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General Committees

Debated on Monday 25 January 2016

Delegated Legislation Committee

draft Recall of MPs Act 2015 (Recall Petition) regulations 2016

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Mr David Nuttall

† Burrowes, Mr David (Enfield, Southgate) (Con)

Campbell, Mr Gregory (East Londonderry) (DUP)

† Caulfield, Maria (Lewes) (Con)

† David, Wayne (Caerphilly) (Lab)

† Evans, Chris (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op)

† Fysh, Marcus (Yeovil) (Con)

† Gibson, Patricia (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)

† Haselhurst, Sir Alan (Saffron Walden) (Con)

† Hollinrake, Kevin (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)

† Jenkyns, Andrea (Morley and Outwood) (Con)

† Johnson, Gareth (Dartford) (Con)

Lewis, Mr Ivan (Bury South) (Lab)

† McGinn, Conor (St Helens North) (Lab)

† Penrose, John (Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office)

† Pickles, Sir Eric (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con)

† Smith, Mr Andrew (Oxford East) (Lab)

† Solloway, Amanda (Derby North) (Con)

Umunna, Mr Chuka (Streatham) (Lab)

Glenn McKee, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

First Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 25 January 2016

[Mr David Nuttall in the Chair]

Draft Recall of MPs Act 2015 (Recall Petition) Regulations 2016

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the draft Recall of MPs Act 2015 (Recall Petition) Regulations 2016.

It is a pleasure to have you in charge of us this afternoon, Mr Nuttall.

Members of the Committee might recall the passage of the Recall of MPs Act 2015 during the previous Parliament. The Act set out three conditions that could result in a recall petition being triggered, with the potential result of an MP losing their seat and a by-election being held. The regulations fill in the fine details, with what electoral administrators call the conduct rules. They set out how a petition can be conducted, the signing arrangements, the mechanism for challenging the outcome and the creation of offences in relation to a petition.

The regulations are comprehensive, as their length and weight shows, and they are broadly the same as the election rules—particularly those for by-elections—with which we are all already familiar, with minor modifications to cater for differences such as that of the petition being open for six weeks. The read-across from by-election rules and regulations to petition regulations will, I hope, be clear for everyone here. The regulations reflect extensive consultation with the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators, returning officers, electoral registration officers, the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland and the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, and comprehensive user testing has been undertaken on the key petition forms.

The regulations are extremely long and detailed, coming in at well over 100 pages, and since I am sure that everyone here will have read them in detail, in advance, I will not bore the Committee by going through them all now, but it might help if I briefly summarised them.

Part 1 sets out how the regulations apply to the different parts of the UK and also gives an interpretation of the common phrases contained in the different chapters. Part 2 deals with compiling a register of those eligible to sign a petition—equivalent to the electoral roll—and also with how such a register should be published three days before the start of a petition and be available for public inspection. The petition officer must publish the number of people allowed to sign the petition and the number that must sign for it to be successful. Those figures will be updated when a petition opens, to include any alterations to the electoral register because of last-minute applications made on or before the day of the Speaker’s notice.

Part 3 forms the substantial part of the regulations. It deals with the conduct of a petition, and is broken into several chapters. Chapter 1 deals with general provisions such as the signing sheet and the official mark. The signing sheet is based on an election ballot paper. Each person wishing to add their name to a petition will sign an individual sheet and the sheets will then be counted in a fashion rather similar to that used for election ballot papers, to find out whether the petition has been successful.

Chapter 2 sets out the steps that the petition officer must take before a petition is available for signing. The regulations stipulate that a petition must be available for signing on each working day during the signing period—Monday to Friday, between 9 am and 5 pm. Additionally, the petition officer must make “reasonable” provision for the petition to be available for signing outside those times, which could include evenings and weekends. The regulations do not prescribe what the additional hours must be; they will be determined by local circumstances and covered by Electoral Commission guidance.

The petition officer is also required to issue official petition notices, so that electors know how to participate and know that signing is optional. The notices are in the form of letters and can be found in schedule 2. I can confirm that the wording has been user tested with members of the public at various locations across the UK, including with Welsh speakers.

Chapter 3 sets out the manner in which the petition is to be administered at the signing place, including regarding who can enter such a place, the delivery and receipt of signing sheets, and daily verification of the contents of the ballot box where electors will insert their completed sheets. Unlike at an election, accredited observers will not be allowed to be present at signing locations, or at any stage of the petition process other than the count. The reason is that, with a petition, only a single declaration can be made by signers. In other words, when they go into a petition-signing place, it is clear what they will do. It is not a question of a secret ballot where the vote is for one side or another. They will, by definition, be voting for just one side. A signer’s presence at a signing place will inevitably be seen as an indication of their preferred outcome and, as a result, accredited observers would inevitably compromise the secrecy of the petition-signing station.

Chapter 4 details when and how the count should be conducted, including the timing, which must be as soon as possible after a petition closes and no later than one day afterwards. Accredited observers may be present at the count, along with the representatives of the Electoral Commission. The MP and representatives of the political parties will have to be accredited observers to be able to observe the count. Once the count has concluded, the regulations require the petition officer to publish a notice of the outcome, including whether the petition was successful and the number of electors who validly signed it.

