Dr Charles Tannock, MEP for London and Conservative Foreign Affairs Spokesman in the European Parliament, argues that whilst MPs have less responsibility for legislation than MEPs we get our money’s worth from them in other ways.
I created a bit of a stir back in February on ConservativeHome writing about why
we should take the European Parliament more seriously. It’s an argument
I repeated in the Telegraph last week. I have had trouble convincing
people that my stance is not born of vanity or europhilia but simply a
de facto logical reaction to the many people I encounter who, mainly
from ignorance, dismiss the European Parliament as a useless and
ineffective talking shop. Think what you will of the European
Parliament but it is responsible for co-legislating with the Council on
a significant proportion of legislation applied in the UK. The figures
vary considerably depending on whom you talk to but there seems to be a
consensus around two thirds.
My Telegraph letter was seized upon the following day. One
correspondent asked quixotically: ‘What is the point of MPs?’. Another
suggested that the logic of my claim was that MPs, supposedly
responsible for the remaining third of our laws, should have their pay
docked proportionately. It’s an argument Peter Lilley MP seems to have
some sympathy for, but one that I totally reject.
I don’t agree that an MP’s role is diminishing in importance compared
to the role of an MEP. For a start, Peter himself made the point that
the powers invoked by Brussels to pass laws on us are powers ceded from
our own parliament at Westminster. But just as MPs can cede sovereignty
to the EU, so too can parliament reclaim those powers and reassert its
own sovereignty – ultimately if it so chooses by voting for Britain to
leave the EU. That supreme power has always remained with our MPs:
indeed, one of the ironies of the now surely defunct Lisbon treaty is
that it set out, for the first time, a clear procedure for withdrawal.
Also, MPs have in theory the power to instruct ministers how to vote in the Council of Ministers as co-legislators with the European Parliament. MPs can even instruct the Prime Minister on the general approach that he should take at European Council summits. The fact that UK MPs in practice do not use this power – waiting instead for ministers to report back after the event – is regrettable. But the Danish Folketing has since Denmark joined the EU alongside the UK in 1973, been considerably more proactive than our own parliament in this respect, and as a result Danish ministers are a good deal more mindful of their MPs’ powers and opinions during European ministerial debates.
Furthermore, it’s important to bear in mind that even if it’s true that most of our legislation originates in Brussels, UK ministers and parliament share responsibility for transposing it nationally. Regrettably, government departments are becoming increasingly zealous in ‘gold-plating’ EU legislation during transposition and then blaming the EU for these excesses. Only MPs can hold the government to account for the damage that gold-plating does, although of course the tabloids always blame the EU come what may.
I have never met a serious MP who is short of work to do. Policy areas where our national government still has the main legal responsibility – such as the NHS, housing, education, social security, social services and asylum and immigration – generate the bulk of MP’s casework and mailbag enquiries. These policy and administrative issues are within an MP’s primary competence and are as important to people’s lives, if not much more so, than the often dry technical legislation passed at EU level in which MEPs have a major role.
In addition, MPs are traditionally under much more scrutiny than MEPs, although that is beginning to change thankfully in terms of probity, and of course MPs inevitably have much higher profiles in their much smaller single-member constituencies than MEPs do in their vast regional multi-member constituencies. Therefore the media take their activities more seriously – rightly or wrongly – which means most constituents are more likely to know the identity of their MP than their MEPs and understandably write in the first instance to their MPs who are locally accountable under the first-past-the-post system.
These bare facts alone make me very hesitant to buy the argument that MPs are in any way becoming obsolete. Certainly, London’s MEPs – destined to decrease in number by one to eight after 2009 – could not cope alone with the volume of work that representing the whole of London would generate. In London, all sorts of local civic functions that MEPs can only attend on an occasional basis because they rotate across the numerous boroughs (such as annual Remembrance Sunday services or school prize-giving ceremonies) require a local MP’s regular attendance. And MPs inevitably will be at the forefront in campaigning for better local services.
Therefore I believe it is clear from my arguments that the representative workload and extent of public duties of an MP cannot be measured alone in terms of legislative powers or laws passed. After all, the London Assembly has no legislative powers but an AM’s salary approaches that of an MP or MEP.
A number of my current Conservative MEP colleagues are likely to win seats in Westminster at the next general election. In the UK if you want a ministerial career then Westminster is where you have to be, although other EU countries regularly recruit MEPs to be ministers. How, then, would we attract talented individuals fit to form a government if an MP’s basic salary was to be reduced?
Finally, of course the logic of reducing MPs’ pay to a level concomitant solely with the amount of UK legislation they pass would be to pay MEPs at least twice as much. That’s not one I’m going to argue for, especially not in the current climate of scrutiny that MEPs are rightly facing. Any takers?