I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The purpose of the Bill is to approve two draft decisions of the Council of the European Union. For the UK to agree the draft decisions at Council, Parliament must first give its approval, as the decisions rely on article 352 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union. Article 352 allows the Union to take action to attain one of the objectives set out in the treaties but for which there is no specific power given. However, the European Parliament must give its approval, and unanimous support must be given by all other member states.
Section 8 of the European Union Act 2011 provides that a Minister may vote in favour of an article 352 decision only where a draft decision is approved by an Act of Parliament. I am setting out the draft Council decisions and will provide Members with the opportunity to debate and decide whether to approve the measures.
The first decision will enable the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to be granted observer status in the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. The agency is the EU body with the objective of providing assistance and advice on fundamental rights issues to the EU institutions and to member states when implementing Union law. It carries out the same role for EU accession states with observer status. This measure does not extend the competence of the agency.
The proposal has been in existence since 2010 and it cleared the UK parliamentary scrutiny process in place at that time. The Greek presidency lifted its block on the decision in April 2014 and the decision re-emerged last year with all other member states ready to vote in favour of the decision. However, the UK had to enter the scrutiny reserve for the decision pending approval by an Act of Parliament due to the requirements of the EU Act.
The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has been an EU candidate country since 2005, but in recent years there has been serious backsliding on the reforms. A political crisis has been unfolding in the country in the past year, which has raised concerns about the rule of law and adherence to democratic principles. A European Commission report issued in June set out a series of recommendations needed to return the country to the path to EU accession. This included reforms related to freedom of expression and the rule of law. Observer status at the agency could allow the country to have access to advice and assistance on fundamental rights issues to help to tackle its reform challenges, and provide assistance and help to the country on human rights issues.
The second measure gives effect to a decision by the Council enabling the EU tripartite social summit to continue to operate. The summit is a meeting of representatives of European social partner organisations, the Commission and the Council, and it meets on the eve of the European Council in the spring and autumn for high-level discussions between the three parties on aspects of the European agenda for growth and jobs. The summit was established by a Council decision in 2003, but, under the Lisbon treaty, agreed in 2007, the legal basis for the summit—article 202 of the treaty of Rome—was repealed. The decision in the Bill re-establishes the legal basis of the summit.
The decision takes account of formal changes in the EU institutions since the last decision and name changes among the employer organisations. The Government can support the continuation of the summit because discussion of the need for jobs and growth can support the labour market reforms needed in other member states. In the intervening decade, during the existence of the summit, no apparent risk to the UK has emerged. The final agreed text of the summit measure has been published by the Council and has received consent from the European Parliament.
Are there any financial consequences from these decisions?
I can assure my right hon. Friend that neither decision has any financial implications for the UK.
Finally, I do not consider that any of the Bill’s provisions engage the rights set out in the European convention on human rights, so no issues arise about the Bill’s compatibility with those rights. It is intended that the Bill will come into force on the day of Royal Assent. I look forward to hearing the views of the House.
I am grateful to the Minister for coming to the House to set out the provisions in the Bill, but people will find it surprising that such a relatively uncontroversial measure is being introduced through primary legislation, when tax credit cuts affecting 3.3 million working families were introduced through secondary legislation. The situation is actually worse than that. We have time today on the Floor of the House to debate the Bill, but we ran out of time on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, meaning that we did not reach the last group of 33 amendments, which included issues as important as cuts to social housing rents and changes to support for the mortgage interest scheme. Perhaps the greatest irony of all, however, is that the Government could not find more time to discuss the abolition of child poverty targets—the issue of child poverty in Britain no less—while the Bill actually facilitates similar European-wide targets on poverty.
Turning to the substantial measures in the Bill, I do, of course, welcome the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia being an observer of the work of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. The agency’s work fighting racism, intolerance and xenophobia is crucial, and it is a positive step that the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is to be an observer.
