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European Union (Approvals) Bill [HL]

Volume 764: debated on Monday 6 July 2015

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, the purpose of the Bill is to approve two draft decisions of the Council of the European Union. Both rely on Article 352 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which allows the Union to take action to attain one of the objectives set out in the treaties, but for which there is no specific power given, provided it has the unanimous support of all member states.

For the UK to agree these draft decisions at Council, Parliament must first give its approval. Section 8 of the European Union Act 2011 provides that a Minister may vote in favour of an Article 352 decision only where the draft decision is approved by an Act of Parliament. I am pleased that Members of both Houses will have the opportunity to decide whether to approve such measures.

The first decision will enable the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to be granted observer status in the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency. This proposal has been around since 2010, clearing the UK parliamentary scrutiny processes then in place. In April last year the decision re-emerged, with the Greek presidency having lifted its block on the decision. At that point, all other member states were ready to vote in favour of the decision. However, the requirements of the EU Act meant the UK had to enter a scrutiny reserve for the decision pending approval by an Act of Parliament. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has been an EU candidate country since 2005, but in recent years we have seen serious backsliding on reforms. A political crisis has been unfolding in the country over the past year, which has raised serious concerns about the rule of law and adherence to democratic principles. The Foreign Secretary recently discussed the crisis with EU partners at the Foreign Affairs Council on 22 June.

The Government consider that a decision enabling the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to become an observer to the agency would assist the country in tackling the reform challenges it faces and provide advice and help on human rights issues. A recent European Commission report set out a series of recommendations needed to return the country to the path to EU accession. This included reforms related to freedom of expression and the rule of law. Observer status at the agency could allow the country access to advice and assistance on fundamental rights issues to help take forward these reforms.

The second measure is a decision of the Council enabling the EU tripartite social summit to continue to operate. The summit is a regular forum for meetings of representatives of the European social partner organisations, the European Commission and the Council to enable high-level discussion between the three parties on employment and social aspects of the European agenda for growth and jobs. It was established by a Council decision in 2003 and usually meets on the eve of the European Council in spring and autumn. A new decision to re-establish the legal basis for the TSS became necessary because the article of the EU treaty it had relied on, Article 202, was repealed when the EU treaties were reformed under the treaty of Lisbon, agreed in 2007.

At the same time as renewing the decision under a new legal base, the draft decision seeks to take account of changes within the EU in the intervening decade so that it is fully aligned to wider strategies and reflects any technical changes. These changes are that, first, the Lisbon treaty gave the European Council a formal institutional role and its own President. To reflect this, the draft decision gives the Council President a joint-chair role at the summit. Secondly, the draft decision also brings recognition, in Article 152 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, of the value and role of the TSS as part of EU social dialogue arrangements. Thirdly, in 2010 the Europe 2020 strategy replaced the Lisbon agenda for employment and growth which the TSS originally served. Europe 2020 is the European Union’s 10-year jobs and growth strategy. It was launched in 2010 to create the conditions for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Finally, the decision had to recognise that some of the employer organisation members have changed their names.

Dialogue at European level is the purpose of the summit. The Government are able to support the continuation of the summit, the proceedings of which can lend support to building consensus for labour market reforms needed in other member states. The Council published the final agreed text of the tripartite social summit measure and it has received consent from the European Parliament. It is therefore ready for adoption, subject to UK agreement, as all other member states have given their approval.

There are no financial implications for the UK for either decision. There would be negligible or no financial impact to businesses, charities or the voluntary sector in the UK. Over the intervening decade, no apparent risks for the UK have emerged during the existence of the TSS. I confirm that I do not consider that any of the Bill’s provisions engage the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, so no issues arise as to the compatibility of the Bill with those rights. It is also the intention for the Bill to come into force on the day of Royal Assent. For the reasons I have outlined, I commend the Bill to your Lordships. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this Bill, the substance of which need not detain us terribly long. It is obviously useful if Macedonia becomes an observer in the work of the Fundamental Rights Agency. Is any progress being made on the name of Macedonia? I have not heard anything recently on that. FYROM is clearly not a name that will inspire a sense of identity. We have been on that issue for a very long time. Where are we in trying to make the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia simply Macedonia?

Regarding the tripartite social summit, I believe that the European Commission has decided not to take this opportunity for any fundamental changes in its remit or design, so this is just some tweaking in the light of the Lisbon treaty. Clearly, there is no reason to oppose or resist this in any way.

On process, can the Minister say whether this is required to be primary legislation under Section 8(3) of the European Union Act 2011? I did not have the pleasure of taking part in the debate on that legislation when it was going through, as I was a Member of the European Parliament at that point and was disqualified from sitting or voting in this House. Was it anticipated that this kind of issue would require primary legislation? Clearly, there were some meaty issues within the scope of the EU Act 2011, not least the one about a referendum if there were any significant transfers of powers to the EU. However, we now find that we are required to legislate under primary legislation for two matters such as these which have either cleared scrutiny beforehand in 2014 or would perhaps not even have required scrutiny. In fact, I am not clear whether they would even have required secondary legislation or just notification to the scrutiny committee. How necessary is it to have primary legislation now on these measures, and how many other such instruments might we expect in a year, for instance, to have to legislate on as opposed to clearing through scrutiny or even having secondary legislation? This almost makes a mockery of EU affairs and of the EU Act 2011.

