Aviation Security (Reasoned Opinion)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Mr David Hanson
† Allan, Lucy (Telford) (Con)
† Burden, Richard (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)
† Doyle-Price, Jackie (Thurrock) (Con)
Flello, Robert (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab)
† Foxcroft, Vicky (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)
† Hayes, Mr John (Minister of State, Department for Transport)
† Prentis, Victoria (Banbury) (Con)
† Shelbrooke, Alec (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
† Stewart, Iain (Milton Keynes South) (Con)
† Stringer, Graham (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab)
Thompson, Owen (Midlothian) (SNP)
† Tomlinson, Michael (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con)
Katy Stout, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
European Committee A
Monday 31 October 2016
[Mr David Hanson in the Chair]
Aviation Security (Reasoned Opinion)
Welcome to today’s European Committee. Before we begin, it will be helpful to remind Members how the process will work. The whole proceeding must conclude no later than two and a half hours after we start, which will be 7 pm. First, I will call a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, who I understand on this occasion is Mr Stringer, to give a brief statement about why the Committee decided to refer these documents for debate. Secondly, I shall call the Minister to make a statement, which should be no longer than 10 minutes in duration. It will be followed by questions for up to an hour, and then we will debate the Government motion in whatever time is left, subject to a vote at the end, should we so wish.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. The debate arises because the European Scrutiny Committee, on which I serve, has recommended that the House of Commons issues a reasoned opinion against the Commission proposal for a regulation creating a common certification scheme. A reasoned opinion signifies that the House does not consider that the proposal complies with the principle of subsidiarity. Put simply, this principle requires matters to be left to member states if they are best placed to handle them and the EU will not achieve a better result. Should the Committee approve, the House will be asked formally to approve the sending of a reasoned opinion by the 3 November deadline. A draft is annexed to our report, which forms part of the debate pack.
The terrorist attack on Zaventem airport in Brussels earlier this year was a sad reminder of how important airport security is for individual EU member states, and the incident at Glasgow airport in 2007 was a concrete example of how the United Kingdom is not immune to such attacks. The risk of such attacks fluctuates with changes in the terrorist threats faced by individual member states at any given time. The EU recognised that member states might need to react unilaterally to threats in its 2008 civil aviation security regulations, which set minimum standards for airport security but allow member states to apply higher security standards or more stringent measures in relation to airport security screening equipment than the minimum EU standards. The United Kingdom takes advantage of that provision.
This proposal is ostensibly concerned not with those standards but with creating a common certification system intended to facilitate the marketing of security equipment. However, a significant concern of the European Scrutiny Committee is that, despite Commission claims to the contrary, one of the effects of the proposal, albeit an unintended one, is that member states will no longer be able to apply more stringent measures. The Committee, in its reasoned opinion, also questions the basis of the Commission’s assumption that member states will not voluntarily improve their existing co-operation at a national level on the approval of equipment operated within the European Civil Aviation Conference. It also fears that the benefits of EU action might be undermined by the risk to confidential data associated with the equipment and by the cost and bureaucracy involved for member states in setting up certification processes and bodies.
The French National Assembly also issued a reasoned opinion on similar grounds. Although we are unlikely to reach the one third of votes in national Parliaments required to trigger a yellow card, which would result in the Commission’s having formally to reconsider its proposal, reasoned opinions from two Chambers from major member states ought to have some influence on the eventual outcome.
Before I call the Minister to make the opening statement, I remind the Committee that this is a statement, so interventions are not allowed. There is an opportunity for questions when the Minister has finished his remarks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, and a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton, who, as ever, has brought sagacity and eloquence to our affairs. On this matter, it gives me a great deal of pleasure to say that I agree with what he has said already, and I will set out why.
This measure is probably an archetypical example of the European Union doing what it does not need to do, in a way that it does not need to do it, and that is unhelpful to this country’s interest. I understand entirely therefore why the European Scrutiny Committee has recommended that the matter be debated.
I have an immensely long speech prepared for me but I will abbreviate it—you will be pleased to know that, Mr Hanson—because I think I can set out in sufficient detail in a much shorter way a legitimisation or justification of the assertion that I have just made that is true to the motion.
There are several critical things here. The first is that the UK has one of the strictest aviation security regimes in the world and we keep that regime under constant review. In my previous job at the Home Office as Security Minister, I looked at these matters very closely and at first hand, examining the latest developments in screening technology at airports, for example, which enable us to maintain high standards of security.
The second point is that much of our aviation security derives from a common regime that is already in practice. That regime is Europe-wide; it applies across the European Union. However, that regime allows member states to add their own more stringent measures on top of the baseline standard that applies across the continent.
Of course, that regime is based on particular risk assessments. The circumstances at different airports and in different countries will vary, and it will be necessary to put in place particular measures that are relevant to those circumstances. Different countries have different threat levels; I think that is well understood. To reflect that, we in the UK apply a number of more stringent standards, of the kind that I looked at in my previous job.
I also mentioned a moment ago that aviation security has at its heart the way in which we screen individuals and materials that pass through airports. Screening methods vary from the archways designed to detect metal objects carried on a person’s body to machines designed to detect explosives in cabin baggage or hold baggage.
To ensure that such equipment is fit for purpose, I entirely recognise that it is important that we have standards and that those standards are applied with rigour. It is also important that we are aware of changing threats and take advantage of changing technology. Screening technology is moving on, allowing us to detect materials that previously would have been undetectable.
Standards for checking, testing and validating those technological advances are already in place, having been developed over a number of years and having been overseen by ECAC, which is a pan-European body that brings together 44 European states to work jointly on such matters. Government scientists work alongside their contemporaries from other countries, clearly making a significant contribution to the work on testing standards for screening equipment. It is important that these standards are very exacting and encourage manufacturers to innovate in order to promote the development of new technologies that drive up performance.
Under the proposal that has emanated from the European Union, each member state would be required to designate a body with responsibility for approving the compliance of equipment that is used in the delivery of EU security rules, by issuing EU-type approval certificates on the basis of prototype testing. Once a state has granted type approval to a manufacturer for a particular model of equipment, it is valid throughout the European Union.
The problem is that equipment standards are already at least as high as those required under the proposed regime, so the regime would add nothing to what is happening now. It is unnecessary and unwelcome, but it might be worse than that: it might actually prevent us from developing and applying these new higher standards. It is undoubtedly true that this proposal conflicts, although not necessarily intentionally, with the principle of subsidiarity, as the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton amplified in his opening remarks and as is implicit in the motion. Because of those core points—first, that there is a high level of aviation security in the UK, secondly, that there is a pan-European approach that already works, thirdly, that this might worsen the situation and, fourthly, that it is clearly contrary to the principles that underpin subsidiarity—I fully appreciate, understand and am mindful to support the motion.
I thank the Minister. We now have until 5.35 pm at the latest for members of the Committee to ask questions. Members, at my discretion, can ask more than one question in an exchange.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, and to serve alongside the Minister. We were just saying that the last time I did so was on the Infrastructure Bill, which went on for a great deal longer than this debate will.
