House of Commons
Wednesday 25 January 2012
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe, meaning that a terrorist attack is highly likely.
Despite overwhelming community rejection of their murderous activity, terrorist groups continue to carry out indiscriminate attacks, as we saw in Londonderry last week. The Government remain committed to countering terrorism in all its forms.
My hon. Friend touches on an important point. The problem cannot be solved by containment alone, although we pay full tribute to the Police Service of Northern Ireland and all those who are working in our security effort. The Prime Minister said that he wants a shared future, not a shared-out future, in Northern Ireland, and we are working closely with the devolved Administration. Only last week, Eamon Gilmore, the Tánaiste, was in Northern Ireland talking to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister about the very schemes to which my hon. Friend refers. A review is taking place to see which are the most effective, and which could be endorsed for a future PEACE IV programme.
Does the Secretary of State understand the anger and fear that is felt in my constituency and, indeed, throughout Northern Ireland, in the light of the release of Colin Duffy, a person charged on three different occasions with the murder of innocent people and who always seems to find a get-out card? What assurance can the Secretary of State give my constituents that they will be safe from brutal terrorists such as Colin Duffy, and not become another statistic in a long line of innocent victims?
I entirely sympathise with the concerns of the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. We believe in the separation of powers, and the decision was made by due process. I am delighted that there was one conviction for that appalling incident. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, as he knows from our private discussions, the Government will bear down on all terrorists. We have brought a further £200 million to Northern Ireland at the request of the Chief Constable, and we will stand by the PSNI and all those working to eradicate that very small number of totally unhinged, dangerous people.
As the Member for the city of Derry, may I inform the Secretary of State that the overwhelming majority of its citizens deplore and resent the dissidents’ acts of civic sabotage on Ireland’s fourth city? Given the right hon. Gentleman’s locus on some security matters, what input does he have into the justice and security Green Paper, and what engagement is he having with the devolved authorities about its implications for Northern Ireland?
I wholly sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s thoughts on behalf of his constituents. Last week’s attacks were completely incomprehensible to any sane person: elderly people in a home and disadvantaged young people in a home were at real risk. I pay full tribute to the incredible bravery and professionalism of those PSNI officers who led the evacuation. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I work closely with David Ford, the Justice Minister, and the Chief Constable. I spoke to them both this morning, and we are liaising on the justice Green Paper.
I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks about the PSNI and others in Northern Ireland who are combating the threat.
Last week saw the inspirational launch of an exciting tourist initiative for Northern Ireland, NI 2012. When so many people are doing so much work to create a better future, does the Secretary of State agree that last week’s bomb attacks in Derry/Londonderry were reckless and futile? Will he guarantee to the people of Northern Ireland that all those coping with the terrorist threat are given our full support and the resources that they need to deal with any future threat?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his supportive comments and for the support he gives me on that in private. He is absolutely right to condemn the attacks, which play absolutely no part in the future of Northern Ireland.
On support for the PSNI, as I have just said, the Chief Constable requested extra funds soon after the Government came to office and we delivered £200 million over the next four years. He is quoted in April last year as saying:
“We have the resources, we have the resilience and we have the commitment.”
I again assure the Secretary of State of the Opposition’s full co-operation in dealing with those matters. He will know that responsibility for national security in Northern Ireland rests with him. What assessment has he made of the effectiveness of the security services’ performance and the implementation of the five key national security protocols agreed between the security services and the PSNI at St Andrews?
I am happy to confirm that Lord Carlile, in his third annual report earlier this year, confirmed that MI5 and the PSNI are working very closely together. More work could not be done more energetically to deal with the difficult dissident republican threat.
The devolution of policing and justice reinforced the determination of the political parties in Northern Ireland to face down the small minority who still engage in violence, but legislation stipulates that the Justice Department will disappear in May unless the Assembly resolves that it should continue. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the current thinking within the Executive and the details of any action he might need to take to maintain progress?
I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman’s hard work when he ran security under direct rule. As he rightly says, the position is that the current arrangements cease in May this year. Negotiations are going on within the Executive between the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, in which the Government are also involved. As I understand it, the incumbent, David Ford, has the full support of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. For the Government’s part, where we have overlapping roles, we have strong support for him and get on with him extremely well. I was in Dublin recently and I can confirm that Alan Shatter, the Irish Justice and Equality Minister, also enjoys working with David Ford. I hope that in due course this will become—
Private Sector Job Creation
We work closely with Executive Ministers in the joint ministerial working group on rebalancing the economy. I regularly meet the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister and her colleagues in support of the Executive’s efforts to create more jobs in the private sector.
I was delighted to see a recent CBI survey that said that 39% of firms in Northern Ireland expect to take on more staff this year, but does my right hon. Friend believe that the Northern Irish economy would do even better if it adopted the Work programme, which has been rolled out in the rest of the UK?
Yes, I do. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the Work programme provides tailored support for claimants who need more help to find jobs. I hope very much that Northern Ireland Ministers will adopt it as part of their welfare reforms. It provides a greater opportunity than did the future jobs fund.
An Aviva survey released this week showed that a quarter of small business owners are thinking of jacking in running their own business and instead trying to get a job because their situation is so difficult. Are Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive as frustrated as the rest of the country at the lack of growth that this Government are delivering?
We have many things to celebrate in Northern Ireland that are occasionally eclipsed by other news stories. Today, Muldoon Transport Systems in Dungannon has secured a £1 million contract to supply 19 trailers to one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest businesses. Nearly a third of London buses are manufactured in Ballymena by Wrightbus. I look forward to joining the hon. Gentleman for an early summer holiday on one of Boris’s Ballymena buses after Boris wins the mayoral elections.
It is worth pointing out that Northern Ireland has won 7% of foreign direct investment to the UK with only 2.8% of the population, and that Belfast attracts more foreign direct investment than any UK city outside London. Those are good news stories in Northern Ireland on which we intend to build.
My hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, has raised that with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who in turn raised it with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is discussing it with the Northern Ireland Finance Minister, the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who is in his place, and the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. They will report shortly.
Will the Minister provide us with a progress report on the resolution of the problem of the capital budget for Northern Ireland for the next 10 years, which the Northern Ireland Office has promised us? If that is satisfactorily resolved, it will help to stimulate the local economy—both public and private sector—and to sustain existing jobs.
Before Christmas, I had the privilege of meeting the Northern Ireland Federation of Small Businesses, and I was extremely impressed with its efforts and the work it is doing. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the Northern Ireland FSB on its work and its determination to get through the economic challenges of the next 18 months?
I find the Minister of State’s selective comments to be quite extraordinary. The Queen of Hearts suggested that one should believe six impossible things every day before breakfast, but does the Minister seriously expect us to believe that a shrinking private sector can somehow compensate for the highest public sector job losses of any UK region? That sounds like “Alice in Wonderland” to me.
Let us look in the real glass, rather than the looking glass, and give the hon. Gentleman three quick facts. The unemployment rate for Northern Ireland was down 0.7% over the quarter and 1% over the year. The number of unemployed people in Northern Ireland was estimated at 59,000, down 7,000 over both the quarter and the year. Northern Ireland unemployment for 18 to 24-year-olds for the three months to October 2011 was estimated at 18.2%, compared with a UK average of 20.5%. No one is saying that this will continue. We hope it will, but we are trying to deal with unprecedented economic circumstances, both globally and in trying to right the appalling legacy of the Labour Government.
I am sorry, Mr Speaker. Such was the excitement following my previous remarks that I failed to hear you.
I have discussed this matter with the Minister for Sport and the Olympics, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson), who, like me, looks forward to Northern Ireland playing the fullest part in the diamond jubilee celebrations and welcoming Her Majesty to Northern Ireland later in the year.
I am grateful to the Minister, and 2012 represents a very big year in Northern Ireland, not just because of the diamond jubilee but because of the Olympics. In Yorkshire, we have managed to secure more than 30 overseas squads to use our excellent training facilities. What steps are being taken to ensure that overseas squads use the great sporting facilities in the Province?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on attracting so many teams to his area. In Northern Ireland we have the Australian boxing team, the Chinese gymnastics team—which is probably capable of even greater contortions than Opposition Treasury spokesmen—and the Irish Paralympics teams, which will hold pre-games training events in Northern Ireland. For the golfers among us, we also hope that the Irish open championship will be followed in due course by the British open.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the events of 2012 present a wonderful opportunity for Northern Ireland to showcase itself as an excellent place for tourists to visit, both from other constituent parts of the United Kingdom and from around the world?
Yes, I most certainly do—2012 is the year to visit Northern Ireland, with the launch of “Your Time, Our Place” last week, before returning in 2013 for the UK city of culture. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his sterling work in encouraging Members to donate to his window to commemorate Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee. I did a quick ring-round of the Northern Ireland Office, and I am glad to say that I have donated—although I have not told my wife—the Secretary of State has donated and our Minister in the Lords has donated.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The royal family are regular visitors to Northern Ireland, not least to the annual garden party. We are informed by the Palace that Her Majesty will quite rightly be visiting Northern Ireland, as she will all other parts of the United Kingdom.
Does the Minister agree that, commensurate with security considerations, it would be of great benefit in encouraging the participation and engagement of the public with the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations if they were given as much notice as possible of her visit to Northern Ireland? On previous occasions, such as her visit to Dublin and her engagements in London, people have been given only short notice.
The right hon. Gentleman mentions Her Majesty’s historic visit to Dublin last year, and I have absolutely no reason to suppose that in her diamond jubilee year she will not be greeted in Northern Ireland with equally fulsome adulation and applause. He also mentions security. All visits by members of the royal family and other VIPs have to be handled tactfully by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and we would certainly not try to second guess it. There is a balance to be struck, and security must be paramount.
I thank the Minister for his reply. It has rightly been said that this is a tremendous year for Northern Ireland, and not only because of the jubilee celebrations. We shall mark the centenary of the Titanic, with the opening of a £100 million visitor centre, and host the Irish open, as well as playing a part in the round-the-world yacht race. Northern Ireland will be a great place to visit. What is the Minister doing to encourage tourists coming to London for the Olympics to travel further across the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Olympics are, by definition, the London Olympics, but that does not mean that other parts of the United Kingdom should not benefit from them. He has just advertised what will be happening in Northern Ireland this year, and I would say to hon. Members and others outside the House: if you are not in Northern Ireland this year, frankly, you are no one.
I welcome the Minister’s comments about the Titanic centenary. The Titanic was built in my constituency, and we hope that “Titanoraks” from all over the globe will make their way to Belfast in 2012. What discussions has he had with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that people are aware of the unique opportunity to experience some of the authentic history of the Titanic story? [Interruption.]
Thank you for that, Mr Speaker. It is equally unfair on me, as I try to hear the hon. Lady’s question. She mentions the Titanic. As they say in Belfast, “She was fine when she left here”—the Titanic, that is, not the hon. Lady, who is of course fine wherever she goes. I do not feel that I need to discuss the Titanic with the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, because I think that everyone knows that it was built in Belfast and that we are going to celebrate that fact. When people come to Northern Ireland, they should certainly go to the Titanic quarter.
Welfare Reform Bill
I discuss welfare reform regularly with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. We now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform the welfare system and to tackle the problems of poverty and welfare dependency by ensuring that work pays, and is seen to pay.
