[Relevant documents: Thirty-eighth Report of the European Scrutiny Committee, Session 2012-13, HC 86-xxxvii, Chapter 3; and Fourth Report of the European Scrutiny Committee, HC 83-iv, Chapter 12.]
I beg to move,
That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 7013/13, the draft Council Decision increasing the number of Advocates-General of the Court of Justice of the European Union and, in accordance with Section 10 of the European Union Act 2011, approves Her Majesty’s Government’s intention to support the adoption of that draft Council Decision.
As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, this proposal is subject to the European Act 2011, which means that before Ministers can take a position in the Council on the proposed appointment of three additional advocates-general to the European Court of Justice, parliamentary approval must be secured for the United Kingdom’s position. That is the reason for today’s debate.
I believe that it is in the interests of this country for justice in the European Union to be delivered through the Court promptly and effectively. It is particularly important for British businesses with pan-European interests whose opportunities for business may well depend on clarity on the impact of European law.
As with any other court here in the United Kingdom, I am sure there will be judgments with which my hon. Friend and I might have quarrels and wish that learned judges had come to other opinions. Where I would respond robustly to him is to say that, as far as I can tell, in coming to their decisions the justices of the European Union Courts take very seriously their duty to apply the law as it is found in the treaties and in secondary European legislation. The appointment of judges at the EU Courts is subject to approval by an expert panel. Indeed, to be eligible to serve as a justice in the European Court, the man or woman in question must either have served in a senior judicial office in their home country or be of sufficient standing in the law to be regarded as capable of exercising that kind of responsibility.
I believe that the measure we are discussing will provide quicker and more efficient justice within the European Union. The proposal is to increase the number of advocates-general to nine from 1 July 2013 and to 11 from 7 October 2015. The first advocate-general would be a permanent Polish advocate-general. Under declaration 38 in article 252 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, member states agreed in 2007 that if there were an increase in advocates-general, Poland would have a permanent advocate-general and no longer take part in the rotation of advocates-general. This step would bring Poland into line with the other big six member states, including the United Kingdom, which all already have a permanent advocate-general. An additional two advocates-general would increase the existing rotation system from three to five. Under current arrangements, we would expect the first two additional advocates-general appointed in October 2015 to be Czech and Danish.
In the 2011 report on the work load of the European Court of Justice, the House of Lords recommended that the number of advocates-general be increased. Since 2011, the Lords have repeated that recommendation several times, including in their follow-up report this year, and called for the increase to be implemented without delay. Last night, in its section 10 debate on this matter, the House of Lords approved the draft Council decision and Members of their lordships’ House spoke positively about the impact that additional advocates-general would have on the efficient functioning of the courts.
The role of advocates-general is to produce non-legally binding opinions for the Court of Justice to assist it in reaching its judgments.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. In reference to the House of Lords, the 2011 report questioned whether the quality of the advocates-general would be high enough. I wonder, therefore, what evidence has encouraged them to change their minds to be confident in the quality of the people who may be appointed.
I want to come on to the question of quality and the article 255 panel later. If my hon. Friend is dissatisfied at that point, then by all means I invite him to seek to intervene again. However, I think perhaps that it is best if I come to that passage at the appropriate time.
I was talking about the role of advocates-general. They produce their non-legally binding opinions in about half of all cases, particularly in those that raise a new point of law. There is no appeals process, of course, so the additional reasoned submissions help the Court to provide effective justice. Given that the number of cases before it continues to rise, the Government are satisfied that there is a need for additional advocates-general to process better the Court’s work load.
The opinions that advocates-general issue are a key element in the efficiency of the Court. As Sir Konrad Schiemann stated in his evidence to the House of Lords this year, advocate-general opinions significantly shorten the time occupied by judges in agreeing a judgment and improve the quality of the Court’s judgments. The opinions assist the Court with its own deliberations, because the Court can then test its own views against the detailed reasoning of the advocate-general conclusions. It is particularly useful in the EU Court because, unlike the practice in our own Supreme Court or Court of Appeal, it has to reach a consensus for its ruling—the possibility of separate dissenting opinions from different judges does not exist at the European level.
As well as contributing to the speed of judgments, advocates-general also improve the quality of justice dispensed by the Court. The opinions are detailed and so provide a greater insight into the approach ultimately taken by the Court, regardless of whether it agrees or disagrees in the final decision with the recommendation of the advocate-general. That means that those opinions are valuable in maintaining the consistency of the Court’s case law.
It is important that the Court is efficient, because of the impact that its judgments can have on British citizens and businesses operating in the European single market in particular. A classic example was the case brought by the National Farmers Union in the context of the BSE crisis—NFU v. Secrétariat Général du Gouvernement—against France’s refusal to lift the beef ban on UK imports. The Court ruled that since EU legislation laid down the necessary rules for the protection of public health, France was not entitled to rely on the public health exception in then article 30 of the treaty establishing the European Community to prevent the resumption of beef and veal imports from the UK. I am sure that the House needs no reminder that the beef industry was worth more than £430 million in exports to the British economy in 2011—the last year for which we have figures. Another recent example was the ruling of the Court in 2011 in the case of DHL v. Chronopost, which provides certainty for trademark owners on the extent to which a Community trademark owner could secure EU-wide relief based on action in only one member state.
