House of Commons
Tuesday 25 October 2011
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
business before questions
London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Transport for London (Supplemental Toll Provisions) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Second Readings opposed and deferred until Tuesday 1 November (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
May I first offer the apologies of the Foreign Secretary to the House? As I think the House knows, he is on his way to Australia—not, this time, to liberate it or meet a new regime but to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. I am sure we all wish him well.
There has been growth in the occupied Palestinian territories over the past couple of years, variously rated at between 6% and 10%. Things are easier in the west bank than in Gaza, but the United Kingdom has been supporting economic development in both areas.
Last year, following the difficulties over the flotilla, Israel moved from having a list of 120 goods that were allowed in to a less restrictive list. Efforts have been made to ease the amount going in, but more can still be done. For instance, 18 times the amount of concrete that goes into Gaza legitimately goes in through the tunnels, thus losing revenue and not providing the support that is needed for the construction of schools and so on. There is more to be done, and we press Israel to ease the restrictions still further for political and economic reasons.
As we are talking about the economy of the west bank, I point out that more than 100,000 families depend on the olive oil industry, which accounts for 40% of the west bank’s agricultural production. Some 7,500 olive trees have been uprooted by Israeli settlers since January, and the Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din has reported 97 incidents, but none has led to any prosecutions or indictments. Does the Minister agree that that is unacceptable, and that the UK Government should make representations to the Israeli Government?
We continue to make representations on all examples of activities that we believe will damage the economy of the occupied Palestinian territories. The hon. Gentleman’s point about agricultural produce is a good one. Agricultural exports from the Palestinian territories were 10 times greater in 2010 than in 2009, but one tenth of what they were in 2006. That gives a measure of the problem. We do indeed raise the matter, and we ask both sides to continue their efforts towards negotiations on a final settlement that would, of course, ultimately be in the economic interest of both.
The prisoner exchange involving Gilad Shalit has been presented by Hamas in Gaza as a victory. Does the Minister agree that the cause of moderate Palestinian opinion, and perhaps even the Palestinian economy, could receive a boost from a successful bid for recognition of its statehood at the United Nations?
There are two issues there. First, the unconscionable detention of Gilad Shalit by Hamas was no cause for any victory celebration. We certainly welcome the fact that he has been released and hope that it indicates at least some degree of movement between the two parties. Ultimately, of course, what will benefit all is a negotiated settlement that leads to an independent Palestine side by side with a sovereign and recognised Israel. All the work that the United Kingdom does is to ensure that that is the most likely outcome of the various discussions that are taking place through the Quartet and the UN alike.
Businesses in the Palestinian territories repeatedly stress that economic progress fundamentally depends on political progress. As the position of the UK Government is to support the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, will the Minister update us on their position on the recognition of such a state by the United Nations?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position on the Front Bench. We know that he will acquit himself of his duties extremely well.
Economically, an ultimate settlement of the issue between Israel and Palestine will bring benefits to all and is essential. We play our part by supporting the economy, with some £80 million this year going to the west bank and Gaza. However, the ultimate settlement will depend not so much on any universal declaration as on the process of negotiation. At present there has been no resolution put forward for the United Kingdom to vote on, and it is still not clear whether the UN process would be through the Security Council alone or through the General Assembly. However, the UK will always use its vote in the best interests of ensuring that the likelihood of negotiations towards a final settlement is assisted rather than hindered.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister denounced the selective use of justice in Ukraine in the House on 12 October, and in late September my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister told President Yanukovych directly that cases such as Mrs Tymoshenko’s were a threat to parliamentary ratification of Ukraine’s association agreement with the European Union.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Does not the behaviour of the Ukraine Government towards ex-President Tymoshenko show that Soviet-style show trials are unfortunately not a thing of the past? Does he agree that if Ukraine wishes to be taken seriously as a true democracy, it should start acting that way?
Since President Yanukovych took office, he has declared that his prime foreign policy objective is to secure Ukraine’s closer integration with the EU through an association agreement. We need to keep reminding the Ukrainian Government that that integration involves not only economic reforms but reforms of the political and judicial systems to bring Ukraine into line with what we expect of a modern European democracy.
I share the sentiment of both the right hon. Gentleman’s question and the Minister’s answer: the treatment of Mrs Tymoshenko is totally unacceptable. Does the Minister agree that Mr Yanukovych is trying to play the EU against Russia, but that he is succeeding with neither? Is not the message for him that he should comply with the rule of law or face international isolation?
The Government are right to make clear their deep concern about the legitimacy of the trial and conviction of Mrs Tymoshenko, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it is in the interests of both our countries that we continue to press Ukraine, and that we negotiate for it to join the association agreement and to sign the deep and comprehensive free trade agreement? Does he also agree that although we should register a protest, it would be a grave mistake to break off those talks?
I do not believe that isolating Ukraine will help us in persuading the Government there to continue to move towards full membership of the European family of nations. I certainly welcome the fact that friends of Ukraine, including my hon. Friend, deliver that message clearly to the Ukrainian authorities.
The Government’s immediate priority is for the eurozone to find a sustainable response to the current economic crisis, and to do so in a way that protects the rights of all 27 member states to take decisions over areas such as the single market. Beyond that, we shall continue to press for tight limits on EU spending and action to promote growth and jobs, through free and open markets, and by cutting regulatory costs on European business.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Just in case the House has not debated Europe enough in the past 24 hours, can he shed any light on why the Leader of the Opposition thinks that the Prime Minister was mistaken to stand up to the French President at the weekend? Is it not essential that Britain is represented at the EU meetings this week for the sake of our economy?
But how is UK influence enhanced by the loose talk by the Prime Minister and other senior Cabinet Ministers of the repatriation of powers? What exactly is the Government’s policy on that? Can the Minister name a single other EU country that would support it?
The reality is that if the eurozone proceeds, as economic logic demands, towards closer economic and fiscal integration, there will be consequences for the whole EU. As part of that negotiation, we intend to insist that, as a first step, the interests of the 27 are protected over matters such as the single market, and that the particular British interest in financial services is properly safeguarded.
Those of us who opposed the creation of the single currency when John Major’s Government were sitting on the fence view with horror the prospect that its failure may now lead to the economic unification and economic government of Europe. Will the Minister reassure us that Britain would not countenance supporting such a mad and undemocratic idea?
Part of the critique that both my hon. Friend and I have consistently made of the single currency is that, in the absence of closer fiscal and economic union, a single monetary policy and interest rate would not be sustainable. However, it is the sovereign right of other European countries to choose whether to pursue closer integration now, and it would be disastrous for the UK were the eurozone to suffer a financial collapse or prolonged recession.
I want to take the Minister back to the repatriation of powers. The Government’s coalition agreement from last May promises that the Government
“will examine the balance of the EU’s existing competences”.
What progress has been made on this examination, has it come to any conclusions and, if so, will the Minister place them in the Library of the House of Commons?
The work has started. It is in its early stages, though, because in our first year in office we gave priority to implementing the referendum lock to try to repair the damage done to public trust in the EU by the right hon. Gentleman’s Government and their denying people the referendum on the Lisbon treaty that had been promised. That work will continue, and I would welcome constructive suggestions from the Opposition as much as from any part of the House as that work is carried forward.
I thank the Minister for that elucidating answer. This morning, the Deputy Prime Minister said that the return of powers from the EU to Britain was not going to happen. How does the Minister reconcile those remarks with the earlier remarks this morning from the Education Secretary? Do these remarks suggest that the coalition Government have no intention of seeking the transfer of powers and that all the Conservative party’s talk on this issue is simply an attempt to placate its own Back Benchers?
My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister spoke about rebalancing the responsibilities of the EU and member states in the light of potentially dramatic changes to how the EU is organised. Frankly, it is a bit rich for the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) to lecture us, given that his party leader will not rule out joining the euro, rejects the idea that Brussels has too much power and claims that the President of France speaks for the British people. That makes the right hon. Gentleman a spokesman for a party that has no relevant contribution to make to the future of Europe.
We expect the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to report in November. We are interested in its recommendations and conclusions, and we trust that it will deal with some of the credibility issues raised by the international community. We will also expect it to deal with some of the issues raised by the Channel 4 documentary during the summer.
The UN panel of experts concluded that the commission was “deeply flawed” and did
“not meet international standards for an effective accountability mechanism.”
Do the Government agree with that assessment? If not, why not? If they do, what are they doing about it?
In the first place, the responsibility lies with Sri Lanka to carry out its own investigation, which is why we want to wait for the results of the commission in November. We are aware that it will deal with some of the criticisms offered by the UN panel of experts, but we will make a judgment, not on what comes before but on what the commission actually says. We have made it clear that we expect to see progress by the end of the year on a series of matters that has already been raised with Sri Lanka, and if that is not the case we have other options to pursue.
It is all about the base of reconstruction and reconciliation for the future. The British Government and a number of others have sought to make it clear, in accordance with the wishes of the Government of Sri Lanka, that if reconstruction and reconciliation are to be properly based, that will involve looking back on the past as well as forward to the future. Progress has been made in Sri Lanka since the end of the conflict, but serious issues still need to be addressed and we expect the Sri Lankan Government to be in a position to do that.
Given the obvious sensitivities of the Sri Lankan situation, can the Minister confirm that the Foreign Office has in its possession a full minute of all meetings, both in Sri Lanka and on the topic of Sri Lanka, that the former Defence Secretary had during his time in office?
I welcome the hon. Lady to her position, and I wish her well in performing her duties.
The Foreign Secretary has made it clear that he is well aware of the visits to Sri Lanka by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), the former Secretary of State for Defence, who had a particular link with Sri Lanka during his time as a junior Minister at the Foreign Office. I have no knowledge of whether any minutes were prepared of those meetings, but I will inquire. I am absolutely certain, however, that the Foreign Secretary was well aware of the meetings, and that he was absolutely confident that Foreign Office policy would be properly reflected by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset.
There is continuing concern around the world about human rights protection and press freedom in Sri Lanka. Will my hon. Friend tell the House what action Her Majesty’s Government are taking, particularly in the context of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Australia, to ensure that Sri Lanka does not take a high-profile position in the Commonwealth in the future?
There are two issues involved there. The concerns about press freedom have been raised with the Government of Sri Lanka. The disappearance of a number of journalists has not been fully investigated, for example, and the Sri Lankan Government have been tasked with dealing with that matter. We welcome the lifting of the emergency regulations, although we have yet to see how clear the replacement legislation will be. As far as the Commonwealth is concerned, Sri Lanka will not be the sole focus of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. We expect any Commonwealth country hosting the meeting to meet the Commonwealth standards of good governance and respect for human rights, and that will be the same in 2013 as it is in 2011.
European Single Market
Will the Minister tell me how much of the Foreign Secretary’s valuable time was spent on the diversion of trying to appease rebellious Tory Back Benchers instead of trying to achieve reforms to the European single market, which might benefit Britain’s interests? An estimate will suffice.
