EU laws 'blocked by arrogance'

The stifling of democracy: Prime Minister allows Parliament to be by-passed, says Straw
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The Independent Online
The Tory claim to be the only party that can be trusted to defend the constitution has been blown apart by ministers' "high-handed and arrogant" treatment of European Union legislation, shadow Home Secretary Jack Straw said yesterday.

Commenting on yesterday's exclusive report, in The Independent, of the way in which Whitehall and Brussels had hindered and over-ridden the democratic checks of Westminster, Mr Straw blamed John Major and his ministers.

"The scrutiny of legislation ought to be one of Parliament's most important functions," he said.

"But the Prime Minister and his colleagues are allowing Parliament to be by-passed. This gives the lie to the claim that they are 'batting for Britain' in Europe.

"It also blows apart Mr Major's claim that he is the only one that can be trusted with the constitution."

Mr Straw said the Prime Minister had made a June speech , in which he had boasted about the "new procedures" that had been introduced for the scrutiny of European legislation.

The Labour frontbencher said there had been no mention in the Major speech of how the Commons European Legislation Committee was being asked to examine directives and regulations without official texts; of how it was being forced to wait up to 14 months for replies to requests for information from Whitehall; of how ministers were over-riding Westminster blocks on legislation; and how Whitehall departments were repeatedly sending material to wrong addresses - or even non-existent select committees.

"Mr Major shows stunning ignorance of his own Government's practice on European legislation," Mr Straw said.

"His Government is showing a high-handed and arrogant approach to this matter, with little regard for Parliament's proper role as a check on the executive."

As for Whitehall's "lackadaisical" attitude towards the select committee, Mr Straw said: "The administrative machinery of Whitehall is one of the most efficient in Europe.

"The British civil service is capable of Rolls Royce administration, and if things are going wrong in this way, one can only assume that officials are taking their lead from ministers. The ministers are setting the tone for the behaviour of their departments."

Mr Straw said that Jimmy Hood, the Labour chairman of the European Legislation Committee, and his all-party colleagues, were working very hard, but their efforts were being thwarted by Brussels and Whitehall. "This is not the fault of the Commons: the Government has all the power; the procedure is dominated by ministers."

The European Commission denied there was any systematic problem with the publication of its legislative proposals in English. EU officials said that in most cases the official English texts were available within a few days of proposals being adopted by the Commission. The texts were then provided to member governments, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. It was the job of member governments to pass the documents on to its own institutions.

Foreign Office sources also said that the great majority of EU documents were reaching the committee promptly. The sources said that there had been delays in some cases (often when there was a legal-linguistic dispute about the text). As a result, the Government was pushing for a minimum period for publication.

Meanwhile, the committee will retaliate when the Commons returns from its summer break on 14 October - by refusing to approve any legislation that is delivered without an official text - in English.