I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The European Union (Approvals) Bill simply provides for parliamentary approval of three draft EU decisions: the proposal to give legal effect to the electronic version of the Official Journal of the European Union; the proposal to agree the five-year work programme—the multi-annual framework—of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency; and the draft European Council decision to maintain the number of EU Commissioners at the equivalent of one per member state. The Bill underlines the importance placed by the Government on Parliament’s role in scrutinising the work of the European Union, which is why we enacted the European Union Act 2011.
The Government have given full consideration to all three measures and are of the view that the UK should support them. We are satisfied that they are in the best interests of the UK, and are sensible and reasonable. None has a significant domestic impact and, in particular, none will result in any additional financial burdens being imposed on the UK. The provisions in the Bill are technical in nature but will, in their own way, play an important role in the future shape of the EU. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has recently set out the need to examine the UK’s relationship with the EU. The provisions do not represent far-reaching changes, and there will be further opportunities to examine more fundamental changes in other debates.
The Bill seeks the approval of Parliament on two proposals brought forward under a legal base of article 352 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union: the proposal to give legal effect to the electronic version of the Official Journal of the European Union; and the proposal for the next the five-year work programme, the multi-annual framework, of the Fundamental Rights Agency. Article 352 allows the Union to take action to attain one of the objectives set out in the treaties, but for which there is no specific power set out in those treaties. Any proposal brought forward under this legal base must be agreed unanimously by the Council and gain the consent of the European Parliament, so that at European level there is a high bar for such a proposal to meet.
For the UK to agree to this at Council, and for the required unanimity to be secured, Parliament must first give its approval. The Government have put in place further parliamentary controls for proposals brought forward under article 352 of the treaty. Section 8 of the European Union Act 2011 states that a Minister of the Crown may not vote in favour of, or otherwise support, an article 352 decision unless it is approved by an Act of Parliament. Therefore, without the agreement of Parliament a proposal brought forward under this legal base cannot be adopted.
The EU Commission currently comprises 27 commissioners, one from each member state. The Lisbon treaty provides for a reduction, by one third, in the size of the Commission from 1 November 2014. However, the treaty also allows the European Council to alter the number of commissioners, subject to unanimous agreement. To secure Ireland’s ratification of the treaty, it was agreed that a decision would be taken to maintain the number of EU commissioners at the equivalent of one per member state. Section 7 of the European Union Act 2011 provides that a Minister of the Crown may not vote in favour of such a decision unless the draft decision is approved by Act of Parliament.
The previous Lord Chancellor thought that the second draft decision, on the multi-annual financial framework, did not require an Act of Parliament because it fell under article 308 of the previous treaties—now section 352 of the new treaties. Do the Government have a clear position on whether anything previously under article 308 will now always require an Act of Parliament?
That level has not been reached. My hon. Friend is right that the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), the previous Lord Chancellor, came to that opinion, but, as my hon. Friend will also be aware, the European Scrutiny Committee challenged the basis of the assessment, and it was found that, because the previous agreement had been made under a previous version of the EU treaties that was not specifically provided for in the 2011 Act, it did not fall within the exemption set out in the Act. That is the principle on which the Government will operate.
It is fair for the House to assume that were it equivalently done on the basis of previous treaties, the precedent set by the decision would apply, but I would hesitate, off the top of my head, to take that any further.
I turn now to the detail, starting with the electronic version of the Official Journal of the European Union. The Official Journal is the gazette of record for the EU. It is published every working day and records the decisions made and legislative acts of the EU institutions. The electronic version of the Official Journal has existed in parallel with the print version for some years, but a European Court of Justice judgment found that only the printed version was authentic. EU legislation is necessary, therefore, to enable the electronic version to have legal effect.
The EU institutions believe that if publication of the electronic version is given legal effect, access to EU law would be faster and more economical. At the moment, anyone wishing to access the authentic version must order and pay for printed copies of the Official Journal. This proposal will not affect those who wish to continue to have access to the printed version. This is a sensible measure in a world in which electronic communications have revolutionised how information is distributed and accessed. It will have no significant impacts or effects on the UK.
The second proposal for which the Bill seeks to provide approval is the work programme of the Fundamental Rights Agency, established in 2007. Its role is to support the European institutions and member states—when they are acting within the scope of EU law—to take measures and actions that respect fundamental rights. The agency does this through the collection and analysis of information and data. It also has a role in communicating and raising awareness of fundamental rights.
The agency’s work is regulated by a five-year work programme setting out the thematic areas of the agency’s activity. These must include the fight against racism, xenophobia and related intolerance and be in line with the European Union’s current priorities. The work programme, defined by the Council of Ministers, gives the member states control over where the agency undertakes its work.
The agency’s first work programme covered the period 2007 to 2012. In December 2011, the Commission brought forward a proposal for a new work programme to cover the period 2013 to 2017. The proposal was amended through negotiations. The measure for which approval is sought very much continues the themes set out in the previous work programme, although there are some adjustments in the terminology.
The agreement of a new work programme will not alter the tasks of the agency, and nor will it change the agency’s role or remit. The work programme does not set out or define these elements. Those are set out in a completely different instrument—the agency’s establishing regulation—and that instrument is not under review at this time. The work programme simply sets out the themes under which the agency will work. Failure to agree the work programme will deprive the Council of the opportunity to set the direction for the agency by defining these themes.
I turn now to the third element in the Bill: the draft decision to maintain the number of EU commissioners at the equivalent of one per member state. The proposed reduction in the size of the commission and the subsequent loss of a guaranteed commissioner emerged as a concern of the Irish during the ratification of the Lisbon treaty. In order to secure Ireland’s ratification of the treaty, it was agreed that a decision would be taken to maintain the number of EU commissioners before the appointment of the next Commission in 2014. The European Council has put forward the draft decision to fulfil the commitment made to Ireland.
This Government are committed to creating a leaner, less bureaucratic European Union and to improving efficiency in the EU institutions, including the Commission. We believe there is significant room for savings in administration and will continue to push for substantial reductions in the EU’s administrative costs. However, it is also important that the UK maintains its EU commissioner. By agreeing to this draft decision, the UK will retain its guaranteed commissioner and be in a stronger position to influence the make-up of the next Commission. Furthermore, the draft decision states that it should be reviewed before a new Commission is appointed, in 2019, or when the number of EU member states reaches 30, whichever is earlier. The draft decision does not give the go-ahead for the Commission to continue expanding ad infinitum.
I hope the House will agree with our assessment that these measures, although necessary, are administrative in nature, improving the accessibility and legal certainty of the EU’s official record, providing an EU agency with a work programme and fulfilling a commitment to the Irish people.
Does this mean that we will be able to get an electronic version of what has happened in the European Union within, say, three hours, as we do for proceedings in this House, and that if one does not have that, it will take several days to get a printed version?
My understanding is that there will be no alteration to the accessibility of the printed version. The electronic version already exists; this Bill means that it can be taken as an authentic record of what has happened. The Bill simply changes the status of the electronic record, which—I am told—is published every day. I hope that will assuage my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I commend this Bill to the House.
In the order of things, many hon. Members might think that this Bill is not particularly contentious. I can understand that; however, the Bill is important, in terms of policy content and its constitutional significance to our relationship with the European Union.
As we have heard, there are three elements to the Bill. The first gives legislative approval to the electronic version of the European Union’s Official Journal. A draft decision was arrived at by the Justice and Home Affairs Council last March. Parliament is now being asked to approve that decision. The second issue concerns another decision of the Justice and Home Affairs Council, about the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency. The European Union is required to make a decision to establish the thematic areas of the FRA’s work for the next five years. Political agreement was secured at the Council meeting in January last year. Now Parliament has to approve or reject that agreement.
Thirdly, there is the draft European Council decision on the number of European commissioners. The Lisbon treaty states that there will be one commissioner per member state until 1 November 2014, when the number of commissioners would be reduced to a number corresponding to two thirds of the member states. However, a concession was made to assuage Irish sentiments during the Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty. The concession was that each member state would continue to have one commissioner. To enable that commitment to come into effect, it is necessary to have the conclusion of the European Council agreed by this Parliament.
The three draft decisions are the first such decisions to be brought before this House under the European Union Act 2011. I would like to make a few remarks about that legislation. We welcome the fact that the agreement of Parliament is being sought on these decisions. Although we had reservations during the passage of the 2011 Act about the possibility of referendums being held on a multiplicity of relatively small issues, we strongly supported referendums being held on issues of constitutional significance. We also strongly supported a bigger role for Parliament, both in scrutinising European legislation and actual decision making. That is why we did not oppose the European Union Bill or divide the House on it.
In a constitutional sense, the decisions before us are important because two of the three were made at European level under article 352 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union—the so-called flexibility clause—which allows the EU to act on a subject for which there is no specific treaty base. The clause has understandably been a cause for concern among parliamentarians across the political spectrum, not only in this country. Indeed, I recall that, when I was a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, a great deal of time was spent deliberating on the issue, and a good report was produced on it.
