Parliament and Politics: Maastricht critics lose ground in battle over treaty

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Indy Politics
CRITICS OF the Maastricht treaty package negotiated by John Major lost one of their few remaining hopes of derailing the Government's plans for ratification in the Commons last night, when amendment 443 to the European Communities (Amendment) Bill was ruled out of order.

The amendment had been tabled by Calum MacDonald, Labour MP for Western Isles, after Douglas Hurd told the Commons last month that ratification would not be blocked by another of the critics' attempts to upset government plans; amendment 27.

Amendment 27 proposed deletion of the social protocol from Section 1 (1) of the Bill. But Sir Nicholas Lyell, Attorney General and the Government's senior law officer, advised ministerial colleagues and the House that deletion of the protocol under which the United Kingdom was to be exempted from the Social Chapter was a double negative, and would therefore have no impact on government powers to ratify.

But when Mr MacDonald asked whether a similar exclusion of the social protocol from Section 1 (2) of the Bill would be equally ineffective, Sir Nicholas gave the distinct impression that it could stop ratification. Its incorporation in British law was required under the terms of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978, the point dealt with in Section 1 (2).

However, Michael Morris, the deputy Speaker, last night ruled 443 out of order. As one senior Labour source told the Independent yesterday, if it had been ruled in order the logic would have been that the entire treaty could have been eaten away, bit by bit. That could not be allowed to happen.

Meanwhile, however, Labour and Liberal Democrat sources were claiming that they had come up with a new device - amendment 446 - which, if passed, would force the Government to give notice within 30 days of the new Act coming into force that it would sign up to the controversial Social Chapter. Because that amendment professed positive support for the Social Chapter, it was most unlikely to attract support from Tory benches, which means that it does not pose the threat of government defeat.

So amendment 27, which could yet attract sufficient Tory rebel backing to cause government defeat, will not impede ratification of the treaty; amendment 443, which might have attracted enough Tory support to defeat the Government and possibly stop ratification, has been ruled out of order; and amendment 446, which could force the Government not to ratify because it backs the Social Chapter, which the Government would not sign at any price, would not attract the necessary Commons majority.

Mr MacDonald said yesterday: 'My mood is one of intense frustration. Any attempt at proper democratic debate on the Social Chapter is strangled at birth on arcane technical grounds.'

Last night, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said on BBC Newsnight that there had been a change of mood in the Commons in favour of accelerating progress on the Maastricht treaty Bill . . . 'because until we ratify the treaty we are not really going to be playing as effective a part as we should in the future'.