Ministers 'contemptuous' of checks on EU

All-party committee exposes failure of government to allow proper scrutiny of legislation enacted in Brussels
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The Independent Online
Westminster's first and most vital check on Brussels law-making is regularly treated with contempt by British ministers and their departments.

Government undertakings and Commons resolutions lay down a strict procedure, under which ministers are generally not allowed to agree to Brussels directives or regulations until they have been cleared by a formal Westminster scrutiny procedure.

Under that process, the all-party European Legislation Committee - probably the most streamlined and professional operation in the Palace of Westminster - plays a vital, democratic role on behalf of Parliament.

But it is now regularly being subjected to what it generously calls "lapses". Whatever the cause of the "difficulties", democracy is being short- circuited. Listing the main problems it faces with Whitehall, the committee cites:

Failure to secure Westminster scrutiny clearance before ministers reach final Brussels agreement - legislative decision. "On some occasions ministers have not only failed to secure scrutiny clearance; they have failed to tell us about it until some weeks later, or not at all;

Late deposit of documents. "In one case, seven weeks after the proposal had been agreed", or enacted in Brussels;

Late submission of ministerial explanatory memorandums, which should be have been delivered within 10 working days of the Brussels proposal arriving in London: "In the worst cases, five weeks and eight weeks after the documents had been discussed in the council." So ministers who are talking in Brussels do not have the time or inclination to fulfil fundamental democratic obligations to their own national parliament;

Late provision of information formally requested by the select committee in reports or in letters to ministers. "A number of delays of three months or more; in the worst case, 14 months."

According to the committee, each of those categories "represents breaches of government undertakings or a Resolution of the House". But that democratic felony is compounded by the bungling incompetence - or worse - of Whitehall departments which apparently feel that they do not even have to perform the most basic tasks, like correctly addressing letters, or enclosing promised documents.

"Departments, and particularly ministers' Private Offices, do not seem able to get documents to us with any degree of reliability.

"The basic requirement is that all communications of any sort should come to our offices, where they can be registered and copied, briefing prepared, and then circulated in reasonable time for Members to study them ... Given the quantity of documents we deal with every week, this operation is always close to the margin. It becomes impossible if we do not receive explanatory memorandums and ministerial and other correspondence by the quickest possible means."

But in spite of the clearest possible Whitehall instructions - and repeated reminders from the Cabinet Office - letters are still being sent to Jimmy Hood, the Labour committee chairman, at the Commons, with no indication that they contain urgent correspondence for his committee. When he is in his Clydesdale constituency, the Commons post office automatically redirects all his mail to Scotland.

But the insult does not end there. "Ministers' letters are frequently sent by second-class post, sometimes even when a minister is asking us for urgent scrutiny clearance on a document. Other regular problems include missing enclosures, letters for us addressed to the House of Lords, to other select committees, to non-existent committees, and so on."

However, if progress made over the past year is anything to go by, the select committee can expect little to be done by ministers who show a surprisingly cavalier attitude towards Parliament on the burning Tory issue of Europe.

"This lamentable state of affairs has four main causes," the MPs say: "unpredictability of [ministerial] council agendas; late production of proposals and other documents by the commission; preparedness of the council to take items at short notice; and slow transmission of documents".

There were a further 222 items of lesser importance that were expected to receive scrutiny - without official texts.

"This is a selection of 75 documents of legal or political importance which we have had to consider without an official text," the committee says, and then lists 77 documents it has had to consider since last July without an official text; five pages of decisions, regulations and directives that cover such issues as consumer credit, fisheries control, measuring instruments, arable set-aside penalties, veterinary checks and the processing and protection of personal data.

It listed 42 documents that it had been expected to consider without an official text over a period of 14 months. "A year and a day has passed since that report was made, and the situation has got worse," the MPs say in their latest report.

Last year, the committee warned ministers that it would consider a boycott of some European proposals if Brussels continued to expect Westminster scrutiny to be carried out "blind" - without the texts of the documents, regulations and directives that were on the brink of enactment by ministers. It concludes that enough is enough. From October it will as a general rule refuse scrutiny clearance to any document of which it has not got a text. That should - officially - put a block on ministerial agreement, or enactment, in Brussels.

The question then remains whether ministers who have repeatedly ignored or over- ridden the parliamentary procedure over the last 12 months will have the courage openly to defy Parliament.