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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 2 February 2005

[Mr. Frank Cook in the Chair]

Fundamental Rights Agency

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be how adjourned.—[Mr. Ainger.]

9.30 am

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North) (Lab): I am indebted to Mr. Speaker for choosing the proposed fundamental rights agency of the European Union for general debate this morning. I shall, even outside the House, do my best to persuade my fellow citizens to vote for the European constitution. In 1997, the Government failed by not having an immediate referendum to give them the right to join the euro when they considered it fit. I have now made my position clear, so any strictures that I might have about the European Union must be put into that context. I am a Europhile, but I hope not a Europoodle.

I am a member of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. I was elected to the Parliamentary Assembly by my colleagues in the Yorkshire group of the parliamentary Labour party. I am the rapporteur on the overlapping jurisdictions of various human rights organisations in Europe: the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, now possibly the European Union and, ultimately, the United Nations. It is important therefore that their roles should be defined carefully and that there should be no turf wars that could only be to the detriment of the citizens of Europe.

The proposed constitution of the European Union was a carefully negotiated document. It sought to define the roles of the Parliament, the Commission, the Council of Ministers and member states, based on the principle of subsidiarity. The proposed fundamental rights agency threatens to undermine that careful arrangement by the creation of a new institution with a yet undefined role, vague powers and no statement of its relationship to any of the existing institutions of the Community. It is a prospective gift for Eurosceptics, who can frighten their children before they put them to bed by telling them about the new ogre that will invade the civil and human rights of every free-born citizen of this country. It is a new institution with potentially wide-reaching powers, which never surfaced in the long discussions about the new constitution.

Lest it be thought otherwise, I should say that I welcome in principle and in theory the proposed new agency. Individual citizens in the Community have no rights against Community institutions if their human rights are infringed by them. They might have such rights—and should have—if the constitution is accepted and the Community signs up to the European convention on human rights. There is no proper system in the Community to examine European Union legislation in a manner similar to that carried out in this Parliament by the Joint Committee on Human Rights,
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as was pointed out in reply to the Commission's consultative document in a letter written on behalf of the Committee by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston) on 9 December.

Furthermore, a power for a new agency to examine thematic matters throughout the member states of the European Union would be a most welcome innovation. For example, procedures on the European arrest warrant could be examined to find out its implications for human rights in member states. So far, I am supporting the idea that was suddenly sprung on us with so little thought and so little preparatory work. The proposal was the result of a deal between Austria—which, at present, has the headquarters of the European monitoring centre in Vienna—and Italy at the European Council meeting in Brussels on 12 and 13 December 2003 at which representatives of the member states,

What did "to that effect" mean? Did it mean that the agency would deal with racism and xenophobia or something far greater? On 25 October, we received our reply. The Commission published a communication containing a public consultation document on the establishment of a fundamental rights agency of the European Union, in which it set out detailed ideas, options and questions regarding the field of action of such an agency, the tasks to be entrusted to it, its relations with civil society, the Council of Europe and other bodies, and its operational structures. Those three main options were pretty vague.

A general public meeting was held last Tuesday in Brussels at which such matters were discussed and at which the Commission, to a degree, revealed its hand. Although acceptable in many ways, that hand left many issues unresolved and undecided. For example, let us consider the relationship of the agency with the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers and the Commission. To whom would it answer? What powers will it have? Will it initiate inquiries? Will it initiate work or will it just relate to suggestions or proposals put to it? How will it be governed? What will be the scope of its work, given that it was supposed to be established on the basis of the European monitoring centre, which has a limited staff and limited finances?

The Commission, however, has put forward the idea that the agency will have a greatly expanded role and will therefore need more people working for it and extra finances. I am not necessarily against such things, but we do not know the thinking behind them. The real problem for us all is the degree to which the development will deal with the acquis developed by the Council of Europe over the past 55 years, which has encompassed not only standards on civil and political rights, social and minority rights, treatment of people who have been deprived of their liberty and the fight against racism, but importantly, European monitoring of the respect for such standards by its member states.

Such monitoring is carried out by several well established independent human rights bodies, with recognised expertise and professionalism on both a country-by-country basis, through country visits
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and on-the-spot investigations, and, increasingly, thematically. Two examples are the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner and the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, which deals with racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Through those mechanisms, the Council of Europe monitors respect for the range of human rights obligations of its member states and identifies issues of non-compliance. It addresses recommendations to member states and, in the case of the European Court of Human Rights, issues judgments binding on states' parties when the standards are not respected.

