Mr. Cash: That is a fairly astonishing statement given the effect of section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972. However, it is such an irrelevant point that I am not even prepared to respond to it. I leave my argument where it stands and invite my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) to take up the rest of the time that is allotted if he wishes to do so.
I want to make a number of specific points in connection with the reforms with which the amendments deal. I hope that the Minister will address our concerns. First, it is proposed that the jurisdiction of the Court of First Instance be expanded. Amendment No. 55 would prevent the members and registrar of that court from being added to the list of Community representatives covered by the protocol on the privileges and immunities of the European Communities. More importantly, the Nice treaty would give the Court of First Instance jurisdiction to hear certain categories of preliminary reference cases. Does the Minister recognise that such cases can often be important, as they are the appeal route from national courts to the European Court of Justice?
Secondly, it is proposed that the Council be given power to attach judicial panels to the Court of First Instance to hear specified classes of business. That is provided for in the treaty of Nice. Such panels might hear competition cases or appeals from the Community trade marks and designs registry. There are numerous cases in both those fields. In effect, a three-tier appellate structure is now developing, with the creation of a further tier of courts below the Court of First Instance. There will be first-instance courts and the judicial panels, and above them, an intermediate appeal courtthe Court of First Instance. Above that court, there will be the supreme court: the European Court of Justice.
Does the Minister agree that the existence of the panels will make it easier to expand the direct jurisdiction of Europeanas opposed to nationalcourts in proceedings that involve the direct application of Community law to citizens? It might be said that the growth of the European court system into a full three-tier appellate structure is inevitable given the growth of jurisdictions and the increase in the number of cases going into that system, but one must question fundamentally that growth in jurisdictions and competences. It arises partly because of the flow of legislation, the nature of the court itself and its belief that it needs to continue to further the cause of European integration. As we have repeatedly pointed out, if the mincing machine is becoming clogged up, the best approach might be to try to force less mince through, but instead, the EU keeps installing ever-more powerful engines.
The institutions of the EU need to learn to do less and to do it better. That applies to the volume of legislation and also relates to the growing concern about the integrationist nature of the court and its tendency sometimes to extend competence beyond what was envisaged in the treaties.
I realise that I am putting very technical points to the Minister, but I remind him that they have an important impact on our judicial processes. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give the House some assurances in that respect.
Peter Hain: In direct response to the points made by the hon. Members for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) and for Stone (Mr. Cash), let me say that an important part of the changes is the package of reforms to deliver a more effective system for justice in the European Union that will cut delays. The British Government have worked hard to achieve that package. Indeed, we overcame the objections of some other member states by insisting that it was included on the 2000 intergovernmental conference agenda.
The hon. Member for Stone asked about qualified majority voting for changes to the rules of procedure for the European Court of Justice and the Court of First Instance. It is important for us to secure that change, as it will make it easier to reach agreement in the Council on proposals to enable courts to organise their work effectively and especially to improve how they work within their existing powers. He will be pleased to know that the change does not hold any constitutional phantom threats for him. It is about making access to justice quicker and easier.
The hon. Member for West Suffolk raised a series of issues which do not apply. The changes introduced by the Nice treaty are much more modest. In particular, to address the hon. Gentleman's first point, the treaty gives the Council the power, by unanimity, to transfer jurisdiction for certain specific categories of case from the European Court of Justice to the Court of First Instance, including preliminary references. That will ease the caseload burden on the European Court of Justice. That is all that this is about.
The hon. Member for West Suffolk also asked about the enabling provision to set up judicial panels, as a third tier in the courts, to help relieve the caseload of the Court of First Instance, for example by dealing with specialised areas, such as staff cases. Those panels will be an integral part of the court architecture and each will be set up by the Council by unanimity.
The creation of such panels is a way of easing the pressure on the Court of First Instance. No big issue is involved here. That is precisely the type of reform that we wanted, to build new flexibility into the court system so that it can adapt its working practices and cut delays in administering justice.
The Nice treaty also agrees changes that will lead to improvements in the courts' efficiency and effectiveness. Those changes, which will speed up access to justice and build greater flexibility into the court system, will be good for British business and for British citizens. One need only consider the French ban on British beef to see that efficient courts are in the UK's interests. The courts uphold Community law in areas such as the single market. That is vital to enable British business to function effectively.
By opposing the ratification of the Nice treaty, the Conservative party demonstrates that it puts its own partisan interests before the interests of British business. The Government encourage the Opposition to reconsider their position in opposing such necessary, beneficial and modest reforms of the courts.
All the changes set out at Nice will deliver better access to justice and contribute to the modernised, reformed EU that we want, better equipped to deal with enlargement. That is why we stand by them and reject the amendments.
Mr. Menzies Campbell: If the lead amendment were to be allowed it would have the effect of taking away the privileges and immunities that ought properly to be available to the Court of First Instance. That is a somewhat nihilistic approach. There may be points, such as those raised by the hon. Members for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) and for Stone (Mr. Cash), but to get rid of those privileges is unnecessarily apocalyptic.
The treaty constitutes a reform of the European Court of Justice and the Court of First Instance. As the Minister has already said, an efficient and effective European Court of Justice is essential to the proper functioning of the EU and is in the interests of the British people. Without an effective court, there could not be an efficient single market.
The Minister referred to the Commission taking France to the court in relation to lifting the ban on British beef, and there are similar examples, some perhaps not so enormous in their significance. For example, Greece was forced to open its markets to soft drinks from the UK because of an ruling by the European Court of Justice, and Spain has been forced to change regulations that prevented British confectioners from selling their products there. An efficient and effective court is in the interests of the EU, the single market and the people of the UK. The amendments should be resisted.
Mr. Cash: The problem that we have with the court is its judicial activism. The more functions that are conferred on the EU in terms of European government and so on, the greater the power that the court has in respect of the government of Britain. The Minister has not referred to the European Parliament, but I do not criticise him for that because it has not been raised. However, the European Parliament will now have the right to bring actions to the European Court of Justice. In practice, that will be used to fight Council decisions which are deemed to be insufficiently centralising. We can expect the European Court of Justice to side with the European Parliament against the Council in such cases, thus reducing the power of national Parliaments. Again, that demonstrates the increasing power of the judiciary in the European Union. I warn hon. Members of all parties: watch this space.