate work of existing agencies. The decision on this proposal is subject to qualified majority voting, and the position set out by many other Member States is one of keen support for the establishment of a European Gender Institute. It has been judged that it would therefore not be in the UK's best interest to block a proposal that, in effect, it has little control and no veto over. The UK's position has therefore been to try and ensure that the Institute will be as effective and efficient as possible, as well as budget-neutral. By voting in favour of this proposal, the UK will be in a stronger position to influence the more detailed budgetary and other discussions on the structure of the Institute—such as the composition and voting mechanism of the Management Board, which will be discussed at the second reading. The logic being that if the UK is deemed a constructive voice, rather than adopt a negative stance on principle, it will have more influence on the details as they are agreed.

  It is unfortunate that scrutiny could not be completed in time for Council, and as the Government feels that it is desirable for the Commission's amended proposal to be adopted, rather than for the UK to block it, I wish to inform your Committee of the Government's decision to proceed.

25 May 2006

Letter from the Chairman to Meg Munn MP

  Your letter dated 25 May crossed with my own letter of the same date. It was considered by Sub-Committee G at their first meeting after the Whitsun Recess today.

  As you well know, our Reports on the European Gender Institute and the Fundamental Rights Agency are due to be debated in the House this afternoon. My letter to you dated 25 May pointed out that, as the scrutiny reserve on the original Proposal was already retained pending the outcome of that debate, the scrutiny reserve on the amended Proposal could not be lifted in the meantime. In those circumstances, I said that we would expect you to record at the Council that the scrutiny reserve must remain on the amended proposal.

  We are therefore very surprised and disappointed to learn from your letter that, without even waiting for my response to your Explanatory Memorandum on the amended proposal, the Government had decided to override scrutiny and vote in favour of political agreement on the amended Proposal at the Council on 1 June. Although you have not so far reported on the outcome of the Council meeting, we understand from your officials that this is what happened.

  Overriding Parliamentary scrutiny is a very serious matter indeed. It should only be contemplated where urgent decisions are needed on questions of considerable national importance. That clearly does not apply in this case and we see no good reason for the Government's action.

  Your letter claims that by voting in favour of the Proposal the UK would be in a stronger position to influence more detailed discussions about the Institute than if it had adopted a negative stance on the principle. But that argument is completely undermined since, as we understand it from your officials, the Government also decided at Council to vote in favour of a 25-member Management Board for the Institute. That possibility was not even mentioned in your letter.

  You know perfectly well from our previous correspondence that, as well as having doubts about the merits of setting up a separate Institute, we had strong reservations about the proposed management structure. My letter to you dated 25 May drew attention to the Committee's recommendation that the practice of automatically awarding seats on the boards of EU agencies to every Member State should be questioned. This would have been an ideal opportunity for the Government to have taken a stand on that practice, instead of which you appear to have drifted with the tide on the only real issue of remaining significance apart from the budget and the location of the Institute.

  We regard this as deeply unsatisfactory and the explanation given in your letter as wholly inadequate. No doubt this will be raised during this afternoon's debate. But the Committee reserves the right to call upon you to appear before the Sub-Committee at a future date if the explanation given during the debate is not satisfactory.

8 June 2006

Letter from Meg Munn MP to the Chairman

  Thank you for your letter of 25 May which incidentally crossed paths with my letter to you also dated 25 May, regarding the Explanatory Memorandum on the Amended Proposal for the Establishment of a European Institute for Gender Equality, and also for your subsequent letter of 8 June.

  I think it would be useful if I first outline the current position on the Amended Proposal. As I mentioned in the EM, the Amended Proposal contains only minor amendments to the original proposal that do not result in any overall change to the aim and role of the Institute. Although the Commission favoured a smaller management board, this was not a view that was supported by the majority of the Council, who wanted one representative per Member State. However, the Presidency was not able to bridge the divide between Council and Commission at working level and have reverted back to the General Approach text, which favoured a larger board.

  As you are aware, this dossier was on the agenda at the June Council and my officials have already provided a verbal update to the clerk of your Committee on the events of the June Council. I can inform you that political agreement was reached, by unanimity, on a draft regulation establishing a European Institute for Gender Equality. However, the Commission did not support the representative Management Board adopted by the Council, and so made a declaration to the minutes saying it would have preferred a smaller administrative board. Following on from the June Council, the text, as agreed will be adopted as a common position at a forthcoming Council session and sent to the European Parliament with a view to the second reading.

  I would like to once again stress how unfortunate that was not possible to obtain scrutiny clearance from your Committee ahead of the June Council and the need for the UK to proceed this document and override your scrutiny reserve. Although this is not the way we had hoped to proceed, under the circumstances this was judged to be the best way forward for the UK, as my letter of 25 May explains, the Institute will go ahead and it is important for the UK to set itself in a good negotiating position as this will prove valuable in the next round of negotiations where the contentious issue of the voting structure within the management board will be discussed.

  I understand your disappointment and concerns with our decision to favour the Council for a larger management board (one representative per Member State), and I acknowledge that a smaller board should operate more effectively. However, during negotiations it was clear from other Member States that they had a strong preference for one representative per Member State and were not prepared to deviate from this. We therefore felt it necessary to agree with the Council in having a larger board, as whilst this proposal is subject to Qualified Majority Voting, different voting mechanisms apply in different circumstances during the passage of co-decision dossiers. Therefore, to achieve political agreement in the face of Commission opposition, unanimity was required.

  As Baroness Ashton highlighted on 8 June, Member States are extremely supportive of the Institute and very keen to play an active role, hence their desire to be represented on the management board. Once the institute is up and running, there is potentially scope for this position to be reviewed as some Member States may no longer feel the need for all 25 Member States to be on the board.

  With regards to the UK's position on the voting structure, we would not want a situation where the Commission has equal voting rights vis a vis the Council representatives, which, given that the Council is rarely able to speak with one voice, would effectively give the Commission overall voting control. To avoid such a situation arising, during discussions at working group level the UK have cited other agencies, which uphold the principle of "one person one vote" as a precedent for a similar approach to be adopted here. As you will appreciate, the issue of the voting rights goes wider than the European Gender Institute. This contentious issue will be discussed further at a later stage—second reading stage anticipated to take place in six to nine months.

  On the matter concerning the legal base question, the UK Minutes Statement remains in place. The Government is still currently reviewing the legal base issue in light of the ENISA case and I hope to be able to report the conclusions to you soon.

  Once again, I would like to express how unfortunate it was that we unavoidably had to override your scrutiny reserve in this instance, and I assure you that it is a decision I did not take lightly. I shall continue to provide you with updates on the dossier as necessary.

19 June 2006

Letter from the Chairman to Meg Munn MP

  Your letter dated 19 June reached us on the afternoon of 21 June and was considered by a meeting of Sub-Committee G on the morning of 22 June.

  Your letter raises important procedural and policy issues which the Committee wishes to discuss with you without delay. We envisage a short public meeting with Sub-Committee G, of which an official verbatim record would be taken and published in due course as a supplement to our Inquiry Report.

  The Clerk to the Sub-Committee will be in touch with your officials to arrange a convenient date before the House rises for the Summer Recess.

23 June 2006

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