It is important to make clear in relation to such matters the fact that the Council of Europe covers all the countries of the European Community as well as more than a score outside the EC. There are established European standards of human rights, obligations and ways in which to work. The fear is that, if the new fundamental rights agency of the European Union duplicates any or all of the spheres of work of the Council of Europe, we may have a two-tier system of human rights standards in Europe: one tier for the richer countries in the European Union and one for those outside it.

One of the great advantages of Council of Europe membership has been that, in states newly emerged from communism or other dictatorships, independent organisations, lawyers, non-governmental organisations and independent citizens have been able to appeal to the general European standards to which countries joining the Council of Europe must seek to adhere, thereby ensuring that there can be no going back to the standards that existed before the fall of the Berlin wall. Such matters are of the greatest importance.

The Council of Europe does important intergovernmental work on various human rights themes, leading to the adoption of reports, new legal instruments, treaties, recommendations and guidelines by the Committee of Ministers, which also has a political monitoring procedure. In addition, significant human rights achievements result from the practical assistance work carried out to facilitate the attainment of requisite standards as well as from the work of Council of Europe institutions with a broader remit. Linked to that work are numerous activities in the field of human rights education and awareness raising, which seek to develop a genuine human rights culture in European societies. Indeed, last week the Parliamentary Assembly discussed in detail the important proposed conventions on trafficking and terrorism and found them both lacking in important respects. It was therefore able to carry out a thorough investigation of the matters by virtue of the common standards that member countries all accept.

I now come to the role of the new agency. To avoid duplication of the work of the Council of Europe, and to a lesser extent of the OSCE, the work done by the new agency should be fully defined on three levels: first, the field of action and its mandate; secondly, the tasks that it will be given; and thirdly, its working methods and management structures—notably the need to co-operate and co-ordinate closely with the Council of Europe and the need for Council of Europe participation in its management structures. I would go so far as saying, as would be the opinion of the
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Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, that adequate representation of the Council of Europe on the governing body of any new organisation should be mandatory to ensure that there is no overlapping and to draw on the expertise of the Council of Europe in certain fields. If the relationship is ad hoc rather than laid down in statute or clearly defined, there will be a tendency for the new body to want to go its own way and to react to problems in its own fashion rather than having what it might see as outside interference. That would be very dangerous indeed. Given the tasks for the new agency, it has to be adequately financed and staffed. Its proposed role, even in the minimalist scenario, will not be possible with the present staffing and financing of the European monitoring committee.

I have a number of questions to put to the Minister. Do the Government agree that establishing an agency with monitoring powers over member states compliant with human rights standards would be tantamount to giving the EU a general human rights competence, contrary to the careful balance achieved in the constitutional treaty of last year between the responsibilities of the EU and its member states? Will the Government ensure that the agency will operate exclusively in the scope of Community law? Do they agree that the Council of Europe is the pre-eminent organisation in matters relating to the promotion and protection of human rights in Europe?

Will the Government ensure that the fields of action, tasks and powers of the agency will be carefully circumscribed in order to avoid duplication with the role and activities of the Council of Europe? Do they agree that it is important to avoid such duplication, not only in theory, but in the operational practice of the agency, and that it will therefore be essential to ensure that the regulations setting up the agency make mandatory provision for the full participation of the Council of Europe on the agency's management and executive boards, as is currently the case with the EU monitoring centre?

Furthermore, do the Government agree that the debate on the EU human rights agency illustrates the need to clarify who does what in Europe in matters concerning the protection and promotion of human rights? Do they agree that the Council of Europe has an irreplaceable role to play, particularly in ensuring a European framework for co-operation in the field of human rights, democracy and the rule of law? Will they ensure that the up-coming third summit of the Council of Europe will be used to lay the foundations of a stronger, more structured and better defined relationship between the EU and the Council of Europe? Will they make it a priority to set up procedures to ensure that the EU signs up quickly to the European convention on human rights?

I am indebted to the Government for their initial reaction to the EU proposals, as posted on their website. I read it with interest and encouragement. I also found useful the document prepared by our former colleague, Terry Davis, now secretary-general of the Council of Europe, and the discussion paper produced by the Library of the House.