The impact of the EU Courts is not limited to cases in which UK businesses are directly involved. The outcome of other cases can have significant benefits for the UK, directly or indirectly. For example, there was a case on whether EU legislation allowed for prescribing incentive schemes—arrangements to encourage doctors to prescribe cheaper generic medicines. Adopting the approach suggested by the British Government in their recommendations, the decision of the Court resulted in an estimated saving to our Department of Health of nearly £400 million.
Given the current number of advocates-general and the increasing work load of the Court, the individual advocates-general have been under pressure. There is no single reason why the Court’s work load has been increasing over the years. In 2012, 632 new cases were brought before it and it completed only 527. In 2011, 688 new cases were brought before it and it completed 554. These were the two busiest years so far recorded in the Court’s history. In 2012, the backlog of cases had risen to 886—up from 849 12 months before.
First, I congratulate the Minister for Europe on his French pronunciation, which I thought was A*, as they say.
I am in favour of more judges, as are the Government, but is the Minister satisfied that having more judges will result in quicker decisions? He knows that one of our concerns is that it takes too long to get judgments. Is he satisfied that by putting these extra judges on the Court, the decisions will be handed out quicker?
We are talking here not about additional judges but about additional advocates-general. As I have argued, the advocates-general play an important role in assisting the judges of the Court in coming to a conclusion and in analysing the legal arguments in question. Clearly, I cannot give a 100% guarantee from this Dispatch Box, but I pray in aid the evidence of Sir Konrad Schiemann and others from the Court who have argued consistently that the provision of additional advocates-general would help them to address the backlog, in part by spreading out the preparatory work of legal analysis and the provision of a learned opinion amongst a slightly greater number of expert advocates-general than is available to the Court now.
As the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)—one of my predecessors in this role—will know, the enlargement of the EU over the last decade following the accession of a large number of new member states has inevitably led over time to a greater number of cases being brought, simply because there are more citizens and more businesses that might be in a position to bring a case before the European Courts.
I am grateful to the Minister, who is generous in giving way for a second time. That is why I was interested in the fact that a Polish advocate-general was to be appointed, because one of the problems we have is that Poland has been issuing more European arrest warrants than anyone else. This may, for example, eventually lead to a backlog in cases here.
The right hon. Gentleman may have an opportunity tomorrow to express his views about the European arrest warrant and the attitude taken by the Polish courts. It is fair to say that Poland is as equally entitled to have its own permanent advocate-general as Spain, Italy, France, Germany or the UK. Everybody round the table accepts that there are six member states whose populations give them a certain priority when it comes to such appointments. I emphasise again that the declaration that promised the first new advocate-general to Poland was agreed by every member state, large and small.
The greater efficiency of the Court is going to require more than just the appointment of three new advocates-general. I am happy to concede that point to the right hon. Member for Leicester East. The House will be familiar with the reforms that the Court itself has introduced in the last two years, including increasing the number of judges in the Grand Chamber from 13 to 15; abolishing unnecessary procedural elements such as the requirement to read the report of the hearing in full, and thus the need to produce a report; provisions allowing for the appointment of temporary judges to the civil service tribunal; and establishing a new office of vice-president in the Court of Justice and the General Court. I am sure that there will be other opportunities for the House to debate proposed changes to the European Courts and proposed measures to secure greater efficiencies in the future.
I am always willing to say that if any right hon. or hon. Member, or any UK business, can come forward with evidence that another member state is refusing to implement European law—whether that is law as interpreted by the Courts or the law as enacted through the European legislative process—we will be happy to champion those British citizens or companies with the relevant institutions. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will know, once law has been established and clarity assured by a judgment from the Court, it is then for the European Commission to initiate infraction proceedings if a member state fails to implement the European Court’s rulings. It is fair to say that sometimes there is argument after the judgment about the exact meaning—
If the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) applies to Mr Speaker for an Adjournment debate, he and I might have the opportunity to explore those matters in the detail that he so ardently desires.
Let me return to the issue we are debating and the criticisms the European Scrutiny Committee has raised. Let me turn first to the important issue of funding. Although broadly supporting the proposal, the Government are clear that any additional advocates-general should not and need not result in an increase in the Court’s budget. The appointment of the new post holders and their support staff should lead to a relatively small additional cost of about €4 million a year, which the Court can meet from within its existing budget. Its budget was more than €354 million for 2013, and the Court has underspent by more than the cost of the additional advocates-general in each of the last three years. In the current economic climate, there is an imperative on all the EU’s institutions, including the Court, to find ways to reduce their administrative costs.
