Skip to main content

Grand Committee

Volume 707: debated on Tuesday 27 January 2009

Grand Committee

Tuesday, 27 January 2009.

Arrangement of Business

Announcement

Before the Minister moves that the first statutory instrument be considered, I remind noble Lords that in the case of each statutory instrument the Motion before the Committee will be that the Committee do consider the statutory instrument in question. I should make it clear that the Motion to approve the statutory instrument will be moved in the Chamber in the usual way.

Visiting Forces and International Headquarters (Application of Law) (Amendment) Order 2009

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Visiting Forces and International Headquarters (Application of Law) (Amendment) Order 2009.

Relevant document: 30th report, Session 2007–08, from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

With this order, I shall also speak to the subsequent two draft orders, which were laid before the House on 23 October 2008 together with a joint Explanatory Memorandum. These three orders collectively give effect to certain provisions of three status of forces agreements (SOFAs) to which the United Kingdom is a party. They are the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation Status of Forces Agreement (NATO SOFA), the NATO Partnership for Peace Status of Forces Agreement (PfP SOFA) and the European Union Status of Forces Agreement (EU SOFA).

What is a status of forces agreement? SOFAs establish the status of military and civilian personnel originating from one country when they are located in the territory of another country. They also provide for the status of military headquarters established in other countries. The status, privileges and immunities conferred on military and civilian personnel by the draft orders are no greater in extent than those required by the relevant SOFA, or the established custom and practice, to enable either NATO or the EU and specified individuals connected with those organisations to function effectively.

The NATO SOFA effectively has primacy. The PfP SOFA extends the NATO SOFA to all the states that have accepted the invitation to participate in the Partnership for Peace. The EU SOFA comes into force only once it has been ratified by all the EU member states and only applies in so far as the status of their forces is not regulated by the NATO or PfP SOFA.

What do the orders do? The first order, the Visiting Forces and International Headquarters (Application of Law) (Amendment) Order 2009, amends the Visiting Forces and International Headquarters (Application of Law) Order 1999 to include Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Ireland, Montenegro, Serbia and Tajikistan in the list of visiting forces countries. It also updates the list of headquarters to which the 1999 order applies. For example, the NATO Headquarters for Allied Naval Forces North Western Europe, which is known as NAVNORTHWEST, has been renamed as the Maritime Component Command Headquarters Northwood, or CC-MAR HQ Northwood. The effect of this order is to ensure that various laws apply to visiting forces and international headquarters in the same way as they apply to our domestic Armed Forces.

The second order, the International Headquarters and Defence Organisations (Designation and Privileges) (Amendment) Order 2009, provides for the amendment of the International Headquarters and Defence Organisations (Designation and Privileges) Order 1965. It updates the list of headquarters to which the 1965 order applies. The 1965 order provides for the inviolability of the official archives of international headquarters that have a presence in the United Kingdom. In respect of some of those headquarters, the 1965 order also confers legal capacity and provides for immunity from legal process that involves the seizure of any funds or property.

The third order, the European Union Military Staff (Immunities and Privileges) Order 2009, confers privileges and immunities on the European Union and its military staff, principally that staff shall enjoy immunity from suit and legal process in respect of things done or omitted to be done in the course of the performance of official duties. It also provides that the official archives of the EU military staff and the EU are inviolable, in the same way that the archives of diplomatic missions are inviolable under the Vienna convention of 1961.

Once these orders have been made, Her Majesty’s Government will notify the Secretary-General of the Council of the European Union under Article 19(2) that they have completed their constitutional procedures for the ratification of the EU SOFA. There are no further notification requirements in respect of the NATO and PfP SOFAs. The orders simply bring the list of countries and headquarters up to date.

The provisions of these orders extend to the United Kingdom. In their extent to Scotland they apply only so far as they relate to a reserved matter within the meaning of Section 29(2)(b) of the Scotland Act 1998.