I would be grateful for answers to those few questions about process. On the substance of the matter, there is no objection from these Benches.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the measures in some depth and with the kind of enthusiasm which they frankly merit. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, for raising the question of process.

I read the Bill and the Explanatory Notes and, indeed, the report of the House of Commons scrutiny committee quite carefully, and that is half an hour of my life that I am not getting back. By the end of it, I was still not much clearer as to what it was that was of such import in these measures that primary legislation should be required—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford. Can the Minister enlighten the House? I fully accept that this is not my area of expertise—I do work and pensions. Are there any far-reaching consequences flowing from the draft decision on the participation of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as an observer in the work of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights? Does that in any way have an impact on any possible timeline for an application from Macedonia for future membership of the EU? Are there any other consequences which are not immediately apparent from the documentation?

I wonder if I can help the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, on the draft decision in relation to the tripartite social summit. Initially, the former Minister of State for Employment, Esther McVey, seemed to take a similar view. She initially questioned the legal basis on which this was brought forward. The House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee reported the Minister as saying that the Government would,

“ask the Commission more fully to substantiate its reasons”,

for proposing Article 352 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union as the legal basis for the draft decision. Further, because an Article 352 measure is subject to the requirements of Section 8 of the European Union Act 2011, a further assessment would then be needed by the Government to determine whether one or more of the exempt purposes set out in Section 8(6) of the 2011 Act would apply, as the Minister knows.

The committee asked the Minister to explain her reservations and whether she considered that there was any other legal basis on which this could have been brought forward. The committee said that it could not see that any of the statutory exemptions would apply in this case and asked the Minister to let it know what the basis was for her reservations. The Minister came back and confirmed, basically, that the Commission had taken the view that it had to bring it forward under Article 352 because there was no other suitable legal basis. She then explained the Commission’s reasoning for it. So we never really got to find out the Minister’s reservations in the first place. Could the Minister perhaps tell us whether there was any alternative to doing this? If not, the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, is a good one. Are we going to see a succession of minor measures coming through, all of which will require primary legislation?

I feel rather strongly about this matter, as I work in pensions often with the noble Lord, Lord Freud, and I have stood in the Moses Room scrutinising repeatedly the entire detail of universal credit, which is a reform of all working-age benefits, done in secondary legislation that this House cannot amend and on which scrutiny is limited. The Childcare Bill is going through this House at the moment, and most of the detail will be in secondary legislation. Yet we are assembled in all our grandeur here to look at the detail of what seem on the face of it, to my inexpert eyes, to be rather minor measures. I am quite sure that I have misunderstood it, and I very much look forward to the Minister’s explanation.

My Lords, I am grateful for the contributions to the debate, albeit they are of a different nature to the contributions that I am used to on some of the more substantial things that we have discussed. I accept the distinction that the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, made in that regard.

Before I come on to the specific questions, I shall go through the two areas again. The point of the Bill is so that we can approve two draft Council decisions. On the question of how many such decisions there have been under Article 352, asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, we have had two this year and two last year—so it is not the beginning of the flood that Noah suffered. Under the Bill, we discussed the participation of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as an observer in the work of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. It is the objective of that country to become a member of the European Union, but it needs to set out key reform priorities, which have been set out by the European Commission. The Government want to encourage the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia—I have to choose my words carefully—on the reform path. Granting observer status is consistent with that approach.

At this point, it might be worth picking up another point from the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, on the name issue—because I have already used quite a lot of my time repeating four or five words very carefully. The UK has supported efforts which have been made under UN auspices to find a mutually acceptable solution to the name issue. Regrettably, I have to report that no solution has been found so far. There have been some confidence-building measures agreed between Greece and Macedonia and we hope that that will start to lead to a solution to the problem.

On that specific issue, the competency of the agency will not be extended by doing this. It means that the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia should be supported to increase its human rights awareness and the promotion of fundamental rights within the country. The FRA could provide Macedonia with advice on the promotion of human rights and principles. It will collect and analyse data on the human rights situation in the country and assist with reforms. The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, asked about the impact on accession. This process could possibly contribute in terms of its path towards the EU.

The UK does not take part in the tripartite social summit. However, the dialogue at this European-level forum is welcomed in support of building consensus for the labour market reforms needed in other member states. The summit has met for some years now and this draft decision effectively seeks to re-establish its legal basis. Both noble Baronesses asked whether we should be spending our primary time doing this. Essentially, Article 352 is a protection to make sure that things that do not fall within specific areas of EU competence cannot be agreed without this House and another place agreeing to it. That is the purpose of the article. These issues happen to fall within that position. The former Minister for Employment, Esther McVey, explained that the Government and the Commission’s understanding of the legal basis was the same and there was no alternative than to use Article 352. However, we can hope that we do not spend too much time in this House on matters such as this. As I said, there are not too many more due, certainly not this year.

I think that I have covered all the points raised by noble Lords. I commend the Bill to your Lordships and ask you to give it a Second Reading.

Bill read a second time.