If the hon. Gentleman had been studying the conclusions of last Sunday’s European summit rather than the brief from his Whips Office, he would realise that the summit agreed to give priority to EU action to benefit jobs and growth. He would also know that it called for full implementation of the services directive, completion of a digital single market by 2015 and a reduction in the administrative burden of European regulation on business by a quarter by next year. That is a European agenda that could have been written in London, and it was achieved because of the intensive diplomacy of my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary.
European free trade through the single market is clearly a good thing for this country, apart from the fact that we have recently seen an alarming increase in this country’s trade deficit with our European partners. What can Her Majesty’s Government do about that?
I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised that matter. I took note of the points that he and others raised in the debate yesterday evening, and I have looked at the latest figures. I am glad to be able to tell him that the trade deficit has narrowed since the figures that he and others cited yesterday were produced. The way to get the trade deficit down is, in part, through Government Ministers making every effort through commercial diplomacy to help our businesses to sell British goods and services in Europe and the wider world.
Now that the Prime Minister has managed to secure a seat at tomorrow’s summit in Brussels, what specific proposals will he put on the table, and which alliances will he build, or rebuild, to ensure that the eurozone 17 do not start to take decisions about the single market without us?
I am sorry that the hon. Lady, whom I welcome to her new responsibilities, overlooked the commitments already made on Sunday by all 27 Heads of Government to ensuring that the integrity of the single market is protected and that the rights of the Community at 27 are safeguarded. My right hon. Friend will be seeking both political and legal or administrative ways to ensure that the position of the Euro-outs is protected. He will find allies—my own experience in the General Affairs Council on Saturday certainly showed this—not only among other countries outside the eurozone, but among a number of eurozone member states that do not wish either the UK or other Euro-outs to be excluded from discussion.
Of course, as the Foreign Secretary pointed out yesterday, a real prize for this country will be completion of the internal market for services and liberalisation of the energy sector. Is that likely to be achieved under the Polish presidency?
I think that we will make some progress under the Polish presidency. I would like to think that we will accomplish everything my hon. Friend urges, but it is certainly our intention to continue to press forward with that agenda under the Danish and, if necessary, the Cypriot presidencies next year.
Human Rights (Egypt)
On 12 October, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had a conversation with the Foreign Secretary in Egypt, in which human rights issues were raised. Also, on 20 October, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister paid a visit to Cairo, when human rights were again part of the subject of his conversation with the Prime Minister.
May I press the Minister to ensure that a fair proportion of the Arab Partnership fund is used to support women’s political participation in Egypt? I urge him to look at what percentage of the applications received for the fund were from women’s organisations and what proportion of grants awarded will support women’s rights.
Yes, I will. Clearly, the Arab Partnership work with Egypt is now under way on capacity building and democracy building, and about £1 million has been spent. I am not sure how easy it will be to divide it in the manner she described, but I will look at that. What has been clear from talking to activists who have been to the UK to talk to us is the determination to be involved in the processes. We have been very keen to make sure that they have been involved, and our work has been designed to assist women to participate at all levels in respect of the future of Egypt.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work of the Arab Partnership fund in Egypt and I encourage him to try to find even more resources for it as quickly as possible. Does he agree that the best way to protect human rights in Egypt is to help the country to acquire the kind of stable democracy that we in the west take for granted? Is that not the right way forward for that part of the world?
It is. My hon. Friend, whose work through the Westminster Foundation has been a great asset to the Arab Partnership, is absolutely right. There are various things that we look at. The constitutional declaration by the Egyptian Government on 30 March made equality and freedom of expression and opinion very clear, and we are waiting to see enacted a unified law on the construction of places of worship, which will grant equality to Copts and Muslims in that particular area. There are whole areas of equality where the statements by the Government there have been good, but it is essential that they are followed by actions. That will be underpinned by democracy.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary wrote to all overseas posts on 19 July welcoming the strategy and outlining its aims. We soon expect to finalise with the Home Office the strategy for priority countries. When that process is complete, the Foreign Secretary will write to ambassadors and high commissioners in those countries, instructing them to incorporate trafficking objectives into their work.
I thank the excellent Minister for that response. Prevention is better than cure. If a young woman is trafficked into this country, she will be rescued, but it is better that she is not trafficked in the first place so that she does not have to suffer modern-day slavery and all that goes with it. It is our ambassadors and delegations abroad who are our first step in warning people of the dangers of trafficking. Does the Minister agree?
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. We are working with foreign Governments to build their capacity to disrupt human trafficking—for example, we are working with judges and prosecutors in priority countries to increase prosecutions; we are working with the Serious Organised Crime Agency to prevent trafficking by building capacity; and we are addressing the root causes by alleviating poverty through our work with the Department for International Development.
The key necessity is to track down and prosecute those who are responsible for trafficking. Four international organisations are involved: Europol, Interpol, the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative, and the European Union. How are the Government attempting to co-ordinate those organisations?
I agree that it is desirable to co-ordinate that kind of international work, but we are also working in tandem with countries where our embassies are developing programmes of the type that I have just mentioned. We are not ruling out any ways of trying to achieve our common objectives.
Central Asia is increasingly important to British economic and strategic interests. We shall be opening a British embassy in Kyrgyzstan early next year, and we are maintaining high-level bilateral contact with all five republics. The most recent such contact took place during a visit to central Asia by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for International Development.
When I was doing voluntary work in Tajikistan recently, it was noted that despite the good work of our ambassador, there was a very low-key British presence. Will the Minister ask the British Council whether it can raise its profile in that country? The council currently deals with it from Uzbekistan, and relations between the two countries are pretty poor.
I pay tribute to the voluntary work that my hon. Friend did in Tajikistan earlier this year. It is good that the interests of that important part of the world can be highlighted in the House of Commons. I will happily pass on what my hon. Friend has said to the head of the British Council.
Until fairly recently central Asia was awash with nuclear weapons, but following the declaration by Kazakhstan and a number of other nations, a nuclear-weapon-free zone has been established there. Does the Minister welcome its establishment, and will he guarantee that NATO will comply with the zone and not overfly it with any nuclear weapons or nuclear-armed aircraft so that we show respect for that attempt to introduce peace to what was once a very tense region?
I raised the case directly with the Mexican Deputy Foreign Minister during my meeting with her in Mexico City last Tuesday, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary also raised it when he met the Mexican Foreign Minister in London in June. We expressed our concerns about Lydia Hunt’s welfare, the delays in locating her, and the slow progress in resolving the case through the courts.
I am very grateful to the Minister. My constituent Jonathan Hunt has been seeking his daughter’s return for three years since she was abducted to Mexico, although the country is a signatory to The Hague convention, which requires the determination of cases involving minors within six weeks. What more can the Minister do to help Lydia, and how can he tackle non-compliance with the convention by member states such as Mexico?
That, in essence, is the point that I put to the Minister when I saw her last week. We are keen for progress to be made as quickly as possible, but we are told by the Mexicans that legal obstacles prevent it from being made as quickly as we should like. We continue to press the case of the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent.
10. What assessment he has made of the political situation in Syria. (76302)
The situation in Syria continues to be a matter of grave concern. Estimates suggest that at least 3,000 people have been killed since the unrest began, including the documented total of 187 children. We continue to call on the regime to stop killing its own people and to free political prisoners, and we continue to urge other international action in order to show that the legitimacy of the regime has gone.
Syria, much like Iran, continues to brutally suppress its own people, flagrantly abuses human rights, and is still funding international terrorist organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah on Israel’s borders. What pressure can the Government exert on Syria to stop further bloodshed?
The Government have been in the lead in promoting action in the European Union and the United Nations. The European Union has imposed seven rounds of sanctions on Syria, involving some 56 individuals and 19 entities, and most recently has put pressure on its oil exports, which constitute some 25% of its revenue. Further efforts will be made in the United Nations, although unfortunately a resolution that we had helped to draw up was vetoed by Russia and China on 4 October. It is vital for the United Nations to speak with one voice in its condemnation of what is happening in Syria.
The Minister is absolutely right that the veto by Russia and China was a disgrace, but what can be done to achieve solidarity from Turkey and Arab neighbours of Syria, who can have enormous influence both on Damascus and at the United Nations?
Yes, they can; the hon. Gentleman knows that from his own background knowledge. Last week I met Foreign Ministers representing Arab League countries. They have a delegation that is due to go to Syria on 26 October, and they have increasingly stepped up their concern. The hon. Gentleman is right that they must ensure that their leverage in relation to Syria—which may well be greater than ours—is used to benefit the Syrian people. We have been in close contact with Turkey, which continues to lend support to our efforts for more to be done internationally. It is essential that the international community speaks with one voice and that the Syrian regime stops killing its people and begins a transition.
EU Observer Status (UN)
11. What assessment his Department has made of implications for UK foreign policy of the EU’s enhanced observer status at the United Nations. (76303)
The EU’s formal status as a non-voting observer at the United Nations has not changed. The key difference is that now, where agreed, the High Representative, rather than the rotating presidency, speaks on the EU’s behalf at the General Assembly. The practical implications for our foreign policy have not been noticeable, but we have had to hold some tough discussions with those who thought Lisbon meant an automatic increase in the EU’s competence in international bodies.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. We have recently witnessed major foreign policy crises in respect of Libya and elsewhere. What difference has the EU’s new status made to the way in which we and the United Nations have handled those crises?
I have to tell my hon. and learned Friend that it made very little difference indeed in practice, in part because the EU itself was divided. When we had to pursue a military campaign and the need arose for quick political decisions, it was individual member states’ Foreign Ministries, Defence staffs and intelligence agencies who made the decisions and took things forward. The EU has an important role to play in helping to rebuild Libya and integrate it into the wider community of nations.
Will the Minister confirm that on every working morning at the UN and all its agencies there is a co-ordination meeting of all the EU ambassadors, including the UK’s, and that when they decide to speak with one voice they have far more impact than a cacophony of 27 different voices? We have to stop appeasing the “Mad-Eye Moodys” who hate anything to do with the European Union; and when we can speak as one, we should speak as one.
I am waiting for the right hon. Gentleman to find his Harry Potter analogies. He is right to the extent that if the 27 EU member states are able to speak with one voice, that can often add to the weight of their voice, but it is important that that is done in a way that does not compromise the delineation of competences between the EU and member states as set out in the Lisbon treaty, which is why I am glad that at the General Affairs Council on Saturday we all agreed a framework agreement to make sure representation should not affect competence.
The High Peace Council leads the Afghan Government’s reintegration and reconciliation efforts. Following the tragic assassination of former President and council chairman Rabbani, President Karzai has been reviewing the approach the High Peace Council takes to its work. We will continue to stand by his Government’s efforts to support Afghan-led reconciliation through the High Peace Council.
This issue is very important to the United Kingdom, and to the many Members who have written to me about it over the past few weeks. Women are represented on the High Peace Council; nine of its 70 members are women. They have also been represented in Parliament and in last year’s peace process. We continually stress to the Afghan Government that the commitment they have made to the equality of all their citizens and the inclusion of all in future processes must be met by action as well as words, and we will continue to take that forward as we look towards the Bonn summit.
