Fundamental Rights

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Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman puts a very well argued case for the Council of Europe. I reiterate the Government’s position that the Council of Europe does a very good job in all the areas to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. However, it is much engaged in the discussions on the memorandum of understanding and any worries that it has will obviously be raised in that forum.
A reasonable number of European countries are still not part of the Community and are not on the horizon as becoming member states so, as the hon. Gentleman described, the Council of Europe will still have an important body of work. I recognise his argument that there is a worry that the agency might duplicate some of the Council of Europe’s work, particularly human rights issues, but we want to ensure that there is no such overlap or that, if there is, it should be avoided as much as possible. That is why we very much support the fact that the agency’s role will be restricted to community law and its geographical scope to the European Union and the candidate countries.
We encourage and underline the co-operation that needs to be developed between the Council of Europe and the agency, and one example of that is the memorandum of understanding. There are others contained in the regulation establishing the agency, including an appointment by the Council of Europe of an independent person on the management board, who will also sit as an observer on the executive board. In those ways, we have included mechanisms to ensure that the Council of Europe is not fettered in the work that it is doing exceptionally well, particularly in human rights. I hope that that will go some way towards reassuring the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I declare an interest at this point, which I am sure stands for both you and myself, Mr. Chope, as we are both attendees and members of the Council of Europe. I am somewhat curious about what has just been said about the Council. I have sat on it since arriving back in the House at the last election and I cannot see in the Minister’s proposals the unique powers that the agency will be given to ensure that there is not duplication. She has said “no duplication” half a dozen times, but I cannot see any unique powers. Perhaps she could explain them to me more clearly.
Bridget Prentice: I say to the hon. Gentleman that I have not spoken at all about unique powers. I have said that the agency’s role will be to give non-binding guidance and advice. I suppose that he is asking why the agency is being set up at all. The answer is that it will fill what the Union feels is a gap in monitoring fundamental rights across the Union in the implementation of Community law. It is to that end that we consider that, with its finite resources, it will be necessary for the agency to concentrate on the areas in which it has the greatest potential relevance and usefulness, and on its primary purpose of building on the mandate of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia. It should be a fact-finding, opinion-giving body that gives non-binding guidance and advice. It will therefore play a different role from that of the Council, but one parallel to it.
Mr. Fraser: I cannot see how there are unique powers in what has just been said. May I say respectfully that the answer was as clear as mud to me?
I wish to ask another question. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey asked a clear question about what consultation has taken place. The response was not coherent to me. What meetings have taken place? Who attended them from the Council of Europe and the Minister’s Department, and what was their outcome? Have all the British delegates to the Council of Europe, from all political parties, been involved in the process of understanding what happened in those meetings so that we can stand up in the Council—yourself and myself included, Mr. Chope—and fly the banner for this initiative? I say plainly that as I stand here now, I have not had any information on it at all. We have only five weeks to go before the agency is established. I hope that that is enough time for the Minister’s advisers to give her the answer.
Bridget Prentice: Let me go back a step. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman thought that my last answer was as clear as mud. I thought that I made it quite clear that the role of the agency will be that of giving non-binding guidance and advice. I have said two, three or possibly four times that its remit will be purely Community law, and it will not step outside that. We have strongly established that as its role, which is very different from that of the Council of Europe. As the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey pointed out, the Council of Europe has examined human rights issues and so on in countries outside the European Union.
The Commission consulted in October 2004, I believe, and there was a briefing to United Kingdom MPs at the Council of Europe in April, and again in November. I am not a member of the Council of Europe, so I was not there, but my understanding is that British members have been kept in contact on the subject at two meetings this year.
Mr. Fraser: I am grateful for the Minister’s comments. However, I suggest that it would have done the Government no harm had they come back directly to all the members of the Council of Europe, rather than leaving us to expect something in our postbag. That is the frank and open way in which we in the Council of Europe have dealt with matters during my time as a member. The Minister mentioned that there is restriction to community law. I hear what she says, but what plans do the Government have to implement complementary programmes at national level, to ensure that what she proposes will apply equally and fully across the European Union? What is the cost of the programmes?
Bridget Prentice: I clarify for the hon. Gentleman that the discussions with the Council of Europe members did not involve my Department; European Commission members had the discussions, and it was up to Members here to attend. However, I take his point on board, because personally I feel strongly that we should make every effort to communicate with our representatives, not just on these issues but on all. I shall certainly indicate to my colleagues who attend European institutions that it is important that we keep our Members—from whichever party—informed of issues, as those issues arise.
The hon. Gentleman asked what we are doing at a national level. Obviously, there is no incorporation into domestic law in the sense that he intended. However, as signatories to a number of international human rights treaties, we will want to ensure that we follow at national level the procedures that are set out at European level. We would be rightly criticised if we did not, and I hope that, as we watch the agency develop, we shall be able to learn from it and perhaps offer it some advice on best practice, to make sure that the fundamental rights of citizens on the domestic front are properly monitored, recognised and protected.
