An article by Bill Cash published in The Times on 16 June 1986
Today sees the arrival at committee stage of the innocuously entitled European Communities (Amendment) Bill. But the bill is by no means innocuous. It is by far the most important piece of legislation concerning relations between Britain and Europe to come before Parliament since the European Communities Act of 1972. If it reaches the statute book in its present form, as is likely, it is vital to ensure that the legislation that flows from it is in the interests of this country.
The bill provides for the passing into law of the Single European Act. This incorporates a number of amendments to the Treaty of Rome and was approved by the EEC Council of Ministers earlier this year. It now has to be passed by the legislatures of all EEC member states.
The Act will have a direct impact on British commercial and industrial practice. It will effectively mean that there will be hardly a corner of British business - buying and selling, manufacturing, agriculture, the environment, insurance, the right to set up in business - which is not woven into the fabric of the Treaty of Rome. For, once the Act is passed, we are bound to accept all legislation adopted by the Council of Ministers.
One of the most important amendments contained in the Act is the extension of majority voting to all decisions taken by the Council. This will have the effect of making proposals for Community legislation more frequent. It is also likely to make it more difficult for ministers to slow down the progress of proposals.
One way to counteract this is to have earlier and more effective scrutiny of EEC proposals at Westminster. The European Parliament could play a role here, but it has no executive responsible to the British electorate. It is therefore vital that the Commons and Lords gave their views before proposals reach the critical stage. And that requires more information to be provided much earlier.
The government has offered some improvements but, given the likely impact of the bill on our economy and industrial interests, more are needed. The 12th report of the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities, dated May 6, 1986, said that 'in the long term the position of the UK parliament will become weaker' by virtue of the weakening of the power of British ministers when outvoted in the Council. The committee concluded that the powers of the European Commission in drafting European legislation were likely to increase correspondingly and recommended that the text of amendments proposed by the European Parliament should be available to Westminster much sooner than at present.
Another way to counteract the possible diminution in UK sovereignty would be for ministers and Parliament to take a much more active role in negotiating and drafting proposed European legislation. Much of this work is now done by civil servants, partly because a Community proposal, once on its way, gains a momentum all its own which deters effective inquiry and control. The Second Special Report of the House of Commons European Legislation Committee of June 4 makes detailed proposals for changing the terms of reference of this committee to ensure that more direct control can be exercised over those who advise ministers. At present, there is a serious gap between those responsible for drafting the legislation and those who have to vote on it.
Already, reports from the scrutiny committees in both Houses of Parliament provide information to their respective houses and to the wider public. But MPs and peers need the expert advice of industrialists and commercial interests on a far more organized basis than exists at present. It would also be desirable for European law to become a compulsory subject for solicitors and barristers. Moreover, those appointed to monitor European legislation should also have greater knowledge of procedure and law.
At present, the level of secrecy observed by our own civil servants during negotiations is absurd. Frequently the die is cast long before the impending dangers can be reversed. When other EEC members states steal a march on us in negotiations, the economic damage can be considerable, and virtually irreversible.
What is needed is a clear and formal procedure which ensures that information is available, not only to civil servants and members of the European Parliament, but also to industrial and commercial interests and parliamentarians in Britain. This would ensure that the real decisions remained with Westminster and not with the semi-autonomous working groups of civil servants who have flown over to Brussels for the day.
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