Part 4, which is concerned with absent signers, sets out the eligibility criteria for anyone wishing to sign by post or by proxy, namely that they are successfully registered as postal voters on or before the cut-off date for publishing the register, or that they have registered to sign a petition by post or proxy.

Part 5 prescribes the issue and receipt of postal signing sheets, along with who can observe the proceedings. That is restricted to the petition officer, his staff and representatives of the Electoral Commission. We have ruled out accredited observers from attending those sessions as there is a need to protect the details of anyone who has signed the petition.

Part 6 of the regulations creates a number of offences relating to the petition process. The offences are created in line with those already in existence for other elections. Part 7 contains miscellaneous provisions, the most significant of which covers how to question the outcome of a petition. Broadly, it can be questioned by the MP subject to the petition process or any of his or her constituents if they believe that there was

“an undue outcome of the petition”.

A petition court examining a complaint brought within 21 days of the announcement of the outcome of the petition will have the power to void the result of that petition. If a complaint is brought after that period, a petition court may still convene, but it will not have the power to void the result.

In the previous Parliament, both governing parties and the Opposition all had manifesto commitments to introduce a power of recall. The Government continue to believe that this is one of many vital steps to help restore the public’s trust in politicians and the functioning of the House of Commons. The regulations, which will deliver that commitment, comprise a comprehensive set of provisions that will allow petitions to be administered fairly and effectively. With that mercifully brief summary of a very large wodge of regulations, I commend them to the Committee.

It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall.

The Recall of MPs Act 2015 is an important piece of legislation. For the first time, Members of Parliament are subject to being recalled by their constituents if they have failed to uphold the standards expected of them in three key respects. They may be recalled if they have been convicted of an offence and received a custodial sentence of up to 12 months, if they have been barred from the House of Commons for 10 sitting days or 14 calendar days or more, or if they have been convicted of providing false or misleading information for allowance claims under the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009. The explanatory memorandum explains that if one of those transgressions has occurred, a recall petition is automatically triggered.

The regulations create the detailed procedures for that petition to occur during a six-week period. If 10% or more of the MP’s constituents sign the petition, there will be a by-election.

I have spent the past three days reading every single dot, comma and line of the regulations and I have some succinct questions seeking explanation and, I hope, clarification from the Minister. May I make it clear that, as the Minister suggested, the Opposition support the principle of recall? If the trigger is pulled, we want the process of the petition to be conducted fairly and to be expedited.

On the matter of signing by post, I understand that the electoral register will be published and distributed to each of the signing locations—one or 10, or any number in between—before the closing date for postal applications. If that is the case, no check can be made before the end of the process as to whether people have signed in person or by post. It is possible that, over a six-week period, some people may have inadvertently, or perhaps deliberately, signed twice. Am I correct in assuming that there will be a period of time before the result is announced to ensure that the necessary checks and safeguards were in place?

The second question concerns the running total of people who sign the petition. It is sensible not to make public the results of daily verification, as it might fuel a campaign rather than allow a genuine expression of public opinion. The Government have changed their position on that due to objections raised in the other place. I question the wording of the last sentence in paragraph 7.7 of the explanatory memorandum. I ask the Minister to read that sentence and agree with me that it is surely misleading at best or wrong at worst:

“Importantly, the results of daily verification will not be made public so as to allow for a tally to be made on the number of persons that have signed the petition.”

Surely the tally will take place afterwards, not during the course of events. I would like the Minister to comment on that, and provide some clarification.

Thirdly, I am pleased that the Electoral Commission was fully consulted, and that it is largely content with the regulations, but there are two issues on which the Electoral Commission’s advice was not accepted. The first relates to allowing accredited observers to observe all stages of the petition process. The statutory instrument allows for accredited observers to be present only at the count. The Electoral Commission has made the point that there is no real reason why petition observers should not have exactly the same access as observers at an election: that is, they should have access to postal petition packs and admission to the signing place as well as to the count.

The second issue relates to user testing of the petition notice letters. The explanatory memorandum says that the original intention was to have a notice card similar to a poll card. That was user tested with members of the public. Sensibly, as it was thought that the cards could inadvertently prompt electors into signing the petition, just as a poll card prompts electors to attend a polling station, it was decided to use a letter instead. That is all well and good, but the new letters are new voter materials. They may have the same wording as the notice cards, but it will be a new experience for electors to have such a letter. I therefore think that the letters ought to be user tested, as the Electoral Commission suggests. That seems to me to be a perfectly fair point.

Fourthly, on the more general point about petition notice letters, I understand that the Electoral Commission indicated to the Cabinet Office that the petition notice letters were “cluttered and too long”. As it stands, they still seem quite verbose, and possibly too long. How were the letters reduced and made more intelligible following the Electoral Commission’s representations?

Fifthly, I am glad to see that the letters to and forms for Welsh-speaking electors are included in the statutory instrument, and that we will not have the embarrassment that we had during the first police and crime commissioner elections, when the Government did not realise until late in the day that they needed bilingual forms for people in Wales. Sadly, I am not very conversant in Welsh, the language of heaven, but I ask the Minister whether the various forms in Welsh have been properly tested with Welsh speakers. As I am sure the Minister knows, there is BBC Welsh and more colloquial Welsh, which many people in Wales speak. If the intention is to communicate effectively with people, it is often better to use the latter rather than pristine BBC Welsh.

The only sure way to determine the most appropriate form of Welsh to use is to test it with Welsh speakers. The Minister referred in passing to taking the needs of Welsh people into account, but will he indicate specifically whether proper testing has been done in all parts of Wales, with various Welsh speakers, to find the most appropriate Welsh to use on the forms? Assuming that the Minister will fully and comprehensively respond to these questions, we will support these regulations.

I will endeavour to respond to each of those points as we go, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Caerphilly will interject if he feels that I am skating too lightly over any particular point of detail.

First, I offer huge congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on being one of the very few other people who have actually read this whole thing, including right down to the end of paragraph 7.7 of the explanatory memorandum. That attention to detail is very impressive indeed.

Let me start with the hon. Gentleman’s point about signing by post. He will be aware that during any election there is a process, which is normally condensed into a single day, when people who have voted by post can, in theory, turn up on the day of the poll with their postal vote form and present it, saying, “I am eligible to vote by post, but I am choosing to vote in person. Here is my postal vote form.” They hand it in at the polling station and that is then a valid vote.

The signing process takes place over a period of up to six weeks, and there will therefore have to be a continuous check to ensure that, when we get to the end, people have not had a chance to sign twice. As the hon. Gentleman will know, normally the registration forms that are held at individual local polling stations are adjusted to make sure that it is clear whether someone has a postal vote, so that the person who issues the ballot papers can make the necessary checks if required and then the necessary reconciliations can be made.

We will have to make sure that, in the case of signatories, the necessary reconciliations can happen, albeit over a longer period—so it is actually easier in some respects to ensure sure that these checks are being made. It should be easier to make sure that people cannot sign twice, in the same way that we do not allow people to vote twice on a polling day. However, the checks and the principle underlying the process—the mechanics—will, of course, still be the same

The hon. Gentleman asked about running totals during the signing period of six weeks. He asked specifically about the final sentence in paragraph 7.7 of the explanatory memorandum. It might help the Committee if I read the entire sentence, which I think is clear. However, if it is not clear, we may need to adjust latter guidelines and so forth to make sure that it is clear. The sentence reads:

“Importantly, the results of daily verification will not be made public so as to allow for a tally to be made on the number of persons that have signed the petition.”

Providing that the emphasis is put in the right place as one reads that sentence out, I think that it is clear that the results are not being made public so that people cannot do that. However, if it later seems that there is scope for confusion among people outside this place, of course we will need to make sure that any advice and guidelines are adjusted as we go.

I appreciate what the Minister is saying, but having spoken to a number of people, I know that they share my concern that that is slightly unclear, at the very least, and slightly ambiguous. It would be helpful if he went away and devised a clearer form of words so that we do not have that ambiguity.

We will try to ensure that there is plenty of opportunity for further guidelines to be issued by bodies such as the Electoral Commission. We need to make sure that everyone is aware of this particular important point, so that future guidelines and commentary are as clear as they can possibly be.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned a number of points that the Electoral Commission had suggested. While we followed the commission’s advice in many areas, there were two areas where we differed slightly.

One was on the question of accredited observers and where they will be allowed to observe. We decided that they should be allowed in to things such as the count and so on and so forth, but not to the actual signing places themselves because, as I mentioned in my initial remarks, the difference between an election and a petition is that, if someone goes in to sign a petition, it is very clear which side of the argument they are on. Therefore, one of the central principles of our democracy—that every ballot should be secret—is very hard to maintain given the fact that, if someone goes in to sign a petition, they are, by definition, on one side, and if they do not turn up, they are on the other side. We thought that the danger of eroding the secrecy of the ballot box in an election, and not maintaining that properly in a petition, was quite great, and therefore we felt that it was inappropriate to have people observing that stage. Once a petition has been signed and safely consigned to the petition box, it becomes anonymous, and at later points in the process it is therefore safer to have accredited observers, such as at the count, in the way that the hon. Gentleman and I have just discussed.

Will the Minister clarify what would happen if a person went along to the signing station and signed the petition, but then decided to spoil their paper? Would their vote be counted one way or another?

The regulations lay out what has to happen. In the same way as for people who spoil a ballot paper in a regular election, I presume there will be the equivalent of a bad and doubtful ballot paper process, which the hon. Gentleman and I, and I am sure every other candidate, has had to go through—it would have to be clear that a clear opinion and a clear intention has been produced. If that is not clear on the signing sheet, the presiding officer will have to take a view, and presumably the accredited observers in the room will also have to have a look. Broadly speaking, the same underlying principle, which is that a clear intention has to be visible, will be applied here, too.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about user testing the notice letters versus the notice cards. When the petition is first begun, we need to make sure that everybody knows that they can sign, but not that they need to sign, particularly if they disagree and feel that the MP concerned should not be subject to a recall by-election. As I mentioned earlier, the content of the words has been extensively user tested. As a secondary, follow-up point, he said that he feels that some of those words are perhaps a little verbose. All I can say is that they were extensively user tested. They may be longer than he and I might have started off with, but they were felt to be the ones that worked, with feedback from genuine voters, which is probably the safest and most fact-based approach that we could possibly take. The content was extensively user tested.

We went with letters rather than cards, principally to distinguish a petition from a poll. Clearly, many people will understand that those of us who are democratically responsive and responsible feel a certain duty to go and use our democratic rights when it comes to a poll, and we do not want to establish that when it comes to a petition because the very fact of feeling under pressure to go to sign a petition actually pushes people towards one side of the argument rather than the other, which could, if done wrongly, prejudice the underlying fairness of the petition. The letter was therefore felt appropriate, having road tested the contents of the piece of paper to ensure that its format is clearly different from a poll notice card so that people will have an additional, perhaps even subconscious, mental cue that this is not quite the same as an election, albeit that it is similar in many respects.

I agree with much of what the Minister says but, nevertheless, he is talking about a letter being used for the first time, rather than a polling card. As he tested the words on the poll card, surely it would have been sensible to test the words on the letter, too.

I find myself in something of a cleft stick at this point, because the hon. Gentleman and all here will realise that we are now several months on from the end of the last Parliament. Everybody here wants to ensure that the Recall of MPs Act 2015 is fully in force promptly. We can carry on testing things until we are blue in the face, but we have tested an awful lot of this in huge detail and with huge care. At some point we have to stop testing and start doing. I am not aware, and I am sure he is not aware, of any pending cases, but it would be truly contrary to the spirit of democracy—he and I would both be very upset were this to happen—were we still to be dotting i’s and crossing t’s on this stuff if a case came up tomorrow, next week or soon without these regulations being in place. Both he and I would be accused of dereliction of duty were that to happen. We have tested the substance, the guts, of this in huge detail. If it later transpires that there is some question over this, of course we can come back to it, but at some point we just have to get on with it. Otherwise we will be accused of delaying things in an attempt to protect the livelihood of MPs, which of course is entirely contrary to the spirit of the Act.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about Welsh forms. I am sad to hear that my ignorance of the language of heaven is perhaps only exceeded by his, but I can reassure him that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments now includes a Welsh speaker. I am not sure whether that member is familiar with what I hesitate to call the Queen’s Welsh.

BBC Welsh, as opposed to more colloquial Welsh. I am not sure whether that Welsh speaker can do either or both, but it is noticeable that the JCSI’s scrutiny of such things has moved up a notch since that has happened. We are therefore probably better placed than we ever have been. Beyond that, as the hon. Gentleman might expect, we check with a number of other Welsh translation services, too. We have covered as many bases as we humanly can but, given the fact that neither he nor I are quite as fluent in Welsh as might be required to make this perfect, we will have to take it on trust. I am sure that the Welsh people will let us know very loudly if they feel that we have let them down in any way, but I hope that we have not.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee rose.

European Committee

Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Andrew Rosindell

Blomfield, Paul (Sheffield Central) (Lab)

Clwyd, Ann (Cynon Valley) (Lab)

† Cummins, Judith (Bradford South) (Lab)

† Donaldson, Stuart Blair (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (SNP)

† Fox, Dr Liam (North Somerset) (Con)

† Glass, Pat (North West Durham) (Lab)

† Hoey, Kate (Vauxhall) (Lab)

† Hollingbery, George (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

† Holloway, Mr Adam (Gravesham) (Con)

† Lidington, Mr David (Minister for Europe)

† Morris, James (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con)

† Poulter, Dr Daniel (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con)

† Wheeler, Heather (South Derbyshire) (Con)

Alda Barry, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

European Committee B

Monday 25 January 2016

[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy

Before we begin, I will briefly outline the procedure. First, a member of the European Scrutiny Committee may make a five-minute statement about the decision of that Committee to refer the documents for debate. The Minister will then make a statement of no more than 10 minutes. Questions to the Minister will follow. The total time for the statement and subsequent questions and answers is up to one hour. Once questions have ended, the Minister moves the motion for debate. We must conclude our proceedings by 7 pm.

Does a member of the European Scrutiny Committee wish to make a brief explanatory statement?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. It might assist the Committee if I briefly explain the background to the document and why the European Scrutiny Committee recommended it for debate on the Floor of the House.

The newly adopted EU action plan on human rights and democracy for 2015 to 2019 replaces the first such action plan, which covered the period 2012 to 2014. The newly adopted action plan, which is due to be reviewed in 2017, sets out the practical steps that the EU and its member states will take in the next four years to develop existing EU external action on human rights and democracy worldwide. It will be implemented by the EU External Action Service, the Commission, the Council, member states and the EU special representative for human rights.

The plan consists of five strategic objectives, based on five guiding principles and involving 32 actions. The principles broadly cover ways of improving the effectiveness and assessment of external EU human rights activities. One principle requires a focus on the most pressing human rights challenges for the action plan: combating discrimination; respect for freedom of expression and privacy; freedom of religion and belief; combating torture, ill treatment and the death penalty; promoting gender equality, women’s rights, children’s rights and economic, social and cultural rights; encouraging corporate social responsibility; and ensuring that human rights are upheld in migration, trade or counter-terrorism policies. The Government regard the document as broadly complementary to UK foreign policy, although they have taken some action on the division of competencies between the EU and member states in the plan’s implementation.

The European Scrutiny Committee recommended a debate on the document on the Floor of the House because of its evident interest to the wider House, specifically the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Justice Committee, the Women and Equalities Committee and the International Development Committee. We shall now put to proof the Government’s position that the document is better suited to scrutiny in Committee because that affords a “longer and structured” debate. The European Scrutiny Committee requested a better and more detailed account of the document, which it had not received before this debate, and this debate can explore why.

The European Scrutiny Committee was particularly concerned that the Government have not deposited in the UK Parliament a related document, the 2014 “Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy in the World”, which is a record of how the EU has implemented policy in this area over the past year. It is therefore useful as a benchmark for the action plan, particularly in such areas as the EU’s review of its neighbourhood policy. That is crucial because the document not having been placed in the Library meant that the Committee could not do due diligence on the background of the paperwork. That is why we asked for a debate in the Chamber.

Since the debate recommendation, the European Scrutiny Committee has tagged to the debate its reports on transitional justice as an example of actions included in the action plan; on a Court of Auditor’s report on the effectiveness of EU funding of action to oppose torture and the death penalty in third countries; and on a new and increased proposed budget for the EU special representative. The Committee wanted the Minister’s assessment of whether he considers all the actions within the current action plan to be a good use of EU funding, and how the Government intend to monitor that. Those are matters of high prominence for many Members, so the Committee requested a debate in the Chamber.

I call the Minister to make an opening statement. I remind the Committee that interventions are not allowed during the statement.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell.

The European Scrutiny Committee has described the EU action plan as “legally and politically important”, and I agree. I want to address why and how this area of EU external policy is of vital interest to the United Kingdom and our national interest and why EU action in this area can enhance our ability to tackle the real foreign policy problems confronting us.

In its five chapters and 34 actions, the action plan sets out practical steps to be taken primarily by the European External Action Service, the European Commission, the European Council and member states to implement the EU’s commitment to promote and protect human rights and democratic values. As Members will have seen, the clear intention behind the action plan is to describe a set of overarching principles and high-level actions that should inform European Union activity when it comes to particular issues or particular third countries with which the EU is dealing. To avoid any misunderstanding, I stress that we are talking about the European Union’s relationship with third countries and not about EU member states and their own human rights legislation.

The range of challenges addressed in the action plan is enormous and consistent with the principle that human rights are universal and indivisible. Many of the issues set out in the action plan align closely with interests that the Government have identified as United Kingdom priorities, such as women’s rights and the prevention of sexual violence; freedom of religion or belief; freedom of expression; combating torture; abolition of the death penalty; strengthening electoral processes; and ensuring that civil society organisations can operate free from threats or intimation.

Tackling those issues is an everyday task for our national diplomatic network. Sometimes we will want a national profile on a human rights problem. Our recently relaunched Magna Carta fund for human rights and democracy aims to show that the UK is at the forefront of the argument that human rights represent a key part of the rules-based international system and that we match our political commitment with a practical response to real world problems. Internationally, however, winning the argument is about building consensus—for example, by putting the Prime Minister’s “golden thread” of democracy and good governance at the heart of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. In multilateral discussions of that kind, the EU action plan is an essential point of reference for the international community. It is one of those documents to which countries around the world turn.

When 28 member states together speak out against violations and abuses of human rights, other countries around the world and other international gatherings take note. Important examples include recent statements on executions in Saudi Arabia which made clear the EU’s strong opposition to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances, called on the Saudi authorities to promote reconciliation between the different communities in the kingdom, and called on all to show restraint and responsibility. Another example is the EU’s statements on Azerbaijan in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Those statements expressed concern about the continued deterioration of the human rights situation there, and because they were EU statements on behalf of all 28 member states, they had more impact than a set of statements by individual countries would have had. In Turkey, the EU has condemned attempts to restrict press freedom and internet access and content. Freedom of expression is explicitly set out in the Lisbon treaty as a requirement for any country that aspires to join the EU. We welcome the work that the EU is doing to support reforms in Turkey through its pre-accession funding programmes.

The EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Stavros Lambrinidis, has done much to enhance the visibility of EU human rights policy. As members of the Committee will be aware, the FCO recently deposited an explanatory memorandum on the proposed budget for the EU special representative, on which we had negotiated rigorously to secure an acceptable outcome. Mr Lambrinidis has engaged extensively with countries that face serious human rights challenges and with countries that are influential partners in the United Nations and other multilateral organisations. In 2015, he led EU delegations in human rights dialogues with Brazil, Burma, Mexico, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as the EU’s first meeting with Cuba on human rights. His visits to other countries included China, where he expressed the EU’s concerns on a range of issues, as well as our readiness to continue working with China to promote adherence to international human rights obligations. The UK’s own dialogue with China on human rights informed the European Union’s agreed approach—a clear example of how the EU action plan can add value to our own human rights work.

The EU’s engagement is not confined to high-level dialogues and consultations, of which there were 37 in 2014. In many countries, European Union delegations and the embassies of member states work closely together to support the victims of abuses and violations, and individuals under pressure from the authorities and from non-state actors. EU co-ordination through joint case lists ensures consistent messaging, and co-ordination in trial monitoring highlights international interest in individual cases. Although our own diplomatic network endeavours to attend criminal trials of human rights activists, co-ordination within the EU helps to ensure that our views are always represented even if our diplomats cannot be there in person, and it provides additional diplomatic weight.

In addition, in countries where intervention comes with a cost to individual bilateral relationships, being part of an EU bloc lessens the bilateral risk to all individual EU members. In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the EU organises visits for member states to sites of concern, such as the Cremisan valley and the site of the Duma arson attack. Such visits help draw attention to EU concerns about illegal settlement construction, demolitions and settler violence. The EU also co-ordinates engagement with countries on particular human rights issues. For example, it has systematically raised freedom of religion or belief with many partners at different levels of political dialogue, including in human rights dialogues and consultations. At the United Nations, being part of the EU increases the UK’s lobbying power on matters such as our call for a global moratorium on the death penalty, on which there will be a vote in December this year.

The EU also enables us to benefit from the key principle of burden sharing. At the United Nations, for example, Belgium currently leads within the EU in negotiations on a sensitive resolution on counter-terrorism and human rights. Burden sharing also enables us to support EU partners who have specialised in specific areas. For example, some EU member states are able to provide enhanced practical support to human rights defenders because their domestic legislation allows them greater flexibility on matters such as visas.

In addition to global advocacy and dialogue, an important part of the action plan is the funding of programmes by the EU’s external financial instruments, notably the European instrument for democracy and human rights, which had a budget of €181 million in 2015. The new EU human rights defenders mechanism, announced in December, provides practical support such as physical protection, legal and medical support, and trial and prison monitoring, as well as support for early warning of risks and training on risk prevention. This aligns well with the UK’s pledge to challenge threats to civil society, which is part of our campaign for re-election to the United Nations Human Rights Council for the period 2017 to 2019.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire said, an ambitious action plan and large-scale programmes require close monitoring and evaluation. Last year’s report by the European Court of Auditors on EU support for the fight against torture and the abolition of the death penalty provided a broadly positive assessment; however, the report also included some recommendations, the first of which was the need to target resources better. It is therefore important that we continue to engage closely with the EU funding process across all areas of the action plan, to ensure that spending is effective and aligned with UK’s objectives.

I welcome the fact that this action plan will be subjected to a mid-term review in 2017, which will coincide with the mid-term review of the external financing instruments. That will give us the chance to make sure that the lessons from the European Court of Auditors’ reports and other scrutiny exercises have been learned and applied. Integrating a human rights perspective across the EU’s external action is the best way to ensure that the EU maximises its influences on such issues and considers human rights alongside other aspects of external policy. That is after all what we do at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In that sense, the action plan complements and amplifies the human rights work that we in the UK already undertake on a national basis.

We now have until 5.36 pm for questions to the Minister. I remind Members that questions should be brief. It is open to a Member, subject to the discretion of the Chair, to ask related supplementary questions.

As this is my first outing in one of the European Committees, Mr Rosindell, I hope that the Minister will handle me gently.

I understand that the action plan is about third countries and not our internal EU partners. None of us would have any problems in principle with the action plan, which the Minister described as a document of principles, high-level actions and practical steps. That is where I had a problem when reading through the document, because I think that I got more about what the practical steps are and what is going on from the Minister in a 10-minute speech than I did from two hours of reading that document. When I look at an action plan, I expect high-level actions, milestones, timescales, costs and some numbers detailing how many and by when. I did not see any such reference in this document. When I was a director of education, I had three banned words from action plans—ongoing, developing and progressing, because they mean nothing. In terms of timescales, 75% to 80% of the document before the Committee is ongoing. I had a problem with that.

The Minister referred to the Court of Auditors, so I am assuming that underneath this high-level document are other documents that will tell me exactly how many, by when, who is responsible and the costs, as well as where we are, where we want to get to and how we will get there. I think fellow Committee members were also looking for those answers. Is there a series of documents beneath this high-level document that will give me those specific, practical answers?

We are working with two different drafts, and my first question relates to objective no. 4 of the table in my version of the new action plan. I appreciate that it relates to third parties and not to our EU partners, but it does feel a little like, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Objective 4.b refers to the need to

“Monitor at bilateral and multilateral level the compliance by partner countries of their international obligations in terms of access to justice and fair trial, including legal aid”.

How does that sit with our Government’s recent action to cut back access to justice and legal aid?

My second question is about item no. 12, “Cultivating an environment of non-discrimination.” Objective 12.a is to:

“Develop an ‘EU Handbook on Anti-discrimination’ in third countries, outlining tools for anti-discrimination measures”.

Well, that is going to do it for the Ugandan anti-homosexual laws—that is going to make it happen. I was expecting something more than just a handbook. Who is going to do this? The EEAS, the Commission and the Council. It is a handbook, so surely they have some idea who is going to put it together.

My last point concerns no. 25, “Counter-terrorism”, which deals with

“how to prevent radicalisation and extremist violence among young people in third countries…in the field.”

I am curious about how that will relate to our Prevent strategy.

Those are my three observations. Overall, I think that the strategy is moving in the right direction, but I have concerns about who will monitor it, how it will be monitored and how we will judge whether it is effective and gives value for money. It will be difficult to judge whether the strategy is successful if we have no idea where we started, where we intend to be or what the milestones are along the way. Presumably, those things are in the low-level documents that the Minister is going to tell me about now.

I welcome the hon. Member for North West Durham to her new responsibilities. We miss her predecessor, but during her time in the House she has shown herself to be interested in and committed to European issues. I am sure that we will debate European matters across the Committee and across the Chamber on many enjoyable occasions. I will try to answer her questions briefly.

As I said in my opening comments, the plan is deliberately intended as a high-level statement of objectives and principles that should inform the whole range of external policy activity that the EU and its institutions undertake. Other documents, most obviously the annual reports on the EU’s human rights work, are worth looking at. The External Action Service will report on missions to particular countries and it will sometimes report to the European Parliament on the EU’s interaction with a specific third country. In those reports, hon. Members will see human rights issues being raised in accordance with the principles set out in the action plan. There are quite a lot of different documents, such as the EU’s human rights guidelines and a recently adopted EU framework policy on transitional justice, which add up to a more complete picture.

On the question of who will monitor this work, the EU institutions and the representatives of member states in Brussels—the permanent representations—have an important role in trying to ensure best value for money at all times. The European Court of Auditors plays a crucial role in monitoring that, as it does every other aspect of EU expenditure.

When I visited the Court of Auditors late last year, I was told that I was the first British Minister they could remember ever visiting the place, which I thought was rather a pity. What impressed me was that the Court of Auditors had a very clear objective to shift its focus from measuring inputs into particular programmes to looking at outcomes and focusing much more on whether the declared objectives of a particular EU programme have been achieved, rather than on how much money might be going into something and whether it had been spent on this particular line rather than that particular line.

I mentioned in my opening comments the European instrument for democracy and human rights as one of the external funding instruments. Precisely because human rights work is meant to be mainstreamed in everything the EU does in terms of its foreign policy, it is not possible to abstract a dedicated budget for human rights work alone. For example, what the EU does in relation to Saudi Arabia or Iran will include a human rights element, but it will include other things as well. The pre-accession funding programmes that are available to Turkey and to western Balkans countries that are moving towards membership, and some of the partnership funds to some of the eastern European countries from the former Soviet Union, will also have a human rights element as we try to encourage those countries to build functioning democracies and entrench the rule of law and human rights in their political culture.

I turn briefly to the three specific items that the hon. Lady raised. In fairness, even with the recent restrictions on legal aid, the United Kingdom’s legal aid system remains one of the most generous anywhere in Europe or the democratic world. What the EU is trying to focus on here is the fact that there are too many countries in which it is impossible for defendants to have access to an independent lawyer at all, and where everything that we take for granted in terms of such statutes as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 or the rules of procedure in court are simply not available in the way that we would understand them. As part of the consular casework that I have dealt with, I have had British citizens, through their families, complaining that they have sometimes not had any opportunity to understand the charges being brought against them in court. That is the sort of issue that this policy is designed to address.

When it comes to anti-discrimination work, the reality is that such work has to proceed through persuasion, good practice and peer group pressure within international organisations. If, for example, we look at the way in which the United Kingdom Government first drove forward preventing sexual violence from being used as a weapon of war, placed that on the international agenda and then used our membership of the EU and of the UN to get other countries to take this issue up and make it a priority, that demonstrates one particular way in which this approach can work. We certainly see the EU’s action plan as complementing our own bilateral efforts to increase women’s political participation around the world, from the middle east to north Africa to work with indigenous groups in Latin America.

On the question of counter-terrorism, again we see the EU action plan work complementing what we seek to do under Prevent and other United Kingdom programmes. There are many countries around the world that face a genuine threat from terrorism but that also do not observe the standards in terms of human rights and due process that we would expect from our own police and judicial systems, so part of what we do bilaterally and part of what we do through EU activity is to have a dialogue with those countries and discuss how it is possible to combine effective action against terrorism with respect for the rule of law and for human rights. That is an issue that Members from all parties in the House have raised in the context of Colombia in debates in this House. It is an issue that we raise in our dialogue with Russian authorities, who face a genuine terrorist threat in the north Caucasus but who tackle it in a somewhat different way from how we might tackle terrorism here.

I apologise for being late to the Committee, Mr Rosindell. The Minister is well up on how the EU works; I know that he is an expert on all this, so it is good to hear him today. If I have missed this point, please tell me. I am interested, as was our European Scrutiny Committee, in whether he really feels that this scheme is absolutely the right way to spend the money that will be spent on it. Is he confident that that money will be well spent? That is one important issue. Secondly, within all the bodies in the various parts of the European Union that have drawn up the action plan, who actually makes the final decision that a certain amount of money will be spent on a certain part of the overall strategy?

To take the second question first, that will depend in part on which spending programme we are talking about, because the decision-making procedures may vary a bit accordingly. The senior-level people in the EEAS and the Commission would have responsibility in the first place for drawing up proposals and allocating funding from the budget agreed by member states under the various headings of the European Union annual budget and multi-annual financial framework. Those positions by the institutions are subject to oversight by the European Union Political and Security Committee ambassadors in Brussels, and ultimately by Ministers in the Foreign Affairs Council and the European Council.