I am encouraged by my hon. Friend’s reply. Will the Government do all they can to ensure that women attending the Bonn peace conference will be representative of the true aspirations of Afghan women, and will not just be placewomen put there for the benefit of the Afghan Government?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I recently met Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan woman MP who was outspoken in her determination to ensure that she and others like her should be properly represented, both at the Bonn summit and in other aspects of life. She reminded all of us that Afghan women have traditionally taken part in a great deal of decision making at local and provincial level, and she was keen to ensure that the gains made over the past 10 years in women’s lives should not be lost. We should stand absolutely beside those who believe that.
Detentions (Israeli Military Prisons)
We receive regular reports about the detention of Palestinian children from a non-governmental organisation, Defence for Children International. We remain concerned about the detention of children in military jails and the prosecution of children through military courts.
Will the Minister confirm the UK Government’s full support for UNICEF, which is calling for the immediate release of the 164 children in Israeli military prisons? Will he assure the House that as the relevant Minister he will do everything in his power to get these kids reunited with their families?
When I was in Israel a few months ago, I raised this matter directly with the Minister responsible, indicating the UK’s concerns about both the detention and the treatment of children. The Israelis have recently raised the age of criminal responsibility in the territories from 16 to 18, so it is the same as for Israeli children. None the less, I know that the Israeli Government do take seriously the fact that children are detained in circumstances that cause concern to NGOs and UNICEF, and we will continue to press them on this.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the tragedy of some of these Palestinian children in Israeli prisons has arisen because some of them have been groomed as terrorists by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which goes against the Geneva convention and all kinds of international law? [Interruption] Will he take steps with the Palestinian Authority to try to ensure that children are not used in that way?
I hear comments from others, but my hon. Friend makes a fair point; the tragedy is that children have been used. There was a regrettable incident in which a Down’s syndrome youngster was a suicide bomber. It is not wrong for anyone to be alert to those risks. None the less, the majority of these children are not detained for such reasons and it is essential that Israel makes the right distinction between the two in order to retain international credibility and to ensure its own security.
President Kiir and South Sudan face many challenges, as the country has to build capacity and structures from scratch. For example, there are only 20 km of tarmacked road in a country the size of France. Furthermore, the country has to deal with hundreds of thousands of south Sudanese returning from the north. Britain is not only working with the international community, but taking the lead in a number of key areas of development.
The Minister will be aware that one of the first decisions taken by the Government of South Sudan was to apply for membership of the Commonwealth of Nations. Will Her Majesty’s Government give support to that application? Should the country wish to apply to become one of Her Majesty’s realms, would the Government also support that application?
On my hon. Friend’s first point, that is obviously a matter for all members and key criteria will have to be met, especially those relating to the core values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. South Sudan is making good progress, however, and we should be ambitious and aim for membership in 2013. On his second point, it is obviously up to the Sudanese to decide whether to have an elected presidency or move to a constitutional monarchy with Her Majesty the Queen as Head of State.
What steps are the Government taking to assist with the resolution of the outstanding border issues between South Sudan and the north, particularly the situation in Abyei?
I certainly share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about Abyei. A framework agreement is in place, which states clearly that both sides must disengage, and we are urging them to do so as soon as possible. The UN-backed force of Ethiopians is in place and is deploying, but both sides—the Sudanese armed forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North—must disengage.
We strongly support the use of targeted sanctions in relation to our concerns about Iran’s nuclear activity, its human rights abuses and the recently discovered international terrorist activity in the United States. The choice is clear: those who continue to follow such a course can either remain on it and face further sanctions and isolation or they can respond to the wishes of the international community and have those sanctions lifted.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he share with the House the Government’s assessment of the military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear programme, particularly given that the Iranians continue to refuse to co-operate with the International Atomic Energy Agency?
The IAEA is, in a sense, the keeper of the conscience of the world in relation to the bargain between those with nuclear weapons and those without. It has reported recently its increasing concern, as my hon. Friend says, about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme, and a further report is expected in November. Concerns have increased because of the news that the centrifuges are going to be moved to Qom, underground, and there is no civilian justification for the enrichment programme that Iran is working on. All those things are rightfully our concern.
The IAEA called the weapons programme in Iran “extensive and comprehensive”. May I ask the Minister whether sanctions are working, what more the UN should do and whether he favours an extension of sanctions into oil and gas exports?
The process of sanctions has been cumulative over time. There is evidence that they are beginning to have an impact on the economy in relation to Iran—above all, targeted on the individuals who are most responsible—but as well as the sanctions track there is a negotiations track. Nuclear powers have made it very clear, as have the E3 plus 3, that there is an opportunity for negotiation with Iran if it would be open about its nuclear policy. We urge Iran to follow that track so that sanctions can be lifted and the world can be convinced of the civilian purposes of Iran’s programme if that is, indeed, the case.
I am sure that the whole House will want first to send its sympathy to the Government and people of Turkey in the wake of the devastating earthquake that has struck there. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has assured Prime Minister Erdogan that the United Kingdom is ready to help in whichever way Turkey thinks best.
At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that opens in Perth on Friday, we believe that the key focus of discussions should be on how to strengthen the Commonwealth for the future. We are committed to working to strengthen the Commonwealth as a force for democracy, development and prosperity and we believe that this CHOGM can and should be a defining one for the organisation.
The House will be aware of disturbing reports this morning of an explosion at a fuel tank that has left more than 50 people dead in the Libyan city of Sirte. Of course that event needs to be investigated fully but it surely reminds us that Libya is still awash with weapons, including heavy weapons left over from the Gaddafi era. What steps are the British Government taking to support the Libyan authorities in securing those weapons so that they threaten neither the Libyan people nor international security?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to focus on this, as, indeed, we have. A team from the United Kingdom is already assisting in dealing with the collection of weapons—small arms—and with the issue of surface-to-air missiles that have gone missing in the area. We also have people involved in de-mining and decommissioning, so the United Kingdom takes this issue very seriously. It is essential that the militia come under proper national transitional council control, that there is proper direction of them, that arms are returned and that the politics of Libya can now get on and work for the future.
T2. There is a dangerous disagreement in Zimbabwe among the fragile unity Government about the process and preparation for elections next year. What aid can we give to the Southern African Development Community in preparing for and supporting fair elections in that country? (76319)
We support fully the role that SADC is playing as guarantor and facilitator under the global political agreement. We applaud the work that President Zuma has been doing and his personal leadership in producing an election road map. We support fully his and SADC’s efforts to create the conditions for credible and properly monitored elections in Zimbabwe, but the violence and intimidation must stop forthwith.
T3. Sakina Mohammadi Ashtiani has been in detention for six years and still remains under sentence of death. Her lawyer has fled; his lawyer is in detention; and the lawyer’s lawyer has also fled. Will the Minister update the House on what recent representations have been made in her case? (76320)
Representations have been made in relation both to Miss Ashtiani, who, indeed, remains under sentence of death and in detention, and to her lawyers. The House might like to know that some 61 individuals are now under EU sanctions because of human rights abuses, and that pressure will continue. We continue to raise the cases of all human rights abuses in Iraq, because they remain a stain on that country’s position, and we wish to see Miss Ashtiani given a fair trial as soon as possible.
T4. Brave constituents of mine who served in Afghanistan with 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment know all too well that Afghanistan does not sit alone in a vacuum and that the regional dimension is crucial to its future stability. To that end, what prospect does the Minister believe that the Istanbul conference has in helping to bring about the regional co-operation and peace that is needed? (76322)
My hon. Friend is right: it is essential for Afghanistan’s future not only that its internal politics evolve—that involves the relationship with its near neighbours—but that its regional context is regularised. China, India and Pakistan all have a role to play, as well as countries further afield. The Istanbul conference is an opportunity to bring those nations together, with a common purpose in securing Afghanistan’s future and giving the Afghan people the opportunity of a viable, secure and democratic future.
T5. Earlier this month, a blast ripped through the Education Ministry in Mogadishu, killing at least 70 people. As fighting continues between the transitional federal Government and al-Shabaab and thousands continue to die from famine in the region, what steps are the Government taking to provide international leadership in promoting a lasting resolution to the conflict in Somalia? (76323)
The UK Government are doing all that we can. We are playing a vital part in the Djibouti process. We are supporting an uplift in the African Union Mission in Somalia to its mandated level of 12,000 troops. We are also doing all that we can to ensure that the transitional federal Government and the transitional federal institutions adhere to the benchmarks in the road map. If they do that, there is a chance for peace and progress, not just in the troubled capital but in the whole country.
T6. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for his diligence in meeting, on a number of occasions now, constituents of mine who originally come from the Chagos islands. Will he update the House on what progress his Department has made with regard to visits to the Chagos islands by those islanders? (76324)
First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he has done in engaging the Chagossians in his Crawley constituency. He has been an absolute pillar of strength for that community. We have organised a number of visits back to the Chagos islands this year for Chagossians from the UK, the Seychelles and Mauritius. We will organise more visits in the future, and I want to get more members of the Chagossian community involved in environmental, conservation and heritage work in the territory.
Much has been said about the protection of human rights in Egypt. Has the Minister raised with the Egyptian authorities the recent brutal attacks on the Christian minority in Egypt that have led to personal injury and the destruction of property, while it seems that the police and security forces stood idly by?
The hon. Gentleman might be referring to the attacks of 9 October, which were particularly serious. They were indeed commented on and raised by my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Deputy Prime Minister. The precise circumstances are unclear, but the Egyptian authorities have said that they will hold an inquiry to find out what happened. I return to my previous answer: the Egyptian authorities are very clear in words about the protection of all elements of the community in Egypt; it is essential that their authority carries through to deeds and that those who wish to see harmony support the authorities in ensuring that that happens.
T7. The forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting is an opportunity to raise the persecution of gay men and women—indeed, all minorities. What steps can the Minister take to promote equality and tolerance? (76325)
I agree with my hon. Friend. CHOGM is an opportunity to ensure that the Commonwealth becomes a stronger force for promoting democratic values, human rights, the rule of law and, of course, equality and tolerance. That is why we warmly welcome the recommendations of the eminent persons group and the ministerial action group.
Will the Government take this opportunity to congratulate the people of Tunisia on their free and fair democratic election of a constituent assembly today, praise them for the number of women elected and pledge to work with the democrats and all forces that were elected in Tunisia for a democratic and pluralistic future?
I am so glad there has been an opportunity to raise the matter. I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale) who took part in the observer process as a strong friend of Tunisia. Indeed, the elections appear to have passed off peacefully, with a huge turnout and engagement which confounded the critics. I am pleased that the United Kingdom was able to provide support in the form of capacity building through the election process. For the people of Tunisia, who in a way started what we have been living through for all these months, it has been very important to see it through to a determined election process. We congratulate them and look forward to the next stage, which is the not unfamiliar territory of putting together a coalition in order to take matters forward.