Given that the Government support the two decisions made under article 352, I am pleased that we are having a full discussion on the Floor of the House and that parliamentary approval is being sought for a parliamentary Bill. I am especially pleased that such approval is being sought on the decision to extend the work of the Fundamental Rights Agency over the next five years. I say that because, as the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) has pointed out, the former Lord Chancellor, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), initially took the view that there was no need for an Act of Parliament as the European decisions satisfied the exemption requirements of the 2011 EU Act. I am pleased to note that the Government changed their mind on that after the European Scrutiny Committee and its indomitable Chairman, the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), pointed out the error of their ways.
I shall comment briefly on each of the draft decisions covered by the Bill. The first decision relates to the Official Journal of the European Union. The EU has produced the OJ in printed form since 1958, and it has been available in its electronic format since 1998. The journal is made up of two series and one supplement. It contains information about the treaties and about the judgments of the European Court of Justice. Crucially, its “S series” supplement also provides invitations to tender for contracts and is therefore an important part of the mechanism that enables the single market to function and develop. As we all know, the single market is vital to the British economy.
We also need to take into account a relatively recent court ruling to ensure that online electronic versions of the Official Journal of the European Union have parity with the paper versions. I refer Members to case C-161/06, which involved a company called Skoma-Lux in the Czech Republic. After being fined for infringing customs legislation, the company, which operated in the fine wine import sector, brought an action for the cancellation of the fine before the regional court in Ostrava. I am sure that Members will be fascinated to hear that the claimant was an importer of the red dessert wine, Kagor VK, into the Czech Republic. The wine was made from grape juice, with added sugar and corn spirit —[Interruption.] You have obviously not tried that delicacy yet, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I am sure that there is time to do so.
After the deliberations in the regional court, the matter was referred to the European Court of Justice, particularly in relation to the interpretation of article 58 of the 2003 Act of Accession, regarding whether that provision allowed the enforcement of a Community regulation that had not been published in the Official Journal of the European Union in the language of a member state. The Court went on to state that publication on the internet did not equate to proper publication. That is why we need clarification of that point today. In case there is concern about digitalisation, I am assured that it will be covered under heading 5 of a multi-annual financial framework budget allocation and that, as the Minister said, there will be no extra cost.
The second draft decision relates to the Fundamental Rights Agency. The previous multi-annual framework for the FRA expired at the end of last year. After consultation, the European Council proposed extending and developing the FRA’s work in a number of thematic areas. In May last year, the Justice and Home Affairs Council reached political agreement for there to be nine areas of work. These included access to justice, victims of crime and compensation for crime victims, children’s rights, racism, xenophobia and related intolerance. Opposition Members believe that the agency is extremely useful in assessing the impact of legislation not only in current EU member states, but in applicant countries. We therefore support the draft decision.
The third decision relates to the number of EU commissioners. This is perhaps the most significant of the proposals in the Bill. As I indicated a few moments ago, this draft decision maintains the number of commissioners at one per member state. I of course welcome the fact that the people of Ireland voted yes in 2009, and I am pleased that they felt able to do so. This change will, it has to be said, ensure that all member states will feel that they are fully represented in all the EU’s principal institutions, which can only be a good thing.
It would be wrong to give the impression, however, that there is no need to change the way in which the Commission functions. There is a need and a case for examining whether there should be a degree of seniority within the college of commissioners, and a case can be made for examining the allocation of portfolios within the Commission. As the shadow Foreign Secretary has argued, there needs to be a commissioner with the specific responsibility for stimulating growth and job creation.
Finally, in recent debates on the European Union, Members have referred to the need for national Parliaments to have a stronger voice and a stronger involvement. Despite its shortcomings, the European Union Act 2011 does to some extent address this issue, but let us not forget that one of the most positive aspects of the Lisbon treaty, which Labour secured, was the introduction of a so-called yellow card procedure. This needs to be strengthened so that this Parliament, along with other national Parliaments, really does fulfil a central role in EU decision making. Subsidiarity means that decisions ought to be taken at the most appropriate level—as close to the people as possible. That is a sound democratic principle, and it ought to be the cornerstone of how we approach the European Union. To make that vision a reality, it will be necessary to ensure that national Parliaments—and this Parliament in particular—play a central role in determining what should be decided and at what level of government.
This Bill, small though it is, has our support because it modestly points us in the right direction. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of other more important aspects of the Government’s policy towards the European Union.
It is a pleasure to speak on a matter European where there is general agreement across the House and no time limit on the scoreboard. I shall go on for only a couple of hours, and I have already issued my press release saying I was “speaking to a packed Chamber.” As long as the few Members here keep quiet about it, I shall be fine.
I thought it might be wise to explain why it is important to discuss these matters. As the European Union Act 2011 has brought today’s debate forward on the basis that Parliament is required to pass an Act to approve the relatively low-level EU decisions in clause 1, it might look as though those decisions are of no consequence and do not need to be talked about. As both the Minister and the shadow Minister said, however, these are quite important matters, and some other member states find them amazingly important.
The German Federal Constitutional Court talked about article 352 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union—the flexibility clause that has caused so much excitement in the past—on which these proposed decisions are based. It considered that article as part of its 2009 judgment on the constitutionality of German basic law and the Lisbon treaty when Germany was seeking to ratify the treaty. Specifically, it considered the question of whether the article, which gives the European Union sweeping legislative power, was compatible with democracy as enshrined within German basic law.
The court had already found that, to have democratic legitimacy, the powers of the EU must be rooted in a democratic decision of Germany’s national Parliament to confer those powers to the EU. The German court said:
“Article 352 TFEU not only establishes a competence of action for the European Union but at the same time relaxes the principle of conferral.”
That is the principle that powers must be conferred on the EU by member states under article 352. The court continued:
“action by the European Union in fields set out in the Treaties is intended to be possible if the Treaties have not provided the specific competence necessary…The provision can thus serve to create a competence which makes action on the European level possible in almost the entire area of application of the primary law”
across the EU treaties.
The court ruled that
“As regards the ban on transferring blanket empowerments or transferring Kompetenz”—
the competence for the EU to decide its own powers—
that is, article 352—
“meets with constitutional objections because the newly worded provision makes it possible to substantially amend Treaty foundations of the European Union without the mandatory participation of legislative”—
“bodies beyond the Member States’ executive powers”.
Essentially, the court said that the German Parliament would have to examine these matters again.
It is good that we are at least mimicking the German Parliament, albeit a few years later. We are here to discuss relatively important issues, as has the German Parliament. It could perhaps be argued that the German public may be a tiny tad less Eurosceptic, because their Parliament talks about these matters sensibly and regularly, and that they therefore may understand them slightly better.
I think that all scepticism should be based on reality. We should talk about things with decent facts in front of us. This is a very good forum in which to discuss the facts, so let us do that.
The Bill has been produced as a result of the requirement of the excellent European Union Act 2011 to approve the three EU decisions that have already been mentioned. Under the Act, before a United Kingdom Minister can give final agreement in the Council of the European Union or the European Council to decisions proposed on the basis of the EU treaties being used in these cases, the proposed decisions must be approved by an Act of Parliament. That is what we are doing today. Although certain proposals based on the EU flexibility clause are exempt from the requirement for an approving Act of Parliament, those exemptions do not apply in these cases. I will happily go into the details if Members want to know what they are. The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) is obviously keen to discuss them; perhaps we will do so afterwards, over a beer.
Under the EU treaties, EU decisions of this kind require unanimity in the Council or the European Council, which means that without the UK’s support they cannot be adopted, at least to cover all member states.
Members have already listed what the proposals would achieve. There is an EU regulation enabling the electronic rather than the printed version of the Official Journal to take EU legal effect. There is an EU decision that would set out the broad areas of work of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights between 2013 and 2017. There is also an EU decision on the number of European commissioners.
Although the first two proposals may not seem to be hugely important, they are based on the flexibility clause, which gives the EU sweeping powers to adopt laws when the treaties have not otherwise given it the power to legislate. It has been used to adopt significant EU measures in the past, such as the creation of the EU bail-out fund for non-eurozone member states. It was therefore thought to warrant parliamentary control, and that thoroughly good idea was introduced by the European Union Act.
The two proposals dealt with by clause 1 are being introduced under the flexibility clause: they are article 352 decisions—flexibility decisions. As I said, the flexibility clause has been used to co-ordinate national social security systems for the benefit of all member states’ nationals when moving within the EU; to provide for measures against the counterfeiting of euro coins that apply to member states outside the euro; and for the bail-out fund. We are talking about significant measures.
The Bill deals with the EU Official Journal, which is not exactly the most exciting document in the world but, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) said, it contains striking elements of importance to the functioning of the single market, and to EU business and UK business in general. I have a small problem with it, because everything has to be translated into each of the official languages of the European Union. This is not a debate for now, but that approach means that everything that is said in the Official Journal has to be translated into, for example, Gaelic, and that is perhaps not the best use of money.
I was recently at a European Union conference where the Irish did speak in Gaelic, and I applaud them for doing so. The great linguistic creations of humankind should be preserved, and I am glad that the Irish are speaking in their own language and insisting that it be translated.
I completely understand the cultural point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but the European Central Bank uses only a couple of languages and many international institutions manage to cut down the number of languages they use, and they do so purely to keep costs down. The European Commission, the European Parliament and other European institutions do not do that and perhaps they should examine their approach. I merely wanted to make that point in relation to how difficult it is to produce the Official Journal for the very next day in written and electronic form. The Government have given political—not legally binding—agreement to the proposed regulation, with the Council supposedly ready to adopt it and the European Parliament having given its consent.
The Bill also deals with the proposed EU decision establishing a multi-annual work programme to cover 2013 to 2017 for the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. Again, one can give a parting shot, at least, about the growth in the number of these EU agencies; there is a huge number now and, as with commissioners, one at least has to go to each member state. In 2007, the EU adopted a regulation, based on the flexibility clause, establishing the agency, which is based in Vienna. Its objective has been outlined by the hon. Gentleman, but according to article 2 of its founding regulations it is to provide “assistance and expertise” to support member states in fully respecting fundamental rights. Under article 4 of its founding regulations, the agency’s activities include: gathering, analysing and disseminating information; publishing reports; and developing “a communication strategy” and a
“dialogue with civil society, in order to raise public awareness of fundamental rights”.
In 2013, the agency will receive a subsidy of €21.3 million from the EU budget, about half of which will be spent on staffing. According to article 5 of the agency’s founding regulation, the Council needs to adopt five-year multi-annual frameworks that set out
“thematic areas of the Agency’s activity, which must include the fight against racism, xenophobia and related intolerance”.
In addition to the multi-annual framework, the agency can respond to requests from the Council, the European Parliament or European Commission for it to conduct studies or produce conclusions on particular topics.
The draft Council decision before Parliament is the proposed multi-annual framework for the four years between 2013 and 2017, proposed by the European Commission on the basis of the flexibility clause. Under that decision, the thematic areas of the agency’s work in that time period will be: access to justice; victims of crime, including compensation for victims of crime; the information society, particularly respect for private life and the protection of personal data; Roma integration; judicial co-operation, except in criminal matters; the rights of the child; discrimination based on sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation; immigration and the integration of migrants, visa and border control and asylum; and racism, xenophobia and related intolerance. The Government have given political but not legally binding agreement to the proposed decision. The Council is apparently ready to adopt the proposal and the European Parliament has already given its consent.
That leaves us with the final measure, which is probably more controversial than was originally said: the retention of one European commissioner per member state under clause 2. The European commission consists of one national of each member state, so there are 27 commissioners and there will soon be 28 when Croatia comes in. Following great debate in the European Parliament and many other EU institutions and in the Parliaments of many member states, the treaty of Lisbon introduced the ratio of two thirds commissioners to member states. The logic was quite sensible: it was an attempt to stop bureaucracy growing out of control and to maintain some easier management of the bureaucracy from the top. The member states whose nationals would be commissioners would be decided
“on the basis of a system of strictly equal rotation between the Member States, reflecting the demographic and geographical range of all the Member States”.
The system would be agreed by unanimous decision at the European Council and each commissioner’s term would be five years.
Article 17(5) of the treaty on European Union states that the European Council, acting unanimously, can vary the size of the Commission from November 2014. As the Government’s explanatory notes to the Bill state in paragraph 12:
“when the Irish people voted ‘no’ in a referendum on Lisbon Treaty ratification in June 2008 the loss of a guaranteed”
Irish commissioner in every Commission
“emerged as a key concern. Without Irish ratification the Treaty could not enter into force, and as a result EU Heads of State and Government offered concessions to Ireland”.
One of the main concessions, offered in December 2008 and reiterated in June 2009, provided that when
“the Lisbon Treaty entered into force, a decision would be taken…to the effect that the Commission shall continue to include one national of each Member State”.
Those concessions seemed enough for the Irish people, who voted in the second referendum in October 2009 and approved that treaty.
The draft European Council decision based on article 17(5) has now been introduced and provides that from November 2014 onwards that the number of commissioners will continue to equal the number of member states. The draft decision states that it will be reviewed in advance of the appointment of the Commission due to take office in 2019, but for the decision to be altered there will need to be unanimity in the European Council, meaning that any member state can veto such a change. Having a European commissioner is a big deal for many, if not all, of the countries of the European Union, so it is highly unlikely that the change will ever be made. We will therefore continue to build on the number of European Commissioners.
I shall address that point in a moment, but yes, no commissioner is merely in charge of paper clips. Every commissioner needs a cabinet—a group of people around them from the top of the civil service—and normally brings an extra language with them, so a huge amount of cost and bureaucracy is associated with it.
The Government have given political but not legally binding agreement to the proposed decision, which is scheduled to be formally adopted by the European Council some time this year. Agreeing with the decision sits slightly oddly with something that the Prime Minister said in his speech on EU policy last week under the theme of competitiveness:
“Can we justify a Commission that gets ever larger?”
That is a fair question, considering that many other European bodies—the European Court of Auditors, for example—have an appointee from each member state, and work by having so many cooks making this particular broth. Appointments to EU agencies, as I have said, seem to be farmed out nearly one per member state, and it has almost got to the point where we need to have a serious discussion about how, if the European Commission is to work effectively, that can be done.
It is a particularly thorny issue, and warrants much more discussion. It is amazingly political. As I have said, it was one of the more important assurances gained by the Irish to secure a yes vote in their referendum. Everyone in Parliament will remember that the UK, along with four other large countries, had two commissioners, but we gave up our second commissioner with the enlargement of the EU in 2004. It is de rigueur in the EU for each country that comes into the club to get a commissioner—a seat at the main decision-making table in Europe. While that is a fine principle, it brings with it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) suggested, some powers to guide and oversee, but also a mass of bureaucracy. I believe that that is one reason why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister raised that question in his excellent speech at Bloomberg the other week.
One does not have to be pro-European or Eurosceptic to see that the European Commission has become unwieldy in size, and while this might not be the time to sort out the issue for good, it would be a good opportunity to raise this thorny issue for discussion with our European counterparts. With many new accessions down the line, it seems that this is an opportunity missed. Certainly, it would be an interesting discussion to have at roughly the same time that the multi-annual financial framework is decided. I wonder, if we had a reasonable debate on the subject, whether proposals at least to trim the Commission’s total budget for the next seven years could be achieved, even if it is not possible to trim or cap the number of commissioners.
I conclude where I began. It is really good to see some proper scrutiny as a result of the European Union Act 2011. I thank the Government for introducing that excellent piece of legislation and for sticking to both the letter and the spirit of it.
First, I apologise for not being here for the Front-Bench speeches. I was detained elsewhere, and I assure fellow Members that I shall not speak for long.
However, I have been provoked into speaking by the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), with whom I frequently agree on European matters, but on this one I disagree. It is very important indeed to retain one member of the Commission for every member state, and I see a parallel in the American Senate, where states, however large or small, have two senators. If New York, California and Texas began to get together to say, “Well, Delaware and Rhode Island will no longer have senators,” there would be all sorts of problems. I am sure that there are other ways of overcoming the problems of inefficiency—perhaps with departmental arrangements for more than one commissioner in Departments that are particularly big, as we do in our own Government: we have more than one Minister per Department.
Proportionality exists with qualified majority voting, and on many voting issues, different countries have different weights. It is important that, at the highest level, every individual country has their say, just as in the American constitution, every state, however small, has a say at the top table. It is important, too, to have the occasional bit of grit in the oyster. Small states, as well as large states, can occasionally become disagreeable, and I think that being disagreeable is part of the essence of democracy. Having a machine dominated by bureaucracy and officials who just go along with it is not healthy for democracy. I have many criticisms of the European Union, and I have been very critical of the secrecy with which the Commission operates. I hope we will always preserve a single member per state as the method of composition of the Commission, even if we make some different arrangements for how it works.
Another factor in all this is who the commissioners are. I like to think that from time to time we as the British people might appoint a commissioner whose first loyalty is to the interests of British people, and who reflects their views as well as their interests. Their views may sometimes be awkward and may certainly be grit in the European oyster. That would be right.
Once the commissioners are appointed, which portfolio is allocated to which member state? I have been told by certain MEPs that from time to time conclaves of Commission officials get together to allocate dodgy portfolios, in particular the portfolio of Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, to weaker members. I know that there is always the worry that a commissioner might turn out to be a bit of a trade unionist, a bit of a leftist. That would be very dangerous. We must have someone who knows that the market and employers come first. Above all, we must make sure that profits come first, not the interests of working people.