These orders will allow the United Kingdom to comply with its international obligations in giving full effect to the privileges and immunities that were agreed in the SOFA agreements and will allow the UK to continue to develop the strong partnership that it has with these organisations.

The Minister for the Armed Forces and the Minister from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were both satisfied that these orders are compatible with the rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights. They are important orders, which I hope will receive the support of noble Lords. I beg to move.

I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Bach, back to defence issues, which I well remember him dealing with in the past. The issues raised by the orders have been covered in detail in the other place by my honourable friend the MP for Westbury, who set out our reservations about the European Union Military Staff (Immunities and Privileges) Order. I share his concerns but will not detain your Lordships by repeating them this afternoon. The other two orders are uncontroversial.

As far as we are concerned, these orders are updating, functional, practical and necessary. We are happy to support them.

Apart from thanking both noble Lords for their contributions and, in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Luke, for his kind remarks, I commend the orders to the Committee.

Motion agreed.

International Headquarters and Defence Organisations (Designation and Privileges) (Amendment) Order 2009

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the International Headquarters and Defence Organisations (Designation and Privileges) (Amendment) Order 2009.

Relevant document: 30th report, Session 2007–08, from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

Motion agreed.

European Union Military Staff (Immunities and Privileges) Order 2009

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the European Union Military Staff (Immunities and Privileges) Order 2009.

Relevant document: 30th report, Session 2007–08, from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

Motion agreed.

Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 (Disclosure of Pupil Information) (England) Regulations 2009

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 (Disclosure of Pupil Information) (England) Regulations 2009.

Relevant document: 2nd report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

These regulations represent the first use of the data-sharing power under the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 and are part of a wider programme of work, the Migration and Population Statistics Improvement Programme, which is being taken forward by the National Statistician. This work seeks to address the problems faced by local authorities in estimating highly mobile populations, taking into account short-term migration. The Government are committed to helping to improve the accuracy of the population estimates produced by the ONS, particularly at the local level. This is in order to underpin the correct funding of local government, NHS and other public services. Both central and local government need accurate information on migrant numbers and overall changes to the size and structure of the population for resource allocation and for the planning and delivery of local services.

The ONS has evaluated the content of the school census and identified the information that it needs for essential research and methodological work on population and migration statistics. The regulations will allow the DCSF to share this information with the ONS, including pupils’ names, birthdates, addresses, ethnicities, spoken languages and dates of joining and leaving schools. Access to these specific data items will enable the ONS to evaluate current estimation procedures and, if necessary, to develop new approaches for the derivation of migration statistics, population estimates and projections. The benefits to accrue from this include better information on local populations, including areas with high rates of population turnover; better information on estimates of numbers of migrants; improved accuracy of mid-year estimates and projections of population; improved enumeration strategies for the 2011 census; better assessments of coverage of the 2011 census leading to better estimates; development of ongoing research into the use of administrative data in updating population statistics without a traditional census; and improving resource allocation, policy formation and planning and delivery of services.

When collecting school census data, the DCSF gives a fair processing notice to parents—in effect, the privacy policy for the data that it collects—which already states that information from the school census may be shared with other government departments, including the ONS, for statistical and research purposes. At present this covers only educational statistics. These regulations are designed to make it possible for the ONS to use these data to improve migration and population statistics as well. Data confidentiality and security arrangements are a fundamental part of the preparation of the data-sharing agreement between the two departments. The ONS and DCSF will put the necessary measures in place to protect these data to avoid the disclosure of any private information about individual children. The ONS and DCSF have already worked to tight confidentiality guidelines with excellent data security records. I hope that the Committee will support the regulations to help to improve the accuracy of ONS migration and population statistics. I beg to move.

I thank the Minister. The key issues that I want to test a little further relate to the security of the data to be made available and whether the data are in fact already available in other forms. I accept that the regulations have gone through a number of other channels already and that they were considered in a significant debate in the other place, and here I associate myself closely with the comments of my honourable friend Nick Hurd. Because the measure relates to pupil information, I should declare my interests as recorded in the Register: I am a director of four academies in the north of England and vice-chairman of an educational foundation.

I turn first to the issue of the data and ask whether these regulations are absolutely necessary. When any statistician is asked whether they want more data sets, the answer is always that they do. However, do they actually need them? That is what I would like to focus on. The Minister has already referred to the school census data collections. I went on to TeacherNet to look at the guidance for the 2009 collection. It states that the data are widely used by the DCSF policy divisions, other government departments, local authorities, external agencies and educational researchers. Therefore, the first question to pose is: given that that freedom already exists, why is it necessary to have secondary legislation to make that information available?

The specific requirement under Regulation 6 talks about the use of pupil names. It states that names will be used only for cross-referencing purpose, but I should like the Minister to say a little more about why it is necessary to introduce pupil names. I draw the Committee’s attention to the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee’s consideration of the draft of what became the Children Act 2004. That document refers to the confidentiality of data relating to young people. I know that that is an issue that the Government take very seriously—I do not for a moment suggest otherwise—but it would be appreciated if the Minister answered those questions about the security of data entered by schools.

Turning to other potential data sources, when I was looking at how one might get better information on migration flows, I was interested to note that on the internet, where there is a huge amount of information on such things, the UK Border Agency has already produced its estimates of migration flows, especially from eastern Europe. It seems to track them very closely, which is encouraging. Again, if that is the rationale behind introducing this secondary legislation, what contacts and communication does the Minister have with the UK Border Agency on utilising the data that clearly already exist? The agency could refer to the fact that 32,230 people were removed from the UK, a rise of 6 per cent. That is a granular level of detail. If the regulations are about trying to track migration flows within the UK, one ought to look at the data sets already available in the public domain.

When it comes to pupil information, which is specifically what is dealt with by the regulations, many websites—all the school and local authority websites—give ample information about the number of pupils registered at a particular school. One can then track that backwards to see whether the number of pupils registered is increasing. For personal affinity purposes, I happened to look up the great town of Middlesbrough in the north-east of England. I was able to see the pupil roll not only at the King’s Academy, of which I am a director, but at the feeder primary schools. There is lots of detail, even down to the level that there are 17 nationalities at the school speaking 16 different languages. That level of data is quite rich by any stretch of the imagination.

When we then look at the Office for National Statistics database—as a bit of an anorak when it comes to data, I am sad to say that I find it really enjoyable to mine into that—we find that quite a lot of data sets are already there. When it comes to people and society, population and migration, the Office for National Statistics website, under the heading “Neighbourhood statistics”, has 31 data sets available—this is for the local authority of Middlesbrough. A lot of those data sets are not linked back to the 2001 census, which shows the important need for updating the information. There are data sets from as recently as 2006-07.

This is about testing the security of the information, particularly given that this is sensitive information about children. I also want to put on the record our view that the list in the instrument of the variables that will be input should be the limit and that the department should not be coming back for more variables and more personal information.

The second point relates to the current availability of statistics. Given that this is 2009 and the last census was in 2001, a census cannot be seen as the panacea for all issues. As the evidence to the Treasury Committee inquiry on counting the population—this is in volume 1 of its 11th report from 2007-08—stated, often the take-up for the completion of a census can be as low as 60 per cent or 70 per cent. The people who are least likely to complete the census are migrant workers, for obvious reasons. I question the reliance on the idea that the census will provide the answer; it will give some of the answers.

Finally, we are now in 2009 and the next census is in 2011. Could the data that will be required not wait? Could the extra page that is proposed be put into the census form to capture all this information, so that people have that security?

For the school census data, there is a requirement to stipulate whether parents have given approval for the data to be released and to be moved on; there is a requirement to say whether parental approval has been given. I can happily come back to the Minister to refer to the specific section in the guidance for schools, but I should like him to comment on that.

