European Union (Transparency)

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 1:33 pm on 8th October 2008.

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Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 1:33 pm, 8th 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 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 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".—[ Hansard, 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.

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ross warren
Posted on 9 Oct 2008 4:08 pm (Report this annotation)

Well Done Mark

I agree this would be a really sensible move.

As for policy I hope that a future Tory administration would have the confidence to act on the will of the British people in relation to Europe. The first step would of course the referendum that Blair promised but the Labour party ran scared from. The public has the right to know all of the facts and not just those that the government choose to highlight.