House of Commons
Tuesday 1 February 2011
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Bank of Ireland (UK) plc Bill
Bill read a Second time and referred to the Examiners.
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
My ministerial colleagues and I have regular contact with our Afghan opposite numbers to discuss a wide range of issues. We are working together to help bring stability to Afghanistan. I hope to be able to meet with Dr Rassoul again shortly.
The whole House will echo the Foreign Secretary’s sentiments about how important it is that we bring stability to Afghanistan. The Taliban are greatly strengthened by any ability to increase the drug trade over there. Can the Foreign Secretary tell us what measures he is taking to reduce poppy production in Afghanistan, and what success we are having in this important fight?
Of course we work with the Afghan authorities and many international partners on combating the drugs trade, which is one source of finance for the insurgency in Afghanistan. In the Foreign Office programme spending that I have announced in a written statement today, the hon. Gentleman will see that I have allocated £16 million of British taxpayers’ money in the coming year for important counter-narcotics work in Afghanistan. It has met with some success in recent times, with a reduction in the total yield of the poppy crop, but we have to keep up the momentum.
As Britain gradually withdraws its hard power over the next few years, does the Foreign Secretary see a role for this country in increasing and advancing its soft power, particularly in democracy-building support in the more secure areas, not least through our home-grown Westminster Foundation for Democracy?
I hope that I will always see such a role. Indeed, in the same allocation of FCO programme funds, on which I made a written statement earlier today, my hon. Friend will see that there is a small increase for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, from £3 million to £3.5 million. The foundation does important work across the world, and all of us across the House would want it to succeed.
Can the Foreign Secretary update the House on what discussions he has held on appointing a successor to US envoy Richard Holbrooke, an individual who I know was widely respected in all parts of the House, and on the political progress that he expects to be made in Afghanistan by the time of the Bonn conference later this year?
The right hon. Gentleman will understand that it is not for us to appoint the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States Government will take care of that. We are in discussions with them about how we will work together with a new special representative. It is a crucial role, and Richard Holbrooke is very much missed in it, but I cannot update the right hon. Gentleman on the United States decisions about that appointment. He is right to highlight the importance of the political process in Afghanistan. It is vital that it should be Afghan-led, but the United Kingdom will support and facilitate it wherever we can, and also urge the support of other countries in the region, such as Pakistan, to contribute positively to that process.
Given the interrelationship of insurgency, poverty and narcotics, about which there have already been discussions and exchanges this afternoon, can the right hon. Gentleman explain the basis for his decision, as set out in the written ministerial statement to which he referred, to make
“a reduction of £2 million”
“counter-narcotics and rule of law programmes in Afghanistan”?
Yes, we have to adjust the spending totals from time to time—the change will be from £18 million to £16 million—because some programmes are coming to their natural end, and because I want to ensure that we can keep the current level of resources for counter-terrorist co-operation, which stand at £38 million and are focused predominantly on Afghanistan. We always have difficult choices to make on spending, but there is a natural evolution in our counter-narcotics work which means that some programmes are coming to their end.
Middle East Peace Process
3. What recent representations he has received on the UK’s involvement in the middle east peace process; and if he will make a statement. (37142)
Negotiations are the only way to achieve the national aspirations of both the Palestinians and the Israelis. We are deeply concerned about the breakdown in talks, and we are working closely with the United States and the European Union to see a return to direct negotiations. I hope that the Quartet meeting on 5 February will be clear that negotiations must resume quickly. The entire international community, including the United States, should support 1967 borders as being the basis for resumed negotiations. The result should be two states, with Jerusalem as the future capital of both, and a fair settlement for refugees.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for that answer. I hope he shares the excitement of many people in this country at seeing people stand up to one-party rule in Tunisia and Egypt. Will he explain what steps the Government are taking to encourage the spread of democracy—not just in the middle east, but in north Africa?
Focusing on the middle east, one thing that would help democracy across that area is a successful outcome to the middle east peace process—a two-state solution with a viable, contiguous and democratic Palestinian state alongside a secure and democratic Israel. The middle east peace process is fundamental, but our constant message more broadly across the middle east is how important it is to move in the direction of more open and flexible political systems—with each country finding its own way to achieve that—as well as towards sound economic development. The spending I have announced in a written statement today includes £5 million for an Arab human development programme, which is intended to assist civil society and democratic development in the Arab world, so this will become part of the important issue my hon. Friend raises.
Since signing the peace accord with Israel in 1979, Egypt has been a key figure in trying to broker peace and stability in the middle east. Recent events in Egypt obviously raise concerns about the future direction of its foreign policy. Will the Secretary of State tell us what role the UK Government will play in ensuring that, in the likely event of regime change, Egypt will continue to play a constructive role in the middle east?
The hon. Lady raises a vital issue. Over a period of more than 30 years, as she says, Egypt has played a positive and moderating role in the middle east—a positive role towards achieving a wider peace in the middle east. We regard it as of paramount importance that Egypt continues to do that in the future. We are engaging with politicians of many different views in Egypt. I spoke to the Foreign Minister on Sunday night and I hope to speak to Vice President Suleiman shortly after this Question Time to encourage Egypt to have the broad-based Government and real and visible change that will allow an orderly transition, which will not only help to achieve the domestic aspirations of the Egyptian people, but allow the country to continue to play the role in foreign policy that it has played in recent decades.
The Foreign Secretary will recall that it was the vision of Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat and King Hussein that led to the agreements on behalf of Israel, Egypt and Jordan respectively. It would be a tragedy if either of these agreements were to be casualties of the unrest in Egypt and the apparent unrest in Jordan. Will the Foreign Secretary undertake to bend every possible effort to ensure that these agreements, which are, after all, the only success in the middle east peace process, are maintained?
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. This is one reason why we do not want Egypt to fall into the hands of extremism or, indeed, into prolonged disorder. That is why we have called—European Foreign Ministers joined together in doing so yesterday at our meeting in Brussels—for an orderly transition to a broadly based Government, with free and fair elections in prospect in Egypt, because we think it will help the country to continue to play that role. I also visited Syria last week to encourage that country to reconsider and approach again the subject of a permanent peace between Israel and Syria.
Two years after the Israeli assault on Gaza, which slaughtered 1,400 Palestinians, including 300 children, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the situation of destitution, dereliction and malnutrition in Gaza is still appalling because of the blockade? The UN representative, the admirable John Ging, is giving up his post and moving to New York. Will the Government take every possible action to require the Israelis to lift this dreadful blockade?
We remain very concerned about the situation in Gaza and disappointed overall by Israel’s easing of restrictions there. There has been some welcome progress—the move from a white list to a black list and the increased volume of imports are welcome—but a fundamental change is needed to achieve pre-2007 levels of exports as soon as possible and an improvement in co-operation with the UN and non-governmental organisations. We say again that the blockade of Gaza is unsustainable and unacceptable.
Is there not at least one piece of good news from the middle east, in the shape of the very encouraging economic growth that has taken place on the west bank? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an indication of what could be achieved through compromise on the outstanding issues and movement towards a genuine, mutually agreed two-state solution?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I visited Ramallah in November, I saw a dramatic contrast with what I had seen on a previous visit a few years earlier in terms of economic development. However, such development has not been as dramatic throughout the west bank, and much more could be achieved. What my hon. Friend has identified is part of the dream of peace in the middle east and a viable two-state solution.
I agree with the Foreign Secretary that events that are currently unfolding in the middle east and north Africa render the need for a search for a durable peace in the middle east more, not less, urgent. However, the Palestine papers have proved pretty conclusively that it is not the Palestinians who have not been prepared to compromise. What pressure can we put on Israel to ensure that it understands that the requirement for compromise applies to it as well, not just to everyone else?
Clearly all sides would have to make compromises to arrive at a two-state solution, and we have conveyed that message strongly to Israel in recent weeks. We have clearly expressed our disappointment that the settlement moratorium was not continued, and have made plain that we regard settlements as illegal. When Foreign Minister Lieberman of Israel visited London on Monday last week, I argued strongly that Israel needed to make the necessary compromises to allow direct talks to resume and to pave the way for a two-state solution. We will continue to convey that message.
Latin America (Bilateral Relations)
The Government are strengthening partnerships with Latin America. I have seen for myself that it is a dynamic and important region during visits to Columbia, Chile, Mexico, Panama and Guatemala. My right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary will visit the region in the next few months.
I strongly agree with the sentiment underlying my hon. Friend’s question. I think most people would accept that the last Government neglected Latin America, and that is what we are trying to rectify. Along with other Ministers, I shall be accompanying the Deputy Prime Minister on visits to both Brazil and Mexico the week after next, when my right hon. Friend will take part in high-level meetings and, I hope, increase our engagement with both those important G20 countries.
We welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to increasing our bilateral trade with Latin America, as set out in his Canning house speech last year. Surely, however, one of the best ways to advance British interests would be to establish a free trade deal between the European Union and Mercosur. What steps are the Government taking to bring the negotiations to a swift and successful conclusion?
I strongly agree with the premise of the hon. Lady’s question. We want free trade to open markets all over the world, and Latin America is a part of the world where economies are growing both strongly and at a sustainable pace. We will try to bring about more free trade agreements, as well as trying to encourage greater trade and co-operation between British businesses and companies throughout Latin America.
The UK Government remain deeply concerned about the ongoing political crisis in Côte d’Ivoire. We support the strong statements that have been made by the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union. Both have made clear—and we agree—that Mr Laurent Gbagbo should immediately and peacefully hand over power to Mr Alassane Ouattara in accordance with the wishes of the Ivorian people.
