Fundamental Rights

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Mr. Fraser: Thank you, Mr. Chope. I can assure you that this question is relevant. If the Minister went to page 140, I would be grateful. It refers to the fundamental rights agency applying to Gibraltar. Have the Government of Gibraltar been consulted? If so, what is their response? What were their comments about that consultation?
Bridget Prentice: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to give me his full attention now, as I reply to him, which he did not do on a previous question. I almost paused to wait for him as I would do in a classroom, but I chose not to at the time.
Mr. Fraser: Oh why not?
Bridget Prentice: Well, I might do yet. Gibraltar is obviously going to be part of the agency; it will apply to Gibraltar. It has of course been involved in the discussions. It would be nonsensical for the agency to apply without there having been some communication with the state concerned. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman in detail what that consultation involved, but I will ensure that I write to him with the details of exactly what discussions have taken place with the Government of Gibraltar as regards Gibraltar’s position within the agency.
Mr. Bellingham: Exactly what will happen to the EU network of independent experts on fundamental rights? Will that be subsumed into the agency? Also, will the EU gender equality initiative remain free-standing or will it be taken on by the agency?
Bridget Prentice: It is my understanding that the network will be involved with the agency. As far as the gender issue is concerned, I am assured that it will remain separate, but the network will be subsumed within the agency. As I understand it, the reason why the gender institute will be kept separate is that although we would have been interested in combining those things, that has not been the case elsewhere in Europe and it has been accepted that therefore the gender institute will remain a separate organisation.
Simon Hughes: I have one last question on people. The UK has a right—a requirement—to nominate two independent people to the agency. Has the decision been made yet as to who those people will be, if the agency comes into operation in January? If so, can the Minister tell us who they are? If not, when will the decision be made and announced?
Bridget Prentice: It has not yet been decided who those people will be, but I will ensure that the Committee is informed as soon as the names are made available, as much as anything in order to underline my earlier comments about keeping communications open among members of this Committee and our members on the Council of Europe. I shall ensure that members of the Committee are kept informed. We hope to have those decisions made, but apparently we have some time. There are a couple of months yet before we have to make the nominations. That is all part of the transitional arrangement, but as soon as it happens, I will ask my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Ashton to ensure that both this Committee and our colleagues who are members of the Council of Europe are informed of all of that, so that people are aware of who the people are who are taking over.
Several hon. Members rose—
The Chairman: I call Mr. Bellingham to ask the last question.
Mr. Bellingham: May I just go back to the matter of the EU network of independent experts and to the gender equality initiative? The Minister simply said that other EU countries did not support Britain’s view but that it should be subsumed into the new agency. However, she did not say why they were against it being subsumed because it would surely make sense to have a one-stop shop.
Bridget Prentice: To some extent the hon. Gentleman and I are in agreement on this. In the UK, we have set up a one-stop shop by merging the equalities bodies into the Commission for Equality in Human Rights. We see that as the sensible way forward. However, the rest of Europe appears to be very keen on the gender institute. It is a decision that is subject to and has been qualified by majority voting. Therefore it has been agreed that there will be two different bodies.
It is important to emphasise that it will be key that the two bodies work closely together and do not duplicate work. We will push for strong co-ordination between the two bodies so that they are both as effective as possible. I should say that the director of the gender institute will be able to attend meetings of the agency’s management board as an observer. We might have preferred one body, however, as it was a QMV decision, we have accepted that there will be two. Nevertheless, we will be keen to ensure that they do work closely together.
The Chairman: Order. That brings us to the end of the time allotted to questions. I call the Minister to move the motion on the order paper.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Documents No. 10755/06, draft Council Regulation establishing a European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights and draft Council Decision empowering the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights to pursue its activities in areas referred to in Title VI of the Treaty of the European Union, and No. 13104/06, draft Council Decision establishing for the period 2007-2013 the specific programme 'Fundamental Rights and Citizenship' as part of the general programme 'Fundamental Rights and Justice'; notes that the proposals aim at promoting knowledge of and respect for fundamental rights in the European Union; and endorses the Government's policy of support for the measures, taking account of its reservations on the references to the Charter in the Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Programme and the extension of the Fundamental Rights Agency's remit to the third pillar.—[Ms. Prentice.]
3.37 pm
Mr. Bellingham: We have had a very interesting debate and question session. I would like to thank the Minister for coming to this Committee and standing in for her honourable colleague who could not be here today.
I am concerned about the Government’s cavalier disdain for the scrutiny process. When I asked the Minister that question about overriding the scrutiny process, she said that she did not know whether it had happened before and hinted that it may never have happened before. I do find that extraordinary.