The Government have a unique opportunity to put their firm imprint on the future of the new agency. We will shortly assume the presidency of the European Union, which will give my right hon. and hon. Friends
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an opportunity to ensure that there will be no federalising creeping encroachment by the Commission in the field of human rights and that it will not seek to intervene with the well-tried human rights mechanisms of so many member states in the EU. Although I will not be able to question Ministers, I will be watching with interest from my retirement to see how they measure up to the task that I have put before them today.

9.50 am

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): I am sure that several hon. Members in this Chamber were a little mystified when they first saw the title of the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), and that around the precincts of the Palace of Westminster many people are scratching their heads and wondering what the debate is all about. However, this debate has real importance for how we steward the human rights process throughout Europe. Like my hon. Friend, I should say that as a member of the British delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and to the OSCE, I come with motivation to put a certain case.

A turf war about who does what in the unfolding Europe—fighting for the rights of one institution relative to another—would be pointless. Let us consider the important issues in the debate around a fundamental human rights agency. As my hon. Friend said, we have a long established and well tried system and structures for the delivery of the culture of human rights and for monitoring the way in which those rights are implemented—through the Strasbourg court, the human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe and bodies such as ECRI and the Venice Commission. That is not to say that there is no role for the European Union in human rights. My hon. Friend made a good case for where there can and ought to be competence for a fundamental rights agency in enshrining those fundamental rights within the European Union, but the agency must not be in competition with bodies that already do such work.

I say that not simply to defend the Council of Europe, but because competing agencies will almost inevitably result in confusion and give those who want to avoid the strictures of a proper culture and framework of human rights an opportunity to find a way through the system. My hon. Friend referred to double standards, and such standards would not simply be high in the European Union and possibly lower elsewhere, but multi-tiered. Those who sought to avoid the strictures would be able to move in and out of the different institutions as it suited them, to pursue their own case or to avoid being brought to some accountability for the human rights of the European populations.

The Council of Europe already does a remarkably good job. In this Parliament there are many whose experience of the Council of Europe would testify to the fact that the existing institutions have steadily expanded the culture of human rights across the European continent and, indeed, beyond—to all our advantage. The debate around the fundamental rights agency and the period of reflection between now and the third summit is therefore an opportunity to begin to establish a proper framework for delivering the architecture of the Europe that is already emerging, ensuring that the boundaries between different institutions are well defined.
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I do not wish to say much more than that, because I am here to support my hon. Friend. I say to the Minister that even though the debate might seem a little arcane, it does matter. It is important that we get these things right. It is important that we are not aggressive, trying to prevent the EU from taking competences in areas where it ought to have them, but that we are clear about what we want of the agency, about the parameters of its operation and about where—geographically and in terms of content—and how it can operate. If we establish that, we will profoundly strengthen the culture of human rights in both the EU and wider Europe. We have an opportunity to make what already exists work better and to allow the new agency to work properly. If we get it wrong, we will have a period of confusion, rivalries and competition, which in the end cannot assist anybody, least of all those who have proposed the creation of the agency.

9.55 am

Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), who possibly revealed the truth about our attitude to the debate. I admit that, when I saw it on the Order Paper last week, I reached for the textbook to brief myself on the proposed agency. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and, most importantly, to the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) for bringing the matter to the House's attention and giving us an opportunity to consider it and hear the Government's views. As both have highlighted, the debate about human rights and how they are monitored and checked is a key area for us in Europe. It is vital that we maximise the impact of our scrutiny and efforts, and do not create competition between different institutions in different parts of Europe.

The work of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, which was established in 1997, has been extremely important. The collection of objective, reliable and comparable information in these key areas is of use in Europe as a whole. In principle, we certainly support the intention to expand that role to a broader human rights agency. Fundamental human rights are at the heart of the European Union, and never more so than now. The new charter of fundamental rights in the constitutional treaty is an important development, as is the stipulation that the Union will accede to the European convention on human rights.

As has been made clear in the debate, at the heart of all the different discussions and inputs about the new agency is the question of its purpose and scope. The European Union as an entity has long been committed to the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law, as set out in treaties past and present, in keeping with the founding principles of the member states themselves. Explicitly, the European Union respects fundamental rights as guaranteed in the European convention on human rights.