I am sure that the Secretary of State understands the concerns and fears being expressed by many in Northern Ireland, given that the report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that, after London, Northern Ireland will be hardest hit by the proposals in the Bill. There is a suggestion that some £600 million will be lost. Does he find it surprising that civil society and Church organisations across Northern Ireland—and, indeed, the UK generally—oppose the Bill? Will he also give me an undertaking that no one will be left homeless as a result of the reforms?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. The four Church leaders came to London to meet the Minister responsible for welfare reform, my noble Friend Lord Freud, who is taking the Bill through the Lords. He explained many of the details of the Bill, which, sadly, is not well understood in Northern Ireland. I see great benefits in making work pay, and we will ensure that every person, regardless of their opportunities, will be better off if they work one hour longer.
Legacy of the Past
Since taking office, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have met the political parties and other interest groups to discuss the issue of dealing with the past, but there is no consensus. I shall meet the parties again in the coming weeks.
My hon. Friend is quite right to comment on the HET, whose satisfaction levels have been extraordinarily high, with some 90% of families being either satisfied or very satisfied. I last spoke to the Chief Constable about this a few weeks ago and he was confident that on his current track the HET would complete on time.
As I said in my opening answer, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have met the local parties and numerous groups around Northern Ireland since we came to power, seeking a way forward on the issue of the past. We do not own the past, however. We can help facilitate, but ultimately the solution is very much in local hands and depends on local groups and local parties reaching consensus. Sadly, we have so far not found consensus.
Further to that helpful answer, back in November the Secretary of State said that he would meet parties to move the issue forward. Does he agree that bilateral discussions are no substitute for multilateral discussions, and will he tell us when he will make progress on bringing all the parties together to discuss this matter?
That is a very helpful question. There was a debate in the Assembly that asked me to call for talks, so I consulted the Speaker of the Assembly and decided to write to each party individually. I am not convinced that a great summit with satellite camera vans outside Hillsborough is the answer. The issue needs to be discussed soberly, quietly and privately to see whether I can find a way forward. I do not own the past—the solution must come from local politicians themselves. [Interruption.]
Does the Secretary of State accept that part of the problem in dealing with the past and trying to get the parties around the table is that one party was party to the major problem of the past—the Provisional IRA. It will not own up to the part it played in creating the past—rather, it tries to deem everyone equal, innocent and guilty alike.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and he touches on the problem of arriving at uniform consensus. We were elected on a platform of no more costly and open-ended inquiries, because we do not like the asymmetry of applying an extraordinary intensity of effort and expense to a very small number of cases. That is why I am trying to find a broader approach, working with all local parties.
Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains
I commend the work of the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains, which has to date located nine of the 16 disappeared. The commission is information-driven and is committed to investigating any further information it receives regarding the remaining seven disappeared.
Given the success of the commission and the closure it has helped to bring to many families, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that his Department will continue to ensure that the commission has all the resources necessary to complete its vital work?
If my hon. Friend looks at the early-day motion, he will see that we and the Irish Government remain committed to the work of the ICLVR. We pay tribute to the two commissioners, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield from the British side and Frank Murray from the Irish side. They have done sterling work and they are in stand-by mode. We are determined to continue this work, if the information is available, to, we hope, bring some resolution to the families who have lost their loved ones.
Can the Minister of State confirm that the commission continues to search for my young constituent, Lisa Dorrian, who was murdered and disappeared by those with loyalist paramilitary connections several years ago and who remains unfound? Can he give closure to her family?
I suspect that the only thing that can give partial closure to the hon. Lady’s constituents is the location of this individual. I am not certain whether the hon. Lady has signed the early-day motion, but if she has not I urge her to do so. Clearly, if the information is there the ICLVR will act on it, and it will be properly resourced so to do both by ourselves and by the Irish Government. We are absolutely determined that we will work our way through as many of the missing as we can, but I stress that this is an information-led process and we urge anyone and everyone with any information to bring it before the two commissioners.
The Prime Minister was asked—
The youth contract scheme is going to make a big difference to young people because it will, over the coming years, have 160,000 places for people in private sector firms. That will be far better than the failed future jobs fund, which in some cases had more than 97% of its jobs placed in the public sector. It will be up and running this year and it will make a big difference to young people.
Today is the anniversary of the birth of the great Scottish poet Robert Burns. Does the Prime Minister agree with Burns’s impassioned plea for the unity of our nation in his poem, “The Dumfries Volunteers”,
“Be Britain still to Britain true,
Amang oursels united;
For never but by British hands
Maun British wrangs be righted!”?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question, and the point she makes is a good one. Burns night will be celebrated not just across Scotland but across the whole of the United Kingdom and in many parts of the world. When I hear the Scottish nationalists, who are so keen to leave the UK yet so anxious about having a referendum, I think that perhaps they should remember Burns’s words when he referred to the
“Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!”
These are extremely difficult economic times and these are disappointing figures—although they are not unexpected, because the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast a small decline in gross domestic product at the end of last year. I will be frank with the right hon. Gentleman: they reflect three things. They reflect the overhang of the debt and the deficit that we have to deal with; they reflect the higher food and fuel prices that put a squeeze on household income towards the end of last year; and they also reflect the crisis in the eurozone that has frozen Europe’s economies. The forecasts for France, Germany, Spain and Italy for the end of last year forecast as great a decline, or in many cases a greater decline. This is the year when we have to take further action to get our economy moving, but the most important thing is to have a credible plan to get on top of the deficit, which has given us the lowest interest rates for more than 100 years.
People are fed up with the right hon. Gentleman’s excuses about what is happening in our economy. He blames the eurozone. Growth has been flatlining in our economy since well before the eurozone crisis—in fact, since his spending review in autumn 2010. And what has characterised the Government’s approach throughout this period? Total arrogance. In his first Budget the Chancellor painted a glowing picture of what his policies would deliver for our economy. He said that his policies would deliver
“a steady and sustained economic recovery, with…falling unemployment.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 168.]
We have a shrinking economy and the highest unemployment in 18 years. How bad do things have to get in our economy to shake the Prime Minister out of his complacency?
As usual, the right hon. Gentleman writes the question before he listens to the answer. I did not just say, “This is an issue of the eurozone.” It is an issue of debt and deficit; it is an issue of squeezed household incomes—issues that are affecting many other economies. He talks about what our policy is. We remember what his policy was: “No more boom and bust”. And yet he gave us the biggest boom and the biggest bust, which we are having to recover from. There is not one ounce of complacency; that is why we are cutting corporation tax, we scrapped Labour’s job tax, we have introduced the enterprise zones, we are investing record sums in apprenticeships—[Interruption.]
We are doing all of these things, but the Labour party has only one answer, and that is to deal with a debt crisis by borrowing more and adding to debt. That is his answer. That would wreck our interest rates, wreck our economy and make things much worse.
The Prime Minister says that there is not one ounce of complacency, but he and his Chancellor are the byword for self-satisfied smug complacency, and that is the reality. He talks about borrowing; he is failing not just on unemployment, not just on growth, but on borrowing as well. Because of his failure on growth and unemployment, he is borrowing £158 billion more than he forecast. And now we know—he said unemployment would fall; it isn’t. He said our economy would grow; it hasn’t. He said, “We’re all in this together”; we’re not. When will this Prime Minister face up to the fact that it is his policies that are failing our country?
We were given a very clear instruction yesterday. At 5 o’clock in the afternoon the shadow Chancellor said that the Government should listen to the IMF and change course. At 7 o’clock in the evening the IMF told us what we should do. It said that it does not think that fiscal consolidation adds to the problem, and that
“The fiscal consolidation is part of resolving problems facing the UK economy.”
That is the truth. There are two parties in this country taking responsibility for clearing up the mess; there is one party refusing to take responsibility for causing the mess.
Sir Fred Goodwin has recently been censured by the Financial Services Authority in its report on the RBS shambles. Can the Prime Minister tell the House when the Honours Forfeiture Committee will be sitting, to consider stripping this man of his ill-deserved knighthood?
The forfeiture Committee will, as I understand it, be meeting this week, and it will be considering all the evidence—including, as I have said before, the Financial Services Authority report on RBS and what went wrong, and who was responsible for what went wrong.
Q2. It seems, Mr Speaker, that the SNP gets more reaction from Labour than their own Leader does. Does the Prime Minister agree that in Scotland the people are sovereign, and therefore for improvement they have the right to determine their own constitutional future as they see fit? (91460)
Of course this is an issue for the people of Scotland, and I think we should bring forward the date when we put to the Scottish people the question of whether they want to stay in the United Kingdom—which I dearly hope that they do—or to leave the United Kingdom. But the point that everyone needs to understand is that options for further devolution—options for changes across the United Kingdom—are matters for all of the United Kingdom, and matters that all of the United Kingdom should rightly discuss.
May I put it to the Prime Minister that for Britain to commit still more funds to the IMF would, in effect, be providing a subsidy to Germany, because it is still not fully supporting its own currency, while benefiting from its depreciation?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course the IMF managing director, Christine Lagarde, is in London today, and our message has been clear: there should be no question of committing further IMF funds until the eurozone itself has shown that it is comprehensively going to stand behind its own currency. In her speech in Germany last night Christine Lagarde made it absolutely clear that the IMF’s role is to support countries, not currency zones, and the Government support that position.
Last September the Prime Minister said about his flagship health Bill:
“we have the Royal College of GPs, the physicians, the nurses and people working in the health service supporting the changes we are making”.—[Official Report, 7 September 2011; Vol. 532, c. 352.]
Will he give the House an update on the support for his Bill from the medical profession?
I have certainly learned that when it comes to the NHS you should always expect a second opinion—or conceivably even a third opinion.
The point is this: there are thousands of GPs throughout the country who are not just supporting our reforms, but actually implementing our reforms. Let me give the right hon. Gentleman just one example of a supportive GP, who happens—[Interruption.]
I think they want to hear from this one particular GP, who hails from Doncaster. When he was the acting chairman of the Doncaster GP commissioning group, he said:
“Becoming one of the first national pathfinder areas is a real boost for Doncaster.”
I think that what is good for Doncaster is good for the rest of the country, too.
How out of touch is the Prime Minister with what is happening in the NHS? Let me tell him what the medical profession is saying. The latest survey of the Royal College of General Practitioners says that 98% of GPs want the Bill withdrawn. The Royal College of Nursing has said:
“the turmoil of proceeding with these reforms is now greater than the turmoil of stopping them”.
In his famous listening exercise, the Prime Minister said:
“change—if it is to endure, to really work—should have the support of people who work in our NHS. We have to take our nurses and doctors with us.”
If he wants to hear the voice of doctors and nurses across our NHS, why does he not listen?
The right hon. Gentleman seems to be out of touch with what is happening in Doncaster. He asks what is happening in the NHS. Let me tell him what is happening in the NHS: 4,000 extra doctors since the election; 100,000 more patients treated since the election; in-patient and out-patient waiting times lower than they were at the election; and £7 billion of the £20 billion already saved. At the same time, we have got hospital-acquired infections at their lowest ever level. That is what is happening in the NHS, but if we listened to him, we would be cutting spending in the NHS and scrapping reforms of the NHS, and the NHS would be getting worse, not better.
