Introduction to scrutiny

Scrutiny - examining the implications for the UK of proposed EU laws and policies - is the core work of the European Union Committee.

Purpose of scrutiny

Most EU laws are agreed jointly by the EU Council of Ministers (made up of ministers representing the governments of all the member states) and the elected European Parliament. The UK Parliament does not agree EU laws directly: the primary purpose of scrutiny is to hold UK ministers to account, to ensure that their objectives are clearly stated, and that they have taken the views of Parliament fully into account before going to Brussels to negotiate on behalf of the UK in the Council.

The Committee scrutinises a wide range of EU policy documents, such as Communications and White Papers, as well as legislative proposals such as draft Directives and Regulations. These categories of document are described in the terms of reference of the EU Committee.

After considering these documents, the Committee then typically writes to the Government, setting out its views and seeking additional information or clarification.

The EU Committee also frequently writes directly to the European Commission, which has since 2006 engaged in a political dialogue with national parliaments across the EU.

All EU Committee correspondence, whether with UK ministers or with the European Commission, is published online.

The Scrutiny Reserve

The work of the EU Committee is underpinned by a "Scrutiny Reserve Resolution", which has been agreed by the House of Lords. According to this Resolution, UK ministers may not agree to any proposal in the Council of Ministers until the Committee has finished its scrutiny. Ministers may override this scrutiny reserve if there are "special reasons", but in such cases must explain their reasons to the Committee at the first opportunity.

The House of Commons has agreed a similar Scrutiny Reserve Resolution in respect of the work of its European Scrutiny Committee.

How scrutiny works

The scrutiny process begins when the Government formally "deposits" an EU document in Parliament - that is to say, sending it to the two EU Committees. The types of documents that must be deposited are agreed between the two Committees and the Government, and include all legislative proposals, along with a range of other documents published by the EU institutions. Around 800-900 documents are deposited each year.

The Government produces an Explanatory Memorandum (EM) on each document within 10 working days, in which it analyses the document's policy implications, impact and legal base.

Once the EM has been received, the Chairman of the EU Committee, with the support of legal advisers, decides which documents should be subjected to more detailed scrutiny. These documents (around 30-40 percent of the total) are "sifted" to the Sub-Committee with responsibility for the relevant policy area.

It is for the Sub-Committee then to decide how to scrutinise the document. It may clear it from scrutiny, or hold it under examination while writing to the relevant minister, holding evidence sessions or seminars with stakeholders. In the case of particularly important proposals it may launch a full inquiry.

Clearing a document from scrutiny

Scrutiny can last a long time: the EU legislative process may take several years to complete, and documents may go through several versions. It follows that if the Committee has decided to hold a particular document under scrutiny while corresponding with the UK Government, there may be several exchanges of letters, sometimes over a period of years. All this correspondence is published online.

Ultimately, though, the Committee is likely to decide to clear a document from scrutiny, when the Government has fully explained its position, and when the document itself is either approaching adoption or has been abandoned.

If a document has been the subject of a full inquiry, it is automatically cleared from scrutiny when the resulting Committee report is debated in the House of Lords.

Scrutiny overrides

As noted above, Government ministers may override the scrutiny reserve where there are special reasons that justify such a step. Most overrides occur in the case of fast-moving and sensitive policy areas, such as decisions to impose sanctions or take other emergency measures in the field of foreign policy.

All overrides are reported to the Committee, and full data on overrides are published online.

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Progress of Scrutiny

Progress of Scrutiny records the decisions taken by the House of Lords EU Committee on European documents that have been deposited in Parliament for scrutiny.

EU Committee Digest

EU Committee Digest

The EU Committee Digest contains details of recent work by the House of Lords EU Select Committee and its Sub-Committees: