Keeping Track of the EEC – Commons Committees and Europe in the 1970s and 1980s

Dr Philip Aylett builds on his previous contributions to this blog-site to provide historical insight into the role played by Commons Committees as the UK participated in the European Economic Community during the 1970s and 1980s.

The role of select committees in Parliament’s response to the UK’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 has received little attention. Yet inquiries by such committees played a substantial part in the House of Commons’ scrutiny of European issues during the 1970s. This blog looks at the work of these committees, and suggests some wider implications.

Existing Commons select committees showed interest in the EEC right from the start of UK membership. One example was a sub-committee of the Expenditure Committee, chaired by William Rodgers (Labour), which visited Brussels within two months of accession to take formal evidence on regional development issues.  Two Commissioners, one the former Labour Cabinet Minister George Thomson, gave evidence. The Guardian described the evidence session as “an unprecedented extension of British Parliamentary practice to the new circumstances of Britain in Europe”’.

Around the time of accession, Lords and Commons both set up select committees to examine how Parliament could keep track of the flow of European Community documents, and influence UK ministers in their work in the Council of Ministers. The Commons committee was chaired by Sir John Foster (Conservative), and it recommended the establishment of the Select Committee on European Secondary Legislation, duly appointed from the Spring of 1974 (the word ‘Secondary’ – slightly misleading as almost all EEC legislation was covered – was later dropped from the title). Its main function was as a ‘sifting’ body, to consider draft proposals for secondary legislation and other documents, and to report its opinion as to whether such proposals or other documents raised ‘questions of legal or political importance’, and therefore merited further consideration by the House.

From the start, the European Legislation Committee dealt with hundreds of instruments annually, rapidly and efficiently reducing an initially serious backlog of documents to manageable proportions. However, the Committee was not just the House’s canary in the mine of European legislation.

In a previous blog (April 2018) I described the growth from the late 1960s of investigatory select committee activity in the Commons, a development that has been unjustly neglected by most commentators. The case for extending select committee inquiry techniques, especially the taking of oral and written evidence, to scrutiny of important but often highly technical EEC documents, was seen by some at the time as a particularly strong one.  So it is hardly surprising that the European Legislation Committee went well beyond its limited sifting remit. Working in fairly traditional select committee mode during the middle and later 1970s, the Committee gathered a considerable body of evidence, both oral and written, on the policy implications of European legislation.

These inquiries at the first stage of scrutiny were in addition to the second stage of formal debates on legally or politically important documents which took place on the floor of the House and (later in addition) standing committee in response to the recommendations of the legislation committee.   During the 1970s, a variety of criticisms were levelled at these second stage formal debates – they were often late in the day, cursory and rushed, meaning that important technical and legal matters were not seen as having been considered properly.

The first year or so of the European legislation committee’s work coincided with the run-up to the June 1975 referendum on EEC membership, and this no doubt lent some of its evidence even greater significance.  Doubts over the transparency and accountability of the EEC budget were explored in a session in February 1975 with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Joel Barnett. The Committee Chairman John Davies expressed concern that there was little clarity on ‘the actual outturn of expenditure against budgeted amounts’. This, he said, ‘seems to us to imply a degree of laxity which we are not accustomed to in our own national budgetary affairs.’

In the same month, the Committee took evidence from the Treasury Minister, Robert Sheldon on the embryonic European Monetary Cooperation Fund, whose aim was to ensure the proper functioning of the progressive narrowing of the fluctuation margins between Community currencies (the so called “Currency Snake”). John Davies noted that: ‘the EMFC was instituted as a very limited operation with very limited resources  … [but this] might indicate a trend towards the reinforcement of the Fund which would be of great significance to the future of the Community institutions.’ Thus gently and quietly did the Committee begin to probe the area of monetary policy which would eventually produce the Euro. Other major European issues on which the Committee took evidence in the mid-1970s included tax rate harmonisation and decision-making in Brussels on the key area of agriculture.

The work of the European legislation committee of the mid-1970s was quantitively impressive as well as broad in its policy scope. In little over a year, beginning in February 1975, the Committee heard oral evidence on 25 occasions from Ministers. According to the Committee ‘In addition, a great deal of written information has been obtained—much of it from outside bodies, with whom the Committee have made good progress in establishing regular contact’. The growing volume of backbench scrutiny activity may or may not have had a direct influence on the actions of Ministers in Brussels and Strasbourg; but it did provide a number of opportunities for MPs to analyse the effects of EEC policies and legislation and test Ministers’ grasp of the issues. In one respect, though, the European Committee did not match other select committees; it did not attempt to produce lengthy agreed reports about the merits of policy matters, because the limited time available did not allow it to come to consensus on some of the most contentious subjects.