The outcome of the first Arab spring elections in Tunisia at the weekend is likely to have an effect throughout the middle east, most particularly in Egypt where elections are supposed to be held next month. It is early days yet; we do not know the results, but given the likelihood of a significant dominance by the Ennahda party in Tunisia, what assessment has my hon. Friend managed to make already of the likely effects upon the situation in Egypt and elsewhere?
Again, I thank my hon. Friend for his work in Tunisia and for reporting back so quickly to the House. First and foremost, the fact that even in a relatively short time a community can come through a state of dictatorship to free and fair elections is a good example. Secondly, it will be the example to follow. There is no doubt that Islamic parties will be well represented in the Parliaments of states in north Africa that have elections, but as we know, the label encompasses quite a wide range of opinions about democracy. What we wish to see now is the Tunisian Government established and able to put into practice their determination of a pluralistic democracy. We hope that those in Egypt will see that example and begin to work through their own processes—
I should like to declare an interest.
Following the self-immolation of nine Tibetan monks in the past few weeks, what representations have the British Government made to the Chinese authorities to stop the consistent and systematic eradication of Tibetan culture, religion and language, and to give the Tibetan people their much needed and correct desire for self-determination?
The Government continue to have the same policy as the previous Government with regard to Tibet’s position in China, but we still make representations on a regular basis with respect to human rights and the conditions of the Tibetan people.
As many hon. Members know from correspondence, the return of Shaker Aamer to the United Kingdom remains an objective of the United Kingdom Government. His case continues to be raised both by officials and at ministerial level. It is a matter for the United States Government to determine, but our own determination and our efforts to return Shaker Aamer to the United Kingdom will certainly continue.
The Arab Partnership was set up with a total budget of more than £100 million to cover a number of years and these countries in north Africa and beyond. Money is there to support capacity building, for people to go out to talk about election process, for party building and for basic communications. Bearing in mind that some of these countries have not had any sense of this, we have sent out skilled operatives, including Members of the House, to convey what Parliament and parliamentarians do, and to help build up the process through officials and others. That work is continuing. In places such as Iraq for example, although not part of the Arab Partnership, where that work is still needed to create a fully functioning relationship between Executive and—
T9. While rightly celebrating the elections in Tunisia, may I draw the Minister’s attention to the other geographic end of his responsibilities, to Kashmir? Will the Minister meet the Prime Minister of Azad Kashmir, who is visiting the United Kingdom this week, and will he make the case for self-determination of all Kashmiri people within an independent Kashmir state? (76327)
Is the Minister concerned at the reputation that the UK is acquiring in Egypt and other post-revolution Arab countries as being a safe haven for criminals from the anciens regimes there? What steps is he taking at the moment to ensure that fugitives from justice in those countries and their ill-gotten gains are returned?
I do not recognise the reputation that the hon. Gentleman describes, unless they are all going to Ealing. [Interruption.] Maybe just next door; I am sorry. Where a case can be proved against those who have come to the United Kingdom, which involves either seizure of assets or criminal activity, for which it is possible to remove people from the United Kingdom, we will respond to those requests.
Do the Government share my revulsion at reports that supporters of Gaddafi have been subject to revenge executions without any semblance of due process? Should not our satisfaction at the military outcome now be accompanied by a determination to persuade the new Government of Libya not to allow any descent into brutality?
Unequivocally, yes. But we should pay due tribute to the work of the national transitional council, which set out a clear set of principles on which it would seek to remove the regime and by which to govern, and Chairman Jalil has made it clear on a variety of occasions: no reprisals, no revenge, and respect for human rights. In the circumstances of conflict, that can be very difficult to deliver, but there is no doubt that the new Government have made clear their aims, objectives and principles. They wish to be different from the previous regime and we are right to stand by them and their determination to make those principles stick, no matter that circumstances may be difficult.
With regard to the eventual vote at the United Nations on Palestinian statehood, if the Government were to adopt a position that they would vote in favour of such a motion only if a comprehensive peace agreement had first been agreed, does not that effectively give the Israeli Government a veto over Palestine ever becoming a state?
I am not sure that that does represent the United Kingdom’s position. Attempts have been made to tease it out of me and the Foreign Secretary on many occasions and we will not succumb on this one. No resolution has been put to the United Nations on which a decision needs to be taken. We have made it clear that we wish to see a negotiated settlement, which is the only way in which this will finally be settled, and any vote we use in the UN, whether in the Security Council or the General Assembly, will be used to best effect to ensure that those negotiations continue and are successful rather than anything that might be a hindrance.
Would my hon. Friend please provide the House with an update of the situation regarding the convicted Lockerbie bomber, al-Megrahi? The fact that this convicted terrorist remains a free man is not only a complete disgrace, but a cause of real concern for all the families affected around the world.
There are two or three legacy issues that need to be dealt with. There are also issues relating to the provision of Semtex to the IRA and, of course, the death of WPC Fletcher. All those will be considered. That is an important part of the new bilateral relationship between the United Kingdom and Libya, but not all the issues are presently settled. The legal position of Mr Megrahi appears to have been settled by past actions, but the legacy issues will be examined anew by this Government and by the new Government of the national transitional council.
European Union Act 2011 (Amendment) (No. 2)
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 apply the terms of the European Union Act 2011 such as to require approval by Act of Parliament and by referendum of provisions for the creation of a fiscal union or economic governance amongst those Member States of the European Union which comprise the Eurozone; and for connected purposes.
After last night, I hope that the Government will now at least agree to have a referendum on the proposed eurozone fiscal union and that the Prime Minister will set out an agenda for renegotiation of all the treaties. As I have made clear in my pamphlet, “It’s the EU, Stupid”, it is time for the coalition to wake up to the dangers that come from advocating full fiscal union and its imminent threat to the UK’s national interest. Indeed, the front of the pamphlet has a cartoon showing a compression chamber in the European Union and the necessity of having the safety valve of a referendum at Westminster.
We are now faced with a two-tier Europe, which I wrote about in the 1990s, with a dominant Germany, fiscal union and a hard-core economic federation with which we have a massive trade deficit—minus £38 billion last year in the eurozone alone—with no serious attempt to deregulate burdens on business and a massive European financial crisis. I am told that The Daily Telegraph will tomorrow reveal the full exchange between the Prime Minister and Nicolas Sarkozy and how the Prime Minister’s attempt to protect us in relation to the single market was rebuffed. I am not surprised. Indeed, serious rows are going on between France and Germany and between France and ourselves, which merely demonstrates the depth of the crisis.
The Government believe that it is in the interests of the eurozone, the EU itself and the United Kingdom to promote the idea of fiscal union and economic governance of the eurozone, led by Germany and France. That is a dangerous gamble, the balance of judgement for which must be thrown against the project, certainly for the UK, just as the opt-outs for Maastricht did not prevent the creation of a European Government, which has failed, with damaging consequences for the United Kingdom. Indeed, the Prime Minister yesterday conceded that we should have had a referendum on Maastricht, as I argued when I set up the Maastricht referendum campaign all those years ago.
There are a number of reasons why fiscal union will not work for either the eurozone or the United Kingdom. The Chancellor’s claim that there is a “remorseless logic” towards it avoids the fact that it is the deep-rooted cause of the structure of the treaties and the attempt to create unity out of diversity, with over-regulation and employment laws, that actively prevent growth and, therefore, prosperity and employment in the EU and the UK. There is no evidence of growth in the eurozone, except in Germany, and it is insisting on conditions that would have to be complied with, but given the state of the other European countries, the evidence suggests that that will not succeed.
The sovereign debt of many eurozone member states, including the original PIGS—Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain—is evidence enough. They have no prospect of retrieving the situation without growth, but that will come only with, among other things, the repeal of social and employment laws, redundancy laws and other impediments to increasing the prosperity of small and medium-sized businesses, which need the oxygen and space to grow. We also must have structural renegotiation.
There is a certainty that the eurozone will not be a trading entity, and therefore our own stability will not be enhanced by its fiscal union and economic governance. There will be further debt crises, followed by the need for further monumental bail-outs, but there will be no money to pay for them, Germany’s conditions will not be met and there will be a dangerous and chaotic fiscal union within the eurozone. It would be better to recognise that immediately. When the implosion comes, there may even be a greater probability of the rise of the far right or the far left, because the electorates of Germany and other contributors will simply not put up with the burdens they would be expected to carry under such a debt transfer union.
As far as the UK is concerned, the solidarity in relation to the single market within the eurozone would lead to eurozone countries that are part of the fiscal union voting together against us. Professor Roland Vaubel of Mannheim university indicated in his article on raising rivals’ costs and regulatory collusion that that would do immense damage to our ability to compete, and the single market would be in disarray.
Apart from that, the United Kingdom’s trade deficit with the rest of the European Union increased by £40 billion in the last year alone, and would be even worse with fiscal union in the eurozone. Our trade deficit with the eurozone increased by £34 billion last year. The eurozone’s zero growth undermines our growth and, according to the British Chambers of Commerce, EU regulations cost us no less than £8 billion a year. The whole project has failed, and must be structurally and fundamentally renegotiated. Acquiescence in this has left us compromised. The coalition’s advocacy of fiscal union is a grave misjudgement. Indeed, fiscal union within the eurozone would mean solidarity between those 17 member states, and we would be outvoted by 213 votes to 132.
In a seminal article on the failure of the euro, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times said on Wednesday 19 October that fiscal union is not the answer, and that
“if creditworthy members were to transfer resources to the uncreditworthy on a large enough scale, the eurozone might be kept together. But, even if such a policy could be sustained (which is unlikely), it would turn southern Europe into a greater Mezzogiorno. That would be a calamitous outcome of European monetary integration”—
and of course Germany would not bail out everybody anyway. Agreeing to, let alone promoting, fiscal union is short-termism at its worst. Acquiescing in the determination of France and Germany, with whom our relations are increasingly difficult, to maintain the political will of the union, will lead to the predominance of Germany, which in turn will be faced with monumental difficulties in its hopeless struggle to maintain an unworkable eurozone.
Germany benefits enormously from the European Union for one reason: its investment in other countries. In the past 10 years, German unit labour costs have gone up by only 2%, but the average of those costs for all the other member states put together have increased by no less than 25%. Furthermore, the justification for the coalition Government is said to be the reduction of the deficit. That will not be reduced without growth when 50% of our trading is with a moribund Europe, and bearing in mind the trade deficit that we carry with the rest of Europe.
We are at a critical crossroads, and the Government are taking the wrong turn by endorsing fiscal union and creating two Europes without renegotiating the treaties. We need an association of nation states, led by our Prime Minister in his negotiations at the summit to come. Allowing eurozone member states to go ahead towards fiscal union will create two Europes, to which we would remain bound by treaty and law, although both would be built on sand. It would have profound economic, political and constitutional consequences for UK vital interests, fundamentally changing the UK’s relationship with the whole of the European Union, not only our relationship with the eurozone. We must have a referendum in the light of such a profound change in our political relationship with Europe. Indeed, the Prime Minister said yesterday that we must have fundamental reform, and I believe that that requires a referendum.