As I set out in paragraph 12 of my explanatory memorandum to the European Scrutiny Committee, the UK is prepared to submit a minute statement in Council to set out our expectation that the increase is cost-neutral. If necessary, we will do that during voting on the Council decision. As I know the House understands, a minute statement in itself will not be enough to guarantee cost-neutrality, but would be a clear statement of the United Kingdom’s position ahead of the separate financial negotiations next year on the annual budget. Indeed, the minute statement is not intended to secure budget neutrality at this stage, but is intended to signal clearly the beginning of our negotiating position for next year.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way again. The agreement on the advocates-general is by unanimity whereas the agreement on the budget is by qualified majority vote. Are we therefore not getting it the wrong way round by agreeing to the increase in one before the debate on the other? Should we not delay our agreement by unanimity until we have the budget that we want?
These are two separate decisions that have two different processes. We are indeed talking about a decision that is taken by unanimity. Annual budgets are what will determine the total budget of the Court for 2014 and subsequent years. Those annual budgets will have to be agreed within the ceilings to commitments and payments that are set out in the multi-annual financial framework that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and other Heads of Government negotiated in February this year, and which I hope is approaching the final stages of negotiation with the European Parliament.
Delay of the kind that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) suggests would not get us very far. The Government’s view is that there is a persuasive case for the extra appointments to be made. The way in which EU finances are organised means that the negotiations on the annual budget will determine the total budget available to the Court. From that budget, the Court will have to meet its costs under various headings of expenditure, including this small one.
I point out to my hon. Friend that the United Kingdom is not alone in expecting the Court to absorb the costs of the additional advocates-general. We are one of a blocking minority of budget-disciplined net-contributor member states that routinely votes against increases to the EU budget. We anticipate that that like-minded group will take the same view on any request to increase the Court’s budget to accommodate the new advocates-general. The Prime Minister’s recent success at the multi-annual framework negotiations should be an indication of how strongly the Government feel about budgetary savings.
The European Scrutiny Committee also asked me to outline the Government’s view of the manner of appointing advocates-general and my view of the calibre of the likely appointees. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset made a point about this in an earlier intervention. The article 255 panel gives an opinion on candidates’ suitability to perform the role of advocate-general. The Government consider that the panel plays a key role in making the judicial appointments process more transparent and helping to ensure that the chosen candidates are of a high quality. The UK was a key supporter of the creation of such a panel, and we have consistently supported the application of rigour in the judicial selection process. The article 255 panel is effective in its role of assessing the suitability of nominees to serve as judges and as advocates-general. To date, the panel has delivered 43 opinions, of which five were unfavourable. In each case, the opinions delivered by the panel have been followed by the Governments of member states. When the panel has been unhappy about the calibre of a particular nominee, that nominee has subsequently been withdrawn.
We have one member on the panel. There are members from different member states represented around the table. The panel has to be drawn from people who have the right kind of experience and expertise to make these assessments.
On the specific appointees for the additional advocates-general, we do not yet know who the candidates will be. Indeed, two of them will not be appointed until October 2015. It would not be right for me to comment on their calibre or to speculate about those individuals at this stage. That is the purpose of the expert panel.
I would say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) that we need less legislation at European level. We need legislation to be written as clearly as possible, so that there is less need for the arbitration of the Courts. Regarding some of his criticisms of the ambiguity and over-prescriptive nature of European law, I have to say that I have heard such criticism being made of United Kingdom Acts of Parliament as well from time to time. None of this is perfect. He might have missed the point that I made earlier in my speech that British business finds it helpful to have a European Court of Justice applying the rules of the single market with clarity and, one would hope, with fairness. There have been a number of leading cases in which the decisions of the European Courts have led to significant practical advantages and opportunities for United Kingdom businesses and business sectors.
I want to give a little additional information to the right hon. Member for Leicester East. I have been advised that Lord Mance is the United Kingdom’s member on the panel and that there are seven members of it in total. From memory, they are people who are selected on merit and who have held usually very senior judicial office, perhaps in the constitutional court or supreme court of their own country.
I have just heard a muttering from behind me suggesting that Britain’s nomination is absolutely brilliant and there is no doubt about that. The problem is that many people involved in these things on behalf of Europe come from universities rather than real law. Where are the majority of them from in this instance?
I am happy to write to my hon. Friend with a list of the members of the article 255 panel and their qualifications and experience. I would rather not venture an opinion from memory, but they do have to be people who would be employed in their member states in selecting very senior judicial office holders.
It might be helpful if I now set out for the House the likely next steps for this draft Council decision, if it is approved by Parliament. The Court would like to have the first additional advocate-general, the Polish one, in post from 1 July this year and the other two from October 2015, when there will be a partial replacement of the members of the Court.
