Considered in Committee
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
Approval of certain decisions under Article 352 of TFEU
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 2, page 1, line 5, leave out ‘are’ and insert ‘is’.
Amendment 3, page 1, line 8, leave out paragraph (b).
It is a pleasure to move amendment 1, and to consider amendments 2 and 3 with it. As hon. Members who are following the Bill closely will realise, the substance of the amendments lies in amendment 3, which proposes to leave out paragraph (b) of clause 1(2). That would have the effect of making the Bill apply only to subsections (1) and (2)(a). It would no longer include any reference to
“the draft decision to establish a Multiannual Framework for the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights for 2013-2017 (document number 10449/12).”
On Second Reading, the Minister expressed the view that we would be able to go into the issue of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in more detail in Committee, and the amendment gives us the opportunity to do just that. I want to reassert the concern that I expressed last week on Second Reading that, although this Government and this country were always against having such an agency, we are tremendously relaxed about extending its budget and its range of activities now that it has been established. There must come a time when we say to the European Union, “Enough is enough. You have gone too far already and we want to rein back the range of activities of the Agency for Fundamental Rights in the coming five-year period.” I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some words of encouragement on the action that our Government are taking to rein back the activities of the agency and, in particular, to prevent it from encroaching on the competences and activities of the Council of Europe, which covers 47 member countries, including the 27 members of the European Union.
Will my hon. Friend tell the House exactly what this Agency for Fundamental Rights does? As I understand it, its job is to collect and give evidence on data regarding fundamental rights in all the EU countries. Given that we are all already signed up to the European convention on human rights—much against my will, but there we are—which apparently has nothing to do with the European Union, can he explain why on earth we need this body in the first place?
The Government at the time had grave reservations about this being included in the provisions of the Lisbon treaty, for the very reason to which my hon. Friend refers—namely, that it represented a duplication of activity that was already taking place. It was an attempt to set up in the European Union a duplicate body to the European Court of Human Rights and the European convention on human rights.
My hon. Friend asks what the agency does. It was intended to try to create what was called a fundamental rights culture within the European Union, and to that end, the organisation does an enormous amount of research. It holds conferences, one of which I have attended. As I said on Second Reading, it was more a propaganda exercise than anything else. The agency produces large tomes of documentation relating to what it describes as fundamental rights in different countries in the European Union. However, it is clear from everything that it does that its ultimate agenda is to be not an advisory body but a legislative body. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that the Government realise that that is the agenda, that they have seen through it, and that they are vigorously opposing it, given that it involves the duplication of so many activities.
In essence, the Agency for Fundamental Rights tries to deal with collective rights, rather than individual rights, whereas the European Court of Human Rights deals with individual rights. That is a moot point, however. As with so many things, the European Union comes along and confuses the issue by giving a new institution a very similar name to that of an existing body. We have a Council of Europe, and, although we do not have a council of the European Union, we have a European Union Council. We also have a Commission of the European Union. The European Union has stolen the flag that was originally the flag of the Council of Europe. It has even stolen the anthem of the Council of Europe, and it is now intent on stealing the main part of the Council of Europe’s activities—namely, looking after human rights under the European convention on human rights.
This is part of a creeping sickness, is it not? The European Union is trying to claim rights over trans-frontier broadcasting so that it can tell the whole of Europe what we may and may not broadcast. Upstairs, the House heard this afternoon that the European Union is trying to take over the European Space Agency, which of course goes much wider than the European Union; and now we have this, this evening. Where does my hon. Friend think this might stop?
I know my hon. Friend has been doing very valuable work in scrutinising trans-frontier broadcasting —he is, I believe, a rapporteur on that subject for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
Trans-frontier broadcasting exemplifies the problem we have. The Council of Europe set up a convention on trans-frontier broadcasting which has been signed up to not just by its 47 member countries, but by a lot of other countries as well; it is a very important convention. However, the European Union has come along and said that the convention cannot be brought up to date because it cuts across a fundamental competence of the Union. Therefore, the Council of Europe has been prevented, amazingly, from updating the convention because the European Union has said it cannot do so. Of course, because the Union has 27 of the 47 member countries of the Council, if it says, “You cant’ do that”, the Council’s member states collectively have no option but to obey the Union. This is an example, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) rightly says, of the European Union’s plan to encroach further upon the territory and responsibilities of the Council of Europe, to the extent that ultimately, it wishes to take over the whole organisation. That is what is so sinister about this measure.
If this were for free, we could all be relatively relaxed about it and deal with it as an academic abstraction, but it is costing us serious money: some €83 million at the moment, as we heard on Second Reading. The Agency for Fundamental Rights was set up fewer than 10 years ago with a budget of virtually nothing; now, it already has accrued that amount of expenditure, and the plans for 2013-17 are to expand it much further.
As we heard in my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s brilliant statement today, he and colleagues in the European Union are saying, “Enough is enough: we’ve got to rein back on the European Union’s expansionist programme”. When people put forward the challenge, “What are we going to rein back?”, my view is that this is a good starting point. We never wanted this in the first place, and I hope we are going to hear from the Government what we are doing to push back in the opposite direction.
I am somewhat concerned about this issue myself, but I want such rights to be strengthened, rather than weakened. However, I will come to that in my speech. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that some fundamental rights ought to apply to workers and trade unions taking strike action—for example, that we should determine those nationally, rather than internationally?
I am absolutely in favour of our having control over these issues as a sovereign country, which is why I do not really buy into the concept that there is some standard of fundamental rights across the whole of Europe. Now, the European Union is trying to identify and interpret common factors across all member countries—the Council of Europe is probably as guilty of this—and then impose them on all the countries through the agency, the Council of Europe or the European Court of Human Rights. These are very serious issues, and I look forward to hearing in due course where the hon. Gentleman thinks the agency should go.
The agency was only set up as a compromise to provide something based in Vienna. The Austrians had said that they did not have a European Union agency there, and, the agency having duly been set up, the Austrians are in the forefront of wanting to give it more powers, responsibilities and money, so that more Eurocrats can be based in Vienna and contribute to the Austrian economy. That is the cynical way these things develop. It was a compromise deal, and we have now seen that this organisation has a life of its own. I hope that Ministers will say they are going to snuff this out before the end of the 2017 multi-annual framework. That is why I have great pleasure in moving amendment 1, but if the issue comes to a vote, I will seek a vote on amendment 3, which is where the substance lies.
I am very concerned about this issue because before my time in Parliament, I was involved in the trade union movement, in which I have a strong interest, and my feeling is that the agency and fundamental rights in the European Union are a bit of a paper tiger when it comes to defending workers’ rights. As I said when I intervened, I want fundamental rights to be strengthened. Whether they are strengthened by legislation in this Parliament or at the European Union level is a matter for debate, but they certainly need to be strengthened. The rights of trade unionists were weakened considerably by previous Conservative Governments and they have not been restored to anything like my satisfaction.
The “paper tiger” nature of fundamental rights in the European Union was shown in the Viking Line case. Industrial action was taken and, strangely, the fundamental right to take strike action was overridden in favour of the interests of employers. Profits and the rights of employers were seen to have primacy over the fundamental rights of trade unionists. So, I am not impressed by the fundamental rights guaranteed by the European Union. If they are fundamental, the trade unionists taking that action should have been found to be in the right, and the European Court of Justice should not have ruled against them, finding in favour of employers. There have been two such cases, major cases, and they have shaken the confidence considerably of many trade unionists who mistakenly put their faith in the European Union to defend their rights.
I was never impressed with the European Union. As the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) knows, I am a critic from a left-wing, rather than right-wing, point of view. I was never as confident as perhaps some of my colleagues were that the European Union would defend trade union and worker rights. I will not necessarily be voting with the hon. Gentleman on this issue—if a vote is indeed called—but I do want the fundamental rights of workers and trade unionists strongly supported and defended, be that in the European Union or in the United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I want to talk about the agency in general terms. I am very concerned about the growth in the number of agencies at European level: the European “quangocracy”, as many call it. As a Member of the European Parliament, I sat on the Committee on Budgetary Control, whose purview extended to the agencies when we approved their accounts or gave them a statement of assurance each year. People always moan about the risk of fraud, mismanagement and maladministration in the European Commission, but it was fairly obvious that the further away from the Commission—from the centre—agencies were, the less the scrutiny of their accounts.
My concern is that giving the Fundamental Rights Agency a multi-annual financial framework and such a big budget increase could lead to issues with the way it runs its accounts. I am not saying it had issues in the past—actually, it did have one—but we are talking about a massive expansion in its budget. It is an arm’s length body that has very little oversight from the European Commission, the European Parliament or national Governments.
Over the years, the European Court of Auditors has sporadically looked at projects run by the agency. It is fair to say that they have been of mixed value. They have certainly improved over time, as one would expect, but I understand why concerns are being raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), among others, about including an agency whose work obviously duplicates other bits of work going on within the European Commission, the Council of Europe and possibly in other places.
We are talking about quite a lot of money here. The Prime Minister made a good point in his statement when he said that, in these times of austerity, we should expect the European institutions to act appropriately. I am not trying to undermine the work that the Fundamental Rights Agency does, but I hope that the Minister will talk about the value for money it gives. The reports from the European Court of Auditors on the agency’s spending regularly show that it has come in under budget and has been transferring moneys from different parts of its budget into either staffing or buildings and rent over the past few years—in European terms, that is a good way of coming in slightly under budget rather than having a big surplus. So giving the agency such a huge amount of money in a multi-annual financial framework deserves questioning and deserves our having a proper debate on it.
I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from in trying to remove reference to the agency from this Bill, because perhaps it is time we had a proper look at one of the agencies of the European Union. In the two and a half years I have been here, I have not seen this place carry out oversight into the agencies in any sort of way, and we should do our job for UK taxpayers, who will be funding this agency come what may. If the Minister would say a few words on how the agency has spent its money and on his hopes for how it will spend the money that we will give it in the future, I would very much appreciate hearing them.
I do not intend to detain the House for long, but I wanted to support my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who, yet again, has done a great service to this House. I rather fancy that the Government hoped to sneak this Bill through without any real scrutiny; they hoped it would be nodded through without anybody looking at the detail. Of course, my eagle-eyed hon. Friend has spotted some of the nasty parts of this Bill that the Government were hoping to sneak through, and he has done us a great service by highlighting them.
I am shocked at my hon. Friend’s suggestion that such an important Bill could have crept through this House without being carefully scrutinised. Many of us spoke on Second Reading and have considered the Bill carefully, as it is a sensible advancement of the European Union Act 2011.
While my hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and for Christchurch are in the House, I can be confident that legislation will be properly scrutinised. Without their services, I cannot always be so confident, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude for the work they do.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is absolutely right about the Fundamental Rights Agency, and I hope that the Minister will make it clear where the Government stand on this issue. Bizarrely, we face enacting something and, in doing so, supporting a wholly unnecessary agency. It is unnecessary because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said, it does the work that the Council of Europe already does. We are already signed up to the European convention on human rights, which is bad enough—if I had my way, we would not be signed up to that—but now it appears that the Government want us to have an EU version of exactly the same thing.
I rise to speak because I am shocked by what the hon. Gentleman has just said. The European convention on human rights came about at the initiative of the British Government in the beginning; it was done to bring people together to find ways of applying common standards across the whole of Europe in order to prevent what had happened leading up to the catastrophe of the second world war. Surely he is not saying that he thinks the UK would have been better off not having taken that initiative and that Europe should remain a place of conflict where people do not agree on what human rights everyone deserves in Europe.
I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a pride in living in the past, and that is fine and dandy, but of course he was talking about what the convention was set up to do in the first place, many years ago, whereas I am talking about the present. I am sure that he did not envisage our having to have ridiculous things such a votes for prisoners as a result of our membership of the European convention on human rights. I do not want to get sidetracked on to something that is not, strictly speaking, dealt with in this group of amendments, Mr Evans. The hon. Gentleman was tempting me down a path that I fear you might have intervened on had I pursued it any further. My point is that whether we are in the convention rightly or wrongly, we are in it and so it is utterly pointless to have the agency trying to mimic what is already being done there.
My second point relates to the agency’s desirability. Even if it was not pointless, it would certainly be undesirable. Let me give hon. Members an example of the types of issues the agency is trying to interfere in. It had a speaker on a panel discussing:
“Guaranteeing access to healthcare for undocumented migrants in Europe”.
We now have a new term—undocumented migrants. I think my constituents know them as illegal immigrants, but in the politically correct-speak of the EU they are undocumented migrants these days. Of course what the agency is trying to do is encourage all these illegal immigrants to access health care in countries such as the UK. My constituents are sick to the back teeth of the national health service being used by illegal immigrants and rather prefer these people to go back to the country that they should be in to access the health care in the country they come from. I hope that the Minister will address the following question: are the Government really using taxpayers’ money to fund an agency within the European Union that is actively encouraging people from within the EU illegally—this discussion was on illegal immigrants—to access this country and use the services provided for people in this country? It would be a ridiculous state of affairs if it was the official policy of Her Majesty’s Government to use taxpayers’ money to fund an agency to give out that kind of advice. If the Government’s policy is that they do not like this particular organisation and do not approve of what is it doing, what on earth are we doing with this Bill? Why are we being encouraged, in effect, to allow taxpayers’ money to be spent this agency?
I am sure that my hon. Friend will not welcome this information, but this all goes wider than what he has described, because what is often being suggested is that these people seeking to access health care should be able to do so without disclosing their own identities.
Absolutely, and again I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The situation makes the Government’s position on these matters unjustifiable and completely ridiculous. If the Government do not support all this, why on earth are we in this situation? If we are in this situation because the Minister is utterly powerless to do anything about it because he has no influence whatsoever, I hope he will admit that. When our referendum comes, in 2017 or thereabouts, it will be another argument for why we should leave the European Union.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the whole idea of an EU quango to lecture member states on how we should behave on human rights is nonsense? This is a group of democratic states, so surely it is the job of the Parliaments of the individual member states to decide on and uphold the human rights in their countries, rather than to be instructed by EU quangos.
My right hon. Friend, as ever, is absolutely right. We certainly need no lectures from other countries in the EU about how to protect people’s freedoms; this country has a far better track record than member states of the EU will ever have. I suspect that the Minister will be trying to defend the indefensible, but it is a sad state of affairs when it appears that we in this House are powerless to do anything about these sorts of bureaucracies. We all know what happens with these types of bureaucracies: they grow and grow, and they empire build. They will grow their influence and they will try to do things that they are not supposed to do—things they were not set up to do. They will grow the number of staff and grow their budget, and it appears from what I have heard so far that we are utterly powerless to do anything about it. If the Minister can give me some comfort that we can and will do something about it, fair enough, but it seems to me that either the Government approve of all this nonsense, which would be a terrible state of affairs, or we are powerless to do anything about it, which in my view is equally unacceptable. I look forward to the Minister explaining which it is, but whichever it is, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is right to draw the matter to the attention of the Committee and to pursue his amendment, which I support with gusto.
I rise because I am quite exasperated by speeches of the kind made by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). If I really believed that the people of Shipley did not want to have human rights and participation in a convention that tries to guarantee for people across the wider Europe the same human rights that we—as he said, proudly—think we have in our own country, I would be shocked, but I believe that the people of Shipley deserve better. They deserve to hear an explanation of what this is about.
As a Member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I hear these issues debated at every quarterly session and, I hope, participate with colleagues from both sides of the House to try to point out to many countries that are not in the EU that they are not giving human rights in the right quantity to their citizens, but this is about saying that the EU will have an organisation that will also monitor those things. Some might say, “If you have it in the Council of Europe, why require it in the EU?” The reality is that unless a body has economic and legal might, such as exist in the EU, many decisions, such as those taken by the Council of Europe, do not, I am afraid, carry much weight.
There are thousands of cases against countries in the Council of Europe, which have been found in the Court of Human Rights to be in breach but which are not acted upon by the countries covered by it. There are many cases raised by Conservative Members of countries within the EU where there is a requirement for some muscle to be applied so that people cannot be locked up without trial. One case raised by the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), who sadly is not in his place, relates to Malta—our own constituents locked up in other countries.
The point of introducing the change that has been made in the EU is to allow the EU to start to participate in that activity—a role that I believe will be parallel to and supportive of what is happening in the Council of Europe and what is debated in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate the nonsense of this country being lectured about fundamental rights and human rights by an organisation such as the EU, which has as the initiator of all its legislation an unelected European Commission? Surely one of the most basic rights is being able to elect people who make all the decisions. The EU has not even got that far.