Who is appointed as a commissioner for each member state and which portfolio they are given are very important matters. I hope we will see to it that at least Britain has commissioners for the foreseeable future—for as long as we are in the European Union—who truly represent the views of the British people, and not just the interests of the British people as they see them. I hope also that we get appropriate portfolios, and that the small countries that might be squeezed out also have their say.
It is great to see the European Union Act 2011 in action. It has certainly drawn in the crowds today, in just the way that we might have warned that it might not do when we discussed the Bill. During its passage through Parliament, we warned that the Bill might represent a slightly disproportionate response to concerns about scrutiny and democracy in relation to European affairs.
The fact that we have ended up spending parliamentary time on the Floor of the House discussing the publication in electronic format of the European Parliament record suggests that we might have had a point. I remember Ministers optimistically assuming that a debate such as this might assuage the Eurosceptic concerns about democracy and scrutiny in relation to Europe. I thought at the time that that might be optimistic.
I am not sure whether my hon. Friend heard all of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), which explained that the Germans have an exactly similar procedure in regard to article 352 on the treaty of the functioning of the European Union to ensure that those measures are legislated upon by their Parliament. Surely if it is good enough for the German people to have proper ratification procedures, it should be good enough for us.
Only yesterday the hon. Gentleman was declaring on Radio 4 that he was taking his lead from the Catholic hierarchy. Now he tells the House that he is taking a lead from the German Parliament. At this rate he might get a reputation for being a Europhile, which might not do his reputation within the Conservative party too much good.
It is above my pay grade to judge, but I am sure that is not true.
The substance of the Bill relates to three measures, two of which are completely uncontentious—the e-publication of the Journal and the business plan, effectively, of the Fundamental Rights Agency. Other hon. Members are right that the third measure is worth more substantial debate, as it adjusts a mechanism that was supposed to limit the size and endless growth of the Commission. There are a number of issues that that growth has raised. It was not simply the practicality of having an ever-increasing number of commissioners. Without being unkind to some of the smaller member states, we know that there is a bit of a capacity issue in terms of their ability to produce candidates of sufficient calibre for a portfolio that affects the entire continent. Moreover, in terms of public perception, it slightly muddies the whole idea of the Commission. The Commission should be, in essence, the equivalent of our civil service. It should be the servant of the Council of Ministers, the various European ministerial councils and the European Parliament, and not pretend to be a representative body.
I agree with that sentiment, but the reality is that the Commission and its officials act like a Government rather than a civil service. Only this week, I was told by someone who knows about these matters that when Commission officials decide on something it generally happens.
I do not often agree with the hon. Gentleman on matters European, but I do agree that there is a slight risk of that happening, as we have all been aware over many decades. We have to be careful about the level of democratic accountability in the European Union. I would always support increasing democratic reform and democratic accountability in the EU where we can do so.
There is the potential for endless growth in the number of commissioners, or at least for the number to be limited only by the number of European states that might join the EU. It was clear from the Irish referendum debate that, as any fan of the TV series “Borgen” will know, for smaller countries the appointment of a European commissioner is a major political issue to which people attach a great deal of importance, and we have to respect that. We are a community of many nations with many different priorities, and it is important that we acknowledge that. To that extent, I support the Government in backing this measure.
The hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) made a brave effort to make this debate sound like a very contentious one that demands this level of scrutiny. In the spirit of coalition unity, I recognise that the European Union Act 2011 has brought a greater level of accountability and scrutiny to European legislation in this place, and that process could go further. At the beginning of last year, Ministers announced that there would be a review of the way in which scrutiny of European legislation took place. Submissions were invited, and I found myself in rare agreement with the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) in suggesting that Select Committees should automatically and routinely vet European legislation that was relevant to their briefs. Will Ministers update us on the progress of that process and say how far down the path we are towards introducing such routine and automatic scrutiny by Select Committees?
The recommendations of the Government on scrutiny was the issue in contention, and many of us made submissions on that basis. In the end, Select Committees might be a better option for scrutinising such legislation, or there could be a greater use of statutory instrument Committees or European Committees.
I absolutely stand by the European Union Act, which was an important agreement between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat wings of the coalition that, for a while, reassured many Eurosceptics on the Conservative Back Benches that we were going to give greater scrutiny to Europe. However, I suggest that we might in time reflect on whether it is a good use of parliamentary time to deal in the main Chamber with issues that are relatively uncontentious and, in many cases, relatively unimportant in the great scheme of things. With that major caveat, I am happy to give my support to the Bill.
It is a pleasure, as always, to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), with whom I disagree on almost every matter regarding Europe, this being no exception. I think it is fantastic that we are spending parliamentary time scrutinising what is being done in the European Union. So many laws come to our nation from the European Union practically rubber-stamped as an appendix to a report put out by the European Scrutiny Committee that is not even debated in a Committee upstairs. The percentage that we send through for debate in Committee is small, and that which comes to the Floor of the House smaller still.
Article 352 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union allows the European Union very widespread powers to extend its abilities to legislate across its areas of competence, and it is important for us to scrutinise and control that.
I am bombarded with messages from across the country, and probably internationally, from people who want to know that the laws that affect them are made clearly so that they know what they are and are not caught out by trickery and underhand practices. That is a fundamental principle of why they send me here. I would argue that everybody who voted at the last election wants to sleep securely in their beds knowing that the law is fairly and properly made.
I often agree with the hon. Gentleman, but on this point I agree very strongly. I am perhaps alone in insisting on having hard copy in my Select Committee meetings rather than an iPad. I can operate an iPad but I want hard copy, and I still have it. Much as we know that we are in an electronic age, paper still has its place.
There are two parts to my hon. Friend’s point. On the first part, I disagree with him. The form in which instructions are sent out is important, and it is right that people should know about it. It is a long-standing principle of our law that ignorance of the law is no excuse. If that is fair, it is also fair that knowledge of the law should be made available to people in a timely and efficient way, because it is something that might affect their lives, and that when a change to the method of notification takes place, that should be debated in this Chamber and passed into law. On the second part, I completely agree that the number of commissioners is significant.
The second point that I raised with my right hon. Friend the Minister is crucially important. It relates to the change from article 308 of the previous treaty to article 352 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union. Article 352 is broader in scope. Had it been assumed that anything previously incorporated under article 308 could be transmuted under article 352, that could have allowed all sorts of laws—my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) went through a number of them—to pass into the body of European Union powers without any further scrutiny by this House. As is often the case, something that is in itself minor has set an important precedent in protecting the rights of this House to scrutinise these matters and to ensure that the interests of our constituents are protected.
I wish briefly to discuss the number of commissioners. I do not have the confidence that some hon. Members have in our commissioners, and I do not feel happy that we have one representing us. Commissioners take an oath that they will act in the best interests of the European Union. Some have argued that that is directly contrary to the oath that they have taken as Privy Counsellors, and we should be concerned about that. They are there, by design, to represent the interests of Europe, not of the United Kingdom. Perhaps because of our history and our civic traditions, our commissioners tend to take that very seriously, whereas commissioners from some other countries may simply represent the nation state that has sent them. I do not have great confidence that the person representing the United Kingdom is waving the Union Jack; they could just as well be waving that awful European Union flag.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way yet again. I am one of those who have been concerned for many years about our commissioners, not just because they do not represent my view, but because I do not think they represent the collective view of our people, if there is such a thing. One possibility might be for them to be elected. We have started to elect police commissioners, but European commissioners are much more important.
That is a brilliant idea. If they were elected, there would be less chance of their going native, because they might be able to stand for election again. At present, there is a fear that, when people go off to Europe, the moment they arrive they send out for Belgian dress so that they can appear to fit in with the ethos of the European Union.
I want to address the question of Ireland and the specifics of what it was given to persuade it—bully it, perhaps—to ratify the Lisbon treaty. That shows—I think that this strengthens the Prime Minister’s renegotiation position—that countries can renegotiate with the EU for things that they feel they need when discussions are being held in the European Councils. That is an important point. We have often heard people say, “The Prime Minister can go off to Europe, but they will not give him anything. It’s too bad: you’ve just got to like it or lump it.” Actually, the European Union, for all its many faults, is a fundamentally pragmatic body in how it gets agreement among member states. It does a lot of horse trading, one way or another, to get agreements. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) wants to intervene, but she seems to be nodding vaguely in response to that particular point.
The situation means that, if we go to the EU and say, “If you want X, you must give us Y,” or, “If you want X, you must give us A to Z in return,” that is a strong position for us to be in when the requirement is for unanimity. What Ireland has done, and what we are bringing into law, is very important and very encouraging for the United Kingdom and for the position of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in his negotiations.
Finally, I praise the Government for the Bill, which has been proposed as a consequence of the 2011 Act. When the Act was going through Parliament, it was not universally welcomed, certainly not by those on the Opposition Benches, but even Eurosceptics on my side were sceptical about the effect that it would have. I was extremely pleased to hear the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) welcome the Bill and I am pleased that the Government have changed their view so that the multi-annual financial framework has to go through British law. That shows that the 2011 Act is working and acting as a proper check on what goes on in the European Union.
Without the Act, none of the three things under discussion today would have required legislation, but, because of it, they all do. As a result, crucial issues, such as the future number of European commissioners and renegotiations such as that which took place with Ireland to get it to support the Lisbon treaty, have come before this Chamber. Although in this instance the Bill has turned out to be uncontroversial, it could have been very controversial. I think that we are now secure, thanks to the Government, in having a better check on the accretion of powers to Europe. I might like to reverse them, but at least we are now checking them.
I first want to refer, in the context of the Bill, to the referendum announced by the Prime Minister. We have heard much about the 2011 Act. I opposed it during many of its stages, because I believed that although it had a so-called referendum lock, in practice it would not deal with the kinds of things we are now besieged with, particularly those measures that are being introduced into the political core of Europe—the eurozone—that affect the United Kingdom but that, because they do not refer to the United Kingdom, do not require a referendum, however significant their impact on the United Kingdom. In fact, the European Scrutiny Committee, which I have the honour to chair, produced a report on that very question and we remain extremely concerned about the effect of allowing legislation to go through without a referendum on the specious grounds that a transfer of powers is not taking place. This is not just about a transfer of powers; a referendum is required when there is a fundamental change.
Interestingly, the referendum announced by the Prime Minister, which I think should take place during this Parliament, is a very good example—indeed, it is a perfect example—of something that does not fall under the 2011 Act. However, it is the opinion of the Prime Minister—it is certainly my opinion and that of many hon. Members present—that the proposals that are about to be announced, or that he thinks are likely to be announced, as well as what has already been transferred, the structure of the treaties and the impact of the provisions, past and present, on the United Kingdom, should be subject to a referendum, because of the unfortunate, aggregate effect that they continue to have on the United Kingdom.
I did not say that. What I said was that the referendum that the Prime Minister has announced goes outside the provisions of the 2011 Act, and I am glad to say that that demonstrates that, where there is fundamental change, he recognises—with some help from his friends— that a referendum is a requirement, even though it is not taking place as early as some of us would like.
He is not yet a right hon. Gentleman, but he might be soon. I thank him for giving way. Does he recognise that, while the 2011 Act was designed to stop powers being sucked away from the UK at the request of the European Union but without much say from this place, the Prime Minister’s referendum is about a new settlement that may require powers to be returned from the EU, so they are slightly different things?
That is true, but I maintain that the key question is whether the requirements contained in the five principles, which include repatriation and the primacy of national Parliaments—on which the European Scrutiny Committee has insisted on a three-hour debate on the Floor of the House because of the implications for economic governance—are all part and parcel of what has been going wrong in the European Union. I welcome the idea of the referendum, but with the caveat that I do not think the timing is right, although that is a separate question.
Turning to article 352 of the treaty for the functioning of the European Union, my hon. Friend made an excellent speech, as did my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins). They are all on the European Scrutiny Committee and very familiar with the intricacies of the arguments, although they are not that intricate. In fact, the provisions of article 352 derive, in effect, from article 308. I have now served on the ESC for 27 years, and those who have been around for as long as I have—
Not long enough, says my hon. Friend. The fact is that article 308 is and always has been a very contentious issue. It is reflected in provisions in our own domestic law that deal with whether or not, when something is enacted, anything that flows from it can be done without the need for further primary legislation. It so happens that article 352 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union has similar words:
“If action by the Union should prove necessary, within the framework of the policies defined in the Treaties, to attain one of the objectives set out in the Treaties, and the Treaties have not provided the necessary powers, the Council, acting unanimously…after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, shall adopt the appropriate measures.”
That means that there is already a big amber light in relation to the acquisition of these further powers, although there is no legal base for them.
That is, in a nutshell, the reason for the Bill. Sections 7 and 8 of the 2011 Act do not apply to the two draft decisions that were made under article 352. An Act of Parliament is therefore required. That is a safeguard. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset is right that it is important that we have an Act of Parliament, despite what the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said, not because of the nature of the provision in question, but because the 2011 Act, which the hon. Member for Cheltenham was so keen to endorse, did not provide for circumstances of this kind.
I am tempted to ask the hon. Gentleman to comment on the extraordinary assertion of the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) that we do not discuss these matters in enough detail in this place. However, what I want to say to him is that I think he may have misquoted me. I did not say that we should not have legislation on these matters. I supported the European Union Act 2011 in that regard. I just suggested that we do not need primary legislation in every case.
I do not want to be drawn too far down that route, but the simple reason for primary legislation is that, without it, there would not be adequate legislative authority, even for the questions that arise under this Bill.
I shall now turn to one or two issues relating to the Bill that required a considerable amount of consideration by the European Scrutiny Committee. I will give a tiny bit of history on the multi-annual framework for the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, but I will try to be as brief as possible. The Justice Minister, Lord McNally, stated in an explanatory memorandum that was issued to the House and the European Scrutiny Committee in January 2012 that he thought that the proposal was justified. He said that the Government would have opposed the proposal to extend the multi-annual framework, but wanted to consider whether the technical issues that they disliked had been addressed.
The European Scrutiny Committee reported on the proposal on 1 February 2012. We asked the Government whether they accepted the view of the European Commission that
“with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, the Agency’s remit automatically extends, in principle, to all areas of EU competence under the TFEU, and that the Agency may therefore undertake activities within the field of police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters without any further amendment to its founding Regulation”.
We questioned the Government’s view that this decision satisfied the exemption requirements under section 8(6)(a) of the 2011 Act and would not require an Act of Parliament. Our 10th report, which was published on 17 July 2012, set out our concerns in greater detail. The draft decision remained under scrutiny.
The former Lord Chancellor, who is now the Minister without Portfolio, told the European Scrutiny Committee in July 2012 that a political agreement had been reached on the draft decision which excluded any new activity covering EU policing and criminal law measures. In a letter that he sent on 22 November, he told the European Scrutiny Committee that, having heard what we had said, the Government were now—although they had not been before—of the opinion that the exemption did not apply in this case, and that primary legislation would be introduced.
That is why we have this Bill—the European Scrutiny Committee did its job and asked for further clarification. [Interruption.] I am extremely grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), for nodding his head, because sometimes people wonder what all the detail is about and whether we have to be so intricate. The bottom line is that the European Scrutiny Committee, by pointing out the legal objections and having a dialogue with the Government, who in turn had a dialogue with the European Commission, helped to make the legislation better. We helped to guarantee that there would be primary legislation and that, in the absence of the authorisation through the 2011 Act that had been deemed to be appropriate, this House would have the opportunity to consider the matter in the way we are considering it today. Indeed, after this debate, there will be a Committee stage and a Report stage.
The European Scrutiny Committee reported on the proposal again on 28 November. We cleared the document, but in January 2013 we pointed out to Ministers that the Government’s uncertainty about whether the exemptions applied to this decision had prevented the new measure from being agreed in good time. That is the history of this matter and it is important to put it on the record.
The draft decision on the number of European Commissioners provides another example of the European Scrutiny Committee takings its findings to the Government and, thereby, to the Commission. We received an explanatory memorandum and a letter from the Minister for Europe on 27 September. He stated that the size and composition of the European Commission was a fraught subject. He went on to say that it was difficult to identify a solution that was equitable, legitimate in terms of the relative size and weight of different European countries, and efficient. That is all in our report.
The European Scrutiny Committee considered the draft decision in its 13th report, which was published on 2 November 2012. We noted that because of delays in the draft decision being communicated to member states and because Parliament was in recess, it was not possible for us to scrutinise the proposal before political agreement needed to be reached on the draft decision at the General Affairs Council on 16 October 2012.
I put that on the record because it is important that these matters have a proper legal base and that Parliament has an opportunity to debate them. We are having this debate on the Floor of the House, so it is open to any Member of Parliament to discuss these proposals, to oppose them, to examine them in Committee and to table amendments.
I will give way in just a moment, if I may.
The problem is that when we provide for amendments to be made to matters that have been through the Council of Ministers, we are obliged under section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972 to continue to pass that legislation through our Parliament. That poses the very questions regarding the role of national Parliaments that the Prime Minister raised in his recent speech. The European Scrutiny Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into scrutiny and that is among the matters that we are considering.
If the House of Commons—or indeed the House of Lords, although I will stick to the House of Commons for my purposes—were to take exception to a provision that was included in an Act of Parliament for lack of a legal base or for some other substantive reason and wanted to vote against it, that would raise the very question that was embedded in the White Paper of 1971, which led to the passing of the 1972 Act. Under section 2 of that Act, we must implement all decisions that have been decided in the Council of Ministers, irrespective of any other factors. Under section 3, we must agree to all decisions of the European Court.
In the context of the Prime Minister’s speech— I welcome his comments on the referendum, although I think it will come too late—we have to evaluate where the power lies in passing legislation. We need an Act of Parliament for the provisions contained in the Bill for the reasons that have already been given, which I endorse. However, could Parliament veto the provisions that it covers if we did not want them to go through? We should be allowed to do so, and that will be part of the inquiry that the European Scrutiny Committee is now conducting. It is difficult to justify to the British people the fact that if they vote in a general election to have certain legislation implemented, they can then find that it is all decided in the Council of Ministers, where 91.7% of votes go in favour of European proposals. That brings up the whole business of how UKRep advises, or even decides, on such legislation, which is a vital question that affects the daily lives of this country’s voters.
I congratulate my hon. Friend’s Committee on bringing this matter before the House. Clause 2 of the Bill contains an important provision. How can it be right that a small country such as Luxembourg has equal representation on the Commission with a complex country such as ourselves? That surely makes no sense whatever. Furthermore, the clause seems to indicate that however many countries join the EU, they will each get a commissioner, so we could end up with 30 or more commissioners. How can that make sense?
It is difficult to make sense of a lot of things that come out of the European Union, and I am reminded of what Alice said in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” about believing half a dozen impossible things before breakfast every day. That is possibly one example.
The reality is that there are 27 member states, and there was a lot of discussion about whether there should be an equivalent number of commissioners. It was decided that each member state would continue to have a commissioner. I understand well what my hon. Friend says, and it is quite difficult to justify given countries’ comparative size, geography, GDP and so on. On the other hand, if some countries were to be denied a European commissioner, I suppose some people would say that they were being treated unfairly. Finally on the number of commissioners, I have argued in the past that the European Commission should be relegated to the role of a secretariat rather than the role that it currently enjoys.
That is correct, given that the veto that was promised to us has been taken away.
Right at the beginning, when the European Communities Act 1972 went through, the functions of the European Union were fairly restricted. Up to the Single European Act in 1986, which I voted for, there were a limited number of qualified majority voting arrangements. That Act greatly expanded them, and I tabled an amendment at the time suggesting, “Nothing in this Act shall derogate from the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament”. I was then advised by the Clerks—indeed, I went to the Speaker about it—that it was not possible to move such an amendment, because it would challenge the fabric of the 1972 Act. Time has moved on, and qualified majority voting is now used in a lot more cases.
There was a qualification in the 1971 White Paper, which led to the passing of the 1972 Act by a mere six votes. It stated that there would be no essential erosion of British sovereignty, and that we would have to retain the veto in our vital national interest, because doing otherwise would undermine and endanger the very fabric of the European Community itself. I repeated that point the other day and will do so again and again, for one reason—the mass of legislation that there has been since the referendum in 1975, including all the treaties, with some 35 million people in this country never having had an opportunity to express their view on that legislation. As I said in The Times the other day, treaty after treaty has gone through on a three-line Whip, without a referendum. There has been a vast accumulation of qualified majority voting, and all that legislation has been passed.
The Bill contains just one provision. Matters that would normally require a Bill have gone through both Houses of Parliament without one, but this one, which is based on a few lines in a directive or regulation, is in a Bill. There is a complete mismatch in proportionality in how we legislate.
There may well be no Division this evening, but that does not alter the fact that we have done our job, both in the European Scrutiny Committee and in the House, by examining a matter that would otherwise not have had a legal base under article 352. It is dangerous to legislate without having the power to do so. The rule of law is essential to the running of a stable Government and a stable European Union—if there is to be a European Union, it had better be stable and in accordance with the rule of law. Increasingly, the EU is demonstrating its lack of regard for the rule of law on matters such as the stability and growth pact. We also see it in the unlawful manner in which 25 member states went ahead after the Prime Minister had exercised the veto. There are many other examples. When a body that vaunts the rule of law as much as the EU is blatantly in breach of its own rules, there is trouble ahead.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who does such sterling service to the House in his capacity as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee. I think I am the first person to speak in this debate, apart from the Front Benchers, who is not a member of that Committee, and I pay tribute to its members, who have ensured that we have the opportunity to hold the Government and the European Union to account in tonight’s debate and on subsequent occasions.
I shall confine my remarks to the aspect of the Bill dealing with the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. You will remember, Mr Deputy Speaker, that when the Lisbon treaty was being discussed, our Government said that they were against the Fundamental Rights Agency because they thought it completely superfluous and unnecessary. They said that all it would do would be to duplicate the work of the Council of Europe. That is exactly what it has set out to do—to usurp the Council of Europe and duplicate its work.
I am disappointed, given that the Government are newly playing hardball in Europe, that we are not taking on the agency and saying, “Hold on a minute, why are you expanding your ambit of activity? Why have you got a substantially increased budget?” My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) referred in his excellent contribution to the agency’s budget having risen to €21.3 million a year. Only a few years ago, it was hardly €100—it was a small, miniuscule budget. A lot of that budget is being wasted, and I will give the House an example.
About 18 months ago when I chaired the committee on migration, refugees and displaced persons at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I was lucky enough to be invited by the Fundamental Rights Agency to address a conference in the centre of Warsaw. To my incredulity, I found that a whole 40-storey hotel in the centre of Warsaw was taken up with guests of the Fundamental Rights Agency who, on inquiry, had all had their expenses paid by that agency and had come from all over Europe, and beyond, to discuss issues relating to fundamental rights. That seemed an unnecessarily extravagant way of getting information—the Fundamental Rights Agency is to provide expert advice and support to European Union institutions and member states, not to give jollies to people from non-governmental organisations who want an outing to Warsaw at the expense of the European taxpayer.
When I read the brilliant research paper from the House of Commons Library and saw some of the background on how the Commission reached its conclusion, I was a little dubious. It states that on 13 December,
“the Commission proposed a new Multiannual Framework…and consulted the Management Board of the Fundamental Rights Agency”.
In other words, it consulted the producer interests and received a preliminary contribution. The paper went on:
“The Management Board consulted the Agency’s Fundamental Rights Platform (a network of cooperation with civil society)”.
I suspect that most of those in the hotel I described were members of the agency’s fundamental rights platform. Unsurprisingly—such people are used to receiving that sort of indulgence at the expense of the European taxpayer—they were in favour of expanding the ambit of the Fundamental Rights Agency, as set out in the revised multi-annual framework. What an extraordinary state of affairs. I am surprised that the Government have not played a harder ball on the issue, although I am sure we will have the chance to focus on it by tabling an amendment to delete that provision when we discuss the Bill in Committee or on Report.
When commenting on the results of the consultation to which I have referred, the European Parliament stated:
“One hundred and eight organisations took part in the consultation process. Most organisations support the Agency’s work in the current areas, and would like it to continue…particularly in the areas of…asylum and migration.”
There was a lot of support for extending the work of the Fundamental Rights Agency, and I am not surprised.
If we must have such an agency, it would be better if it stopped duplicating the work of the Council of Europe. All members of the European Union are also members of the Council of Europe, but the Council of Europe’s budget is not going up because its European Union members say that we cannot afford to spend more money on it. The costs of the European Court of Human Rights continue to increase, but the Council of Europe’s budget is being squeezed in all other areas, including research. Meanwhile, such research is increasingly being done by the Fundamental Rights Agency with money that should rightfully be contributed to the Council of Europe.
In a sense, I am disappointed that the Government seem to go along with the expansion of the Fundamental Rights Agency. How does that fit with the policy of this Government and this Parliament of trying to reduce the size of the European Union budget? The challenge given to those of us who want a real-terms reduction in that budget is always: “What are you going to cut?” Well, expenditure on the Fundamental Rights Agency is one thing we could cut, and we could do it by cutting that agency’s wings in the multi-annual framework that started this January and continues for the next five years. If we had not agreed to the expansion of that framework and had instead insisted on it being reduced in scope, we would have secured real savings and contributed to the genuine reduction in the European Union budget that everybody—certainly on the Government Benches—wishes to see.
I praise my hon. Friend for his work in establishing the budget of this new organisation. Since the Council of Europe gives the European taxpayer such good value for money in having its budget reduced each year, instead of having a new agency, why not give all its functions to the Council of Europe? In that way, we could reduce the European budget.
I think that is a brilliant idea, and for a long time I thought that was the policy supported by the Government. It is certainly supported by almost every member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, including many from core European Union states who regard themselves as being Europhiles in the extreme, but even they ask what the point is of duplicating the functions of the Council of Europe with those of the Fundamental Rights Agency. I hope my hon. Friend will take that idea forward.
If we are to have a Fundamental Rights Agency with a multi-annual framework, as stated in the Bill, why not concentrate on one or two areas with an obvious need for further work? At the moment, the management board mentions “thematic areas”, which include:
“Immigration and integration of migrants; visa and border control; asylum”,
and the European Union is fundamentally failing in that area at the moment.
