Why Gummer gave short notice over legislation

Anthony Bevins on environment proposals MPs were asked to approve without seeing
Click to follow
The MPs who vet European legislation on behalf of the Commons were given only two days' notice when John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, needed them to lift a block on four proposals last summer.

Mr Gummer's request was all the more surprising because he had already kept the same MPs waiting 14 months for some information they had requested on one of the pieces of Brussels legislation.

But Mr Gummer was in a hurry. The European Legislation Committee had not given essential scrutiny clearance to the proposals, but he sent them a note on 20 June last year, saying that environment ministers were due to meet to enact the four items on 22 June.

According to Westminster rules, Mr Gummer should not agree to legislation without that essential clearance - a democratic fail-safe.

Given the timetable, the committee acted with speed and efficiency, allowing one of Mr Gummer's ministers to appear and give oral evidence the next day, 21 June.

In breach of other rules, there was no official text for three of the proposals; MPs were expected to clear them without seeing them.

"The remaining proposal had been held up by us, awaiting further information from the department, which at that time had been outstanding for no less than 14 months," the committee says.

Three of the proposals were subsequently cleared, but the Commons block remained on an important draft directive on integrated pollution prevention and control.

The agreed position of the council of ministers on that directive was circulated in French on 27 June last year; the English version was sent out by Brussels on 31 July.

But that document - vital to the scrutiny process - was not sent to the committee by the Department of the Environment for more than two months. It was received by the committee on 13 October.

The legislation was again examined by the select committee on 1 November, and it decided the issue was important enough to be referred to the Commons for debate.

That debate, held by a European standing committee - not by the full Commons - took place on 13 December.

Before the debate had even started, MPs were told by one of Mr Gummer's most junior ministers that the scrutiny reserve had been lifted "by mistake". The proposal had been enacted by the Council of Ministers on 27 November

The mistake had happened because the office of the UK Permanent Representative in Brussels had received its instructions in a phone call with the Foreign Office. "Further investigation suggested that two draft directives had been confused: that on integrated pollution prevention and control - IPPC - with that on polychlorinated biphenyls - PCB."

]Because of that incident, Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, told MPs that a new procedure had been introduced, adding that a Commons scrutiny block would in future only be lifted on written instructions from the Foreign Office.

One week after that promise was made last April, yet another Commons block was lifted by mistake.