The latest registration figures show that 31,000 refugees have fled from the Ivory Coast to eastern Liberia in the last two months alone. Having just returned from a medical visit to Liberia with representatives of the charity Merlin and the Royal Society of Medicine, and having met the President of Liberia and Health Ministers, I know that the country is hardly best placed to deal with such an influx, recovering as it is from 14 years of a brutal civil war. Can the Minister tell us what we are doing to help the people of the Ivory Coast, and how we are pushing for peace in the area?
I agree with my hon. Friend that this is a totemic issue for all Africa. It is essential that Laurent Gbagbo must not be allowed to defy the will of the people, and it is very important that his funding is cut off, so I am very pleased that the west African central bank—Banque Centrale des Etats de l’Afrique de l’Ouest—has now cut off the Ivorian national reserves and I am confident that this will apply real pressure.
Our global diplomatic network is essential to protect and promote our interests worldwide. That is why we must concentrate our resources where they are needed most, especially in the emerging powers, to increase our influence, promote our values and seize opportunities for prosperity. I will be taking and announcing decisions soon on what that will mean in practice.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for that answer. Last week, in the European Union Bill Committee, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) recalled that when he was the Minister for Europe, in the previous Government, his German counterpart told him that
“he expected to close possibly half of all German embassies and consular services around the world over the next five years.”
The hon. Gentleman added:
“Other member states may well do the same.”—[Official Report, 25 January 2011; Vol. 522, c. 196.]
Will my right hon. Friend please reassure me that we will not be closing any UK embassies and consular services?
The statement about Germany closing half its embassies might be an exaggeration. Far be it from the hon. Member for Rhondda to exaggerate on any issue, but I think that will turn out to be an exaggeration. Certainly, the UK will not be doing that. We will not, overall, be reducing the size of our diplomatic network. I think it would be absolutely wrong to do so, as it is part of the essential infrastructure of our economic recovery as well as of our influence in the world. I will be announcing decisions about this in the next couple of months, but that will not involve an overall reduction in our network.
The Foreign Secretary has spoken of the need to strengthen the UK’s diplomatic, strategic engagement with Syria—a point he reiterated a few moments ago. Will he take this opportunity to stress to the Syrians how important it is for them to butt out of the internal affairs of Lebanon? Does he agree that any new Lebanese Government who see Syrian-backed Hezbollah gain even greater importance will only further destabilise the middle east?
Yes, we will use our diplomatic network—to keep this relevant to the question—and I used our embassy in Damascus last week to do many of those things. We had some very frank discussions with Syrian leaders, as can be imagined, about a whole range of issues including Iran and human rights, in particular, and about the situation in Lebanon. The Government there should be formed by constitutional means. They should be a broad-based Government and should continue to support the work of the special tribunal for Lebanon so that the culture of impunity for assassinations in Lebanon comes to an end.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the alterations he has made to the mission and structure of the Foreign Office? Will he confirm that it is his intention to deploy diplomatic staff to those areas of the world where they are most needed to further Britain’s interests?
Yes, I will certainly do that. I think that what my hon. Friend is driving at is that that will require some changes because the patterns of economic, political and diplomatic power in the world are changing, so we will need to adjust our diplomatic weight. That is what I am weighing up at the moment and we will make announcements to the House within the next couple of months.
We are encouraging the Government of Afghanistan to live up to the commitments they made on anti-corruption at the conferences in Kabul and London last year. In addition, I met yesterday with General McMaster, the head of the international security assistance force’s anti-corruption task force, to discuss how the coalition could assist Afghanistan in bringing those involved in corrupt practices to justice.
Has it been worth the sacrifice of 350 of our valiant British soldiers to protect the election-rigging President of Afghanistan who refuses to arrest his corrupt brother, the vice president who was caught smuggling $51 million to his bolthole in Dubai, or the Government cronies who have stolen 70% of the country’s GDP from the national bank? Is not the truth that it is not the system that is corrupt in Afghanistan, but that corruption is the system?
There are, of course, wider issues involving national security that contribute to the presence of our forces in Afghanistan, in company with those of 47 other nations. It is not appropriate to discuss individuals, but I should say that the British Government are entirely clear: no one is above the law, no one is above inquiry, and the people of Afghanistan deserve a system of justice that ensures justice for all and that those involved in corruption are brought to book.
BBC World Service
I will continue, as now, to set the objectives, priorities and targets for the BBC World Service with the BBC for 2014 and beyond. No foreign language service will be closed without my written authority.
With the World Service, we are having to make sure that public money is spent as carefully as possible. As the hon. Gentleman knows, that has meant reductions across the Government. That is the legacy that this Government inherited from the vast debts piled up by the previous Administration, and none of it would be necessary were it not for that.
We are asking the World Service to bear the same proportionate reduction as the Foreign Office over the period 2008 to 2014. I think that is a fair thing to do, and I should let the hon. Gentleman know that the director-general of the BBC has stated his intention, when it is transferred into the BBC from 2014, to increase investment in the World Service again and hold it at a higher level until the end of the BBC charter period.
There is a formal structure relating to decisions about openings and closures of language services; those will remain the same, and the objectives and priorities of the BBC World Service will continue to be set in the same way. To respond to my hon. Friend’s point, that structure does not guarantee the absolute level of expenditure or investment by the BBC, but I would point out again that Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, has said that his intention, subject to approval from the BBC Trust, is to increase the level of investment in the BBC World Service, and therefore I am sure that bringing the BBC and the World Service together is the right move for the future.
9. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Sudan; and if he will make a statement. (37148)
The southern Sudan referendum is a momentous step towards the implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement. We welcome the positive reactions of the north and of observers of the referendum as we await the formal results. We will support north and south as they work on the remaining CPA issues, but obviously we will not be taking our eye off Darfur, as we work tirelessly to establish a lasting peace in that troubled province.
I thank the Minister for that answer, and I am sure he will be aware of the concerns shared across the international community on the continued presence of the Lords Resistance Army in south Sudan. A joint non-governmental organisation briefing in December 2010, entitled “Ghosts of Christmas Past”, documented some of the atrocities committed by that organisation on Christmas eve 2008. What assessment can the Minister can give us of the efforts of the international community to prevent the rise of that organisation in south Sudan and across the region?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the subject of the Lords Resistance Army. It is an organisation comprising about 400 fighters, under the leadership of an extremely evil commander, and although it is small, it can wreak havoc; it is able to displace many communities and terrorise many people. We are sparing no effort at all in helping those countries who are on the front line of tackling the LRA, and we are doing all we possibly can to bring its leader to justice in the International Criminal Court as well.
There are strong bonds with Sudan across the Salisbury diocese, including between Holt school in my own village and a school in Juba in southern Sudan, where educational resources are very stretched. In light of the referendum, there are growing concerns for the Christian minority that will be left in the north. What representations have the Government made to the Sudanese authorities about the importance of protecting minorities throughout Sudan?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that question, because we are working very closely with the Government of Sudan. We made it clear to President Bashir’s Government that his requirements for debt relief are conditional not just on making progress on the CPA and achieving an inclusive peace with justice in Darfur, but on having a policy that respects the rights of all parts of that country.
I very much welcome what the Minister said about south Sudan and, particularly, Darfur. Last week, Human Rights Watch said:
“There are clear signs that the situation in Darfur is getting worse”
“the international community is failing to monitor and respond properly to what is happening”.
Does he agree that now is the time to give real priority to resolving the long-running and tragic crisis in Darfur?
I agree with the shadow Minister on that, because we must not take our eye off Darfur and there have been some worrying concerns recently—for example, three Bulgarian humanitarian pilots were captured, and we are demanding their immediate release—but I am pleased that significant progress has been made in the recent negotiations under the chief mediator, Djibril Bassolé, in Doha. In fact, two parts of the rebel forces—the Justice and Equality Movement and the Liberation and Justice Movement—have been engaged in the peace process. It is very important indeed that the Sudan Liberation Army now comes to the table and that every possible effort is made to build peace in that troubled province. Unless that peace is secured, there really cannot be a way forward and a future for Sudan.
President al-Bashir has said that southern Sudanese living in the north will be classed as foreigners and will lose rights accordingly. What will the UK Government do to ensure that the citizenship issues are properly resolved, so that people can live in the north or the south and have their rights protected accordingly?
I certainly share my hon. Friend’s concern about the southern Sudanese who have been living in the north, but I was heartened by what President Bashir said on his visit to Juba on 4 January. He made it clear that all the southerners who are living in the north are welcome to stay there, that they can move to the south if they want to and that their rights to property and their other rights will be maintained. That is the first time that President Bashir has said that absolutely categorically, and we will do all that we can to hold him to his word.
We are extremely concerned about international piracy—in particular, the growing incidence of piracy off the horn of Africa and in the Indian ocean. I have recently set up a cross-Whitehall working group, with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who has responsibility for shipping, and with the Minister for the Armed Forces. We are determined to work with the maritime industry to help it to counter the increased violence towards hijacked crews through the use of safe rooms and other improved security measures. We are considering ways to combat the so-called mother ships, which carry the pirate skiffs deep into the ocean.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but will he update the House on his discussions with our European allies about taking co-ordinated action to tackle piracy off the Somali coast, particularly following recent reports that Somali legislators have blocked anti-piracy legislation and even described the pirates as heroes?
I have not heard about those comments being made by the Transitional Federal Government. If they have made those comments, we absolutely deplore them. We are working closely with our EU counterparts. In fact, we are providing the command facility for Atalanta, the EU counter-piracy force. Currently, about 30 warships are off the horn of Africa, and we are working ever closer and going more deeply into the ocean to combat the problem. But I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there must be proper co-ordination between countries, and that is why we have a cross-Whitehall working group to consider what we can do. The pirates now hold 29 vessels and 694 hostages. The problem is definitely getting worse, as the pirates have been able to expand their reach into the ocean, and that is why we need firmer, tougher and more co-ordinated action.