I have a few questions. First, the Government’s explanatory memorandum, the Minister and the Under-Secretary in the other place, Lord Ahmad, have all said that there have been improvements in the European Civil Aviation Conference’s common evaluation process in recent years. I would be grateful if the Minister can outline those improvements and how they address some of the issues that the regulation is intended to address.
Secondly, both the Government and the European Scrutiny Committee expressed concerns about the impact that this regulation could have on the ability of member states to implement higher standards and more stringent measures on aviation security equipment. I am not entirely clear whether that is a theoretical concern or whether it is based on any evidence. Are there any examples of similar regulations that have caused that to happen?
Thirdly, since the publication of the European agenda on security, have the UK Government been consulting with other member states on aviation security equipment? Does that have any significance for the European Commission’s argument for this proposal on the subsidiarity principle? There may be a link between my first question and my third.
Fourthly, as the Minister is aware, the European Commission drew up five policy options in its impact assessment for this proposal. It would be useful to know the Government’s position on those five options.
On the third question—to maintain the Committee’s interest, it is important that I mix up the order of my answers—it is certainly true that the UK Government have enjoyed close co-operation with other European countries on aviation security. Indeed, by necessity, our approach to aviation security is pan-national, and not just with European countries. The Home Office has worked with countries from around the world that are important destinations for UK travellers to improve airport security, including by sharing equipment and expertise where appropriate. In specific relation to the proposal, we have worked with other members of the EU. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton mentioned France. France is known to share our view on the proposal, and it is likely that other countries will, too. I will not go exhaustively into the process that will now enjoin the European Union as a result, but it is likely that a considerable number of countries will try to ameliorate, mitigate or block the proposal. Indeed, France is already actively, in the way the hon. Gentleman mentioned, doing what we are being asked to do today.
In answer to the first question asked by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield, which was on the development of standards, I mentioned ECAC and the role it has played over a considerable time. We have succeeded in developing standards that essentially do two things. Actually, they do three things—I am receiving advice, which I will use to supplement what I am saying, as Ministers always should. You know that, Mr Hanson, from your time as a distinguished Minister in the Home Office.
The first thing the standards do is take advantage of cutting-edge technology. In practice, that means we are trying to detect more things more accurately. The read-out from the latest scanning technology is clearer. It is designed to detect smaller items that might be concealed about someone’s person or in their baggage. In essence, it is about having a speedier, more effective process.
Secondly, the process produces fewer false alarms. False alarms are important in this area, because they delay the process and the alacrity necessary for the efficient practice of airports. Having fewer false alarms reassures people about the certainties in the system. If there are many false alarms, that undermines confidence on the part of airport staff and others that the system will deliver when it needs to.
Thirdly, co-operation in the scientific community among security experts in both the private sector and the public sector is facilitated by the ECAC process. Discussion at Government level and at primary source level—if we think of the technologies, the scientists and the businesses as primary sources of the equipment—is facilitated by the process. Improvements are being made, is the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first question.
The hon. Gentleman’s second question was about why the proposal might do harm. The risk is that, at its worst, it could force us to accept technology that does not detect the latest threats. If we moved away from the ECAC system, which is essentially what the proposal means, we would be transferring power to the Commission under the guise of that slightly Orwellian term, “harmonisation”. I have a very balanced view of the EU, as members of the Committee know—I take an immensely reasonable position—but when it comes to the EU, that term is usually a proxy for taking power.
Under the guise of harmonisation and with the delegation of responsibility to individual member states, it is not inconceivable that we could end up with equipment that was less effective than it needed to be. I am concerned about that. I do not say that it is a likelihood, but it is a possibility under the proposed regime. Fundamentally, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. ECAC seems to be working well, so it does not need to be changed. As I said at the outset, the provision seems unnecessary.
Was there a fourth question? If so, what was it?
The fourth question was about the policy options that the Commission is looking at.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As he said, we have worked together before. There are options to try to mitigate the provision. He will be as familiar as other members of the Committee with how the process works in Europe. There will be continuing discussions before the provision gets to the point of being implemented. If it were to be implemented, that would be at least two years down the line. The question that has not been asked—almost the question that dare not speak its name—is, what will happen to this proposal in relation to Brexit? [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says he is coming to that, and I have rather unkindly anticipated his next question.
To be frank, I cannot see us implementing this proposal and we will do all we can not to do so. If we could not mitigate the proposals in the process that we will now endure and if we could not build a sufficient blocking minority among other nations—which I think we probably could—I suppose it would be theoretically possible that we might end up having it forced upon us for a very short period.
My real anxiety, however, which will be spinning through the hon. Gentleman’s mind at the moment, is what happens to other European countries. Even if we were not part of this scheme—if ECAC is undermined by this—we might all in the end be losers. It is in the interest not just of our country, but of all the countries of Europe, that we affirm our support for the existing arrangements, which seem to me to work well. The frank answer is that we will oppose this proposal at every turn and try to stop it.
If there are no further questions from Members, we can proceed to debate the motion.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 12090/16 and Addenda 1, 2 and 3, a proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a Union certification system for aviation security screening equipment; considers that the proposal does not comply with the principle of subsidiarity for the reasons set out in Chapter 1 of the Sixteenth Report of the European Scrutiny Committee (HC 71-xiv) and, in accordance with Article 6 of Protocol No. 2 annexed to EU Treaties on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality, instructs the Clerk of the House to forward this reasoned opinion to the Presidents of the European Institutions.
Hon. Members could be forgiven for thinking that the regulation before us might be regarded as a bit dry. I guess it is, but the issues behind it—the Minister made this point—are undoubtedly important. As a country, we face significant threats to security, particularly in aviation. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton, who is a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, referred to the attack on Brussels airport, which gives us all pause for thought, as does what happened to flight MS804.
It is important that the EU, the UK Government and the aviation industry all work proactively and in co-ordination to address the challenges we face in aviation security. That, of course, includes some common basic standards internationally, and probably at EU level as well. It is also important to understand and to ask the question put by both the Minister and the European Scrutiny Committee about the appropriate mechanisms for doing that—how, in practical terms, we spread best practice.
That is something I saw for myself during a visit to Gatwick airport in November last year, and it was more about the monitoring than the equipment itself. A new system had been introduced at Gatwick, where the monitoring of security scans as the hand luggage went along the conveyor belt was done remotely in a different room, without the distraction of being done there and then by airport staff. They were convinced that that led to better monitoring of the screen.
The people at Gatwick were also convinced that the new system made for a better customer experience, because those who were looking at the screen were uninterrupted and those getting bags off, on and through were concerned about the customer experience. I must admit that I was pretty convinced by that. The discussion I had with staff at Gatwick was how that kind of experience could be spread to other airports.
Turning to some of the concerns that have been raised about the proposal, I acknowledge and note the concerns of the Government as detailed in the explanatory memorandum, as well as those of the European Scrutiny Committee. As the Minister has said, there have been similar concerns in other member states—in France’s National Assembly, for one. The concern is that, if this measure went through as a regulation, rather than a directive, a voluntary agreement or whatever else, it would prevent or undermine the ability of member states to apply stricter measures than the common basic standards.