The proposals for European economic government require a referendum. Against that background, which involves a fundamental change in the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union, and the creation of a critical mass of a fiscal union, it is impossible to conceive that there will be anything other than irretrievable damage to the United Kingdom. We have had riots, protests, crisis in the PIGS countries, the failed Lisbon agenda, over-regulation, low growth, and the breaking of rules—and fiscal union will not prevent further monumental bail-outs. The bottom line is that that does not work. There will be political upheaval in other countries in the eurozone, and all this can be avoided as we speak.
On the single market, the Deputy Prime Minister has specifically ruled out any repatriation of powers, and the Liberal Democrats effectively have a stranglehold over any change in the European treaties. That is what largely lies at the root of what happened last night. We need only look at the impossible trade balance that I have described, which is massively destroying British businesses and British jobs. When I asked the Prime Minister in the Liaison Committee if there would be a treaty to underpin the new arrangements, he said that there would not be a treaty as far as he was aware. In fact, of course, we now know that there will be.
So where did things go wrong? The European Union Act got it badly wrong, because section 4 says that there will not be a referendum where there is a eurozone-only exercise of competence. The fact is that we must have a referendum for all the reasons that I have given.
My speech last night consisted of six words. I may take a little more time today, although I will try not to take the full 10 minutes, and it is certainly not my intention to divide the House.
I rise in opposition to this Bill, and in wonderment and admiration for the extraordinary chutzpah of the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) in introducing it; I mean that in a flattering sense. He regularly lectures the House on his objections to anyone from Europe in any way commenting on, or having a view on any aspect of, British affairs, yet the Bill says that there should be a referendum in this country if the members of the eurozone decide to move forward to an agreement on economic governance or on fiscal union. I think they will consider that to be a wonderful example of English irony—the notion that we should have a referendum to tell them whether they might move to a stronger or alternative system of governance. It is about time that we stopped lecturing the rest of Europe on what to do and got our own house in order. This country, with zero growth, rising unemployment, the highest inflation in Europe and a rising public debt and deficit, is in no position to tell any other European country what to do. We are part of the Euro-problem and we have to contribute to being part of the Euro-solution—and this Bill certainly does not so do.
That said, I share the hon. Gentleman’s expressions of concern, which I raised earlier in questions, about the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s remarkable insouciance—I think it is shared by the Prime Minister—in saying that there should be fiscal union and a single economic governance for about 75% of the EU economy. Throughout British history, we have opposed the notion of any single dominant European power, whether it is a religious power, a single state, an ideology such as fascism or communism, or one single trading or commercial model. We have liked Europe to move in different ways at different speeds so that Britain can find the interstices in which to make a profit and gain political support. But now we have our Chancellor of the Exchequer, and a Conservative Eurosceptic at that, calling for the creation of a European hegemon. The minds of all our historians and previous statesmen would boggle at that proposition. To that extent, I am with the hon. Member for Stone, because he brings these arguments to bear.
Right now, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is going in front of the European Court of Justice to insist on the French proposition that all eurozone bond trading should take place within the eurozone itself. That is a protectionist smash-and-grab raid on a huge chunk of the money that the City makes, and makes more efficiently and effectively than any other financial centre. So our Eurosceptic Chancellor is praying in aid the European Court of Justice against a proposition which, if carried through, could do serious damage to the UK.
Fiscal union conjures up the concept of a single unitary Europe. The United States is a fiscal union. California is bankrupt, but it does not stop using the dollar. New York was bankrupt in the 1970s and did not stop using the dollar. American states have different taxes, different industrial, employment and labour laws, and different investment policies. The use of a common currency is not the same as common policy. We certainly need stricter rules, and I think we all accept that.
Equally, we have to say to our German friends—we should be in this discussion—that not every European country can run a balance of trade surplus. It is economically illiterate to proclaim that. The European Union is a transfer union. We have been transferring wealth to Germany for the past 50 or 60 years. If we all stopped buying Mercedes and BMWs and bought Kias or cars made in India, the Germans would be the first to complain. We have to say gently to our German friends and other creditor nations such as China, which make a fortune from European consumption, “You have to be part of the solution as well.”
We also have to say to the European Central Bank, “Stop fighting the wars of yesteryear.” It is locked in a permanent struggle, like Moriarty against Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach or Voldemort against Harry Potter, to curb inflation at all costs. Right now, we need more demand in our economy and we are not getting it from the ECB.
I am happy to support stronger economic governance. It allows variable tax-and-spend policies. One can spend a lot and tax a lot, provided that one remains in equilibrium. Our Nordic friends, on the whole, have maintained that policy. This does not mean a single tax rate or a single public expenditure rate. Those are still matters for sovereign Parliaments, even in a system of fiscal union and economic governance.
We ought to understand that it is the purpose of the European Union not to construct a fiscal union heaven, but to protect us—including this country—from the disintegrating hell of a Latin Americanised Europe, where every country maintains its currency against every other currency and its trade policy against every other trade policy. If we revert to 27 competing currencies, let us not imagine for one second that the single market will be maintained.
I would prefer it if it was our Prime Minister, Chancellor or Foreign Secretary making these points, rather than a humble and irrelevant Back Bencher like me. It is vital that Britain connects and engages again. I do not want to enter into curious political alliances with failed parties in Poland, Latvia or the Czech Republic, like at the Council of Europe, which we will debate again on Thursday, where our Conservative colleagues sit with the Kremlin-appointed Putin nominees, rather than work with likeminded centre-right parties. We have a serious political problem in our entire approach to Europe.
The Prime Minister, I presume, will make a report after the summit meeting tomorrow. On Thursday, we will be back to discussing the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. He will have a little break at the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference. I would like him to persuade most of our Commonwealth allies and partners, who have far more protectionist policies against British exports of goods and services than any European country, that they should be opening their markets. He will then return to the kinds of scenes that we saw yesterday.
I am sorry, Mr Speaker, if these few remarks in opposition to the Bill have been a little longer than my speech last night. I promise that the next time we discuss Europe, I shall try to be silent or to speak in fewer words than I used last night.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr William Cash, Mr Bernard Jenkin, Mr John Whittingdale, Mr John Redwood, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Mr Greg Knight, Mr Graham Stuart, Mr Richard Shepherd, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Chris Heaton-Harris, Zac Goldsmith and Mr Peter Bone present the Bill.
Mr William Cash accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 January 2012, and to be printed (Bill 239).
Public Bodies Bill [Lords] (Programme) (No. 2)
I beg to move,
That the Order of 12 July 2011 (Public Bodies Bill [Lords] (Programme)) be varied as follows—
1. Paragraphs 4 and 5 of the Order shall be omitted.
2. Proceedings on Consideration shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table.
3. The proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.
Time for conclusion of proceedings
New Clauses; new Schedules; amendments to Clause 1 and Schedule 1; amendments to Clause 2 and Schedule 2; amendments to Clause 3 and Schedule 3; amendments to Clause 4 and Schedule 4.
Amendments to Clause 5 and Schedule 5; amendments to Clauses 6 to 27; amendments to Schedule 6; amendments to Clauses 28 to 35; remaining proceedings on Consideration.
4. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 10.00 pm at today’s sitting.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister said yesterday that if there were any treaty change to shore up the euro, we should press for the repatriation of social and employment policy. Given that he has just been completely contradicted by his Europe Minister, could you advise us how we might clarify Government policy in that important area?
I have known the hon. Gentleman since long before his election to this House last year—indeed, for the best part of two decades—and I know of no one who surpasses him in ingenuity. I trust that he will deploy his ingenuity through the use of the Order Paper and other mechanisms in order further to convey his own views and to highlight his concerns. I think the Deputy Leader of the House may now continue with his oration.
I am most grateful, Mr Speaker. I think I can safely assume that that point of order was not related to the programme motion in respect of the Public Bodies Bill.
It is important that I first pay tribute to both the Chairs of the Public Bill Committee, the hon. Members for Southend West (Mr Amess) and for Glasgow North West (John Robertson), and my fellow members of the Committee. It scrutinised the Bill rigorously, but with good humour and professionalism that meant we were able to conclude consideration a full day ahead of schedule. It was a joy to serve on the Committee.
I also remind the House, because it is relevant to the programme motion, that the Bill is paving legislation. Although it is right and proper that we consider the inclusion of specific bodies in the Bill, as we did in Committee, there will be a further chance for the House to scrutinise its effect on particular bodies when the necessary orders are taken through the House, after the Bill has, as I hope, received Royal Assent.
The motion has been tabled to allow the debate to take place with schedules grouped alongside their associated clauses, as was the case in Committee. Following discussions with the usual channels, the use of a knife at 7.45 pm was agreed to, to facilitate debate on clauses and schedules of significant interest. There is a further change from our discussions in Committee, in that we are happily joined by some of our colleague Ministers from relevant Departments, who will be able to explain in far better detail than I could muster the consequences of the Bill’s proposals on their Departments.
I hope that the House will be able to come quickly to a decision on the motion and proceed with the Report stage of this important Bill. I commend the motion to the House.
There will be time later to pay tribute to the Chairs and other members of the Public Bill Committee, if and when we get to Third Reading. First, we have in front of us the programme motion. It is perfectly true that, as the Deputy Leader of the House has just said, the Committee concluded its deliberations somewhat earlier than had been predicted, but we did so on a clear undertaking from Ministers that no significant amendments would be brought forward, other than technical amendments. We therefore felt it appropriate not to continue to the final Thursday.
The Opposition object to the programme motion. I have no doubt that you, Mr Speaker, the Clerks and even Ministers have done their best to accommodate some of the key debates that arise from Committee—we are particularly thrilled that we will have a proper debate on the chief coroner, which is an important matter—but the process remains totally unsatisfactory, because at no stage has it allowed proper consultation on or scrutiny of the Bill.
You will no doubt remember, Mr Speaker, because you have a compendious memory, that the Opposition pressed the programme motion to a Division on Second Reading and in Committee. Given the scale of the changes made to the Bill in the other place, we thought it important to provide the opportunity for witnesses to come forward to make representations to the Committee, so that we could consider in detail their points of view.
The Bill changed fundamentally in the other place, and witnesses—above all, those from the Royal British Legion—should have had their views on the chief coroner heard by Ministers, shadow Ministers and Back Benchers in Committee. Similarly, many tens of thousands of quango employees, whose futures are being discussed—indeed, they are in jeopardy—might well have wanted to come forward to give their points of view. Finally, many users and clients of the services provided by quangos might also have wanted the opportunity to make representations to the Committee. They were all denied, which was a fundamental mistake, particularly in view of the scale of the changes that the Government envisage.
On that point, my hon. Friend will be aware that many people who work in those public bodies are very concerned about TUPE arrangements and feel that the arrangements in the Bill are not strong enough. It would have been good to hear from them in Committee and to get a chance to debate those issues in full then and today.
I totally understand and agree with my hon. Friend. The TUPE provisions of the Bill are covered by the programme motion, but the only way we can arrive at discussion of them is by compressing the debate on the chief coroner proposal, which I fear could be substantial given the scale of the concern in the country.