The guidance document talks about the uploading of fields to Connexions, the Jobcentre people. It states that it must be stipulated, “Yes, permission has been given by a parent or guardian for the information to be shared”, “No, permission has been refused by the parent or guardian”, or, “UNS”, which is unsought. The SNR field should be used when the school has sent out fair proceeding notices but no response has been received from the parent or guardian. Those are pretty important safeguards, particularly when we are talking about children. Will they apply in the uploading and the use of data by ONS?

This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of debating with the noble Lord, Lord Brett, and I am delighted to be able to do so, albeit from the further reaches of the Moses Room. I fail to see, when there are only three people in the debate, why we on these Benches have to be sent to the far end of the Room. Maybe it is in a vain hope that our arrows will fall short. I can promise the noble Lord no arrows today.

We understand the purposes of the regulations. Given the very mobile population that we have today, it is essential that statisticians have sufficient information to ensure that local authorities are properly resourced to look after those people who move into their area at fairly short notice. However, when we are talking about the data on children, I share the Conservative spokesman’s concern about security. Only this week, we have been told that the number of people who will have access to the ContactPoint database will be in the region of 400,000—a figure that we did not have when we debated this issue in your Lordships’ House. Will the Minister say how many people are likely to have access to the information about which we are speaking today? Can he also assure us that the data will be used only for the purpose for which they were collected? That may be the case at the moment, but I understand that the Coroners and Justice Bill, which is on its way down the track, will allow wider data sharing without consent. In other words, the data will be used for purposes beyond those for which they were collected. Will these regulations be affected by the measures in the Coroners and Justice Bill? If so, will they return to your Lordships’ House for discussion at that time, because that would certainly widen the effect of these regulations considerably?

I looked in some detail at the various items of information about each child that are to be collected and shared. Will the Minister say why it is necessary to provide the child’s full address? If the purpose is to ensure that local authorities are properly resourced to look after the various needs of the child, I see no reason why the full address needs to be given. Why not simply give the local authority ward in which the child lives? That would be quite sufficient. Given that the child is most vulnerable to any paedophile when his or her full address is known, it strikes me that, if there is any way at all in which the usefulness of these data could be undiluted while avoiding giving the full address, which may be provided under Regulation 4(b), that would be highly desirable.

The regulations clearly relate to children of school age, because the information comes from the school census. When this was debated in another place, a question was asked about young people who are just above school age and whether there were any proposals to address the fact that, in many cities, there are large numbers of students above school age in both higher and further education who are not counted until they leave the city, which is too late for the city to be given any resources to look after their needs. I am afraid that, when I read the Minister’s reply, it was not terribly clear whether there were any plans to deal with this. I realise that this is slightly beyond the scope of the regulations, but the noble Lord might be able to help me on it.

My colleague in another place asked whether there would be any other benefits of this kind of data sharing—for example, the ability to track tendencies such as girls being taken out of school and going abroad to be married. I can think of other trends that might be picked up by the statisticians and which could be an additional benefit of this kind of sharing without contravening the narrowness of the purpose for which the information was collected.

I have a question about the younger age range. Paragraph 7.3 of the Explanatory Notes tells me that, at the younger end of the age range, the only institutions from which the information will be called in are the maintained nurseries and the direct grant nurseries. There are lots of early years settings other than those two categories. Of course, local authorities provide a great deal of resource and have an obligation to ensure that there is enough provision, not just in terms of what they provide but also from the private sector, the voluntary sector and other organisations. As they have this obligation, I should have thought that it was necessary to collect information about children in the early years setting age range. Currently this provision is available for three year-olds but some state-funded provision will soon be available for two year-olds from the poorest families. Therefore, local authorities need to have the relevant information. If that were collected, it would certainly help them to fulfil their obligation to ensure that sufficient provision is available in the area. Is there any proposal to extend the collection of data to cover those very young children in order to assist local authorities to demand appropriate resources from the Government?

I thank the noble Baroness and I am grateful for her kind good wishes. I was absolutely terrified to find that the noble Lord, Lord Bates, is truly fascinated by databases—things that send horror and shivers through my spine. The questions posed by noble Lords self-evidently require simple and clear answers. However, some go beyond the scope of this rather narrow secondary legislation.