We have similar concerns. First, it is unclear whether the proposal would restrict the ability of member states to judge the adequacy of security screening equipment, particularly in response to specific security threats. Although all member states face threats, not all of them face the same threats at the same time, so it is important that member states are able to introduce more stringent measures and higher standards in response to new intelligence or technological developments. In any case, that would go beyond the minimum legal standards that the proposal would introduce.
In an accompanying factsheet, the European Commission tried to allay such concerns:
“This proposal does not limit the possibility for any EU Member State to apply more stringent measures for performance requirements as envisaged in the currently applicable EU aviation security legislation.”
The Commission said on the record that the proposal will not restrict more stringent measures being operated. It would be useful if there were more explicit clarification on what is theoretical and what is real. We all agree that it would be wrong for anything to undermine the ability of member states to adopt more stringent measures. The question is, would the measure actually do so?
There were also concerns about the consultation that the Commission undertook and the absence of a consultation in the UK. The European Commission conducted a consultation between March and June 2013, and it received responses that it suggests expressed general support at that stage for a legislative approach—option 3 of its five options. That consultation is now well over three years old, and there have obviously been a lot of developments since then, not least in technology. The Commission’s proposal claims that
“the results of the public consultation can be considered as representative since all the main stakeholder groups responded”,
but the consultation had only 37 respondents across all European member states, eight of which were from the UK.
I appreciate that there has been no formal consultation in the UK, but the Government’s explanatory memorandum states that there have been informal discussions with stakeholders. It would be useful to know whether those discussions identified an industry opinion about the proposal. I would appreciate it if the Minister addressed that point, and I would be obliged if he explored options for a more formal consultation on the issue with a wider section of the industry. That would help to identify whether the production and procurement of aviation security equipment is principally seen as an issue for the airports, the airlines, the handling companies or the manufactures. Further, if the Government are to explore options for action with other member states, rather than accepting EU-wide regulation, what action are they going to take?
As the Minister predicted, I turn to the elephant in the room: the UK’s intended departure from the EU. If and when Brexit happens, it will be important to know not simply whether the regulation will have gone through by then, but what the situation will be concerning spreading best practice and adopting international co-operation over best practice for aviation security equipment. There will still be a need to ensure compatibility and higher standards in other countries and between countries. Recent security scares and concerns have not been chiefly about safety in the UK. They have often been about security and safety elsewhere, and about bags and other items of equipment going from one place through a second place to a third place. There is a real issue that came up in the aftermath of MS804.
There were a lot of concerns among trade unions involved in aviation and elsewhere that, if there is inadequate security and screening at a departure airport and the flight connects with another flight, at that middle airport is that bag going to be screened and, if so, by whom and to what standard?
If there is any doubt about the answer to that, the need for common standards that ensure there is, one hopes, a higher but at least an adequate level of screening at every airport from which the plane departs, through which it goes and where it connects, is more important than ever. More work needs to be done in this area to achieve greater equivalence. Aside from any faults it may include, the regulation at least tries to present a way to discuss and explore that pressing issue.
Therefore, I repeat my last question to the Minister: what do the Government believe should happen to address that problem? I understand his concerns and those of the European Scrutiny Committee about the proposal as a regulation, but would those apply if it were a directive or if one of the other European Commission options were adopted? If and when the UK does leave the European Union, what is the future of ECAC? What is the future for that international co-operation to ensure that passengers and aviation and airline staff are kept as safe as they can be?
I note the concerns expressed by the European Scrutiny Committee and the Government about article 4 of the proposal, but I hope the Government will take on board the other concerns I have outlined, and begin to address the need for improvements and stakeholder consultation, as well as greater equivalence expressed as levelling up of aviation security standards across Europe, and indeed further afield.
The hon. Gentleman has raised three or four important points and it is important, because of the significance of this subject, that I address them. He is right that aviation security is a matter of profound concern to us all. I do not need to rehearse the events of recent years but it is very clear to members of the Committee and clear more widely that it is vital that we are as sure as we can be about safety and security at our airports. The Government are absolutely committed to that aim.
The hon. Gentleman is right, as I said earlier, that this has to be considered pan-nationally. The nature of the business we are in, travelling from one place to another, means the point at which someone arrives is as important as the point of departure. To that end, the Government will continue to work with countries across the world—not just across Europe—to maintain and raise standards.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the real chance of this proposal from the European Commission having a deleterious effect on our ability to do the things I have just described. Let me be clear that the proposal is that each member state will be required to designate a body severally, with responsibility for approving the compliance of equipment that is used in the delivery of EU security rules by issuing an EU type approval certificate on the basis of prototype testing.
Once a state has granted type approval to a manufacturer for a particular model of equipment, that would then be valid throughout the EU. The manufacturer would then issue a certificate of conformity to accompany each new piece of equipment. However, the proposed new regulation’s article 4, to which I draw the attention of the Committee, appears to override that provision on internal market grounds by expressly prohibiting member states from imposing “additional requirements” in respect of any equipment that has been approved by any other EU member states under the proposed regime. For the benefit of Members who do not have the text in front of them, the article states:
“Member States shall not impede the making available and/or putting into service of any equipment which is accompanied by a valid certificate of conformity issued in accordance with Article 5”—
which I mentioned a moment ago, and:
“They shall not impose additional requirements in respect of such equipment.”
That is not what happens now. ECAC devised and delivered a baseline standard, and countries across Europe are able to build on it. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is absolutely right that we maintain those baseline standards, and that we do more as necessary. As I think he said, it is also right that different countries do different things at different times, because not only does the technology change, but the threat is dynamic.
Our fear is—although legally this is not absolutely clear, to be honest—that it is possible that the measure could have the disadvantageous effect mentioned by the hon. Gentleman as a question, and to which I alluded earlier.
I understand what the Minister is saying, but I still put that against the assurance of the European Commission in the quote I cited. The Commission seemed to be saying—certainly its impact assessment stated this—that the proposal would allow producers to market and sell their products throughout the European Union once certified by one member state. It does not state, as I understand it, that therefore any airport or member state has to buy those products when it has more stringent requirements of its own.
It does not say that—the hon. Gentleman is right. It does not oblige member states or particular airports to buy that equipment, but given that what applies at the moment is that we have the baseline standards that I outlined, and some countries and airports choose to do more, it is hard to know what advantage this proposal brings. At the very least, it is unnecessary, and perhaps worse, it may be undesirable. That brings me to his second core point, about consultation.
The consultation conducted by the Commission was on general principles, not on the specifics that the hon. Gentleman has, with his usual keen eye, drawn to the attention of the Committee. Those general principles, rather than a specific proposal that could have been considered, are things about which we can all largely agree, frankly, so I would not put much weight on the consultation that the EU has so far enjoined. The specific concerns highlighted by the European Scrutiny Committee only really came to the notice of Members of this House or of other legislatures in Europe when the proposals were published in detail recently. That is why it is good to have this debate now, and it is why the Government have had only an informal consultation.
