Monday, 23 April 2007

House of Commons' European Scrutiny Committee (ESC) Ignored Again

It is obvious from the conduct of the Home Office in early April that it is often prepared to sideline advice from the ESC on European legislation, regardless of its obligation to the Committee's scrutiny reserve. The House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee earlier recommended the consideration of a proposal on sentenced persons for debate in the European Standing Committee, since it raised several important issues.

The Committee was duly concerned about “whether there is a need for this proposal given the existence of the 1983 Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons, whether it was right to provide for the compulsory transfer of prisoners and whether the UK should require the safeguard of dual criminality so as to ensure that it does not end up imprisoning its own nationals, on behalf of other EU Member States, when they have been convicted in respect of conduct which is not a crime in the United Kingdom and compulsorily transferred to this country .” The Chairman of the European Foundation and member of the ESC, Bill Cash MP, said “… that is a crucially important question of justice and fairness .”

In the proceedings, the ESC provided three written warnings to Home Office Minister, Joan Ryan, not to override the scrutiny reserve. However, despite all the warnings Ms Ryan ignored the ESC's reserve on the proposal. An initial meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council took place on 15–16 February 2007 and the government then participated in a general approach on the Draft Framework Decision. Joan Ryan subsequently attended an evidence session on 28 March 2007. In this session, the European Scrutiny Committee sought to obtain an explanation from Ms Ryan as to why she participated in a “ general approach ” on this proposal. In sum, the ESC wanted to make clear that the Minister had acted in breach of the Scrutiny Reserve Resolution as she took part in a “ general approach ” before the debate had taken place in the European Standing Committee.

Ms Ryan argued that “ it was necessary to finalise negotiations as soon as possible and only a ‘general approach' had been decided, therefore, Member States have the right to reopen negotiations .” However, this has not convinced the ESC which has argued that “… in the circumstances of this case, it is clear that the general approach marked the end-point of discussions on all substantive issues, including the key issue of prisoner consent .”

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