I can assure my hon. Friend that there is ever greater EU co-operation, and that more EU countries are now coming into the combined operations. It is incredibly important that the EU should work together, but we want other countries to assist. We also need regional capacity to detain, try and imprison the pirates, which is why we are having discussions with the Governments of the Seychelles, Mauritius, Kenya and Tanzania.
I am glad that the Minister recognises that piracy is a growing threat to life, especially off the horn of Africa, and a big business worth more than £100 million a year, funding crime and, increasingly, terrorism. Does he accept that we are now close to a tipping point on that vital trade route? Will he work with international partners to boost the anti-piracy forces that he has mentioned, and will he consider revising their rules of engagement?
I am grateful to the shadow Minister for his questions. I would not say that we were at a tipping point, but the problem has got worse. The pirates now have greater capability, as they can deploy much further out into the ocean through their use of mother ships. The Royal Navy is keeping the rules of engagement under review at all times, and, as I have said, we have a ministerial working party that is looking at every single option for the future.
The hon. Lady will know that the status of East Jerusalem is fiercely contested, and that this raises political tensions. The United Kingdom takes the view that East Jerusalem is occupied territory under international law, which is why we have called on Israel to cease building settlements, and to stop the evictions and demolitions. Such actions only obstruct the peace process, under which Jerusalem’s final status will be settled.
The draft resolution has not yet come forward for a vote. We are conscious of the terms in which it has been drawn, and the House will be well aware of our views on settlements. We hope to see a return to direct negotiations in which all these matters can be properly considered in order to achieve the settlement that we all want.
Recent leaks confirm that the Israelis and the Palestinians were making significant progress on agreeing on how to share Jerusalem as part of a negotiated agreement. What is the Minister saying to both sides to encourage them to resume negotiations?
The hon. Lady takes a close interest in these matters, and she will appreciate that the resolution to the question of Jerusalem’s status will come about only through a negotiated settlement. We are working very hard with both sides. I was in Israel and Palestine recently, talking to Ministers there, as was my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. We have also been working with other partners behind the scenes to try to ensure that there are no obstructions to a return to negotiations, and that the settlement issue is not a barrier to those discussions. There are other issues relating to borders, refugees and Jerusalem that must be discussed, and the sooner the parties get together, the better.
Christmas Day Service (Cyprus)
We have not had discussions in an EU context on this deeply regrettable incident, but my officials in Nicosia have met Archbishop Chrysostomos and made representations to senior political figures in the north of the island to emphasise the importance that we accord to allowing people in all parts of Cyprus to practise their religion freely.
Commonwealth (UK Role)
I remain committed to strengthening the UK’s relationship with the Commonwealth and ensuring that we are at the centre of plans to reinvigorate this unique organisation for the benefit of all its current and future members. This ready-made network can further our foreign policy and economic interests.
There are huge opportunities to do that. I was the first Foreign Secretary for 17 years to go to Australia. There was a certain omission in that respect under the previous Government. I spoke there to the Australian British Chamber of Commerce, which revealed tremendous opportunities further to boost trade and the economic ties between our countries. The Commonwealth now accounts for a growing share of world trade, so that is an added dimension to the importance of that remarkable organisation.
As the Foreign Secretary knows, the previous Government had started negotiations and discussions about the Act of Settlement with other Commonwealth countries that share our monarch as their Head of State. Does he agree that the provisions that mean that no Catholic or anyone who does not subscribe to the Church of England can become monarch are outdated, as are the rules on male primogeniture? Will he pursue those conversations with those countries?
I recognise the force of the arguments about something that was originally set out more than 300 years ago. Among the issues of middle east peace, the Iranian nuclear programme and so on, I have not yet put that at the top of my list to negotiate with other Governments, but it is a legitimate issue for the long term, on which all the Commonwealth Governments with the Queen as Head of State would have to be consulted and agree.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Commonwealth countries are the emerging markets of the future? As he develops his hard-headed internationalism, will he recognise that the network that is the Commonwealth, together with our influence, represent a huge opportunity for the United Kingdom?
Indeed. The Commonwealth now includes 54 nations on six continents, with 31% of the world’s population. It has, as I said, an increasing share of the world’s trade, and the proportion of the members of the Commonwealth’s trade with each other is growing, so it is not an organisation of the past. It will have increasing importance in the future.
Although it is the long-standing policy of successive Governments that, ultimately, the issue of Kashmir is one for the Governments of India and Pakistan to find an answer to while taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people, we recognise the deep concern that many MPs feel. We are keen to encourage the confidence-building measures that are emerging from the intermittent but continuing bilateral discussions between India and Pakistan, which we hope to see progress this year.
Surely the Foreign Office must be concerned at the ongoing problems with curfews and human rights abuses that are being reported in Kashmir. Will the Minister agree to meet a cross-party delegation of Members of Parliament specifically to address the need for demilitarisation and, we hope, a peaceful dialogue that involves the Kashmiri people themselves?
We do indeed acknowledge exactly what the hon. Gentleman has said. We apply United Kingdom funds to confidence-building measures, conflict prevention and human rights monitoring on both sides of the line of control, with a view to assisting in dealing with the difficult issues that have been particularly highlighted in the past year. The short answer to his question is yes, of course I will meet a delegation of all-party colleagues.
I called the outgoing Foreign Minister of the Tunisian Government last week to urge the Tunisian Government to reach out to the Opposition. We welcome the reshuffle that was announced on 27 January. The Tunisian Government should now build on that by implementing reform commitments, and I hope they will also ask for assistance not only in elections, but in building democratic institutions.
Does the Foreign Secretary recognise that the mass demonstrations in Tunisia may have gone off the screens, but they have not gone off the streets of the capital, and that demands are still being made there for human rights, freedom and democracy, an end to one-party rule and, above all, economic justice, because the neo-liberal economics has led to massive levels of youth unemployment, which has sparked off the wave of revolt across north Africa?
Broadly, yes. We should welcome the steps taken by the Tunisian authorities to liberalise the media, release many political prisoners and establish commissions to investigate corruption and human rights abuses during the recent unrest. We discussed this at the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union yesterday and are ready in the EU to provide immediate assistance to prepare and organise the electoral process and support a genuine democratic transition.
British Citizens (Pakistan)
I met the high commissioner of Pakistan yesterday to discuss with him a number of cases that have been raised by hon. Members during the course of this year about UK residents who, sadly, have been killed in Pakistan. The United Kingdom expects the very best attention to ensure that justice is done in all these cases, and I appreciated the high commissioner’s interest and willingness to assist.
The Minister will be aware of the representations that I have made on behalf of a constituent, Ms Ashiq, and the challenges that her family has faced since her father was murdered in Pakistan in June 2009 in securing information and responses from the authorities about their efforts to apprehend and prosecute his killers. I know that the Minister has raised these issues with the Pakistan authorities, which are keen to be helpful, but will he update the House on what steps he has taken to ensure that his officials play an active role in helping the families of British citizens who are killed abroad to receive the appropriate support and assistance from our consulates?
Sadly, during the course of the past year, 12 UK residents have been killed in Pakistan, mostly involving family or property disputes. I have taken the opportunity raised by those cases to ensure that our post understands full well the concerns that are raised by families and Members of Parliament here, and that we do all that we can with the authorities in trying to find out information and ensure justice. There is a limit to what we can do. Pakistan is a sovereign country with a sovereign criminal system, but our consular authorities do as much as they possibly can. I welcome the assistance and intervention of the high commissioner, which might lead to continued pressure being applied on the authorities to do even more, and I hope that the hon. Lady has a successful visit to Pakistan shortly with colleagues to see what more can be done there.
Against a background of huge protests in Cairo today, we welcome Vice-President Suleiman’s statement that he intends to contact opposition parties to discuss political reform, but the new cabinet appointed by President Mubarak this week is disappointing in that it does not constitute the broad-based representative Government whom the people of Egypt seem to be seeking, and we continue to make this clear to the Egyptian authorities.
A huge amount of work is being done by our consular staff, by our embassy, by the rapid deployment team that we have sent to Cairo, and we are taking every step possible to assure the safety of those people. We have been advising people in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez to leave if they can and if they have no pressing reason to remain. The vast majority of those seeking to do so have been able to do so on commercial flights, but I have also decided to send a charter aircraft to enable further British nationals to leave the country, if they wish to do so. That will set off for Egypt tomorrow and I will send further flights if necessary to ensure that people are able to leave if they wish to do so. But, of course, many remain, doing their work in Egypt, and we should salute the work they are doing.
T2. My constituent, Michael Hearn, was arrested on 8 December 2010 for a technical infringement of a local law by his employer, an infringement that he did not himself commit, and he has been in jail in Tawfiq detention centre in Afghanistan ever since then. I wrote last month to the Foreign Secretary to seek his intervention in this matter. Can my hon. Friend assure the House that he is doing everything possible to secure Mr. Hearn’s release? (37166)
Our consular officials have been in touch with Mr Hearn. They had a meeting with him as recently as 24 January, and he has access to legal advisers, and our consular officials have been in touch with them. We cannot intervene in the Afghanistan judicial process to seek an individual’s release, but we are doing all that we can to ensure his welfare and to make sure that he is in the centre that he wishes to be in rather than in prison. We will continue to support him during his detention and support the lawyers in their legal processes.
I note and welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary is due to speak to Vice-President Suleiman after questions this afternoon. Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to share with the House what specific steps he will be encouraging the vice-president to now take, beyond the discussions that he has already mentioned, to ensure the orderly transition to free and fair elections and the broad-based Government that EU Foreign Ministers agreed upon yesterday?