I shall tell the Prime Minister what is happening in the NHS: waiting lists up, morale down. What does the majority-Conservative Select Committee on Health say about his reorganisation? It says that it will be a
“disruption and distraction that hinders the ability of organisations to”
Let us be frank: this is a Bill that nobody wants. It is opposed by doctors, nurses and patients. Before the election the Prime Minister said, “No more top-down reorganisation.” Is it not time he kept at least one promise, put aside his pride and arrogance, and dropped this unnecessary and unwanted Bill?
I know that the Leader of the Opposition panics and backs down the first time a trade union says no, but this Government do not. Of course if you introduce choice, transparency and competition and say that the private and voluntary sectors should play a greater role you face a challenge, but that is what doing the right thing is sometimes all about. Let him remember what his party’s Health Secretary said about GP commissioning:
“That change will put power in the hands of local GPs to drive improvements in their area, so it should give more power to their elbow than they have at present. That is what I would like to see”.—[Official Report, 16 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 861-62.]
What a shame they talk about it in government, but do not have the guts to face down opposition when they are in opposition.
Following the death of 167 workers in the Piper Alpha disaster in the North sea, this country developed a world-leading safety case regime for offshore oil and gas, which is now threatened by regulations from the European Union. Will the Prime Minister use his best endeavours to back his Department of Energy and Climate Change in persuading the rest of the EU that what we need is not more regulation, but a— [Hon. Members: “Derogation?”] No—I am sorry Mr Speaker. What we need is not regulation, but a directive, which can be implemented flexibly.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I well remember the Piper Alpha disaster and the huge suffering and loss of life it caused. Since that day, we have put in place what I agree is a world-leading system of regulation, and I shall do all I can to support the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in making sure that we get a result in Europe that means we can go on with the right regulations for the North Sea.
Q3. On 2 May 2010 the Prime Minister said that“The test of a good society”was how it cares for the frail and the vulnerable, adding that that was“even more important in difficult times.”Will he not be offending the basic sense of decency of the British people if he persists next week with proposals to take away up to £94 per week in employment and support allowance from up to 7,000 recovering cancer patients across the country? (91461)
What our plans envisage is more people with cancer receiving the higher level of benefit and fewer people having to have the face-to-face interview. That is the case. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are two types of employment and support allowance. Those in the support group get that money for ever—for as long as they need it and as long as they are unable to work. Many people with cancer go straight into that group, and quite right too.
Q4. I know that my right hon. Friend is aware that the Coryton oil refinery in my constituency went into protective administration yesterday. Although the future is uncertain, it is by no means bleak. Does he agree with me that what is needed now to protect the 1,000 jobs the refinery provides is the full support of the customers and the suppliers, and accurate reporting of the situation? Will he agree to ensure that I meet all the relevant Ministers to discuss what further action the Government can take to secure the future of that important business? (91462)
My hon. Friend is right to raise that case and to mention the importance of the role played by the customers and the suppliers. I shall certainly make sure that he meets Ministers as appropriate. The key is the role of the administrator, which has made it clear that its immediate priority is to continue to operate the refinery operations at Coryton and the other Petroplus sites in the UK while the financial position is clarified and all the restructuring options are explored. We are confident that the administrator is doing all it can, but we will keep on the case.
Q5. The existing UK controls on the movement of terrorist suspects lapse today, including in the case of suspect CD, of whom Mr Justice Owen said at his appeal last year that relocation was a “necessary and proportionate measure to protect the public from…an immediate and real risk of a terrorist-related attack.” Will the Prime Minister tell the House why his Government supported the relocation power at the court hearing last year, but have since legislated to remove it and to give suspect CD and others like him the freedom to come to London in the run-up to the Olympic games? (91463)
I think that most people across the House realise that the control order regime needed to be reformed, as it did not have public confidence, nor did it have the confidence of many people in the police and security services. We have reformed it, and we have worked with the police and security services. We have put in all the resources that they believe are necessary to make sure that our country is kept safe.
Q6. Following the renewable energy subsidy review, will the Prime Minister assure taxpayers that the Government will focus their support on technologies that are cost-effective and reliable, such as biomass, rather than inefficient, costly, large-scale onshore wind farms? (91464)
My hon. Friend will know that the consultation on the renewable obligation banding review has just closed. It proposed targeting only the most cost-effective onshore wind farms, recognising that that is now one of the mature and cheaper technologies. We should, as he says, increase support for an expansion in sustainable biomass generation, which is reliable and cost-effective, and will help us to meet our renewables target.
On Friday, Holocaust memorial day commemorates the liberation of the concentration and extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. What can the Prime Minister do to ensure that all of our society understands the depravity of the era of Nazi evil and learns the lessons of it for the present?
The hon. Lady, who has a long record of supporting this cause, speaks for the whole House and the whole nation in raising it and stressing its importance. I met representatives of the Holocaust Educational Trust yesterday and I met a holocaust survivor, whose story was truly inspiring about what he had seen and gone through as a young boy—and then his coming to Britain and becoming an Olympic and Commonwealth contender. It was a fantastic story. We need to make sure that these stories are told in all our schools, right across the country. That is the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, and it is work that I strongly support.
Q7. Is the Prime Minister aware that for the whole of Lancashire, average household income after tax is a little above £26,000? Yes, my constituents want a fair deal for those who deserve benefits, but they also want a fair deal for those who work and pay for benefits. (91465)
My hon. Friend speaks for many people. We say that the proposal for a cap on benefits of £26,000 is fair. It allows people to receive £500 a day—[Interruption]—a week. His constituents, and many other constituents, ask themselves, “Is it right that my hard-earned taxes, when I am earning less than that, are going to support people on benefits?” I have to say how disappointing it was that, after the Labour party said that it would support a cap—the announcement was made on the BBC—it voted against it in the other place. What a complete act of hypocrisy!
Following today’s media reports, will the Prime Minister explain why ministerial advisers and senior civil servants continued to attend networking events with lobbyists who paid several thousand pounds to attend, despite the fact that the Cabinet Office deemed that to be a breach of the civil service code, and had previously issued a ban on attendance?
Q8. My right hon. Friend will have noted that the Government’s proposed benefits cut excludes war widows, the disabled and those claiming working tax credits. Does he not agree that my constituents on the Lancashire wage to which my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) referred deserve to know that they have a Government who are on the side of families who do the right thing and support their local communities? (91466)
My hon. Friend speaks very powerfully about this issue, which is why a benefit cap is fair. It is also very important to recognise that we are excluding from that benefit cap those entitled to working tax credit, as well as households with someone receiving disability living allowance. As we have always said, there will be a hardship fund, a grace period and a way of helping those families to cope with the cap, and to make sure, where possible, that we actually get people into work. The real shame is that there are so many millions of children who live in households where nobody works—and indeed, that number doubled under the previous Government.
Q9. The Prime Minister has said that it would be “a personal betrayal if banks failed to increase lending to businesses”.Yet last week the Bank of England stated that businesses are still not getting the investment that they need from the banks. Have the banks betrayed the Prime Minister, or has the Prime Minister betrayed businesses? (91467)
What I have done is put in place the Merlin agreement, which actually led to an increase in bank lending last year. What we now have in place is a massive credit easing programme, which the Chancellor announced in the autumn statement, that will kick in this year and make sure that banks are doing what banks ought to do in a free enterprise economy, and lending to businesses large and small.
I am sure there will be families with children who may have difficulties with the new benefit regime. However, would the Prime Minister care to comment on the feelings of elderly couples who have spent their entire lives working for this country, paid into the state pension system, and are now existing on about £7,000 a year, rather than £26,000?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The fact is that if one looks at the figures today, there are still families in London receiving housing benefit worth more than £50,000 a year. Each one of those families is taking up the hard-earned taxes of many working people earning far less, who could not dream of living in such houses. The point that he makes about pensioners is right, and I am proud of the fact that the Government will be increasing the basic state pension by £5 a week, starting in April, because we believe in dignity and security for our pensioners in old age.
Q10. What does the Prime Minister make of the National Audit Office’s slating of his flagship Work programme? It says that the Government have totally overestimated the number of people that it will put back to work. It is not so much a Work programme as a “doesn’t work” programme. (91468)
Instead of just reading the press release, the hon. Gentleman should read the NAO report, which praises the Government for introducing a scheme in such a short time. The basic point that the NAO is making is that the Work programme is not putting taxpayers’ money at risk but putting the providers at risk, and that is a different way of doing things. It is about payment by results, getting better performance and value for money—things that his Government never provided.
Q11. As my hon. Friends have said earlier, many of my constituents, like theirs, work extremely hard for modest salaries. Given that many people think that the benefit cap should be set lower than £26,000, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Opposition are completely out of touch by voting to make it higher? (91469)
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Let me remind the Leader of the Opposition what he said at the beginning of this year. On the “Today” programme, he said:
“I’m not against the cap.”
If he is not against the cap, why could he not get his Labour peers to vote for the cap in the House of Lords? What is he—weak, incompetent, or both?
Q12. On 14 December I asked the Prime Minister about cutting benefits for disabled children, and he replied:“First of all, we are not cutting benefits for disabled children.”—[Official Report, 14 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 793.]I wonder whether since that time he has checked his facts and discovered that on 12 December, two days before I asked my question, his coalition Members in the Lords voted against the protection of benefits for disabled children under the new universal credit, resulting in a loss of £1,300. I will give the Prime Minister another go. How does this fit in with “We’re all in this together”? (91471)
The right hon. Lady is wrong. The money going into universal credit for the most disabled children is not being cut. She is just plain wrong about that. But is it not interesting that all the questions that we get from all Opposition Members are always about calling for more spending? They have learned absolutely nothing about the mess they landed this country in.
British Airways has announced that it has reached an agreement to take over British Midland International. Although this is being challenged under competition rules, what assurances can the Prime Minister give that the landing slots at Heathrow from regional airports such as Aberdeen will be protected if it is allowed to go ahead?
That is not what the reforms do at all. The reforms ensure that there can be some private and voluntary sector activity going on within the NHS. Before they all—[Interruption.] Perhaps the Leader of the Opposition should quieten down for a second and listen to what his own shadow Health Secretary said. He said:
“the private sector puts its capacity into the NHS for the benefit of NHS patients, which I think most people in this country would celebrate”—[Official Report, 15 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 250WH.]
Again, that is what he said in government, but since going into opposition Labour Members have taken up a position of just supporting the producer interest, total irresponsibility and total short-termism. I stand by what you said in 2007; it is a pity you could not stick by it.
The Prime Minister will be aware of the brutal murder last year in Germany of my constituent, Lee Heath. The murder trial is set to start in March and will last for a good couple of months. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the Government do everything possible to support Lee’s mother, Marie Heath, in dealing with the ever increasing financial costs that she faces in seeking justice for her son?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this case. First, may I offer my sincere condolences to Marie Heath and her family following the tragic death of her son Lee last year? I know what a distressing time this will be for them as they travel for the trial in Germany. The Foreign Office will do everything it can to support Marie and her family. I have to say that I have been quite impressed by what the Foreign Office does in cases like this. I think that it shows sympathy and understanding, and I will make sure that that is carried through in this case as well.
Q14. Twenty-five per cent. of our constituents suffer from musculoskeletal diseases. The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee believe that we could get better outcomes for those people at lower cost if a clinical director was appointed to co-ordinate things in the NHS. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet charities representing those people, with me, in the near future? (91473)
I will certainly look carefully at the case that the hon. Gentleman makes. One of the points of the NHS reforms that is perhaps not yet fully understood is the idea of having public health budgets properly ring-fenced, properly funded and with properly employed directors of public health in each area, which will help in many of these areas.
