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EU: Repatriation of Powers

Volume 723: debated on Tuesday 14 December 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government which powers they are seeking to repatriate from the European Union.

My Lords, our priority has been the European Union Bill, but we have begun initial work on the balance of the EU’s existing competences and what they mean for Britain. This complements our ongoing activity with the Commission to reform the EU institutions. All this work needs to be undertaken before we can determine the way forward, but we are also taking some action now. We will want to limit the application of the working time directive in the UK and we are deciding whether to opt into legislation on criminal justice on a case-by-case basis with a view to maximising our security, protecting our civil liberties and preserving the integrity of our criminal justice system.

Does my noble friend agree that, so long as the acquis is at the centre of the European treaties, it will be impossible to repatriate any powers?

My Lords, the acquis obviously embodies an accumulation of powers. We are now in the 21st century and I suppose that we would all wish to see, if I may use a domestic analogy, a bit more localism in the management of our affairs. However, we are reviewing the situation. The work is at a fairly early stage and I cannot make any further detailed comments on that matter now.

My Lords, will the Minister not come clean and admit that not a comma can be changed in the treaties, nor can the smallest power be repatriated, without the unanimous consent of all 27 member states, and that therefore the repatriation of powers is really not possible?

I understand exactly the noble Lord’s concern on this, but I think that he is being a bit defeatist. It seems to me that there is a very widespread will throughout the European Union to reform it and indeed, if I may borrow a phrase, to make it fit for purpose in the 21st century. That certainly involves a sensible pattern of competences between the nation member states and the central institutions. Therefore, I think that, by gloomily saying that nothing can happen until everyone agrees, the noble Lord is taking a very negative approach to an area where European reform is perfectly possible.

My Lords, it is obvious that the Government are up a gum-tree with their policy. An example of their prejudices is the working time directive. When he was a Minister in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Darzi, pointed out that the absence in the United States of the famous 48-hour limit for doctors, which is often quoted, costs many thousands of lives there a year, so how can the Government stick to these dogmas when the facts are against them?

I just do not recognise what the noble Lord is saying. On the question of health administration and working hours in the medical profession, constructive discussions are going on with our fellow EU members about ways in which we can go forward. On the working time directive, we want to limit its particular application in a number of areas, which we intend to do. I do not understand all the talk of dogma and gum-trees. They may be trees that the noble Lord lives with, but they do not come into my bailiwick.

Would my noble friend like to agree that all great journeys commence with a single step? Perhaps he could arrange for our masters in Brussels to allow children of 10 in this country to purchase crackers for Christmas.

I do not know whether the right single step would lead in the right direction, but I note my noble friend’s concern that the purchase of crackers by children of the right age should be a reasonably available and accessible freedom.

My Lords, the Minister has been very good at explaining what he would like to do but rather less good at explaining how he would do it. The question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Spicer, was what mechanism would bring into effect all this work that he has described the Foreign Office as undertaking, or is the work really pretty pointless because there is no way of bringing it into effect?

With great respect to the noble Baroness, the Question, which is in front of me, asks,

“which powers they are seeking to repatriate from the European Union”.

I have made it absolutely clear—

I am not sure why the noble Baroness was intervening, but I was trying to answer the question when she interrupted. We are working on this now. I confess that our priority has certainly been the European Union Bill, which places new reassurances on the transfer of further competences to the EU, but nevertheless we have begun initial work on the balance of the EU’s existing competences and what they mean for Britain. When we work that out, we shall proceed constructively to see how those things can be implemented and adjusted. I see no difficulty in that procedure and in following that process, which I hope will lead us in a constructive direction.

Now that my noble friend is a senior member of the coalition team, will he promise at long last to be a little bit enthusiastic about our membership of the European Union? Would it not be a good idea from now on to give a lead? Does he agree that the Lisbon treaty is an ideal basis and balance for all the things that we want to do with the other 26 member states to take the European Union forward for the good of the public?

As my noble friend is getting a bit personal, I shall say that I have always been a very enthusiastic European and advocate of sensible reform of and working with the European Union so that it goes forward in a constructive way. I do not deny that, in the past, some of the overload at the centre and the extensive acquisition of competences have tended to slow down the best kind of Europeanism. I believe that in our coalition—of which, I hasten to say, I am a very junior member—we are all united in wanting a European Union that is constructive, goes forward positively and meets the challenges of the 21st century. That is what we are all working for.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that we retain our residual sovereignty and that the Lisbon treaty—

My Lords, we appreciate that this has been a very popular Question, but we are now in the eighth minute. I think that we should move on to the next Question.