That is the direction in which we would like the Egyptian authorities to move. As I have said, it is disappointing that the new Cabinet does not constitute the broad-based Administration that we, the rest of the EU and so many of Egypt’s friends around the world were looking for. We continue to urge the Egyptian authorities to take the necessary steps to form such a Government to ensure that real, visible and believable reform is presented to the people of Egypt, as well as effective guarantees of free and fair elections. We think that it is necessary for them to respond to the mood and demands of the Egyptian people and to do so quickly if there is to be an orderly transition, rather than a violent and disorderly situation.
T7. Between now and 2016, the UK will hand over almost £50 billion of hard-pressed British taxpayers’ money to the European Union. Will the Foreign Secretary give hard-pressed constituents and British taxpayers an assurance that he will work with colleagues across all Government Departments to reduce that vast contribution, which could be better spent keeping the deficit low in this country and improving public services? (37171)
As my hon. Friend knows, we inherited from the previous Government a budget settlement that gave away a huge chunk of the UK rebate and bound us to increased contributions to the EU, but I assure her and her constituents that every Minister in this Government is committed to budgetary controls and to maximum economy, discipline and value for money in every aspect of European expenditure.
T3. A couple of months ago, the Ugandan gay rights campaigner David Kato asked me to raise in this Chamber the issue of the persecution of gay men and women in that country. Last week, David was beaten to death in his home in Kampala. Will the Foreign Secretary join me not only in condemning the murder, but in calling on the Ugandan Parliament and Ugandan politicians to cease the hateful and vile rhetoric that they deploy against gay people, which led directly to this murder, so that David Kato will have not died in vain? (37167)
We have made our view very clear to the Ugandan Government. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the tragic death of David Kato, who was a prominent Christian and gay rights activist, was a tragedy and have issued a statement of condolence, and I am glad that President Obama has as well. I hope that no effort will be spared in bringing the perpetrators of this wicked crime to justice.
Following the premature release of al-Megrahi, do the Government have any plans to send more NHS cancer patients to Libya, given the better survival rate there? How does the Secretary of State feel this disgraceful leak will affect our relationship with the United States of America?
I detect from my hon. Friend’s question that she did not agree with the release of Mr Megrahi. Nether did I, and nor did my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, it was a decision taken by the Scottish Executive. On the question of relations with the United States, the Prime Minister undertook to have the Cabinet Secretary look at past papers on this case, and his report will be published shortly.
We are doing all we can to support the transitional federal Government and are pleased that the African Union mission in Somalia has come up to its mandated strength. We are working not only with the TFG, who must get their act together within the next seven months before their mandate runs out, but with the provincial Government of Somaliland and moderate clans in south and central Somalia.
Following the Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on the release of the Lockerbie bomber, does he not agree that the previous Government hid behind the fig leaf of devolution in order to release a mass terrorist on dubious commercial grounds? Will he take steps to ensure that such a thing never happens again?
T6. The Bribery Act 2010 was due to be implemented in April, but Ministers confirmed yesterday that it will now be delayed. Is the Foreign Secretary not concerned that that delay could diminish the international reputation of British industry, even though most British companies behave perfectly ethically? The legislation passed through Parliament with all-party support. (37170)
The reputation of British industry on that issue is very high throughout the world, and the reputation of the British Government—actually, of successive Governments—is high on that issue, too. Both parties in the coalition supported the Bribery Act when in opposition, we support it now, and it will be brought in rigorously, effectively and fairly.
The family of Dr Alastair Penney, who is shortly to be released from jail in Taiwan, are concerned about the arrangements for his transfer back to the UK—to ensure that any appropriate medical assistance can be given. Will my hon. Friend the Minister meet Dr Penney’s family to ensure that their concerns can be addressed?
I am aware of the case, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the diligence with which he has pursued it. I shall examine it again, and, if it requires further work or a meeting with him and officials from my Department, I shall make the necessary arrangements.
T8. Following the earlier question from my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns), it seems clear that the anti-homosexuality Bill that is before the Ugandan Parliament is creating terrifying conditions for lesbian, gay and transgendered people in Uganda. Will the Foreign Secretary consider the role that aid has to play in ensuring good human rights and in encouraging good governance? (37172)
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the issue again. Our high commissioner in Kampala has taken every appropriate opportunity to engage the Ugandan Government on the issue, and to make his views known on the anti-homosexuality Bill that was tabled in October 2009. I met President Museveni back in the summer, when I discussed the matter with him and made it very clear that we expected his Government to respect human rights, Christian rights, gay rights, and all rights.
Given the fluid and volatile situation in Egypt, my constituent, Mrs Hugget, and others do not wish to travel to Sharm el Sheikh. What advice can the Minister give them? Their travel companies are obliging them to take their holiday, even though they do not wish to go and their travel insurance will not apply.
We take great care over our travel advice, and we review it not only day by day, but hour by hour. Of course, our concentration is on getting out of the difficult areas the British nationals who are stranded there and wish to leave. We constantly review the advice on the Red sea resorts, but I have to advise my hon. Friend that her constituents should keep in close touch with the travel company. If we feel it necessary to change the advice, we will do so and work with the travel companies in doing so.
T9. Given the Navy’s policy of catch and release, is it not little wonder that the number of incidents of piracy and the average ransom demand have doubled over the past 12 months? Will the Minister take on board and bring up the idea of special courts in the region, so that we not only take the weight off Kenya, but bring more of those pirates to justice? (37173)
Since the coalition Government came to power, the Navy have not apprehended any pirates and simply sent them on their way. That happened a bit in the past, but it does not happen under this Government. We take the whole issue of piracy incredibly seriously, but it is absolutely vital that we build regional capacity to detain, try and imprison the pirates.
My right hon. Friend might be aware that I was lucky enough to be able to witness the end of the referendum in south Sudan the other day, and to witness the jubilation of the people there. Nevertheless, there is huge corruption, very little infrastructure and very few skills to run a Government in that country. What role can the UK Government and the international community play in helping to form a new Government in south Sudan, if that is what the people have voted for?
I think we have a major role to play, and so do many other nations throughout the world with extensive development budgets. It will be a huge task to create the institutions for a functioning new state in the south of Sudan, but we will be there to assist with that through a diplomatic presence, a development programme and the provision of expertise, so the south Sudanese will find in the United Kingdom and in many other nations people who are ready and willing to help.
The Foreign Secretary clearly understands the added urgency presented by events in Egypt and elsewhere in making progress on the middle east peace process. Is not now the time for the Quartet or the United States, or both, to present, in the admirable way that he did earlier at the Dispatch Box, their final framework for a settlement to the United Nations to help to break the impasse?
A meeting of the Quartet is planned for this weekend. I hope that it will be possible for the Quartet or the United States to set out the parameters within which everyone should now be working on the middle east peace process. I cannot guarantee that that will happen, but the British Government would certainly like it to happen. We think there should be a real urgency to the middle east process, with a way back into the direct talks, and we are doing our utmost to assist in that. Over the past two weeks, I have held conversations about this with President Abbas, with the Israeli Foreign Minister and, of course, with Secretary Clinton. It is time, yes, to set out parameters, including basing a settlement on the 1967 borders.
Following the latest meeting of the Secretary-General with both Cypriot leaders, will the Secretary of State reaffirm, not least as a guarantor power, this country’s commitment to seeing a solution to the problem of Cyprus, whose division has scarred both the island and Europe for far too long?
The Foreign Secretary said earlier that he was helping south Sudan. No doubt he is pleased at the emergence of a new independent nation in the international community. What representations is he making about the deferred referendum in Abyei?
There has been a referendum in the south of Sudan in which it is thought that 99% of people voted for independence. The hon. Gentleman should not get too excited about the parallels in this case. The question of Abyei is one of the outstanding issues that requires negotiation between north and south as part of the comprehensive peace agreement. It is the major stumbling block in those negotiations, which need to be completed before 9 July. The south of Sudan is heading for independence, and we are doing everything we can to assist, including offering expertise in the demarcation of the border. I have had two conversations with former President Mbeki of South Africa, who is trying to bring the parties together, and we will continue to give every diplomatic assistance.
Zimbabwe used to be part of the bread basket of Africa, but for many years now it has been a basket case. Events unfolding in Zimbabwe over the next 12 months may well shape its future for many years to come. What steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking to ensure free and fair elections in Zimbabwe and a return to true democratic government?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that question. Zimbabwe is facing a dramatic year. We are working closely with the South Africans, who are putting together a road map towards credible elections. It is most likely that there will be a referendum on the new constitution some time this spring or summer. It is absolutely essential that it goes smoothly and that it is free and fair and completely credible, because it will be observed very closely as the forerunner for presidential and parliamentary elections possibly later this year or next year.
The Secretary of State will shortly be appointing some very senior officials to some of the most important diplomatic posts of our nation. Will he assure the House that those who represent Her Majesty and the Government abroad, especially in Europe, speak and read, as the norm, a language other than English?
Yes, British diplomats are renowned for their language skills. That is why I was very disappointed when the Government whom the right hon. Gentleman supported closed the Foreign Office language school two years ago. It is a difficult thing to put back together. I am now looking not so much at putting it back together but at increasing the learning of hard languages in the Foreign Office. I will be allocating additional funds—[Interruption.] This is the answer to the question. I will be allocating additional funds for the learning of hard languages in the Foreign Office. It is very important that people who go to embassies, including around Europe, are able to speak those languages.
Probably the worst place in the world at the moment to be female or a child is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where dreadful violations of human rights have been occurring, particularly in the east. Can the Secretary of State please give me his assessment of the current situation, especially as UN forces intend to withdraw in June this year?
