The European Union is Not Responsible for UK Laws
8 October 2008
Below a speech by the Rt Hon Denis MacShane MP in a 10 minute rule bill debate. The Tory MP, Mark Harper, wanted bills to have statements on them to show they were passed into UK law in obedience to the EU. Tories, UKIP, the Daily Mail and other anti-European outfits regularly say that up to 80 per cent of more of UK law is decided by Europe. Yet the House of Commons Library can never find more than 10 per cent of UK laws which are in response to EU directives and regulations – which, in turn, are voted upon by UK ministers and MEPs who are democratically accountable. MPs voted on the motion and defeated the Tory line which was connected to the broader anti-European hostility associated with David Cameron and William Hague. Last week, Hague told the Conservative conference that in 2009 , his party would break links with all the main centre-right parties in Europe. This is an astonishing position to take for a major UK party seeking to form a government.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on making a very moderate speech. I am grateful to him for remembering the modest contribution that I once made many years ago in serving Her Majesty on matters European. However, as so often with the Better Off Out group of the Conservative party, his speech and his Bill hide behind them concepts and problems that need to be unpicked.
I would have no objection if on the front of every Bill that comes before this House there were some symbol or statement of its origin. The vast majority of legislation that has emanated from the EU has done so since the Single European Act was passed in 1986. That has had a huge impact on the legislation of 26 other countries. A great number of different groups in those countries think that the Single European Act, with its rather steam-rollering approach to enforcing free trade, is the child of the noble Baroness Thatcher, so perhaps on the front of every Bill across Europe that is connected with that Act we should have a nice picture of Margaret Thatcher to remind Europeans of where some of the best European legislation comes from.
The hon. Gentleman made heavy weather of trying to establish what percentage of our laws come from the European Union. If we think honestly about what takes up our time in the House, what worries our constituents and what fills the front pages of our newspapers, we find that very little is connected with the EU. Having already voted to outlaw wife-beating, I hope that later today we will outlaw child-beating. I do not know whether those on the Treasury Bench are of that mind.
Other issues ahead of us in the next few weeks include stem cell research, time limits on abortion, who might decide on the next police chief of London, identity cards, the length of detention for those suspected of serious terrorist crimes, university admissions and fees, our taxation policy, and what we heard about a moment ago from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with the Bill that will follow. Those are all made-in-Britain laws. That is true in France, Germany, Poland, Sweden, Ireland, Finland and all members of the European Union. Of course, that which is connected to the Single European Act has to do with Europe.
In a debate earlier this year, I said that according to the Library—if I have time, I will read out some of its detailed statistics—only 10 per cent. of the laws that impact on us in the United Kingdom, adopted by this House principally through statutory instruments, emanate from the European Union. Then, to my horror, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, leapt to his feet and quoted another right hon. Gentleman who had said that 50 per cent. or more of regulations came from the European Union. That right hon. Gentleman was the Prime Minister. Naturally, as a devoted admirer and fan of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister over decades, I was very concerned thus to be put in my place. I wrote to the Prime Minister to see whether the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks had accurately quoted him. I have a letter here, very kindly addressed, "Dear Denis", and dated 30 April this year, in which he says
"that—on average—around 9 per cent. of all statutory instruments transpose EC legislation…I believe this is the correct figure."
In a debate in this House on 3 June, the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) said that about 80 per cent. of all legislation emanated from the European Union, quoting a German Government source. The BBC and others have been trying to find this German Government source—is it Goethe, Schiller, or Mrs. Merkel?—and find that they cannot. It really is not good enough to come to the House and quote anonymous Germans, whoever they may be, in defence of the preposterous position that 80 per cent. of all our laws come from the European Union.
Nevertheless, the right hon. Gentleman was in very good company. Only two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of switching on the "Today" programme before 7 o’clock to find Mr. John Humphrys interviewing my favourite Euro-comic turn, Mr. Nigel Farage of the UK Independence party. Nigel—I hope that he does not mind my being familiar, but we get on quite well—said that 75 per cent. of all laws in the UK were now decided by the European Union: 5 per cent. less than the right hon. Gentleman’s figure. I do not know what had happened in the intervening two or three months. As Mr. Humphrys is usually so swift and vigorous in picking up anything that is a palpable untruth, I wrote to the BBC to ask whether that figure was going to be corrected or whether Mr. Humphrys could be politely asked, next time he hears this nonsense, from whatever source, to slap it down.
Before the European Parliament elections it is important that we establish certain accepted truths about the European Union. It is time to nail here in this House, and publicly, the lie that the EU is responsible for 80 per cent. of our laws, according to the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, or for 75 per cent., according to Mr. Nigel Farage. I have here a letter from Mr. Malcolm Balen, a senior editorial adviser at BBC News. It is very friendly, but whenever someone from the BBC writes to one of us on these issues they go into a special room, cover themselves in grease, and then go for a swim in oil, so what he says is, to put it mildly, quite hard to grasp. He turns to Mr. Mark Mardell, the BBC’s excellent Europe editor, saying that Mr. Mardell
"has previously researched Mr Farage’s claim, made on Today, that this figure is 75 per cent., and found that it is supposedly based on a German government statement, although no-one has actually discovered it.
Mark points out, however, that this whole area is a contentious one and that the last time he tried to establish an accurate figure he found the subject, in his words, too ‘jelly-like’ to nail down."
We are not dealing with jelly, but with laws made in this country that affect all our citizens. On that point, I completely agree with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean, but we have to avoid a circular argument. That Conservative party front organisation against Europe, Open Europe, issued a document recently stating that the smoking ban and the provisions we have for cigarette packs originated in Europe. In fact, Britain was one of the earliest countries—going back to when there was a Conservative Government—to bring in the "smoking damages your health" warnings. They made the case for it in Europe, Europe made it a European-wide law, which I support, and it then came back into our law. We are seeing law made in Britain transposed through Europe back into our own legislation. We end up in a Kafkaesque world, where ideas start in Britain, and during a period of many years they go to Europe and are agreed there. They then come back into our law and are blamed on the European Union.
This Bill does not contribute one whit to reform or educating the public. It is part of the continuing drive by the Conservative party, as we saw expressed at its conference last week, to cut all links with the ruling centre-right parties in Europe, and—if we were to experience the misfortune of their forming a Government—to take us steadily to the exit door of the European Union. I oppose this Bill.