My constituents in Kingswood entirely agree with the Government’s proposed benefits cap. They believe that no one should earn more in benefits than hard-working families earn. Does the Prime Minister not agree that it is a damned disgrace—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”]—that the Labour party is opposing and trying to wreck this important measure?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. This is an important decision that the House of Commons has to make. We were told that the Labour party would support a cap on benefits—Labour Members have said that repeatedly—yet when the challenge comes they duck it and refuse to support the cap. [Interruption.] They will have another chance when the legislation comes back to this House—[Interruption.] It is no good the Leader of the Opposition shaking his head. His own peers voted against the cap in the Lords. People in this country will not understand why they are taking that position.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Backbench Business Committee, at its meeting yesterday, decided to amend tomorrow’s business slightly to include a pre-EU Council topical debate at the beginning of its proceedings. Unfortunately, this means that we have had to postpone the presentation of a report by the Chair of the Public Administration Committee.
Mr Speaker, could you give me some advice? Given that the Backbench Business Committee is unable to make an emergency business statement to inform the House of this change of business at such short notice, how do I best go about doing so?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This morning the Government lost their appeal against a High Court ruling that the cuts to solar tariff payments are legally flawed. The Government have spent at least £66,000, cost social housing providers perhaps at least £1 million and created even more uncertainty, putting thousands of jobs at risk. Have you have received any indication at all from Ministers at the Department of Energy and Climate Change that they intend to come to the House and make a statement, explaining how they plan to clear up the mess that they have created?
The short answer is that I have received no such indication or communication from a DECC Minister, but I just have a sense—I do not know why; perhaps it is my nearly 15 years in the House and the fact that the right hon. Lady and I came into the House together—that she will pursue the matter at DECC questions tomorrow, probably like a terrier.
On a separate point of order, Mr Speaker, but one that is related to the role of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I am sure that my right hon. Friend would want to fulfil his function as Leader of the whole House, and not just to be a spokesman for the Government about Government business. Would you, Mr Speaker, have a word with my right hon. Friend to explore how a hiatus such as this might be avoided in future, so that the Leader of the House might carry out his function as Leader of the whole House?
Well, it is not for the Chair to intervene in this matter, and certainly not to pronounce on it now. The hon. Gentleman has put the ball into play, and I rather imagine that it will be returned, probably before long. Whether it is returned with interest, topspin or slice, I do not know, but I imagine that the ball will be returned.
I have regular and very constructive and convivial discussions both with the Leader of the House and—[Interruption]—no, not with alcohol—with the shadow Leader of the House, and I intend that those discussions will continue. I bear in mind the point that the hon. Gentleman has made.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for the House to read the detailed contents of an important statement on charging heavy goods vehicles, including a direct quotation from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), in selected newspapers before the statement is laid before the House? Do you, Mr Speaker, think that that tactic might have something to do with the fact that the statement itself shows that the Government are breaking the coalition agreement by proposing to increase charges on more than 28,000 British lorry drivers, a fact that was strangely absent from the briefing to the newspapers? What can be done about that?
It is, of course, perfectly in order for a written ministerial statement to be laid, and I gather that such a statement has been laid today. That is, of itself, a legitimate vehicle for informing the House of ministerial decisions and other matters. However, and this is a very important caveat, the contents of such statements should not be released—I emphasise, should not be released—under any circumstances that I can imagine to the media before being made available to Members.
I should just underline the very basic doctrine of ministerial responsibility to Parliament, because I know that it is sometimes said in such circumstances by a Minister that “the Minister did not do any such thing.” Ministers, I know, will accept that they are responsible for everything that is done in their Departments by officials and by special advisers. That is the situation, and this should not happen.
Statements of Taxation
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Chancellor of the Exchequer to issue annually to each payer of Income Tax and National Insurance a statement detailing the payments made in the most recent tax year, the estimated payments to be made in the following tax year and a breakdown of the areas of government spending on which the payments are to be spent; and for connected purposes.
What I propose is very simple: the Government should tell us how much we pay in tax and where it goes. They should do so as close as possible to the Chancellor’s Budget statement and at the end of the tax year. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs should provide to each person who pays income tax and national insurance a statement to that effect.
The statement would provide two sets of information. First, it would give an account of the direct taxes—income tax and national insurance—paid by the person in the tax year just gone, and an estimate of what will be taken from that taxpayer in the year ahead. In that way, each taxpayer may see how the Chancellor’s Budget and any previous financial statements have affected their net income. The second set of information provided by the statement would be a detailed description of how the person’s tax is spent in simple cash terms in pounds and pence.
If we take as an example somebody on average earnings of about £26,000 a year, the tax statement would explain that their total direct taxes come to about £6,000, of which a little over £2,000 goes on benefits and pensions, £1,000 on the NHS, about £830 on education and so on. Even in the space of one piece of paper, it is possible to give quite a precise level of detail to the taxpayer. In this instance, it would show that £69 goes on railways and £17 on immigration and border control.
I propose that the tax statements should carry two additional pieces of information. First, each person’s share of the national debt should be itemised, as should their share of any deficit or surplus in the tax year. With that, there would be an item for debt interest, which for our average earner would be £404 for last year. Secondly, a list of taxes not included on the statement should be given, such as value added tax, tobacco duties, council tax and capital gains tax. I propose that the Government provide a web-based ready reckoner that allows people to calculate an estimate of their contribution through such indirect taxes. Taken with their tax statement, that would furnish each taxpayer with a good account of how much money they surrender to Her Majesty’s Treasury and what Ministers do with that money on their behalf.
The operation of the new tax system would be straightforward. Almost all end-of-year tax information, whether in the form of P60s or tax returns, is now provided online. HMRC therefore already possesses the individual tax contributions for almost all taxpayers. I propose that the general ratio by which each individual figure is broken down be determined by the Office for Budget Responsibility, in collaboration with the Office for National Statistics. Both organisations should be charged with the independent task of generating the analysis on which each tax statement is based. Again, that need not be complicated. The data are already published by Government and I propose that local authorities should be required to submit to the OBR their annual budgets, so that it can make forecasts of total public spending on services with the same level of detail as it can with out-turn figures for the year past.
The generation and presentation of the tax statement would be no more complicated than for the individualised direct mail campaigns waged by our high street and supermarket stores. Private quotations supplied to me suggest a cost of about 25p per taxpayer should the statement be printed and posted. That would translate to a total cost of about £7.5 million. That figure could and should be substantially reduced by combining the tax statements with one of the many other letters that taxpayers receive from HMRC. I see no reason why the whole enterprise should not be sponsored and why advertising space should not be provided on the envelope to offset the cost. On the format of the tax statement, it is of paramount importance that it is written in clear, neutral and uncomplicated language so that it is comprehensible to all.
It is a measure of how confounded our democracy has become that this simple, easy and cheap idea may be seen as in any way radical. We would not for a moment think of paying a bill in a supermarket or of setting up a mobile phone direct debit if we did not receive an itemised receipt in exchange. Yet for tax, the largest outgoing for most people, we get nothing—no total account of how much we have paid and no detail of where it has gone.
The Government’s hard work to simplify the tax code and their plans for tax transparency are to be welcomed. We should be aware, however, of how far other countries have proceeded. In France, it has long been established that the Finance Minister writes to taxpayers to tell them the total figures on how their taxes are spent. The state of Iowa, in its Taxpayer Transparency Act, mandates the Government to permit taxpayers to receive an online receipt for their state contributions. In April last year, the Obama White House introduced a federal tax receipt, again online, which allows taxpayers to type in their various Medicare, federal income tax and social security contributions and to receive a personal receipt similar to that outlined in my Bill.
While I recognise the value of online calculators, there can be no substitute for something that lands on the doormat at the same time across the country and corresponds with our entire tax paid. It would, in a way, be a national water cooler moment. That we do not have that at the moment, and that we even find the concept surprising, tells us all we need to know about the growing distance that separates Government and people. We must be honest with ourselves. As Government spending has grown ever larger and more complicated, and when the balance of tax and borrowed pounds has moved from defence to the myriad arms of the welfare state, Government expenditure has become ever more opaque.
That has suited the political ends of many who have sat in this Chamber. Without intending it to be so, the political classes have perpetuated a subtle collective fraud on the people who pay the Government’s bills. We have taken taxpayers’ money and distributed it with no explanation of what that means to each individual taxpayer. We have talked in millions and billions, and now trillions—a language comprehensible only to economists and Treasury mandarins which very few taxpayers and, to be frank, very few of us can relate to, let alone understand. As a result, we have forced people to question not how their tax is actually spent but how they believe it has been spent. How many times have each of us been told on the doorstep that all our money goes to Europe, or Africa, or Trident? Armed with a tax statement, taxpayers would have a precise and accurate understanding of how their tax pounds are really spent.
By transparency we will achieve accountability. Let us imagine how voters could more easily engage in the important debates that we are having in this and in another place on welfare reform, on pensions and on reducing the deficit if they knew about the relative distribution of their taxes, and in a tangible form. Knowing that he pays something like £800, and rising, towards pensions, our average earner would have a firmer grasp of the arguments made in this place about how pension reform is so badly needed. This one piece of paper could make Parliament more responsive to voters’ demands while helping the Government better to explain the spending decisions they have chosen to make. Such an improvement in accountability could only strengthen our democracy because it would decrease the distance between taxpayers and their representatives, making real the results of a vote cast in a ballot box.
I therefore further suggest that the Office for Budget Responsibility be required to assess the major parties’ manifestos at election time, at the request of those parties, in order that it may produce dummy tax statements so that voters can see the difference that their vote might make. A similar role is performed by the Congressional Budget Office in the United States, and there is no reason why it cannot be so here. In so doing, we may throw a little light on what is, for most people, the most confusing and murky period in the electoral cycle.
My Bill makes the simple proposition that we should be told how our money is spent. It would cost very little but would have a radical effect on our democracy. It would help voters to hold us—their representatives—to account and, in so doing, would go some way towards repairing our fissured democracy at a time when we representatives of the people must make increasingly difficult decisions on the people’s behalf.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
I rise to oppose the Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer). He is a very charming Member of the House who has obviously made quite an impact since he arrived—although not quite so charming as to win last week’s debate in the Cambridge Union on whether the Tories have been unfairly demonised.
None the less, I say to the hon. Gentleman that there are far more important things that we should change about how expenditure is revealed to taxpayers, not least because we in this House do an extremely bad job of analysing expenditure. The Budget that we have every year is not really a budget, it is just a statement of changes to taxation. It is not a proper process whereby we start from scratch and examine every single piece of expenditure, which is what happens in every local authority in the land and in the United States of America, where there is a thorough budget process. I do not believe that there has been a vote on expenditure in this House since something like 1918. All that we do is work on the estimates, and nobody ever makes a close analysis of expenditure.
Although I am sympathetic to some of what the hon. Gentleman says about how we should explain things better to taxpayers, I believe that there are better ways to ensure that the expenditure that the House grants on behalf of the Crown is better explained to them.
My real complaint about the hon. Gentleman’s motion —it is the motion that we are debating today, not the Bill—is that it requests that
“leave be given to bring in a Bill”.