I would just like to say to the Minister—I know that this is something that she is not directly responsible for—that her Department has been fairly cavalier in dealing with the European Scrutiny Committee. If one looks at page 148, one sees a letter from the noble Baroness Ashton, dated 9 June 2006, in reply to a letter from the European Scrutiny Committee dated 12 October 2005. The Minister says:
“I would like to offer my sincere apologies for the delay in responding to your note of 12 October informing me that the above document did not clear scrutiny.”
Talk about compounding a crime and making it worse. I find that quite extraordinary.
There is going to be duplication of the Council of Europe, the OSCE, a great deal of duplication of the European Court of Human Rights and the human rights commission of the Council of Europe and so it goes on. These are very experienced bodies indeed. They have track records of success and have delivered over many years. As the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey pointed out, they have delivered substantial successes. That is why I do not see any reason for the EU to set up a competing organisation.
I refer the Minister and the Committee to a debate which took place in Westminster Hall on 2 February 2005. There were two powerful contributions. One was from our friend Kevin McNamara, the former Member for Kingston upon Hull North, who is no Eurosceptic. In his opening speech in that debate he said that the proposed fundamental rights agency is,
“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”
He went on to say that
“it is a prospective gift for Eurosceptics”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 2 February 2005; Vol. 430, c. 251WH.]
Another colleague of the Minister, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central, spoke in that debate and said that
“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 ... there is no role for the European Union in human rights”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 2 February 2005; Vol. 430, c. 255WH.]
The hon. Gentleman made it very clear indeed that, along with other hon. Members, he felt very strongly.
My other concern is very simple. In this country we have set up the Commission for Equality and Human Rights and have a number of NGOs that work very hard, such as Amnesty International. Have they failed to deliver to my constituents and indeed to the constituents of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East? The answer is no they have not. This is a classic case of EU mission creep, institutional creep, empire building and jobs for the Eurocrats.
There is confusion over the exact status of the proposal. We had a discussion about the third pillar during which the Minister gave answers and I hope that the Government remain firm on those and on the actual status of the charter. I am not very optimistic about what the Minister said in terms of moving references to the charter to the recitals. If one looks at two fairly recent cases: the BECTU case and the ERTV.DEP case, which both touched on various issues on fundamental rights taking precedence over derogations, there is no question that the European Court of Justice regards the fundamental rights charter as law and often refers to it when passing judgments. There is a great deal of confusion that has not been cleared up by the Minister so far—perhaps she will do so in her closing speech.
There is also a lack of focus. As well as conflicting with other bodies, there is a great deal of confusion over what this agency will do. I certainly take the view that we will have an agency and I hope that the Government will veto it because it will be a completely useless and worthless organisation. If we are going to have an agency, why not subsume it into other EU bodies such as the EU network of independent experts on fundamental rights—the Minister said it might be subsumed, but did not give a definite reply. The Minister also said that the EU gender equality initiative will remain a free-standing body. We should try and subsume those organisations into this new agency in order to make it more efficient because a great deal more money will be at stake.
Mr. Cash: I would not in any way wish to appear to be in disagreement with my hon. Friend, but any idea of merging other EU bodies into this completely fault-ridden institution seems highly inappropriate. He quite rightly made a number of points about the increase in the number of personnel and such things and my hon. Friend the Whip, the Member for South-West Norfolk made a similar remark that I also endorse. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental democratic problem in moving the arrangements for the passerelle into majority voting. In addition, the involvement of this entire package with titles dealing with crime, immigration, justice and home affairs is fundamentally undemocratic. We should be making our decision in this Committee, but also on the Floor of the House with Westminster legislation and there is absolutely no need for this nonsense.
Mr. Bellingham: I quite agree. My point was very simple: if we are going to have this agency, and I hope that the Government vetoes it as we will certainly vote against it, it does not make sense to have other organisations that cost a great deal of money.
As far as remit and scope is concerned, the agency will grow and will want to interfere a great deal more and investigate individual complaints. It may also look at the policies and practices in member states. If one looks at some of the absurd, meaningless and vague Eurospeak in this set of documents, it does not fill one with much confidence. As far as the programme for fundamental rights is concerned, we discussed the costs and the budget of the agency, which we have discovered will be €9 million plus inflation for next year moving up to €29 million in 2013. The document talks about a budget that will grow and activities that will grow, but then we had an admission from the Minister that the programme will cost a staggering €58 million. That is a programme that will look at many different initiatives throughout Europe and will cost a great deal of money. There has been all this uncertainty, and various Ministers have said that they want to see Europe try to reduce regulation. The Davidson review of the implementation of EU legislation was published today, and showed that the regulatory burden on business and individuals through gold-plating is increasing in this country. The Chancellor made it clear at the CBI conference that he wanted to get rid of gold-plating and red tape, but these proposals are moving in exactly the opposite direction.
