The Sketch: Give the committee something to scrutinise

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The Independent Online

Now that Lent has started (40 days of not being rude about people), I can tell you very little about the deputy Leader of the House. She has one rare talent: she makes her superior look superior.

For the third time of asking, Peter Lilley wanted the Government's negotiating positions for the Lisbon Treaty made available to all MPs. All European governments had them. They were important and germane; could they be tabled?

"I'm sure that will happen," Harriet Harman said. I'm sure it won't. Let's see who's right.

Her deputy, Helen Goodman, opened the debate on new arrangements for European scrutiny. Shouldn't we be considering some real reforms if we wanted to see what we're agreeing to?

Not really, was the answer. Along with no idea, instinct or estimate how much of our law came from the EU.

Peter Lilley (again) called the whole thing a charade. "Contempt", I've got written down. Use ad lib.

Last year was a great time for European scrutiny. It was marvellous for a casual cynic to get such substantial ammunition. Two weeks before the negotiating deadline, the then Foreign Secretary (Margaret Beckett, incredibly) appeared in front of the committee, yelping: "Nothing is going on!" No discussions, dialogue, nothing. Lilley's word fits here.

We heard in the debate that the scrutiny override was used 350 times (allowing ministers to take no notice of the committee's objections).

Lilley. There was no scrutiny because nothing was produced to scrutinise until it had all been decided. Ms Goodman told us the committee had judged 500 documents worthy of comment, and of them, five had been debated on the floor of the House. One per cent. Lilley.

Kelvin Hopkins described an atmosphere of a statutory instrument committee where the pressure (from whips, mind) not to ask questions is great because the only effect is to keep members from their tea.

But to bridge the democratic deficit they need to dispel the sense of futility in European scrutiny. For even if their objections lead to a debate on the floor of the House, the Government overrides them.

Structures or procedures won't really help. Effectiveness is not in the letter but in the spirit. The committee was transformed when the Europhile Michael Connarty took over as chairman as he decided the committee wasn't going to be treated like some junkie girlfriend and slapped about by abusive pimps who swaggered in from time to time.

In the absence of power (and that's the only thing that excites us), some Lilley-livered resistance is the best we can hope for.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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