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European Council

Volume 767: debated on Monday 21 December 2015

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress the Prime Minister made at the European Council meeting on 17 and 18 December towards reaching an agreement on EU reform.

My Lords, the Prime Minster has clearly set out the four areas of our renegotiations: economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty and migration/welfare. The discussion of the UK’s EU reform agenda at the European Council on 17 and 18 December was, as European Council President Tusk said, an opportunity to focus minds on the trickiest areas of our reform agenda, notably on in-work benefits for EU migrants. As the conclusions from the European Council set out, the Council agreed to work closely together to find mutually satisfactory solutions in all four areas of our reform agenda at the European Council meeting of 18-19 February 2016.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her response and her indication of some progress having been made at the European Council meeting. However, does she acknowledge that if I had not tabled this Private Notice Question, the House would simply not have been given a chance to consider reform until mid-January, which is half way to the next and what will probably be the decisive European Council meeting in mid-February? Why did the Government not offer an Oral Statement, and can the noble Baroness at least now give an undertaking that the Government will honour their commitment to keep Parliament informed, thereby living up to their declared belief in the vital role of national parliaments within the European Union?

My Lords, as the other place rose last Thursday, my right honourable friend the Leader of the House made it clear that the Prime Minister would make a Statement on the first day back when the other place sits, which is Tuesday 5 January. I accept that protocol means that it was not possible to give the title of the Statement, but the mere fact that it is a Prime Ministerial Statement was indicative. I can give an assurance to the noble Lord that this Government take their responsibility and accountability to Parliament very seriously. I can therefore confirm that the Prime Minister will make a Statement on all matters discussed at the European Council when another place sits on 5 January. As is usually the case when the Houses do not sit concurrently, it would be possible through the usual channels for arrangements to be made, if the Opposition so wished, for the Statement to be repeated here when the House returns.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that there was no discussion in relation to social provision and workers’ rights at the Council meeting as set down in the treaty? Does she agree that it is essential to keep these rights if we want to retain support for EU membership from workers in this country? Can the Minister also say whether the Prime Minister will give dispensation to all Ministers to campaign on a different side from him in the EU referendum campaign? I have never heard the Prime Minister state clearly and proudly that he is a European citizen. Can the Minister undertake to ask him to state proudly and often that he is indeed a European citizen and that Britain’s future is best served as a member of the European Union?

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that in renegotiating the terms of membership of the European Union he is acting on behalf of the interests not only of this country but of all members of the European Union. The four areas where we have sought renegotiation would serve all well. Protecting Britain to ensure that countries outside the euro cannot be discriminated against under EU rules, so we keep our economy secure, benefits all members. Making Europe more competitive benefits all members. Ensuring that ever closer union is not going to exclude us may suit others. We have also addressed the issues of migration and welfare. With regard to Ministers, it is clear government policy that the whole Government are behind the process of renegotiation followed by a referendum by 2017 based on that outcome. It has been said many times and I say it again today. The noble Baroness referred in particular to social measures. I know that questions have been asked with regard to the working time directive before, and I can reaffirm that we have an opt-out and we need to protect that. It will need to be part of the final agreement that it is protected within the system.

My Lords, a Private Notice Question is not the same as a Statement so we do not have to go round the Front Benches in the same way as we do on a Statement. I do not know whether the noble Lord might want to give way to my noble friend Lady McIntosh.

My Lords, as my noble friend the Minister explained, we hear a great deal about Britain’s demands for reform. Other member states have requested reform at the same time, so will my noble friend explain to the House what they were and, in particular, what discussion there was after the Danes rejected in their referendum proposals to opt out of their opt-out?

My Lords, there were indeed wider discussions than the renegotiation reform agenda of the United Kingdom. The PNQ refers to a specific part of that. I can reassure my noble friend that wider issues such as that of Denmark and on security and terrorism will be dealt with in the Prime Minister’s Statement.

My Lords, we on these Benches recognise that the Prime Minister has made very good progress and we wish him luck in finishing the negotiations in February in the national interest. We recognise that there are parallel negotiations to be conducted within the Conservative Party and we hope he will put the national interest before the party interest as well. On the most difficult issues of migration and welfare benefits, will the Government do their utmost to ensure that we are all provided with accurate evidence on the situation? It has always been very difficult to get out of the Home Office and the DWP accurate evidence of how serious the problem is, rather than the campaign promoted by the Daily Mail and others. If we are to have a mature debate on all this as we come up to the referendum, we need to know how much of a problem there is on in-work and out-of-work benefits as a pull factor.

The noble Lord is right to say that discussions on a matter as important—a once-in-a-lifetime decision—as the position of the United Kingdom in the European Union should be made in a cool, rational and evidence-based way. With regard to in-work benefits, I simply say that taking a look at the DWP’s own figures for March 2013—the latest usable figures in this connection—shows that about 40% of all recent European Economic Area migrants are supported by the UK benefits system.

Does the noble Baroness agree that this is the second European Council statement where we have had all the broad words about the four areas but no substantive detail? Can she tell this House whether any progress at all was made between the previous European Council meeting and the one held last week? If any progress was made, what is it?

My Lords, I shall be brief because others wish to ask questions. First, there is agreement that people who come to Britain cannot claim unemployment benefit for the first six months; we are well on the way to achieving that. The second thing is that people who cannot find a job after six months should either leave and go home or remain here at their own expense. The third thing is the issue of sending child benefit home. We are making very good progress on that and are close to the final decision on it.

Does the Minister agree that perhaps the most effective way of reinforcing national and parliamentary sovereignty would be to ensure that the principle of subsidiarity, which has been undermined by the so-called yellow card system, should be reinforced?

My Lords, the European Union Select Committee of this House has made excellent proposals on that, which this Government have endorsed.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said, is it not a bit embarrassing for the Minister that this matter is being reported to the House only as a PNQ and not being volunteered by the Government, particularly since one of the four things the Prime Minister is supposed to be arguing is greater powers to national parliaments? Will she remind the Prime Minister, and the Leader of this House, that the Government are responsible to Parliament, and not the other way round?

My Lords, I have no embarrassment because this Government are responsible to Parliament, and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is making it clear that he will make a Statement in another place. Both Houses will then obviously have an opportunity to comment on it. Perhaps the history books will show that I am wrong but I would be surprised if this House made a Prime Ministerial Statement in recent years when the Prime Minister was not a Member of this House. That would be an unusual step, and one that the Labour Party never took when it was in office. Perhaps the noble Lord will add that to the reforms that the Labour Party proposes for this House—that the Prime Minister can be here, too.