Mark Harper, MP for Forest of Dean, yesterday proposed in a Ten Minute Rule bill that in future all legislation should state whether it was introduced because of an EU decision.
Amidst all the turmoil on the financial markets yesterday, the Government still found time to whip its MPs to oppose a ten minute rule bill which had cross party support to increase the transparency of EU legislation. In a rare break with usual practice, even Government Ministers were told to oppose the Bill.
Our democratic system is based upon the principles of transparency and accountability. It should therefore be clear to everyone the origin of the laws that govern this country.
Yet there is little clarity, but rather much confusion, over the extent of the EU’s influence upon our legislation. I spoke in favour of my Ten Minute Rule Bill in the House of Commons yesterday to highlight this lack of transparency within our democracy. My Bill proposed that on the front of every Bill and regulation, the Minister introducing it must state whether it is the result of a European Union decision. This would be akin to the statement of compatibility with the Human Rights Act that ministers must declare on the face of every Act.
We do not currently know how many of our laws originate in Brussels as a result of European Union decisions and how many are genuinely ‘home-grown’. For over a decade now, politicians have been asking the government what proportion of our law has been initiated by the European Union. No definitive number has ever been agreed.
The former Trade Minister, Lord Triesman, estimated in June 2006 that, ‘around half of all UK legislation with an impact on business, charities and the voluntary sector stems from legislation agreed by Ministers in Brussels.’
In the 2003 – 2004 session of Parliament, John Redwood asked each department what proportion of their legislation was introduced in response to directives from Brussels. Each department revealed how differently it was affected, with answers ranging from 0% to 57%.
Clearly this proportion will vary each year according to department. But politicians should not need to ask this retrospectively every year. That a piece of legislation originated in Europe should therefore be made clear to MPs and members of the public when such legislation is brought before Parliament.
The question of Britain’s actual role and place within the EU is a separate, though admittedly very important issue. My Bill was not intended to enter into this debate, nor to praise or criticise the EU per se, but rather to uphold the fundamental principles of transparency and accountability upon which our democracy is built.
The EU has been widely blamed, rightly or wrongly, for a wide range of problems: the introduction of Home Information Packs and the creation of regions and regional development agencies. Even seemingly rather more trivial matters have been blamed on EU directives, such as banning the ‘bendy banana’ and ‘curvy cucumber’.
One of the main problems with the public perception of the EU is that its decisions can appear hidden from public scrutiny and its processes unknown. Turnout at European Elections is low, suggesting that the public do not feel involved in the European political process and do not understand the way its decisions may affect their lives.
This is particularly relevant when the British Chambers of Commerce has estimated that legislation sourced in Brussels has placed a £47 billion burden upon British businesses.
The aim of my Bill was simple: to improve openness and transparency in the way our laws are made. It is extraordinary that the Government are opposed to openness and transparency. It makes you wonder what they have got to hide.
My Bill was not about being for or against the European Union, but about ensuring that there is transparency and accountability in Parliament’s relationship with the EU. I had hoped that my Bill would have enabled a more informed debate about the EU and Britain’s relationship with it. Sadly the government seems to have other ideas.