There are still 93 Bills on the Order Paper to be debated before Prorogation, and not a single one of those is scheduled for a day when the House will be sitting. Nor will his Bill be.
I simply say to hon. Members that there is a hypocrisy about how we do our legislating here. I am not saying that any individual Member is a hypocrite, simply that there is a hypocrisy about our pretending that we are actually advancing legislation. If Members want to wave the motion through, that is fine, but they need to be absolutely clear about the fact that if they had any real honesty in what they were doing, they would be calling on the Leader of the House to provide extra time to debate such Bills. Otherwise, this is nothing more than a political puff and a press release for the Daily Mail.
The position is not materially different from the position that applies across the piece, which is that the working assumption is that the vote will follow the voice. I also emphasise to the hon. Gentleman that whether people choose to divide the House is a different matter from what they say by way of expressing opinion. There is no inconsistency there. I hope that that is agreeable to him. I did seek to explain this to the House last week, but I am happy to do so again. If he is still in interrogative mode he will no doubt come back to me, and I will very happily deal with the matter, but at this point I want to put the Question.
Question put and agreed to.
That Ben Gummer, Nicholas Soames, Mr Richard Shepherd, Mr Graham Brady, Justin Tomlinson, Mr Robert Buckland, Karen Bradley, Mr Andrew Tyrie, Steve Baker, Margot James, Tracey Crouch and Kwasi Kwarteng present the Bill.
Ben Gummer accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 30 March, and to be printed (Bill 277).
EU Criminal Policy
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is a very simple point of order on the documentation for this debate. Page 2 refers to the Chairman of the European Select Committee. There is no such Committee; it is the European Scrutiny Committee. I think it is an important distinction.
I beg to move,
That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 14613/11, relating to a Commission Communication, Towards an EU Criminal Policy: Ensuring the effective implementation of EU policies through criminal law; agrees that the primary focus of EU criminal law should be tackling serious crime with a cross-border dimension; and further agrees that the general principles of subsidiarity, proportionality and necessity based on clear evidence must be respected when deciding whether to propose criminal sanctions to ensure the effective enforcement of EU policies.
I am glad of the opportunity to restate that the Government agree with the European Scrutiny Committee that the focus of European Union criminal law should be combating the most serious cross-border crimes. We also agree that in determining whether criminal law is required across the member states, it is critical that the general principles of subsidiarity, proportionality and necessity are respected.
The consequence of the Lisbon treaty coming into effect on 1 December 2009 is that the use of criminal law provisions is likely to increase, as they will be used to support the implementation of European Union policy in areas in which they have not been used before. However, the limits to that are not set in the communication that we are discussing, which is non-binding. Rather, they have a legal basis in the treaty, namely article 83. Paragraph 2 of that article limits the EU’s power, because it sets out that member states cannot be required to criminalise breaches of EU law unless the strict conditions in article 83 are met, and the United Kingdom opt-in will always apply. We have recently seen the first such proposal, on criminal sanctions for insider dealing and market manipulation.
The fact that we now have a specific example of where there can be co-operation means that we can extend it to other areas such as human trafficking. Does the Minister agree that in the case of specific crimes that cross borders and on which there is agreement, such as human trafficking and terrorism, we need to co-operate better with our European partners?
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, and of course the answer is yes. Our position on human trafficking and child sex crimes has been to have opt-in, so I can confirm his point.
It appears that in anticipation of the developments under the Lisbon treaty that I have described, the European Commission is seeking to develop some principles to be taken into consideration when the criminal law is used. The Government’s position is that we will approach legislative proposals on justice and home affairs on a case-by-case basis, with a view to maximising the country’s security and protecting civil liberties and the integrity of the criminal justice system. There is nothing in the document that we are debating, which is only a communication, that changes or challenges that fundamental position.
As the House may recall, some time before the Commission communication, in 2009, the European Council agreed conclusions on model provisions to guide its criminal law deliberations. The conclusions were adopted to prevent incoherent and inconsistent criminal provisions in EU legislation, and in anticipation of the changes that the Lisbon treaty would bring.
A number of the Council’s conclusions relating to the assessment of need for criminal law are satisfactorily reflected in the Commission’s communication, most notably the principle that the criminal law be used as a last resort. The adoption of legislation in accordance with the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality is referenced, as is the need to establish necessity.
There are some things that we welcome in the detail of the communication. For example, it acknowledges the UK’s opt-in rights and clearly states that the diversity of member states’ criminal law must be respected. The use of criminal law only when it is a necessary and proportionate response to combating particular conduct is an approach that we apply in our domestic criminal legislation. We are therefore glad that the Commission’s and the Council’s statements reflect those principles.
However, there are potential concerns. The Government believe that it is essential that the Commission propose only European criminal legislation that is necessary and proportionate. Ineffective implementation of a European Union policy should not, in itself, trigger consideration of the use of criminal law.
Of course, what we are considering is guided by the opt-in principles in the Lisbon treaty under the relevant protocol. The emergency brake, as a final reserve position, then underwrites everything. For example, if we opted in to something at the beginning of negotiations, found ourselves outvoted by a qualified majority vote and the Government then came to a view that what had emerged was unacceptable, the emergency brake would remain available to us to prevent that criminal legislation from applying to us.
Does the Minister recognise, when considering an opt-in or when seeking to establish whether there is genuine necessity, the importance of engaging with the relevant Select Committee at an early stage? The Select Committees, with their specialist knowledge of subjects such as agriculture and fisheries or home affairs, have an opportunity of ascertaining whether necessity has been established.
As a Justice Minister, I would be extremely unwise not to acknowledge the merits and wisdom of the recommendation of the Chairman of the Justice Committee. My right hon. Friend makes the proper point that there is an expertise in the Select Committees that should be engaged, if possible. Much of the process sits with the European Scrutiny Committee, and we are today making recommendations that the House should consider matters. I shall, of course, leave the detail of process, and the way in which the House should do that, to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. However, I hear what my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) says, and I acknowledge the force of his point.
The explanatory memorandum on the European Union document acknowledges that responsibility for criminal law matters in Scotland and Northern Ireland rests with the respective Scottish Government and Northern Ireland Ministers. It then states:
“This EM has been cleared by officials in the Scottish Government and Northern Ireland.”
Will the Minister assure me that the Minister in Northern Ireland has been consulted on the matter and that he has had sight of the document before our discussions here?
I hope that I can return later to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and give him a full answer.
As I said, there are some potential concerns about the detail of the principles. Ineffective implementation of a European Union policy should not in itself trigger consideration of the use of criminal law. We also agree with the European Scrutiny Committee that it is primarily for member states and their Governments to ensure that citizens can have confidence that they live in a Europe of freedom, security and justice. The European Union’s primary role should be driven by stopping serious cross-border crime.
The Government welcome the further caveats that the European Scrutiny Committee considers should be placed on the communication. The first relates to the European Union not seeking to harmonise extra-territorial provisions across member states. The Government believe that requiring member states to take extra-territorial jurisdiction must be considered on a case-by-case basis, having particular regard to the conduct to be tackled and its impact. We have accepted that it is appropriate to require member states to be able to prosecute their nationals who commit certain child sex crimes or human trafficking offences anywhere in the world. However, we have not accepted European Union rules on extra-territorial jurisdiction based on the nationality of the victim of crime.
The Government also agree with the Committee that we should be cautious about European Union criminal law that seeks to define aggravating and mitigating circumstances. We accepted some aggravating factors in the context of child sex offences or human trafficking. We consider those factors to form part of the agreed minimum sanctions, and, therefore, to be permissible.
The Government are unaware of the previous use of the term “Euro-crimes”, or, indeed, its origin. It is wholly misleading. I want to state clearly that no one will ever be prosecuted under a so-called Euro-crime. The European Union can set only the minimum elements of an offence. Each will have to be implemented in the domestic law of the member states. Hon. Members will understand why the Government view the term as singularly unhelpful. For European officials to use a shorthand internally to refer to crimes about which member states have agreed to establish minimum standards is one thing. For that term to find its way into official documents is another example of jargon that allows misrepresentation and misunderstanding.
I am listening carefully to the Minister. I am slightly puzzled. It seems as though there will be some minimum EU standard for, for example, illicit drug trafficking. However, do not we already have criminal laws in this country that apply to such matters? What would a European dimension add?
My hon. Friend is correct. However, when it is decided that the principles that we are considering merit the European Union’s taking action—as we have done with child sex offences and human trafficking—we will want to take the opportunity to opt in to EU legislation. That is why we will continue to make the judgment case by case. If it were decided, in the case to which my hon. Friend referred, that there was merit in acting at European Union level, we would doubtless do so. Of course, there could be cases where we felt that our standards were adequate but that our interests were being damaged in other parts of the European Union because drug trafficking was happening that affected our interests, and was not being properly policed. There are therefore circumstances, particularly with cross-border offences, in which there is merit in considering the matter.
The European Scrutiny Committee also asked for the Government’s view of the third sentence of the communication, which states that a
“EU Criminal Policy should have as an overall goal to foster citizens’ confidence in the fact that they live in a Europe of freedom, security and justice.”
The Committee took exception to that as being implausible and unwarranted because the European Union’s role is “helping” member states to stop crime. We agree and note that article 84 makes it clear that the European Union has only a supporting role in crime prevention. It cannot harmonise member states’ laws, except to the very limited extent in articles 82 and 83, which permit setting only minimum standards.
Our aim is to try to ensure that, when the European Union legislates on criminal law, there is convincing evidence that the offending activity constitutes serious and cross-border crime, and that there is consensus that the nature or impact requires common action. I therefore conclude by reiterating our view that it is essential that European Union criminal legislation is proposed only when necessary and proportionate.
It only remains for me to reply to the intervention of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea). Of course, the views of the devolved Administrations are taken into account in opt-in decisions that the United Kingdom then makes.
It is a pleasure if not a luxury to have so much time on the Floor of the House to discuss a communication from the Commission to the European Parliament. It appears to have pride of place in Government business for the House this week.
I started at a leisurely pace, Mr Speaker, and perhaps you anticipated that I would continue at such, but I take the hint. We have only an hour and a half, but I will not take that much time.
EU criminal policy is a significant topic and in other circumstances it could provoke lively and controversial debate, but I suspect it will not do so today for a variety of reasons. First, the document is only a communication—it opens the door to communication rather than decides its outcome. As the Minister has said, it is non-binding. Secondly, there are rightly so many caveats, conditionalities and reservations in the UK position on EU criminal policy that any controversial proposal could be effectively filtered at one stage or another.
The European Scrutiny Committee concedes that in supporting the Government’s cautious approach, and in appearing to take principal exception to the language of the document. I do not want to be drawn into a discussion of the linguistic inelegance of “Euro crimes” or whether the EU should have the temerity to express its wish to foster freedom, security and justice. Those are peripheral issues.
The third reason why I believe this is an uncontroversial proposal is that there has been—even on the Lisbon treaty and the criminal justice decisions flowing from it—broad consensus between the parties. That remains, and the Opposition do not intend to press the motion to a Division.
On the substance of the Commission document, we are pleased to note the emphasis that the Commission places on respecting the general principles of subsidiarity, necessity and proportionality in its memorandum. Those should be at the forefront of the Commission’s mind in deciding whether to propose criminal sanctions to ensure effective implementation of EU proposals. That was the intention of the Lisbon treaty and the exemptions that the previous Government negotiated.