I share my hon. Friend’s concern about what is happening in the east of the DRC, particularly in the Kivus. We are working closely with a number of non-governmental organisations, and with MONUSCO, the UN mission in the DRC. We will focus relentlessly and tirelessly on the points that he raised.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Early in Foreign Office questions, the Foreign Secretary referred to a written statement that was tabled today. I went to the Vote Office during questions and tried to get a copy of that statement. It was not there. I was told that the Library had received it at 10.10 this morning, but that copies were not available in the Vote Office. Please can we ensure that Departments make sure that the Vote Office gets statements, particularly those that are referred to directly in the questions that are taking place at the time?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last Thursday in Transport questions, I asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether the Government’s serious proposals concerning the coastguard were accompanied by a proper risk assessment. He replied:
“Of course the proposals have been risk-assessed.”—[Official Report, 27 January 2011; Vol. 522, c. 436.]
However, I was told in Stornoway yesterday and at a briefing in the House of Commons this afternoon by the chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency that no formal risk assessment has been done on the Government’s serious proposals for the reorganisation of the coastguard. Those proposals worry people in my constituency quite a lot, given the weather and the volume of traffic. Can we have the Secretary of State for Transport back in the House to clarify exactly what is happening and, with a bit of luck, to bring forward the risk assessment that he said had been done?
NHS Acute Medical and Surgical Services (Working Time Directive)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to conduct an assessment of the impact of the European Union Working Time Directive on NHS acute medical and surgical services; to require the Secretary of State to make provision to exempt NHS acute medical and surgical services from the European Union Working Time Directive in the light of that assessment if certain conditions are met; and for connected purposes.
Before I start, I must declare an interest. My father has been a consultant orthopaedic surgeon in Bristol for more than 30 years and has just retired. If growing up in a medical family has taught me anything—I have seen the NHS under a succession of Conservative and Labour Governments—it is that politicians must listen to the professionals who know the most about the NHS, medicine and patients: the doctors. If politics is to serve the place outside these four walls, it has to get real. It has to listen to real people and get lessons from the real professionals working in our hospitals today.
I bring the Bill before the House for one reason: the people who know best about patient care—the doctors—have been raising the alarm to say that the 48-hour European working time directive is endangering patient safety. That is serious, and it is not what the directive was ever intended to do. The directive was designed to ensure that workers were not subjected to overlong working hours and were entitled to reasonable pay and conditions, time off and paid leave. In reality, that well-meaning directive is endangering patient safety in four key ways. I will expand on those four factors in the brief time that I have, because I believe that they speak for themselves. First, continuity of care is being eroded. Secondly, trainee doctors are being denied the training that they need. Thirdly, appropriate clinical expertise is not available to patients when they need it, and fourthly, I add with a certain grim irony that junior and senior doctors are more exhausted by the shift rotas that the directive imposes than they were before.
I shall elaborate. Continuity of care is sometimes an overlooked factor of medical health care, but it is absolutely key. It is what allows professionals to use their professional expertise on a patient. That link between the patient and the person caring for them is vital, but the shift rota system that has been imposed under the European working time directive has meant that there are far more handovers of patients to a new doctor. At those handover points, complications arise because crucial information can be missed out and not passed on. Handovers did occur under the old system, but they were far less frequent.
From the patient’s point of view, the shift system has meant that instead of having one or two doctors whom they know and begin to trust, and who have seen them from the beginning to the end of their treatment, patients are subjected to a seemingly never-ending conveyor belt of doctors. From the doctor’s point of view, there is a kind of patient pass the parcel. That absolutely must stop. It is no good for the patient’s care, no good for their experience of their treatment and it is clinically risky. In fact, a third of all doctors have said that since the European working time directive was implemented, they have seen significant deterioration in patients over the handover period.
The training of our doctors for the future is also suffering. The Royal College of Surgeons has estimated that 400,000 hours of surgical time are lost every single month. It does not take a genius to work out that if the trainees are not getting the hours in, they cannot get the training that they need. Two thirds of trainees have said that they have seen significant deterioration in their training in the short time that the working time directive has been fully implemented. The irony is that the directive was supposed to alleviate the exhaustion of junior doctors, but because all their hours are clumped together in one go, it has actually led to more exhaustion. More exhausted doctors are getting less training, and it does not need me to expand on that for all Members to see that it is madness.
Particularly worrying from a patient’s point of view is that clinical expertise is not there when it is needed. If there are fewer people available, there are fewer specialist doctors when they are needed. For example, a doctor has told me that whereas before there would have been an orthopaedic senior house officer, a urology junior doctor and a general surgery SHO on duty at night in case any complications arose, under the working time directive, there might be only the general surgery SHO. If a complication arises with a patient’s treatment, they will not have the specialist doctor available to them that they would have had before the directive was imposed.
Attempts to solve the problem are very expensive, and I do not just mean the human cost, which is obviously the key issue. There is also the economic cost. The attempts to patch up the gaps left in the provision of health care professionals and doctors has led to an explosion in the number of NHS hospital locums being employed. The cost of that to the public purse has doubled in the past two years to a staggering £700 million, and the cost of surgical NHS locums has also doubled.
This cannot be allowed to continue. No one is advocating a situation in which junior doctors work too long to be able to perform their job, and the RCS has mentioned a 65-hour working limit. However, under the current arrangements, doctors are more exhausted, there is less training and patient safety is being compromised. That was never the intention behind the directive, and there are ways in which the Government can act. The police and armed forces already have an exemption from the directive. My Bill calls for the reality of the European working time directive to be assessed properly and for appropriate action to be taken to allow doctors to look after their patients in the way that they intended when they went into the profession.
We all have constituents who are patients and those who are junior doctors. No Member would seek to put their constituents’ safety at risk, and no Member would seek to stifle junior doctors’ desire and ability to perform the job that they went into the profession to do. That is why I seek to bring the Bill before the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Charlotte Leslie, Dr Phillip Lee, Jack Lopresti, Craig Whittaker, Dr Sarah Wollaston, John Hemming, Rebecca Harris, Nick de Bois, Damian Hinds, Stephen Phillips and Stephen Barclay present the Bill.
Charlotte Leslie accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 10 June, and to be printed (Bill 140).
European Union Bill
[5th Allocated Day]
[Relevant document: The Fifteenth Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, The EU Bill: Restrictions on Treaties and Decisions relating to the EU, HC 682.]
Further considered in Committee
[Mr Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]
Protocol on MEPs: approval, and addition to list of treaties
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The first set of clauses under consideration in Committee this afternoon relate to the transitional protocol on Members of the European Parliament, which is covered in clauses 15, 16 and 17, and schedule 2. In sum, the provisions allow for a technical change that permits a temporary increase in the number of MEPs, including one additional Member from the UK.
It might be helpful to give some background to the protocol before turning to the detail on the clauses, so that colleagues on both sides of the Committee understand the context of our proposals. The European Union treaties, as amended by the treaty of Lisbon, provide for the allocation of 18 additional MEPs to 12 member states, including one additional MEP for the UK. The treaties also provide that the number of MEPs from Germany should be reduced by three. However, the treaty of the European Union, as amended by Lisbon, states that the European Parliament shall not exceed 750 members in number, plus the President, which makes a total of 751, and that no single member state will be allocated more than 96 seats. Before the Lisbon treaty, Germany had 99 MEPs. Its allocation has therefore been reduced to 96 seats to fit within the maximum number permitted by the treaties.
The TEU also states that the European Council shall adopt a decision establishing the composition of the European Parliament. Article 2 of protocol 36 to the treaties—on transitional provisions—reaffirms that and states that the decision
“shall be adopted in good time before the 2009 European Parliament elections”.
However, as the Committee will be aware, given the Irish rejection of the Lisbon treaty in its first referendum on the matter and the additional guarantees sought by Ireland in 2009 in the wake of that, there was a delay in the ratification of the Lisbon treaty by all member states—personally, I wish it had been more than a delay—and therefore a delay to the treaty entering into force.
As a result, and contrary to the relevant provision in the TEU, the 2009 European elections actually took place before any European Council decision was adopted. Those elections were therefore held in accordance with the provisions of the Nice treaty, under which the European Parliament comprises 736 MEPs.
The European Council had already agreed what to do in that situation. Back in December 2008, it agreed that, should the Lisbon treaty come into force after the 2009 European parliamentary elections, a transitional protocol would be agreed to permit those member states that gained MEPs as a result of the Lisbon treaty to elect their additional MEPs during the current European parliamentary term. This would mean that they would not have to wait until the next round of European parliamentary elections in 2014, when those changes would come into force automatically, in accordance with the treaty of Lisbon.
The arrival of 18 additional MEPs during the 2009-14 parliamentary term increases the number from 736 to 754—three more than the maximum permitted by the EU treaties, and transitional arrangements are therefore needed to enable the number of MEPs to exceed temporarily the limit of 751 laid down in article 14(2) of the treaty on European Union.
I am glad to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the cost of these additional MEPs will be provided for out of the European Parliament’s budget; no additional contribution is required from the United Kingdom or any other member state. That is perfectly right, and the European Parliament will already have made provision in its budget for these additional costs.
The European Council also agreed that the transitional protocol should provide that the three German MEPs who would no longer have a seat in the European Parliament would not have to stand down in the middle of their term of office, because it is not possible under the treaties to curtail an MEP’s mandate during a parliamentary term. In order to make the required transitional changes, the member states of the EU agreed to a transitional protocol at a limited intergovernmental conference on 23 June 2010, under the ordinary revision procedure. Although the ORP was used, the European Parliament had previously agreed not to convene a convention of representatives of the EU institutions, member state Governments and national Parliaments, because the European Parliament recognised the very limited scope of the proposed treaty change.
The IGC was convened in the margin of the Conference of Permanent Representatives—known as COREPER—with the agreement of Ministers of each member state. IGCs are occasionally convened in COREPER meetings for single-issue matters, such as the approval of appointments of judges to the Court of Justice, and one was used on this occasion because the treaty change in question concerned a single, time-bound issue already agreed by the Heads of Government and Heads of State at the European Council, rather than a more substantial renegotiation or re-opening of the EU’s treaties. I then announced to the House via a written ministerial statement on 6 July last year, at column 7WS, that the transitional protocol had been agreed.
