The European Scrutiny Committee published today its Scrutiny Reform follow-up and Legacy Report, which is highly critical of the Government for refusing to schedule debates. The Report particularly points out that the importance attached by the Government to the role of national parliaments in providing democratic legitimacy for the EU does not extend to the scrutiny that takes place in the House of Commons.
The European Scrutiny Committee reached the following conclusions:
1. “We are disappointed to note at the outset that the Government, despite its offers of dialogue, has stalled meaningful engagement with our Scrutiny Reform Report recommendations over the last 18 months: by an inadequate response which was six months late and published on the afternoon the House rose for the summer recess, followed by the initial refusal of the Foreign Secretary to appear before us to give oral evidence, alongside EU document debates recommended but not scheduled for over a year. Whether this is coalition politics or not, the result has been that much-needed reforms lie unmade.
2. “We note in particular that one effect of this is that both Standing Order No. 143 and the Scrutiny Reserve Resolution continue to use pre-Lisbon terminology, as they date from 1998-despite the fact that our Report included proposed new versions of both texts.
3. “As we have noted in our evidence sessions, Reports and correspondence, the Government’s policy on EU scrutiny reform is at odds with UK Ministers’ claims in their speeches across the EU about the role of national parliaments—including the Prime Minister’s Bloomberg speech. We can only assume that the importance attached by the Government to this fundamental principle does not extend to the scrutiny that takes place in this House.
4. “In the face of the Government’s procrastination we have engaged with other Committees (particularly the Procedure and Liaison Committees) to make progress where we can. We set out in this Report what we have achieved and what more remains to be done, as a guide for our successors in the next Parliament. We hope that the new Government, whatever political party or parties it comprises, will have a more constructive and consistent approach to EU scrutiny reform and, furthermore, that that Government will recognise the need, in the UK’s national interest, to comply with the principles of accountability to Parliament prescribed under the Standing Orders of the House of Commons.
Delays in scheduling debates
5. “The Government’s collective failure to schedule so many debates on EU documents over the past year is deplorable, and is a discourtesy to this Committee and to all Members of the House. We have not yet received an adequate explanation, and we doubt one will be forthcoming. Such a scenario must never be allowed to happen again. At the very least we expect a new Government to follow previous practice and ensure that all the outstanding debates are scheduled within a month of the debate recommendation being confirmed by the new Committee.
6. “We welcome the letter from the Procedure Committee which shares our disappointment at the Government’s approach. We look to our successor Committee to engage with the new Procedure Committee in the next Parliament to pursue reform.
7. “The feedback we have received about the EU Reporter initiative has been generally positive. While we note that the Liaison Committee decided that Select Committees should have discretion over whether or not to appoint EU Reporters we would like to see as many Committees as possible in the new Parliament choose to do so. We recommend that all Departmental Select Committees (and cross-cutting Committees such as the Environmental Audit Committee) in the new Parliament specifically consider the appointment of an EU Reporter at their first meeting.
8. “We do not accept most of the Government’s proposals for future non-deposit. At this stage of the Parliament, however, we consider that the best approach is to publish our recommendations for consideration by our successors.
9. “We set out in the Annex to this Report our response to the Government’s proposals on “streamlining” which documents are formally deposited in Parliament. While we accept some of its proposals, the cumulative effect of the others would considerably reduce the number of documents formally scrutinised by Parliament, which we think would be a retrograde step. We trust that once the debates issue is resolved our successor Committee will engage with the Government to resolve the future scope of document deposit, and the associated updates of the Scrutiny Reserve Resolution (including an opt-in version of the Scrutiny Reserve Resolution). We note that deposit is a bicameral process, so any such changes will also need to be agreed by the House of Lords EU Committee.
10. “The draft guidance issued by the Government on making limité documents available to the Committee places a welcome emphasis on the need for the Government to press at EU level for the removal of the limité classification on particular documents. We ask the Government to reflect on our other observations on the guidance and bring back an improved text to our successor Committee.
11. “We continue to take the view that the Government should be making access by Parliament to limité documents more straightforward, and the first step is for Parliament to know which limité documents have been issued. We stress that the Government would retain its discretion over whether or not to release them to us.
12. “Despite the modest nature of our request the Government’s replies have been both evasive and frustrating. We recommend that our successor Committee demands the simple weekly list this Government has seemingly found it impossible to provide.
13. “We recommend that our successor Committee hold a session with the relevant Minister early in the new Parliament to take forward our scrutiny of TTIP. We agree that MPs and Peers should have equivalent access to documents as MEPs (as should Parliamentarians of other EU Member States) and urge the Government to secure this important commitment.