The previous Government were clear at the time of the Lisbon treaty that EU co-operation on criminal justice and policing should not affect fundamental aspects of our criminal justice system. The extended opt-in arrangements that we secured at the time mean that we have complete choice on whether to participate in any justice and home affairs measure.
As each proposal for new EU JHA legislation comes forward, we urge the Minister to consider carefully whether it is in British interests to participate. From the “Report to Parliament on the Application Of Protocols 19 and 21”, which was released this week, we see that the Government have operated in exactly the way we envisaged when negotiating the opt-in. The document makes it clear that:
“Over the past year, the Government has taken 17 decisions on UK participation in EU JHA legislative proposals. In total the UK has opted in to nine proposals…including one decision to opt in to a measure post adoption…The Government…decided to not opt in to eight proposals.”
The Opposition do not always agree on individual proposals—we did not agree with the Government’s decision on the right to a criminal lawyer—but we agree on and indeed instigated that opt-in process.
In any event, and as the Minister has acknowledged, there is a recognition by the Commission that EU intervention in criminal justice is a sensitive matter, hence the emergency brake, the two-step approach and the fact that additional “Euro-crimes”—if I may use the shorthand—will be added only by unanimous decision. It is clear that that is a matter of last resort.
There is broad agreement on areas on which it is important to act on a European level. The Opposition support co-ordinated action to tackle organised crime and terrorism, and to provide greater protection for children and ensure the security of our borders. Such co-operation continues to be driven by the challenges we face today. Tackling crime, countering terrorism and securing our borders are not issues of mere domestic concern; they have an international dimension. We need to work with our allies in the EU to ensure that we achieve our objectives.
As the European Commission states in the document:
“In view of the cross-border dimension of many crimes, the adoption of EU criminal law measures can help ensure that criminals can neither hide behind borders nor abuse differences between national legal systems for criminal purposes.”
There are more contentious matters than this one, such as the European arrest warrant, which the House debated relatively recently. The Opposition hope that the incremental approach continues. A clear example of that—on insider trading, insider dealing and market abuse—is given in the bundle. The Government, in commissioning a report to look into that matter, are taking a sensible line. That is a good example of a matter on which legislation might assist the Government and the country, because we have taken steps when other European countries have not done so.
On that basis, I shall bring my remarks to a close to allow other Members to take part in the debate. I welcome the opportunity to debate these matters, but there is little controversy on the principle, even if controversy on individual decisions to opt in remains.
We have just heard a breathtaking example of complacency from the Government—sorry, I mean the Opposition. I say that because, unfortunately, the manner in which this issue is being approached, and the reason why the European Scrutiny Committee thought this matter should be debated, is very simple. We have heard reservations expressed so far by the Minister and shadow Minister, but they do not take express account of the fact that once a communication has got going—particularly a communication under the aegis of the Lisbon treaty—we effectively open the door to considerable, radical proposals for the expansion of European criminal law.
I am glad the Minister made the comments he made and I endorse all of them. I am also glad he agrees with the Committee on a wide range of matters, particularly the nomenclature and the phrase “Euro-crimes”. However, this is a substantial issue. The document that was presented to us by the Commission concludes that
“the new legal framework introduced by the Lisbon treaty … considerably enhances the possibility to progress with the development of a coherent EU Criminal Policy which is based on considerations both of effective enforcement and”—
“a solid protection of fundamental rights. This communication represents a first step in the Commission’s efforts to put in place a coherent and consistent EU Criminal Policy by setting out how the EU should use criminal law to ensure the effective implementation of EU policies.”
It could be no clearer than that. That is the intention, and believe me, it is the direction and the line of route.
Other hon. Members will no doubt deal with other matters arising from that, but as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, I want to explain why we insisted that this matter should be debated. The Committee recommended the document for one simple reason: the communication outlines how a supranational organisation intends to pass criminal legislation that will have a direct impact on our citizens. This is indeed a sensitive area, as the enactment of criminal law is traditionally the domain of sovereign legislatures.
In the conclusion to our report, we noted the emphasis in the communication that the Commission places on respecting the general principles of subsidiarity, necessity based on clear evidence, proportionality, including the principle of ultima ratio—in other words, criminal law as a means of last resort—and the legal traditions of the EU member states when deciding whether to propose criminal sanctions to ensure the effective implementation of EU proposals. Those words are welcome, but we wait to see whether they are respected. Evidence to the contrary is abundant in relation to matters of this kind. That is because the manner in which it is proposed to move down the route of criminal law—albeit under the Lisbon treaty, which my party opposed tooth and nail during its enactment—relies heavily on the fact that there is a desire among many people in the European Union to have one country, which, by its very nature, means they would prefer to have one European criminal law policy. There is therefore a direct contradiction between the manner in which the proposals are being made and the words used. We argue that we should wait to see whether the suggestions that lie behind the Commission’s statements are respected.
We are gratified by the Government’s reaffirmation that any EU action in the field of criminal law will have to be justified on the basis of robust evidence, as well as demonstrating why lesser administrative penalties are not appropriate. The Committee intends to hold the establishment to strict account on that question. We also support the Government’s cautious approach to the Commission’s communication, but we add further caveats of our own. The European Union should not seek to harmonise the traditional rules on extraterritorial criminal jurisdiction in member states. The UK does not assert extraterritorial jurisdiction over those who are “habitually resident”—an expression that has found its way into EU criminal legislation—in this country. The EU should also refrain from defining “mitigating and aggravating circumstances” for the commission of crimes, which is best left to the discretion of the sentencing judge. Furthermore, the expression “Euro-crimes”, which is used in the communication for the 10 offences listed under article 83.1 of the treaty, is inappropriate and misleading. We ask the Government to do their utmost—in fact, we would go so far as to insist that they do this—to ensure that the term does not enter the EU’s lexicon. Indeed, I was extremely glad to hear what the Minister had to say about that.
The other point is that although there is the question of opt-ins and whether we are to accept the provisions, we have seen a torrent of opt-ins over the last few months, since this coalition Government came to power, and a significant number of Members of Parliament are deeply concerned about the tendency in that direction. Furthermore, in addition to the opt-ins, there is the emergency brake. We understand all that, but we have to have regard to that tendency, because of what can happen once the door is opened on that scale. In the light of what I said about what is in the mind of the Commission and others in the European Union, and about the tendency to move towards a policy of further integration, which would include criminal law, we should be not merely cautious, but extremely resistant towards any attempt to move further down that route.
When I was chairing the Justice Committee, I do not remember ever meeting anybody, in any justice committee in any member state, who believed that we should be working towards a single, harmonised criminal law that would replace the criminal law of member states across Europe. Is the hon. Gentleman not conjuring up a spectre?
Certainly not. I am not conjuring up a spectre; I am talking about a tendency. In almost every area, the original proposals—from Maastricht, through to Nice, Amsterdam and Lisbon—have adopted a minimalist approach at the beginning, but then expanded, moving further and deeper into the areas of competence that have been acquired. I am not going to dispute what the right hon. Gentleman says about what he has heard; I am merely referring to what I have observed, which is also understood by many others, including the Government.
The ambition of the European Commission is set out on page 18 of the documents. Its ambition is not a limited extension of criminal policy; it is to have
“an important tool to better fight crime”—
that is, any crime. It is not limited.
I entirely agree. Furthermore, article 83.1 sets out the following areas of crime:
“terrorism, trafficking in human beings and sexual exploitation of women and children, illicit drug trafficking, illicit arms trafficking, money laundering, corruption, counterfeiting of means of payment, computer crime and organised crime.”
“On the basis of developments in crime”—
the broader remit under which such an extension is proposed—
“the Council may adopt a decision identifying other areas of crime that meet the criteria specified in this paragraph.”
Although article 83.1 says that the Council
“shall act unanimously after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament,”
we are talking about a process of opening up and extending those areas of domestic control over criminal jurisdiction that are likely to be transferred to the European domain.
On a final note—and to reply to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), the Chairman of the Liaison Committee—the Committee noted that the third sentence of the communication states:
“An EU Criminal Policy should have an overall goal to foster citizens’ confidence in the fact that they live in a Europe of freedom, security and justice”.
I ask the Minister to say whether he agrees with that statement. For our part, we in the Committee think it an example of dangerously ideological thinking. We are concerned that such thinking may inform future proposals from the Commission. Citizens look to their Governments to provide freedom, security and justice in their own states. To expect freedom, security and justice to flow in 27 European states under the auspices of supranational institutions may sound laudable, but in reality it is both implausible and unwarranted. We think that the Commission would have done itself a service by cutting out such a statement from a policy paper of such importance and limiting its ambitions to more practical objectives.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash). He and the other members of his Committee are quite right to have brought this matter before the House. Although I start from a different position on the European Union from him, I think it is vital that the House has every opportunity to discuss issues concerning Europe. I commend him on working hard to ensure that on Thursday afternoon there will be a debate before the European Council meets.
I thought that the hon. Gentleman was a little harsh on my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) when he accused him of being complacent. I have known my hon. Friend since he was 11-years-old —we were at school together. There are many ways to describe him, but “complacent” is not one of them. However, if I may digress for just one second, Mr Speaker, I used to try to avoid being in class with him, because our names were adjacent on the register, and when they were read out in quick succession—“Slaughter”, “Vaz”—it was usually my hon. Friend leading the cheers.
Anyway, back to the European Union and away from our school days. I was heartened by what the Minister said about this measure. It is important that we deal with such measures on a case-by-case basis, for the very reasons cited by my hon. Friend. The European arrest warrant, which began as a good idea, is now out of control, with hundreds of requests being made by certain EU countries—I am sure that when he gets to speak, the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) will make reference to that fact. That is something that we need to guard against, so a cautious approach to the extension of criminal policy is extremely important. We have our own criminal law, and that is how it must remain, but we need co-operation with our European partners in a number of areas. I do not accept that the list read out by the hon. Member for Stone is definitive. It is a good list for us to work on in regard to co-operation on those issues with our European partners, although not necessarily in regard to legislation. The Government should bear that in mind when they approach those issues.
As my right hon. Friend will have heard, there is a difference of view between the Chair of the Justice Committee and the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee on whether this constitutes a degree of legislative creep towards an objective of unifying the legal systems in Europe. If one of them is right, we can be happy that there is no creep, but the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee seems to think there is a degree of legislative creep involved. Which one does my right hon. Friend agree with?
I agree with both of them, because they were each making different points. We must be fair to the Chair of the Justice Committee, who is also the Chair of the Liaison Committee, because he was disputing a point of debate, not a point of fact, as to whether he had met any chair of a justice committee in any other European country who agreed with the view of the hon. Member for Stone view that one criminal law was being sought for the whole of the European Union. I have attended quite a few meetings in the European Union, and I have certainly never heard anyone say that they wanted one criminal law for the whole EU.
That clarification is helpful, but as the commissioners are not here to defend themselves, I shall try to move the debate on.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned certain crimes that are of course not Euro-crimes: terrorism, trafficking in human beings, illicit drug trafficking, money laundering, corruption and computer crime. They go beyond the borders of the European Union, but it is important that we work with our European partners to try to combat those problems. There are times when we need to act quickly—in relation to the trafficking of human beings, for example. Our last report pointed out that at least 100,000 people were being trafficked around the European Union each year, including 5,000 in the United Kingdom, and that there did not appear to be a common European Union strategy to deal with that. We do not need a new criminal law that covers all the EU countries to deal with it; we need to ensure that our structures—Europol, Interpol and others—are able to service the needs of our criminal law. We should be able to prosecute those involved in human trafficking quite happily, without having regard to what is being said in other countries. Similarly, when Turkey eventually joins the European Union, it will have to deal with the problem of illegal drug trafficking. Almost 80% of the heroin that comes into Europe comes from Afghanistan via Turkey.