I hope that the people of Shipley are not believing the mythical nonsense that has just been spoken. I have sat on the House’s European Scrutiny Committee since 1998, and the reality is that the European Commission can initiate proposals for legislation, but legislation cannot be agreed in the EU unless it is passed by the European Council, and we are one of 27 countries that take those decisions. A number of people do not like the fact that many of those decisions are now taken by qualified majority voting and there is no veto—I know that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) is keen on the return of the veto on everything—but that is the decision that was taken by the House through the Lisbon treaty and, before that, through many other treaties. We have participation in a Council that makes the legislation, not the Commission.
That is entirely unacceptable. I believe that that point is regularly made in the Parliamentary Assembly by Members from both sides of the House. We have been pressing to change that, so that many cases that are queuing up at the Court of Human Rights, which clearly do not have any chance of being judged positively in that Court, can be dealt with in another manner. Perhaps some of them will not come to the Court—
No, I do not want to continue with the Council of Europe. I have spoken at length in the House in debates on the functions of the Parliamentary Assembly, which I think is an excellent organisation that brings people back to why we come to Parliament. It is about the application of human rights. We often get tied up in playing our parties off against each other, but if we look through the lens of human rights we can very quickly see where the breaches are. There were huge outcries under the previous Government when we were locking up people for long periods without trial, which I objected to. Many of these things come back to the fundamentals.
The EU is adding its weight. It has more power than the Council of Europe to deliver judgments and make those judgments stick, because penalties apply to things that the EU gets involved in. If we decided to break away from a European directive, we could, as a country, be fined. When, for example, Bulgaria refused to come up to scratch with its legal system, it had all its EU finances frozen until it brought itself up to a standard that was acceptable.
The EU might attract many criticisms, and at times I find it greatly irritating, but I am pleased that it is adding its weight to the need to look at things on a human rights basis and to report on that. That is what the proposal is about.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman has a strong view about that. I do not happen to think that a referendum on an issue as complex as the EU would be debated according to the quality of the information that is required. Referendums become a mass populist vote either for or against a Government. If this Government went for a vox pop at the moment, they might be in great danger of being voted out of office. Why does he not put that to the people?
Does my hon. Friend agree that the biggest transfers of power happened in the 1980s with the Single European Act and with the Maastricht treaty in 1992? Actually, the current Foreign Secretary voted against a referendum on Maastricht.
I recall that well, because I have been a Member of the House since ’92, and I remember the very lengthy debates that took place, but this is not about the Maastricht treaty; it is about the proposal in the Bill, which is basically to set up a
“Multiannual Framework for the Fundamental Rights Agency”.
That is the point that is of interest to me, because that is an important thing to do and we should be going forward with it. I hope that we do. If the Government really are about to do an about-face and vote against that, I wonder what their position was in the Council, when this went through. Were they voted down in the Council? Are they about to change their position?
I am interested in the Government’s position as much as anyone else, but I am speaking from my point of view, looking at this as someone who has been on the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the European Scrutiny Committee for a long time. It is important, I believe, for us to realise that, while we might not like the fact that the EU sometimes asks us to do things that we might not have wished to do ourselves—for me, some of those are in fishing and agriculture, neither of which has been massively amended by anything that has happened recently under this Government—human rights will not be harmed in this country but will be advanced markedly in other countries by having the EU alongside the Council of Europe and the Court of Human Rights, fighting for human rights for all in Europe. Who would wish to deny that, apart from the hon. Member for Shipley?
Is there not a concern, though, about the duplication and growth of those agencies? Even the European Commission, through Commissioner Šefcovic, said at the end of last year that we need to reform many of these agencies, which have unruly-sized governing boards, and try to prevent conflicts of interest. Just in this particular field, we have the Fundamental Rights Agency based in Vienna, the European Institute for Gender Equality based in Vilnius, and the European Asylum Support Office based in Valetta. Surely the question is, should we be growing this agency and giving it such a big budget and a multi-annual financial framework of such a size before we have undertaken some reform of those agencies?
I take the point. It is well made by the hon. Gentleman, who speaks from the dual perspective of looking in from the European Union at the effect on other countries, and looking out now from this Parliament at what the European Union is doing.
I find it remarkable that every time the European Union grows, we have a convention that the new member state gets a new Commissioner. At my first meeting in Brussels, I believe I raised the matter with UKRep—why did we need a new Commissioner every time we added a country? Why does every member state have to have an office of some kind because it does not have an office of some other kind? We did it. We were fighting over the universal patent recently, and the most important thing to the UK was where the patent court would be based. It had to be based in London. It was not about whether the patent was a good or a bad thing. There is a problem with the EU in that it sprays benefits around. I believe it has put some institution on Crete—a wonderful island where I have holidayed often, but I could not work out why a major institution of the European Union had been located on Crete, apart from the fact that the Greeks wanted to have their turn.
That has to be looked at fundamentally, but the principle is correct. If the European Union sets up the agency, it will monitor what is happening with human rights, and I hope it will then begin to ask how it can help the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and those who want, as Churchill and many others did after the last war, to base Europe on human rights. The questions will continue about the corpus juris, which the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) will no doubt talk about, and the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) will no doubt talk about economic interference.
After all that is discussed, I hope we will all be able to agree that if the EU supports the Council of Europe and does the business, making human rights available to all the people in the EU and then beyond, it will advance Europe in accordance with the original principles of the people who set up the convention, which should be at the heart of our politics.
That was an interesting contribution from the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), but one with which I fundamentally disagree. It was obvious from the early part of his comments that they reinforced the points that have been made throughout this debate. In essence, we have jumped back from fundamental rights to human rights.
In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), I asked whether we could try to agree on the difference between human rights and fundamental rights, but everyone seems to have jumped back to accepting that fundamental rights is just another phrase for human rights, and that the agency does no more than replicate what is done elsewhere in the European Union by the Council of Europe. What came out of those comments was the fact that if reform is needed, we need to reform the Court, so that it can enforce the decisions made by the Council of Europe.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is the second of the points that I want to make, which is about subsidiarity. We hear a lot about subsidiarity, yet in practice the European Union goes the other way, rather than saying, “Look, these are the matters which you will probably be concerned with. We’ve had a look at the UK and you’ve got plenty of organisations within the UK to deal with all these matters. There is no need for an EU body.” That applies across all 27, soon to be 28, member states.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which gets to the heart of one of my major concerns about the organisation and why I support entirely the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. It highlights the confusion in the minds of our constituents.
I wonder how many of our constituents even know that that body exists. I suspect that if I conducted a poll on the streets of Bury, I would have to wait a very long time and ask a large number of people before I found anyone who had even heard of the agency, never mind understood what it was intended to do. That is not surprising, because it was introduced in 2007 by the back door. It was introduced under the provisions of section 352 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, the Lisbon treaty, which allows for such new bodies to be established without any proper discussion. As I say, it was introduced through the back door.
The EU goes on about the principle of subsidiarity, but then we find that it is creating an EU-wide body to do things which, as we have heard in tonight’s debate, are not only being done elsewhere in Europe, but ought to be and can be done properly here in the UK. This is not a cheap body. We know that in 2013 the agency will get a subsidy of €21.3 million from the EU budget.
Is it not anomalous that the agency should have a separate multi-annual financial framework for the five years from 2013 to 2017, rather than being rolled into the overall multi-annual financial framework from 2014 to 2020, which the Prime Minister has ably ensured will be significantly reduced?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. The question arises what would happen in a situation which has partly happened now and will certainly happen in the next multi-annual framework, where the agency straddles two financial periods. How can an agency properly budget when its framework straddles two budgetary periods? It does not make sense. That is just another example of muddled thinking in Europe, and of an organisation that has no intention of being transparent or open to the people whom it seeks to serve.
I am sure my hon. Friend has noticed that in the supporting documentation it is asserted that there will be no impact on public sector manpower or cost. Having to deal with yet another one of these fiddly agencies means huge legal bills, on top of the ones that we have for the European Court of Human Rights and on top of our domestic ones. Is that not an awful lot of extra money?
Yes. My right hon. Friend again makes an excellent point. We will find that someone who is concerned about a particular right in this country is faced with a plethora of bodies, and those involved in this field in this country have an extra body to liaise with on the European front. Whereas in the past they would just have looked to the contents of the European convention on human rights and the findings of the European Court of Human Rights, they now have to think, “I wonder what the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights will think about all this. I wonder what it has said about it.”
