Social Chapter opt-out faces Labour attack

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Indy Politics
LABOUR pledged yesterday to continue pressing its now notorious amendment 27 to the Bill to ratify the Maastricht treaty - despite government insistence that the upshot is legally irrelevant.

After the new legal opinion from the Law Officers, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said amendments to the Bill fell into two groups. Ones that meant UK law would fall short of the treaty's fundamental provisions would make it impossible for the Government to ratify. But because the Labour amendment, according to the opinion, dealt with the Social Chapter which was not going to apply in Britain, it did not fall into the same category.

If successful, it simply meant that the Social Chapter opt-out would not form part of domestic law. Tory Euro-rebels and Labour agree that amendment 27 simply withdraws consent to the United Kingdom's opt-out, but does not take the further step of signing Britain up to the Social Chapter.

Both groups took the view that the amendment was a 'wrecking' one. But both argued, from very different standpoints, that it was compatible and consistent with their respective views.

Labour - strongly pro the treaty and especially pro the chapter, on the footing that citizens deserve more than the benefits of a successful single market - accepted that if successful, its amendment would wreck ratification of the treaty if the Government were to take no action. That action would take the form of accepting the chapter in an inter- governmental conference.

But politically, the argument went, the Government could not contemplate the folly of simply walking away from the treaty and effectively wrecking it for all 12 signatories.

The Euro-rebels, strongly against the entire treaty, and of the view that the opt-out is anyway an ineffective barrier to insidious pan-European developments, argued that the amendment would wreck the treaty because the Government could not contemplate belated acceptance of the chapter. That was the view being peddled by the Government until yesterday.

Now, it insists the amendment cannot achieve its aim of forcing a choice between adopting the Social Chapter or abandoning the treaty.

It also moved swiftly yesterday to scotch any question, raised in weekend reports, of bypassing Parliament by invoking the Royal Prerogative to ratify the treaty. The reports, officials suggested, may have been the work of mischief-makers.

In fact, the Prime Minister made his position clear last November in a written answer to Tony Benn, the Labour MP. 'Before the United Kingdom could ratify any treaty signed at Maastricht, its provisions would need to be incorporated into United Kingdom law by amending the European Communities Act 1972,' John Major said.

But the affair none the less raises the wider issue of the point of line-by-line examination of the Bill in committee. As Jack Cunningham, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, said yesterday: 'What is the purpose of these weeks and weeks of deliberation in the chamber if no effective change can be made?'

Whatever the legal niceties, 'outside of this House the people watching will conclude yet again that when this government governs, expediency is the rule of the day and principle is nowhere to be seen'.

For Mr Benn the whole problem with the treaty was that 'all laws made under Maastricht thereafter are made by the Royal Prerogative . . . Parliament should have the right to amend the Bill in a meaningful way'.