We can talk about co-operation, but we need to be very careful when we talk about extending criminal law. Our systems are completely different, and I do not think that anyone in the House would accept a proposition to harmonise our criminal justice systems. We should, however, proceed in the direction of co-operation.
I hope that the Minister will also examine the question of data. People can arrive in this country and undergo checks that do not reveal that they have committed criminal offences elsewhere in the EU. Dealing with that does not require legislation; it requires ministerial co-operation and co-operation between EU countries. So if someone who had committed a criminal offence in Poland, for example, came here and was involved in activities that required that information to be made available, that disclosure should be possible. Equally, that should also apply if someone who had committed an offence here went to another part of the EU.
I welcome the Government’s approach, but I urge the Minister to be cautious, because any extension would cause us great problems. However, it is important to push forward the co-operation that exists at EU level on the entire justice and home affairs agenda.
I support the motion, and I shall preface my remarks by saying that any free trade area needs an enforceable and effective system to secure compliance with the requirements put in place to create and maintain an open market. Europe also needs to keep pace with the international, cross-border nature of a great deal of crime, and with the ease of movement that criminals enjoy. Indeed, in combating crime, Europe should take advantage of its capacity for co-operation and combined effort in order to defeat criminals and criminal organisations. All our citizens, whatever their views on the European Union, would recognise the value of that.
We cannot ignore enforcement failures in various member countries, because they often harm the interests of British businesses, which can be put at a competitive disadvantage. British farmers and fishermen can also be adversely affected by inadequate enforcement in other countries. Obviously, the converse can also be true. It is usually unhelpful, however, to add new structures and layers of law, of the administration of justice and of prosecution authorities to the well-developed national systems that exist in most member countries. I therefore agree with the motion when it mentions subsidiarity and the need for robust evidence of necessity when EU measures are to be considered.
I do not entirely share the European Scrutiny Committee’s dislike of the idea of fostering citizens’ confidence in the fact that they live in a Europe of “freedom, security and justice”. It is an important feature of the European Union that membership of it commits member states to maintaining a range of important values including freedom, justice, security and human rights. The Committee calls this an example of ideological thinking. I thought that ideological thinking was making a comeback in the Conservative party, but perhaps it is still disapproved of. I remember that during my earlier political life ideology was frowned on by the Conservatives, but then Mrs Thatcher came along with an ideology of her own. That is a byway that I shall stray no further along, however. The principal responsibility for achieving these aims rests with the member states of the European Union.
The Minister said that we were about to embark on a complex opt-out—or opt-in—process, which is relevant to what we are discussing today. Under the Lisbon treaty, the Government could opt out of everything in the home affairs and justice area. They could also opt in to everything. The more likely outcome, however, is that they will seek a negotiated package, in which we opt in to those areas where it is genuinely beneficial for us to do so without complicating our system by opting in to areas that would be inappropriate for us. I hope that the Government will share with us their developed thinking on how that will be achieved, as a great deal of negotiation will be involved.
The Commissioners tend to proceed by launching a large number of proposals; they fire off a hail of bullets, very few of which reach their target. If the Select Committees of this House were to devote time and attention to every idea that appeared in a Commission paper, we simply would not be able to get on with our work on domestic policy issues. It is therefore important for Select Committees to be able to identify those elements that would benefit from careful Select Committee attention. This is true of home affairs and justice matters, and of others.
The European Scrutiny Committee carries out an important role. It does the valuable and not always very inviting work of examining the legality and proportionality of EU proposals. However, it is the Select Committees that relate to Departments that have experience and expertise in specific policy areas. It would be unreasonable to expect the European Scrutiny Committee to know enough in any given case about whether there was a necessity justification for something and whether it was a policy direction that would be appropriate in the United Kingdom. That is the kind of work that Select Committees are expected to do.
I understand that there is obviously a complementarity between the European Scrutiny Committee and departmental Select Committees. It is important, however, to reaffirm the fact that we rarely recommend a communication for debate, but on this occasion, because of the nature and coherence of the proposals advocated by the Commission on criminal policy, we thought it was a good idea at least to give it a kick-start on the Floor of the House.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman and with the action he has taken on this matter, and I very much welcome the fact that the debate is taking place. It is certainly the view of the Liaison Committee that more attention needs to be given to developing European proposals that will, if we are not careful, only come to the House at too late a stage for us to have any significant influence on them. The work of the European Scrutiny Committee in all that is extremely valuable, but there are limits to what it can do.
In conclusion, let me remind Ministers of two things. First, we want to secure as much help as we can get for Select Committees from the UKRep staff in Brussels, who are extremely good when we go as visiting Committees in giving us advice on what is happening, what is being proposed and which of the Commission’s brainwaves is getting somewhere and which does not look likely to do so.
I fully support what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. I do not know about his Committee, but we find we are so busy that we simply do not have the time to cover European issues, and we rely heavily on the European Scrutiny Committee to alert us if anything is going wrong. One way in which we could be more involved would be if UKRep was more responsive to our work.
It is not so much about being responsive, because when we have asked representatives for help, they have given it. I am looking for a proactive approach. It would be very helpful if the Foreign Office gave the team in Brussels a clear indication that it would be helpful to alert Select Committees to proposals that looked like gaining traction, and would have important implications for the United Kingdom.
Secondly, of course, it is important that Ministers come to Select Committees before important Council meetings and afterwards, if it is necessary to secure a report back. The House too often finds that a set of complex documents that are extremely difficult to decipher comes before us in the General European Committees at a stage far beyond that at which it would be possible to influence or change it. We have relied unfairly on the members of the European Scrutiny Committee, whose work I again recognise as extremely important, and Select Committees have a job to do that is difficult to incorporate in a crowded work programme, so the more help we can get from Ministers and our officials to alert Select Committees to important issues that are coming up, the more effective we can be.
The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) said one very wise and pertinent thing. It was not the only wise and pertinent thing he said, but it was one that struck me, and that was that it is almost invariably the case that it is undesirable to introduce into a mature and well-developed legal system another layer of legislation that is already covered satisfactorily by domestic legislation.
I recall that in the 1990s I had practical experience of such an occasion, when the European Union introduced its own sanctions on Serbia. It introduced a directly applicable regulation in exactly the territory on which this country had already legislated under the United Nations Act 1946. I recall that the case in which I took part challenged the domestic legislative regime on the basis that it occupied territory in which the European Union had legislated and that the two regimes, minutely analysed, could not be seen to be compatible. Not only were they not compatible in their substance, but they were incompatible in the sense that it is well-established case law in the European Court of Justice that any legislative activity by the European Union must take precedence and primacy not only in the substance of its impact and effect but in its appearance. In other words, the legislative authority of any particular action in a member state, once the European Union has legislated, must be seen to emanate from the European Union. To that extent, it is an extremely intolerant legislative authority.
That means that one must examine extremely carefully—I see that the Secretary of State for Justice is doing so as regards the market abuse framework—whether the introduction of European Union law into a sphere that is already occupied by domestic legislation will cause such a complicated unintended consequence. I recall that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry at the time was poised with an order to lay before the House in case the Lord Chief Justice in the Court of Appeal accepted the arguments that I and others were advancing. He was ready to go that morning, because of the chaos that would have ensued had the domestic legislation been struck down as incompatible with the European Union’s legislative action.
It is extremely undesirable that that should happen and, having listened to the various balances that have been struck by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who is so often proved, even after many years, to be right, I prefer the analysis of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone. The Commission has a cavernous maw into which legislation is sucked into a black hole along with our rights, prerogatives and spheres of sovereignty. I am strongly concerned about the consequences for this Government if they continue with their policy of opt-ins, as was observed by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed a few moments ago.
When a country opts in to a sphere of competence of the European Union, it does not opt in merely to a different wording or to some dilute or mild consequence of that kind. It opts in lock, stock and barrel to the hegemony of the European Union institutions, by which I mean the European Court of Justice, the Commission and the rest of it. That might attract complacent smiles on the Opposition Benches—and even on the Government Benches—but just think of what legislative territory is already included. Firearms control—which has not been mentioned so far, but which is covered by a series of European directives—organised crime, VAT, drug trafficking and money laundering are all covered by extensive directives and directly applicable regulations. There is not a Crown court in this country that is not, as we speak, preoccupied with such trials. If we opt in, we are opting in to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and enabling it to examine our procedures in our Crown courts and see whether they comply with the minimum rules that this policy will set down.
I have listened to the hon. and learned Gentleman and I agree with everything he has said so far. Does he agree that the most iniquitous thing about all this continuing opting in and moving into an ever-closer European Union for this country is the fact that the British people have never given their permission for that to happen? Does he agree that that is what we should really be arguing for now?
I do agree. The fundamental underlying principle that should exercise all Members of this House when it comes to criminal law powers being assumed by a supranational organisation is that what is or is not criminal, and what is or is not an action that puts an individual citizen of this nation beyond the pale of the criminal law, should be a matter for this House. It is to this House that citizens of this country entrust the moral judgments that underlie decisions about what should be criminalised and what should not. We are directly accountable to that citizenry, whereas the institutions of the European Union are not. That is why I have come to this debate to sound a note of caution and warning. That is also why, having listened to the different expressions of caution that have been so well made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who chairs the Select Committee on Justice, I prefer the analysis of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone.
There is no doubt but that a vast field is already occupied by the European Union, and if we see a panoply of institutional responsibility and jurisdiction introduced into the criminal law, we will be exposing our procedures, our rules of evidence and our very jury trial itself to challenge in the European Court of Justice as not complying with the minimum rules set down. That might not happen this year or the next, but the European Union thinks in terms not just of one decade, but of decades and decades; it proceeds slowly. That is why, like Cassandra, or like Balaam’s ass, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone so often stands in our way—or indeed, like the angel that prevented Balaam’s ass from going on, he beckons to us and indicates that we would do well to think very carefully before we simply approve policies of this kind without understanding that there is an underlying caution that we should always exercise.
First, I commend the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), for coming to the House to debate this subject transparently and openly because it is one that demands scrutiny. I echo the warning in the excellent speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox), because today, as the Prime Minister leads efforts to scale back the overweening and often arbitrary role of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, we might well remind ourselves that prevention is better than cure.
The document before us has all the hallmarks of a massive and substantial power grab from Brussels in the area of EU criminal law. We might have ad hoc opt-outs, but the direction of travel has very serious implications for this country. The clear ambition in the document is for a pan-European code on what the Commission calls “Euro-crimes”, backed by EU penalties and jurisdiction. The document talks about giving
“full judicial control to the European Court of Justice”
The aim is for a uniform European justice policy by any other name. One has only to look at the detail in the document, which seeks—I quote these words for the sake of accuracy, to show that this is not just scaremongering—
“approximation of definitions and sanction levels”
for serious crimes. It aims for “common minimum rules”, including common EU punishments. The document reeks of the Soviet style EU double-speak to which we have become accustomed. On one hand it accepts the national “diversity” of the traditions of justice across the continent, including our own, but in the same sentence it calls for “consistent and coherent” EU criminal law. Ultimately, that is a circle that cannot be squared.
