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European Union (Transparency)

Volume 480: debated on Wednesday 8 October 2008

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require a Minister to certify on a Government Bill or a statutory instrument whether or not the Bill or statutory instrument is a result of a decision of the European Union; and for connected purposes.

Our democratic system is based on the principles of transparency and accountability. I do not believe that any right hon. or hon. Member of this House would disagree that members of the public should know the origin of the laws that govern them. When my constituents, especially schoolchildren, come to Parliament, I often explain that, as with other Members of Parliament, one of my roles is to scrutinise the legislation brought before this House. Yet there is little clarity—indeed, much confusion—over the extent of the European Union’s influence on the legislation brought before this House and the other place.

I bring in this Bill neither to praise nor criticise the EU per se, but to uphold the principles of openness and transparency on which our democracy is built. For more than a decade now, members of this House and the other place have been asking the Government what proportion of our law has been initiated by the European Union. No definitive number has ever been agreed. In 2006, the then trade Minister, Lord Triesman, estimated 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.”

Other European countries have reached similar conclusions. According to the World Bank Group’s review of the Dutch administrative burden in November 2006, EU regulations account for approximately 40 per cent. of all regulations implemented in the Netherlands.

In the 2003-04 Session of Parliament, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) asked each Department what proportion of its legislation was introduced in response to directives from Brussels. Each Department revealed how differently it was affected, with estimated answers ranging from 0 per cent. to 57 per cent. Clearly, the proportion will vary each year according to the Department. However, Members should not need to ask retrospectively for estimates each year. We are legally bound to introduce the laws made by the European Union; the fact that legislation originated in Europe should therefore be made clear to MPs and members of the public when it is brought before this House.

Hon. Members will be familiar with the statement of compatibility with the Human Rights Act 1998 that Ministers must declare on the face of every Bill. In the same way, my Bill would ensure that Ministers declared whether a Bill or statutory instrument was the consequence of EU decision or EU legislation.

The Bill would be of particular benefit in respect of statutory instruments. So far in this Session of Parliament, more than 2,000 statutory instruments have been laid before the House, yet it is far from clear how many of those are implementing European legislation and how many are home-grown. My Bill will force Ministers to make the information clear, and thereby open up the legislative process. It will enable legislators and the public to understand the extent to which the European Union influences the laws of this country.

This is an important issue to raise, and not only because transparency is essential to the democratic process; there is considerable debate among the public about Britain’s place in the European Union. The EU has been widely blamed—rightly or wrongly—for the introduction of home information packs and the Government’s inability to expel criminals from the UK. The list goes on. Indeed, the EU has even been accused of trying to straighten bendy bananas; I shall not pursue that example as I know how sensitive bananas have become at the Foreign Office.

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 can appear unknown. Turnout at European elections is low, suggesting that the public do not feel involved in the European political process and do not understand how its decisions may affect their lives. If we asked the average person—indeed, the average Member of Parliament—what the four European institutions were, it would not be surprising if we drew a blank. Despite that, there is both great enthusiasm and great scepticism about the role of the European Union.

The information that the Bill would make available is particularly relevant given that the British Chambers of Commerce, an organisation committed to Britain’s membership of the EU, has estimated that legislation sourced in Brussels has placed a £47 billion burden on British businesses. The question of the EU’s influence on UK legislation is therefore not simply an academic exercise, but a pressing issue for businesses across the country—particularly at a time when businesses are increasingly hard pressed due to the worsening economic outlook.

Indeed, a recent report published by the BCC, “The British Regulatory System”, highlighted serious shortcomings with the Government’s impact assessment of EU legislation. That has left substantial costs to fall on UK business. Commenting on the findings of the report, Sally Low, BCC’s director of policy and external affairs, said:

“If we are to see a better regulatory environment for business then the Government must be engaging earlier in the EU’s policy making process. Our report highlights the fact that the Government is only focused on the UK end of EU legislation. There must be a clear linkage between events in Brussels and the UK’s own consultation and Impact Assessment process.

Without timely engagement and substantive consultation the prospects of the UK influencing EU policy to the benefit of British business is severely limited”.

If the full extent of the EU’s influence on our legislation were clearer, there would be an even greater imperative to engage fully with the EU’s policy making process. This engagement, as the BCC report highlights, has been far too little, far too late from this Government. Indeed, if it were clearer how much legislation already originated from the EU, that might make Ministers a little more cautious before they signed up to still more.

During the debate on the Lisbon treaty we had some opportunity to debate what role the EU should have. The Bill is not intended to reopen that debate; nor am I suggesting that it will completely enlighten the public about the role of the EU and its impact on the UK. However, it would allow us to have the essential information as to the origin of any new laws being proposed in order that we may subsequently have a more informed debate about Britain’s place within the EU. Although I am sure that Members will be aware of my views on this matter, I have come neither to praise the EU nor to bury it. In presenting this Bill, I want to ensure that the EU’s role can be better understood and scrutinised.

When the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who I am pleased to see in his place, was Minister for Europe, he said that to calculate the number of legislative measures enacted each year in the UK directly implementing EU legislation

“would entail disproportionate cost to research and compile”.—[Official Report, 17 December 2002; Vol. 396, c. 755W.]

Such a statement leads me to question the extent to which the Government and this House are willing to put a price tag on openness and transparency. I understand the complexities of the process of adopting EU legislation, but such complexities should not make the process inaccessible and opaque.