The key issue as the agency is set up is whether it should monitor the activities of the European Union's institutions or take a broader role in overseeing the compliance of member states with the principles that
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they are committed to upholding. For our part, we believe that the agency should have a narrow remit, focused on the bodies and institutions of the European Union. That is important in principle and for practical reasons.

In principle, it is important that the European Union should respect subsidiarity. Each member state has obligations to respect human rights under the European convention and its monitoring mechanisms, not least through the Council of Europe. There are also clear political channels for member states to deal with each other when concerns emerge about human rights issues in a particular country. We must not underestimate the key role that NGOs such as Amnesty International and others play in that process.

In practical terms, the efficiency of any human rights agency surely requires a degree of focus, and its effectiveness will depend on a manageable remit. Regardless of the political issues involved, it is not realistic to envisage a suitably resourced agency taking on responsibilities beyond the scrutiny of the EU institutions. However, we believe that it is important that the body be established. The EU is strong on declarations, but sadly not always great on monitoring or enforcing them, so, within a well defined area, the agency will tackle that deficiency.

The Commission's consultation paper raises further issues about the extent of monitoring within the EU framework and asks specifically whether the agency's scope should include a review of compliance with the charter of fundamental rights. We are keen supporters of the charter, and we welcome its inclusion in the new constitutional treaty on the basis that is clearly set out: it is not mandatory or legally binding and that its provisions apply, as is often stated in the treaty,

That is an important statement, but given the explicit flexibility of interpretation, it would be difficult for any human rights agency to be efficient or effective in monitoring that—quite apart from difficulties that we might have with the principle of subsidiarity. We believe that the agency should have a role in considering the policies that have been developed in the EU, particularly extending work that is already done on racism and xenophobia and in key areas of policy making such as immigration and asylum.

There are critical tasks for the agency to undertake, the most basic of which—the collection of reliable data—is already carried out by the monitoring centre. It is vital that as the agency is set up it develops links with civil society and the institutions about which we have already heard this morning. It is fundamental that the agency should not be in competition with the Council of Europe or national institutions that have already been set up for the purpose of overseeing human rights. Therefore, within a limited remit, it should be properly resourced and it should have suitable expertise and, above all, independence.

The agency is important. I am pleased that we have had an opportunity to debate it and, along with other hon. Members who have spoken, I hope that in this important year for the Government, as they hold the presidency of the European Union, we will see the agency move from theory to practice.
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10.3 am

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) suggested that those of my outlook might want to frighten our children at bedtime with stories of the fundamental rights agency. I assure him that at bedtime I want to calm my children, which I do by reassuring them that we will have a resounding no vote in a referendum on the constitution. If I want to get them straight to sleep, I read them the constitution, which works very quickly; I recommend it to hon. Members who have young children to get to sleep at night.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He said that he is pro-constitution, but stressed that he is a Europhile, not a Europoodle. He set out some of his concerns about the proposed agency, and he raised worries about the vagueness of the powers that it may have, the uncertainty of its remit and the opportunities that it will apparently provide for people to use it as a weapon against the European project. He stressed that he is in favour of the constitution, but the irony of his remarks is that nearly all his reservations about the agency apply just as strongly to the constitution as a whole. The vagueness of purpose, the uncertainty over its powers and the endless grey areas that need to be defined by case law in the European Court of Justice apply equally to the constitution, particularly to the charter of fundamental rights.

The hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed to those matters with regard to the fundamental rights agency, which whatever else its functions may be, will have a clear remit in the field of interpreting the charter of fundamental rights. I hope that he will reflect on his entirely reasonable, proper concerns about the agency and how it may be brought into being, and perhaps in so doing also reflect on his support hitherto for the constitution. I hope that in due course we will see him joining us in urging people to oppose the whole thing, not just any one aspect of it.

Examples abound of how vague and uncertain the charter of fundamental rights is and, therefore, how vague and uncertain the scope and remit of the agency might be. To give just one example, article I-15(3) of the constitutional treaty says:

Is that a fundamental right? Apparently, it is. I think that all are comfortable with the work of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, but extending its remit as far as monitoring the co-ordination of member states' social policies would be truly remarkable and would transform something being done to monitor racism, which is clearly valuable and proper, into something much wider. That ought to raise concerns throughout the House. I am sure that the Minister will be very clear that the Government intend not that the agency's scope and remit be that wide, but that it should be clearly defined, limited, and restricted to aspects of EU, not domestic, law. The question, to which I will return, is whether they can deliver on that commitment.