As I was about to say, given that this request was only made by the Court on 16 January, and clearly a number of countries, including us, had to take forward the necessary domestic processes for approval, the 1 July date was always an ambitious timetable for the first advocate-general. In addition to our requirement for an affirmative debate in both Houses, Poland estimates that its own appointment process will take about four months.
I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that the article 255 panel does its job properly and with due diligence. From what I know about the way it has operated in respect of other judicial appointments, I am very confident indeed that it will take that duty seriously and that, if it comes to a choice, it will regard exercising due diligence as more important than meeting any particular deadline.
The Government are still hopeful that if parliamentary approval is secured today, the Council will be able to approve the decision during the Irish presidency, which ends at the end of June this year. Member states are able to appoint the first advocate-general at any point after that and do not need to wait until October 2015, when the final two advocates-general will be added.
I hope that today’s debate will provide Members with the opportunity to consider this proposal fully, and that, having done so, they will agree with the Government that the addition of three advocates-general to the Court of Justice of the European Union is in the UK’s interests.
As I said at the start of my remarks, this is a new procedure for us. This is one of the provisions of the European Union Act 2011 and before Ministers can vote in Council, the Government must secure affirmative resolutions in each House of Parliament. It is one small but none the less significant element of the work of trying to secure greater oversight by Parliament of decisions taken by Ministers in Europe on behalf of this country, and therefore in a small way helps to increase the democratic accountability of the EU, a principle that this Government strongly support.
We welcome the opportunity to discuss the proposed increase in the number of advocates-general at the Court of Justice of the European Union. The Court performs a central role within the European Union. It has the responsibility of interpreting EU law and ensuring its equal application across the member states.
As the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) mentioned—the Minister also referred to this point—although it may be true that when Labour was in government we did not always agree with the Court’s rulings and sometimes found them problematic, the Court and indeed the General Court play a crucial role in upholding EU law as set out in the treaties, and in ensuring the effective functioning of the internal market in particular. ECJ rulings have proven successful in enforcing competition rules and in ruling against protectionism, which is to the benefit of British businesses and British consumers. It is therefore necessary that the Court has the capacity to carry out those important functions allocated to it under the treaties. In particular, it is important that it is able to issue judgments in an effective and timely manner.
As has been said, a significant backlog of cases continues to build and there are many reasons for that. As the Minister said last July, much of the recent delay at the European Courts is down to increased litigation by private parties, particularly on single market matters. In addition, the enlargements of the EU in 2004 and 2007 have brought a raft of new cases before the Court, substantially increasing its workload. That trend is likely to continue, as Croatia is to join in only a few weeks’ time, on 1 July. Unsurprisingly, these new member states have made greater use of the preliminary ruling procedure, which allows national courts to refer cases to the ECJ for guidance on EU law. Enlargement has also meant that there has been an increase in the number of appeals against decisions of the General Court which are taken to the ECJ. In 2008, just seven competition cases were appealed to the ECJ, whereas the figure had risen to 52 in 2012. Another factor is the changes introduced by the Lisbon treaty, particularly in the area of justice and home affairs. The ECJ now has enhanced responsibilities in that field, and the changes were not just prospective, but retrospective with regard to the body of law in this area already in place. Moreover, the increasing complexity of cases brought before the Court has added to the burden.
The cumulative effect of all those factors is that the advocates-general, in their current numbers, have sometimes been unable to deliver an opinion within an acceptable time limit. At present, as the Minister has explained, eight advocates-general advise the Court on all matters of European Union legislation. However, it is in only about 50% of cases that an advocate-general is able to issue an opinion. As has been pointed out in evidence given to the House of the Lords by a representative of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, the absence of an opinion by an advocate-general
“increases the risk of uneven or, on occasions, contradictory caselaw.”
So it would seem sensible to increase the number of advocates-general, which would in turn increase the capacity of the ECJ to process cases in a timely manner.
The Court proposes, and the Council has indicated it will agree to, an increase in the number of advocates-general from eight to 11, and the Minister has today reiterated the Government’s support for that change. As he has explained, the increase will be staggered, with one new advocate-general starting, we hope, on 1 July this year, and the other two appointed later. According to an explanatory memorandum from the Minister given to the European Scrutiny Committee in March, the proposed new advocates-general are predicted to cost an extra €4 million. We agree with him that at a time of greater public spending restraint and economic difficulty it is important that that money is found from within existing budgets.
The ECJ has a budget of almost €354 million for 2013, so it is to be expected that the money to pay for at least the first new advocate-general may be found without the need for an increase in the budget. Will the Minister update the House? He mentioned the negotiations in preparation for next year on the financial implications of this change. Will he say a little more about which allies the UK Government have found in other member states, and what he thinks the chances are of ensuring that the change is cost-neutral?
