Bernard Jenkin MP: The total lack of scrutiny of the Lisbon Treaty shows British democracy is becoming an elective dictatorship
Bernard Jenkin, MP for North Essex and a member of the Defence Select Committee, explains how Commons scrutiny of the Lisbon Treaty is virtually non-existent.
Last week’s proceedings on the European Union (Amendment) Bill, better known as the Lisbon Treaty, underline the farce that the House of Commons has become. No wonder so few MPs are bothering to turn up, when the chances of being called to speak are so small. No wonder fewer and fewer people bother to vote at General Elections when there is so little constructive debate and so much about politicians feathering their own nests. The Government’s manipulation of the Commons timetable has deliberately stifled debate on the Lisbon Treaty and means that voters are getting a very raw deal from their elected representatives. Few of the younger Labour colleagues seem to grasp what powers have been progressively stolen from MPs over the past decade.
Despite the manifest importance of the Lisbon Treaty, its second reading (where the general principle of a bill is discussed) had a mere six hours of debate – the same as any ordinary bill these days. The Maastricht Treaty had two days for its second reading, with the first day allowed to continue through the night, so that anyone who wanted to speak could do so. Speakers had no limits on the length of their speeches, but for Lisbon, backbenchers were limited to just eight minutes, no time at all to develop an argument on a bill implementing a treaty which runs to 294 pages!
The bill’s timetable was then imposed by a business motion, whipped through by the Government, limiting debate artificially to twelve days – which sounds a lot until you realise exactly how the government has arranged for the time to be filled. Wednesday 20th February was meant to deal with the whole of Foreign, Security and Defence policy within the EU – utterly absurd. The day underlined how the government is successfully avoiding the “line-by-line” examination of this version of the EU Constitution which the prime minister promised.
The government’s claim of “twelve days in committee” is actually a lie: it is more like six. This is because half of each day is taken up with an opening general debate on the government’s chosen topic. This is manifestly not consideration of the bill in committee. The House debates merely a general government motion about whether to approve of their policy in the chosen area, which does not test the government on the detail in any way. The only purpose this serves is to give Labour ministers the opportunity to grandstand on their policy brief. Even if the motion were defeated it would make no difference whatsoever to the passage of the bill. It is pointless. The Foreign Secretary started making a statement about British Policy in Kosovo - something he could have chosen to do without using the time devoted to discussion of the Lisbon Treaty bill - and would not have been allowed to do in a conventional committee stage.
The front bench opening speeches and wind-ups of the three main parties take up much of the time. The foreign secretary was on his feet for 50 minutes. He generously took many interventions, but this is not the same as replying to a debate on amendments to the bill proposed by back benchers or opposition spokesmen. In the three hours for the debate on Wednesday, only three Conservative backbenchers were called to speak, each for a maximum of seven minutes. Just one member of the Commons Select Committee on Defence was able to make a speech.
After the meaningless vote on the Government motion, only then does the House move to consideration of the bill in committee. This was similarly limited to three hours. There were three groups of amendments to consider. The restricted time meant we only debated the first – on the EU’s external representation. The more important groups of amendments, on EU Defence policy and EU foreign policy were never reached. So the bill now moves on with no specific discussion of the defence and foreign policy provisions of the treaty at all. During the Maastricht Treaty bill, ministers not only had to reply to every group of amendments, but also had to respond to all the points raised in the debate, taking interventions until MPs were satisfied with their answers or he simply refused to answer more questions. Only then would the chairman of the committee allow the discussion to move on to the next group of amendments. The contrast between the level of scrutiny of the Maastricht Bill and that given to Lisbon can be revealed by a simple statistic. Maastricht was in committee on the floor of the House of Commons for 163 hours in 1992-3; Lisbon is likely to spend less than 50 hours in committee, and only 24 of those hours will be actually devoted to aspects of the Treaty itself. (The last four days in committee will be about how the Bill implements the treaty.)
The House of Commons periodically goes through bad periods – and this is clearly one of them. The despair of voters about their elected representatives has been in decline for some time. One of the challenges the Conservatives will need to face in government is how to restore a more genuinely representative role of MPs in the House of Commons. We must avoid the Commons becoming ever more like a legislative rubber stamp for almost every government proposal and make it more like an independent body, able and willing to hold the executive to account for its legislation. This Government has seen to it that British democracy has become more of an elective dictatorship than even Lord Hailsham can have imagined possible.