Decisions on foreign policy are taken by unanimity, as the hon. Lady knows, so every member state has a veto, but what would happen is that a paper might be brought forward by the High Representative on foreign policy that would describe the European Union’s external actions in relation to a third country, let us say for the sake of example Pakistan. There would probably be a human rights element to that, and there would be an indication of the spending that would be involved to fund the programme. Then the member states could agree or disagree. There would be a process of negotiation, and then the final plan would be signed off.

Clearly, subsequent monitoring and auditing will be important. To answer the hon. Lady’s first question, I am always looking for ways to extract better value for money; that applies as much to UK domestic spending as to EU spending. It is a duty on any Minister in any Government. There are always improvements that can be made. Often, when I have had to deal with auditors’ reports on some of the common security and defence policy missions, I have said that we need to bring pressure to bear to deal with the shortcomings revealed by the auditor’s report. I think that the European Court of Auditors, at its best, acts in the same way as the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee here. That is the principle—we should always be looking for ways to improve matters—but by and large, I think that this area of EU activity amplifies the human rights work that the UK would be trying to do bilaterally.

If we are almost drawing to a close, I ask the Minister again whether, having given us all those answers, he is not as convinced as the European Scrutiny Committee that the measures ought to have a debate in the full Chamber, as there are so many areas in it of great interest across the House.

If my hon. Friend looks at the track record of the current Government and their predecessor coalition Government, she will see that many more debates on documents referred by the European Scrutiny Committee have been held on the Floor of the House than was the case under predecessor Governments. It is always a difficult balance for the Government to strike in terms of the allocation of parliamentary time and we feel that we are granting a fair share of the Committee’s requests for debates on the Floor of the House. I can remember a previous Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee saying to me that he could remember being told informally by the Whips in the life of a previous Government that he could have two Floor debates a year and that he should decide which two he wanted out of the many documents that came through his Committee. We have had a lot more than two.

Any Member of the House of Commons is entitled to attend and speak at the European Committees. I take my hon. Friend’s point that a lot of Members, one would think, might be interested in human rights questions, especially given the number of lobbying campaigns to which we are all subjected by different pressure groups on behalf of human rights defenders of various countries, but our colleagues do not turn up in those numbers. The opportunity is there for hon. Members to take part if they wish to avail themselves of it.

I would like to press my right hon. Friend on one issue. The debate is obviously not just about human rights but strays into the whole area of EU competence. I would like to concentrate on value for money. I am clear from what he said about who determines how much money the EU wants and the mechanism by which the money is allocated. Would he say a little bit more about the audit trail? Exactly how is the money audited, by whom and when, to ensure that we, in this House, are able to trace where our taxpayers’ money has gone, what it has been used for and whether we might have been able to use it better ourselves were we not encumbered by this excessive bureaucratic EU cost?

Of course we will account, as the second biggest net contributor to the EU, for roughly 15% pro rata of spending on every EU programme. The judgment that the Government have to make—and that all voters will have to make at the forthcoming referendum—is, among other things, whether it is better and more greatly to our advantage in national terms to have some activities carried out collectively at a European level, rather than trying to do that bilaterally. A related question is whether, in the event of the United Kingdom leaving the EU, we would get all of that contribution back or whether, as with Norway and Switzerland, a considerable proportion would still need to be paid to the EU budget in the course of a subsequent relationship.

I am never satisfied with value for money. From the various Court of Auditors reports that I have looked at, more could and should be done at the EU level. I do not think that the EU institutions have adopted the culture that has been forced on this country and on many other EU member states of having to cut the coat to fit the cloth and having to engage in some painful reprioritisation as a consequence of dealing with limited resources.

The procedural reality is that the funds are subject to EU internal audit processes, which are monitored by the EU Court of Auditors. It is up to the Court of Auditors, as with the National Audit Office here, to decide where it wants to focus its attention. The mid-term review of the action plan to assess progress will take place next year. That will give us the opportunity to look more deeply into whether we have secured the value for money and the outcomes that we seek from this expenditure.

My own view is that it does provide a net benefit for the United Kingdom when we are able to speak not just as one country, or even perhaps with France and Germany as three significant European countries, but when we are able to work effectively as a bloc of 28. The reality is that, precisely because of the United Kingdom’s diplomatic weight and strength and because we have a global diplomatic network and a global reach to our diplomacy, we, like France, are able to exercise a disproportionate influence upon how EU-level foreign policy positions, including on human rights, are developed. In that sense, we get benefit where we are prepared to be active and where we fight hard to try to ensure that our priorities and objectives are taken up as European priorities and objectives. It is not perfect—I completely accept that—and my right hon. Friend is absolutely correct to warn of the need to be vigilant about competence because there is always a risk of the envelope being pushed by the Brussels institutions, but on balance I think we gain from the amplification of national diplomacy by effective EU action.

If no other Member wishes to contribute to the questioning of the Minister, we will now proceed to the motion itself.

Motion made, and Question put,

That the Committee takes note of unnumbered European Union Document, EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy.—(Mr Lidington.)

Committee rose.