LORD REES-MOGG yesterday opened his legal challenge to the Government's Maastricht policy with an assertion that far from undermining the sovereignty of Parliament, he was trying to defend it.
Laywers for Lord Rees-Mogg told the High Court that it was the Government, rather than the judiciary, that was threatening the House of Commons. The comments followed last week's warning from Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, that the courts should avoid 'questioning our proceedings'. David Pannick QC, for Lord Rees-Mogg, suggested that her fears were unfounded and underlined his client's commitment to the 1688 Bill of Rights, which guarantees parliamentary freedom of speech.
The Government had acted unlawfully in three respects over ratification of the Maastricht treaty, Mr Pannick said.
His argument centred on a claim that Parliament would not have the chance of voting on the protocol that gives Britain the right to opt out of the Social Chapter. This protocol would have the effect of increasing the European Parliament's powers and altering the Treaty of Rome, both of which were measures that needed the explicit approval of MPs and peers before they could become law, according to Mr Pannick.
Parliament would also be denied the right to vote on parts of the treaty which transferred foreign and defence policies to the European Community.
He emphasised that his client was not challenging political decisions, but legal procedures. However, his claim was greeted with scepticism by Sydney Kentridge QC, for Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary.
Arguing that Lord Rees-Mogg's case was based on 'fundamental constitutional misconceptions', Mr Kentridge said: 'What is under attack is not merely the decision of the Crown to ratify the treaty, as a whole, it is also an attack on the decision of Parliament to endorse that step.'
If Lord Rees-Mogg were successful, the Maastricht treaty would be a 'dead letter', he said.
The case is expected to last three days, but with further hearings likely in higher courts, the process will probably continue until September, delaying ratification of the treaty at least until then.
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