Another instance of the uncertainty to which I refer arises in the article of the charter of fundamental rights on the rights of the child, which I have pursued with Ministers through written answers. It is remarkable that
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Ministers are unable to give assurances about the scope of the provisions in the charter. They say that they believe it applies only to EU law, although if an agency were set up that had the powers to monitor, comment on and perhaps investigate actions that were relevant to the charter of fundamental rights, its work may spread into the domestic law not just of the United Kingdom but of other member states.

This debate is welcome and I hope that before we have a referendum we have many more such discussions on the implications of the proposed constitution. The Opposition are unpersuaded of the need to expand the role of the monitoring centre, or to risk undermining its work. That was raised as a concern by the Law Society. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) was concerned that changing the institutions could undermine some of the good work that is done by the monitoring centre and that we could move backwards during the process of changing the structures and institutions of the European Union. The hon. Member for Hull, North also referred to the good work of the Council of Europe.

This is a clear example of what we might term institutional mission creep. Institutions gather momentum to reform themselves, expand their role and move into new areas, not necessarily because of the pressing need for them to do so, but simply because they are there and they start to look at what else they might do.

We need to ask some fairly fundamental questions about the proposed agency. First, are our domestic agencies failing? Secondly, is the existing monitoring centre performing usefully and effectively? If the answer to the first question is no, our domestic institutions are not failing and are working well, and the answer to the second is yes, the monitoring centre is doing an effective and proper job, the proposal for a new EU-wide agency with new competences needs very close examination.

I have a number of other concerns. If the role of the agency is based on the charter of fundamental rights, surely it should not be under construction before ratification of the constitution, which I believe is likely never to happen. Surely Commissioner Frattini was talking nonsense when, in relation to the establishment of the agency, he said:

Notwithstanding Mr. Frattini's recent helpfulness to my party in matters of asylum and immigration, his remarks on the agency do not bear scrutiny. Is this not yet another step towards the creation of a binding EU justice and home affairs policy? Will the Minister confirm that it is Her Majesty's Government's view that the agency should concentrate more on human rights than fundamental rights? If so, does that not show the tension between UK attempts to limit the widening of EU competences and the inexorable institutional momentum towards seeking wider powers?

Furthermore, do the Government believe that the agency should have a role in applicant countries or in assessing non-EU countries' human rights records? Is it the Government's view that the agency should have a role in assessing action under article 6, which might
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result in the suspension of the rights of member states in the Council of Ministers?

What will the new agency do that is not now done in the UK by the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission, which are themselves shortly to be combined into the commission for equality and human rights? Is it not inevitable that the agency will result in duplication in EU institutions, given that the Council of Europe performs some of the important functions, and in member states? Should the agency's remit extend to member states such as the UK or to proposed European Union law only?

What estimate has the Minister or the Commission made of the cost of expanding the role and function, and establishing the agency, as opposed to the existing costs of the monitoring centre? What will be the UK's contribution towards those costs? I assume that the intention is that the new agency will be based in Vienna, where the monitoring centre has its headquarters. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case, as I have not seen any clear statement to that effect in any of the documents that I have looked at? Will the agency's function be solely relevant to EU legislation and institutions?

In that context, the Luxembourg presidency has spoken of the priority for a draft framework decision on criminal suspects' rights. Do the Government support that? Similarly, the Luxembourg presidency has mentioned a draft framework decision to harmonise penal sanctions for racist offences . Do the Government support that, and, if so, why?

Even though organisations such as Amnesty International have supported the proposal in general terms, it is worth noting that Amnesty International did so with some scepticism. It warned that the agency is likely to have a marginal role as member states will not allow it

Is there not a danger that the proposal could fall between two stools? If the Government—I hope that they will—assure us that they would seek to limit the agency's role to EU law and EU institutions, is there a danger that it will contribute nothing new and that the whole exercise will turn out to have been pointless? I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to hon. Members' questions. The challenge that faces him is profound: to give clear guarantees and assurances about something that is undefined. He must explain the need for a body which arises from a constitution that is not in force and that in all probability never will be.