The Opposition pressed programme motions to a Division in the House and in Committee, but the Government then told us that debate on Report would take place next Tuesday, which would have allowed time to consult stakeholders and others. On Thursday, it was suddenly decided that the debate would be squeezed in today instead. That left all the stakeholders—organisations, clients, employees and everybody else concerned with quangos—only a few working hours while the House was sitting to make representations and to suggest amendments. Thus we saw the list of amendments only yesterday.
Clearly, there has been no opportunity to consult widely on the nature of the amendments. However, the most disturbing thing is that 30 of the 62 amendments are Government amendments, some of which are far beyond merely technical amendments. Frankly, it is reprehensible that things have been handled in that way.
Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that the problem was compounded by the fact that the business was announced when a large number of Wales MPs, who have a great interest in S4C, were at the Welsh Grand Committee in Wrexham, and therefore could not table amendments without making specific arrangements?
I was not aware of that. It is clear that S4C is a major issue in Wales. It was debated at some length but not comprehensively in Committee, and the House therefore deserved proper notice so that it could debate the provisions. It will not do for the Minister simply to say, “Well, you had a debate in Committee, so it is okay to proceed at short notice to a debate on the Floor of the House.” The reason that it will not do is that many thousands of people in Wales will have listened to his arguments, might have been persuaded by some of them but not by others and would have wanted to make representations to the House before today’s debate. However, the timing has been so compressed that it has been impossible to listen to the views of people in Wales and elsewhere.
We now have five hours to discuss the fate of several hugely important organisations, which shows that the Government had no interest in consultation or scrutiny of the Bill. Do they think it appropriate to engage in what can only be represented as a shambolic process, given that such important issues are at stake? The bodies involved include the Agricultural Wages Board, which protects 152,000 low-paid workers in England and Wales; the Youth Justice Board, which oversees the interaction between youth organisations and ensures that young people are properly protected when taken into custody, and without which it would have been nearly impossible to open the courts on a 24-hour basis during the August disturbances; S4C, which we have just mentioned; and the TUPE arrangements, which my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) mentioned. All those things are vastly important, and debate on them ought not to be compressed into the time available this afternoon.
Furthermore, there is the matter of the chief coroner, about which I have no doubt we will hear more. The House should have had the opportunity to reflect on the arguments made in Committee and to listen to the bereaved families and people who have lost loved ones who have had experience of the coronial service. We have not had the time to listen to their representations, however, and now we have a maximum of one and a quarter hours to debate those issues. I do not think that the programme motion allows us to deal with these matters appropriately.
Other issues are not programmed for debate at all, such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is important to human rights in our country, the regional development agencies and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. We could have discussed all those bodies had we been given enough time.
These are not minor issues. The Bill’s ramifications have not been properly scrutinised, but they could well be huge. The Bill effectively gives powers to Ministers to do almost whatever they want with the quangos named in it. Their powers would stifle the ability of most of those organisations to work from day to day, leaving the public without the necessary services and employees uncertain about their future. No doubt Ministers will say, “All of this is simply enabling legislation and therefore the programme motion is fine”, but given how they have handled the programming, the problems with the Bill and the lack of consultation, I have no confidence that the processes to be set in train if the Bill becomes an Act will be satisfactory. I therefore put it on the record that we oppose the programme motion. As the House knows, the problem is that if we push the matter to a vote, it will take time away from the debate, and therefore I shall not seek to divide the House. However, that in no way means that I think that the programme motion is adequate.
I rise to observe that the programme motion does not allow sufficient time for discussion of Government amendments 47 and 48. It would have been good to have had time to ensure a full discussion of the matter, because, on a rare occasion that I wish to raise an important constituency issue—concerning the future of the Dover harbour board—I would have been able to make the case for Ministers reconsidering the amendments. With that time in the programme motion, I would have been able to speak on the matter, without it being crowded out by the debate on the chief coroner, and to have explained to Ministers how, in a statutory public referendum in my constituency, 98% of people voted in favour of the people’s port as opposed to a sell-off of the port of Dover.
There would also have been time to tell the House that the unions, business and the community had united and were in agreement on this matter, and to acquaint the House with the fact that seeing that kind of thing happening in public life is actually the most incredible rarity. There might also have been time to tell the House of the unity around the desire for the big society to be built in Dover, where our English border is to be found, and where we keep watch upon our friends across the channel, in the European Union and elsewhere. It would have been most welcome to have had time to tell the House that, rather than carrying out the sell-off, it would be really great to have a community-owned port and a flagship landmark of the big society.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. May I put it on record that he spoke eloquently and convincingly to his amendment in Committee? How disappointed was he that he won his argument only because of the support he received from Labour Members, and despite limited support from those on his own side?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. As so often happens, he sparkles in the Chamber and puts across his fabulous point of view in trying to give me problems with my own party. Had there been time, I would have explained to him that, just as Rome was not built in a day, so the port of Dover was not sold—[Hon. Members: “Sold?”] I mean that it was not saved in a day. Work in progress takes a long time, and it is not always easy to get straight into the harbour to safeguard oneself from the storm. I am confident, however, that the ship is heading in the right direction—
Indeed, the ship of state is moving in the right direction, and I am confident that a safe harbour and place of safety will be found, and that the people of Dover will find great contentment with the end result. I am grateful to have had the time to make those few points, and to make the case for my constituency.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) on being better off than many Opposition Members and perhaps some of his own colleagues, in that his proposals have been selected for debate, even though they might not be reached.
I want to make the general point that this whole approach is a disgrace and an insult to previous Members of the House of Commons who, over many hours, days and years, laboured over the establishment of the various public bodies in question. We are now being asked to dispose of them in an afternoon. I am particularly interested in the fate of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and I have checked the various debates in the House of Commons on its original establishment and on its improvement. Those debates took up more time than this Bill is taking to shift it around, mess it about and do away with it and a large number of other useful public bodies.
I do not think that this is the way to legislate. It is a disgrace, given that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister prated on about a new approach to government. I think that everyone expected a more liberal—with a small l—approach, but it has turned out to be a more absolutist one. I believe that Members of both sides of the House will eventually realise that it is a good idea to allow enough time to debate the things that need to be debated.
May I add my voice to those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) and the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), while supporting what my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) has said? This is a shambles. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority was not even consulted about whether it should appear in the Bill and the same goes for the Human Tissue Authority. I, too, want to express my disappointment at the fact that amendments on these issues have not been selected for debate. More importantly, provisions on the Equality and Human Rights Commission are not included, yet it does amazing and important work on equality issues.
I thus add my voice of concern about these proceedings, which seem to mimic the passage of the Bill generally. Yes, I agree with the Minister that we had a good time in Committee, but we managed to air the issues that were a matter of concern. We are talking about huge swathes of public servants who are carrying out their jobs without understanding what is going to happen to them. My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras was right about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and it also applies to the Human Tissue Authority. There are some parents in the Gallery whose children’s organs have been removed without consent. Such institutions are the guardians of consent regarding human tissue and the protection of the embryo. I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth said; we should have been allowed time to debate such issues.
Briefly, I echo the thoughts of hon. Members of all parties about the short time available for debate. My particular interest is in the debate on S4C, although the debates on agricultural wages and rural affairs are also substantial, to which I know hon. Members from Wales are keen to contribute. I support them in that intention.
I am glad to say that we had a good debate on S4C in Committee. I note that there were positive contributions from Members of all parties, and I am grateful for those extended debates. However, as already noted by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), there have been subsequent changes, not least the fact that Members from Wales were up in Wrexham at the time when we could have tabled amendments on Report. In the meantime, there has been further discussion between S4C, the BBC and the Government, and only today has the substantial agreement between the BBC and S4C been published. I have had the opportunity to look at it, but I know that other hon. Members have not had time to do so, let alone digest it.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that throughout discussion of the Public Bodies Bill—whether in Committee or anywhere else—fewer than four hours have been spent debating S4C and that, although there might have been substantial coverage and publicity, that happened thanks only to the energy and enthusiasm of Welsh language campaigners across Wales and had absolutely nothing to do with the shambolic performance of the Government in this place?
I rather agree with the hon. Lady. I would add that I was fortunate to get a Westminster Hall debate on S4C for half an hour, which was well attended and a contribution to the debate. The problem that I have, as I have said, is that further significant changes have occurred. Given that the amendments on S4C are the last to be dealt with before 7.45 pm, I am concerned that we might not reach them. In that case, I will take my own advice and shut up.
It is inappropriate and against the rules to criticise the Speaker’s selection of amendments, but may I say that that selection is often influenced by the availability of time in which to debate those amendments? A number of staff of different organisations will be disappointed to know that we are not having a debate on the Floor of the House on amendments dealing with the Equality and Human Rights Commission or the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council.
I have been struck by the fact that the Government are not only being bullies in the amount of time allotted for debate on the subject of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but have nationalised—it is the only word I can use—the commission’s grant-giving power, showing that even without this Bill they can behave like Henry VIII.
The problem for those of us who are not members of Bill Committees as a rule—goodness knows why not—is that such points can only be made to them at this stage in the process.
Let me say briefly—because I do not want to take up any more time—that, although the TUPE amendments that I tabled are critical, it seems highly likely that they will not be reached because of the timetable motion. They are critical because tens of thousands of staff will be transferred from one body to another, and eventually, regrettably, many will lose their jobs. In Committee the Minister read some further commitments from the Government into the record, but it would be much more valuable if we had a brief opportunity to engage in further discussion on the Floor of the House, and if the Minister could read the letter that he sent to me today into the record as well. That would provide some comfort and security for the staff members whose positions are under threat.
I urge the House to enable us to reach those amendments, if only for a few minutes, so that more clarity can be given to public servants whom the Bill will affect.
Some political gamesmanship took place during Thursday’s business statement when the debate on the Bill’s remaining stages was moved forward by a week. That left only 24 hours for Members to table amendments. At the time only one had been tabled, but over the past few days Members have made a gigantic effort to table a number of further amendments, which demonstrates the extent of the continuing concern about the Bill.
Of the 35 amendments that we shall debate today, 21 are Government amendments. Amendments that I tabled dealing with unfinished business relating to consumer advocacy in Wales were not selected owing to the shortage of Government time allocated to the Bill. It is clear that a single day’s debate will not be sufficient.
The hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) tried very hard to persuade the House that this was an outrageous proposal from the Government on the grounds of lack of opportunity to consult, but written into the Bill at every stage is a statutory duty to consult on proposals before they become substantive, so consultation is not an issue.
The right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) and the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) were concerned about matters that had not been selected for debate. It is not the Government who select amendments for debate; we can only table programme motions relating to the selection that is before us.
I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) presented the important case relating to Sianel Pedwar Cymru in Committee, and I hope that we shall have yet another opportunity to discuss those matters today. As the hon. Gentleman said, and as I think most right-minded people will recognise, progress has been made during our consideration of the Bill, and we are keen to ensure that the outcome is right for S4C.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) raised an important point about TUPE. Let me say, in case his amendments are not reached, that I will ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd)—who gave him all the assurances that could be given—to place his letter in the Library, so that it is on the record and there can be no doubt that those assurances were given.
