EU Referendum

EU Referendum: them laws


Having watched the video of Boris Johnson on Tuesday before the Treasury select committee, trying to bluster his way round his simplistic assessment of the numbers of EU laws, one could not imagine that any newspaper could make a big deal of it.

But that was to reckon without the Mail, which fronted its report on the session, sating: "Around six in ten British laws start life in Brussels, Boris Johnson warned yesterday".

In the piece written by Tim Sculthorpe, the Mail Online deputy political editor, we are told that "the London Mayor revealed new research by the House of Commons library suggesting that up to 60 percent of British regulations originate from the EU".

However, not only is this report is not true, it would be hard to find something else that has been written in such a brazenly misleading manner.

Mr Johnson had in fact made a claim in his Dartford speech, that "Brussels is producing two thirds of laws going through Parliament", but Mr Johnson was now putting 59 percent on the table.

What transpired in the Committee though was that Jacob Rees-Mogg asked Johnson to explain how he had come to his figure. In an attempt to justify his claim, Johnson in the manner of a magician producing a rabbit out of a hat, flourished what he called "hot news" in the form of "revised calculations" from the House of Commons library which, he said, backed him up with this wondrous 59 percent.

With Rees-Mogg deferentially thanking Johnson for his "very compelling evidence", committee chairman Andrew Tyrie then returned to the figure and invited Johnson to look at the date on the document he had produced. Johnson was forced to concede that, far from being "hot news", it had actually been published in the Commons in 8 March, he said: "not quite as recent as he had suggested".

Then Tyrie went for the killer punch. Yes the document had been published on 8 March (made public in June). But it was actually 8 March 2014 - a very long way from being "hot news". To his huge embarrassment, Johnson was forced to concede that the "update" was two years old. And yet we still get the Sculthorpe for the Mail online jabbering about Johnson having "revealed new research". That is the nature of the press coverage we're getting.

You can't call this sort of stuff a lie, though. In this case, it's carelessness on the part of Johnson – exactly the shallow approach his facts that we've come to expect of him. But it is then compounded by shoddy journalism from a hack for whom truth and accuracy exist only as theoretical concepts, with no practical application. 

The detail is there to check on the select committee video (although there are over three hours of it), and even humble blogger Tony E has been able to get the detail right. In due course, we'll have the full transcript. But the mighty Mail makes a complete pig's ear of it.

Earlier in the session, Tyrie had suggested to Johnson that it might be "prudent in the interests of generating a strong case that you add qualification" at the time he made his remarks. But when he cited this cavalier use of figures as an example of where this should apply, all Johnson could do was turn on him and demand of him whether he was "disputing the veracity of the House of Commons library".

Tyrie stood his ground, pointing out that the House of Commons library had suggested that the estimates of the proportion of legislation produced by the EU fell within a range. "All measurements have their problems", Tyrie  said, reading from the document, "and it is possible to justify any measure between 15 and 55 percent or thereabouts". 

Faced with this, Johnson could only manage a grudging concession that, whether it was 55 or 59 percent, it was "an awful lot". Once again, Tyrie had to remind Mr Johnson that it was a range, with the lower edge at 15 percent.

In fact, in his his column on 22 February, Johnson had actually qualified his claim. He he had written that: "According to the House of Commons library, anything between 15 and 50 percent of UK legislation now comes from the EU". Yet, by 11 March that had transmuted into the unequivocal assertion that "two thirds of laws going through Parliament" had been produced by Brussels.

Even then, this points to the extraordinary mess the diverse pundits are making, in attempting to assess the degree of Brussels input into UK law. To be fair, though, the House of Commons library states that: "there is no totally accurate, rational or useful way of calculating the percentage of national laws based on or influenced by the EU". That, indeed, was pointed out by Mr Tyrie.

Despite that, though, it is possible to be far more definitive than the House of Commons would indicate. From the government's own database of legislation, we can actually pull down a total figure for all laws currently on the statute book.

I've used this database before but the figure seems to have grown to 102,080 entries with the inclusion of all legislation, starting in the year 1267 with the Statute of Marlborough.

The list is pretty arcane, including The Trading with the Enemy (Enemy Territory Cessation) (Siam) Order 1948 and such as the Criminal Jurisdiction Act 1802, as well as the likes of The Beef Cow Subsidy Payment (England and Wales) Order 1970.

As far as I can ascertain, this law is all currently in force (even if some of it no longer applies, which is a different thing). So, with all the usual caveats, it can be set against EU law currently in force. This (as of yesterday) stands at 19,389 entries. That puts EU law as a proportion of UK law at almost exactly 19 percent.

This is very much a "quick and dirty" figure, as it includes EU regulations and decisions which have direct effect, as well as instruments which have been transposed into UK law. The big problem, as we pointed out and which was raised by Booker, is that so much EU law no longer originates in Brussels. Increasingly the law comes from global and regional bodies.

On that basis, the figure (any figure) is of very little importance – even without dealing with the many other variables. But it does put Mr Johnson and the other pundits back in the box. If you want to quote a figure, round it up to "about 20 percent". It don't mean nuffink, but at least it has something of a plausible base.