So far, all who have spoken in this debate have favoured a narrow remit and the preservation of the role of important institutions such as the Council of Europe in protecting human rights. The question is not just whether Her Majesty's Government say that they agree with that narrow remit, but whether they can deliver on that. So far, the indications are that they either cannot or will not stop the institutional creep or the spread of competences in the European Union. If the constitution were ever to be in force, that process would accelerate and be ever harder to control.
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10.16 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on securing the debate and on his thoughtful speech, which was characteristic of his extensive knowledge of human rights issues and his wealth of experience as a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Council of Europe. I read with interest his report to the latter Committee on the plans to set up a fundamental rights agency for the European Union.

We have had an interesting debate and I am pleased that there appears to be little difference between the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North, supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), and the position espoused by the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore). Our position was set out in our response to the consultation document issued by the European Union Commission on 25 October. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) raised a number of issues that I thought were dealt with very clearly in that consultation document. Information is available on our website and the Government make their position clear.

Mr. Brady : The difficulty in dealing with matters of EU legislation is that the Government make clear their position, but the eventual outcome can be completely different. Will the Minister give an undertaking that the Government would veto any developments that are not entirely in keeping with the commitments given and the views expressed in that consultation?

Mr. Lammy : The hon. Gentleman knows the rules of the game; he knows that we are at the beginning of a negotiation and that the outcome on the fundamental rights agency requires unanimity across Europe. He knows that; I know that. We are having a serious discussion about the role of human rights across Europe and the role that a fundamental rights agency would play. The Government do not go into negotiations presupposing their outcomes—he knows that. Indeed, all Governments have taken that view over the past few years.

Fundamentally, like my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North, the Government welcome the decision of the European Council to extend the remit of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia in order to create a fundamental rights agency. Also like my hon. Friend, we believe that the role, remit and powers of the agency deserve careful consideration if it is to add value to the existing protections for human rights in Europe. That said, it is important to point out that, as I said to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, we are still at the very early stages of negotiation on the remit and powers of the proposed agency, and this very Adjournment debate contributes to that process.

We are interested in hearing what others say. A final decision on the agency will require a unanimous decision by all 25 member states, so our presidency of the European Union later this year will have an
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important task in leading member states towards an agency that will genuinely add value to Europe. That has been at the nub of this debate. We have heard a range of views, and it might be useful if I gave some background on the proposal.

In December 2003, the European Council decided to extend the remit of the monitoring centre to convert it into a human rights agency. In October 2004, the Commission sought member states' views on the agency's field of interest, its remit, its geographical scope, the task that it might be given and its structure and size. The Commission proposed two options, based on two alternative visions of what shape the agency might take. The first option would confine the agency's remit to Community law. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North knows, that option would avoid duplicating the work of other bodies that operate at national and international level, and would complement the existing Community system of protecting and promoting fundamental rights, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central was keen to ensure.

Mr. Brady : The House of Commons Library note on this debate quotes a United Kingdom Government representative who insisted that the agency's remit should be confined to EU law. He added:

The Minister has welcomed the extension of application to fundamental rights. Does that indicate a change in the Government's policy on this matter? If not, can he give an indication of what that representative meant by what he said?

Mr. Lammy : There is no change. I have made the Government's position clear. If the hon. Gentleman allows me, I shall go on to explain that that remit is specific to EU institutions. There is a role for a fundamental rights agency to play; that is what we proposed in the published document on our website, which I encourage him to read.

Mr. Brady : I think that I understand from the Minister's answer that he believes that a role in fundamental rights with regard to EU institutions would be appropriate. I think that he said that. Is he making that distinction: the agency should be relevant to human rights only when it considers things other than EU institutions, but its remit could extend to fundamental rights in reference to EU institutions?

Mr. Lammy : I did not talk about rights in the way that the hon. Gentleman puts it. I talked about European Community law, and in that sense I do not accept the rather simplistic distinction—I hope that he will forgive me—that he draws between fundamental rights and human rights per se. I talked about European Community law, and I shall stick to that position for the purposes of Hansard.