Mr. Bellingham: The Minister said a couple of times that Her Majesty’s Government have strong reservations about references to the charter. I imagine that she was referring to the references to the charter that are contained in articles 2(1)(a), 3(a) and 3(b). Have those been moved to the recitals, and will there be a reference to official explanations of the legal status of the charter?
Mr. Bellingham: It certainly looks as though Britain may have to use its veto, given how things are going.
I turn to the programme on fundamental rights, about which we have had little discussion so far. Its specific objectives, set out on page 41, are wide-ranging and will be costly. What will be the exact relationship between the programme and the fundamental rights agency? What will the programme cost, or will the money come out of the FRA’s budget?
Bridget Prentice: The relationship between the programme and the agency is an important issue. The programme will focus on promoting fundamental rights in the European Union, while the agency will focus on monitoring fundamental rights issues in Community law. The Commission is charged with minimising the risk of duplication between the programme and the agency, and will have a representative on the management and executive boards. Other institutional mechanisms will also minimise duplication; for example, a co-operation agreement will be concluded between the EU and the Council of Europe.
The programme will have its own budget, separate from that of the agency. I understand that it will be between €50 million and €98 million—that is, between £31 million and £61 million approximately.
Mr. Cash: In September, an ICM poll indicated that 72 per cent. of British people believe that the national veto should be retained for EU decision making in this and parallel areas. Can the Minister answer this simple question? Given that fundamental rights issues include racism and xenophobia—whatever that second word means—would the Minister say that the Muslim community will have the fundamental right to insist on sharia law at the expense of United Kingdom law?
Bridget Prentice: The short answer to that last question is no.
Mr. Fraser: May I return to budgets, about which my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk has just asked? Page 28 clearly states that the EU Court of Auditors will look at the agency’s provisional accounts. Given that the Court of Auditors has failed to sign off the Commission’s overall accounts for the past dozen years, how can we have any confidence that the agency will take any notice of it?
Bridget Prentice: It would not be fair to compare the agency with the Commission at this stage. The board will be set up; it will have its budget and be subject to the Court of Auditors, and rightly so. I hope that it will follow appropriately the advice and rules of the Court of Auditors. It would not be fair to condemn an organisation that has not yet been established on the basis of what has happened elsewhere in the past.
Simon Hughes: On several occasions, the Minister has said—and it is clearly true—that the agency is intended to deal only with matters of Community law and not others. I understand that in terms of the link between European Union law, for which the final adjudication is made by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, and human rights law across Europe, in respect of which the court is the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, it is now the case that not only do individual states have an obligation to the ECHR because they are signatories, but the European Union is also bound by ECHR law, as are all its institutions. Am I right, therefore, in thinking that it will not be the job of this agency to oversee compliance or issues to do with the compliance of European Union agencies—the Parliament, the Council of Ministers and the Commission—with the European convention on human rights and all the rights that are set out in that convention?
Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman is correct that it will not be the role of the agency to oversee those issues. The agency’s role will be to monitor and to offer guidance. More fundamentally, I need to correct him in that—as I understand it—the European Union is not bound by the ECHR, and therefore the agency would not fall into that category.
Mr. Cash: Will the Minister tell us—in light of what the Prime Minister has said regarding the extension of the detention period in relation to control orders for terror suspects—whether the Government’s view is that that would be a breach of fundamental rights, or would she prefer the period to stay at 28 days?
Bridget Prentice: I am not sure that I want at this stage to get into a debate about 28 days. The hon. Gentleman will know, if he looks at Hansard, that when we did debate the issue, I voted for a period of detention much longer than 28 days. Given the opportunity, I would almost certainly do so again. As I have said on a number of occasions, the agency does not have a third pillar role. Therefore, I do not see a connection between what we are doing in terms of terrorism and our own security, and the agency’s monitoring role.
Mr. Fraser: On page 31, I see that the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia is going to be subsumed into the new agency. I know that its current term of office will terminate on 31 December. How many of its staff will be taken on by the new agency and will any of them be made redundant? If so, what will those redundancies cost?
Simon Hughes: There has been a question about the fundamental rights and citizenship programme. It is described in notes as being part of the more general fundamental rights and justice programme, which already exists. Why do we need a second programme? Why cannot the job be done by the existing programme?
Bridget Prentice: I have outlined the role of the programme, but I agree that we did not spend as much time on that as we did on the agency. There is room for another programme to consider some of the issues. I repeat that it is important not to have duplication where that might be a temptation, but we should ensure that the programme has a separate role. As part of a bigger fundamental rights and justice organisation, it is, in a sense, additional to rather than instead of the present programme. The two can work together and in parallel. As I pointed out earlier, the role of the MOU and the opening up of lines of communication between the different institutions in Europe are an important part of ensuring that the new agency and the programme work well with existing bodies.
5.30 pm
The Chairman: Order. Questions would normally be finished after one hour, but it is open to the person in the Chair under Standing Order No. 119(7) to extend question time to ensure that all hon. Members who want to ask questions can do so if the Chairman takes the view that the matter under discussion is important and should be subject to the scrutiny that comes from the asking of questions. In the light of that, I will allow question time to continue for another five minutes.
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