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Here's how to stop EU red tape from strangling business

An article by Bill Cash published in The Times on 25 August 2004

 

Was it a coincidence? On the day that Peter Mandelson took up his new Euro-propagandist job as Trade Commissioner, surprise, surprise, the relentlessly Europhile Director-General of the CBI, Digby Jones, attacked MPs for being "asleep on the job" when it comes to scrutinising European legislation. Like many aspects of the European question, the issue of guarding against damaging EU regulations is shrouded in nonsense and misunderstanding. Mr Jones's criticisms are a red herring.

 

In 1986, at the time of the debate about the Single European Act, I wrote an article for The Times. In it -drawing on my experience as a former legal adviser to the CBI in private practice - I urged trade associations to prepare for the coming deluge of European legislation by improving their vigilance and their standard of scrutiny. So how often has the CBI lobbied the Commons European Scrutiny Committee, on which I have sat since 1985? I fear none.

 

This year I co-authored a pamphlet, The Strangulation of Britain and British Business, for the European Foundation. I sent a copy and letter to Mr Jones urging the CBI to communicate with the European Scrutiny Committee. No reply. I drew attention in the pamphlet to the fact that the costs of red tape in the UK since 1997 had spiralled to Pounds 30 billion. I showed that "of the red tape burdens every one of the top six was European in origin, with a combined cost of £23 billion". I pointed out that a recent poll had alarmingly indicated that only 9 per cent of the public thought that Europe affected their daily lives and that this was because there was a reluctance to explain how it did affect us - for fear of being branded anti-European. The failure of the CBI to make representations to our committee about European legislation seems, in part, to be due to fear of such accusations.

 

Every piece of European legislation goes before the scrutiny committee before it is voted on in the Council of Ministers; every week the committee reports on them to the House. This session there have been 1,080 proposals.

 

The committee decides whether to recommend such legislation for debate in the Commons; and British ministers are not allowed to vote on the matter in the Council of Ministers until that debate has taken place. There is therefore ample opportunity for trade associations, such as the CBI, to give their input to MPs before a decision is made by the council. Yet Mr Jones says we should act "early on", "pay attention to Brussels legislation" and so on. We do - so why doesn't he? The weakness of the system does not lie in the "sleepiness" of backbench MPs.

 

Indeed, we have voted to sit in public but the Government refuses to change the procedure. Alas, when the scrutiny committee calls for a debate on the floor of the House, this is invariably refused by ministers. If and when amendments are passed in the European Standing Committee, the Government then reverses them with its heavily whipped

majority in the Commons.

 

The scrutiny committee's second weakness is hardly its fault. It comes down to who calls the shots. The Government's proposed reforms and the European Regulatory Initiative will scarcely improve things.

 

Power has leached away from Westminster so MPs are prevented from stopping the burdensome legislation that affects business. The situation will worsen if the European constitution, which gives more powers to the EU and the European Court of Justice, is ratified.

 

What is needed to restore real parliamentary scrutiny is a radical new statute. My Sovereignty of Parliament Bill would allow for all legislation, including that of European origin, to be re-examined. It would authorise the repeal or amendment of obsolete and unproductive laws. The Bill would require British judges to give effect to British laws, passed by the voters' elected representatives, even if they were inconsistent or conflicted with European laws and treaties and the rulings of the Court of Justice.

 

If Mr Jones is concerned about stopping new European laws - which are marching the British economy "valiantly towards the 70s" -rather than avoiding the issue of where power lies, he would support this Bill.

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