As with any treaty change, the protocol now requires that all member states ratify it before it can enter into force. As I have already made clear in our earlier debates in Committee, it is for each member state, when it comes to any treaty amendment, to determine whether and how it carries out its own national procedures for approval and ratification. In the United Kingdom at present, any amendment to the EU treaties conducted under the ordinary revision procedure—as was the case here—can be ratified by the UK only if it is approved by Act of Parliament. This is set out in section 5 of the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008.
Parliamentary approval of the transitional protocol is therefore required by Act before the protocol can be ratified in the UK. Clause 15 of the Bill therefore provides for this parliamentary approval. Subject to Parliament’s approval, the legislation will of course require that any treaty change conducted under either the ORP or the simplified revision procedure would in future need parliamentary approval by Act. Since what we are debating is a technical change to the treaty that relates merely to the number of MEPs, and does not transfer any power or competence from the UK to the EU, it does not meet the requirements to hold a referendum. However, as the provisions in the 2008 Act require approval by Act of Parliament, we have decided to use them to seek the approval of Parliament. Section 5 of the 2008 Act would subsequently be repealed, as a consequence of clause 14, and replaced by the provisions in clauses 2 and 3 in any future decisions.
It is important to note that the additional MEPs are entitled to take their seats following the next European parliamentary elections in 2014 in any case, regardless of what the Committee determines this afternoon. The transitional protocol simply means that those people will be able to do that earlier than 2014, because the treaties would have provided for their election in 2009 had the Lisbon treaty been in force then, as was anticipated by the then Heads of Government and Heads of State. At the 2014 European parliamentary elections the additional MEPs, along with every other MEP, will be elected in the usual way, according to each member state’s practice. As none of the additional MEPs could take up their places until every member state had ratified the transitional protocol, the Government have continued with our predecessor’s approach, and we now seek Parliament’s approval to ratify this treaty change.
The protocol states that it will enter into force on 1 December 2010, provided that all the instruments of ratification have been deposited. Failing that, the protocol would enter into force on the first day of the month after the last member state ratifying the protocol had done so. Clearly we have passed that somewhat ambitious deadline already, and it is for each member state to decide whether, how and when to approve ratification. However, it is our intention to ratify as soon as possible, subject to Parliament’s approval. As I have made clear, we are discussing a short-term transitional measure, until the next European parliamentary elections, which are due to take place in June 2014. It does not transfer power or competence, and so does not require the people’s consent in a referendum, but it is a treaty change. As such, it requires the approval of this Parliament through primary legislation. I hope that members of the Committee will be able to approve this temporary measure.
Let me say at the outset what a pleasure it is again to be debating the Bill with the Minister and the select group of Members currently in the Chamber. We welcome the provisions that the Government have set out to give parliamentary approval to the allocation of the UK’s extra seat in the European Parliament. Having worked in the European Parliament for some time, I know the important role that it plays, but I would like to ask the Minister some questions of clarification.
Can the Minister clarify why the so-called Sainte-Laguë process was chosen to allocate the UK’s extra seat in the European Parliament to the west midlands region? I understand that the method was set out in the Electoral Commission report in October last year. What consultation took place between the Government and the Electoral Commission on choosing that method? Was a joint decision made, or was it the decision of the commission or the Government? Did the Government consider any other method to allocate the extra seat, and if so, which? Which methods are being used by other member states to allocate extra seats?
The explanatory note says that the west midlands had the lowest number of electors per MP according to the current electoral register, and on that basis the decision was made to allocate the extra seat. It is perhaps ironic that, although the west midlands will be given one extra MEP, owing to the Government’s plans it is set to lose several MPs. Which electoral register did the Government consider when making their decision: the one from December last year or the year before? Can the Minister tell the Committee what progress other member states are making on ratifying the protocol to increase the number of MEPs, and when he expects the UK to take up its extra seat in the European Parliament?
The Minister and my hon. Friend have set out clearly the technical reasons for adopting the clause, and I am sure that the Committee will not divide on it. Let me also tell the Minister that it is a great pleasure to have someone on the Front Bench from this Government advocating an increase in parliamentary representation. Whereas the other place so long resisted the culling of foxes, we are shortly to have a sharp culling of MPs, with a reduction in representation. It is therefore good that we are increasing representation in the European Parliament under the current proposal.
I am listening with interest to the right hon. Gentleman on the issue of increasing the number of Members. Does he not share my concern that any increase in the number of elected Members will also see a proportionate increase in costs, pensions and office staff, which, sadly, this country cannot choose to afford?
Let us return to the clause, which is relevant to the European Parliament. During the period in which the Minister stays in office—I hope he stays there for a long time, or for as long as this Government exist—I invite him to see whether he can find allies in Europe for re-examining the way in which the European Parliament is constituted and elected. The European Parliament and its 750 Members are presently elected in one fell swoop and often in response to national political feelings for the Government of the day. To Strasbourg, then, are sent the opponents of whoever might be the national Government of the day. The European Parliament vote is often a protest vote—not in all countries, but in many, including very much our own.
Could we look at electing the European Parliament in the same way as the American Senate—in thirds every two or three years, rather than in one fell swoop through an election every five years? Could we allocate some European Parliament seats following the election of national Parliaments so that the people in the European Parliament more adequately reflected the will of the people as expressed in individual nation states? We have 750 Members of the European Parliament in comparison with about 7,000 to 8,000 national parliamentarians, who feel excluded largely from the European decision-making process.
As I patrol the different European capitals, I find that issue to be one of increasing concern—and it does not matter whether one is a pro-European or a Eurosceptic. Whether they are parliamentarians in the Bundestag or the Assemblée Nationale, in the Cortes in Spain or the Riksdag in Sweden, they do not feel as nationally elected MPs that they have much say over the decisions that relate to European Union membership—decisions either taken by national Governments on our behalf or taken collectively by the European Union. Might there be a case for an upper House in the European Parliament, nominated by—
I am tempted to say—though, thank goodness, oral amendments are not allowed in Committee of the whole House—that the increase in MEPs at the heart of this part of the Bill could be allocated to representatives from national Parliaments at some future date. I am just stretching the limits of order—[Interruption.] I am about to sit down, Mr Hoyle. I am inviting the Minister to open a debate about how to make the European Parliament more representative and more reflective of the national will in the different countries that constitute the EU. That might require a small treaty change, but not, I am sure, a significant one, so we would not need to initiate the referendum provisions.
We often knock the European Parliament because of expenses or costs or decisions it has taken that we do not like, which is frankly rather childish. What we need is a more serious debate about making the European Parliament more effective, more efficient and more representative—leaving aside those who want to abolish it or to withdraw completely from it. I invite the Minister to engage with that debate, although he may well hope that once proceedings on the Bill are concluded there will be no more debate about the EU on his side of the House for the next few years.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not give any weight to what the German constitutional court said in respect of democracy—that it lies not in the institutions of the European Union or its Parliament, but in those of the national state?
I thank my right hon. Friend, as always, for being so generous.
No doubt we should welcome the extra seat in the European Parliament as a small extension of democracy, but my right hon. Friend is right about accountability. Would it not be a good idea for some powers to be repatriated to national Parliaments, and would it not also be a good idea to return to single-Member, first-past-the-post seats in the European Parliament? Would that not increase accountability?
A number of the questions posed by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) invited me to move from clause 15 to clauses 16 and 17. If you are willing to allow me to stray on to that territory, Mr Hoyle, I shall be able to reply to her questions now and perhaps speak more formally later when we deal with those clauses; otherwise I shall have to delay my responses to her.
The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) made his points very forcefully. I agree with him that there is a disconnection between decisions made by national legislatures in just about every member state and decisions made in the European Parliament—or in Europe more generally—on behalf of those countries, and I think it important for us to consider how to remedy that democratic deficit. However, I do not want to be drawn into a detailed discussion about the treaty changes which would need to be debated and negotiated to produce the outcome that the right hon. Gentleman seeks, and which would have to command unanimous agreement among all member states and, indeed, the European Parliament itself.
Let me say two things about the European Parliament. First, it does an important job. Whatever view I, or any other Member present, may take on whether or not it should have particular powers, my contacts with MEPs of all parties have given me the impression that, for the most part, they take their duties of scrutinising and seeking to amend European legislation very seriously. As a Government and as a Parliament, we need to have regard to and engage consistently with MEPs if we are to pursue successfully the national objectives of the United Kingdom through the European Union.
Secondly, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there is an unhealthy democratic gap between the way in which the European Parliament operates and the— in my opinion—correct belief held by most national legislatures that they are more directly accountable to the voters in their respective countries than are MEPs. That is, perhaps, particularly true in the United Kingdom, where there is a significant difference in the method of election: while MEPs are elected through a regional party list system, we in the House of Commons are elected to single-Member constituencies. The right hon. Gentleman has sketched what has the makings of a fruitful debate in the months and years to come.
Let me now deal with the various detailed points made by, in particular, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East. While I am tempted to deal at length on differences between the Sainte-Laguë and d’Hondt methods, that would probably reduce the number of Members attending the debate even further. I am happy to offer a seminar. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) indicates that he does not wish to be drawn into a debate about the respective merits of Sainte-Laguë and d’Hondt.
The answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East is that the Electoral Commission decided to use the Sainte-Laguë method following various consultations that it had carried out. There is a debate about whether we should move to that method when it comes to deciding how to elect Members of the European Parliament, but that is a matter for a future occasion.
The hon. Lady knows that the Electoral Commission is completely independent of the Government, so that question should properly be addressed to the chairman and the chief executive of the commission.
