Skip to main content

European Union (Approvals) Bill [Lords]

Volume 603: debated on Monday 14 December 2015

Considered in Committee

[Natascha Engel in the Chair]

Clause 1

Approval of draft decisions under Article 352 of TFEU

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Clause 1 provides for approval by Parliament of two draft EU legislative measures, as required under section 8 of the European Union Act 2011. Such approval is needed because both measures are made under article 352 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union. Section 8 of the Act does provide for exemptions, in order to avoid the requirement for an Act of Parliament, but the measures here do not fall within any of the exempt purposes.

Clause 2 concerns the territorial extent of the Bill, its commencement date and short title. Subsection (1) 2 provides that the Bill extends to the whole of the United Kingdom. Subsection (2) provides that the Bill will come into force on the day that it receives Royal Assent. Subsection (3) provides for the Bill’s short title. I ask hon. Members to agree to clauses 1 and 2 standing part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Third Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The brief explanation that accompanied the clause stand parts in the Committee stage covered all the points that need to be made about the content of this very short Bill and the reason it is required. Obviously, we covered some of the points on Second Reading. It is fair to say that our debates on this Bill have covered the two clauses sufficiently. Perhaps it is worth reflecting on the fact that the Bill before us forms part of the ability of Parliament to examine and give clearance through the much broader protection and oversight that the European Union Act 2011 affords us. Bills such as this give another layer of protection in dealing with European Union legislation.

As my right hon. Friend rightly says, the only concern is why such trivial matters are being dealt with by way of an Act of Parliament. Does she agree that, while these might be trivial matters and while the public might be concerned that they are being dealt with by way of an Act of Parliament, the public will be equally concerned that major matters such as perhaps the accession of Turkey to the European Union will go through exactly the same procedure?

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. It is fair to say that, when it comes to debating such matters, I would not use the term “trivial”. The European Union covers not just that particular area, but other aspects, such as the accession of Turkey to the European Union. There will be debates on that matter and engagement with the European Scrutiny Committee. I am delighted to see the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee in his place this afternoon.

I was very clear on Second Reading that there were concerns over what this legislation meant—whether it was burdensome and whether there were costs to the taxpayer. I use Third Reading to emphasise again that there are no burdens of administration or extra costs to the taxpayer. The Bill covers two clauses, one of which relates to the tripartite social summit, the other to the participation as an observer of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in the work of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. They are two very straightforward clauses in a very straightforward Bill. On that basis, I commend the Bill to the House.

I must admit that I find myself called to the Dispatch Box today in a state of some bewilderment. We are here to debate two matters. The first is whether a new position should be established within an organisation with the somewhat abstruse name of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia Stabilisation and Association Council. Establishing that new position in some way facilitates the admission of Macedonia as an observer to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. The second provision relates to the continuation of the tripartite social summit for growth and employment. I think that is why I am here.

There appears to be a need to update the formal basis of this summit, mostly in recognition of the fact that its function now relates to the “agenda for jobs and growth” and not the “agenda for employment and growth” as was previously the case. Will the Minister confirm that that is the case? If it is, the substance of this Bill is almost the definition of bureaucratic minutiae. Although I understand that both provisions relate to draft decisions of the European Council, which need to be approved by each individual member state as well as by the European Parliament, I find the use of primary legislation in these circumstances quite extraordinary. It comes at a time when the Government are hacking away at the social safety net via secondary legislation, on which it is frankly an uphill struggle to get Minsters to agree even to a short debate up in the Committee corridor. It suggests that the Government do not have their priorities in order.

Anyway, here we are, and I will use my time briefly to recap some of the context of these proposals, which I do not expect to be the subject of raging controversy in today’s debate. As we have heard, the first part of the Bill relates to the admission of Macedonia as an observer at the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. That move follows a report from the European Commission, which was published earlier this year and which set out a number of recommendations to revive Macedonia’s long-stalled candidacy for accession to the EU.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Greeks get very upset when the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is called Macedonia. Perhaps she could use the full title to ensure that we do not upset our Greek colleagues.

My hon. Friend is quite right. I do apologise. I hope that Hansard will get it right even if I do not.

This process was initiated in 2005, but has been put on hold as a result of widespread concerns more recently over the country’s deteriorating record on human rights. The admission as an observer of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights was one of a number of recommendations made in the European Commission’s recent report. As the Minister helpfully explained during the debate on Second Reading, it is hoped that

“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.”—[Official Report, 3 November 2015; Vol. 601, c. 897.]

At the rate this Government are going—I am talking about removing the requirement to respect international law from the Ministerial Code and pressing ahead with their plan to repeal the Human Rights Act—perhaps the Minister and a few of her colleagues should join the Macedonian delegation and learn a few lessons.