I will not go down that road, as we have other amendments to consider and there is a further debate afterwards. I doubt whether we need that body at all. That is why I will support my hon. Friend’s amendments tonight. The body is unnecessary and it adds confusion to what is already a very crowded playing field in the area of human rights. I simply ask the Minister how the agency will benefit my constituents in Bury, North. How would they notice if it were simply abolished? That is what I think should happen.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and I do not always agree on matters relating to the European Union, but we generally agree on matters relating to human rights. He does sterling service in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of the Europe as chairman of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights.
Many of us agree, across the spectrum of views on the European Union, that because all 27 members of the European Union are members of the Council of Europe and signatories to the European convention on human rights, the Fundamental Rights Agency represents unnecessary duplication. I had rather hoped that in the Council document on the multi-annual framework that is mentioned in the Bill we would find a distinction between the legitimate area of activity for European Union institutions and what is done in the general field of human rights. Article 2 of the document lists the thematic areas that the Fundamental Rights Agency will deal with during the multi-annual framework period, the first of which are “access to justice”, which I thought was dealt with under the European convention on human rights;
“victims of crime, including compensation to victims of crime”,
issues on which there have been decisions in the European Court of Human Rights; the
“information society and, in particular, respect for private life and protection of personal data”,
on which much work is going on in the Council of Europe; “Roma integration”, which is one of the key problem areas that the secretary-general of the Council of Europe has identified for his five-year term; and
“judicial cooperation, except in criminal matters”,
which might be an area where the European Union has exclusive competence, particularly in commercial law, but I wonder whether even this is a necessary reason for the existence of the Fundamental Rights Agency.
The list continues with the “rights of the child”. I heard the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) talk about that subject, on which he is a great expert in the Council of Europe, where he serves as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly. Why is it within the remit of the Fundamental Rights Agency? The next area is
“discrimination based on sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation”.
This is all the red meat of what is discussed in the Council of Europe and the red meat of the implementation of the European convention on human rights. Then we have
“immigration and integration of migrants, visa and border control and asylum”.
Several committees are looking at that very subject at this moment within the Council of Europe. The final area is
“racism, xenophobia and related intolerance”.
Again, those issues are on the agenda of the Council of Europe.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a simple matter of fact that for many of the issues that he is delineating we in this country have been practising a proper discourse and addressing them coherently in UK jurisdictions, in many cases before the European Union even existed?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is partly why we were one of the founder members of the Council of Europe and one of the original signatories to the European convention on human rights.
Article 3 of the document gives one a little hope, because it talks about
“Complementarity and cooperation with other bodies”,
but one has to read all the way through it to find that it does not even mention the Council of Europe until the final sentence, in paragraph 5, which refers to the
“Agreement between the European Community and the Council of Europe on cooperation between the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights and the Council of Europe”.
That is all well and good. However, I hope that the Minister will deal with the question of resources. The Council of Europe has been constantly under pressure from all 27 member Governments, including our own, on how it disburses its budget. The ever-increasing work load in the European Court of Human Rights means that the majority of the budget goes towards its operation. Now we have another body, funded by exactly the same taxpayers in the 27 member states of the European Union, that apparently might not have the same financial constraints placed on it. Would it not make absolute sense if we, as the 27 members of the European Union, agreed to chuck the little packet of money that we are going to give to the Fundamental Rights Agency into the budget of the Council of Europe to make it the much more effective body in promoting human rights and respect for all the rights outlined in article 2 of the document? We could then ensure that we in the European Union can promote human rights much more effectively, particularly in the new states of Europe and the states to the east, as partners through our membership of the Council of Europe.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) provoked a very wide-ranging debate covering a large number of issues, some of which are to do with the Bill and a few of which are even to do with the amendments. They include the question of whether the Fundamental Rights Agency represents value for money and concern about the potential for duplication with the work of the Council of Europe, about which my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter) spoke so eloquently.
The Bill is limited to seeking parliamentary approval for an EU decision to agree the agency’s new five-year work programme. The programme simply identifies the thematic areas under which the agency will undertake its tasks. The amendments—my main contribution to the debate, Mr Evans, will be to talk about the amendments—have as their common purpose a desire to remove clause 1(2)(b) from the Bill, the effect of which would be to withhold parliamentary approval of the draft decision that seeks to establish the next five-year work programme for the agency. Without that parliamentary approval, the UK cannot vote in favour of this measure at EU level. I do not believe that withholding such approval is the right course of action. I urge my hon. Friend to withdraw the amendment, or the Committee to vote against it, for the following reasons.
The work programme is agreed by the Council. Agreeing the work programme provides member states—including, of course, us—with the opportunity to define the focus for the agency’s work for the next five years, encouraging it to concentrate its resources on a limited number of areas and to undertake targeted, in-depth research within the boundaries defined by the framework. The UK has participated actively in the negotiations that have led to the new draft programme being drawn up and is satisfied with the results. It is important for the Committee to be clear that the agreement of a new work programme does not alter the core tasks of the agency, nor does it change the agency’s role. The work programme does not set out or define these elements. They are set out in a completely different instrument—the agency’s establishing regulation, which is not under review in the Bill or in the amendments. I hear the views of many of my hon. Friends about the merits of the agency’s work, but neither this Bill nor the draft decision that it approves can do anything to bring about changes in those areas.
I think that we have all been entirely in order and that the Minister should reconsider. We are saying that we want this thing to do a lot less and to do it much more cheaply. That is entirely in order, and it is our one opportunity to say it. We in this Government are meant to be looking for cuts. This would be an exceedingly popular one, so will the Minister cut the thing?
I was not suggesting for a moment that my right hon. Friend, my hon. Friends or anyone else who has contributed to this debate were out of order; I was merely making the point that I want to address the amendments. My right hon. Friend has expressed his views with characteristic force, but I have to disappoint him by saying that the amendments would not achieve what he hopes they would.
Let me be clear about the consequences of the UK not approving the draft decision. Failure to agree the work programme would deprive the Council of the opportunity to set the direction of the agency by defining the themes. However, the absence of a work programme would not mean that the agency would go away or down tools. My right hon. and hon. Friends should bear that important point in mind when considering whether or not to support the amendment. If there was no draft framework, the agency would still be able to carry out its role. However, its focus would shift to answering requests for work from other EU institutions. Not supporting the framework therefore means that member states, including the UK, would have less influence on the work that the agency does. I do not think that that would be a good result for the UK and I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch would agree with that.
The themes set out in the work programme continue those in the current one, and I welcome the European Scrutiny Committee’s analysis that the proposed work programme can indeed be considered to be equivalent to the former one. Although there are some adjustments between the two work programmes with regard to terminology, the changes will not alter the work that the agency has been doing.
During negotiations the UK Government were successful in ensuring that the themes set out in the work programme should continue to be limited to Community law. Other member states proposed the inclusion of themes on police co-operation and judicial co-operation in criminal matters. That would have been an extension of the agency’s work and it was successfully resisted by the UK Government. The draft decision records that we were successful. Agreeing to the draft decision will ensure that that is a binding decision of the EU institutions. That is why we are asking Parliament to approve it.
Moving on to some of the specific points that have been raised, the issue of duplication of the work of the Council of Europe has been a feature of this debate. The agency’s role is to provide the EU institutions and member states with independent evidence on how fundamental rights are respected. It does so through undertaking research and producing comparative data of the situation of rights across those member states, and through producing indicators that can be applied across the EU. Some of my hon. Friends were treating it as though it were an alternative to either the European Court of Justice or the European Court of Human Rights. It is, in essence, a data collection and dissemination agency that does not do any of the work of the ECJ or the ECHR. I agree that that would be unnecessary duplication. The same point applies to those in this country who, quite reasonably, would not want to lectured by the Fundamental Rights Agency about our performance on human rights. It does not do that sort of thing—that is not the work that it does.
There has been much discussion and concern expressed about money. This, of course, has to be set in the context of the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister earlier today. As he made clear—I think this was widely welcomed by all parties—the Government will continue to push for a good deal for UK taxpayers through agreement on the next multi-annual financial framework. The agency’s budget for the period covered by the next MAFF will form part of our negotiations following the agreement of that framework.
