Monday, 10 October 2011

No, Minister

I just caught up with a brilliant speech by Peter Lilley from a couple of years ago:
When I was a Minister, officials would frequently say, “No, Minister, you can’t do that”, because something was within the exclusive competence of the European Union.

If the Lisbon treaty goes through, a further salami slice of powers will be transferred to the European institutions. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who served with distinction on the European constitutional convention and who knows more about the implications of the Lisbon treaty than almost anyone else in the House, except for my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), recently told the Fabian Society:

    “If the Treaty of Lisbon is ratified and devolution...continues apace, in fifteen to twenty years this House of Commons will have only two raise taxes authorise war”.

She went on to say that we are making

    “fewer and fewer decisions that matter”

to people’s daily lives, and that she could not tell her constituents that the buck stops here.

Admittedly, declaring wars kept Parliament pretty busy under the previous Prime Minister, as does raising taxes under the current incumbent of No. 10. However, our constituents want us to wage fewer wars, raise fewer taxes and focus on the huge range of issues that affect their daily lives, over which they assume and hope that we retain the powers that they pay us to exercise on their behalf.

Few voters, or even Members of this House, fully realise how many powers have been, or are about to be, transferred elsewhere. There are three reasons for this. The first is that Governments of all persuasions deny that any significant powers are being transferred. The second is that, once powers have been transferred, Ministers engage in a charade of pretence that they still retain those powers. Even when introducing measures that they are obliged to bring in as a result of an EU directive, they behave as though the initiative were their own.

Indeed, Ministers often end up nobly accepting responsibility for laws that they actually opposed when they were being negotiated in Brussels. They took the rap for costly and troublesome home improvement packs—which have added to the woes of the housing market—even though they were actually mandated by a Brussels directive. Similarly, they took the rap for fortnightly bin collections, hospital reconfiguration and a number of other measures, even though they had all been triggered by directives from Brussels. At first sight, it is odd that Ministers—who, in this Government, are not normally slow to blame others—should nobly defend and accept responsibility for Brussels’ legislative progeny, in whose conception they have often played little part. They prefer to claim paternity rather than admit impotence—the fate of the cuckold across the ages.

The third reason is that the transfer of power occurs not all in one go but by a process of salami-slicing, and it is easy to close our eyes to what is happening. As a result, there is a danger of Parliament sleepwalking into becoming little more than a provincial assembly. If that is what is happening, we should be paid accordingly—just as district councillors get less than county councillors, and county councillors get less than Members of the devolved Assemblies.

I do not have a masochistic desire to see MPs’ pay cut, but I want still less to see our powers diminish. The best way to prevent the latter might be to link pay to responsibilities. I do not know any Member of Parliament who entered Parliament to become financially better off. None the less, just as the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates the mind wonderfully, so the prospect of finding our pockets a bit emptier at the end of the month—and having to justify that to our spouses—might wake up those who have shut their eyes to what is happening. If we do not face up to what is happening, we will find ourselves being progressively relegated to what Bagehot called the dignified part of the constitution. As Tony Benn once rhetorically asked:

    “I wonder how long it took for the yeomen of the guard to realise that they were no longer part of the regular army.”

My Bill is designed to provide a wake-up call whenever we risk going further down that route, although I accept that it has little chance of becoming law in this Parliament. Those who support the transfer of power from here to supranational institutions should logically accept that our pay should reflect the diminution of our responsibilities. But, strangely, all the Euro-enthusiasts whom I asked to sponsor the Bill declined to do so without explaining why. Too many Members are happy to avert their eyes from what is happening, so long as they retain the prestige and emoluments that were appropriate to a fully sovereign Parliament. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas.

Hansard (Commons), 3 June 2008, column 644 (emphasis mine)

H/T to Olly Figg, who features this speech in the Introduction to Europe On €387 Million A Day (page 26). I'm only part way through it, but it does seem worth reading, even though it's depressingly statist in parts.

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