The hon. Gentleman asked, thirdly, about the future of ECAC. I think that there is a future for it, not least because its members value it. Turkey is a growing aviation power, and ECAC provides a forum to draw it into selected discussions. The worldwide character of the threat to aviation means that ECAC can and more especially should continue to play a key role, but it is certainly true that its position would become less significant—not insignificant, but less significant—were the new powers to be taken by the Commission, which is in part why I do not want them to be taken.
As I have said repeatedly, although perhaps this is indicative not so much of my Euroscepticism, which has more recently become extremely fashionable among the great and the good—or at least among the good—but more of my conservativism, we do not need to do things that we do not need to do. If things are working well, we do not change them—and that is not necessarily about political conservatism, but a slightly more cultural affair, Mr Hanson, which I say to reassure Opposition Members and others who might be listening.
The hon. Gentleman is right to ask his questions about consultation, the future of ECAC and the detail of the proposal. The reason that the French have taken the stance that they have—I suspect that they have enjoyed similar conversations, discussions and debates to the ones that we are now enjoying—is that the proposal is, at the very least, shrouded in uncertainty, doubt and scepticism. On that basis, and given the moderate and modest way in which the European Scrutiny Committee has gone about its work, it would ill behove us not to listen carefully to its advice on this occasion and support the motion.
I cannot end—you might be pleased, or sad, to hear, Mr Hanson—without a reference to Keats, since the shadow Minister challenged me to refer to him at the very outset of the sitting:
“Happy is England! I could be content
To see no other verdure than its own;
To feel no other breezes than are blown
Through its tall woods with high romances blent”.
On this occasion, England, Britain, the United Kingdom, is happy with the existing arrangements, and we should stick with them.
The Minister might not have finished yet—it depends on whether anyone else wants to contribute in the almost one hour and 50 minutes that we have left for the debate. There is opportunity for others to contribute, if they so wish, but I sense that people do not wish to do so.
Question put and agreed to.
EU Draft Budget 2017
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Ms Karen Buck
† Barclay, Stephen (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Dakin, Nic (Scunthorpe) (Lab)
† Fysh, Marcus (Yeovil) (Con)
† Gauke, Mr David (Chief Secretary to the Treasury)
† Grant, Mrs Helen (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con)
† Grant, Peter (Glenrothes) (SNP)
Hoey, Kate (Vauxhall) (Lab)
† Mackinlay, Craig (South Thanet) (Con)
† Rees-Mogg, Mr Jacob (North East Somerset) (Con)
† Reynolds, Jonathan (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op)
† Streeting, Wes (Ilford North) (Lab)
† Williams, Craig (Cardiff North) (Con)
Clementine Brown, Katya Cassidy, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
European Committee B
Monday 31 October 2016
[Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]
EU Draft Budget 2017
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 Committee’s decision to refer the documents for debate. The Minister will then make a statement of no more than 10 minutes, and questions to the Minister will follow. The total time allowed for the statement and subsequent questions and answers is up to an hour. Once questions have ended, the Minister moves the motion on the paper; debate then takes place on that motion. We must conclude our proceedings by 7pm.
Does a member of the European Scrutiny Committee wish to make a brief explanatory statement?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in a European Committee, Ms Buck. I will take a few minutes to explain the background to the documents and the reason why the European Scrutiny Committee recommended them for debate.
The draft budget sets out the Commission’s proposals for EU expenditure in 2017. It is the first stage in the process of establishing the EU’s budget for the following year and provides the basis for negotiations between the two arms of budgetary authority: the Council and the European Parliament. The Economic and Financial Affairs Council agreed its first reading position on the draft budget on 12 September; the European Parliament reached its first reading position on 25/26 October. A conciliation committee is to be convened to meet with the aim of reaching agreement on the 2017 budget by 17 November. This agreement will be subject to separate approval by both the Council and the European Parliament, after which the budget for 2017 will be deemed to have been adopted.
In addition to the draft budget, this year there are three other documents relevant to this debate. These concern the EU solidarity fund, which releases emergency financial aid following a major disaster in a member state or candidate country; the flexibility instrument, which provides funding in a given financial year for clearly identified expenses that could not be covered by one or more budget headings without exceeding their expenditure ceilings; and the contingency margin, a mechanism to react to unforeseen circumstances as a last resort instrument, which allows for a maximum 0.03% of EU gross national income to be redeployed between budget headings. The three draft decisions would mobilise the EU solidarity fund, the flexibility instrument and the contingency margin for sums included in the draft budget.
We suggest that among the matters that Members might explore are: how the UK’s proposed exit from the EU affects its interests in relation to EU expenditure and revenues in 2017; the degree of support the Government are receiving from other member states for a disciplined approach to next year’s EU budget; whether the Government are satisfied with the proposed margins below multiannual financial framework ceilings; whether there are any particular programme expenditure proposals that cause the Government concern; the significance for budgetary discipline of the proposed mobilisation of the EU solidarity fund, the flexibility instrument and the contingency margin; and to what extent the use of the flexibility instrument and the contingency margin to help address the challenges of migration, refugee and security crises might involve the UK in justice and home affairs expenditure—for example, in relation to Frontex, for which we should not be liable.
It is the custom of the European Scrutiny Committee to recommend the draft budget for debate before the Council concludes its first reading. Regrettably, this debate is taking place long after the Council’s first reading was agreed.
Finally, in a press release of 26 October, the Council set out the issues where the Council and Parliament disagreed: the Parliament wants the level of commitments in 2017 to be way above the multiannual financial framework expenditure ceilings; the Parliament wants the level of payments for 2017 to be above the estimated needs; the Parliament wishes to reopen the agreement on financing the European fund for strategic investments, which the Council considers would reduce the EU’s financial leeway for meeting unexpected needs for research and other future-orientated expenditure; the Parliament wishes for its own staff reductions to be lower than the 5% reduction by 2017 already agreed; and there is disagreement on the scope of the conciliation talks themselves, which should be limited to the 2017 budget.
I call the Minister to make an opening statement. I remind the Committee that interventions are not allowed during the statement.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Buck. I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss the 2017 annual budget proposal. The debate this year takes place within a context different from those of previous years, given the decision made by the British people to leave the European Union. None the less, today’s motion focuses on the proposed EU annual budget for 2017. The Government are clear that until the UK leaves the EU it remains a full member and is subject to the same rights and responsibilities as other member states. That includes paying into the budget, participating in budgetary discussions and ensuring the best possible deal for the UK taxpayer.
The 2017 payments ceiling is the lowest annual ceiling in the 2014 to 2020 multiannual financial framework deal, showing how the 2013 deal continues to restrict the EU budget. The Commission’s draft proposal was fully consistent with the MFF, with €157.7 billion in commitments and €134.9 billion in payments—a 6.2% reduction in payments on the 2016 budget. The Government have long argued for bigger margins in the annual budget to ensure that the Commission can be responsive to unforeseen events without having to request further funds from member states. The proposal aligns with that aim.
The 2016 deal achieved a margin of €800 million; this year, the Commission proposed a margin of more than €8 billion. The Commission’s 2017 budget proposal includes some notable elements. First, it proposes an overall larger heading “1a” within an overall smaller budget. The increased appropriations go towards a top-up of the European fund for strategic investments, which the UK supports as a way of leveraging EU budget resources effectively, and increases in other programmes.
Secondly, the proposal focuses firmly on supporting measures intended to tackle the migration crisis. Those include a number of internal measures, such as a European border force and coast guard and strengthened border management, and external measures, such as increased assistance to host countries dealing with migration outside the EU and actions to address the root causes of migration.
The Commission’s proposal is, of course, just one part of the overall negotiation. The Council set out its position in September. In Council discussions, the Government continued to argue for budgetary discipline. Working with our like-minded budget disciplinarian allies, we influenced the Council position to agree a further cut of €1.3 billion in commitments and €1.1 billion in payments on top of the Commission’s proposal.
The Commission’s amending letter, published on 17 October, makes some regular adjustments to take account of the most recent information about expenditure and revenue in headings 2 and 5, and takes account of some of the mid-term review proposals. The main changes include commitments for additional measures on migration, such as kick-starting a new partnership framework process with third countries and developing a guarantee fund as part of the external investment plan.
There are several additional commitments in the flagship heading 1a programmes. The Commission proposes borrowing commitments from future years in the MFF in order to fund those commitments, consistent with the overall seven-year MFF ceiling. Proposed payments are still almost 6% lower than in the 2016 budget, and margins of €7.5 billion have been achieved—much higher than what has been achieved in previous years. Moreover, there remains much to negotiate. We will argue that, where relevant, the Council’s suggested cuts in September also apply to the new proposal.
The European Parliament set out its position on 26 October, arguing for a principled reversal of the Council’s cuts and the increasing of the Commission position by €4.8 billion in commitments and €3.1 billion in payments. That is not surprising. Every year, the European Parliament exceeds the Commission’s position, and particularly the Council’s position, by several billion euros. Some member states may support elements of this, but, typically, negotiations conclude with more realism, and often below the Commission’s proposal. The conciliation period for an agreement between the Council, Commission and the European Parliament began on 28 October, with the budget ECOFIN expected on 16 November.
As well as the Commission’s draft budget 2017, a number of related documents have been listed for debate. I shall address them in turn. First, the proposal for the mobilisation of the flexibility instrument, which exists to respond to events and financing needs not foreseen at the start of the seven-year budget period. In the draft 2017 budget, heading 3 was short on commitments to finance measures to manage the migration, refugee and security crisis. The use of the flexibility instrument and contingency margin allows heading 3 to accommodate such extra requirements, while still retaining an overall commitments margin.
The mobilisation of the contingency margin is also appended in the draft budget and amending letter to meet the challenges. The Commission’s proposed mobilisation of the contingency margin this year provides additional commitments totalling €1.1 billion through redeployments from unallocated margin in heading 2 and heading 5, and in addition borrows under €800 million from the following two years. It is therefore simply a mechanism to move money around the seven-year budget.
As we have said in the past, the Government support EU-wide efforts to tackle the migration and refugee crisis from within existing MFF ceilings, and in this case these instruments provide a means of meeting emergency funding requirements without calling on member states for additional resources outside of the MFF ceilings.
A separate document proposes that €50 million in commitments and payments of the European Union solidarity fund, the EUSF, be included as part of the 2017 annual budget. This is standard practice, in accordance with the EUSF regulation as amended in 2014. We support the principles of the EU solidarity fund in providing support when an EU country is seriously affected by a major natural disaster. Mobilisations of the EUSF for specific instances of natural disaster in individual member states require a qualified majority voting decision in Council.
The final position on the annual budget is dependent, as I described earlier, on negotiations, and the outcome will ultimately be decided by qualified majority voting in the Council in agreement with the European Parliament. Today I hope the Committee will support the passing of today’s motion, which gives the Government a mandate to continue to work with like-minded member states in pressing for necessary restraint in the final stages of the 2017 budget negotiations this autumn.
We now have until 5.34 pm for questions to the Minister, should the Committee wish to avail itself of that opportunity. I remind Members that brevity is to be commended.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Buck.
The motion begins by referring to the European Union solidarity fund. As colleagues will no doubt be aware, the European Union solidarity fund was set up to respond to major natural disasters and to express European solidarity with disaster-stricken regions in Europe. Indeed, the UK was a beneficiary—
Order. This is an opportunity for questions to the Minister, not for a statement.
The UK was a beneficiary of the solidarity fund to the tune of £127 million during the 2007 floods, which I am sure many hon. Members remember. None the less, the Government’s position on the European Union solidarity fund has continued to be unclear. Last September, the Chief Secretary said that the Government were broadly,
“supportive of the principles of the EU solidarity fund in providing support when an EU country is seriously affected by a major natural disaster.”
However, he then said he did not,
“believe that new pressures should necessarily lead to requests for new money from member states”.—[Official Report, European Committee B, 14 September 2015; c. 4.]
More generally, by next year the EU will begin to look at the allocation of the next tranche of funding—
Order. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to go straight to questions.
Thank you, Ms Buck.
First, will the Minister outline the Government’s long-term plan with regard to the European Union solidarity fund and the UK’s relationship with it? Secondly, will the Government today confirm whether they have plans to carry out regional assessments looking at the Brexit impact on regions in terms of job creation, business activity and infrastructure projects forgone? Thirdly, is it the Government’s intention to develop a long-term replacement system of regional funding? Can the Minister confirm that this system will retain the seven-year tranche structure, as outlined, which allows long-term projects to flourish—
Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he has the opportunity to ask supplementary questions, but it might be best to ask a question, allow the Minister to respond and then ask supplementaries.
I see. I thought the Minister preferred them all at once.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position on the Front Bench. I will deal with regional funding and assessments and also his point on the European Union solidarity fund. We are supportive of the principles of the European Union solidarity fund in providing support when an EU country is seriously affected by a major natural disaster. I make the point— it is a general point that may apply to several of his questions—that it is right that the EU prioritises its expenditure in the way that provides the most value for money and achieves the most for the people of the European Union. It is therefore right that through sound financial management, the EU frees up resources so that it can respond to natural disasters, and the solidarity fund is a means by which it is capable of responding.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the impact of Brexit and in particular the applications to regional funding. At this stage, I cannot say much more than the points we have already made about the support that we have provided for measures that have been announced. Essentially, the Government have agreed to guarantee projects entered into before the autumn statement. Anything that is entered into subsequent to the autumn statement but before we leave the European Union will be supported to the extent that it provides value for money and is consistent with the Government’s priorities. On regional assessments, all I can say at this point is that we will take into account the regional impacts when looking at our future position and determining our future priorities.
I have just one more question. In preparing the Government’s statement to the Committee, what conversations have Ministers had with the devolved Administrations—in particular those in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, where issues relating to the EU budget are particularly sensitive?
I am sure that it will not have escaped the hon. Gentleman’s notice that there were several meetings this time last week between the First Ministers of all the devolved Administrations, the Prime Minister and several colleagues, and I met the Finance Ministers on Monday afternoon. There is obviously significant interest from the devolved Administrations in these matters, which were discussed. Where the devolved Administrations sign up to structural investment projects under their current EU budget allocation prior to Brexit, we will ensure that they are funded to meet those commitments. It will be for the devolved Administrations to decide what criteria they use to assess projects, in line with the devolution settlements.
I have three questions, which I will ask together and allow the Minister to deal with together. First, following up on the answer that he has just given about consultation with the devolved Administrations, I did not hear him say specifically what discussion there has been about the EU budget. He has indicated what will happen once the EU budget has been agreed and allocated, but can he clarify what discussions, if any, there were with the devolved Administrations prior to the Government beginning the process of agreeing the 2017 budget?
Secondly, in his explanatory memorandum of 11 July, the Minister did not tell us whether the Government supported the Commission’s proposals. What he has said today implies that the Government supported them at that early stage. Can he confirm that and tell us when the Government came to that position? It seems to me that if it was the Government’s position before 11 July that they would support the Commission’s proposals at the first reading stage, they should have told the European Scrutiny Committee that, so I am interested to know when they reached that position.
Finally, the budget still has to go through a number of further processes. The Minister reminded us that, as often happens, the Council and the European Parliament have different views about what they want in the final budget. It appears from the Minister’s comments that the Government are looking for the Commission’s proposals or less—certainly not any more. Given that there is disagreement with the directly elected European Parliament, will the Minister give a commitment that this will be brought back again and will go through the full scrutiny process, and that any requests of the European Scrutiny Committee will be complied with before the Government commit to supporting either the European Parliament’s proposals or some compromise thereon?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. The EU budget as a whole is a matter for the United Kingdom and, as I say, there is regular communication. This time last week, I was in discussions with the Finance Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and issues relating to EU funding were relevant to those discussions. The position of the United Kingdom in respect of the EU budget is determined by the United Kingdom Government.
On our position on this year’s proposal, let me make it clear that what the Commission proposed is consistent with the seven-year multiannual financial framework, which was agreed in 2013. That was a significant achievement, because it reduced the EU budget for the first time. Some felt that the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, would not be able to achieve that, but he did. That was consistent with this proposal.
The negotiations are live, so it would not be appropriate for me to give away our position prematurely, because that might reduce our chances of achieving the outcome that we want. The Government’s approach will be the one we have always taken in such circumstances: we will continue to push for maximum budget restraint and value for money to minimise costs for taxpayers. I hope that will have the support of all Committee members.
Scrutiny of the annual budget takes place on the Commission’s proposals. The proposals move very quickly and frequently, so timescales do not allow for a further round of scrutiny. The motion sets out the Government’s overall approach of seeking the best possible value for money, and I hope it has the support of all members of the Committee.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck.
I want to follow up on consultation. The Minister outlined the way that the Government are interacting with the Scottish and Welsh Governments, but will he outline what the formal mechanisms are for consultation with the Mayor of London? Clearly, a range of issues relating to our impending departure from the European Union will have a huge consequence for London and, as a direct result of that, will reach right across the United Kingdom. It is only right and proper that the Mayor of London or a suitable representative has a seat at the table.
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is touching on issues wider than this debate. I suspect that he is not specifically asking about consultations with the Mayor of London on the EU budget proposal for 2017, about which, as far as I am aware, the Mayor of London has not expressed an opinion, but I may be wrong—perhaps I should check that.
On the wider issue of the EU, Brexit and the position of London and its Mayor, all I can say today is that there are regular conversations between the Treasury and the Mayor. Without revealing too much about the diaries of the individuals concerned without their permission, meetings occur, and there is one in the not-too-distant future.
I am grateful for the reply. To bring us back firmly within the scope of the budget, my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde talked about analysis of the EU budget’s regional impact. Obviously, there are longer-term questions about replacing expenditure that currently benefits the regions and nations of the UK. What plans do the Government have to publish their analysis of the regional benefits and risks presented by Britain’s membership of the European Union, and of the risks presented by leaving the European Union, so that we can have an informed debate? A seemingly endless number of Government debates have been scheduled, but we will have those debates in the dark, as the Government seem reticent about publishing any relevant information about the benefits or risks of the negotiations.
I point out that the Government published a lot of information during the referendum debate. That information was made available to the British people, and I do not want a repeat of that debate. The British people made a decision, though it might not have been the decision that the hon. Gentleman or I campaigned for, and we have to respect that. The Government are looking at various options, so that we can make a success of the decision that the British people have made. There will be different regional implications, one assumes, of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, but the Government are determined to ensure that this is a success for every part of the United Kingdom, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and every member of this Committee supports that.
This is my final question, I promise. I suspect that like me, the Chief Secretary campaigned to remain in the European Union, but accepts the result and now wants to get the best possible deal. As parliamentarians and the general public determine the best possible deal, can we take it that all Treasury documents published prior to the referendum—including all their figures and assumptions—are ones that we should stand by and use to inform the debate?
I fear that the hon. Gentleman wants to take me down a path that is a little way away from the motion in front of us. We are in new circumstances. The determination of the Government is to ensure that we deliver the best possible outcome for the British people in the negotiations with the European Union and in our relationship with the EU and other parts of the world, post-Brexit. That is our focus.
I was going to sit quietly for once, but the questioning has gone along a certain line. May I remind the Chief Secretary to the Treasury that the Chancellor, in front of the Treasury Committee, said that the reports before 23 June no longer applied, because their assumptions were out of date already? We therefore do not have to work on the maxim of gloom and nonsense that came from the Treasury at that point, and can look to the broad sunlit uplands. One thing we can be certain of is that once we leave, we will no longer have to pay into the budget, will not be part of the multiannual financial framework, and will not have to have these debates any more.
As one who was on a different side of the debate earlier this year, let me say that if there was a cloud, there is certainly a silver lining.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 10763/16, a Proposed Decision on the mobilisation of the European Union Solidarity Fund to provide for the payment of advances in the general budget of the Union for 2017; No. 10764/16, a Proposed Decision on the mobilisation of the Flexibility Instrument to finance immediate budgetary measures to address the on-going migration, refugee and security crisis; No. 10765/16, a Proposed Decision on the mobilisation of the Contingency Margin in 2017; unnumbered European Document, Statement of estimates of the European Commission for the financial year 2017; supports the Government’s efforts to limit the size of the EU Budget in order to get the best deal for UK taxpayers; welcomes the fact that the 2017 Draft Budget respects the Multi-Annual Financial Framework agreement; further welcomes the reduction in payments in the 2017 Draft Budget compared to the 2016 Budget; and notes that the 2017 Draft Budget achieves a greater margin in payments than in 2016.—(Mr Gauke.)
I seem to be finally getting the hang of European Committees, just in time for us to leave the European Union.
