The European Union Committee of the House of Lords

The House of Lords established its Select Committee on the European Communities in 1974. Renamed the European Union Committee in 1999, it scrutinises the government’s policies and actions in respect of the EU. Alongside this scrutiny of the government the committee considers, and seeks to influence, the development of EU legislation. It receives the same documents and explanatory memoranda as the Commons committee, but has established a markedly different scrutiny system, in the form of its chairman’s sift and the establishment of sub-committees. It draws the attention of the House to Commission proposals or other documents that raise issues of policy or principle with a recommendation as to whether or not a debate is desirable. The committee considers the merits of proposals for European legislation, and it uses Commission consultative documents or action programmes to undertake wide-ranging investigations of EU policy in a particular area. As with the Commons committee, it also undertakes inquiries into broader EU issues. In the 2012-13 session, for example, the committee reported on the future of EU enlargement.

The committee also monitors EU affairs in general. Thus, irrespective of the more specific policy work, regular meetings are held with Foreign and Commonwealth Office ministers, particularly following each European Council, and from the ambassadors of countries holding the EU presidency. The committee now makes a point of scrutinising the Commission’s annual work programme and entering into correspondence on its views with the relevant Commissioners.

The committee has 19 members and 6 sub-committees that are divided into broad policy areas: economic and financial affairs; the internal market, infrastructure and transport; EU external affairs; agriculture, fisheries, environment and energy; justice, institutions and consumer protection; and home affairs, health and education. There is a total working membership (including co-opted members) of about 70 lords. The sub-committees consider whatever documents are ‘sifted’ to them by the chairman of the committee (many are deemed not to require scrutiny and so are not ‘sifted’), as well as conducting free-standing inquiries. These sub-committees take evidence and make reports that draw on the knowledge and experience of their members: for example, in 2014 the Common Foreign and Security Policy Sub-Committee (SubCommittee C) included a former Minister for Europe, former UK Permanent Representatives in Brussels, former Members of the European Parliament, senior diplomats, former MPs and a former Vice-President of the European Commission.

Every year, about one-third of the 1,000 EU documents deposited by the government are referred (‘sifted’) by the chairman for more detailed consideration by sub-committees, but only a fraction of these will become the subject of a full- scale inquiry. Some reports of the committee are made for information only, and some for debate. Inquiries may be based upon deposited documents received from the government and European institutions, while some are conducted on particular policy areas. An example of the latter was the Internal Market, Infrastructure and Employment Sub-Committee’s report on youth unemployment in the EU, published in April 2014. Whether a report is debated or not, it is replied to in writing by the government within two months of publication. However, a substantial number of other documents are considered in detail by way of correspondence with the relevant minister. This is published, and much of it is available on the parliamentary website.

The reports are useful as a source of both information and informed opinion. Although their target is, theoretically, the House and, through the House, the government minister and government policies, the Lords reports, as those of the Commons committee, also have a wider market in the EU institutions, including the European Parliament itself and other national parliaments of the EU engaged in the scrutiny process.

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