My job title was Scrutiny Coordinator. It was not a very popular job as it entailed a lot of paperwork while liaising between the two UK Parliamentary Committees and Brussels. For over two years I was a member of the EU Communications and Parliamentary team until my retirement in 2016 from my work at the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).
The UK Parliamentary scrutiny process
The House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee was known to be led by an outspoken Eurosceptic. Kent MP Craig McKinlay, who stood as a candidate for UKIP several times before his election as a Conservative in 2005, was a member of this committee. One has to ask whether any committee now considers the views of industry and trade experts as carefully as the former EU scrutiny process. Are they looking for instance at matters of Kent concern, such as the future of the Whitstable oyster trade.
The House of Lords European Committee was known to be less negative towards EU decisions. Lord Boswell was the chair at the time. Both Houses had to agree to the EU draft proposals sent to us by our UK Representation at the EU (UKRep) before our Minister of Europe or Ambassador in Brussels could sign up to the decision. My task was to mediate between the two parliamentary European committees and our UKRep. They then negotiated any proposals for change that the UK requested and often succeeded in getting.
The process was quite complex and took up to four weeks to complete. This was more difficult in the frequent recess periods, when Parliament was not sitting but the EU produced vital draft decisions. Other EU countries gave their Brussels based representatives the mandate to agree decisions without submitting them to their Parliaments at home.
How EU trade deals are made
The above process is still the same now, except that there are only 27 member states involved. Brexit means we have no say in any decisions but might have to comply with them if we want to trade with the EU member states.
Draft EU decisions were negotiated in working groups according to subject matter. For example, a decision on a new trade deal with a country outside the EU would be discussed in a working group with trade experts and someone from the Commission working with that country.
The UK would be represented by a member of UKRep who worked with the Department of Trade and Industry, in cooperation with a key worker in the FCO who worked with the country in question involving the UK embassy there. Several departments were involved if the country who wanted a deal with the EU had human rights or democracy issues. Once a draft decision was agreed in the working group, the UK had an opportunity to scrutinise it in the European Committees of the two Houses of Parliament.
Scrutiny in UK Parliament
This is where my job began: I commissioned an Explanatory Memorandum (EM) from key workers in the government departments which I submitted to the Committees for scrutiny and the request for clearance. After meetings where these EMs were debated, they were more often than not cleared to allow UKRep to sign up to the decision in Brussels. If one of the Committees had queries, the process was delayed.
If a Committee did not clear the decision, UKRep had to consult with the Minister for Europe who had the power to ‘override’ the Committee’s decision if he thought it was politically important for the UK. But the Committees held him to account and he had to appear in front of them to justify this override.
If the Minister did not think an override was appropriate, the UK voted against the said EU decision in Brussels. Depending on negotiations between member states, the decision was carried due to a majority vote or went back to the working group for further debate.
During recess periods, we very often had to ‘fast stream’ EU decisions which carried over UN sanctions which the UK had already agreed to as a member of the UN Security Council.
For people who want to have a closer look at the UK scrutiny process, it is explained on the Cabinet Office web page.
How Parliamentary scrutiny has changed post-Brexit
When the UK left the EU, this scrutiny process ceased, and the role of the European Committees changed to an oversight of the Withdrawal Agreement. They also examine the impact of Brexit on various industries.
As an example of their recent work, see the Parliamentary reports on Hansard or their own site.