Theresa May MP: Government defeat brings EU laws into the open
Last week the Opposition scored a significant victory against the Government in the House of Commons. Did you miss it? I’m not surprised. “Government caves in on Conservative amendment to change standing orders on the EU Scrutiny Committee” is hardly the stuff of banner headlines. But if you’re worried that too many of our laws come from Brussels and we don’t seem to be able to do anything about it then this victory is for you.
Between fifty and seventy per cent of UK laws originate in the European Union (EU). The EU produces four pieces of secondary legislation each week. And every year, more than 1,000 European documents are deposited in Parliament. Only a handful are debated fully in the House of Commons.
Dealing with EU legislation is clearly an enormous part of the work of the Houses of Parliament. Yet our system of scrutiny of EU legislation is woefully inadequate. The body in the House of Commons responsible for considering this plethora of EU laws is the European Scrutiny Committee. But it lacks real teeth and too often Parliament is ignored and its decisions are overridden. The relationship between ministers and Parliament is not unbalanced – it is broken.
What’s more this Scrutiny Committee usually meets in private. Our victory last week was to force the Government to accept that it should be required to meet in public so that this whole process of scrutinising EU laws can be more open to the public.
But this is only one thing wrong with the current system. There are some pretty basic problems. For example, there are twelve weeks of the year when the Committee doesn’t sit because Parliament is in recess yet the EU is at work and churning out legislative documents. So while MPs are sunning themselves EU bureaucrats create more and more red tape. We need to change the times when our Committee sits.
Then there’s the Scrutiny Reserve. This means that Ministers shouldn’t go to Brussels and agree new laws without consulting Parliament first. Yet this is often overridden and Ministers go off and sign up to new laws regardless of Parliament. Look at what happened over the Lisbon Treaty. The Committee said there should be a Commons debate before the Prime Minister signed it. Did that happen – of course not! Gordon Brown wasn’t going to risk a debate. Off he went and signed up without a by your leave to Parliament.
This Scrutiny Reserve should be put on a statutory basis so that Ministers have to come to Parliament first. That way when they went to Brussels they would be doing what Parliament had agreed not just what the Government wants; and if a Minister then went against Parliament there should be clear sanctions.
There’s a lot more that should be done to open up the way we deal with EU laws. The Conservatives are committed to making these changes in Government. On Thursday 7 February when the Government had sent their MPs home for the half term holiday they had to cave in to our demand and start that process by accepting that the Scrutiny Committee should meet in public. It’s a small step but an important one.
Theresa May's archive of ConservativeHome columns can be accessed here.