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The farce continues

Posted by Richard Wednesday, March 09, 2005

With the Terrorism Bill being shuttled between the Commons and the Lords today, one of the complaints voiced by MPs was that only three hours had been allowed to debate the changes made by the Lords.

However, spare a thought for those very few MPs who turned up to European Standing Committee A yesterday afternoon. As usual, ignored by the media at large and by just about everybody else, theirs was the inglorious task, in a mere two hours, of approving the government's position on the EU fishing quota allocations for 2005 and 2006.

And if the MPs in the chamber thought they were hard-pressed today, what confronted MPs in addressing the "Euro-A" debate was not on a mere few amendments from the Lords but on a bundle of highly technical documents no less than 887 pages long, to which was added at the very last minute another 17 pages bringing the bundle to over 900 pages.

Just to make things more entertaining, some of the documents came in a variety of languages, including German, Italian, Greek, Dutch, French and, possibly, even Flemish.

The debate itself was highly technical and. as usual, can be read on the Hansard site but, as we have observed before, the whole thing makes a mockery of the idea of Parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislation.

The point was adequately made by Owen Paterson, Conservative shadow fisheries minister, who opened his speech thus:

I have to begin by saying that this whole process is most unsatisfactory. I was on the European Scrutiny Committee and had the pleasure of serving under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Clydesdale. Our record was getting through 78 documents in two minutes. To put it bluntly, that was not scrutinising legislation. However, this time I think we have set a new record.

I shall repeat my experience, as I should like to get it clearly on the record. Last Thursday, I asked my office to ask the Vote Office to send me the bundle, which at that time was relatively modest. It did not arrive, which was unfortunate. I went to the Vote Office yesterday and found that the bundle contained 887 pages, some in languages that I cannot speak. I found today that a further addendum had been added—I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh said that it was 17 pages long—which I did not see until 2.36 pm. That is not the way to run a sweet shop; it is not the way to run a Parliament; and it is certainly not the way to run an industry that affects thousands of people in some of the most remote parts of these islands who are being treated very badly. It would be helpful if the Minister could pass on our strong concerns, which have been angrily expressed by my hon. Friend.
He continued:

It is the second week running that we have had a mixed motion, in which we are expected to note the documents, which, with 887 pages, we can pretend to have done, and to approve the Government's policies. I am afraid that we cannot do that, as there is a huge difference between us and the Government on how to proceed in running fisheries. There is not another fishery in the world that is run in such a way…

What we are doing here is farcical. We are rubber-stamping something that has long been passed. The serious discussions happened late at night for three days, or whatever it was, with the industry shut away in its hotel and the Minister making an extraordinary number of decisions, as we see from the papers, in a great rush.
Not surprisingly, said Paterson, he made some mistakes. And mistakes he did make. The absolute classic case concerned the North Sea, where fishermen were told that, if they used 120 mm square mesh panels for their nets, they would get an extra three fishing days a month.

Then, ludicrously, in January, having invested in new expensive gear and made their plans, they were suddenly told, "Sorry boys! We made a mistake. This isn't for you, it's for the Baltic." The commission had mistakenly included the North Sea in their scheme and were now telling the fishermen that they could not have their days.

That is just a flavour of the farce that goes under the name of the Common Fisheries Policy, compounded by the farce which is called Parliamentary scrutiny. Not one of the Labour committee members spoke to the motion, which asked the committee to support the government's line. But, come the division, they trooped through the lobby – all four of them – against the two remaining opposition MPs, to win a resounding victory for the government by four votes to two.

And that, dear readers, as we have remarked before, is Parliamentary scrutiny.