The dissemination of hard facts and data on human rights performance across the European Union is intrinsically useful for British citizens and, indeed, those of other countries, because it enables us to assess how one of the basic things that we all wish to preserve—not just in our country, but in neighbouring countries—namely a basic commitment to human rights, is actually happening. It is extremely desirable for the citizens of democratic countries to enjoy human rights almost as a matter of habit, and it seems to me that any body that promotes such a state of affairs, in however small a way, is doing useful things for the British people.
I note the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. He will have heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister raising concerns about the large number of EU institutions. It is an issue that will no doubt be discussed as part of a broader debate about our relationship with the European Union.
The decision to approve a new five-year work programme for the agency will continue to provide the Council with the authority to direct its work. The Government have successfully ensured that the proposal will not extend the ambit under which the agency functions. It will have no impact on the role or tasks of the agency. As such, the Government cannot support the amendment and I respectfully ask my hon. Friend to withdraw it.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for responding so frankly. What he has said illustrates the farce we are in. As a result of the commendable passing of the European Union Act 2011, we are being asked to approve, among other things, the work programme of the Fundamental Rights Agency for the next five years. If we do not approve the programme, we have been told, “Don’t worry—they’re going to go ahead with it anyway and choose their own programme.” Similarly, as the Prime Minister told us earlier with regard to the multi-annual financial framework—the next seven-year budget for the European Union—if a real-terms reduction had not been agreed, it would have carried on spending more than had been agreed anyway. That shows the extent to which we have been tied up in knots by the European Union and its institutions. The evidence coming out of this debate will be prayed in aid by people such as me when we get into the hard issues of debating whether or not it would be better to stay in or leave the European Union. I see this as part of that debate.
This debate has raised a number of interesting points beyond the Minister’s insight into what our powers amount to in this case. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter) undertakes with extreme diligence his job as leader of the UK parliamentary group in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He raised a number of serious issues. Such issues are being raised not just by him as leader of the UK delegation, but by a lot of other delegations. One such issue is that, at a time when the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe are being starved of resources, we can see with our own eyes that the 27 member countries of the European Union feel that they can throw money at the gravy train that is the Fundamental Rights Agency. Sadly, I did not hear an assurance from my right hon. Friend the Minister about what the Government are doing to stop that. They may be powerless to do anything about it, for the reasons given in his speech.
I do not think that that is good enough. We now have a situation in which we know that a lot of that money is being wasted. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley referred in his excellent speech to undocumented migrants in Europe having access to health care. That was the very subject on the agenda at the Warsaw conference that I attended and on which I expounded on Second Reading. What a waste of money that was.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) was concerned about the five-year delays in getting judgments. The European Court of Human Rights needs more money if it is to increase the speed with which it deals with its casework. It is not getting extra money because the 27 members of the European Union would prefer to spend their money on the Fundamental Rights Agency.
As a lawyer—[Laughter.] As a non-practising lawyer, I believe that if somebody starts a case before the courts under the rule of law, it should reach a conclusion within a reasonable space of time. It is incumbent upon any organisation that operates a legal system to ensure that sufficient resources are available for the judges to reach decisions reasonably quickly.
I certainly agree with that in relation to our particular case. I look forward to debating that issue when we discuss the draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill. Two months have gone by since the draft Bill was published and the Committee still has not been set up to consider it. However, that is another story.
Again, I believe in the concept of reasonable expectations. Once a draft Bill has been produced and the Government have said that it will be put before a Joint Committee, I expect the Joint Committee to be appointed within a reasonable space of time. The Committee can then meet and decide its own timetable. However, I would not want to take issue unnecessarily with the Government on a matter such as that, which is relatively small in comparison with some of the other issues on which I have differences with the Government.
I would love to recommend to my colleagues that we divide on this subject, but having heard from the Minister that even if we carried a Division, it would be of no use whatever and might even be counter-productive, I am minded to say that the best thing to do is to hope that the Minister will take back the concerns over the misallocation of resources between the Council of Europe and the Fundamental Rights Agency, and that he will see what he can do to change the system so that the next time we have a debate like this, we have the power to control the agenda and the work programme, rather than being presented with a fait accompli, the alternative to which is even more latitude for the agency concerned.
The next amendment that we will discuss is more wide-ranging and I hope that the Minister will explain in a little more detail why that amendment cannot be accepted by the Committee. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clause 1 refers to the draft decisions on the Official Journal and the Fundamental Rights Agency.
I will refer to those two issues in a moment, but I would first like to say a little about clause 1(1), which sets out that when a decision is reached under article 352 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, or the Lisbon treaty as it is known as, under section 8 of the European Union Act 2011 that decision must come before Parliament for ratification.
As connoisseurs of these matters will be aware, article 352 is quite controversial. It is the so-called flexibility or enabling clause, which allows decisions to be taken when there is no legal base for them. Its predecessor was article 308 of the European Community treaty. When I was a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, we produced an excellent report on article 308.
I am pleased that we have this new parliamentary power under the 2011 Act. I am sure that the Minister for Europe will recall that the Opposition consistently supported more powers for national Parliaments when the Bill was going through this House. The procedure with regard to article 352 is an important new power.
I was, however, concerned that the former Lord Chancellor, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), said last year in evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee that an Act of Parliament was not required to enact the decision on the Fundamental Rights Agency because it satisfied the exemption requirement under section 8(6)(a) of the 2011 Act. That was rightly questioned by the European Scrutiny Committee. In a letter to the Committee on 22 November, the Government stated that they had had second thoughts and that legislation would be brought forward after all. That is one point to the European Scrutiny Committee.
I find it strange, given the initial difference of opinion between the Government and the European Scrutiny Committee, that there is not even a passing reference in the explanatory notes to why the Government at first considered the decision to be exempt and then had a change of heart. Perhaps the Minister could tell the Committee what changed between the summer and winter of last year that prompted the Government to alter their position. Eventually, the European Scrutiny Committee cleared the document, but it stated that the Government’s uncertainty—I would say vacillation—had led to an inordinate delay.
Clause 1(2)(a) is about giving binding legal effect to the electronic version of the Official Journal, as only the printed version currently has such veracity. This may be called the libation clause. I say that because, as I mentioned on Second Reading, this paragraph is required, in part at least, because of a ruling by the European Court of Justice on a case concerning the importation of red dessert wine into the Czech Republic.
After being fined for breaking customs law, Skoma-Lux, the company that imported the dessert wine, brought an action in a Czech regional court in an attempt to cancel the fine. The company argued that the wine should not be classified as standard red wine and that the Act of accession for the new member states that joined in 2003 was not legally binding because it had not been published in Czech in the paper version of the Official Journal.
After expert examination by the customs technical laboratory in Prague, the wine was indeed reclassified because, unlike most wines, it was made from grape juice that had added sugar and corn spirit. It was said that that did not change the
“organoleptic characteristic of the beverage”
but did cause the wine to have a sweet taste that cannot be achieved by “standard wine production”. Because the regional court was not sure whether that could be discerned by customs officers, the issue was referred to the European Court of Justice. Sadly, I have been unable to find out the view of the European Court of Justice on that matter. Perhaps the Minister for Europe can help us.
Although that is unclear, what is clear is that the European Court of Justice made a number of unequivocal statements with regard to the other point that was brought before it, namely the availability of EU law in the paper form of the Official Journal. The Court ruled that “making the legislation available” on the internet
“does not equate to a valid publication in the Official Journal of the European Union in the absence of any rules in that regard in Community law”.
In the light of that ruling, the European Commission agreed to bring forward a proposal. Political agreement was achieved at the Justice and Home Affairs Council of March 2012. Undoubtedly, easy access to EU law makes for speed and is economic, and it would obviously be advantageous to have legal certainty.
Earlier I mentioned reservations in this House about the use of article 352, but it is worth noting that scrutiny reservations are not confined to this Parliament. I understand that other Parliaments, especially those in the Czech Republic and Germany, also had concerns about article 352 and the possibility of decisions being taken without a given treaty base. On the legal status of the online Official Journal, I understand that Germany entered a parliamentary scrutiny reserve and therefore the German Government were unable to confirm their agreement. Will the Minister confirm whether the situation in Germany has been clarified, and that there are no problems in other member states?
