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A question of scrutiny

Posted by Richard Thursday, February 24, 2005

In the House of Commons debating chamber, television cameras often show ranks of empty benches, even during quite important debates, inviting comment that MPs are not bothering to take part in the parliamentary process.

Some of that is true, notwithstanding that MPs have televisions in their offices with a direct feed to the Chamber, so they can follow debates while also carrying out other work.

But behind the scenes there are also the parliamentary committees, many unsung, unheard and almost completely ignored by the media. Three such as the European Standing Committees, known respectively – with unusual simplicity and logic – as Euro A, B, and C.

These committees form the vital function of questioning ministers over forthcoming EU legislation, prior to their approving it in Brussels through the Council, and (in theory at least) giving those ministers a negotiating mandate which they are supposed to take into account when it comes to voting.

The committees themselves are at the tail end of the scrutiny process, with the legislation first being looked at by the European Scrutiny Committee, which decided whether any of the draft legislation coming through from Brussels is "politically significant".

Proposals which are considered so are marked down for "scrutiny reserve" – which, in theory, means that they cannot be approved by ministers until they have been debated by the House – and referred to one or other of the Euro committees for debate.

Thus, it came to pass that yesterday "Euro A" met to consider two draft EU regulations, together aimed at establishing a "legal base" for the financing of the "reformed" Common Agricultural Policy.

But what effectively amounted to a total farce – a hollow charade even – started some 24 hours before the debate for it is only then that the committee papers were passed to the MPs who would attend. They were sent the regulations, which themselves amounted to 104 pages, with explanatory notes, in a package of background papers which amounted in total to over 400 pages (448, to be precise).

There followed a frenetic reading and study session (hence the light posting yesterday) yet, such is the complexity of the subject, and the uncertainties surrounding it, that even this package was not enough. Much of the information needed, on which to pass judgement, simply is not known.

In the questioning and debate, which can be read on the Hansard site, two speakers pointed up the nature of the problem.

Firstly, Owen Paterson, Conservative MP for North Shropshire, and one of the shadow agriculture and fisheries team, noted that it was "most unsatisfactory" trying to discuss something "about which we do not know the details".

He added, rather poignantly that: "It is rather like trying to grasp a greased piglet in the dark," a comment that drew some amused responses, not least a question as to whether Paterson was speaking from personal experience. (No said Paterson, he only did it in daylight.)

Then Andrew George, the Lib Dem Agriculture spokesman, noting the complexity, recorded that he had tried to discuss the issues but there were, he said, few who are capable of seeing the whole picture, adding: "The last one I met who got their head completely around the issues involved is more likely to need institutional care as a result of the struggle that they experienced."

This was brought out in the evidence from the European Landowners Organisation (ELO), cited by Owen Paterson in his speech, that organisation stating:

The problems and needs of Europe's rural areas differ enormously... This must mean that the balance of measures selected as appropriate to each region is also bound to differ enormously.
Then, getting to the crux of the problem, the ELO pointed out:

We have no evidence to suggest that the Commission is better at prioritising and effective policy management at EU level than the Member States and Regions are at their level. Setting the priorities, quantified objectives, and indicators at EU level will turn out to either be a practical impossibility if done at the right level of detail, or it risks being meaninglessly general if set at a broad level for which comparable data exist for every region.
And that is the crux of the problem. With 25 nations now in the CAP, the system of agricultural payments and the regulations controlling them are now so complex that they are virtually beyond the capability of the human mind to comprehend them. None of the MPs present understood them fully and, throughout the questioning, the minister, Alun Michael, was floundering, unable to give answers to even the basic questions.

But, after two hours of questioning and debate, a motion was put asking the members to "take note" of the regulations and approve the government's line. The question went to division and, with its in-built government majority, the committee voted the motion through. The deed was done, the minister got his mandate and no one was any the wiser.

That, dear readers, is parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislation.