Fundamental Rights

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Bridget Prentice: The decision must be unanimous, so in a sense the hon. Gentleman has answered his own question. If there is not unanimity next week, there will be further discussions and perhaps agreement will be reached at a later stage. Other member states have similar reservations to us, so those subjects are very much up for discussion next week.
Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. We have established that there are just five weeks until the agency is to be up and running, who will be the chairperson and the vice-chairperson of the management board and how much will they be paid?
Bridget Prentice: I have absolutely no idea.
Mr. Cash: The Minister told us that the European Court of Justice will not have a role in relation to the charter of fundamental rights. How does she equate that with the preamble to the Council regulation, which says that the charter will involve
“the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Communities and the European Court of Human Rights”?
Bridget Prentice: If the hon. Gentleman had heard my opening remarks, he would know that I made it clear—
Mr. Cash: I did.
Bridget Prentice: I think that the hon. Gentleman arrived a few minutes after I started speaking. I made it clear that the charter is not a legally binding document but a political declaration and must therefore be viewed as such. We have been strong in saying that. The European Court will no doubt look at what the agency and the programme are doing, but I repeat that the charter is not a legally binding document. I do not know how I can make that any clearer. If it is not legally binding, it is not legally binding. However, many of the rights described in the charter are also contained in other, legally binding, European Union documents, and the courts may well look to those documents when making legal decisions. The hon. Gentleman should not think of the charter in isolation. It is not the sole source of rights, and it may be used in reference to other documents.
In fairness to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East, who asked the previous question, I will try to find out the details of the salaries of the people about whom he asked and I will write to him.
Mr. Ellwood: We have established that this body is being set up in five weeks’ time and that the Government have no idea who will be its chairman and vice-chairman. Let us move away from the management board and consider the executive board. Who will be on it, and how much will they be paid?
Bridget Prentice: Sorry, I just turned to my colleague and missed the very end of the hon. Gentleman’s question. Will he repeat it?
Mr. Ellwood: We have just established that even though this body is being set up in five weeks’ time, we do not know who will be on it and how much they will be paid. If the Minister does not know who will be on the management board, perhaps she will have better luck with the executive board. Who will be on it and how much will they be paid?
Bridget Prentice: To be absolutely fair to both the hon. Gentleman and the Government, I was saying that I did not know who the chairman would be or what their salary would be. I understand that the director’s role is likely to be an extension of that of the director of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia and that the Commission will oversee the transitional arrangements, so the salary arrangements will be made within its established system. At this stage, it is not possible for me to give the hon. Gentleman detailed information on the individual members, but as soon as I have it, I will ensure that he gets it.
Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful for that reply, but I am not particularly happy with it. I appreciate and sympathise with the Minister, who is standing in, but I hope that her advisers are not standing in because we are here to debate this agency and its set-up, and the consequences that arise. If we do not get these answers today, will we get them between within five weeks? We have examined the executive board and the management board; perhaps if we examine the scientific committee we will be lucky third time around. Who authorised this committee and how much will its members be paid?
Bridget Prentice: I am afraid that I do not think that I will be able to satisfy the hon. Gentleman because, again, transitional arrangements will be made. As soon as we have the details, I will be happy to give him the information. Given that this proposal has to be considered next week, we will soon be in a far clearer position to see how all of that will stack up. Transitional arrangements will have to be made from 1 January. Once they are made clearer, I will be able to give him a much more detailed and direct response.
I understand that if the hon. Gentleman looks at article 29 on page 32 of the document, he will see what the arrangements will entail in terms of the transition. He will see that the Commission will be choosing
“by lot 15 members of the Management Board”.
That will doubtless be a very democratic system indeed.
Mr. Ellwood: We have established how many, but we have not established who they are or how much they will be paid. Perhaps we can end on an easy question. Will the Minister tell the good people of Bournemouth, East how they benefit from a budget of €29 million being spent on an agency, given that we do not know who its chairman or vice-chairman will be, and we do not know who will run the management board or the executive board, or who will be on the scientific committee? Will she say how my constituents benefit from the setting up of this agency?
Bridget Prentice: I am delighted that the good people of Bournemouth, East are as fascinated by this issue as I am.
Mr. Ellwood: With €29 million involved, of course they are.
Bridget Prentice: Well, I can say to the hon. Gentleman that everyone in Bournemouth, East, in Lewisham, East and in the rest of the European Union deserves policies and legislation that will keep their fundamental rights to the fore. I hope that no one in this Committee would resile from that, although I realise that the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) may take a different view. However, in general people think that we all deserve to ensure that our fundamental rights are kept intact. It would be absurd, therefore, for the most powerful body in Europe to have no formal access to independent advice on the best way to guarantee our citizens the rights that we would expect them to enjoy in a free and democratic society. In that sense, I hope that the good people of Bournemouth, East, along with those of Lewisham, East and elsewhere, will be able to feel comfortable in their beds, knowing that the agency will be looking after their fundamental rights.
Simon Hughes: According to the reading that I have done, the Government have a general concern in relation to these proposals, about two issues other than the third pillar issues. The first is the geographical scope of the agency, and the second is whether article 308 of the treaty provides a legally justifiable basis for the setting up of the agency. Will the Minister tell the Committee the Government’s position on each of those apparent concerns?