As regards why information is required, we think that it is essential in order to assess the plausibility of existing assumptions about school-age children. It is also a question of understanding change over time—we are talking about censuses which are 10 years apart—improving existing methods for estimating the school-age population, monitoring variations in number and characteristics of migrant children and data linkage and matching. I shall come back to security. It is easier to deal with the questions on which I can give clear reassurance.

The key thing to note is that this legislation provides for information to be used only in a particular way. The problem we have with the school census is that it does precisely the same thing. It allows the statistics collected therein to be used for education purposes only. This legislation allows it to be used to study migrant populations as well. The noble Lord asked the simple and seductive question, “Why not wait until 2011?”. We believe that more and better information is required for the next comprehensive spending round in 2010, but information from the census will not be available until 2013. Therefore, collecting information through this secondary legislation will be very important in that area.

As regards whether this constitutes a final list, further secondary legislation would be required if things needed to be added. The ONS has asked for all the data that it needs, and therefore there are no plans to seek any extension thereto but, if there were, your Lordships would have to be consulted, as further legislation would be required.

On security, the statisticians who will receive the information once it is transferred will number no more than 20. Therefore, we are talking about a very small number of people. The data transmission will be conducted at a high security level with the information being encrypted or sent in another secure manner. The Government and every parent are rightly concerned about the transfer of information regarding their children. The ONS has a very good record of retaining and holding on to information, and we believe that there is no reason for great concern in this area. However, we are not complacent. A series of incidents has reminded us of the need for improvements to be made in the transfer of data. That issue will be taken on board.

The noble Baroness referred to the coroners Bill. What is provided for in this secondary legislation can be used only for the purposes of this legislation. It is not possible for it to be used for any other purpose without further secondary legislation being introduced, as I said.

The other thing that I should say is that there is no link whatever between the 400,000 people having access to the contact point and the regulations in respect of the school census which, as I said, is restricted to a number of statisticians in the ONS numbering no greater than 20. On parental permission for sharing, the fair processing notice already advises parents that the data may be used for statistical purposes only. In that sense, the parents’ notification at an early stage meets the point raised.

I am sure that I have not answered adequately a number of points raised by the noble Baroness in particular, but some of them seemed to go beyond the provisions of the regulations. I am more than happy to take them on board and seek to respond in writing. She made a number of linking points to other legislation. I can be categorical about this secondary legislation, but I am happy to look at those points and respond further, and to respond to the noble Lord on the points that I have missed. If he wants to respond on a major issue, he may by all means do so.

When the Minister writes to me, will he perhaps address the issue of whether it is necessary to give the full address of the child, rather than just the local authority ward?

I have one question that it would be useful to get on the record. On TeacherNet, under the school census data, where the field has been completed by the school as, “No, permission refused by parent or guardian for data to be used and passed on”, can that specific data be used by the ONS?

First, the noble Baroness asked why we need a full address. That is required in order to make the necessary data linkages. No information will be seen by anyone other than the 20 named—or, at least, numbered—statisticians who will examine the data, but it is needed for data linkage purposes. The simplest, shortest and sweetest answer that I can give is to the noble Lord. I can give him the assurance he seeks: the answer is no.

Motion agreed.

European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Agreements concluded under Article XXI GATS) Order 2009

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Agreements concluded under Article XXI GATS) Order 2009.

Relevant document: 2nd report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

This order is intended to give effect under domestic law to a series of agreements—17 in total—reached with other members of the World Trade Organisation. This is a piece of routine WTO business. It is not related to the ongoing Doha round development agenda, nor is it part of negotiations on trade liberalisation.