I was delighted to hear the Minister talk positively about the tripartite social summit. It was almost as if she had discovered her inner pro-European. How wonderful it was to hear her praising that body. The Bill continues the work of the summit and gives it a more specific remit on achieving the targets laid out in the Europe 2020 agenda. I welcome that because it is an important forum in which EU partners can discuss social and employment issues. Of course, part of the Europe 2020 agenda is recognising that the EU has a co-ordinating role to play in combating poverty by identifying best practice and national learning. The target has been set of reducing the number of people threatened by poverty and social exclusion by at least 20 million by 2020.
Will the Minister clarify what role the UK will play in the 2020 agenda? How do the Government propose to report on poverty, including child poverty, in an internationally comparable way, when they have decided to abolish their own domestic child poverty targets? Given the international context, which she set out, and the recent tax credit cuts, the abolition of the child poverty target is a remarkable anomaly. To put it simply: why are the Government scrapping poverty targets at home and then promoting them abroad? That is precisely what they are facilitating. [Interruption.] There is no point Ministers shaking their heads. That is exactly what the Europe 2020 agenda is all about.
It is what the Bill is about.
Absolutely. It is great to witness this pro-European moment. Even the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) has come in for it. How great it is to see!
Given that the main purpose of the Bill is to endorse new procedures for discussing unemployment and the lack of growth on the continent, does Labour now think that getting countries out of the euro could help them price themselves back into work and get rid of the dreadful unemployment that now lies like a pall over much of the south of our continent?
It is perhaps an indication of the paucity of my teenage years that I can remember watching the television in the mid-1990s and seeing the right hon. Gentleman ploughing his Eurosceptic furrow very finely, as he always does. In answer to his question, it is of course a matter for the countries themselves. I would not seek to dictate to them.
I agree with some of what my hon. Friend is saying, but, on the subject of countries digging themselves out of their problems, Greece was given a bail-out, but on strict conditions, including restrictions on public sector workers taking industrial action, and other such things. This is not a country making its own decisions, but a country that has had conditions imposed upon it by the EU.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am sure that across the House we have particular views about the conditions imposed. I have views, and I know that he does too.
On employment rights, I invited the Minister to praise the work on paid leave and equal treatment for part-time workers, as well as the EU’s work on fair pay for agency workers. I hope the House approves the changes to the tripartite social summit, but I also hope we can take this as an indication that the Government will not sign away the employment rights gained over many years for working people in this country through the European Union, and that decency at work will be a fundamental part of the Prime Minister’s renegotiation in the next few months.
I hope not to detain the House for long, but I wish to make a couple of points.
First, in answer to the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), we are having this debate because we foresaw, during the passage of the European Union Act 2011, issues that might or might not be controversial but that would be worthy of proper scrutiny on the Floor of the House. We rarely divided on that Bill on the Floor of the House because we wanted to ensure proper scrutiny of things being done in our name at the EU level. In today’s Bill we see the provisions of the 2011 Act coming through. On the comparison with tax credits, I understand where he is coming from, but it could be argued that previous changes to tax credits have been introduced under statutory instruments. However, we foresaw this coming, so we amended the European Union Act, as it was then, to make sure that we could scrutinise these sorts of matters on the Floor of the House. These two examples are not the world’s most exciting, but we will see more and more such measures coming forward, and we will have more and more time to talk about them.
I have visited Macedonia and I am a fan of the country. Having been a Member of the European Parliament, I have seen how a neighbouring country has done everything it can to stop the Macedonian accession to the European Union, and I have seen what Macedonia itself has achieved, taking massive strides forward towards EU membership. I am pleased that Macedonia has been able to become an observer in the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.
My only concern relating to the Bill and Macedonian entry is that the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights has come out of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, which had unbelievably difficult financial and administrative problems in the past. I would like to check with the Minister every now and again to ensure that the past problems of that organisation—which were responsible, among other things, for its name change—have been completely turned around so that the agency does what it is meant to do, without duplicating other problems.
Will my hon. Friend define “observer” for me? Does it mean the EU observes Macedonia or Macedonia observes the EU in respect of human rights, for example? I would like to know exactly what “observer” means.
It is a bit of both. The agency has the following main tasks:
“to collect, analyse and disseminate…objective, reliable and comparative information”
related to the situation of fundamental rights in the EU;
“to formulate and publish conclusions and opinions on specific thematic topics…on its own initiative or at the request of the European Parliament, the Council or the Commission”;
and it is also about
“the promotion of dialogue with civil society…to raise public awareness of fundamental rights”.
A debate is going on in this country about where those rights should lie, what sort of legislation should exist in relation to them and who should police them. Macedonia has had that debate in its own Parliament, has applied to join this agency and is willing to pay appropriations to it. I do not see why we should step in its way. As I have said, there have been problems with the agency in the past, but it serves an important function in that member states’ voting rights could be suspended, based on the findings of any of its reports. The agency has teeth in no uncertain terms, and it has a decent operating budget of over €20 million a year. Macedonia has made its own choice, and it is right for it to go down that route if it chooses to do so.
I want to speak briefly about the draft decision on a tripartite social summit for growth and employment. There is a new Council decision, following Lisbon, that allows the number of meetings to be increased from one to two a year, and allows the President of the European Council to attend. The European Commission is allowed to host and facilitate meetings, so there should not be too much of a cost to it. My questions are more about the direction of travel of this organisation, its duplication, its purpose in being and whether we can raise questions about what it does.
This is not the European Economic and Social Committee, whose abolition I have called for in the past because of the huge costs for members belonging to one of the three groups of employers, employees and various other interests. The employers group comprises businessmen, people from certain business lobbies; the workers group comprises members from 80 trade unions mostly affiliated to the European Trade Union Confederation; while the third group is made up of lobbies from civil society. Most of those groups are paid for by the European Commission to lobby it in different ways to get the Commission to do more. Many European countries have a national version. However, the organisation I am talking about is not that. It is a separate beast.
One important question is who are the EU’s social partners? A list of social partners organisations consulted under article 154 of the treaty of the functioning of the European Union includes Business Europe. Business Europe is quite an interesting organisation. Unsurprisingly, it has a particular view on the referendum we might be having here. It gets a small sum of money, nearly €457,000, as payment under a grant received for a project running over a couple of years, of which the total budgeted cost was €1.2 million. The members of Business Europe include our CBI—it is one of the ways in which the UK CBI receives some money from the European Union. It includes other organisations such as the European Trade Union Confederation, which I mentioned previously and which received €4 million from European institutions, spending over €1 million lobbying the EU.
Given the sums that the hon. Gentleman mentions, is it not possible that these organisations will be more kindly disposed towards the EU—simply because they have received such substantial sums?
I would like to think that they would not be. If I were a leading light in the CBI or the ETUC, I would want to make sure of being in a position whereby I would not be accused of being biased in one way or the other. Receiving money from the European Commission that is then spent lobbying the EU to do things—whether it be business organisations lobbying for liberalisation or trade union organisations lobbying for workers’ rights or whatever—seems almost like manufacturing a market in this area.
Just recently, there has been something of a controversy about the BBC receiving some millions of pounds from the European Union for educational purposes—no doubt educating us all about the wonders of the EU. Does the hon. Gentleman not think that if organisations that are supposed to be independent and impartial take large sums of money from the EU, it might have some influence on them?
Again, I would like to think not. I follow what the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friends have been doing on the European Scrutiny Committee. There has been a long and ongoing dialogue with the BBC, as I know because I was a member of the Committee over the last five years running up to the mandate of this Parliament. I hesitate to look in the direction of my Scottish National party colleagues, because I have a feeling they might have a view on partiality and the BBC when it comes to certain matters.
Listening to the hon. Gentleman, I am wondering whether the BBC finds it more difficult when an organisation such as the European Commission gives it money or, in respect of human rights, when money is taken away, as is being done by the UK Government?
Order. In talking about the BBC, we are straying quite far from debating a narrow Bill.
Forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I did rather provoke reaction from my SNP colleagues, because I wanted to prove the point that when questions are raised about the partiality of an organisation, either through its funding or its actions, it could devalue that organisation’s input into something important, such as a European referendum.
Let me return to the point about who our EU social partners are in this dialogue that we are facilitating through the Bill. As I have said, in 2014 the European Trade Union Confederation received €4 million from EU institutions and spent more than €1 million of that money lobbying those same EU institutions on legislation. In 2013 the CEEP—the European Centre of Employers and Enterprises providing Public Services—spent €120,000 lobbying the European Union and received €155,000 from the EU’s directorate-general for employment.
I question the added value of the dialogue at the tripartite social summit for growth and employment. Like many things in the European Union, its title is motherhood and apple pie. Who could possibly be against a tripartite social summit for growth and employment? However, if it delivers very little and if the only people who attend it and talk to the European Commission are actually paid by the Commission to do so, that will be a significant issue because the conversation will simply go round in ever-decreasing circles.
The EU social partners have agreed to a number of things in the recent past, and they wish to discuss important matters. They have agreed to
“negotiate an autonomous framework agreement on active ageing and an inter-generational approach”.
That is obviously something we need to discuss at a national level, not to mention the European level. They have also agreed to
“step up efforts to improve the implementation of their autonomous framework agreements, with a specific focus on the 8-10 Member States where the implementation has been identified as insufficient”.
This group is going to lobby for more European regulation and harsher implementation of directives.
The social partners’ work programme also notes that they have agreed to
“highlight the importance of more public and private investments”—
I imagine that Labour Members would like to have a conversation about that, especially given their new leadership—
“in order to reach an optimal growth, to boost job creation and to revive EU industrial base”.
The joint working programme also wants to “prepare joint conclusions” on things that we would all wish to see, including
“promoting better reconciliation of work, private and family life and gender equality to reduce the gender pay gap”.
I cannot believe that any Member of this House would not want to achieve that. However, given that the European Commission pays indirectly for this group of people to turn up once every six months to talk about these things, and given that they have already done so for quite some time without any concrete achievements—in fact, some of those ideals may have gone into reverse during that time—perhaps we should question the validity of supporting such a social summit for growth and employment.
Another of the work programme objectives—this did not become controversial until quite recently—is to
“contribute to the efforts of the EU institutions to develop a mobility package, to address loopholes and enforcement issues on worker mobility and to promote mobility of apprenticeships.”
This country is currently having a debate about mobility and, indeed, the freedom of movement of workers and others. It is interesting that we are promoting such a debate—our European partners are also having a big debate on the very same issue—while at the same time funding a summit of the worthy and the good to discuss the same thing.
The great constitutionalist, Walter Bagehot, said that there are two parts to the constitution: the decorative and the effective. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the body under discussion is one of the more decorative rather than effective parts of the EU constitution?
I probably do, yes. I hate to beat around the bush: I do not think it is worth funding this organisation. It is duplication for duplication’s sake. Given the number of other direct opportunities available to the bodies that will attend the summit to influence the thinking of the European Commission, member states and others, I really do question the value of the group. Obviously, that is why I am on my feet asking the Minister why it is, when we have an opportunity to prevent duplication and to prevent some of the European budget from being spent, we do not actually take it.
I want to ask a number of questions along those lines. Article 152 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union states that the EU will set up the social dialogue while respecting the autonomy of the organisations, but can those organisations and bodies that attend the summit truly be autonomous when they are funded by the EU? Will they not be a taxpayer-funded echo chamber?
What authority has the EU had until now if the former decision on hosting summits was based on an old article treaty? Article 152 states that the EU should respect the “diversity of national systems”. Given that our national system does not include such summits, can the Government guarantee that the outcome of the meetings will not have an effect on the European Commission’s work programme—in other words, the very programme to which the summit wants to provide input? Is there an estimate of how much the six-monthly meetings will cost, and will the UK choose to host them when it takes over the presidency of the EU in 2017?
The Commission’s directorate-general for employment, social affairs and inclusion has regular dialogue with all the parties that will attend the summit, and there are other EU bodies that do exactly the same thing. When voting on such matters, this place has been almost unanimously in favour of cutting the duplication of European spending. We need to make sure that this country’s massive contribution to the European Commission and Europe is spent more wisely. Given that I have some form in this area—I was a Member of the European Parliament for 10 years and raised many budgetary questions about the issues under discussion—I question the value of approving the Bill.
It is interesting that this Bill underlines some of the positive work of the European Union. I am sure that Members across the House will welcome that, particularly at a time when we are debating our future in that Union.
First, may I associate myself with some of the excellent comments the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) made about child poverty? He also made an excellent point about the way in which tax credits were debated last week.
This debate is about the draft decision on the Republic of Macedonia becoming an observer in the work of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, as well as the decision on the tripartite social summit for growth and employment. I am sure that Members across the House will agree that the European Union’s expansion in 2004 was one of its great triumphs. It was a triumph both for Europe and, through our contribution to it, for the United Kingdom, and it has been good for us ever since.
Although they are not there yet and a great deal is yet to be done, I look forward to Macedonia and the other countries of the western Balkans joining the European Union, and hope that the decision on observer status is a step along the way. We have a great deal of work to do, but plugging the gap between Greece and Croatia will be welcome.
Giving Macedonia observer status may give it the help it currently needs. The right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) spoke earlier today about refugees, and I and others have pointed out that those countries that are least able to deal with the influx and weight of refugees to Europe are those that are taking the greatest strain, not least Macedonia. It is clear from the current refugee crisis that some front-line states can be helped in that regard. It would, of course, be a great help if the United Kingdom could take its fair share of refugees. That does not seem to be forthcoming, but access to the work of some of the EU agencies could also help. It would be interesting to hear from Ministers what assistance the UK is giving the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, with particular reference to the refugee crisis faced by the western Balkan countries.
Secondly, I want to say a little about the tripartite summit. I am sure Members on both sides of the House will agree that, given the positive impact that the European Union has had on social issues for many years—my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) is likely to comment on that point—the summit will play an important role in emphasising the social dimension of growth and employment between states, and the impact of EU policies on workers as well as executives. An approach that includes trade unionists, businesses and many others can only be a good thing, and in that respect the European Union has led the way in the past.
Finally, let me make a broader point. I think that the Bill shows us how the European Union brings added value to our daily lives. It helps to promote fundamental rights, and today’s debate is especially pertinent in the light of the refugee crisis. I also think that the Bill underlines the need for us to remain part of the European Union, and—this was touched on by the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris)—the ability of the UK Parliament to scrutinise European Union legislation. I often think that politicians, here and elsewhere in the EU, can be a bit lazy sometimes in hiding behind decisions that the EU has made. We must bear in mind the role that the UK Parliament ought to play, and I should welcome an increased scrutiny role for the devolved Administrations as well.
I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman, if he wishes to take up my point about parliamentary scrutiny.
What does the hon. Gentleman think would happen if we said no?
We shall have to see whether the people say yes or no, but I think that the scrutiny—
What would happen if our Parliament suddenly decided to vote this down? Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that that is a possibility?
I can only speak for Members on the SNP Benches, who will not be voting no. I know that the right hon. Gentleman cannot speak for those on his side of the House—in fact, the leaders of both sides of the House can barely speak for those on their own Benches at the moment—but at least we are unified on our Benches. We will not be voting against the Bill today.
As I was saying, we can be lazy when it comes to European Union decisions. We must adopt a more honest approach: we must become more critical, and when we have backed EU decisions, we must be more open about it.
We have just been given a wonderful illustration of why our democracy does not work in relation to any European subject. The hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) pretended not to have understood my question, but what would happen if the United Kingdom Parliament suddenly voted against a solemn decision of the European Union? Because the hon. Gentleman is not prepared to countenance that idea, he simply says “I do not want to”, but many of our constituents would like us to stand up to the European Union and start to change it, and one of the reasons why they would like us to change it is the very topic of this debate.
We are being invited to agree to a change in the arrangements whereby we debate and consult, and try to grapple with the huge problem of mass unemployment and austerity which is so visible in the south of our continent, and which was largely brought about by the euro scheme. Today, all that we hear is the usual nonsense: “Because one or two things that the European Union does are fine, we will not grapple with the real issues.” Where are the voices against European austerity on the Opposition Benches?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise that point, but does he agree that the devolved Administrations should also be given greater powers of scrutiny as part of this process?