The second part of the clause concerns the future thematic areas of work of the Fundamental Rights Agency. At the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 31 May last year, nine areas of work were agreed. Since then the European Parliament has formally approved the text. It will, of course, have legal effect only once the Council has adopted it—hence the relevance, once again, of this Bill. The FRA is limited in its work because it is confined to collecting and analysing data while providing advice and seeking to raise awareness of fundamental rights. It works alongside the European Court of Human Rights and its efforts are very much complementary to the work of the ECHR.
As we heard this evening and on Second Reading, a number of Conservative Members have questioned the appropriateness of a body such as the Fundamental Rights Agency. In particular, the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) asked whether it is really necessary for the European Union to concern itself with fundamental rights. Would it not be better, he argued, if we relied simply on the European convention on human rights and the European Court of Human Rights? That is not a spurious argument by any means and the hon. Gentleman put it well this evening. However, I ask Members to dip into the report by the House of Lords European Union Committee which addresses that point specifically, and although I would not concur with everything in that report, it makes the case extremely well.
The report points out how the European Union can bring added value to the work of the ECHR, and refers to a number of areas where it can do that. Its first point is that the ECHR does not provide comprehensive coverage of the fundamental rights agenda. Last week my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) gave a good, specific example of where the FRA has conducted useful comparative research on the position of gay people—research that is not being undertaken by any other body, including the ECHR. There are many more substantive examples of value that can be added by the European Union and the FRA.
The hon. Gentleman has cited examples of where the Fundamental Rights Agency is investigating areas into which the European Commissioner for Human Rights—a Council of Europe appointment—has not delved. Surely it would be more logical if we were to use those resources for the benefit of all 47 member states of the Council of Europe. It is in the 20 member states that are not members of the European Union that those rights are inevitably most at risk.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point: there is a mismatch between the Council of Europe and the European Union, not least in terms of the membership of those two constituent organisations. It can become awkward and cumbersome, but that obvious overlap should be recognised and efforts are being made by both parties to minimise the duplication of work. It is significant, for example, that the Council of Europe has an independent expert who sits on the board of the Fundamental Rights Agency. A physical interrelationship takes place, which is to be warmly welcomed.
One conclusion of the important report from the other place was that:
“EU legislation brings a considerable added value over the ECHR in that it can be effectively enforced…It can also cover matters not adequately covered by the ECHR and is more flexible”.
Those are important considerations. We are talking about two different beasts. The work is complementary but it is also different and it is important to recognise that.
In conclusion, it is not my intention to trespass into the debate about whether or not the UK should exercise next year its block opt-out of so-called third pillar issues. That is a debate for another time, but I say simply that these issues need careful and rational consideration. Given the interest in related issues, I hope that this House will have umpteen opportunities to consider the profound decision that will have to be made next year. This clause has the support of the Labour party and we are pleased that time has been allocated for the discussion of the Bill on the Floor of the House. We hope Members from all sides will feel able to support the clause.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) for the Opposition’s support for this clause. He asked a couple of specific questions including why the Government changed their mind about the applicability of the exemption in the European Union Act 2011 to these measures. Originally, the Government thought that section 8 exemptions applied to a decision previously adopted under article 308 of the treaty. However, having reconsidered the issue of exemptions, and partly owing to the sterling work of the European Scrutiny Committee and its equivalent in another place, the Government concluded that decisions previously adopted under the legal base of article 308 do not fall within the exemptions in the 2011 Act. Therefore, along with future article 352 decisions that were previously adopted under article 308, such decisions will require parliamentary approval through primary legislation.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the state of play in Germany, and I am happy to assure him that Germany and all other member states have completed parliamentary scrutiny of this issue. The Council is awaiting the decision of the UK Parliament before the decision can be adopted.
We have discussed exhaustively the work programme of the Fundamental Rights Agency, and the hon. Gentleman made a good point that the other part of this clause is about allowing the electronic version of the Official Journal of the European Union to be regarded as an authentic version. I am sure the Committee will agree that in the modern world in which electronic communications are now as normal as paper communications, that is a sensible measure that will not increase costs for the UK and its taxpayers. I commend the clause to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Approval of decision relating to number of EU Commissioners
With this it will be convenient to discuss clause 2 stand part.
The background to this, as right hon. and hon. Members will know, is that a reduction in the number of EU Commissioners was proposed, but the Irish—among others—said that that would potentially be very unfair on them. They wanted to be guaranteed the right to have a Commissioner and, as part of the compromise deal that was done to try to win the support of the Irish people in a referendum, the concession was made. They were told, “Don’t worry, every country can have an EU Commissioner.” We are now being asked to give approval to the decision relating to the number of EU Commissioners.
It is difficult for me to speak for them, but perhaps some countries feel that only if they have a Commissioner of their own will they have sufficient patronage to distribute. It is within the patronage of any Government to appoint an EU Commissioner. For example, we have heard rumours that the way out for the Deputy Prime Minister will be to be appointed the next UK EU Commissioner.
Does my hon. Friend recall that I asked the Deputy Prime Minister about that directly, and he assured the House that he would not be a candidate? If Ireland insisted on keeping its Commissioner in order to ratify the Lisbon treaty and we did not want to ratify it, why did we not say, “Well, this depends on a vote of this Parliament”, and why should we approve it if the aim is to help the Lisbon treaty get through?
My hon. Friend makes a telling point, and I am sure that the Minister will respond to it with the benefit of his knowledge when he winds up. So often we talk hard on these EU issues—sometimes the Government and Ministers talk hard on them—but when we have it in our power to do something about them, we pull our punches and let the matter slide away. Especially now, in the build-up to the decision that the British people will be invited to take on whether we should leave the European Union, it is vital that the Government do not duck these issues, but face up to them.
I very much welcome what the Prime Minister said in his statement to the House earlier today. It was against the background of it being pointed out in the German newspaper Die Welt that the Prime Minister was wrong to suggest that hundreds of eurocrats were paid more than him or Chancellor Merkel, because its research had shown that the actual figure is 4,365. The Prime Minister said how disappointed he was that the administrative costs will still be some 6% of the EU budget, and he said that reducing the level of those costs would be “a long-term project”. Well, this modest amendment would be a start.
Just because there will be more EU Commissioners, it does not mean that the expenditure incurred by them should increase pro rata. The amendment does not ask for any real-terms reduction in the total spent on EU Commissioners, but it suggests that the total amount spent at the moment should be redistributed among the 28 or 29 Commissioners.
Obviously this is a sensible amendment that is totally in line with the Prime Minister’s announcement earlier today, and I presume that the Government cannot possibly disagree with it. Does my hon. Friend think that he has stumbled across another area in which the Government might have to admit that they do not in fact have the power to do what my hon. Friend would like them to do?
I hope that that is not the case, although I do not know whether my hon. Friend has been tipped off about what the Minister will say in response to the debate. I cannot see the point of the Bill if we cannot pass an amendment that has been accepted as in order. The amendment would simply make it a condition of our acceptance of having an EU Commissioner for each member country that the total budget should not be increased if the number goes above 27, but should be shared among however many Commissioners there are. I would be amazed to be told that such a modest amendment was not within our power, especially when we know that it would be going in the direction of travel—to use that ghastly expression—of many other members of the European Union who are concerned that its administrative expenditure seems to absorb far too much money.
Given the Minister’s form tonight, does my hon. Friend not expect him to say that even if the amendment were accepted, the EU would just carry on anyway and recruit the number of staff and expend the resources it wanted to, because it does not take any notice of decisions in this Parliament?
That is a fair point, and it was reflected in what the Prime Minister said earlier. He said that the European Commission simply has not looked at what it can do to constrain its administrative expenditure. He has a lot of knowledge about that issue because he sees it face to face every time he goes to Brussels or any other European institution. He can see the amount of money wasted on bureaucracy in Brussels. There is obviously scope for a modest reduction, and that is why I had hoped that I would have already received notice that the Government intended to accept my amendment.
Given that the decision by the European Council to maintain one Commissioner per country was taken only because of the result of the Irish referendums, and the decision by the Irish people to say no to the Lisbon treaty, would it not strengthen our Government’s hand in their attempt to cut the administration costs of the European Union if the Committee approved the amendment?
Absolutely, and I would have thought that this amendment would be supported by Opposition Members too, as they have been in the forefront of calling for a reduction in expenditure by the European Union. Whether or not they believe that sincerely, they have been calling for that.
Is not the opposite point to the one made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) more pertinent? What message would it send to the European Union about the Government’s determination to clamp down on administrative costs in the EU if they resisted such a modest amendment as this?
