Evidence on European Legislation 1989

The following evidence was given to the House of Commons Select Committee on Procedure and printed with its Fourth Report of Session 1988-89, The Scrutiny of European Legislation, HC 622-II as Appendix 15 (p 141).

Letter to the Clerk from Professor Gavin Drewry, Professor of Public Administration at the University of London (EL 16)

10 April 1989

I am writing with reference to your letter of 14 March, inviting comments in the context of the Procedure Committee’s inquiry into the role of committees in the scrutiny of European legislation. Having canvassed the views of my colleagues both on the Study of Parliament Group’s study group on the departmentally-related select committees and on the SPG’s Executive Committee, I have come regretfully to the conclusion that we cannot be of much help to you at this juncture. However, we will be glad to do what we can to contribute to the second and more general stage of your Committee’s inquiry into the working of select committees.

All of us do of course recognise the importance of this aspect of the subject; and some individual academic members of the SPG (for instance Dr Ann Robinson and Professor St John Bates, the latter having paid particular attention to the work of Lords committees) have a longstanding interest in the area of European legislation. But our study group examined committee work in fairly general terms, without paying special attention to the actual or potential role of committees in relation to European business. In so far as we did note in passing the extent to which European matters impinge upon select committees, it is apparent that the European content of inquiries varies greatly from committee to committee.

And this prompts me to make a couple of general (and I am afraid rather obvious) points, with which I am sure at least some of my SPG colleagues would agree. The departmentally-related committees as at present constituted derive considerable benefits from their flexibility and from the variety of work they do within the boundaries of their respective terms of reference. Members chose their own topics of inquiry and are free to pursue issues, or ignore them, as they see fit. It may be regarded by some as a pity that European issues have not achieved greater prominence in committee work, but obliging the committees to engage in European legislative scrutiny–or merely putting moral pressure on them to do so, eg by requiring them to set up European sub-committees–gives rise to risks of overload (and the committees already have dauntingly wide terms of reference), and of diminished capacity to respond flexibly to other issues as they come up on the public agenda. Radical changes in this respect would transform the character of select committees in ways that many of their members might regard as retrograde.

Committees are also characterised by their relative independence from the blandishments of the whips and by their generally bi-partisan approach. Both characteristics might be compromised if select committees were ever to become part of the parliamentary apparatus for processing (as opposed merely to scrutinising, at their own discretion) aspects of legislative business.

I am sure that the Committee is already well aware of these possible pitfalls–and of the fact that any major recommendations it may make following stage one of its inquiry may effectively pre-empt some of the matters it intends to examine at stage 2.

I am sure you will understand why we feel unable to comment in more detail on this part of your inquiry. Please let me know if and when I and my colleagues can be of more substantial assistance to your Committee.

© Gavin Drewry 1989.

Prepared by Simon Patrick, 13 June 2001