From the Opposition’s perspective, it seems that we still do not have the information required, particularly on how the Government will manage the interactions between the obligations that they will enter into in the EU budget period we are looking at and our eventual exit from the European Union. There are many questions. The Government still need to inform the British public about their negotiating strategy for Brexit, but in particular, in relation to these documents, they must give an answer on the shortfall in funding to those parts of the UK that will be affected by our exit from the EU regional development fund and the European structural fund. I look forward to those answers coming forward in the months ahead.
I find myself in a strange position on two counts. I find myself facing a room of Conservative MPs, and I am the one who feels that he has to speak in defence of the UK Parliament. It is more than unfortunate that another substantial document coming out of the European Union—possibly the most important strategic document of the year—is not getting sufficient parliamentary scrutiny in this place from a Government who are taking us out of the European Union because they, or apparently the people, are so fed up with decisions being taken over there, instead of over here.
The irony is not lessened by the fact that year after year, these big, bad, evil, unelected bureaucrats in the European Commission put forward one set of proposals, and our directly democratically elected representatives in the European Parliament put forward another—and Governments go along with the unelected bureaucrats, and support the Commission’s proposals. The irony is therein; I do not attempt to explain it.
We should not look at this in isolation, because those of us who are members of the European Scrutiny Committee and anyone who follows the Committee’s work will know that there is a huge list of important issues that we have asked Parliament to debate, either on the Floor of the House or in Committee. On some of them, we have been kept hanging on for ridiculous lengths of time. The scrutiny of the comprehensive economic and trade agreement in the past week or two is simply the most recent and one of the worst cases of that.
I asked the Minister to give assurances that the European Scrutiny Committee would be given the chance to scrutinise the budget, because once it is decided, we are stuck with it. I am not saying that we should necessarily try to get everyone in the House of Commons to agree to every detail of the budget, but this is not a good way to demonstrate that the Government believe in parliamentary oversight of any European document, least of all one with such substantial financial implications.
I remind Members that the Government had these documents on 30 June, and it took 11 days for the Minister to produce an explanatory memorandum, which explained nothing and was not memorable. The memorandum effectively regurgitated a whole pile of numbers from the original documents, but it still took 11 days to do that. The European Scrutiny Committee then took two days to consider that; it had very little time to consider it properly. It has since taken 15 weeks for this debate to be called, and we are now told that there will not be time for further scrutiny before the process has to be completed.
I understand that there are pressures on parliamentary time—I certainly would not have been jumping up and down, demanding to be brought back in the middle of August for a half-day debate on this subject on the Floor of the House—but it frustrates and angers me that so much of the argument about the European Union was about decisions being taken in the wrong place when this Government, and, I have to say, previous Governments, simply have not played ball with Parliament’s own scrutiny processes. That has been a significant factor in making people believe that the lack of transparency is all Europe’s fault, when in fact much of the responsibility lies in this place.
My second major concern is that despite being asked twice about discussions with the heads of the devolved nations, the Government clearly have not discussed the budget with them. The Minister referred to the talks held last week. If I remember correctly, Nicola Sturgeon described the meeting as deeply frustrating and said that those who took part knew no more when they came out than they had when they went in. She did not say that it was a complete waste of time, but anyone who read her comments or those of the First Minister of Wales would have got that distinct impression. That does not show respect for other nations in the United Kingdom, or give any credibility to the claim that we are all equal partners.
I fully understand that EU relations are reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament and Government, but it is not good enough for the Government to fail to discuss these matters with the devolved nations simply because, constitutionally, they do not have to. We have not been given any assurance that there will be further scrutiny of these documents before the Government come to a decision, and they will probably support the unelected bureaucrats, rather than the elected MEPs. I was sorely tempted to vote against the motion, simply to put on record how unhappy I am about this, but I probably will not.
Finally, in his explanatory memorandum, the Minister helpfully converts the UK’s expected share of the total EU budget from euros to pounds. Our share is expected to be just over 13% of the total—about €20.5 billion. On the day on which the Minister wrote to the European Scrutiny Committee, sterling was worth about €1.21, so our share would have been just under £17 billion. Today, the pound is worth just under €1.11, so our share has gone up to £18.5 billion. Ironically, simply because of the collapse in sterling caused by the Brexit vote, it looks like the cost of us being part of the European Union next year will be £1.5 billion more than it should have been.
Hopefully, when summing up, the Minister will confirm whether the Government want to maintain the fiction that the falling price of sterling is somehow good for British taxpayers, because if sterling stays where it is, British taxpayers will spend £1.5 billion more on the European Union than we needed to. That, I suspect, is why the £350 million a week for the health service will never materialise, and the promises made will never be kept—because that money has evaporated. It is sitting in an offshore account belonging to some billionaire speculator by now. The Government have tried to tell us that the fall in sterling is somehow good for British business. I want to hear the Minister say whether he thinks it a good sign that the cost of the UK’s EU membership next year will be £1.5 billion more than it was when he wrote his explanatory memorandum.
I thank members of the European Scrutiny Committee for selecting the documents for debate. EU budget negotiations are a challenging process. The budget will ultimately be decided by a qualified majority in the European Council, in agreement with the European Parliament. That said, I am pleased to say that the Commission’s proposals are fully consistent with the multiannual financial framework, and achieve a much higher payment margin than they did in previous years.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Glenrothes, who characterised the debate as us siding with the Commission as opposed to the Parliament, and says that that is somehow undemocratic. The true democratic voice in the European Union is that of the European Council; it is made up of member states’ Governments, which are, after all, the institutions responsible for collecting taxes, and which are held to account by their public.
I am pleased to say that the Council has, in recent years, looked for greater fiscal discipline, and has supported measures that have resulted in the MFF being lower in this seven-year period than in the previous one. The British Government have made it clear that we support that, and we look to ensure fiscal constraint. The fact that the European Parliament takes a different view does not give it a greater mandate and allow it to overrule the position of member states’ Governments, and the British Government’s position has been made clear to Parliament.
We are committed to keeping the European Scrutiny Committee updated as the proposals evolve. In my opening speech, I highlighted the European Parliament’s position, which is publicly available, and we will shortly submit a further explanatory memorandum on the updated Commission proposal. A deal is often struck at short notice. It has been known to be done rather late at night—I have personal experience of that. As I said earlier, the budget ECOFIN is scheduled for 16 November.
As for our priorities for future spending, I have made clear what we are doing about providing guarantees for future funding. However, we will want to take our own decisions on spending once we have left the European Union. We are consulting closely with interested parties in considering what future spending priorities will look like, but the British people have made a decision and, on this spending, we are taking back control, to coin a phrase.
While we remain in the European Union, we will continue to champion the need for an efficient EU budget that provides good value for the UK taxpayer, and press firmly to ensure fiscal discipline by limiting budget size to deliver the MFF deal. In doing so we will work with like-minded allies to deliver the best EU budget deal possible within the parameters of the negotiation. We will, of course, keep members of the Committee updated, as I said. I welcome their continued interest in this important issue.
Question put and agreed to.