That is a debate for another day. We are not here to debate the relative powers of the different parts of the United Kingdom. At present, the member of the European Union is the United Kingdom, and we are in the United Kingdom’s Parliament. It is part of my case that we have precious few powers left to make major changes in relation to things that really matter on the continent. I want to explore, briefly, what we can do to engage with the problems of mass unemployment and the huge migrations of people who are unhappy with their lot in other European Union countries, and what we can do about the austerity policies that are so deep and vicious in parts of the European Union, having been visited on countries such as Greece, Spain and Portugal by the European Union and the euro itself.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me for taking him back to the beginning of his speech, when he said that he would like this Parliament to vote down something from the European Union, or at least try to do so. Had he anything specific in mind, or was he just looking for a genuine fight with the European Union? I ask that question, quite openly, for the purpose of illustration.
The illustration that I was using was that there are now large areas in which this Parliament is not allowed to vote against something that the European Union is doing—because it has been pre-agreed, because we have been out-voted, because it is a consequence of a treaty that some previous Government signed years ago, or because it is the result of a decision by the European Court of Justice. Do Opposition Members not see that we are losing our democracy? We are losing our right to disagree with European decisions in this place, and we are losing our right to assert our wish to do things differently. I do not want to choose any one particular thing, but I could name at least 100 things which come from the European Union that I wish were better and different, because I think that they get in the way of prosperity, better wages and a better lifestyle for my constituents and others in my country.
That, however, is not the point. The question that we are debating today is whether, by means of the minor set of improvements contained in the Bill, we can have any impact on the hugely important issues of the breakdown of employment, the denial of opportunity to half the young people in large swathes of the south of our continent, and the effect that the euro scheme is having on people’s prosperity and life prospects. I find it extraordinary that an Opposition who are—sometimes rightly—full of passion on behalf of anyone in Britain who does not have enough income, cannot bring themselves to say a single word for the tens of millions of people on our continent who are being very badly affected by this dreadful scheme. They should think about all those young people who are out of work. How would they like to represent constituencies in which young people knew that they had only a one in two chance of getting a job?
Was not the right hon. Gentleman’s political heroine the late Lady Thatcher, who pursued majority voting—which, by definition, means accepting some decisions with which one did not agree—in order to complete the European single market?
She did indeed, but she was not my heroine. I have great admiration for the late former Prime Minister, and I gave her a great deal of advice. Part of my advice was that she should not surrender those powers under the Single European Act, for the very reason that the right hon. Gentleman has correctly identified. Unfortunately, although she accepted a lot of my advice, she did not accept my advice on two very important matters: majority voting in the European Union, and the poll tax or community charge. However, I do not think we have time to explore the question of what would have been better outcomes in the case of those two issues.
I just hope that our Ministers, if they insist on whitewashing this through, as no doubt they will—no doubt they will have the votes to do so—will also ensure that this body does something useful for a change. As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) has already demonstrated, it is obvious that although they can range very widely, and can lobby and discuss a number of fundamental issues that matter to people throughout the European Union but especially in the euro area, they have been unsuccessful to date. Clearly this “social committee” has not been a voice against austerity policies in Greece, Portugal or Spain that has had any resonance. Clearly it has not been a voice for more employment. Clearly it has not been a voice for dealing with the problem that a great many southern countries are locked in a currency union with Germany at the wrong exchange rate, which has put them into poverty and unemployment.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a fantastic speech as a Greek nationalist against the evils of a Union Parliament that is holding all the powers to itself, and, indeed, against anti-austerity. I do not want to castigate or to pigeonhole him, but we are seeing great progress in the debate. If the European Union is achieving one thing, perhaps it is achieving that.
If the hon. Gentleman was interested in my views and had read any of them, he would know that I have consistently over the years wanted more work, better paid work, people to own shares, and people to own homes. I believe in prosperity, not austerity, as I regularly try to remind him. I want that for our continent, but we are not going to get it for our continent under the system we have today—I am beginning to stray a little wide of the detail of this Bill.
