Ministers warned against 'packing' regions group

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BRITAIN could face a challenge in the European Court of Justice if the Government tries to pack the country's group on a key EC committee with ministerial placemen rather than elected councillors, the Commons was warned.

The proposed Committee of the Regions will advise on the distribution of billions of pounds of community funds and on policy-making. Conservative opponents of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill argue that it could be used by Brussels to by-pass national governments, however it is composed.

Tristan Garel-Jones, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, said that the Government had made no decisions about the composition of the 24-strong UK membership or how many should be drawn from different parts of the country. But he assured MPs: 'I utterly reject the concept that the Government has it in mind to pack the Committee of the Regions with Conservatives.' Speaking on the 13th day of the Bill's Committee Stage, he promised consultations with political parties and regional interests.

Warning of a possible legal challenge, Geoff Hoon, Labour MP for Ashfield and an MEP, said the Maastricht treaty stated clearly that members of the committee should be independent. If a member state attempted to appoint someone who was not independent, that might well be taken up in the European court.

Under a Labour amendment to the Bill, all of Britain's 24 members would be drawn from elected local government representatives - as Mr Hoon said would be the case in Belgium, Germany, Denmark, France and Luxemburg.

Mr Garel-Jones had cited the Netherlands and Greece as countries whose members included non-elected appointees. But Mr Hoon said that they were all involved in local or regional government, and there was talk of a challenge to the four non-elected members of the Greek group.