That is a very powerful point. By their actions shall people and Parliaments be judged. This is how we are going to send out a message to our European partners. Are we really serious about these issues, or are we just going through the motions? I look forward to hearing from a Member of this House who thinks it is wrong to limit the expenditure of the European Commission to what it is at the moment so that it cannot be increased. If there are such Members, I hope that they will have the courage of their convictions and stand up. If that does not happen, then I hope the Government will accept the amendment. It gives me great pleasure to have moved this modest amendment. Looking at it, I wonder whether it is too modest. On the other hand, it would be better to get this on the record than to create too much controversy.
With characteristic modesty, the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) has presented his amendment. He also discussed the scope of clause 2, and I wish to speak to that before I come on to his amendment.
The hon. Gentleman highlighted the fact that there is a live debate on both the shape or membership of the European Commission and on financing it. Clause 2 provides for the current formula of one Commissioner per member state to be maintained at least for the next Commission. According to the explanatory notes, it also provides for a review of that decision either before the 2019 European Commission is formed or before the 30th member state joins the EU, whichever is sooner. We are having this debate today, we had a debate on it on Second Reading and it will continue to be debated. I want to highlight some of the points that were made on Second Reading.
There are two sides to this debate. On the one hand there is a complaint—one that I think we should listen to, and one I am sure other hon. Members will make—that the European Commission College of Commissioners has become too big and unwieldy. As the EU has grown to 27 member states—soon to be 28—there are simply too many Commissioners and that has had an effect on how it can take decisions. The other side of the argument, put powerfully and effectively by the Irish Government in recent years, is that for small member states the current formula of one Commissioner per member state guarantees an equality that would not otherwise be secured. That point has been made in the intergovernmental conference and the convention, in the constitutional treaty discussions and the Lisbon treaty negotiations by Ireland and other small member states, although not all. I mentioned last week that Denmark is of the opinion that although it does not want to give away that equality, it is worth giving it away in order to make the European Commission a more effective decision-making body.
Those are the two sides to the debate. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and I suggested that there is a case for considering different degrees of seniority. If we were to keep one Commissioner per member state, then, as with our system of government where there is a Secretary of State and Ministers beneath that level, we could keep one Commissioner per member state, but with degrees of seniority, which might make for more effective decision-making.
All I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that that is a fluid situation, so it would be unfair to both new and existing member states. For example, the Polish economy is the only economy that I can name, certainly in Europe, that did not go into recession after the global financial crisis hit, and so its trajectory is healthy. We would do well to remember that the success of the Polish economy might mean, sooner than the hon. Gentleman might think, that it will become a net contributor rather than a net recipient.
On Amendment 4, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Christchurch, last autumn he and I were in the same Division Lobby calling on the Government to seek a cut in the EU budget, and we strengthened their hand in the negotiations. To an extent I agree with the spirit of his amendment and see some merit in it.
It would be better, however, if the hon. Member for Christchurch called on the Government to prevent an increase in the administration ceiling in the EU budget. According to the comparative table we received following last Friday’s negotiations, however, that ceiling will increase by 8% over the MFF period. I do not think that such a big victory. We heard a lot of cheers earlier during the EU Council statement, but very little attention was paid to that point, and it is a point worth considering. That would be a more powerful demand for him to make of the Government than their writing into this fairly minor Bill the conditions he has set out. For that reason, I am not in favour of the amendment, although, as I said, I agree with its spirit.
The amendment aims to freeze the number of staff and resources available to Commissioners at the level provided for 27 Commissioners, no matter how many such Commissioners there are. It seeks, therefore, to make the UK’s approval of the draft decision to revert to the system by which every EU member state has its own Commissioner dependent on that condition being implemented. I have to disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) as I cannot recommend that the Committee accept his amendment. There are three reasons for that that I hope will provide him with a measure of reassurance.
First, there are technical reasons concerning the consequences of my hon. Friend’s amendment. Secondly, there are certain safeguards within the current structure of the EU budget that mean that some of the dangers about which he is concerned ought not to arise. Thirdly, I hope to give him clear reassurances both about the Government’s robust commitment to seeking every opportunity to secure greater economies and efficiencies in EU expenditure and about some of the negotiations and instruments where those objectives that he and I share might be achieved.
I completely share my hon. Friend’s concern about the need to improve efficiency in all EU institutions, including the European Commission, but we need to be clear about what the consequences would be were this amendment to be carried. The Bill provides simply for the approval of the draft EU Council decision on the number of EU Commissioners. The draft decision provides neither the scope to change the allocation of resources within the Commission nor the power or opportunity to influence the overall EU budgetary ceilings, the individual budget headings, either on a multi-annual or annual basis, or the allocation of resources within each of those budgetary headings. Were it to be carried, therefore, the amendment would leave the UK unable to agree to the change proposed to the number of Commissioners, but would not provide the means by which to alter EU expenditure in the way that he is seeking.
Surely if the Government were to accept this amendment all that would happen is that my right hon. Friend or the Prime Minister would go along and say to their counterparts in other European countries, “I’m afraid we can’t agree to this unless you agree that you won’t increase expenditure as a result of having additional commissioners.” They would accept that, would they not?
That brings me to my second point, which is that if British Ministers were to open that kind of conversation with our partners, their immediate response would be to say that such is already provided for in the European Union’s budgetary set-up. Even if the number of Commissioners increases to 28 or beyond, that cannot result in any increase in the ceiling set by the multi-annual financial framework, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister negotiated last week at the European Council; nor can an increase in the number of Commissioners lead to an increase in annual spending limits. To paraphrase what I think my hon. Friend said in moving his amendment, if there has to be additional expenditure to provide for a new Commissioner and his or her team, it would need to be found from elsewhere in the European Union budget, subject to the ceilings set unanimously by the European Council in respect of the multi-annual framework and, subsequently, each annual budget negotiated and agreed by qualified majority vote on a 12-monthly basis, so there is a measure of safeguards already.
Let me also make this point to my hon. Friend. I am the first to agree that when we look for efficiencies and economies, we should not be shy about looking for savings in small matters as well as large. However, we also need to be clear about what an extra Commissioner would entail. It is true that it would mean providing somewhere in the budget for a salary for that Commissioner and their immediate cabinet. That money would have to be found, within the ceilings, by sacrificing spending opportunities elsewhere, but the process would not mean the creation of entirely new directorates-general. Indeed, I can tell the House that the discussions already under way about provision for a probable new Croatian Commissioner involve the splitting up of existing directorates-general and parcelling them in a slightly different way, not adding to the overall number of new people working for the Commission. We are talking about a redistribution of responsibilities among a larger number of Commissioners.
I am enjoying my right hon. Friend’s gymnastics in trying to resist the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). Am I right in thinking that my right hon. Friend is saying that we should not worry because the overall EU budget is capped and, therefore, that if the EU wastes more money on a European Commissioner, that will just mean it has less to waste on something else? Is that really the thrust of his argument?
What I am saying to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is that the objective that is explicitly sought in the amendment—to ensure that the budget does not increase as a consequence of the appointment of additional Commissioners—is a principle that is already embodied in the European Union’s budgetary arrangements, both multi-annual and annual.
My third point is about what is perhaps the most important area. It should remain a key priority for the Government of the United Kingdom—and, I should add, for a fair number of other national Governments around the European Union—to look for ways to make the European Union more efficient in everything it does and to look for every opportunity to eliminate wasteful or unnecessary expenditure. There are a number of ways that that could be done.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) talked about a possible reconfiguration of the Commission along a senior Minister/junior Minister model. That is not something to which the UK Government are committed at the moment, but it is certainly one idea that is being discussed in think-tanks and elsewhere as a means of trying to impose not just greater efficiency, but greater coherence on the operations of the Commission. If we look at the Commission today, to provide one illustration, we have a Commissioner for External Relations, who is the High Representative on foreign policy, and we have separate Commissioners for international development, for disaster relief and for European Union enlargement. One conceivable model would be to see those four portfolios given to a Commissioner who was head of department and to subordinate Commissioners reporting to that more senior post holder. That is one way of seeking greater efficiency, but there are many others, too.
My right hon. Friend is making a very good case for the Government about why this modest amendment is being resisted, but let me ask him a simple question. If my right hon. Friend does not feel that he would be able to persuade our partners in the European Union to accept such a modest amendment as this one, what hope is there of us ever being able to negotiate anything like the sorts of return of competences that would be necessary to satisfy the desires of the British people?
