Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 27 of Session 2005-06, dated 9 March 2006


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today:

"Uncertainty over how EU Directives are to be interpreted can lead to tremendously wasteful consequences, as we saw with the farce of the fridge mountains in 2002. Where Directives are ambiguous, government departments should find out how much a delay in implementation might cost the taxpayer and industry.

"Business and industry in the UK can be put at a commercial disadvantage if Directives are incorporated into our national law in advance of European Commission deadlines or extra regulations, over and above the requirements of Directives, are introduced. If departments really need to 'over-implement' in this way, then Ministers should be left in no doubt about the reasons for doing so.

"The burden of complying with new EU legislation should be made as light as possible for UK business. Communication with the business or industry affected should be conducted in good time and in the right style. A small-scale farmer will need a very different approach from a vast corporation. But what they have in common is a desire for clear guidance on when legislation is likely and precisely how it will affect them."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 27th Report of this Session, which examined the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' transposition of European law. The Committee's conclusions and recommendations have wider application across all departments and other bodies responsible for transposing and implementing European Union legislation.

As a member of the European Community, the United Kingdom government is obliged to comply with European Community law and to incorporate European legislation into national law within a specified timetable. Any delays may result in an infringement notice and could, ultimately, result in a substantial fine. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (the Department) is responsible for implementing around 30% of the legislation from Europe.

Over-implementation (often referred to as 'gold-plating') can include introducing legislation more quickly than the European Commission requires, and introducing regulations or enforcement mechanisms that go beyond those specified in the Directive. The Department's aim is to minimise the burden on industry and, as a consequence, to avoid over-implementation of Directives, which could put industry at a commercial disadvantage with competitors elsewhere in Europe.

The first step in implementing European legislation is to convert the legislation into national law. This process is called transposition. When departments transpose Directives there are two main methods which they can use: copy-out or elaboration. Copy-out transcribes the Directive into United Kingdom legislation with no additions or changes. Elaboration augments the Directive wording, for example to provide greater clarity. Cabinet Office guidance recommends that Directives should normally be implemented by copy-out and that elaboration should occur only where the benefits outweigh the costs. Of the seven Directives used as case examples in the Comptroller and Auditor General's Report, three had used the copy-out method of transposition and four included some elaboration.

The Government seeks to transpose European law into UK legislation within a relatively tight timeframe. The United Kingdom has met the European Commission's target of 1.5% of transpositions outstanding.

Preparations for implementation could be enhanced. Industry would benefit from more timely and better quality guidance on when legislation is likely and its impact. Information, guidance and communication strategies should be adapted to meet the needs of smaller, less sophisticated businesses as well as large corporations.

Programme and project management should reflect all the phases and challenges of European legislation. Appropriate and sufficient expertise should be available at all stages from negotiation through to implementation. Departments should work with other Member States and the devolved administrations to clarify their interpretation of Directives and share good practice. Wherever practicable, the Department should work with the Devolved Administrations to transpose Directives in parallel rather than sequentially to minimise the risks of delay.

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