What areas will the new Euro-crimes cover? It is one thing to call for direct practical co-operation between national authorities on counter-terrorism and serious crime, although we do not need more legislation in that regard, but the document would expand EU law into environmental crimes, employment offences, data protection, fisheries offences, traffic offences, financial market behaviour—I wonder who that is aimed at—and, of course, at the top of everyone’s list of priorities, protecting the euro.
Britain has opt-outs, but we are still affected by the massive increase in EU law in the field of justice and home affairs. With cross-party support, the House has unanimously called on the Government to renegotiate the European arrest warrant—the Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), presciently predicted that I would raise this issue—because it is resulting in far too much rough justice for far too many innocent citizens. As we consider the ambitions for EU criminal law, I should like to know from the Minister where that issue is on the UK agenda and where it is on the EU agenda.
The UK has also opted in to the draft European investigation order, which would allow European investigators and prosecutors to direct UK police forces to pursue leads and collect evidence. That is a threat to the liberty of our citizens, and is the last thing that hard-pressed police forces need right now. What progress has been made on limiting the risk of abuse of such wide powers and on ensuring there are safeguards that comply with British standards of justice? On a more fundamental level, why is the EU expanding its competences before it has corrected the current defects?
This issue is a prelude to the decision to be taken by June 2014 on whether Britain should opt in or out, wholesale, of the pre-Lisbon justice and home affairs legislation. If this document is a taste of what is to come, it demonstrates all too well the magnitude of that decision. This is a fork in the road: it is time to decide whether Britain will retain our unique justice system and common-law tradition. This is one of the most serious constitutional challenges the House will face in this Parliament, and I am confident that Ministers will weigh the consequences of that decision very carefully and ensure that Parliament—consisting of the elected and accountable law-makers for this country—will have the opportunity to debate and vote on that crucial decision.
It is a privilege, as ever, to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab). My concern is about this kind of extension of the whole European project. We see it creeping on further, out of taxation and all the other measures with which we are familiar, into the criminal sphere. I find this policy document highly objectionable in many areas. First, I find objectionable the statement that
“EU Criminal Policy should have as overall goal to foster citizens’ confidence in the fact that they live in a Europe of freedom, security and justice”
That is not the point of European criminal policy. Rather, it should be the criminal policy of each individual member state. The EU, by trying to say that its policy is somehow about these principles and that citizens look to it for the execution of those principles, is overstretching and overselling. It is also misreading the situation, given that it is so far removed from people and has done so little to instil confidence.
The document also says—this is more in line with where things should be—that
“the EU can tackle gaps and shortcomings wherever EU action adds value.”
I take a pragmatic position on this. I do not think that one should say, in a knee-jerk reaction, that the EU should have nothing to do with anything, or that we should embrace everything it says as messages and tablets from heaven written in stone that we should accept, honour and obey. We need to look at things on a case-by-case basis.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent argument. Within the bundle of documents before us is the draft insider dealing and market abuse regulation. That is an area in which I worked before entering the House. Does he agree that with cross-border activity such as market abuse, which in the 21st century can be committed anywhere in the world and have an effect on another territory, there is an argument that the EU has a role to play in setting out sanctions for such behaviour?
My hon. Friend helps me to move to my next point. The policy applies not just to market abuse. It also applies to
“terrorism, trafficking in human beings, sexual exploitation of women and children, illicit drug trafficking, illicit arms trafficking, money laundering, corruption, counterfeiting of means of payment, computer crime and organised crime.”
The list is packaged in the manner of “Do you like hospitals?” or “Do you eat food to live?”. It has been put together with breathtaking cynicism and in a way that would make even a push poller blush. We know what this is really about. It is about starting with something that everyone can accept so that they say, “Oh, yes, that’s a good idea,”. That puts the principle in place before things are moved forward. The document says, “We then want to move forward into other areas,” as my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton just said.
Let us look at the issue of market abuse. Why can we not have the market abuse rules in the criminal law of our own nation? Why do we need to have minimum standards across European law if we do not necessarily want to opt in? We are being told that there is no such thing as—
In a moment.
We are being told that it is a misdescription to talk about a Euro-crime, but on page 9 the document states, under the heading, “What is the possible content of EU minimum rules on criminal law?”:
“The definition of the offences…Regarding sanctions, EU criminal law can require Member States to take effective, proportionate…criminal sanctions for a specific conduct.”
So if we touch on the issue of definition of the offence, and add on criminal sanctions, there is a risk that what we are actually talking about is, in effect, or could be seen as, a form of Euro-crime. I hasten to add that I do not necessarily regard that as a bad idea.
I will be brief because I know that time is limited. My hon. Friend asks why we need to have rules in the UK if we already have rules across Europe. The point is that, as I understand it, the proposal would bring the rest of the EU’s rules on market abuse up to the standard that we already have in this country. New York already has those standards. This is an improvement, bringing the rest of Europe along with us.
The European Union is doing this anyway. The central issue is whether we opt in. This is really a shadow debate for the whole issue about opting in. The letter sent by the Home Secretary to some colleagues on 21 December 2011 talks about the whole issue of the opt-ins. There are 133 directives, regulations and so on where opting in could take place.
My hon. Friend refers to the central issue. Is not the central issue that raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox)? If we are going to criminalise people in this country, or indeed in any other member state in the EU, by law, then those who have passed those laws need to be accountable to the citizens to whom they apply, and that is not the case in relation to the European Commission or the other EU institutions, which are not accountable, in any real sense at all, to the people of this country.
I completely agree with my hon. and learned Friend, and that is my central point too. It is not for the European Union to start defining crimes; it is for individual nation states to do so.
There are areas where we should consider opting in. For example, I intervened on the Minister and talked about the issue of drugs. Let us look at the measures in the list provided by the Home Secretary. On one side, it talks about co-operation between customs authorities and business organisations on combating drug trafficking. Good. That is what we should have—cross-border co-operation. As the representative of Dover, I know that that is really important and makes a difference. Another 1996 justice and home affairs measure that was proposed, concerns
“the exchange of information on the chemical profiling of drugs to facilitate improved cooperation between Member States in combating illicit drug trafficking.”
Good. Yes, we should do that.
However, the dividing line for me is the 1996 JHA measure No. 750, which concerns
“the approximation of the laws and practices of the Member States of the European Union to combat drug addiction and to prevent and combat illegal drug trafficking.”
When one considers the approximation of laws and the issue of codification and requiring member states to treat everything the same way, one is rapidly moving into the area of a common criminal law—Eurojust, the European arrest warrant, the Euro-investigator, Europol and Euro-crimes. If we are to take that route, my point is simply that we should engage the country as a whole and have a proper, open discussion about what is going on, not try to spin it.
There are some cases where a common criminal law may be appropriate, particularly in the cross-border context; in others, we might conclude that it is not the right way to proceed. But to draw up a cynical list of everything that everyone would agree are the most heinous crimes known to mankind, in order to get the principle and then to extend it later, is something that we have seen with the European Union time and again. It is the fundamentally wrong thing to do, and it would be the wrong thing for us to do in terms of the opt-in or opt-out debate. I believe that when we have that opt-in/opt-out debate over the next two years, we should ensure that we include the country as a whole and have a proper, national discussion.
I am very glad that the European Scrutiny Committee recommended this European Commission document for debate because it shows, once again, the ambition of the European Union. We have heard before—it is in the treaty of Rome—the line about ever-closer union. We often hear from the great and the good in this country that we do not need to worry about what the document says because it is not happening yet; it is not so important; these good and great people are not necessarily talking about it yet. And then it creeps in and it happens.
The ambition of the Commission’s document is exceedingly great, and the policies that it has already adopted are important. We notice, in the package of papers before us, that in 2009 the European Commission announced, under the Swedish presidency, that it would have more broad provisions guiding the Council’s criminal law deliberations. So, for three years already, the Commission, the presidency and the Council of Ministers have been looking at what they should be doing with the criminal law provisions and how they should affect us. We in this country are indeed protected by our opt-ins, but we have to bear in mind that once we have opted in, we are subject to qualified majority vote. So it is a once-and-for-all decision—we say, “Yes, we are going into that,” but then the people of this country, as hon. Friends have said, have no further ability to change that law; it becomes a matter bound in to European Union competence.
Let us look, as some of my hon. Friends already have, at the ambition of the European Commission in this area, at what it thinks more common criminal law will do, and how broad it is in its definition of the criminal law. We hear from the Front-Bench spokesmen that common criminal law will be used in rare cases, for important crimes. That is not actually what the European Commission seems to say. Page 11 of the package of documents says:
“EU criminal law fosters the confidence of citizens in using their right to free movement and to buy goods or services from providers from other Member States through a more effective fight against crime and the adoption of minimum standards for procedural rights in criminal proceedings as well as for victims of crime.”
That sentence—that bullet point—from the European Commission covers an incredibly wide set of crimes. They could be anything to do with the free movement of people, or the provision of services throughout the European Union. It then provides for minimum standards of procedure. That affects all sorts of basic points of the criminal law in this country. Will the procedure allow for trial by jury? It does not establish that. Does the procedure outlaw double jeopardy, which we basically still protect our citizens—our subjects—against? It does not say that. It says that it is aiming for these
“minimum standards for procedural rights”
and the rights “for victims of crime.”
The European Commission goes on to say:
“Common rules strengthen mutual trust among the judiciaries and law enforcement authorities of the Member States. This facilitates the mutual recognition of judicial measures as national authorities feel more comfortable recognising decisions taken in another Member State if the definitions of the underlying criminal offences are compatible.”
That means that we have to align our laws with other member states in the European Union. There may not be an immediate proposal to do that, but it is what the European Commission has in its documentation, it is what it wishes to do, and we know from experience that what the European Commission starts out with often comes to be the case.
Who can forget that wonderful moment when Lady Thatcher stood at the Dispatch Box and there were three proposals from Mr Delors, and Margaret Thatcher said “No! No! No!”? Each one of those three has now become an established part of the European family that we know and love.
What is the time scale? That again is set out by the European Commission in its package of documents. Page 18 says that it has a
“vision for a coherent and consistent EU Criminal Policy”
by 2020. So the European Commission wants us, in eight years, to have established that uniformity.
As we have discussed, the proposal includes things that are open to wide interpretation, such as computer crimes. Even an alarm clock is now computer-controlled, so even if you were to steal an alarm clock—[Interruption.] Of course, you would not steal an alarm clock, Madam Deputy Speaker, but if some brigand were to do so, that might be deemed to be a computer crime. The description is therefore set wide, as it is for
“serious infringements of road transport rules”.
If someone were to park on a red route, at what point would it be a matter for the European Union?
The Commission has set out an extremely ambitious communication, which I am glad that the House is debating. It knows clearly its route of travel and where it wants to end up, which is, ultimately, a single European state. No British Government have ever been in favour of that, yet every British Government since 1972 have ceded more powers to the European Union to create a superstate. It is important to debate the proposal at an early stage of its formation so that the Government can be robust and aware of the problem, and so that they can refuse opt-ins that, step by step, lead to the ever-closer union that has been the EU’s policy since it was founded.