The second provision relates to changes to the basis of the EU’s tripartite social summit for growth and employment. The Bill’s explanatory notes describe this summit as:

“a regular forum for meetings of representatives of the European social partner organisations, the European Commission, and the Council to enable high level discussion between the three parties of employment and social aspects of the European agenda for growth and jobs.”

Beyond those exceptionally vague generalities, further details of the summit’s role are surprisingly hard to come by. Nevertheless, any discussion of jobs and growth is hardly objectionable, and certainly not objected to by me. In fact, should representatives of the UK take part in any upcoming meetings, it might provide an ideal opportunity for Ministers to take on board some of the valuable lessons that our European friends may have to offer. At a time when our jobs market is not exactly the envy of the entire continent, the Government should welcome such an opportunity. We have, for example, a higher proportion of graduates doing jobs for which they are over qualified—at 59%—than any other country in the European Union, apart from Greece and Estonia. We have a higher rate of underemployment—with a 10th of our entire workforce working less than they want to—than any other EU country except for Ireland, Spain and again Greece. That particular problem appears to be getting worse. The most recent employment figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that, even though the number of people in work in the UK has risen, the total number of hours worked by the UK has actually fallen. Perhaps the Minister’s European counterparts could teach her a thing or two.

We do not intend to oppose this Bill. In fact, I welcome it, at least as far as it goes, as it offers a reminder of some of the things for which we have to be grateful in our membership of the EU, not least the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms, including some of the most basic rights in the workplace, which many people take for granted. At a time when the Government are undermining those rights on a number of fronts, particularly in the Trade Union Bill, we should welcome the opportunity that this debate provides to remember the positive role that the EU can play in our lives, particularly when it comes to protecting dignity and security in the workplace. It is disappointing that the Government do not seem to share those values.

I am sure that Members from across the Committee will be delighted to hear that the SNP will be supporting the Bill; they will be even more delighted to hear that I will try to keep my comments as brief as possible. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I think that is the most popular thing I have said since I became a Member.

EU expansion has been a great success, and it is good to see our friends and colleagues from across the European Union working more closely together. I am particularly pleased to see Macedonia join the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights as an observer; that will be particularly helpful as it deals with the refugee crisis. I hope the country will benefit. It is also a reminder of the countries that have the biggest burden in dealing with the refugee crisis, and the UK could certainly do more.

On the second point, we wholeheartedly support any work to improve dialogue between the EU institutions, employers and workers’ representatives through the tripartite social summit for growth and employment.

We need to remain part of the European Union. There are great benefits to that, as I am sure Members across the Committee agree. We support the Bill.

It looks as if the Bill will go through without too much controversy, but it is worth commenting on the state of employment across the whole European Union, including the UK. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) has drawn attention to our own problems. Before some hon. Members were born, here in Britain we had the biggest TUC demonstration in history when unemployment went over 1 million; it is now closer to 2 million. We will leave that to one side.

The Bill seeks approval for amendments to be made to the tripartite social summit for growth and employment following institutional changes brought in by the Lisbon treaty. The organisation is meant to discuss increasing the employment rate and investing 3% of gross domestic product in research and development—all sorts of worthy things. However, the EU is living in a dream world if it really thinks it is doing well economically. Austerity has been imposed in many EU countries and there are incredible rates of unemployment—typically 25% in the worst-off states; in Britain, that would mean 4.5 million people unemployed rather than 1.8 million or whatever it is. The situation is in a very bad way and some of the larger countries are quietly suffering—particularly France. People in France are nervous about their futures while they remain stuck inside the euro, if not the European Union.

Anyone who thinks that everything is fine and dandy is being Panglossian—“all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”. If people in the European Union really believe that, they are living in a dream world.

The reality is that the EU is economically failing. I have mentioned Greece, Italy and France, but Finland also has serious problems; it is thinking of printing billions of euros to try to stop the country from sinking. There are all sorts of serious economic problems inside the eurozone and indeed the European Union. The only way those countries are ever going to get the jobs and growth that are so often talked about is for them to be able to reflate their economies on a national basis. That means they have to be able to control the value of their currencies in relation to others as well as their interest rates. They also need their own fiscal policies. When they can reflate behind their own barriers, Europe as a continent will start to grow again and millions of people who have been out of work for a long time can get back into work.

This is an innocuous Bill, but we should focus occasionally on some of the points about jobs and growth that it covers to show how bad the situation is. When I was a young person, everyone had a job. There was full employment—in fact, there was a labour shortage. Between 1945 and the 1970s there was a growth in living standards such as we had never seen before. Since then, things have gone badly wrong and there have been crises. As I have said from these Benches before, there are more serious crises to come. I do not think that the European Union is being economically successful and when it talks constantly about growth, stability and jobs, it is living in a dream world.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, without amendment.