Lord Boswell: The work of the Lords EU Committee is unfinished – the new chair must be both objective and value our European friendships
On standing down as chair of the Lords EU Committee, Lord Boswell looks back at his seven years at the helm – and offers some advice to his successor
When invited to take the chair of the EU Committee in May 2012, I had little expectation of the momentous turn of events in our relationship with EU that was to come. What has remained unchanged is the silent message in my office, of shelves lined with committee reports bearing witness to the Lords’ interest and expertise in EU matters since we joined nearly 50 years ago.
Our work is grounded in the Scrutiny Reserve Resolution, which provides that no government minister may agree to an EU legislative proposal until both Houses have finished scrutiny. There is power to override this in case of urgency, but in general the spirit of the resolution has been kept. It follows that scrutiny is our ‘core’ task, involving over 70 Members of the House, plus around 25 professional staff. In turn they have their own networks, and also maintain continuing dialogue with Whitehall counterparts, as an effective accompaniment to the transparent public process of correspondence and evidence sessions with ministers. I define our approach as being ready to make ministers’ lives difficult, but not impossible!
The system begins with regular consideration by myself, as chair, of new EU legislative proposals and other documents, together with Explanatory Memoranda from ministers, and advice from committee lawyers and other staff. This regular ‘sift’ has just reached No. 1750, counting from the formation of the committee in 1974. I triage the different items, some being cleared outright, some passed on to sub-committees for information, others reserved for detailed examination. The latter is mostly done by our six specialist sub-committees, who pursue issues as they see fit. They can also launch free-standing inquiries, with reports being submitted to and published by the main committee. This expert and ‘federated’ structure is a distinctive feature of the committee; and has enabled it to build a reputation as a distinctive ‘think-tank’, with our reports featuring prominently on the shelves of EU commissioners and other decision-makers.
An important aspect of our work is interparliamentary diplomacy. The conference for EU Committees of national parliaments is known by the (French) acronym COSAC. We participate actively, as well as conducting bilateral visits to national capitals or to Brussels. Often we find that while the style is different, the problems are very similar.
For what I might call the ‘ascendant’ first years of my chairmanship, we put great effort into finding mechanisms for co-operation between national parliaments to increase our influence in Brussels and were instrumental in producing the first-ever ‘Green Card’ proposal: a collective call from 18 EU national parliaments and chambers to the Commission to take action to reduce food waste. Whenever and however we leave the EU we need to find ways to continue to work collaboratively with other national parliaments in Europe.
As we moved through David Cameron’s renegotiation and into the referendum, the committee scrutinised the Government’s proposals, and reported separately on the Article 50 withdrawal process. The latter report became required reading on the night of the referendum and in the following days.
Understandably, our strategic focus since 2016 has been on the implications of Brexit. We have published over 40 reports, focusing in particular on wider implications, including a major and influential early report on UK-Irish relations, and another more recently on maintaining our influence post-Brexit. In all this, we have stuck to two principles; first, not to fall below the level of events; and second, to maintain objectivity and non-partisanship. To quote Kipling, “If you can keep your head…”
Space limits more detail, and in any case our work is in the public domain and speaks for itself. Now I want only to express my thanks to the House for extending this duty and honour to me; to my colleagues from many different backgrounds and stances for their constructive approach; to our superlative committee staff; and to our counterparts abroad who have shown friendship and understanding.
Our work is unfinished. We have only recently taken on temporarily the work of scrutinising Brexit related treaties, and ministers remain coy about parliamentary scrutiny of negotiations. But I know that the committee will be in safe hands, and my advice to my successor is brief: first, stick to our commitment to evidence and objective analysis; second, however our future relationship with Europe comes out, remember that personal contacts and friendships are essential in promoting the United Kingdom’s interests.
Lord Boswell is a Non-Affiliated peer and chair of the Lords EU Committee 2012-2019