I am pleased to say that there is support for the United Kingdom’s position within the working group that monitoring third countries’ fundamental rights performance is not an appropriate role for the agency, so that is not going to happen. That would have very negative repercussions, particularly for the agency’s limited resources, and would take the agency’s focus away from the European Community. Most importantly, as I hope hon. Members will agree, it might undermine the work of the Council of Europe.
Article 308 is the legal basis for the regulations that will establish the agency, and that will provide the Council with means to attain the objectives of the Community if the treaty has not provided the necessary powers. While ensuring respect for fundamental rights is not specifically listed as a Community objective in articles 2 and 3 of the text, the European Court of Justice has found that that is a condition for the lawfulness of Community acts, so it will form an underlying or implied objective of the Community.
Simon Hughes: I am grateful to the Minister for dealing with some complicated interrelated matters. I am a big fan of the Council of Europe. I trained with it and used to work for it. The Minister has mentioned the interrelationship between the Council of Europe and this body. Is the Council of Europe entirely happy with the proposal as it stands? Can the Minister explain how the responsibilities will be divided—if the agency comes into operation—between the agency, the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who also has some responsibility for human rights across all European Union countries as well as other countries?
Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the relationship between the agency and the Council of Europe. It is one reason why we are concerned not to widen the agency’s geographical scope to third countries and not to extend its remit to third pillar matters. We do not want duplication between the agency and the Council of Europe.
On the other hand, there will rightly be a great deal of communication between the two bodies. The European Commission is responsible for concluding the memorandum of understanding that will establish the principles under which co-operation between them will take place. As I understand it, there is now growing consensus among member states on the need to ensure that a person appointed by the Council of Europe sits on both the management board and the executive board of the agency. Obviously, I hope that the primary focus of the agency on advising Community institutions on fundamental rights will minimise duplication.
Mr. Cash: In her earlier comments, the Minister made it clear that she regards the proposal as something that should be approved when it gets to the Council in early December, but she also argued that if the agency is to be established under article 308—a passerelle clause—it should be a Community body, not a European Union body. She knows that serious doubts have been expressed by the European Scrutiny Committee about whether there is a power under the treaty to allow the use of article 308 in the first place. That Committee referred particularly to
“circumstances where the Agency was not given any role under the EU treaty.”
If there are such serious reservations on a matter of such importance to the Government—the Minister expressed reservations in her reports and responses to the Committee—why does she not use the veto under the unanimity provisions of the Council regulation to veto the treaty, or is she confident that she will be able to win over the other member states?
Bridget Prentice: Taking the hon. Gentleman’s last question first, I am reasonably confident that not I but my skilful right hon. Friend Baroness Ashton will indeed be able to win over the other states.
As I said at the beginning of my remarks, the key point is that we oppose the decision to extend the agency’s activities to third pillar matters. Indeed, I agree with what the hon. Gentleman implied in his comments. It would be better to call the agency a Community body rather than a European Union body, as that would make it absolutely clear to everyone that it does not deal with third pillar issues. However, discussions on that are ongoing, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be able to make the United Kingdom’s position crystal clear. I cannot make any further comment until that political agreement has been achieved.
It is also important to recognise that the agency is an information-gathering organisation. It will gather together information on fundamental rights issues Community law and provide guidance and advice. On that basis, we should not have too much worry about it extending its remit. We have made clear our position on such matters. I hope that, during discussions next week, we shall persuade others that our position is the right one.
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): It is disappointing that, five weeks from the launch, the Committee cannot identify those charged with running an agency with a budget of €28 million of taxpayers’ money. I press the Minister to help us identify who this country is putting forward as our national liaison officer as required under clause 17 on page 10. How much will that person cost?
Bridget Prentice: I refer the hon. Gentleman to article 29, which sets out how the agency will be set up and describes the transitional arrangements. During our earlier discussion, I was given the name of Beate Winkler. She is presently chair of the monitoring agency and will be carrying on in that role.
The hon. Gentleman asked about our named people. I hope to be receiving advice on that matter. I am thinking of something interesting to say to him while waiting for that advice to arrive. If I cannot think of something interesting, I shall just say that specific decisions will be made as soon as the document is adopted by the January Council. I am sure that I have clarified matters remarkably for the hon. Gentleman.
Simon Hughes: I want to pursue the link with the Council of Europe. The Minister may have inadvertently not specifically answered the question about its latest view. If the European Union continues expanding, its membership will soon be the same as that of the Council of Europe. Is it logical to have two European bodies accountable to two different institutions doing the same job? The Council of Europe has a fantastically good reputation on human rights issues. That was the cause of the drafting of the convention. It has been the body responsible to the European Court of Human Rights and the European convention on human rights. It has regularly monitored Council of Europe member countries and other countries that have supplied observers at elections and so on. Why is it necessary for a second body to be created that does a job that could reasonably be done by the Council of Europe, even it needed some more resources through the Council of Europe? Is the Council of Europe entirely happy with the current proposal?
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Prepared 29 November 2006