Friday, January 28, 2005

Synthetic indignation

Both The Scotsman and The Sun have been waxing indignant about the decision of the Commons European scrutiny committee to close its doors to the public.

The Sun is particularly incensed, its headline blaring: “Laws are passed in secret”, the text proclaiming that “MPs are rubber-stamping over 1,000 new EU laws and regulations every year in SECRET...” .

But then, as the story continues, a different picture emerges: "The Labour-dominated European Scrutiny Committee meets behind closed doors to assess new Brussels documents," the paper says. "They comb through new rules on key issues including jobs, terrorism and the environment to decide which should be debated in the Commons."

And that puts it in perspective. The committee does not pass laws. It simply assesses the torrent of EU legislative proposals coming through the system and makes decisions on which are "politically significant" and, therefore, whether they should be debated.

If the committee decides that the document is significant, it puts a “scrutiny reserve” on it, supposedly preventing ministers agreeing the law in the EU Council until the House has had a chance of debating it. Then, at the end of a session, the committee produces a report, which is published, setting out what it has been doing and the problems it has faced.

As for The Sun, its indignation would be more credible if it – or any other newspaper or media organ - showed any interest whatsoever in the scrutiny process. But even where ministers quite outrageously ignore the scrutiny rules – as recorded in this Blog - not a blind bit of notice is taken.

Furthermore, the process of sorting out the politically significant documents is as dull as ditchwater, so it is unlikely than anyone would really be interested in attending.

But the "killer point" is that those documents which are selected for debate are referred to one of the three European Standing Committees, where the proceedings are in public and are recorded in public.

But, again as we have recorded on this Blog, no one takes the blindest bit of notice of these committees – even though some of the issues discussed are important. It is hard enough even getting a quorum of MPs to attend, members of the public are very rarely there, and the media ignores them.

So, while in theory, closing the committee to the public is theoretically a blow against more openness, or "transparency" if you prefer, in practice it makes not one whit of difference. The indignation is synthetic.

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