Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Part of the problem…

If there is a phrase that is in danger of becoming over-used on this Blog, it is "elephant in the room", which we tend to use to describe the phenomenon whereby diverse commentators try to diagnose the ailments of society without recognising – or even noticing – that huge, brooding presence, the European Union

However, today in The Times, our growing frustration with the inability of apparently intelligent people (and I do say "apparently") to recognise the "elephant" is further intensified by someone who really should know better – political columnist Anthony Howard, so much so that again we are driven to use the phrase.

Howard writes a comment piece headed: "The real culprit behind the death of Parliamentary drama", in which he discussed why the standing of Parliament (the UK institution) has suffered a decline and, in particular, why there has been an erosion of the position the House of Commons, which once occupied the focal point of the nation.

For his diagnosis, though, the great political sage offers, amongst other things as the cause of the ailment, the introduction by the "modernisers" of "family hours". The House nowadays sits after 8pm only one night a week and, as a result, all the drama has gone out of the sittings.

To an extent, he is partially right, but only partially so. For what is entirely, completely and utterly missing is any mention of the "elephant". Yet, we now have a situation where, variously some 70 percent or our laws are promulgated by the EU.

They cannot be influenced by Parliament and many are implemented by way of Statutory Instruments on negative assent, where not even a perfunctory debate is required and where there is no chance of MPs setting them aside.

A graphic example of this is to come on Thursday, when there will be the annual fishing debate in the House. Traditionally, it has always been held in December, over a full day, a means by which MPs could give the fisheries minister a negotiating mandate for the December fisheries council, when the annual allocations of national fish quotas were decided, from which a raft of regulations would then be drawn up.

In days gone past, especially during the last Conservative administration (remember that?), these used to be highly charged affairs, and heavily reported by the media, with well attended, angry sessions running late into the night.

But, progressively, MPs – and the media – have learned that the debates are a waste of time. The House cannot bind the minister, and whatever the minister tells the House he will do can be overturned in Brussels, presaging a humiliating retreat. All too often this results in the minister returning home claiming a "victory" for British fishermen, hoping that no one will notice how much he has given away - yet again.

So, when it comes to Thursday, the debate has been scaled back to three hours. It is to be an adjournment debate, so there will not even be a vote. And this year, the fisheries council is unusually late – on 21-22 December – so the commission proposals are not even ready this week. MPs will be debating blind, with no knowledge of what the minister – Ben "Rear Admiral" Bradshaw – will be proposing.

In substance, therefore, the debate will be empty – a vapid, fruitless waste of time. It will achieve nothing, and can achieve nothing. As a result, it will be poorly attended, uncovered by the media and generally ignored all but by a few trade papers like Fishing News.

That is the effect of the "elephant in the room" and Mr Howard should have recognised it. He of all people should recognise that many of the traditional functions of the UK parliament are redundant. That is why so much of the drama has gone out of the Parliament, and if Howard cannot see it, he should be sacked.

As it stands,though, this rather pompous, patronising, complacent little man is part of the problem.

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