The stifling of British democracy

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The Independent Online
MPs' attempts to apply the basic checks of British democracy to European law are being undermined by a staggering mix of Whitehall incompetence and Brussels arrogance.

Now, the Commons Select Committee on European Legislation, which is supposed to scrutinise all Brussels proposals on behalf of Parliament, has told ministers that it has had enough.

When the Commons returns from its summer break on 14 October, the committee will boycott all European legislative proposals that arrive without an official English text.

That could prove a severe embarrassment to ministers who are technically not allowed to go to Brussels to enact Euro-law without Commons scrutiny clearance. It puts the Commons in open conflict with ministers over the area of maximum Tory sensitivity - Europe.

Patience exhausted, the committee reveals that only five out of 14 government departments have even bothered to order its reports from HMSO; vital ministerial letters are regularly sent to wrong addresses or even non-existent committees; and over the last 12 months, 75 Brussels proposals "of legal or political importance" had to be examined "blind" - with no official text available from Brussels.

A year after ministers were warned that if matters did not improve, improperly- presented Euro-law could face a Commons boycott, the situation has worsened. That "lamentable state of affairs" has forced the MPs on to a war footing, and the unprecedented blockade. The MPs say: "We look forward to an early improvement."

Technically, ministers are not allowed - except in the most exceptional circumstances - to agree to legislation in Brussels ministerial meetings, without prior passage through the Westminster scrutiny process.

In fact, as the committee reports, there have been a number of "lapses" in that rule; in breach of government pledges to Parliament, or even in defiance of Commons resolutions.

There have even been occasions when ministers have not only gone ahead and given Brussels agreement, but they have then not told the select committee what they have done until some weeks later - "or not at all". But official contempt, or crass incompetence, has stretched the patience of the MPs to breaking point.

Under the scrutiny system, there are strict timetables for the delivery of official texts from Brussels, explanatory memorandums from ministers, and examination by the all-party committee, which includes a broad spectrum of pro-European and Euro-sceptic MPs from both parties.

Because scrutiny clearance is regarded by Parliament as a democratic essential for any legislation, the European Legislation Committee plays a vital role for the bulk of MPs who would not dream of looking at the text of Euro-law.

Yet the Department of Trade and Industry estimates that a third of existing UK legislation arises from treaty obligations to implement EU law, and "in future, 70 per cent of business law will come from that source".

The committee has discovered, however, that there are nine - unidentified - government departments that have not even bothered to get regular delivery of its reports. It says: "We hardly trust ourselves to make further comment."

But the sorry saga continues, with the committee exposing a breakdown in communications between Whitehall ministers and the Westminster committee, with its offices just a 10-minute walk from most departments.

Ministerial explanations of Brussels law, and their answers to critical questions, are being wrongly addressed; some do not include the enclosures they promise; others come with second-class postage; others are even sent to committees that do not exist.

"These would be petty criticisms - after all, mistakes happen in the best-regulated circles - but for two things: the frequency of the errors, and their result.

"Preparation of a response to urgent questions from us about an important legislative proposal may involve the valuable time of ministers and senior officials; but we are not telepaths, and the effort comes to nothing if the minister's reply is sent by second-class post to the wrong address."

The committee also warns of the risks posed by Commission legislation - the use of secondary legislative powers provided by the ruling Council of Ministers. Last year, while 303 regulations were made by ministerial council, 827 regulations were issued by the Commission, without Parliamentary scrutiny.

The report adds: "Commission legislation on BSE was for a time the best- known piece of legislation in Europe." And for those who would argue that most of the Euro-law is trouble-free, "This is a little like reassuring a motorist that his tyre is only flat at the bottom."

Ministerial contempt, page 2

How the system is failing us

Last year, the European Legislation Committee was expected to give "blind" clearance to 42 important pieces of Brussels law, without an official text; over the last year, that has risen to a "lamentable" 75;

The Department of Trade and Industry, Treasury, and Foreign Office have repeatedly delayed Euro-law examination by sending memos to wrong addresses.

It took the "lackadaisical" Environment Department more than six months to deliver information, last January, on a law dealing with water for human consumption.

In January, the Heritage Department showed "alarming ignorance" of the scrutiny process under which Euro-law is considered.