Both the European Court of Justice and the General Court have important responsibilities in terms of upholding not only EU legislation, but the four freedoms—freedom of movement of people, goods, capital and services. Just this year, the General Court ruled that in the event of the cancellation of an air flight, the carrier is required to provide compensation even when the cancellation is caused by extraordinary circumstances such as the eruption of the volcano in Iceland in 2010. So the decisions of both the General Court and the European Court of Justice have implications for British business, British consumers and British workers, and in many cases those implications are positive.
The changes that we are debating in the motion will ensure that the European Court of Justice is better able to carry out those duties, so we are content to support it.
I congratulate the Minister on the Bill he brought forward a year ago that allows us to hold this debate, which is crucial in ensuring that European matters are properly discussed. As I understand it, we are the only member state of the European Union that will have this type of debate to make this important decision.
Beyond that, I diverge from the Minister. I diverge from him particularly in his admiration for this Court. I do not believe it to be a just Court. We must always remember, Mr Deputy Speaker, that it was this Court that ruled in its own favour to increase its own pay, against one of the fundamental principles of justice—that a judge should not rule to his own advantage. So it is not a proper, just Court like the noble courts that we have in this land; it is a Court with a political agenda, which is always pushing for more integration, for more Europe, towards the federal superstate, which we in this House who value the sovereignty of Parliament and of the British people should treat with the greatest suspicion.
The Minister spoke of the rulings that have come down occasionally in our favour, and the costs that we have been saved; I think BSE and pharmaceuticals were the two specific examples that he gave. I hope he might consider doing a cost-benefit analysis of all the judgments delivered by the European Court of Justice, to decide whether it has saved us money, or whether overall it has cost the British taxpayer money, since we joined the European Union in 1972.
But let us come particularly to the increase in the number of advocates-general and what is being achieved by that. What we are really doing is contributing to the growth of the power, the bureaucracy, the size, of the superstate that the European Union has become. By making the European Court bigger and stronger and able to take on more cases, powers are more centred at the European level. They will have a greater ability to determine the law in this country. The efficiency of the European Court of Justice is something that should make people who are concerned about parliamentary sovereignty nervous, because the more efficient it can be, the more it can interfere with our laws and the more it can take power away from Westminster.
And then we look at the cost: the €4 million cost that will be added to the total cost of the European Court—the extraordinarily high cost that the European Court has to start with of over €350 million. I looked up briefly the cost of our own Supreme Court. It was estimated in 2009 to cost £13.5 million to run. Perhaps this is a case for privatisation to a British court, because if we can get justice in this country with our highest court for £13.5 million, I wonder what it is that requires €350 million to be spent at the European level.
In a letter, the Minister explained some of the extra costs. These grand panjandrums—these advocates-general —do not just get their pay and their staff; they have to have cars as well. It is all part of the great European gravy train, with cost being piled on cost. When unanimity is the issue, the British Government, rather than taking the opportunity to use their power to delay or stop something that the European Parliament, Commission and Court want, give in at an early stage, so the negotiating strength that we would have had when setting the budget is frittered away. I ask the Minister: what are we hoping to get in return for not using our veto?
In our relationship with Europe, when we are in a position of strength and we hold the good cards, do we play the ace of trumps? No, we do not; we play some lesser card that I would know more about if I were a better gambler. That is the error of our European relationship. We talk in this House about repatriating powers, but when we negotiate in Europe, we continue to give them away to allow the European centre to become stronger.
I am most apologetic for the fact that I was not here in the earlier part of the debate, but I did hurry into the Chamber. Has the hon. Gentleman ever read a reasoned submission by an advocate-general? Knowing him slightly as I do, and knowing the quality of his contributions to the House, I am convinced that he would be most impressed by the logic, intellect and reasoning in some of those submissions. I think that if he took the time to peruse them, he would support the motion.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but she misses the point that I am trying to make, and evidently not making clearly enough. It is not an efficient, smooth-running European Court that I want, because that is at the heart of the political expansion and centralising power of the European Union. If we look at what the European Union has done, and how it has become an increasingly federalised system, we see that it has done so through the judgments of the European Court, which has increasingly ruled in favour of more Europe. It is a political Court, much as the United States Supreme Court was in the early 19th century. It is about bringing federalism to the peoples of Europe. I accept that it has some of the highest intellects as members; I would not begin to deny that. We have sent some very fine judges there, with prodigious brains, ability and intellect, but what they have done after getting there is take power away from the United Kingdom and this Parliament. That is what I most strongly object to, and I object to the Government not using their negotiating position to get something in return.
The Conservative part of this coalition is looking to a renegotiation, to repatriate powers, but at the same time, it is doing things that increase the power and authority of the European Court. That seems to me to be fundamentally a mistake.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene on him a second time. I listened carefully to his reply to my first intervention. May I ask him for a reply to the question that I asked: has he ever read a reasoned submission of an advocate-general?