I believe that we have an opportunity to engage in substantive debates this afternoon on an important Bill which, despite being paving legislation, opens up the possibility of further debate at a later stage, and I think that we should not delay progress any further.
Question put and agreed to.
Public Bodies Bill [Lords]
Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
[Relevant documents: The Fifth Report from the Public Administration Select Committee, Smaller Government: Shrinking the Quango State, HC 537, and the Government response, Cm 8044.]
New Clause 1
Delegation of functions by Environment Agency
‘(1) The Environment Agency may make arrangements with a person exercising Welsh environmental functions who is not a cross-border operator for that person to exercise a non-devolved function of the Agency.
(2) The consent of the Secretary of State and the Welsh Ministers is required for arrangements under subsection (1).
(3) The Secretary of State may by order with the consent of the Welsh Ministers make provision about how the function of making arrangements under subsection (1) is to be discharged (including provision about the extent to which a fee may be charged in respect of anything done under the arrangements).
(4) An order under subsection (3) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.
(5) For the purposes of subsection (1) a person is not a cross-border operator merely because functions exercisable in or with respect to England have been delegated to that person.’.—(Mr Hurd.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government new clause 2—Delegation of Welsh Environmental Functions.
Government new clause 3—Shared services.
Government new clause 4—Shared services: Forestry Commissioners.
Government amendments 5, 6, 12 to 20, 7, 21 to 25, 8, 9, 26, 27, 10, 28, 11 and 29.
This is a long list of amendments, but I hope we can deal with it quickly, as I sense that the mood of the House is in favour of moving on swiftly to what might well be more contentious issues. First however, it would be wrong of me not to join the Deputy Leader of the House in thanking the members of what was a very good Committee for their work and the spirit in which they undertook it.
This group of Government amendments relates to four aspects of the Bill, and to matters which I hope the House will agree are sensible and uncontentious. New clauses 3 and 4 and amendments 25 to 29 will provide powers to enable certain bodies carrying out public functions—specifically the Environment Agency, Natural England and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, as well as the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, the Marine Management Organisation and internal drainage boards—to share back-office functions with other bodies. The powers also apply to other bodies carrying out Welsh environmental functions.
New clauses 1 and 2 and amendments 12 and 16 to 20 will provide powers to enable the Environment Agency to delegate non-devolved functions to Welsh environmental bodies. They also incorporate provisions currently in clause 16 relating to delegation of Welsh environmental functions. Amendments 5 and 8 to 11 will extend the definition of “eligible persons” in clause 1(3) to include co-operative and community benefit societies and charitable incorporated organisations. Finally, amendments 6, 7, 13 to 15 and 21 to 24 are minor and technical drafting amendments.
Turning first—and briefly—to the issue of shared services, there is a move across government to reduce the cost of back-office functions such as human resources, IT and payment processing. Freeing up bodies to share back-office services is an important way of rationalising and delivering economies of scale. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has some large non-departmental public bodies, such as the Environment Agency, which could serve as centres for delivering back-office services to other bodies in its network. However, these bodies do not currently have clear legal powers to be able to provide such services. That is because providing these back-office services to others is not always incidental or related to their main or primary purpose. The aim of these amendments is to provide a clear power so that, for example, the Environment Agency could provide back-office services such as accounting services to a body such as Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, or operate contracts for vehicles for the DEFRA network. That would be beneficial in efficiency and economic terms, and there are likely to be many more such examples as sharing of services becomes more common.
I understand why these amendments have been tabled, but it is not a God-given right that the organisations in question will win these contracts. Surely some of the contracts will be sufficiently large to have to be put out under the Official Journal of the European Union—or OJEU—notices.
The hon. Gentleman did not answer my question. The fact of the matter is that these measures will give the powers he describes, but they do not necessarily mean that the organisations in question will be able to circumvent European competition law in respect of contracts they put out to tender.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that everything will be subject to appropriate procurement regulations, but the purpose of these amendments is to make it easier for such bodies to share services.
These amendments will therefore enable the Environment Agency, Natural England, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, the Marine Management Organisation and internal drainage boards, which are bodies performing public functions, to provide back-office functions to other bodies carrying out public functions. The Bill already provides a similar power for Welsh environmental bodies, so this step will provide parity for these English bodies.
The amendments also carry forward arrangements in clause 16 whereby forestry commissioners may share services with Welsh environmental bodies carrying out functions in Wales. This power does not extend to the Forestry Commission making arrangements with non-Welsh bodies. As this is an enabling power, it will be used only where a body listed wished to use it, and where it would be financially beneficial to share back-office services. Also, it could not be exercised without the consent of the relevant Ministers. This power is in many respects similar to the provision in the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 enabling internal drainage boards to agree that one should provide back-office services to another. In debate, this was warmly welcomed by all parties. As in the case of these amendments, the express purpose was to make the delivery of administrative functions more effective and cheaper. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will agree that, with public funding under severe constraints, it is sensible to ensure that bodies are able to share services, thus leading to increased efficiency and potential savings in the delivery of back-office functions.
On the delegation of functions, the amendments will correct a technical issue relating to cross-border powers affecting the Environment Agency. The Bill provides for the devolved and non-devolved functions of the Environment Agency, which covers both England and Wales, to be split and for a separate Welsh environmental body to be created. Although the Bill allows Welsh environmental bodies to delegate devolved functions to the Environment Agency, it would not allow the Environment Agency to delegate non-devolved functions to Welsh environmental bodies. That means, in effect, that the Environment Agency would not be able to apply existing flexibilities to delegate to its Welsh counterparts. That could have significant effects in an emergency, such as flooding in the border area, and in specialist areas, such as management of the Dee estuary. We are therefore seeking to correct this gap through these amendments to ensure that the Environment Agency can delegate non-devolved, as well as devolved, functions to the new Welsh environmental body.
We have only recently had sight of these new clauses. The water framework directive, which needs to be in place by 2015, deals with river catchment areas and so rivers such as the Wye and the Severn would have both a Welsh and an English context. Do these new clauses enable these bodies to work better together to achieve the desired outcome?
In large part these measures are designed to make existing flexible arrangements clearer, precisely to make more effective the sort of cross-border work needed in exactly the type of situations to which the hon. Gentleman refers.
As I was saying, the amendments are similar to the current provisions relating to the delegation of Welsh environmental functions in clause 16. The amendments delete those provisions and incorporate them in a slightly revised clause so that the delegation of functions is covered in concurrent clauses.
Amendments 5 and 8 to 11 will extend the definition in clause 1(3) of “eligible persons” to whom the functions of a body or office holder can be transferred under the general order-making powers of the Bill and to whom property can be transferred under clause 24 to include co-operatives, community benefit societies and charitable incorporated organisations. This issue was raised in Committee, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), at which point I made a commitment to consider how alternative models such as co-operatives and community benefit societies could be supported to deliver public services, where appropriate. It has always been the intent behind this section of the Bill to ensure that the reform of public bodies is effective by enabling the transfer of functions to a range of persons, so I am therefore pleased to be able to introduce these amendments.
In addition to the provision on co-operatives and community benefit societies, there is now an amendment to include charitable incorporated organisations. Although such charities are yet to come into being since being introduced by the Charities Act 2006, work is well under way and we have taken the opportunity to allow future orders made under the Bill to transfer functions to them. I would like to assure the House that, no matter to whom functions are transferred, it is the Minister’s responsibility to ensure that proper accountability mechanisms are in place, especially where the body is in receipt of public funds.
We very much welcome these new clauses, which were amendments that we proposed at the time and the Minister very fairly said that he would take them away and look at them. I wish to raise one issue about charities. Is he able to explain why he is envisaging a particular form of charitable association which is not yet in existence? He has made some brief comments, but they left us puzzled in Committee.
Charities do fall within the scope of the Bill as far as we are concerned. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the 2006 Act allowed for the introduction of a new type of organisation—a charitable incorporated organisation. We just felt it sensible at this stage, for the avoidance of any doubt, to include such organisations in the Bill.
I know that the House wants to move on, but let me first address amendments 6, 7, 13 to 15 and 21 to 24. These minor and technical drafting amendments clarify and improve certain aspects of the Bill, and I shall briefly explain the changes they make. The amendments to clauses 11 and 20 are simply drafting changes that move measures that are relevant to the procedure for making orders, which are currently in clause 32, to clauses 11 and 20 as that is where the other measures on procedure are found.
Amendments to clauses 14 and 15 clarify that where Welsh Ministers have powers to modify the constitutional arrangements of bodies, in so far as changes may be made to the extent to which a body is accountable to Ministers, this refers to accountability to Welsh Ministers. The changes to clauses 21 and 23 remove any potential confusion regarding the restrictions in those measures. If a Minister cannot create a power to make subordinate legislation, it follows that he cannot “authorise the creation of” a criminal offence or any of the other powers under clause 21(1). Therefore the removal of the words
“or authorise the creation of”
does not change the effect of the restrictions on ministerial powers.
I understand that those consultations have been extensive and I do not think there has been any real criticism regarding a lack of consultation with Welsh Ministers. However, I know that there continues to be a spirited debate about S4C and I sincerely hope and believe that we will have adequate time to return to that issue.
The amendment to clause 22 removes what was a restriction on the power to authorise the delegation of functions to an eligible person, as the power to so authorise was removed in the other place. The reference in clause 22(2)(b) is therefore no longer necessary. Finally, the change to clause 27 is simply a drafting change to make reference to each House of Parliament approving a draft statutory instrument rather than a statutory instrument.
First, it must be said that the Opposition have been dismayed at the way in which the Government have introduced a Bill to abolish so many valuable bodies with so many diverse functions. They have all been lumped together in this one Bill, which has been designed to abolish them, and this has afforded very little time for debate. Although we may accept some Government new clauses and amendments to make the outcome of the Bill fit within the devolution settlement and to iron out some anomalies—we understand that those changes are necessary and logical—that does not mean that we are giving unreserved support to the Bill. Far from it. In other words, we would far rather not be starting from here.
We have been confronted with a large number of new clauses and amendments at this very late stage of the Bill. A more appropriate way of dealing with these measures would have been in Committee, having allowed proper time for consultation and debate. Instead, these Government amendments were published only yesterday morning. As the Welsh Assembly is in recess this week, there has been no opportunity for the Opposition to consult Welsh Ministers. Indeed, even if it were not in recess, there would have been an absurdly short period of time for us to consult those Ministers or anyone else who has an interest in these amendments. Let us contrast that approach with the extensive discussions we had in the Committees on the Bills that became the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 and the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 about exactly how functions would apply to Wales.
Let me address the four issues to which the Minister has referred. First, on shared services, we need to remember that this is the Minister who only last October tried to explain to charities that they need not worry about TUPE because it would not apply. We can all appreciate the need for savings and the benefits that sharing staff can bring but I am concerned that the Minister is trying to bamboozle us with this measure. I am worried about his understanding of TUPE and the importance of protecting staff if they have to transfer from one place to another, if their functions are transferred, if their job description is changed or if they find themselves doing something that they were not originally appointed to do. I feel that the Government need to take on board the protection that such people should be afforded.