Delegated Legislation Committee
Electoral Commission (Motions)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Phil Wilson
† Burt, Alistair (North East Bedfordshire) (Con)
† Campbell, Mr Alan (Tynemouth) (Lab)
† Drummond, Mrs Flick (Portsmouth South) (Con)
† Ellis, Michael (Deputy Leader of the House of Commons)
† Grady, Patrick (Glasgow North) (SNP)
† Hollinrake, Kevin (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)
Hosie, Stewart (Dundee East) (SNP)
† Hunt, Tristram (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab)
† Johnson, Gareth (Dartford) (Con)
Jones, Graham (Hyndburn) (Lab)
† Reynolds, Emma (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab)
† Smith, Julian (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)
† Smyth, Karin (Bristol South) (Lab)
† Thomas, Derek (St Ives) (Con)
Tugendhat, Tom (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)
Vaizey, Mr Edward (Wantage) (Con)
† Vaz, Valerie (Walsall South) (Lab)
† Warburton, David (Somerton and Frome) (Con)
Ben Williams, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Second Delegated Legislation Committee
Monday 31 October 2016
[Phil Wilson in the Chair]
Electoral Commission (Motions)
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the motion, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that Her Majesty will appoint Sir John Holmes as the Chair of the Electoral Commission with effect from 1 January 2017 for the period ending on 31 December 2020.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following motion, on the Electoral Commission,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that Her Majesty will appoint Dame Susan Bruce as an Electoral Commissioner with effect from 1 January 2017 for the period ending on 31 December 2020.
It is a pleasure to appear before you, Mr Wilson.
The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission has produced a report—its fourth of 2016—in relation to the first motion. The vacancy has arisen because the term of office of the current chair of the commission, Jenny Watson, comes to an end on 31 December 2016. I am sure that the Committee would like to thank Ms Watson for her service as chair for the past eight years.
Appointments to the Electoral Commission are made under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, as amended by the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, under which the Speaker’s Committee has the responsibility of overseeing the selection of candidates for appointment. Commissioners are appointed for a fixed term and may be reappointed for up to a maximum term length of 10 years. As is normal for such appointments, the Speaker’s Committee established a recruitment panel to oversee the shortlisting and interviewing of candidates and, given the importance of the role, it asked the Commissioner for Public Appointments to appoint a public appointment assessor to chair the panel. The commissioner nominated Mark Addison, a former civil service commissioner, to that role, and the other members of the panel were Max Caller, a former electoral commissioner and former chair of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England, Dr Jane Martin, a local government ombudsman for England, and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), a member of the Speaker’s Committee. The unanimous view of the panel was that Sir John Holmes should be appointed as chair of the Electoral Commission.
Sir John’s most recent role was director of the Ditchley Foundation, an organisation established to promote transatlantic dialogue and understanding of international policy issues. The majority of Sir John’s executive career was spent working in foreign affairs, in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and as a foreign affairs adviser to two Prime Ministers. After leaving the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where his final role was as British ambassador to France, he moved to the United Nations to be the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief co-ordinator.
The Committee received the panel’s report in April and put the name of the recommended candidate forward for consultation with the leaders of the political parties represented here at Westminster, as is required by statute. This statutory consultation provides an opportunity for the party leaders to comment, but they are not required to do so. The responses received are published in the Speaker’s Committee report. Following the consultation with the party leaders, the Speaker’s Committee held a public meeting with Sir John, to test his suitability for the role and discuss his priorities for the commission. The transcript of that session can be found on the Committee’s website. Following that meeting, the Committee agreed to recommend Sir John’s appointment to the House.
The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission has produced a report—its third of 2016—in relation to the second motion, that Dame Susan Bruce will serve on the commission as the electoral commissioner with special responsibility for Scotland.
The vacancy has arisen because the term of office of John McCormick, the current commissioner with special responsibility for Scotland, comes to an end on 31 December 2016, and I am sure that the Committee would wish to join me in thanking him for his service. The Speaker’s Committee appointed a recruitment panel to oversee the shortlisting and interviewing of candidates for this role also, and asked Judith Alderton, an independent human resources professional with experience of senior recruitment, to chair the recruitment panel. The Speaker’s Committee agreed that a nominee of the Scottish Parliament should take part in the recruitment exercise for the role, to reflect the Electoral Commission’s increased accountability to the Scottish Parliament for its work in Scotland since the Scotland Act 2016. The other panel members were Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission; Graeme Pearson, former MSP for South Scotland; my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon, and the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who are both members of the Speaker’s Committee.
The panel’s unanimous view was that Dame Susan Bruce DBE should be appointed as an electoral commissioner with special responsibility for Scotland. Dame Susan currently holds a number of senior non-executive positions in Scotland, spanning the public and private sectors. Before taking on those roles, her career was in local government: she was chief executive of Aberdeen City Council and then of the City of Edinburgh Council. The Speaker’s Committee received the board’s report in April and agreed to the nomination. Dame Susan’s name was then put forward for the statutory consultation with the leaders of the political parties represented here at Westminster. The responses received to that consultation are published in the Speaker’s Committee’s report.
In summary, this Committee is being asked to consider motions to appoint Sir John Holmes as chair of the Electoral Commission for four years and Dame Susan Bruce as an electoral commissioner for four years. I hope that the Committee, and ultimately the House, will support their appointments and wish them well as they take up their new posts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for his speech; I join him in thanking Jenny Watson, outgoing chair of the Electoral Commission, for all her hard work.
For both appointments, the process of selection and interview has been rigorous. It has included consulting party leaders—I think the former Prime Minister actually responded—and for the first time the Scottish Parliament was consulted on the appointment of the electoral commissioner responsible for Scotland. The process has been open, transparent and accountable to Parliament, with reports published on 19 July 2016 and 10 October 2016. I am sure that the new appointees will look forward to the challenges of addressing the 50 recommendations of “Securing the ballot”, the report by the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles).
The Labour party has some concerns about individual electoral registration and ending the transition arrangements earlier. The Electoral Commission may want to review the situation to ensure that people have not been disfranchised and are on the register, so that they can take full part in the democratic process.
The candidates’ backgrounds are set out in the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission’s third and fourth reports of 2016, and we can see that they both have extensive experience. The Opposition fully endorse those reports and the motions.
I am happy to add the Scottish National party’s support to the motions. We welcome the involvement of the Scottish Parliament—and, indeed, of my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire—in the appointment of the electoral commissioner for Scotland. If my calculations are correct, the appointments will take the gender balance on the board from 7:3 to 6:4, so we are getting closer to the 50:50 target that I am sure we all want to achieve and that the First Minister of Scotland has set for public bodies to achieve by 2020, as I am sure hon. Members know.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the motion, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Sir John Holmes as the Chair of the Electoral Commission with effect from 1 January 2017 for the period ending on 31 December 2020.
That the Committee has considered the motion, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Dame Susan Bruce as an Electoral Commissioner with effect from 1 January 2017 for the period ending on 31 December 2020.—(Michael Ellis.)