The week before last I was in Greece where I visited the Greece-Turkey border and received briefings from Greek Ministers and the Hellenic coastguard about the problem of illegal migrants coming into Greece, mainly from Turkey. One problem in Greece that contributes to the
“racism, xenophobia and related intolerance”—
that is thematic area (j)—is that it is virtually impossible for Greece to return illegal migrants to the countries from which they came.
Let me give the House an example. When visiting a detention centre in Athens, I went up to the wire fence and asked whether anybody spoke English. To cut a long story short, I started a conversation with a person who said that he had arrived in the detention centre having set out from Afghanistan—he is an Afghan national—and that he had paid smugglers $8,000 to get across Iran and Turkey. He wanted to go from Turkey across the Aegean sea and on to the Italian eastern seaboard so that he could make his way to the United Kingdom. I inquired about that and asked why he wanted to go to London. He replied that it was because he had been there for five years until a few months ago, and that he had lots of friends in London who had paid the $8,000 for his return trip. He had been deported from the United Kingdom after playing our system for about five years, and within a few weeks of getting back to Afghanistan this wholly undeserving case was presenting himself in a Greek detention centre.
Unfortunately for that man, the boat from Turkey foundered—I suppose it is fortunate that the Greek coastguard rescued him and he was not drowned—and he found himself in the detention centre, but the Greek authorities had no way of returning him back to Afghanistan, because Afghanistan does not accept anyone in Greece who emanated from Afghanistan. If he is detained in Greece for the maximum of 18 months, he will be released and will join all those other people in Greece—this also happens in Italy—who do not belong or do not necessarily wish to stay there, which contributes to feelings of racism and xenophobia on the part of the indigenous population. Something like 60% of people in Greek prisons are non-Greek nationals.
If there is a need for the Fundamental Rights Agency, it should deal with that sort of thing rather than mess around with the other expanded areas to which hon. Members have referred. For example, if the FRA looked at the inability of people to claim asylum in Turkey because it has opted out of many Geneva convention provisions, it might help to focus attention on the need to strengthen the Turkey-EU border.
Is my hon. Friend conscious of the fact that, in the explanatory memorandum of 10 January 2012, Lord McNally, the Justice Minister, gave an example of a useful tool in measuring the impact of European legislation on fundamental rights in Europe? He cited
“a comparative legal analysis of the position for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual people across EU States which has provided useful data in an area where there is little research”.
Is my hon. Friend aware that that criteria was chosen by the Justice Minister?
I was not aware of that and am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing it out. As hon. Members often say, it is an issue of priorities. People and organisations must be judged on the priority they give to different issues. In the light of the enormous crisis in Europe and on European borders, it is odd that that should be a priority as opposed to the problems to which I have referred.
The debate gives us an opportunity to go into many other aspects of asylum and border control, but I will not do so. I have highlighted why they are important. If the organisation has to exist, it would be better if it got on with dealing with serious issues rather than trying to expand its remit.
Order. The hon. Gentleman has been here a long time and normally addresses the Chair. This is not a private conversation between two Back Benchers. We have allowed the debate to drift, but I hope we will come back to having it through the Chair rather than having a private conversation.
In that case, Mr Deputy Speaker, I shall raise my voice to make it obvious that this is not a private conversation. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) would like to have this conversation on the record—it certainly would not be on the record if it took place in the Tea Room. The short answer to his question is that we have a great opportunity, because the FRA has its multi-annual framework approved every five years. If we believe it has the wrong priorities, this is the moment to change it. The Bill could be amended to reflect the concerns of this Parliament.
I will talk directly to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, but also to my hon. Friend on my right flank. It would be impossible to amend the framework. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) said, what hon. Members say will have little impact on the final decision.
I assure my hon. Friend 100% that, if this House, in its sovereign right, decides to repeal the European Communities Act 1972—we entered on a voluntary basis in that year—or any provision that emanates from section 2, by, for example, using the “notwithstanding” formula, we are entitled to do so. Nobody can do anything to stop us doing so. Whether the Whips would allow it is another thing.
Order. I have been very generous in allowing hon. Members to drift all over, but I am not going back to 1972. I want us to stick to Second Reading. We have a bit of time and a bit of latitude has been given, but I do not want to go to the complete ends of it.
As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, the fact that time is available does not mean we have to use it all. Other hon. Members may wish to participate in the debate. Some might regret that they missed the opportunity to participate when they look at the record. Some of us hope we will catch Mr Speaker’s eye in tomorrow’s debate, and might do our prospects some damage if we speak in extenso this evening.
This is a worthwhile debate and it is fantastic that we have the opportunity to discuss the Bill. I disagree with the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), who is no longer in his place. He said that the relatively low attendance shows a lack of interest, but many hon. Members have looked at the issue and we are discussing it, and we look forward to the Minister’s response.
Obviously, most Europe debates from now on—for the next several years—will be preparatory to that great referendum. I would like the Government to start work on drawing up an audit of the costs and benefits of our EU membership. In the context of the Bill, they could do a lot worse than draw up an audit of the costs and benefits to this country of the work of the FRA compared with the work that is already being done in the Council of Europe—the Council of Europe’s work is being duplicated by the FRA.
I will not vote against the Bill, but I hope that, in due course, we have the opportunity to discuss amendments to it.
It is a great pleasure to take part in this wide-ranging debate on the Bill. Two of the three measures we have considered are fairly uncontroversial. The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice has rightly said that the changes are not far-reaching and are largely technical. However, as was pointed out by the hon. Members for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), the third proposal—on the number of European commissioners—is more controversial and significant. I will come to that measure in due course.
The draft decision to give legally binding effect to the online version of the Official Journal of the European Union—notwithstanding the necessity to ensure that arrangements are in place for an electronic signature to be added to the online version to ensure authenticity—has come quite late in the day. Given that we are well into the 21st century—even if some hon. Members might wish to dispute this, or wish to go back in time—and given that the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice reminded us, with a little help, that there are 27 member states of the EU and 23 official languages published on a daily basis, the proposal for an online legal version might have been made earlier. We welcome the decision and support the Government in signing up to it. We are sure that it will facilitate a more efficient and economical legal publication and communication of legislation, other adopted Acts, information and notices, European Court of Justice judgments and invitations to tender for contracts. Given the climate change legislation we passed in government and the EU targets we have signed up to, I hope that printing fewer paper versions of the Official Journal will go some way to contributing to reaching those targets.
Before I attended this debate, I thought the draft Council decision to establish a new multi-annual framework for the EU Fundamental Rights Agency for the period 2013-17 was relatively uncontroversial. Labour Members, at least, think it is a sensible way forward. The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) mentioned the issues drawn out by the explanatory memorandum from the Justice Minister, Lord McNally—I tend to agree with him—who said that the agency
“provides a useful tool in measuring the impact of EU legislation on fundamental rights across Europe including, as appropriate, in candidate countries”.
The Council of Europe is not required to take on that role. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) cited the example of the FRA’s comparative legal analysis of the position for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual people across EU states. This is a serious issue and a useful report. You will not be surprised to hear, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I am not in agreement with either the hon. Member for Stone or for Christchurch.
I do not know how familiar the hon. Lady is with the Council of Europe and the work of the Parliamentary Assembly, but it comprises 47 countries. All the applicant states for membership of the European Union are members of the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe staff are currently dealing with all the issues she has described, but they do not have the extra resource that is now being put into the FRA.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that as the shadow Minister for Europe I am well aware of the Council of Europe and its composition of 47 members, and I am well aware of its work. I will say again to the hon. Gentleman that I disagree with him. The Council of Europe does not have a role in measuring the impact of EU legislation, something I was just pointing out. If he checks the record, he will see that that is fact, not opinion.
The third draft decision is more controversial and relates to the number of European Commissioners. I agree with the hon. Member for Stone that this issue has been debated over and over again, not least during the most recent treaty change. It is an issue of great sensitivity for both small and large member states. The Lisbon treaty provided that from 2014—in other words, from the next European Commission—the number of European Commissioners should be two thirds the number of member states. That was the position we came to at the end of the negotiations on the Lisbon treaty. However, as we know, Ireland asked for a change to this provision, and a guarantee that each member state would keep its commissioner in the years to come.
As hon. Members have said, there are two sides to this argument. Some argue that it is too cumbersome, unwieldy and inefficient to have one commissioner per member state, especially given that the EU is now composed of 27 member states—soon to be 28 later this year. Arguments have been put forward, particularly powerfully by smaller member states, that having one commissioner for each member state is the only way to secure equality. That is the Republic of Ireland’s position. As the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice said in his opening speech, there is a case for looking at the possibility of introducing some degree of seniority in the college of commissioners. We have also advocated the creation of a Growth commissioner in the Commission. As the explanatory notes set out—this relates to the intervention made by the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown)—the draft decision will not apply beyond 2019, and will cease to apply if the EU reaches 30 or more member states, whichever comes earlier. My best guess is the former.