On the Environment Agency and issues such as flooding, of course we appreciate the need for the most appropriate and efficient way to operate. There is already close co-operation on the ground. If we can remove legal barriers to solving any problem in that respect, that is clearly the correct way forward.
Co-operatives have been mentioned, and of course the Opposition have always championed them.
Finally, the technical amendments are clearly consequential, and we therefore accept them in the context of our opposition to the general thrust of the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 1 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 2
Delegation of Welsh environmental functions
‘(1) A person to whom this section applies may make arrangements with another such person for—
(a) a Welsh environmental function exercised by one to be exercised by the other;
(b) co-operation in relation to the exercise of Welsh environmental functions.
(2) This section applies to—
(a) the Environment Agency,
(b) the Forestry Commissioners, and
(c) a person not falling within paragraph (a) or (b) who exercises a Welsh environmental function.
(3) The Welsh Ministers’ consent is required for arrangements under subsection (1).
(4) The Welsh Ministers may by order make provision about how the function of making arrangements under subsection (1) is to be discharged (including provision about the extent to which a fee may be charged in respect of anything done under the arrangements).
(5) An order under subsection (4) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of the National Assembly for Wales.
(6) The Secretary of State’s consent is required for arrangements under subsection (1) involving, or an order under subsection (4) affecting—
(a) the Environment Agency,
(b) the Forestry Commissioners, or
(c) a person not falling within paragraph (a) or (b) who is a cross-border operator.’.—(Mr Hurd.)
Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 3
‘(1) A person to whom this section applies may make arrangements with any other person to provide administrative, professional or technical services to that person for purposes relating to the exercise of public functions in or as regards England or Wales.
(2) This section applies to—
(a) the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew;
(b) the Environment Agency;
(c) the Joint Nature Conservation Committee;
(d) an internal drainage board;
(e) the Marine Management Organisation;
(f) Natural England;
(g) a person not falling within paragraphs (a) to (f) who exercises a Welsh environmental function.
(3) The Secretary of State’s consent is required for arrangements under subsection (1) involving a person who exercises a non-devolved function (whether or not the person also exercises a Welsh devolved function).
(4) The Secretary of State may by order make provision about how the function of making arrangements in subsection (1) is to be discharged in the case of arrangements made by a person to whom this section applies who exercises a non-devolved function.
(5) An order under subsection (4) requires the consent of the Welsh Ministers if the person referred to in subsection (4) also exercises a Welsh devolved function.
(6) An order under subsection (4) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.
(7) The Welsh Ministers’ consent is required for arrangements under subsection (1) involving a person who exercises a Welsh devolved function (whether or not the person also exercises a non-devolved function).
(8) The Welsh Ministers may by order make provision about how the function of making arrangements in subsection (1) is to be discharged in the case of arrangements made by a person to whom this section applies who exercises a Welsh devolved function.
(9) An order under subsection (8) requires the consent of the Secretary of State if the person referred to in subsection (8) also exercises a non-devolved function.
(10) An order under subsection (8) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of the National Assembly for Wales.
(11) The provision referred to in subsections (4) and (8) includes provision about the extent to which a fee may be charged in respect of anything done under the arrangements.
(12) The power to make arrangements under subsection (1) is without prejudice to any other power of a body to which this section applies to provide services to other persons.’.—(Mr Hurd.)
Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 4
Shared services: Forestry Commissioners
‘(1) The Forestry Commissioners may make arrangements with a person who exercises a Welsh environmental function (with or without other functions) to provide administrative, professional or technical services to that person for purposes relating to the exercise of public functions in or as regards Wales.
(2) The Welsh Ministers may by order make provision about how the function of making arrangements under this section is to be discharged (including provision about the extent to which a fee may be charged in respect of anything done under the arrangements).
(3) An order under subsection (2) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of the National Assembly for Wales.
(4) The Secretary of State’s consent is required for—
(a) arrangements under this section, or
(b) an order under subsection (2).
(5) The power to make arrangements under this section is without prejudice to any other power of the Forestry Commissioners to provide services to other persons.’.—(Mr Hurd.)
Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 7
‘(1) In section 3 of the Agricultural Wages Act 1948 (power of Agricultural Wages Board to fix wages, holidays and other terms and conditions) the powers and duties of the Agricultural Wages Board are transferred to the Low Pay Commission.
(2) The Low Pay Commission shall establish an advisory board of employer and employee representatives from agricultural and related industries to make recommendations to the commission in fulfilment of its duties under the Agricultural Wages Act 1948.’.—(Andrew George.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 8—Office of Rural Affairs—
‘(1) The duties of the Commission for Rural Communities contained in section 19 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 (Representation, advice and monitoring) are to be transferred to a body to be known as the Office of Rural Affairs, which will report to the Secretary of State.’.
New clause 9—Independent Rural Advocate—
‘(1) The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 17 (Commission for Rural Communities) for “Commission for Rural Communities” there is substituted “Rural Advocate”.
(3) Subsection 17(2) is omitted.
(4) In section 18 (Commission’s general purpose) and section 19 (Representation, advice and monitoring) for all references to “Commission for Rural Communities” there is substituted “Rural Advocate”.’.
Amendment 32, in schedule 1, page 21, line 11, leave out
‘Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales’.
Amendment 39, in schedule 1, page 21, line 18, leave out ‘Commission for Rural Communities,’.
It is a pleasure to follow the previous debate, which was rather more truncated than I was expecting. I wish to emphasise the importance of retaining, under new clause 7, the protections provided by the Agricultural Wages Board, as well as addressing the importance of maintaining, under new clauses 8 and 9, an overarching mechanism—indeed, an independent body—that can advocate on behalf of rural areas. The Agricultural Wages Board was established under the Agricultural Wages Act 1948, but the heritage of that body goes back to 1924. It is an independent body with a statutory obligation to set minimum wages for agricultural workers in England and Wales and powers to determine other terms and conditions, including holidays and sick pay.
Would it not be simpler to remove the Agricultural Wages Board from the list? Rather than coming up with a new scheme or initiative to transfer powers to the Low Pay Commission under new clause 7, we could leave the Agricultural Wages Board out of the Bill and it could continue to do the excellent work that it has done for many years.
I notice that amendment 32 tabled by the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues proposes to delete the reference to the Agricultural Wages Board from schedule 1. The reason that I proposed a compromise position in new clause 7 is that I agree with the principle underlying the Bill. It is important for Governments continually to review the justification for the existence of non-departmental public bodies and for us to reflect on the amount of public money expended by a wide variety of quangos.
Where we can amalgamate responsibilities or find ways in which protective regulations, such as those for agricultural workers, can be incorporated in another statutory body rather than abolishing the body altogether, as the Government propose, it is important that we explore that option. That is what I seek to do in new clause 7. The intention and the benefit of my proposal is that the regulations are kept and enforced, but the overhead cost of maintaining an organisation is reduced as a result of that amalgamation.
I was going to remind the House that the proposal to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board was in the Conservative party manifesto, not in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, and the proposal to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board was not in the coalition agreement. The issue should be subject to discussions between the two parties, as well as parliamentary debate and scrutiny.
It has always been my view that one of the great benefits of a coalition is that it puts Parliament on the front foot, whether the Opposition like it or not, and it strengthens Parliament. It means that issues such as this, which cannot be resolved between the two parties through whatever usual channels are now established within the coalition, are subject to quite proper parliamentary scrutiny, and Back-Bench Members of the two parties in the coalition are able to hold those on the coalition Front Bench to account.
Is it not the case that the hon. Gentleman and the Liberal Democrats have not been consulted about the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, and that his new clause is an attempt to save face with some of his constituents who will be affected by that? He can give the impression that he has fought for them, when later tonight the Government will abolish the Agricultural Wages Board anyway.
It is up to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the very Back Bench of the Labour party to consider the demeanour they wish to adopt in this debate. Given that we share concerns about a relatively small and vulnerable group of about 150,000 isolated rural workers, many of whom are working on the lowest wages possible in that sector, I should have thought that a better demeanour would be to try and build bridges and find ways forward where we can adopt common ground in order to protect those workers, rather than making what I am sorry to say are rather cheap party political points.
As a compromise, does new clause 7 weaken in any way the protections for agricultural workers? If so, is that not completely contrary not only to the Liberal Democrats’ historical position on the Agricultural Wages Board, but to an early-day motion tabled in 1990 when the last attempt was made to abolish the board? Not only the hon. Gentleman but every Liberal Democrat Member was a signatory to that motion, which stressed that we did not want any weakening of the board whatsoever.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his research, but it must be incorrect because I was not in the House in 1990, so it must have been another date. On the question about the potential weakening of the protections available to agricultural workers, of course, if I thought that the new clause in any way significantly weakened the board’s role in protecting agricultural workers and ensuring that they had a decent baseline and a progression, or in any way jeopardised the terms and conditions that have been secured for them over many years, I would accept what the hon. Gentleman says.
I have had discussions with the Low Pay Commission on the issue. All that it will say is that it is up to Parliament to decide what regulations the commission should adopt, but they need to be enforced. Under the present regulations, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs clearly has the ultimate responsibility for enforcing those.
The hon. Gentleman says that he has had discussions with the Low Pay Commission on his proposal. In the interests of transparency, what discussions has he had with the Government on this issue, and will he press the new clause to a vote, or is he simply using up House of Commons time?
I see that the demeanour adopted by those on the Back Benches is being adopted by those on the Front Bench, which is regrettable. It is for others to judge, but my concern on the issue has been sustained over a long time. I requested to see the Low Pay Commission and I have discussed the matter with it. Yes, I have had informal chats with Ministers on this issue, because like any other parliamentarian, I wish to clarify what lies behind the Government’s proposals, so naturally I have had discussions, but not formal discussions, and the hon. Gentleman is at liberty to explore the matter in the same way.
The hon. Gentleman rightly corrected me: it was in 2000, but I was completely accurate in what I was saying. So may I ask him one more time? If the Minister is unable to reassure him that, in whatever compromise new clause is brought forward, not simply will basic pay be protected, but so will holidays and sick pay, overtime and bereavement leave, rent protection and security of tenure in farm cottages, as they are under the Agricultural Wages Board provisions, will he support the Opposition’s amendment, not his new clause?
I agree. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his correction. I was here then and it is for the hon. Gentleman and his party to reflect on why we thought at that stage that the board might have been under threat. I entirely agree with him about the full raft of protections that should be available to agricultural workers. If I thought those protections were being significantly undermined, I would certainly not pursue the new clause in this manner. I emphasise that I do not feel precious about a particular quango; it is the protections I am most concerned about. I hope to hold out an olive branch to Ministers and say to them, “I agree with the principle underlying the Bill, which is to try to rationalise, amalgamate and abolish where that is necessary. Here is an example where we want the protections, but the small quangos that have proliferated can be amalgamated.” I am meeting them halfway and saying, “Let’s keep these protections.”