The second option proposed by the Commission was for an agency with a more interventionist role and a very wide remit on freedom, democracy and the rule of law, in addition to fundamental rights. We sent our response to the Commission on 10 January. Hon. Members will
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be pleased to know that it indicated our clear preference for the first option. We expect the Commission to produce a draft regulation in June to establish the agency, following in-depth consultations with all involved in the development of fundamental rights in the EU. Once the draft regulation has been issued, member states will begin negotiations on an agreed final version in consultation with the European Parliament. We hope during our presidency to complete the work necessary to bring the agency into existence, with a view to its commencing its business on 1 January 2007.

The UK Government strongly believe that the new agency should focus its attention and energies on ensuring that the institutions of the European Union comply with human rights when they propose new laws and implement existing ones. All member states are required, of course, to observe the European convention on human rights. However, the EU has not yet established an independent body to advise its institutions on how best to take into account the need to respect human rights, and the new agency should fill that distinct gap.

Such a role is very important, as our Joint Committee on Human Rights has shown continually in the domestic context. The proposal fits with the Government's intention to establish a commission for equality and human rights that would take forward that promotional role and ensure that our domestic institutions are doing the job of promoting human rights. In the same way, that work can be done within our EU institutions and there is a role to play there.

We believe that the agency's primary purpose should be data collection and analysis. In doing that, it would build on the functions of the monitoring centre and expand its reach from anti-discrimination into the wider field of human rights. I say again to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West that there is now a broad consensus about the key relationship between the fields of equality and discrimination and of human rights. Human rights underpin all those issues, competing and conflicting as they may be, to ensure that that human rights-inclusive goal can meet the aims of all in society who experience a particular discrimination, because of gender, race, sexuality or whatever. That is a broad consensus, and I am surprised to hear that the official Opposition are departing from it.

Mr. Brady : The Minister is—I am sure inadvertently—misrepresenting the Opposition's position. I have made no comment against the combination of the various agencies to ensure equality. My question was whether it was not the case that the UK agencies are able to fulfil those functions and do not need to be augmented by an EU agency that might interfere with, or possibly diminish, their role.

Mr. Lammy : I am absolutely delighted that the hon. Gentleman has said that the official Opposition will support us on the establishment of the commission for equality and human rights when we bring forward that Bill later this Session. On his second point, I should say that I thought that I made it clear that the body would be about European institutions. The hon. Gentleman continues to talk about the domestic position.
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Mr. Brady : Five minutes ago, the Minister said that one of the agency's roles would be to monitor human rights performance in member states. He really needs to be more consistent in his position. Will he now be clear? Will the agency have that monitoring role or not?

Mr. Lammy : We are entering something of an oxymoron. I talked about data and analysis and that key role for European institutions. I thought that that was patently clear, and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has failed to understand the point. There is a key role in Europe, as there is domestically. That is why the Government put forward their proposals a few weeks ago. The agency should operate in areas in which it can best add value, instead of trying to cover the whole range of human rights issues. It should prioritise its work thematically—my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North said much on that—and concentrate its activities where the need for more information and increased awareness of fundamental rights is greatest. However, as all hon. Members except the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West have said this morning, we must avoid duplication.

The Government do not see the agency as a body that will examine the policies and practices of individual member states. Such a remit would be inconsistent with the principle of subsidiarity. The agency's focus should be on EU institutions and on member states only when they are implementing EU legislation. We are worried that to give the agency a wide remit would result in substantial duplication and possible conflict with existing agencies. Above all, we do not want unwelcome and inefficient duplication with established or developing institutions in the Council of Europe, the EU or member states, or the creation of another source of authority on the interpretation of human rights in Europe. The Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights already give a strong and internationally respected lead on that. To create new sources of authority is likely to lead to confusion, a dilution of authority and, perversely, a weakening of protection for fundamental rights.

There is, therefore, an important path to tread and an important line that we must not cross. That is what the Government will seek to do as we enter the negotiations. I hope that that gives my hon. Friends the Members for Hull, North and for Manchester, Central and the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale the assurance that they seek. We do not believe that the fundamental rights agency should play a policy or operational role in human rights issues in third countries. There might be merit in giving it a role in assisting candidate states to membership of the EU, but that should not replicate the work of other institutions in assessing candidate states. Rather, it should complement existing initiatives, providing an educational and supportive role. The agency might work alongside civil society in candidate countries, including with NGOs, universities and community groups, with a view to ensuring the long-term sustainability of human rights promotion in the country.
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The monitoring centre was established in 1997 to provide the community and member states

That is important work, which needs to continue. We must ensure that it is not diluted in any way.

