Monday, April 02, 2007

It is, probably, too late

There is nothing wrong with Philip Johnston’s article in today’s Daily Telegraph, “Who will defend our free speech?”, except for the fact that it comes too late. In fact, his description of the House of Commons Scrutiny Committee, which gave Joan Ryan, the Home Office minister responsible for European matters, rather a hard time makes one feel that the whole meeting was too late.

Let us get one basic point out of the way. Scrutiny is not the same as legislation. When Michael Connarty, chairman of the Scrutiny Committee, fulminated that “the privileges and rights of Parliament were being ignored”, he was talking through his hat.

The privileges and rights (and, allow me to add, duties) of Parliament to legislate and to hold the executive to account have long ago disappeared. Partly, the problem lies in the excessive use of secondary legislation and, partly, naturally enough, with the fact that European legislation supersedes national. In other words, just in case some journalist or politician reads this, Parliament cannot throw out legislation that originated in Brussels and went through the often years-long process there until it became law.

This process pays no attention to such insignificant matters as elections either at the national or the European level. If a particular piece of legislation is stuck somewhere in the European Parliament when there is an election, the new and, possibly, different body simply picks up where the previous one left off. Incomplete legislation does not die with elections.

In any case, the only body where legislation can originate, according to the Consolidated Treaties, effectively this country’s constitution, is the Commission, which puts together a Work Programme every year and proceeds to put as much of it as it can into place. Anything that is pushed over, is put into the following year’s programme.

This whole process is so boring that most journalists, even very sensible ones like Philip Johnston, cannot be bothered to write about it. Even if they wanted to, it is unlikely that their editors would agree, citing terminal boredom and fall-off in readership.

Politicians are even less likely to pay attention. Some time ago I attended a Bruges Group meeting at which Gisela Stuart fulminated, with a great deal of justification, at the con-trick that the Convention she was part of, which was supposed to put the ideas of the Laeken Declaration into some form of an agreement, was turning out to be.

During the discussion she showed some interest in the whole process of European legislation and, therefore, I was a little surprised to discover that she did not think debating the Commission’s Annual Work Programme was a good idea but preferred the pointless and blood-pressure raising debates to take place when the legislation has passed all the EU hurdles and was being implemented in Britain, by which time it is way too late.

Mr Johnston is, of course, absolutely correct in his statement that if there is a scrutiny reserve placed on a particular subject, the minister in question has not right to agree to it. However, this particular rule is honoured more often in the breach than in the observance.

In any case, once we have signed up to the European Arrest Warrant and the European Evidence Warrant, both subjects covered by this blog a while ago, the details become less relevant. The time to stop it is when the European legislation is still being discussed, but apart from several insistent questions in the House of Lords, little was made of the two pieces of legislation.

By the time we get down to individual agreements, it is way, way too late to argue about implementation. We are duty bound to do so and all the Scrutiny Committee can do is to fulminate.

In another posting I shall cover the work of the House of Lords European Union Select Committee, whose indefatigable work is not even known, let alone appreciated.

For the time being I should just like to point out that Philip Johnston makes the very common mistake of assuming that European legislation consists of directives only, that have to wing their way through Parliament, however fast. I am afraid, the bulk of it is regulations that do not necessarily touch that building in Westminster at all. The situation is even worse than Mr Johnston thinks though some of us have known that for some time.


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