Scrutiny of European documents had some wider political repercussions, causing cabinets of both parties some anxiety. For instance,  Edward Heath’s cabinet voiced concern in January 1974 at proposals by the Select Committee for six days to be provided in each session for debates on Community matters. The cabinet conclusions record worries that ‘anti-Marketeers’ could be provided in this way with ‘unnecessary opportunities for making difficulties’ (page 1).  In January 1975 the conclusions of a meeting of Harold Wilson’s Labour cabinet record that ‘difficulties were still arising on debates on [EEC] documents’ recommended by the committee. It was argued in cabinet that ‘the problem arose partly because some members were using the new situation to extend Parliamentary involvement into an area previously the preserve of the Executive’, in this case agricultural prices (page 1).

The European Legislation Committee continued to take substantial amounts of oral and written evidence as the 1970s wore on. In a January 1977 oral evidence session, the ‘anti-Market’ Neil Marten MP (Conservative) pressed Dr David Owen, then Minister of State at the Foreign Office, on the question of the Passport Union between EEC countries. Marten demanded that the Government agree to a debate in the House on this issue, stating that the ‘question of a passport and having EEC stamped on it is a strongly emotional matter with a great number of people? I just quote the eight and a half million who voted “No” in the Referendum.’ In the same session there were questions about the additional burden which would allegedly be placed on Community budgets by the accession of countries such as Greece which were not as well developed economically, or as stable politically, as the current members.  To support this industrious programme of work, the 1970s European Legislation Committee was, by the standards of the time, very well resourced, being assisted by the late years of the decade by four seconded civil servants and by Mr Speaker’s Second Counsel, as well as the clerk and other staff.

The far-reaching Commons Procedure Committee of 1978 was satisfied with the initial scrutiny of EEC documents by the Select Committee, which had ‘worked well in practice’.  However, it was confirmed the general impression that when the House or the standing committees examined those recommended by the Select Committee for further consideration at the second stage the situation was ‘less satisfactory’. To remedy this lack of detailed accountability, the European Legislation Committee Chairman, Sir John Eden (Conservative) had proposed that the Committee should be enlarged into a Committee on European Affairs with power to consider the merits of European legislation. In effect this would have formalised and amplified the Committee’s existing evidence-taking practice. But the Commons Procedure Committee, which in the same report recommended the establishment of the new departmental committees, concluded that because ‘European legislation is closely bound up with United Kingdom legislation and the work of UK government departments … we would therefore prefer any consideration of the merits of such legislation by select committees to be entrusted to the new departmentally related committees’.

But this aspiration remained unfulfilled. Most of the post-1979 Commons departmental committees appear, in their first decade at least, to have largely ignored the invitation to tackle European Community issues. The second (1989) edition of Gavin Drewry’s comprehensive survey of the operation of the departmental committees contains little about European matters; his index mentions the European Economic Community just 15 times.

The European Legislation Committee and its successor the European Scrutiny Committee continued to take oral evidence well into the 21st century. But after 1980 the investigatory work of the European Committee does not seem to have been on the same scale as in the early years. Meanwhile the shortcomings of the formal debates on the floor of the House and in standing committee seem to have persisted. By 1989, Lynda Chalker, the Minister for Europe,  was acknowledging in the Commons that there was ‘genuine concern in the House about the need to make the process of parliamentary scrutiny [of EEC legislation] more timely and effective’, a worry at least partly deepened by changes to decision-making in Europe,  and in particular restrictions to the role of Ministers after the introduction of the Single Market (Col. 1161).  The European Scrutiny Committee of the 1980s was said by one Member to be ‘admirable but circumscribed’; the impression is that it did not push the boundaries of its order of reference like its 1970s predecessors.

The evidence discussed here shows that, although their approach was sometimes incomplete and incoherent and their impact on ministerial decision-making uncertain, select committees of the 1970s were often enthusiastic and active in addressing the most important European Community matters,  but it also suggests that the initial level of committee scrutiny of ‘Europe’ was not sustained in the following decade. In particular, the departmental committees did not in general appear to show much interest in European topics in the 1980s, leaving the ‘circumscribed’ European Scrutiny Committee and limited standing committee and floor of the House debates to carry on that work.

Further research into the 1970s and 1980s and later epochs in the life of the European Scrutiny Committee could assess its effectiveness and explore the reasons for the House’s apparent failure to build on the initial momentum of European scrutiny.  It would also be interesting to ask what effect the shortcomings of Commons committee scrutiny had in the long term on parliamentary, and perhaps public, attitudes to the European institutions.

Dr Philip Aylett has been Clerk of a number of House of Commons committees, including the European Scrutiny Committee. His research interests include the history of Commons select committees, especially between 1960 and 1990, and he recently published articles on the subject in Parliamentary History and Parliamentary Affairs.  

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