The history of this process is that on 22 September 2010 the Minister with responsibility for political and constitutional reform, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), wrote on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to the chair of the commission formally requesting a recommendation under section 3 of the European Parliament (Representation) Act 2003 as to which of the 12 UK electoral regions, for the purposes of European parliamentary elections, should receive the UK’s additional MEP seat. UK MEPs are, of course, elected on a regional basis from 12 electoral regions—Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and nine regions in England. In making the recommendation for the distribution of any Member of the European Parliament, the Electoral Commission is obliged to ensure that each electoral region is allocated at least three MEPs and that the ratio of registered electors to MEPs is, as far as possible, the same in each electoral region. The Electoral Commission process is independent of Government and, importantly, the Government are bound to accept its recommendation.
In allocating the seat, the Electoral Commission applied the Sainte-Laguë method, as the hon. Lady has said, following previous consultation exercises it had undertaken on the method to be used. It has indicated that the system has the advantage of enabling it to adhere to its statutory requirement that the ratio of registered electors to MEPs is as nearly as possible the same in each electoral region. On 26 October 2010, the Electoral Commission recommended that the west midlands should be allocated the additional MEP provided for in the transitional protocol, and published a report to that effect, a copy of which was placed in the Library. My hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for political and constitutional reform confirmed the commission’s decision to the House via a written ministerial statement on 26 October 2010—column 7WS in Hansard. Let me place on the record now, as my hon. Friend did at the time, the Government’s thanks to the commission for its work in producing that recommendation.
The hon. Lady is right that population trends and electoral numbers change over time. The answer to her direct question is that the December 2009 electoral register was used in making the calculation and the recommendation that the west midlands should receive the additional seat, but I want to make it clear to the Committee today, as the Government have stated publicly on previous occasions, that if it became likely while the Bill remained under consideration by either House that any changes to electoral registration data would result in a different UK electoral region gaining the seat, we would seek a revised recommendation from the Electoral Commission. We have acted on the basis of the December 2009 register, but if the evidence of new registers suggests that a region other than the west midlands should get the seat, we would revert to the commission for a further recommendation.
We are, of course, in a rather unusual situation with European Parliament elections, in that Gibraltar is included, and Gibraltar shares Members of the European Parliament with the south-west of England. What methods for determining the electors in Gibraltar have been used in the calculations?
I think that is a matter for the Electoral Commission. It advises that it has used the Sainte-Laguë method throughout, and in comparing electorates for each region it would have taken the Gibraltar electorate into account when making its calculation for the south-west. I undertake to double-check what I have just told the hon. Gentleman; if I have inadvertently led him up the garden path, I will of course correct that on the record, but I have confidence that the Electoral Commission has done its job properly.
I am listening with profound interest to my hon. Friend’s remarks. Does he share my concern that, to the public outside, seemingly topping up the gravy train rather than culling it—perhaps expanding the size of the electorate for existing MEPs rather than increasing the number of MEPs—might not, in today’s environment of cuts, be met with a degree of approval?
The changes to the distribution of MEPs between member states arose from new calculations about the populations of the different member states. Just as we have boundary reviews from time to time in the United Kingdom to reflect the growth of electorates in some places and the reduction in others, it is right that such a process should take place at the European level.
My hon. Friend makes a more fundamental point in her intervention, in implicitly arguing that there should be a significant overall reduction in the number of European legislators. I understand that argument, and I am certainly very much in the camp of those who argue that the European Parliament, like every other European Union institution, should be looking to reduce its expenditure rather than expect it automatically to increase. I would say just one word of caution to my hon. Friend, though. One consequence of reducing the number of MEPs overall would be either that the representation of the smallest member states would disappear completely or, if they were allowed a guaranteed minimum number of MEPs, that they would be disproportionately over-represented compared with the larger member states. The larger member states, such as ourselves, would suffer the greatest cuts in our representation if the smallest were protected, and potentially see a reduction in our influence over the European Parliament.
I think the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) is demonstrating that he has political ambitions as yet unfulfilled.
I can now assure the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) that expert advice has reached me confirming that my trust in the Electoral Commission was well placed and that the electorate of Gibraltar were indeed considered in the context of the south-west region and assessed in accordance with the Sainte-Laguë system.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East asked me about the different options for selecting the additional MEPs. The protocol allows member states to choose between three options. First, member states could use the 2009 European parliamentary election results and elect the additional MEPs as if the additional seats had existed at the time of those 2009 elections. That is the method that we have chosen.
The second option would be to hold a by-election. In this case, that would mean holding a by-election in the west midlands region for a single MEP at an estimated cost of perhaps £10 million. The third option would be for member states to appoint temporarily one of their national parliamentarians to become the new MEP for the remainder of the current European parliamentary term. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East indicates that the hon. Member for Luton North or perhaps the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) might be candidates in such circumstances.
The previous Government decided in February 2010 that the UK’s additional MEP would be elected by reference to the results of the most recent European parliamentary elections, as though the additional seat had existed at that time. The present Government have continued our predecessor’s chosen approach, and the clauses are framed in that way. That is also the method used by the great majority of other member states that are gaining MEPs. In fact, some member states elected additional MEPs during the 2009 elections on the basis that they could take up their seats only once the transitional protocol had come into force.
Our chosen method avoids the delay and the cost associated with a by-election and would allow us to return the additional MEP as soon as possible after the approval of the relevant provision in the Bill. It also has the merit of being exactly the same method that we use in any case to fill a vacant British seat in the European Parliament after the death or resignation of an elected MEP. Again, these clauses and schedule 2 would apply only until the additional seat had been filled and until the next European parliamentary election, which is scheduled for 2014.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 15 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Election of additional MEP
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
May I briefly ask the Minister an additional question on the extra MEP, simply to gain some broader context? He mentions correctly that other member states have additional MEPs. Of course, as he points out, all member states must agree to adopt the necessary legislative procedures to bring about such MEPs, but what is the time scale? We are dealing with the situation now. I wonder whether other EU member states have had an opportunity to alter their legislation to bring out such MEPs. Are we waiting for them to do so? What is the time scale? That obviously has a bearing on when the MEP from the west midlands can take her seat.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I apologise for having overlooked that question when it came from the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds). The most sensible thing for me to do would be to write to the hon. Gentleman with a full list and to deposit a copy of that letter in the Library for the information of all Members. However, the latest information available to me is that in respect of the other member states that are gaining MEPs—or, indeed, other member states generally, because the protocol must be ratified by all 27 of them, whether they gain or lose MEPs, or whether there is no difference in the number of MEPs from a country—something like two thirds to three quarters of member states have reached the stage of notifying their accession to the proposal, but others have not done so. Germany, for example, has debated the measure in the Bundestag, but my understanding is that Germany has not yet ratified it. We are awaiting news on where France is going. Some of the others, including Hungary, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Malta, have gone a considerable distance towards ratification already, but we are not right at the back of the pack, by any means. My expectation is that this measure will probably be ratified by all 27 member states later this year, but it could slip into 2012, because each member state can decide how high a priority it gives to this measure. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman an adequate holding answer for now, but I undertake to write to him with chapter and verse as soon as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 17 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Election of additional MEP
Question proposed, That the schedule be the Second schedule to the Bill.
It might be helpful if I set out in a little more detail the provisions in schedule 2, because it also deals with the procedures to be followed in the admittedly unlikely event that we were unable to fill the vacancy for the additional MEP by looking at the party lists as they were constituted in 2009.
As I have explained, clause 17 provides for the method of electing and returning the UK’s additional MEP. Schedule 2 provides a series of detailed provisions to be used when undertaking the process to return that additional MEP. As a first step, the regional returning officer for the designated region—in this case, the west midlands—would be required to identify which registered party would have won the additional seat in accordance with the results of the European parliamentary elections of 4 June 2009, as though that seat had already been allocated to the west midlands at that time. Since there were no independent candidates in the west midlands at the 2009 elections, the schedule provides only for allocation to a registered party.
The regional returning officer would then be required to identify from the registered party’s list of candidates at the 2009 elections the candidate whose name appeared highest on the list. In doing so, the returning officer has to disregard those people who have already been returned as MEPs, or who have since died. For example, if the registered party had proposed six candidates in an electoral region and the first three candidates on that party’s list had been returned as MEPs, the returning officer would identify the fourth candidate on that party’s list as the next person to be returned as an MEP. That person is referred to as the first choice.
Schedule 2 provides that the returning officer then has a duty to contact the first choice to ask whether he or she will provide written confirmation of their willingness and their ability to be returned as the MEP. The returning officer would also ask the first choice to deliver a certificate signed by, or on behalf of, the nominating officer of the registered party, confirming that he or she may be elected.
Schedule 2 further sets out the process to take place if the returning officer is unable to contact the first choice candidate or if that person confirms that, for whatever reason, they are unwilling or unable to stand, or if they do not provide the certificate required by law. In order to maximise the independence of the process, and to make it clear that there is no Government gerrymandering involved, it shall be at the discretion of the regional returning officer to determine the length of the “reasonable period” involved.
If there has been no success with the first choice candidate, the returning officer should identify the next name on the registered party’s list of candidates. This candidate is referred to in the schedule as the subsequent choice, and the returning officer shall repeat the same process with that candidate. This process will continue until either the seat is filled or there are no more names on the registered party’s list of candidates.
Schedule 2 then sets out what would happen if the first choice candidate provided the required documentation after the regional returning officer had determined that it was appropriate to move on to the next individual. In that case, schedule 2 provides that the so-called prior choice would have forfeited their opportunity because they had previously been given adequate opportunity by the returning officer to provide the relevant documentation within a reasonable time. They would have to wait to see whether the process could be completed successfully with the current candidate being approached by the regional returning officer. If the returning officer had no success with that subsequent candidate, the earlier candidate could be allowed at that stage to provide documentation and stake a claim.