The agreements have been necessary because of successive enlargements of the EU, first from 12 to 15 member states in 1995 and then to 25 in 2004. In acceding to the EU, the new member states, in order to ensure that they are compliant with European Union law, have had to withdraw some of their existing commitments in trade in services under the WTO General Agreement on Trade in Services—the GATS. Under WTO rules, when countries withdraw commitments, they must offer comparable commitments in other areas, hence the negotiation which has taken place with the 17 other WTO members who considered themselves affected by the commitments withdrawn.

There are 17 substantively identical agreements, each setting out the same withdrawals of commitments by the new member states and each setting out the same compensatory adjustments which have been agreed. The agreements are consistent with the WTO principle that commitments which are offered to one member are offered to all: the principle of most favoured nation—or MFN—treatment. These 17 agreements were published in Command Paper 7430 in July 2008.

All member states have made some compensatory commitments, and for the original 12 members covered by the EC’s GATS schedule at the end of the Uruguay round, including the UK, these are very minor. Most compensatory commitments are made by the acceding member states. The UK has agreed to take on three commitments: first, that, in line with current legislation, no area of the telecommunications services or computer and related services sector covered by our GATS commitments is reserved to the public sector; secondly, that we should bring forward from our current GATS offer in the Doha round the sectoral offer in telecommunications services, which expands and reclassifies the sub-sectors covered; and, thirdly, that we should also bring forward from our current GATS offer in the Doha round the removal of the cover of an economic needs test in the further sub-sector of integrated engineering services for the temporary movement of highly skilled professionals.

The first two commitments are taken by all member states, while the third commitment is taken by the UK. Other member states have also made specific, albeit different, commitments. The agreements themselves are mixed in nature and cover matters falling within both the Community’s and member states’ competence. Such agreements do not take effect automatically in UK law, but the UK is obliged under the EC treaty to give them legal effect. This order is necessary as part of the UK’s domestic approval process of the agreements. It takes advantage of a procedure under Section 1(3) of the European Communities Act 1972 by which such “mixed agreements” can be specified by Order in Council as Community treaties, and thereby given legal effect. These agreements have already been considered in the relevant European scrutiny committees, who have given the proposed Council decision implementing the outcome of the negotiations “conditional” clearance: that is, conditional on the legal base of the decision being changed properly to reflect the content of the commitments withdrawn by the new member states. I commend the order to the Committee and I beg to move.

I thank the Minister for introducing the order. The following questions are key to our understanding of the background to and respective outcomes of this order. First, what assessment has been made of the impact of these new measures on British trade patterns and interests overall? Secondly, has the Minister noted that the agreements and potential disruptions appear to fall on a wide range of what were previously seen as developing countries, and which, given the shift in global economic activity, may now be the cutting-edge countries and major markets of tomorrow? What is the Government’s position on that? Thirdly, given that several of the affected countries are leading members of the Commonwealth, what assessment has been made of the effect of the order on the Commonwealth network? Fourthly, and related to the point I have just made, were Commonwealth members consulted closely and at all stages before Her Majesty’s Government acquiesced to these agreements? Fifthly, what representations were received direct to Her Majesty’s Government about the impact of these agreements or the calculation of compensation from Commonwealth countries?

The Minister will understand that not to have addressed these key questions would be somewhat negligent, risking our longer-term interests and the new trade and investment patterns that are now emerging.

I, too, thank the Minister for his excellent description of this document, which I have struggled with for more than two hours to understand its implications. What surprises me is that, given the urgency sometimes associated with orders, this one has taken 14 years to get right in that the accession of Finland, Austria and some of the other countries mentioned took place in 1995. However, we have only just managed to sort out all the illegal or incorrect ways in which compliance with EU legislation was evaded but which this order now allows. One is tempted to ask, “What happened in the mean time?”. We are now up to EU25 in 2009, but the European Union has already moved on to 27. Can we expect to finally get around to considering Romania and Bulgaria in 2023? I would be interested to know where those negotiations have got to.

As the Minister said, this is a mixed competence area, and perhaps he could confirm that everything that needs to be done on the other side of the channel in Brussels has now been completed, so that when this is, I presume, agreed by all member states—all 25 or 27—it will go through. I would be interested to know when all the ratifications are expected to take place by, to give some idea of the pace of this.