The issue is certainly still live, sensitive and controversial. I am sure it will be the subject of ongoing debate in years to come, so I do not think today’s debate in this House is the end of the matter. We will have to see which direction the debate takes. There are two sides of the argument and we want to respect the sensitivities of smaller member states. That being said, I met the Danish ambassador earlier. She reminded me that Denmark’s position during the Lisbon treaty negotiations was that although it preferred to have its own commissioner, it was willing to give that up—not permanently, but on a rotating basis—if that meant that the European Commission and its college of commissioners could operate in a more efficient manner. I therefore think that this will be considered before we get to the 30th member state or beyond, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
We support the Government’s intention to approve the three draft decisions, and we support the Bill’s Second Reading.
This has been perhaps a more thorough and detailed debate than one might have initially anticipated. I am grateful to all hon. Members who have spoken and contributed to the debate. As the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice said when he opened the debate with a typically eloquent and articulate introduction, the Prime Minister has recently set out the need to examine the UK’s relationship with the European Union. The debates held last week, both here and in the other place, provide an opportunity to start to discuss the broader issues of our relationship with Europe. There will be many opportunities further to examine that relationship. I would therefore like to limit my remarks to the specifics of the Bill.
I would first like to put on the record that it is because of the increased parliamentary control over EU decisions, which the Government delivered through the European Union Act 2011, that no UK Minister can vote in favour without first getting parliamentary approval—a very important point that a number of Members have made this afternoon.
I found the Bill interesting when I looked it up this morning on the internet. I read the explanatory notes, which refer to two draft decisions of the Council of the European Union and one draft decision of the European Council. Obviously, I know the Council of Europe is nothing to do with the EU, but what is the difference between the Council of the European Union and the European Council?
Had the hon. Gentleman been here for the whole debate, he would have heard about that. I am happy to give way to hon. Members who have participated in this debate rather than to those who have just wandered into the Chamber.
It is because of increased parliamentary control that we are debating the elements in the Bill. It gives the House an opportunity to consider several technical measures designed to make the EU more efficient and accessible. The Bill will give parliamentary approval for the Government to agree with three EU decisions. The European Union Act 2011 requires us to seek that approval before the Government can vote in favour of them at EU level.
As the House has heard, the first decision will give legal effect to the electronic version of the Official Journal of the European Union, which will make access to EU law faster and more economical. The second decision will agree the work of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency for the next five years, which will ensure that the Council directs the work of the agency into areas considered to be a priority by member states. The third decision will maintain the current arrangement of having one EU commissioner per member state, which will fulfil a commitment to the Irish and will guarantee that the UK retains its commissioner and is in a stronger position to influence the make-up of the next Commission.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) for his support for the Bill. He rightly welcomed parliamentary scrutiny, but it was slightly perplexing that he also welcomed referendums, given his party’s position on not allowing the British people the right to decide on what relationship they wish to have with the EU. He also made an important point about the fundamental rights issue, to which I shall return in a minute.
We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), who gave a typically knowledgeable and detailed contribution on the workings of the EU. He was right to highlight the importance of parliamentary scrutiny, the significant change that the Government made and how it was in the UK’s interest. I also welcome his support for these small, technical, but important, measures. He was correct to highlight the Lisbon treaty proposals and how they have since changed, particularly in how they relate to the Commission.
My hon. Friend will also be aware of the necessity, owing to the Irish position, of ensuring that each country has a commissioner, thus ensuring that the UK has a commissioner. He should be aware, however, that the draft decision states that that position should be reviewed when a new Commission is appointed in 2019 or when the number of EU member states exceeds 30, whichever is earliest. I reiterate to him that the Government are committed to having a leaner, less bureaucratic EU, to improving the efficiency of EU institutions, including the Commission, and to continuing to push for substantial reductions in the EU’s administration costs.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), who forcefully argued for an EU commissioner for each country. Part of the Bill will ensure that the UK has the commissioner for the next Commission period. I reiterate to him what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry.
Then we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). I am grateful to him for his support for the Bill. When he started speaking, I wondered where he was going on the lack of necessity for scrutiny of these important aspects emanating from the EU, but I think he came full circle and, in the end, supported scrutiny. He will no doubt intervene if I have misinterpreted his remarks. I was also slightly perplexed by his comments about the capacity of smaller EU countries to manage a commissioner. Many small EU countries’ commissioners have made a significant contribution to the EU, and I am sure they will do so in the next period.
We then heard a traditionally articulate and passionate speech from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who was absolutely right, yet again, to highlight the importance of scrutiny, to recognise the vital role of the European Scrutiny Committee—a theme to which I shall return in a moment —and to highlight the significance of article 352, under which any powers brought forward must be agreed unanimously by the Council and EU Parliament. For the UK to agree that at the Council, however, and therefore for the required unanimity to be secured, the UK Parliament must first give its approval. That is what the Government have put in place under the 2011 Act. My hon. Friend was right to suggest that section 8 of the Act stated that a
“Minister of the Crown may not vote in favour of or otherwise support an Article 352 decision unless”
it is approved by an Act of Parliament. That is why this level of detailed, forensic scrutiny is essential and in the UK’s interest. Without the agreement of Parliament, therefore, a proposal brought forward under this legal base cannot be adopted throughout the EU.
We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who gave a traditionally detailed, analytical speech. I was pleased that he welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement of the referendum, although I accept that perhaps he does not agree with the timing. I would also like to put on the record my congratulations to him on his chairmanship of the European Scrutiny Committee. He does a sterling job not only for the House, as was mentioned, but for the country.
I am not sure I share that analysis, and I am quite sure that the Prime Minister thinks extremely highly of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, who was right not only to underline the importance of scrutiny, as other Members did, but to point out that the Government reflected on his Committee’s suggestions —a good example of scrutiny working—and introduced proposals to pass primary legislation in the way that he and his Committee suggested.
We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who detailed his thoughts and criticisms of how the FRA worked. I want to put on the record one or two facts in order to add to the debate that he will clearly have in Committee. The proposals do not expand the agency’s remit, but agree to a plan without which we would have much less control over its work. His example of wasting EU taxpayers’ money in the way he alluded to is sadly not the only example he could have given. This is not a new agency, and the funds flow from the EU budget, which, as he will know, is under intense scrutiny and pressure from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in order to ensure that UK taxpayers’ money is spent wisely and for the purposes for which it was intended—an ethos that I know he supports very strongly.
My hon. Friend also wanted to know whom the agency was accountable to. It is accountable to the Council of Ministers, which allocates the budgets. I know that he looks forward to delving in further detail into this matter in Committee.
Finally, we heard from the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds). Again, I reiterate our thanks for the Opposition’s support. She was right again to highlight the issue of commissioners, although I will not repeat what I said about the position being reviewed when a new Commission is appointed in 2019 or when the number of EU member states exceeds 30, whichever is soonest.
Will the Minister set out what the Government’s position will be when the time comes? As I said to the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), I think that 2019 will probably come before the 30th member joins. What will the Government argue for then? Will they argue to retain one commissioner per member state or to reduce their number, as originally set out in the Lisbon treaty?
I very much hope that by 2019 the British people will have had a say on what relationship they want to have with the European Union, in the context that the Prime Minister has set out. Depending on the result of that referendum, we will have to assess the answer to those questions and many others at that time.
Let me conclude by quickly setting out the four key tenets of the Bill. It ensures that Parliament has a key role in agreeing three decisions relating to the future of the EU. The UK took a strong line in negotiations on the work plan for the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency. The electronic version of the Official Journal is faster and more economical than the current, print version. Agreeing to this decision backs the Government’s calls for a more efficient European Union. Agreeing to maintain the number of EU Commissioners will mean that the UK will be guaranteed a commissioner when the next EU Commission is appointed in 2014.
The Government have given full consideration to all three measures. We are satisfied that they are in the best interests of the UK and are sensible and reasonable proposals. None of them has a significant impact. In particular, none will result in any additional financial burdens being imposed on the United Kingdom. This debate is an excellent example of UK parliamentary scrutiny working to the United Kingdom’s benefit in the context of our relationship with the European Union.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
European Union (Approvals) Bill [Lords] (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the European Union (Approvals) Bill [Lords]:
1. The Bill shall be committed to a Committee of the whole House.
Proceedings in Committee, on Consideration and Third Reading
2. Proceedings in Committee, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall be taken in one day in accordance with the following provisions of this Order.
3. Proceedings in Committee and any proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.
4. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
5. Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to the proceedings on the Bill in Committee of the whole House, to any proceedings on Consideration or to proceedings on Third Reading.
6. Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of any message from the Lords) may be programmed. —(Mr Swayne.)
Question agreed to.