The schedule then sets out the process to take place when a candidate has returned the required documentation to the satisfaction of the regional returning officer. The returning officer has to declare publicly in writing that that person should be returned as an MEP, prepare a public statement containing relevant information concerning the process, and send copies of both documents to the Secretary of State.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is right that in drafting legislation, particularly on a matter as important as democratic representation, we make provision even for unlikely eventualities. If my hon. Friend will bear with me for a few seconds, I shall come to precisely the point that she identified.
When the returning officer has sent copies of the documents to the Secretary of State, the candidate will be confirmed and will be free to take up their seat as soon as the transitional protocol has entered into force. That depends on ratification having taken place in every member state.
Here I come to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main). Schedule 2 also provides that, in the event that none of the candidates on the relevant 2009 list was available or willing to be returned as an MEP, as a last resort a by-election would be held to fill the seat.
Will my right hon. Friend tell us whether these provisions are to apply only once, in one particular case at one particular time? Is it not the case that we know perfectly well who would be most likely to benefit from the provisions? Is it not also the case that we know that she is alive and wants to be a Member of the European Parliament? Would it not be quicker just to elect Anthea McIntyre as a Member of the European Parliament for the west midlands and move on to the next clause?
My hon. Friend, as always, reminds us of practicalities and of the real world. As I said to our hon. Friend the Member for St Albans, the legislation for democratic representation must make provision for all conceivable eventualities, even if they seem highly improbable to us.
I bow to my hon. Friend’s constitutional knowledge. I suspect that having the Bill declared hybrid is the last thing that any of us want.
If we reached circumstances in which none of the candidates from 2009 was available or willing to be returned, a by-election would be held. The returning officer would confirm to the Secretary of State that the seat could not be filled, and the Secretary of State would lay an order by statutory instrument to specify the date of a by-election. I stress that the by-election is very much a last-resort option, and that, given the short time between the 2009 elections and now, the Government are confident that the process outlined in schedule 2 is likely to identify a candidate to fill the additional seat.
Question put and agreed to.
Schedule 2 agreed to.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clause 19 provides for the financial provisions associated with some of the provisions of the Bill, mainly those in part 2 required for the implementation of the transitional protocol on MEPs. Any costs incurred as a result of our implementation of the protocol will be met from the Consolidated Fund.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make a little progress, I will explain where potential costs might conceivably arise. Any costs would consist of the minimal costs arising from the administrative expenditure of the returning officer of the west midlands electoral region. The costs involved there will depend on what those administrative costs are, but they are costs that would have to be budgeted for in the normal way. The returning officer does not have a blank cheque that he can draw on. If the seat could not be filled in accordance with schedule 2 and a by-election had to be held, there would be costs associated with that by-election, for which clause 19 makes provision. On our best current estimate, a by-election would cost about £10 million to run.
May I press the Minister a little further on that? I am sure that what he is saying is correct, but would it not be strange if all the other MEPs from Britain—in fact, I would guess all the other MEPs from every other European country—were elected under a form of proportional representation, yet this one individual was the only one elected under first past the post?
The fact that this is a transitional arrangement means that it is sui generis. As the hon. Gentleman will know, normally the European Parliament has a rule that a legislator cannot have a dual mandate and be a member of both a national legislature and the European Parliament. Here we have insisted that people had to leave active membership of the House of Lords in order to take a part in the European Parliament, and Members here have had to make a choice in the past when they have held a dual mandate in the House of Commons and the European Parliament about which they wished to pursue after a particular election. Special arrangements are being made because this matter is transitional.
To carry on with the theological argument, is it not the case that PR systems reduce to first past the post when there is one vacancy in effect, with the exception of a dead heat? That is the real point on the ballot paper where there is a cross put against the name, which is a traditional first past the post, or whether it is one, two, three or four, depending on the number of candidates. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify.
The hon. Gentleman invites me to speculate on what the procedure would be were there to be a tie in the event of a very unlikely by-election covering the whole of the west midlands region. I will seek advice in order to be certain of my position and write to him or respond to him later in the debate.
I am grateful to the Minister for being so generous in giving way, as he always is. He has suggested that Members of this House or the House of Lords are barred from being Members of the European Parliament, but I do not think that that is the law. I would be grateful if he could advance the Act of Parliament in which that is stated. I thought that the Rev. Dr Ian Paisley was simultaneously a Member of this House and the European Parliament for a considerable time.
That was possible for a long time, but the rules were changed and the right hon. and noble Lord Bannside, as he now is, decided to leave the European Parliament at the appropriate election because he wished to remain a Member of the House of Commons.
The other costs covered by clause 19 arise by virtue of clause 13, which provides that the Electoral Commission shall
“take whatever steps they think appropriate to promote public awareness… and… may take steps they think appropriate to promote public awareness of the subject-matter”
in connection with any referendums held, pursuant to part 1 of the Bill. Clause 19 provides for any additional costs incurred as a result of that activity.
It is also worth underlining the fact that since 14 July 2009 the salaries of Members of the European Parliament are paid from the European Parliament’s budget. The United Kingdom will make no direct payments as a result of the implementation of the transitional protocol on MEPs, so clause 19 makes no provision for any such payments.
I would like to refer to one point relating to financial provisions. The Minister has referred to clause 13, which we debated last week, although in insufficient detail in my view. What possible costs could be incurred by provisions of the Bill relating to possible referendums, because the Electoral Commission is given tremendous scope? For example, clause 13(b) states that the Electoral Commission “may”—I stress that word—
“take whatever steps they think appropriate to promote public awareness of the subject-matter of the referendum.”
We have also discussed the fact that there could be referendums on extremely complex and almost esoteric issues, and the Government of the day would have to make an enormous effort to ensure that there was a reasonable debate among the public on the issue under consideration, rather than some other issue. Will the Minister spell out what sort of cap there could be on the Electoral Commission’s expenditure? We have also touched on the possibility that public money would be given to the campaign in favour of a change that a Government want and to the campaign against it. What sort of cap will be included for two opposing campaigns that could be initiated as a result of this legislation?
Before responding to those points, I should clarify the method of election we would use for a by-election. My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) was absolutely correct: although in theory the list system would be used, in practice it would be a list of one, so for all intents and purposes it would be a first-past-the-post election.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) asked about public money being available to umbrella campaign organisations arguing for either a yes or a no vote. We have always taken the view that any referendums conducted by authority of the Bill should be run along lines equivalent to those provided in other statutes, especially the AV referendum that we hope will be held this May, subject to Parliament’s approval.
It will be for the legislation to authorise a referendum, and for the Electoral Commission to specify exactly what rules should apply to any referendum or group of referendums held as a consequence of the legislation, precisely because we cannot predict today what referendum might be held in six years’ time or 10 years’ time, whether one or two questions will be asked on the same day or what the issue will be. It is right that such detailed provision be made in legislation nearer the time and take account of any changes to the general law on elections and referendums that might be made between now and then.
I am not sure whether the Minister therefore means that the Foreign Office would make provision, whether the Ministry of Justice would do so under the referendums provision or whether it would come out of the contingency, but my anxiety is that one might end up with the same situation as we have in Wales for the next referendum on 3 March. Nobody has been identified as the official no side of the argument, so there will be no public money for either no or yes, because if there is not an official no campaign there cannot be an official yes campaign.
The regulations for the referendum will be those set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. I suggest not that any changes are planned, but that, in accordance with any amendments made to that legislation between now and the date of any future referendum on a European issue under the Bill, the rules for its conduct would change. Today, we propose, however, that, as long as the 2000 Act remains in force in its current form, the rules that apply to it should apply to any referendum held under the auspices of the Bill.
On the Minister’s previous point, may I gently suggest that the difference between the alternative vote system and first past the post is that the candidate should receive more than 50% of the vote? So, there is a difference, even if only one candidate is listed. On clause 19, what does he estimate the cost to be of a referendum on any of the Bill’s measures that would trigger a referendum? Given the Government’s slightly confusing messages—they promise not to transfer power to the European Union, as set out in the coalition document, yet they demonstrate their eagerness through the Bill to commit to a referendum when a trigger is in place—will he estimate how many referendums we will have in this Parliament and, therefore, how much of a drain they will be on the Consolidated Fund?
I really do not know how many times I have to keep repeating this before the Opposition understand: there is a clear pledge in the coalition agreement that the current Government will not, during the lifetime of this Parliament until 2015, agree to a treaty amendment—under either the ordinary or simplified revision procedures—that would transfer competences or powers, as defined in this legislation, from the United Kingdom to the European Union. Therefore, the question does not arise: as the United Kingdom will have the right of veto over any such measure, we are making it clear that we are not going to agree to it. By bringing this legislation into effect, however, we are enacting provisions, to apply during this Parliament, for enhanced parliamentary controls over treaty changes. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that the proposal on the table for a narrow treaty change under the simplified revision procedure to establish a permanent crisis resolution mechanism for the eurozone countries would, under the 2008 legislation, require simply a resolution in both Houses for it to be ratified by the United Kingdom, but, once this Bill comes into force, primary legislation will be required for that ratification. So as a consequence of this Bill, irrespective of the fact that we do not anticipate agreeing to anything that would require a referendum, there will be enhanced parliamentary control over any promised or hypothetical further treaty change or invocation of one of the passerelle clauses expressly provided for in the Bill.
Of course, the situation is exactly as the Minister says while this coalition Government are in power. However, we are in a fixed-term Parliament and there is no guarantee that this coalition Government will still be the Government, so the additional clauses are there to protect us.
It is very important that we legislate on the basis that we want to give people the assurance that they have this protection against any future Government choosing to railroad through the transfer of new competences to the European Union institutions without the people being given the right to have their say. Any future Government of any political colour will be taking a pretty massive political risk if they try to rob people of the right to have the final say about the transfer of competences and powers from this country to Brussels. That will be a very powerful deterrent against any future Government being tempted down such a course.