The hon. Lady asked me a question that went into sub-paragraphs on whether I was denying the great intellect of the advocates-general, which I think was at the heart of the matter, and I was saying that I admire their great intellect, but I do not want their great intellect deciding the rules of this country. I want the intellects of the British people, sending Members of Parliament to this House, to decide the laws of this country. I do not want rule by the cleverest continentals; I want rule by the good, honest, British—English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish—people, ensuring that this country is properly governed.
I want the Government to do what they said they were going to do in relation to increasing the number of judges when, in a letter of 27 July 2012, they said that the increase in judges should be part
“of a wider discussion on improving the efficiency of the Court and containing its cost.”
But now, less than a year later, we roll over and say, “Have a few more advocates-general because it will make you more efficient.” This cannot be the right negotiating stance to take. Again and again, it is more Europe, more advocates-general, more smart cars for them to drive round in, more cost to the British taxpayer—a very high cost—and instead of saying, “This must change; we will change it; powers must be repatriated,” we roll over and wait for our tummies to be tickled. I do not want my tummy tickled and I do not want more advocates-general.
I do not know whether that is an invitation for me to cross the Floor and tickle the tummy of the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), although I would love to do it in normal circumstances. It is always a pleasure to follow him because he speaks so powerfully about these issues and studies them so carefully that he knows that a few months ago the Government promised to look carefully at the way in which the Court operates.
I will be brief because I promised the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) that I would be, and we have an opportunity to discuss other European issues tomorrow. I welcome the fact that we are having so many discussions about Europe on the Floor of the House. That takes me to my first point, which is how much I agree with the hon. Member for North East Somerset about how important it is that we discuss such issues on the Floor of the House, even though the attendance is not quite what we would have liked. [Interruption.] The Government Whip reminds me that it is the quality that counts, not the numbers. It is indeed.
The Minister said that this was not additional expenditure because it was to be found from the European Court’s existing budget and because the European Court had underspent. If indeed the European Court has underspent, I would like to know what encouragement the Government have given it to ensure that rather than appoint more advocates-general the money is used to make it more efficient. The fact that it has been unable to use the underspend to improve its efficiency is clear from the considerable time it has taken to decide a number of important cases. Will the Minister explain what steps the Government have taken over the last 12 months to ensure that the Court becomes more efficient, because it has more money available to do so?
I fully support Poland getting the new advocate-general seat. As the Minister’s predecessor, I was involved in the enlargement process. We always thought, and thought correctly, that, given its population, Poland would want to take its place as one of the big countries of Europe. I am glad that we are sticking to the agreement that we made that Poland should have this additional post. However, I am not sure that the Minister told us who would get the other two vacancies, and how that would be decided. If they are up for grabs, so to speak, and bearing in mind the importance of the enlargement process, perhaps it would be a good idea, rather than offer them to other countries that are already represented on the Court, to offer them to countries that have joined because of the enlargement process. One of the most important outcomes of enlargement is that we make representation in the European Union wider.
I can give the right hon. Gentleman some clarity on this point. The proposal is that the remaining two new advocates-general should become part of the normal rotation process for the nomination of advocates-general among those member states that are not entitled to a permanent advocate-general of their own. In other words, it is all of the soon-to-be 28 member states of the EU minus the biggest six countries, once these new measures are in place. We would expect, if the current arrangements for rotation continue, the two new advocates-general in 2015 to come from the Czech Republic and from Denmark.
I thank the Minister for that clarification and look forward to ensuring that that expectation is met.
My final point relates to the speed of the Court. The hon. Member for North East Somerset wants the Court to slow down, because he believes that speeding it up will result in greater integration. I am in favour of speeding it up, which is why I support the proposal for move advocates-general, not to ensure that we have a federalist Europe, which I oppose, but to ensure that the decisions they have to take are dealt with in a timely fashion. The delay is inexcusable. It should be considered very carefully. I am disappointed that the Minister could not assure the House that, as a result of the decision to appoint three additional advocates-general, the Court’s decisions would be speeded up, because of course he has no evidence to suggest that appointing another three will make the decisions come through any quicker—they will take their time to do what they have to do. I would like to see decisions made much more quickly in a whole host of areas, and primarily in one area that I believe is very important. If decisions have to be made as part of the legal process, they should be made as quickly as possible, because that benefits all parties.
I will end where I began by agreeing with the hon. Member for North East Somerset: it is so important that we discuss these issues on the Floor of the House. The Government should never take it for granted that, because there are so few Members present and because Opposition Front Benchers agree with them on an issue, they will never be challenged on one of these motions. There should always be an expectation that Parliament will decide to do something different, which at least we have the chance to do. I warmly welcome that.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), as indeed it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg)—two of the most eloquent Members in this place. I agree almost entirely with everything the right hon. Member for Leicester East said, and I disagree to the same extent with everything the hon. Member for North East Somerset said. In my view he says the wrong thing, but he says it very well.
