Attack by MPs forces Brussels to cut red tape

Click to follow
The power of Parliament to examine European legislation should be strengthened so that MPs have more time to scrutinise it, the Government has agreed.

The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, has accepted angry complaints from the House of Commons that European Commission directives and regulations are too often being offered for Westminster scru- tiny with too little time to examine them before decisions are enacted by ministerial meetings.

In some cases, proposed European legislation is being delivered to MPs after it has been passed into law by the Brussels machine.

The all-party Commons Committee on European Legislation lodged a formal protest last year, and because there was insufficient improvement, it warned during the summer that it would refuse official clearance "in respect of any document for which we do not have an official text".

That threat of parliamentary blockade appears to have startled ministers into concrete action.

Last Tuesday, ministers tabled new "Proposals on the role of national parliaments in the European Union" for consideration by the current inter- governmental conference.

"These proposals are designed to strengthen the ability of national parliaments to scrutinise draft community legislation," the paper said.

"They provide for a legally binding minimum period of four weeks between the publication of the proposal and a council decision, with provision for exceptions in urgent cases."

Yesterday, Mr Rifkind said in a formal White Paper response to the select committee's protest: "The Government shares the committee's concern that the commission continues on occasion to bring forward proposals late, making it difficult for Parliament effectively to scrutinise them.

"It considers that a legally binding minimum scrutiny period should help resolve this difficulty."

The Government is proposing a treaty change to make the four-week scrutiny period legally binding. The likelihood of that happening has been increased by the fact that all 25 of the European parliamentary scrutiny committees - like Westminster, some member states have two chambers and two committees - have endorsed the proposal.

Mr Rifkind also said that it was "imperative" for the parliaments to have authoritative texts of draft legislation, rather than, as happens in some cases, untranslated preliminary drafts.

Reading between the lines of Mr Rifkind's White Paper, it appears that Brussels has been taking its love of red tape to extreme lengths. It seems that the council secretariat in Brussels has been holding up the circulation of texts to member states while short covering notes were being translated - or "full sets" of documents were being photocopied.

Mr Rifkind said he was pleased to tell the committee that a new procedure had been agreed: "The covering note will be reduced wherever possible to a formality (so allowing rapid translation); if the council secretariat have not received a full set of translated documents from the commission within five days of receipt of the covering letter, they will send advance copies of the documents to member states' missions in Brussels, with full sets to be distributed subsequently."

Brussels has also been prompted to move with the times as a result of the Westminster backlash. It is now working on plans to replace the current paperchase with electronic mail - something that was suggested by the Commons committee more than a year ago after it emerged that some documents were being sent to London by train.