If my hon. Friend looks at what the Prime Minister achieved last week—against expectations in some parts of this House and outside it—and if he looks at the significant moves taken towards fisheries reform in recent weeks, I think he would see evidence to show that it is possible for a determined and energetic UK Government working closely with like-minded allies to secure the kind of reforms to the European Union that both he and I would wish to see enacted.
Perhaps this intervention will facilitate that. I ask my right hon. Friend whether the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) was correct in saying that the administrative ceiling is going to increase by 8%. If so, how is that consistent with everything that my right hon. Friend is saying? Why would they need to spend more money on administration?
I would wish heading 5 on administration to be a lot lower than was provided for in the package negotiated last week. It is up compared with 2006 to 2013, but it is down by €1 billion from the proposals brought forward by the European Commission and President Van Rompuy at the November European Council meeting. I was being told by the Commission as late as December last year that that reduction was completely impossible as it would lead to the inability to recruit staff or to deliver key services, yet there has been that significant reduction. I am the first to acknowledge to my hon. Friend that I wish we could have got unanimous agreement to go a lot further and that we need to return to the charge.
I may be able to put on record the exact figure later on, but I do not have it in the notes in front of me at the moment.
The other opportunities lie in measures such as the staffing regulations for EU institutions, which are the subject of negotiations at the moment. It is those regulations that govern the salaries, the pensions, the tax status—or perhaps the non-tax status—of EU staff. Those regulations govern such matters as allowances, on which I think my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and I would be in agreement. It is impossible to justify objectively the payment of an expatriate allowance to staff who are working in Brussels rather than London or Paris and who have in some cases been working there for well over a decade yet still receive this expatriate allowance to recognise the apparent hardship of having to work in the Berlaymont.
There are many opportunities that we can and should seek for reform. The Government are determined to do that, and I believe that they have strong support in the House for so doing. However, it remains in the interests of the United Kingdom for this decision to be ratified. I hope that, having heard what I have said, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will feel able to withdraw his amendment, and to be confident in the Government’s resolve to continue to work for the greatest possible economy and efficiency in every part of the European Union’s work.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for his full response to the concerns that have been expressed this evening and the concerns that gave rise to my modest amendment, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) for agreeing with me in spirit, which is something that I certainly value.
I am also grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing the Committee’s attention to the prediction that the administrative ceiling will rise by some 8%, a figure that seems to be pretty much undisputed. That demonstrates the truth of an observation made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall). If it is as difficult as it seems to have been to bring about a zero increase in the EU’s administrative budget, how difficult will it be to win back those powers and responsibilities for our own Parliament during the negotiations leading up to the referendum? That just shows how tough a job it is to make any progress in the European Union.
I accept my right hon. Friend’s view that there are difficulties with my amendment, and that it would have, as he put it, technical consequences. However, one does despair when, following all the excitement associated with the power effectively to veto these proposals under the European Union Act 2011, as soon as we start threatening to use the veto—or even arguing for a modest amendment, or for the attachment of a condition to something that the European Union wants to change —we are told “Oh, we cannot do that, it would be ever so difficult”.
I am sure that you share my frustration, Mr Hoyle. We discuss all this stuff, and then, when we reach the end of the debate, it seems that we have travelled no further in terms of substance. We appear to have thrown in the towel in allowing an increase in the number of Commissioners, and it will be very easy for the Commission to increase its expenditure if there is an 8% increase in its ceiling for administration.
However, the debate has provided an opportunity for everyone to see exactly what battle we must fight with the European Union if we are to win back any substantive powers. Furthermore, because I am as concerned as many of my hon. Friends about the hard deal that people in rural areas have had as a result of the local government settlement, I do not want to eat into the time that is available for the debate on that subject by pressing for a Division. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Bill reported, without amendment.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I want to thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have participated in our debates on the Bill. I thank the hon. Members for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) and for Caerphilly (Wayne David) for the support that the official Opposition have given to the Bill. It has been a significant piece of legislation on two counts. First, it has been a useful test of the procedures included in the European Union Act 2011. In the Act, we committed ourselves to providing Parliament with more opportunities to scrutinise European Union business, and the Bill is evidence that we are delivering on that commitment. The requirement for debate and primary legislation to govern these decisions has added to Parliament’s hold over EU business.
Secondly, the proceedings on the Bill have shown that the Government have been prepared to listen carefully to the views of parliamentary Committees. As was said earlier, the Government originally thought that the decision about the work programme of the Fundamental Rights Agency was exempt from the requirement for primary legislation under the 2011 Act. However, we took careful note of the serious argument put forward by the European Scrutiny Committee of this House and the European Union Select Committee of the House of Lords that that was not the case. Our legal advisers looked again at the matter, and we accepted that, on this occasion, Parliament was right. We accordingly brought forward the necessary legislation.
I should like to put on record my gratitude for the outstanding work done by officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Justice on this legislation, and my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) for their work on the earlier stages of the Bill.
The Government believe that all three measures contained in the Bill are in the best interests of the United Kingdom, and that they are sensible and reasonable proposals. None of them will have a significant domestic impact, and none will result in any additional financial burdens being imposed on this country. I commend the Bill and its Third Reading to the House.
As the Minister for Europe has said, this is the first Bill that the Government have introduced under the European Union Act 2011. It has constitutional significance for that reason, even though it is small. When we are debating European matters in the House, I often look to the other place for wisdom and learning, but on this occasion, I looked at Hansard and found that there had been no debate on the Bill in the other place. That was quite a disappointment. I am pleased to say that we in this House have spent many more hours deliberating on the Bill, and enunciated many more words than their lordships on it. That is to be welcomed.
We have had good debates on Second Reading and in Committee. The Bill deals with three draft decisions, which have been well discussed. The first will give legal effect to the online version of the Official Journal of the European Union. The second will establish a multi-annual framework for the Fundamental Rights Agency. The third, which is much more controversial, deals with the maintaining of the status quo regarding the formula for the number of commissioners—that is, one commissioner per member state. As I said on Second Reading and in Committee, the debate on that matter is still live and ongoing, and we will return to it when the Commission of 2019 is created. The three decisions that are dealt with in the European Union (Approvals) Bill have the support of the Opposition. They are sensible ways forward and we support the Bill.
I just want to put on the record the Liberal Democrats’ support for the Bill. The various measures it introduces, which we have rehearsed at length on Second Reading—the multi-annual framework for the Agency for Fundamental Rights, the deal on the number of commissioners, and the e-publication of the European Parliament journal, on which we had an important debate—demonstrate the belt-and-braces approach the coalition has now brought to European scrutiny in this place.
As should be noted, this is an historic first use of the European Union Act 2011. I congratulate the Minister and his whole team on steering the Bill through the House of Commons. Although its course was not exactly perilous, one or two rocks and stones had to be overcome.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). I congratulate the Minister on pursuing this Bill. Despite some of the things I have been told about the lack of scrutiny in Parliament of EU matters, tonight’s debate, unlike that in the other place, has demonstrated an appropriate degree of scrutiny of matters that require unanimity at the Council and a change in our domestic law.
I am persuaded that it is perfectly sensible to allow the electronic version of the official register to be binding. The multi-annual framework for the agency is not a financial framework, and therefore is perhaps not quite as important as the own-resources cap and the need to consider an EU finance Bill in this Chamber. However, under article 312(4) of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, it is far from certain that, even if the framework were a financial framework, it would enable the inter-institutional agreement to come into effect and allow inflation increases in that budget without the proper sanction of this House.
The debate on the number of commissioners is really significant. The previous Labour Government entered into a deal at the European Council, whereby they would agree to a commissioner for every member state and implementing the necessary legislation at a later point, in order to try to drive the Lisbon treaty through a second Irish referendum. Had we known then that we would have this level of scrutiny here and that the decision would be dependent on a vote in this Chamber, where a Conservative-led Government have a majority, we could have made it clear that we did not agree with the Lisbon treaty. In such a situation, why should a Conservative-led Government regard themselves as signed up to a deal, negotiated by Labour, to force the Lisbon treaty through Ireland, without our having the same opportunity for a referendum in this country?
That is a key thing we have learned, and I hope Ministers will reflect on that when they seek to renegotiate our relationship with the EU, and that they are certain that anything they may agree on at a political level will have to be delivered by the legislatures of the member states.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.