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The United Kingdom is a parliamentary democracy: government is voted into power by the people, to act in the interests of the people. Parliament is the highest legislative authority in the United Kingdom. It is made up of the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Queen.
Alongside this system, the UK is also a constitutional monarchy. This is a situation where there is an established monarch (currently Queen Elizabeth II), who remains politically impartial and with limited powers.
The United Kingdom joined the European Union on 1 January 1973.
The House of Lords at a Glance
The House of Lords is the second chamber of the UK Parliament, it complements the work of the House of Commons. It makes laws, holds government to account and investigates policy issues. Its membership is mostly appointed and includes experts in many fields. It currently has a membership of around 800 members.
The European Union Committee considers EU documents and other EU-related matters in advance of decisions being taken on them. It aims to hold the Government to account for its actions at the EU level.
The work of the Select Committee is assisted by six Sub-Committees dealing with different policy areas. The Sub-Committees scrutinise proposals, correspond with Ministers outling any concerns or queries about proposals, conduct inquiries and prepare reports. The Sub-Committees are:
(a) Economic and Financial Affairs
(b) Internal Market, Infrastructure and Employment
(c) Foreign Affairs, Defence, Development and Trade
(d) Agriculture, Fisheries, Environment and Energy
(e) Justice, Institutions and Consumer Protection
(f) Home Affairs, Health and Education
The Government has committed not to agree to anything in the EU Council of Ministers until the Committee has completed its scrutiny. This is called the Scrutiny Reserve Resolution.
As well as the Scrutiny Reserve, the Government has made a number of other commitments to the Committee including:
Replying to letters from the Committee within 10 working days;
Explaining any overrides of the Scrutiny Reserve as soon as possible; and
Responding to any recommendations in a published report within two months.
Scrutiny- how does it work?
Documents from the EU institutions, with very few exceptions, have to be presented to Parliament by the Government with a memorandum, signed by the Minister, explaining what the document is about, drawing attention to any points of particular significance to the United Kingdom, and explaining the Government’s policy.
The more important of these documents, including most of the proposals for legislation, are sent to one of the Sub-Committees for examination. Under the Scrutiny Reserve Resolution referred to above no United Kingdom Minister may vote on that document in the Council until the Committee has given its views on it and is satisfied that the Government has taken them into account. At that stage the document is said to be cleared from scrutiny, and the Minister is free to act on it in the Council.
The Committees look in particular at the following matters:
• Whether the legal base of a proposal is correct;
• Whether it complies with the principle of subsidiarity;
• The effect which the proposal, if adopted, would have on UK law and legislation;
• In the case of JHA legislation where, under Protocol 21 to the Treaties, the United Kingdom has the choice whether or not to take part in the adoption and application of the legislation (to “opt in” to the legislation), how the Government should exercise that choice;
• How a proposal would affect relations between the UK and third countries.
The following are examples of scrutiny of recent proposals by the Home Affairs Sub-Committee raising these issues.
In October 2010 the Commission put forward a proposal to submit the drug mephedrone to control measures (COM(2010)583). The Committee told the Minister that they agreed with this as a matter of policy, but pointed out that the proposal cited the wrong provision as the power to make the Decision, and kept the document under scrutiny. The Government pointed this error out to the Commission which agreed, apologised and amended the proposal. The Committee then cleared the document from scrutiny, and the Minister voted in the Council for the adoption of the Decision.
In July 2010 the Commission issued a proposal for a Directive on the conditions of entry and residence of third-country nationals for seasonal employment (COM(2010)379). The Government thought that this complied with the principle of subsidiarity. The Committee disagreed and, following the procedure in Protocol 2 to the Treaties, prepared a report which was agreed by the House of Lords and forwarded to the Commission as a reasoned opinion. Other Parliaments also thought that this proposal was in breach of the principle of subsidiarity, but not enough of them to trigger the procedure in the Protocol.
The Committee considered in the autumn of 2010 a draft Directive on attacks against information systems (cybercrime) (COM(2010)517) which, if implemented, would require changes to the criminal law of the United Kingdom. It decided that this would benefit the United Kingdom, but that the definitions of the offences were not sufficiently precise. The Government agreed that greater legal certainty was needed.
That was a measure that the Government, with encouragement from the Committee, opted in to under Protocol 21. Another was the draft Directive on the use of Passenger Name Record data in countering terrorism (COM(2011)32. The Committee thought this sufficiently important to publish in March 2011 a report which was debated in the House, recommending the Government to opt in. In due course it did so.
That proposal is one which will affect relations between the United Kingdom and third countries by replacing bilateral relations between the United Kingdom and some third countries with a measure covering the whole EU.
EC Reply on the Workload of the European Court of Justice 44 KB / 12/09/2011
Scrutiny of documents for compliance with the principle of subsidiarity 36 KB / 23/10/2012