I agree with the hon. Member for North East Somerset on one point, however: he is quite right to emphasise the importance of the fact that the debate is taking place at all, which is a realisation of the intentions we had when we passed the European Union Act 2011. Whatever differences might have emerged since between the two coalition parties over our attitude to European scrutiny, take-note debates and debates on approvals of Government actions in relation to Europe, such as this one, are important procedures that we agreed in the 2011 Act. It set out the terms and conditions under which referendums would be held and under which votes of this Parliament would have an impact on European decision making, which is an entirely good thing.
We have occasionally complained about the lack of thoroughness of European scrutiny in this place—for example, over the recent review of the EU arms embargo and its timeliness—but on this occasion I think that the belt-and-braces approach is working rather well. The fact that there is a rather thin turnout suggests that we might even be overdoing the level of scrutiny on this occasion. We do not seem to have a very high turnout, even on the ultramontane Conservative Benches.
They are obviously discussing Australian affairs, rather than European ones, but I am sure they are having a productive time.
It seems to me that Conservative Members, having argued so strongly for such an inordinate amount of parliamentary time to be devoted to Europe, should turn up and exercise their right to pass comment.
A strong European Court of Justice has to be a good thing for the UK. It is the ultimate court in which matters of EU law are determined within the European Union. That is a good thing for Britain because it ensures not only, on occasion, that we are compliant with EU law but, most importantly, that all the other 27 member states are too. As the Minister rightly pointed out, that frequently benefits British companies. Given the value of our relationship with Europe, it is crucial that the single market operates properly and is seen to be properly enforceable. If we argue for weakening that process, we are not only arguing for Britain to have a greater say over our interpretation of European law but for the French to have a greater say over its interpretation in France and for the Germans to have a greater say in Germany, and so on. Ultimately, the system becomes unworkable and unfair.
The hon. Member for North East Somerset was wrong to object to a smooth-running and efficient Court almost on principle, as I understood his remarks. It is wrong to use a court of justice as a negotiating tool and a lever for a political agenda. This is about the fair application of European law to British businesses and to the institutions of the European Union. In that respect, he should strongly support this, because the European Court of Justice has the right to tell EU institutions that they have overstepped the mark and exceeded their powers.
We have sent some of our best quality advocates and lawyers to take part in the European Court of Justice, and other states have done likewise. It is rather insulting to the advocates-general and, indeed, judges who are in place to say to that it is not capable of passing a just judgment.
I am very pleased that the position of the British Government is that the additional cost of the extra advocates-general should be met from within the existing Court budget. I gather that that will be an additional €4 million or so, of which Britain’s share is probably €500,000, or some £400,000, a year. I would entirely support any measures that we can take to impose further austerity on these judges. That would be a useful thing to consider if they really are getting free cars. There is a need for the European Union collectively to realise that European finances are in a parlous state. That applies as much to the EU level of government as it does to the British level or to local or regional governments. In a time of austerity, it is absolutely right to look at the costs involved in such positions. It is a good discipline for us to be saying that the additional three advocates-general should be paid for from within the existing European Court budget.
That money could be well spent on behalf of British businesses, because the benefits of a freely and efficiently operating single market could be enormously greater. After all, we have £300 billion-worth of trade with other members of the European Union, we get £365 billion a year in foreign direct investment from other member states, some 3.5 million jobs are associated with trade with the EU, and some 200,000 British businesses trade with other member states. The single market is enormously important for jobs. We need it to operate fairly and efficiently in order to benefit British jobs, and that means that the European Court of Justice must operate smoothly and efficiently. That justifies the appointment of additional advocates-general to try to clear the enormous backlog of cases that now exists. I care very much about jobs in Cheltenham, and Liberal Democrats care about British jobs, so on this occasion we are four-square behind the Government in supporting the expansion of the European Court to allow for the extra advocates-general.
I am grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate and shall attempt to respond briefly, with the leave of the House, to the various points and questions that have been posed.
I turn first to the characteristically eloquent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). He and I have debated in the past and I am sure we will have opportunities to debate again the extent to which there should be European Union-level competence over particular areas of policy. He and I may agree on some parts of that debate, and we will certainly have different views on others. The point of principle in the context of today’s debate seems to be that if European-level rules and laws have been established and legislated for at the EU level—most obviously to govern a single market in goods and services—we need some kind of supranational EU tribunal or arbiter to decide on the interpretation of those laws and rules and to resolve any conflicting assertions as to the correct interpretation of them.
On the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice, I am sure that it has not gone unnoticed that it always wishes to promote equality between men and women. Have the Minister and his colleagues pressed the ECJ to ensure that the new advocate-general will make the existing advocates-general representative of men and women across Europe?
The hon. Lady is right that, on jurisprudence, the Court has treated this issue as one of great importance. Of course, it is for individual member states to nominate men or women to serve as advocates-general, and it will then be for the article 255 panel to consider whether those nominees meet the strict criteria and standard required under the treaties. I would hope that there is fair representation. It is important that the ablest men and women are willing to be considered as potential candidates.