When I first saw this, I thought that it was good to have a document that represents increasing international trade and globalisation at a time when we potentially have history moving back in the other direction. In a way, I was concerned that we seem to be withdrawing rights under the WTO to those 17 nations. Perhaps I should say 17 WTO members, because the order includes, as is described so well:

“The Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu”,

which we treat as being part of China. It seems to me that there is a move backwards to some degree here.

I would like to understand what is meant in the Explanatory Memorandum by,

“the withdrawal of some commitments on the part of the new Member States”.

I would be interested to know the nature of one or two of those. The Minister gave a description of the areas that had been used in compensation, but not the other side, of what had been withdrawn. I assume that the only nature of the compensation is those agreements and there is no financial compensation in this. Perhaps the Minister could also confirm that.

The Government’s view is that there will be no impact on the UK in effect from bringing these agreements into line. As someone who has suffered in my previous incarnation sitting through the Doha round and the Singapore round—I do not think I made it back to 1947 and the Cuba round, when the first meeting of GATS was in Havana—believe you me if you think we sometimes have difficulties in the British Parliament, trying to get things moving in the WTO makes even our Parliament at its slowest look like a well-oiled machine working at maximum speed.

For member states entering the European Union, there was a period in each case for a number of years prior to that where those states were anxious to meet their obligations to qualify for membership of the European Union. Only then can you turn to the international obligations. Each state would have different obligations, depending on what most-favoured-nation status agreements that they had with other members of the WTO. The WTO is seeking to bring about a liberalisation of trade and a level playing field; I think we all support this. One of the things that makes the WTO so slow is that, effectively, any single member state can veto the rest.

When you have a discussion such as this one, it is not limited to the European Union states and the 17, but other interested states, which would involve Commonwealth states—certainly major Commonwealth states such as India would be part of those discussions. In my experience, nothing happens at the WTO where there is not hawk-like attention on any member state from every member state. So we have a long, drawn-out but fairly thorough process, where the Commission and the Community speak as one. We have got to that point, but in each legal competence, including ours, you have to pass it into law.

I do not have a kind of ratification timetable, as we had with other European agreements; I do not know whether my officials have one. I do not know whether we can give a date. We can confirm the longevity, because it took 19 years to get to where we got to in September 2006. As I said, that was because of the consensus requirement under Article XXI of GATS. Those things are outside our control until everyone agrees. Unfortunately, so is the ratification process, but clearly the Community wants its member states to ratify as quickly as possible. We may have a better record than some in Europe of moving fairly speedily on these issues, so there is no reason why we would hold this up. Our passing this into UK law without there being any practical impact on our industry would be one step towards bringing this into reality.

The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, asked a series of questions about the Commonwealth as a trading entity. It is not a trading entity; it is a commonwealth that occupies a unique position in our world. Commonwealth nations that are members of the WTO—not every one is, but the vast majority are—develop and press their views in that corner as do other member states. There are alliances in the WTO that are either regional blocks or alliances between nations that are developing quite well, although one would not consider them to be OECD candidates. I am more than happy to look into this and provide answers so far as I can, but, unless anything is given to me that tells me something different, I do not think that there is a Commonwealth flavour—or flag—that we can put on this. A note has been passed to me that Commonwealth countries are also covered by economic partnership agreements, which are negotiated with the European Union and more widely.

If noble Lords have any more points that they wish to raise or which I have not answered, I am happy to write to them. If their points are urgent, I ask them to ask me further.

I would just like to understand whether this process will apply to Bulgaria and Romania, too. That is of some consequence.

The answer is that it is of a continuum with where we are. When those two countries are full members of the European Union, there will be a similar exercise. If that leads to a requirement on their part for greater or lesser relationships than they already have with other WTO members, there will be a similar exercise and similar secondary legislation to put before the House at a later stage. However, we can proceed with these things only state by state and member by member.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 4.23 pm.