In summary, I urge our Ministers to make sure of two things: first, that there genuinely is no extra cost to British taxpayers because so far this body has achieved nothing and is part of the problem, not of the answer; secondly, that, if they can, they start putting on the agenda of Europe the scandal of unemployment, the scourge of austerity, and the dreadful mess the euro is making of the economies to the south, because they are our friends and potential market, but I do not want them to be our country.
The SNP will support this Bill today for the reasons most eloquently set out earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins). We will support it in practice as these are sensible and straightforward matters, but we also support the principles behind the legislation.
First, we support the work of the EU and the important role it plays through the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights in protecting our rights as European citizens. I particularly look forward to the opportunity of going through the Lobby today alongside many Government Members, united in our full and unambiguous support for the work the European institutions are doing in this vital area. It would be remiss of me not to comment on the fact that it is a little ironic, however, that as other countries are knocking on the door of the EU, looking to benefit from the work it does on our behalf, this Government are committed to providing the means for the UK to leave the most successful union of states in the world today.
Secondly, the SNP wholeheartedly supports the work to improve dialogue between European institutions and employers and workers’ representatives through the tripartite social summit for growth and employment. Working in partnership with trade unions and employers is fundamental to improving our economic foundations and driving economic growth. If only the Government took this advice when drafting the current Dickensian Trade Union Bill before us. I agree with President Juncker who recently stated that he desires a recovery based on social fairness. This summit will play a key role in delivering this and that is why it will have our support today.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for squeezing me into this vastly over- subscribed debate. That brings me to one of only two points I wish to make. The purpose of the Bill is to fulfil the requirement in section 8 of the European Union Act 2011 that EU legislative proposals made on the basis of the catch-all article 352 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union be approved by an Act of Parliament before the UK Government can support them in the Council of the European Union. That is presumably why the debate is so vastly oversubscribed.
Despite the clear lack of interest in the debate, as evidenced by the relatively sparse attendance in the Chamber, the usual channels have chosen not to timetable the Bill. We could speak until 7 o’clock. I could do so—I really could—and be perfectly in order, and the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) could have spoken for far longer if he had chosen to do so. Yet we have this open-ended timing today—there is no regulation that says a Second Reading has to take even a half-day—whereas next Monday Scottish Members are expected to cram in Government amendments to the Scotland Bill and its Third Reading. The contrast between the two timetables indicates the Government’s total lack of respect for the need to prioritise the House’s business in accordance with Members’ interest in contributing. I hope that the Government will take that on board.
Does it not also illustrate that the official Opposition never have anything to say about the EU and never want to say anything about it? However, should they not have a view on it?
The fact that the Bill is so full of motherhood, apple pie and things that even the right hon. Gentleman finds difficulty in disagreeing with, as we heard in his speech, illustrates that even the serried ranks of Euroscepticism could scarce forbear to cheer this particular piece of legislation.
I give way to one of the few Labour Members who are here.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) raised the issue of the official Opposition’s view on the EU. I am sure he heard that at the conclusion of my speech I praised the work the EU has done in improving workers’ rights. I would say that without the EU we would not have the workers’ rights in the UK that we have today.
My estimation of the official Opposition is that they are currently unified in their disunity and have, indeed, raised disunity to an art form, the latest example being over the Trident missile system on the River Clyde. I must congratulate the official Opposition on how they relish that aspect of disunity. There is an outbreak of debate and discussion in the Labour party that certainly was never allowed during the Blair years. We should relish the freedom of speech the Opposition now have, even if we note that there are very few Labour Members here to exercise that freedom in the current debate.
The right hon. Gentleman is always amusing, but before he started scoring party political points he was making a significant constitutional point about the power of this House over our own schedules and timetables. Does he agree we should return the control of our own agenda to the House and take it off the Government?
As somebody who has been in government, I have to say that views on such matters can undergo a transition. There was debate earlier about representation in the Council of Europe, on which I would think Members throughout the House would be wise to insist on greater control and discretion. I think the Government would benefit from that; they may not realise it initially, but I think they would. That might be a good illustration of what the hon. Gentleman says, and there are a number of mechanisms by which it could be done. Also, I do not think he should underrate party politics; most of us have been engaged in it at one time or another.