The tasks of data and information gathering carried out by the monitoring centre and the transmission of its findings to Community institutions and member states to help influence policy formulation have proved beneficial. For example, the monitoring centre has produced important reports on anti-Semitism and on the way in which the education system in EU states is still failing migrant and minority pupils. It has also highlighted continuing racism in Europe against the Roma community. Indeed, if we get it right, the fundamental rights agency can bring even greater value to all of us across Europe.

Mr. McNamara : I support all that my hon. Friend said about the achievements of the monitoring centre. The monitoring centre has an agreement with ECRI to cover possible duplication and the statutory representation of the Community on ECRI and the Council of Europe. Do the Government intend to seek to ensure that the statutory representation in respect of the Council of Europe will extend to the new agency's management board?

Mr. Lammy : At the heart of what my hon. Friend asked about is the key relationship between the two bodies. We are keen to ensure that the Council of Europe retains its authority. The example of the monitoring centre gives us an established format for establishing that relationship. That is an option that member states will discuss in the negotiations. My hon. Friend will understand that, at this stage, it is difficult to say what the outcomes of those discussions will be, but the Government's position is clear: the existing agencies, including the Council of Europe and its authority, should not be undermined by the new FRA. The structures of the FRA will have to take that fact clearly into account.

Mr. McNamara : I am grateful for that carefully phrased answer.

I am also concerned because, when the Commission's representative discussed the options in Brussels last week, he did not support the concept of an active role for the Council of Europe on a new management body. That is the attitude of the Commission. In my talks with them, representatives of the Commission have taken a "Sinn Fein" attitude towards the Community and shown a desire to go it alone without any representation from elsewhere. That is why I raised the issue. I urge my hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Government to ensure that the creeping power that the Commission seeks does not emerge.

Mr. Lammy : My hon. Friend could not have put that concern any more strongly. It is heard and understood. He knows that if he wants to continue that dialogue, meet
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the Government and take forward any intelligence nuances that he picks up as the process goes forward, he is welcome to do so.

As well as the importance of continuing work on racism and xenophobia, there are likely to be other areas of social or legal policy in which similar data gathering and opinion giving could be of real relevance and value to EU institutions and member states when implementing Community law. For example, data on discrimination, including disability discrimination, may help to provide evidence about the impact of EU policy in the area of employment rights. The agency could usefully gather data on the impact of new EU legislation in the workplace, such as the recent directives prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of religion or sexuality. In addition, the agency could perform a useful role in assessing the extent to which data protection practices ensure respect for private life. So, we believe that the agency should gather data in co-operation with member states, the Council of Europe and civil society, but it will be necessary for the agency to ensure that data gathering does not replicate the work undertaken by the Council of Europe's bodies or by national human rights institutions.

The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West asked how much the agency will cost. There is an estimate. The annual budget of the monitoring centre in 2003 amounted to about £4.5 million. The European Community subsidy was the principal revenue of the centre in 2003. The centre also receives financial support from the Austrian authorities. That is the basis on which we go into these discussions.

Mr. Brady : I am grateful to the Minister for telling us the current budget of the monitoring centre. He referred, albeit while giving the Government's view that the agency should not have a much wider remit, to a role in advising, assisting and educating EU applicant countries. What estimate or assessment has he made of the addition that would be necessary to the budget to cover those activities?

Mr. Lammy : We have an existing budget as an indicator. We go forward at the beginning of negotiations with a clear view, as a Government, of what the outcome should be, but clearly other member states will take a different view. For that reason, it is difficult to suggest today what the eventual budget might be. The hon. Gentleman may wish to inquire further down the line when the matter will be clearer, but, as I have said, the budget of the monitoring centre was £4.5 million in 2003.

We recently announced our intention to legislate for a commission for equality and human rights in order to promote equality and human rights together and to challenge discrimination. We think that the fundamental rights agency could replicate much of the work going on domestically. I welcome the position of the official Opposition on having a commission for equality and human rights in this country; that is very helpful. It is for those very reasons, which are now shared by parties across the House, that we welcome a fundamental rights agency. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North again on securing this debate.

10.42 am

Sitting suspended.
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