14. “We ask the Government to inform all Members of the House about the progress of negotiations during the period before Select Committees are appointed, when there is no mechanism for our Committee secretariat to publish incoming correspondence.
15. “Our Scrutiny Reform Report concluded that we would in future consider in more detail the “impacts” of EU legislation. Stakeholder engagement is clearly an important part of that process. We have some excellent examples over this Parliament of effective liaison with outside bodies, but there is always more that could be done to raise the profile of the Committee, particularly using our website and social media, and we look to our successor Committee in the new Parliament to take that forward. We recommend that our successor Committee repeat this survey exercise at regular intervals in the new Parliament to get feedback on the scrutiny system.
Scrutiny Reform Report and the BBC
16. “In summary, we still remain deeply concerned about the manner in which the BBC treats EU issues. Our witnesses seemed to be more intent on defending and asserting their own opinions, mindset and interpretation of the obligations under the Charter and Framework Agreement than in whether they had in fact discharged them or whether they had the mindset to carry through their post-Wilson aims. In the interest of the licence fee payers, and the public in general, and in the context of the approaching General Election and a prospective referendum on the EU, and given the fact that the BBC themselves state that 58% of the public look to the BBC for news they trust, we believe that the BBC has a duty under its Charter, Framework Agreement and the general law, and following the Wilson report in particular, to improve substantially the manner in which it treats EU issues.
17. “Furthermore, we conclude that in the light of the evidence we have taken over the past two years from the BBC, and given the statements made by the Chairman of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, indicating that even she, as Chairman of the Trust, wishes to see reform of governance, that our criticisms of the way the BBC treats EU issues, and the approach by its leaders to the Committee, particularly the initial refusal to give oral evidence, shows that accountability to Parliament must be a key factor to be considered as part of the review of the BBC Charter in 2016, as should be strict adherence to the aims set out by the BBC in its response to the Wilson Review.)
18. “We deeply regret the fact that Lord Hall’s repeated refusals to give oral evidence delayed the session to such an extent that it has not been possible to conduct further work on these issues before the dissolution of Parliament. Our central tenet, regarding the BBC’s coverage of the EU scrutiny process in the House, and EU issues more generally, is that the country’s public service broadcaster must command wide confidence in its coverage of such a sensitive and complex issue. We do not believe that this has been achieved.
19. “Given the possibility of a referendum on the UK’s EU membership before the end of the decade, and potentially a renegotiation of the Treaties, the issue of how the media in general, and the BBC in particular, covers the EU is of paramount importance. We asked Lord Hall if, as Director-General, he would undertake to appear before our successor Committee, and he responded that “if the subject matter was one that involved the BBC in some sort of way, I or others would appear.” We welcome this commitment.”
“Our Scrutiny Reform Report was a game-changer, proposing radical constitutional reform – a form of national veto and unilateral disapplication of EU law – alongside a coherent package of reforms to the House of Commons EU scrutiny system.
At a time when there is so much cynicism about politics and such a need for informed debate on these controversial issues, we are highly critical of the Government’s decision not to accept key recommendations nor to schedule a series of key EU debates over the last eight months.
We also took this opportunity to review how the BBC covers the EU scrutiny process and EU issues.
We deplore the fact that we had to repeatedly press for Lord Hall, the Director-General of the BBC and its Editor-in-Chief, as well as the previous BBC Trust Chairman Lord Patten, to appear before us.
As the nation’s public service broadcaster the BBC has very particular obligations under its Charter and Framework Agreement, both to be impartial and also to educate and inform. We do not believe this is currently being achieved in the context of the BBC’s EU coverage.
Furthermore the BBC has not properly carried through its compliance with its own published aims following the serious criticisms made of the BBC by the Report by Lord Wilson of Dinton in 2005 relating to the BBC’s coverage of EU issues.
Accountability to Parliament and proper impartiality must be a key factor in the forthcoming review of the BBC Charter.”
Sir Bill Cash was also quoted by the Daily Mail as saying:
“The BBC has fallen down severely on its obligations to viewers and listeners to give them a proper and balanced assessment of both sides of the argument.
This is an issue that affects everybody’s lives. Who can say that the European question is not important?’
There is a [line] of questioning which is quite clearly geared to elicit the answers, “I don’t want a referendum”, or “I don’t want Britain to leave the European Union.”
There are two sides of the argument. Why don’t they have more people on so they can represent them? That [bias] is carried through an enormous amount of the BBC’s flagship programmes.”