Have we been misled, Minister?

The British Parliament has failed to apply proper scrutiny to ACTA ( the Anti-counterfeiting Trade Agreement), sliding it back to the EU  in a little-known process which almost went unnoticed.  Indeed, no-one would ever have known  if it had not been for a Parliamentary question in the House of Commons from Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, on 7 November.  

  The answer was  delivered by Ed Davey,  Minister for employment relations, consumer and postal affairs. What Mr Davey  said  was that European Commission proposals for signing  and authorising the implementation of ACTA were ‘cleared’ by  a house of Commons committee on 9 September. However, when the actual committee document is examined, it can be seen that no scrutiny at all  was applied.

  Indeed,  the ACTA signing proposals – which include approval of the entire text of ACTA – are  listed within a document entitled “22 Documents not raising questions of sufficient legal  or political importance to warrant a substantive report to the House.”

On 7 September, a low profile Parliamentary committee, called the  European Scrutiny committee,  considered proposals from the European Council of Ministers to agree to ACTA. It had on the table two European Union documents giving the go-ahead to ACTA. Both were prepared by the European Commission for the Council of Ministers.

Why these two EU documents are important. One of them authorises the Presidency of the EU   to sign ACTA. The other  commits the EU and all Member States to be bound by ACTA.

 For those who don’t know, the Council of Ministers consists of the governments of the 27 Member States, and it acts as a co-legislator with the European Parliament. ACTA was negotiated jointly by the European Commission and the Council of Ministers, where it seems the British government was able to take part directly: British were active in ACTA negotiations   In the European Parliament, there is considerable controversy over ACTA, and indeed, members of the Liberal Democrat group have led some of the criticism of it, which Ed  Davey should have been aware of.

 ACTA, ( the Anti-counterfeiting Trade Agreement) is an international treaty to address intellectual property rights enforcemeent. A primary driver of ACTA  is copyright enforcement on the Internet and  ways to make ISPs responsible for enforcement.

 It is widely acknowledged that ACTA is not entirely in line with the European Union legal framework, and that it  has implications for fundamental rights  - especially in the Internet environment – as well as access to medicines.  

 The real problem with ACTA is that it is framework  of international law – that means it only gives an outline, it can not specify in detail. That is why it is so difficult for policy-makers to work it out. In order to understand what ACTA means, you have to know the proposed policies in detail and to know where they might fit within the framework.

 The fact that ACTA  might facilitate blocking of Internet content under the control of copyright owners, and thus prejudice freedom of expression, is not obvious, but is an interpretation of the ACTA.

 The two Council of Ministers’ documents  appear to have been  simply rubber-stamped by the European Scrutiny committee on 9 September, as evidenced by the title of the document.  Did the committee not understand what ACTA is and what it might mean? Was the Minister, Ed Davey,  correctly advised by his officials?

It is important to note here, that the British Parliament had the option to examine the ACTA in detail, and  could have  refused to approve it. If our freedom of speech can be threatened by the rubber-stamping of an EU document without proper Parliamentary scrutiny,  there are fundamental questions here  for British democracy.

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 Julian Huppert: To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills what plans he has for scrutiny  of the anti-counterfeiting trade agreement.

Ed Davey: The European Commission's proposals for the signing and agreement of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement were submitted to the House of Commons and House of Lords EU Select Committees for parliamentary scrutiny on 14 July 2011. The proposals cleared scrutiny in the House of Commons on 9 September 2011 and in the House of Lords on 14 October 2011.

Source: Hansard  7 November 2011

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Please don’t plagiarise. You may re-publish my article under a Creative Commons licence, but you should cite my name and provide a link back to iptegrity.com. Academics – please cite as Monica Horten, UK Parliament says ACTA needs no scrutiny, www.iptegrity.com 1 December 2011.