I will write to the hon. Lady with that information, but I can tell her now that, as I am sure she already knows, the United Kingdom’s advocate-general is indeed a woman who, whether one agrees or disagrees with her particular opinions, is an extremely able lawyer who contributes a great deal to the work of the Court.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset argued that the Government should carry out a cost-benefit analysis of the Court’s impact on the United Kingdom. The Government, as the House will know, have launched a review of the current balance of competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union. The 32 calls for evidence and reports on different aspects of policy will give ample opportunity to businesses and others to argue where ECJ decisions have been of benefit to this country and where they have been harmful. Without revealing too much, I can tell the House that the forthcoming report on taxation policy—it is as yet unpublished—will make specific reference to leading cases in the European courts and how they have had an impact on the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend also said that he wished that the Government had demonstrated a willingness to exercise a veto over the measure for the appointment of three new advocates-general. I say to him that a veto should not be brandished if we think that the measure concerned will be to our overall advantage. I also say to him that the Prime Minister has shown that he is willing to exercise a veto and to block measures that he believes would harm the interests of this country. We must use our negotiating capital skilfully and be prepared to be cussed and awkward if necessary about the things that really matter to the interests of the British people. The Government have been right to play hardball on issues such as the multi-annual financial framework and the long overdue reform of the common fisheries policy, and in our refusal last year to accept the proposal to set up an operational headquarters for the EU’s common security and defence policy.
I was asked a number of questions by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and others about Court reform and how we were seeking to promote greater efficiency, and about financing. I will deal with those two central questions before concluding my remarks.
On Court reform, a key point to emphasise is that the treaties give the Court of Justice the prime role in initiating proposals for its reform. Under article 281 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, changes to the Court’s statute can be proposed by the Court on its own initiative after consulting the Commission or by the Commission after consultation with the Court. The Court can propose amendments to its rules of procedure, but they need the approval of the Council. There is a Council lock on proposals, but the proposals must in the main come forward from the Court. The House will readily understand why the treaties were written in a way that protects the Court to some extent from political pressures. Within that context, we have been consistent in urging the Court to take seriously its duty to look hard at the possibility of internal administrative and procedural reform, as well as looking for other ways to enhance its efficiency and deal more promptly with the growing backlog of cases.
The reforms that have been agreed over the past two years, with the support of the United Kingdom, have included establishing the new office of the vice-president of the European Court of Justice and General Court. The quorum in the Grand Chamber has been changed to allow greater flexibility. We have seen the abolition of the requirement for a report for hearing and for the reading of that report. That has saved a lot of time when one adds up the savings accumulated over a large number of cases. We have seen the agreement to create a pool of temporary judges for the civil service tribunal. We have also seen changes to the ECJ’s rules of procedure to provide greater efficiency.
Other ideas are still being discussed. One to which the UK Government are quite sympathetic is the creation of specialist chambers within the Court. However, that is for the Court to propose if it is persuaded that it is the right course on which to embark. As the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and other Members will know, the House of Lords Sub-Committee that is considering these matters has produced detailed reports on Court reform and efficiency.
Finally, let me turn to finance. The UK is one of a group of like-minded, budget-disciplined member states that work together routinely to push down the EU’s annual budget costs. The group includes Denmark, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Austria as well as us, and we have no reason to believe it will be less focused on budget discipline this year. It is fair to say to the House that the €4 million needed for the advocates-general cannot be negotiated in isolation and would be one part of an annual budget negotiation of roughly €130 billion in total. The bill for the advocates-general and their staff would be less than one 100th of a percentage of the EU’s total annual budget for 2013.
To respond to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East, I say that the Court can request funds, but funding is for co-decision by the Council and the European Parliament. If we look at what has been happening in the EU’s annual budget for 2013, we see that the Court requested an increase to its budget of 8.4%—€29.2 million—which in percentage terms was the biggest requested increase for any EU institution that year. In practice, the UK and its allies worked together to reduce that increase to just 1.9% in 2013—slightly below the level of inflation. There is no reason to believe that the same could not be achieved on budget neutrality for the advocates-general, particularly given the underspend in the Court’s budget in each of the past three years.
Clearly this matter is one component of a much bigger negotiation, and the Court’s total budget forms just one part of the overall annual EU budget. There is, however, no doubt about the Government’s determination to ensure that those small additional costs are met from within the Court’s existing budget, and in particular its publicly known underspending. We will continue to work assiduously for the best possible efficiency and the greatest possible value for money, not just in the affairs of the European Courts but in every institution of the European Union.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 7013/13, the draft Council Decision increasing the number of Advocates-General of the Court of Justice of the European Union and, in accordance with Section 10 of the European Union Act 2011, approves Her Majesty’s Government’s intention to support the adoption of that draft Council Decision.