The second point I want to make concerns the explanatory notes that accompany the Bill. With regard to the European convention on human rights, it is stated:
“Priti Patel has made the following statement under section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998:
In my view the provisions of the European Union (Approvals) Bill [HL] are compatible with the Convention rights.”
One reason why the Bill is relatively non-controversial is that we recognise and welcome the progress that Macedonia is making under the observation of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, located in Vienna. In welcoming that development, it occurs to me that that is another illustration of how foolhardy it would be for the Government to proceed with their plans to withdraw from the European convention in some form or other. We would find ourselves in an invidious position not just when debating issues such as this but in making representations on a range of issues. As First Minister of Scotland I did not just have to sign certificates saying that legislation was in accordance with the European convention; every act of a Scottish Minister has to conform to the European convention on human rights. Of course there are occasions when that can be inconvenient or even frustrating, but, significantly, my experience has told me that that is actually a very good and useful check on the actions of Government.
Earlier today we witnessed a most astonishing display of arrogance from a Minister at the Dispatch Box. In Justice questions, a Minister was asked specifically about withdrawal from the European convention and waved the question aside on the basis that it is up to the House and the Government to decide whether or not to be in the convention, and for the devolved authorities to administer it once that decision is made. I think the Government will find that that sort of attitude comes back to apply some severe retribution to them. The Government might be noted for that sort of insouciance and arrogance, but it does them no credit or good whatever. The devolved authorities, not just in Scotland but in Northern Ireland and Wales, are not in accordance with the Government’s view on the European convention, and the idea of watering down our commitment to it in some form is going to be totally unacceptable to the devolved nations. I suggest to the Government that they should think again.
My last point is that given the lack of interest and participation in this debate in the House, the very reasonable proposition put forward by my colleagues that the Scottish Parliament should be given more scrutiny power over European Council or European Parliament decisions is an excellent one. If people do not have the appetite to scrutinise those decisions in this Chamber, why not send the legislation to Parliaments and Assemblies where that appetite and desire exists?
I give way to the Chair of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change.
It should be noted for the record that as my right hon. Friend said that, there were nods from some Tory Members, which should be taken as encouragement for Scotland to take that scrutiny forward.
Not only that, but my hon. Friend is an excellent example of how someone can pursue duties as a Select Committee Chair and contribute massively to debates on the Floor of this Chamber. If we all followed his example, the House and Parliament would be a better place today. With that, I shall bring my remarks to a close, unless anybody wants to tempt me with another 30 interventions.
I thank all Members for their contributions to the debate.
The Bill will approve two draft Council decisions, the first of which, as has been discussed, relates to the participation of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as an observer in the work of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s objective is to become a member of the European Union, but it needs to implement key reform priorities, as set out by the Commission. The Government want to encourage it on the path of reform, and granting observer status in the agency is consistent with that approach. The decision will allow the agency to collect, analyse and disseminate data on the human rights situation in the country. It will also allow the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to participate in the agency’s activities. The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia should be supported to increase its human rights awareness and the promotion of fundamental rights within the country.
The second measure relates to the tripartite social summit. The summit has met for a number of years, and the draft decision will re-establish the legal basis for it. Just to be clear, it does not confer any new rights or competence on the EU. I want to restate that there are no financial implications, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) highlighted.
But there must be financial implications, because EU civil servants will be working and someone will probably be appointed to supervise this activity. That is a financial implication.
There are no new financial implications, as I said clearly in my opening remarks. On that basis, I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
European Union (Approvals) Bill [Lords] (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the European Union (Approvals) Bill [Lords]:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Committee of the whole House.
Proceedings in Committee, on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading
(2) Proceedings in Committee, any proceedings on Consideration and any proceedings in legislative grand committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after the commencement of proceedings in Committee of the whole House.
(3) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings in Committee of the whole House.
(4) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings in Committee of the whole House, to any proceedings on Consideration or to other proceedings up to and including Third Reading.
(5) Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of any message from the Lords) may be programmed. —(Guy Opperman.)
Question agreed to.