My Bill enjoys the support of Members drawn from six parties in this House. My proposal is not a revolutionary one—it is common sense. I commend my Bill to the House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on making a very moderate speech. I am grateful to him for remembering the modest contribution that I once made many years ago in serving Her Majesty on matters European. However, as so often with the Better Off Out group of the Conservative party, his speech and his Bill hide behind them concepts and problems that need to be unpicked.

I would have no objection if on the front of every Bill that came before this House there were some symbol or statement of its origin. The vast majority of legislation that has emanated from the EU has done so since the Single European Act was passed in 1986. That has had a huge impact on the legislation of 26 other countries. A great number of different groups in those countries think that the Single European Act, with its rather steam-rollering approach to enforcing free trade, is the child of the noble Baroness Thatcher, so perhaps on the front of every Bill across Europe that is connected with that Act we should have a nice picture of Margaret Thatcher to remind Europeans of where some of the best European legislation comes from.

The hon. Gentleman made heavy weather of trying to establish what percentage of our laws come from the European Union. If we think honestly about what takes up our time in the House, what worries our constituents and what fills the front pages of our newspapers, we find that very little is connected with the EU. Having already voted to outlaw wife-beating, I hope that later today we will outlaw child-beating. I do not know whether those on the Treasury Bench are of that mind.

Other issues ahead of us in the next few weeks include stem cell research, time limits on abortion, who might decide on the next police chief of London, identity cards, the length of detention for those suspected of serious terrorist crimes, university admissions and fees, our taxation policy, and what we heard about a moment ago from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with the Bill that will follow. Those are all made-in-Britain laws. That is true in France, Germany, Poland, Sweden, Ireland, Finland and all members of the European Union. Of course, that which is connected to the Single European Act has to do with Europe.

In a debate earlier this year, I said that according to the Library—if I have time, I will read out some of its detailed statistics—only 10 per cent. of the laws that impact on us in the United Kingdom, adopted by this House principally through statutory instruments, emanate from the European Union. Then, to my horror, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, leapt to his feet and quoted another right hon. Gentleman who had said that 50 per cent. or more of regulations came from the European Union. That right hon. Gentleman was the Prime Minister. Naturally, as a devoted admirer and fan of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister over decades, I was very concerned thus to be put in my place. I wrote to the Prime Minister to see whether the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks had accurately quoted him. I have a letter here, very kindly addressed, “Dear Denis”, and dated 30 April this year, in which he says

“that—on average—around 9 per cent. of all statutory instruments transpose EC legislation…I believe this is the correct figure.”

In a debate in this House on 3 June, the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) said that about 80 per cent. of all legislation emanated from the European Union, quoting a German Government source. The BBC and others have been trying to find this German Government source—is it Goethe, Schiller, or Mrs. Merkel?—and find that they cannot. It really is not good enough to come to the House and quote anonymous Germans, whoever they may be, in defence of the preposterous position that 80 per cent. of all our laws come from the European Union.

Nevertheless, the right hon. Gentleman was in very good company. Only two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of switching on the “Today” programme before 7 o’clock to find Mr. John Humphrys interviewing my favourite Euro-comic turn, Mr. Nigel Farage of the UK Independence party. Nigel—I hope that he does not mind my being familiar, but we get on quite well—said that 75 per cent. of all laws in the UK were now decided by the European Union: 5 per cent. less than the right hon. Gentleman’s figure. I do not know what had happened in the intervening two or three months. As Mr. Humphrys is usually so swift and vigorous in picking up anything that is a palpable untruth, I wrote to the BBC to ask whether that figure was going to be corrected or whether Mr. Humphrys could be politely asked, next time he hears this nonsense, from whatever source, to slap it down.

Before the European Parliament elections it is important that we establish certain accepted truths about the European Union. It is time to nail here in this House, and publicly, the lie that the EU is responsible for 80 per cent. of our laws, according to the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, or for 75 per cent., according to Mr. Nigel Farage. I have here a letter from Mr. Malcolm Balen, a senior editorial adviser at BBC News. It is very friendly, but whenever someone from the BBC writes to one of us on these issues they go into a special room, cover themselves in grease, and then go for a swim in oil, so what he says is, to put it mildly, quite hard to grasp. He turns to Mr. Mark Mardell, the BBC’s excellent Europe editor, saying that Mr. Mardell

“has previously researched Mr Farage’s claim, made on Today, that this figure is 75 per cent., and found that it is supposedly based on a German government statement, although no-one has actually discovered it.

Mark points out, however, that this whole area is a contentious one and that the last time he tried to establish an accurate figure he found the subject, in his words, too ‘jelly-like’ to nail down.”

We are not dealing with jelly, but with laws made in this country that affect all our citizens. On that point, I completely agree with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean, but we have to avoid a circular argument. That Conservative party front organisation against Europe, Open Europe, issued a document recently stating that the smoking ban and the provisions we have for cigarette packs originated in Europe. In fact, Britain was one of the earliest countries—going back to when there was a Conservative Government—to bring in the “smoking damages your health” warnings. They made the case for it in Europe, Europe made it a European-wide law, which I support, and it then came back into our law. We are seeing law made in Britain transposed through Europe back into our own legislation. We end up in a Kafkaesque world, where ideas start in Britain, and during a period of many years they go to Europe and are agreed there. They then come back into our law and are blamed on the European Union.

This Bill does not contribute one whit to reform or educating the public. It is part of the continuing drive by the Conservative party, as we saw expressed at its conference last week, to cut all links with the ruling centre-right parties in Europe, and—if we were to experience the misfortune of their forming a Government—to take us steadily to the exit door of the European Union. I oppose this Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in bills and nomination of select committees at commencement of public business):—

The House proceeded to a Division.