At a time when the UK has fallen from fourth to tenth in the World Economic Forum competitiveness league, the Government should look very closely at the creation of any costly, unnecessary, extra bodies that will lead simply to the building of empires, jobs for bureaucrats—in this case in Vienna—and a few jobs for British bureaucrats. It will cost a great deal of money, the people of this country will pay for it and our constituents will not gain a single benefit, unless one takes the view that the existing institutions in this country are totally useless. We do not take that view, which is why I hope that the Government will use their veto. In the meantime, I urge my hon. Friends to vote against this motion.
5.46 pm
Simon Hughes: This matter is clearly inciting more interest than some events in this Committee do and properly so, because it is important business. The Government’s motion, on which we will be asked to vote, supports the principle of an agency if certain reservations are met in the Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting. One of those relates to the charter, the other to its non-appliance to the third pillar issues. If conducted robustly, that is the sensible position to take at the meeting next week.
My background is that of a human rights lawyer. As I have indicated, I am supportive of those agencies in Europe that have led the way in ensuring human rights compliance throughout Europe. I repeat my belief that the Council of Europe has done a pre-eminent job in that respect. As various parties negotiate their way to supporting a bill of rights in the United Kingdom, a concept which is becoming more popular across the political spectrum, I hope that we can progress from the point at which we have arrived, with the agreement that has given House-wide support to the European convention for so long.
This proposal has clearly taken a long time to reach this stage. I can see the argument for having somebody within the European Union process who checks that what the EU does is human rights-compliant; I quite understand that, but is a separate agency needed to do it? If there is a separate agency, must it be bigger and better than the current organisation? Do you need the separate agencies to which the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) referred?
Let me deal with the general propositions. I support the idea that somewhere in the EU, somebody should do this job. My colleagues in the European Parliament, like those in most parties there, have been very keen that it should be a separate, fully fledged European agency. I know that we are under some pressure from our European parliamentary colleagues to support it as it stands. If we are to have a separate agency, it is very important that it does an absolutely precise job, rather than something—as is the nature of things—that grows and grows, taking on jobs that are done elsewhere or should not be done.
In this place, two things happen when the Government come up with proposals. The system does not have a separate, independent agency to make sure that the Government apply human rights. Ministers are required to certify that legislation is human rights-compliant. There may be an argument for having a unit of Government—for example, under the direction of law officers—that should do that in an existing institution. Dealing with human rights issues is currently done by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament, which produces a report that gives us our steer.
The principle responsibility for ensuring compliance should remain with the European Parliament, which should hold the European Council to account on human rights matters. I appreciate that the European Parliament is not as powerful vis- -vis the Council of Ministers as our Parliament, thank goodness, is relative to the Government. Our Government’s proposals can be clearly defeated by Parliament.
I understand that we need an agency elsewhere, but if we are to have such a thing, it should be absolutely clear that its only job is to make sure that it gives public advice as to the compatibility of EU agency’s activities with European Union human rights treaties. The Minister was right to deal with important but technical point that the European Union has signed up collectively to compliance with human rights; that was what the charter was for. The EU has said so in treaties without formally yet being a subscriber to the European convention; it is on the agenda but is not yet delivered, as I understand it.
The proposed agency should have that very ring-fenced job. It should not be somewhere that starts to pick up individual cases about compliance from individual people; that would be entirely inappropriate. If people have complaints, we need to address how human rights arguments are taken up by individuals. The agency should make sure to limit itself to the European Union and its institutions.
If the European Union eventually takes in all or nearly all European countries, the proposal would have to be revised. By such a time, by definition, if the member states of the Council of Europe are also members of the EU, I would hope that the overarching Council of Europe responsibility would apply to the EU’s internal work as it applies to the national work of national institutions.
In relation to other institutions such as the gender organisation, it seems to me that there is an opportunity to make sure that, should the proposal go ahead, they are put together. I understand the argument for separate initiatives, but the logic is that we should try to merge organisations and give them a common basis of personnel and so on. Otherwise, there is a danger that on gender issues, for example, one group of people will be arguing the perfectly valid case for women’s equality, but arguments may start coming out of the agency as well. That would be an unnecessary duplication.
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