Fundamental Rights

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Mr. Cash: The hon. Gentleman is developing his argument extremely articulately, but I remind him that he said earlier that he thought it was very important to remember that in this House, we have the right to call the Government to account and, if necessary, to put them in a box, turn the key and throw it away. Does he accept that that is actually the fundamental issue? It is about what kind of rights there should be, and the fact that they should be adjudicated and determined by this sovereign Parliament and not by a conglomeration of other bodies, which will create rights and will do so with the sustenance of the European Court of Justice, which imposes such rights on us through the European Communities Act 1972. Furthermore, such an arrangement would undermine the right of Parliament to make its own decisions.
Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman tempts me down a road that is familiar territory for him and that I am very happy to go down. I am resisting not because I am not happy to have a debate, but because it is a wide set of issues that he raised—they are to do with our adherence to European Union treaties and other matters—and I do not think that you would think it in order, Mr. Chope, for me to go down that road. I will be happy to have a debate in another place at another time.
My colleagues in the European Parliament would argue that there should be an ability to adjudicate or have an oversight of third pillar issues. I understand the Government’s position on that. For as long as third pillar issues are not yet within the general European Union majority voting or unanimous decision-making process, the Government have a perfectly reasonable argument for saying that such matters should not be under the purview of the fundamental rights agency. It would be inconsistent to argue on the one hand that third pillar issues are not inside the system and on the other that the agency should have oversight. I share and understand the Government’s view about that.
As it happens, there should be nothing to fear. If our police and justice co-operation systems are compliant with human rights, we would not have anything to fear from an agency. I hope we have good standards, but I can see the argument of principle. I therefore hope that there will be an understanding of that at the Minister’s meeting next week.
I have two other points. First, there is still some concern about the vagueness of much of the language. I appreciate that it is late in the day to revise the script, given how many circuits it goes round, but it is important that the definition of the agency’s job be drawn as precisely as possible. We are talking not only about substantial sums of money—there is an argument in favour of ensuring that the agency gives value for money—but about the fact that the definition should be precisely drawn. More importantly, there is a danger of an overlap between the work of the programme and that of the agency. There is a danger that information and analysis to do with human rights in Europe and the European Union will be looked at both by the agency and as part of the programme. We do not need two lots of people collecting the information and disseminating the data on which everybody else will proceed. I ask Ministers to try to ensure absolutely no overlap. Overlap is the word that has appeared most frequently in the reading that I have done on the issue—overlap with other institutions, such as the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, and overlap between the existing programme, the new programme and the agency. If we go ahead—which, on balance, I think we should—I am keen that the overlap should be reduced.
My final point is that the test of such bodies is whether EU citizens, who pay money for the agency, get value for money for a body that can assist in ensuring that EU institutions and the processes for passing EU legislation are human rights-compatible, and which can educate people about their rights in the EU under the treaties to, for example, equality of pay, equality of pension and gender equality. The test will be whether the agency does that job. It will be worth while only if it is seen to deliver not only a greater understanding of human rights across Europe, but a greater opportunity for the EU institutions to be human rights-complaint all the time, in terms of racism, xenophobia and all the other undesirable issues to be coped with early on, and for fewer cases to be taken to court because of non-compliance. We cannot judge the agency now, but I hope that we can proceed with a degree of cautiousness. Like others, I will be keen to ensure that the agency is reviewed at the end of its first period of existence. If it justifies itself, it should continue; if it does not, we should not spend the money on its continued existence.
3.58 pm
Mr. Cash: Obviously I have grave concerns, as do my hon. Friends. I should like to develop the thoughts to which I alluded in some of my questions, because some extremely important issues lie embedded at the heart of the arrangements, and they need to be brought out more.
I have mentioned my concerns about the use of article 308, as has the European Scrutiny Committee, on which I sit. Article 308 used to be known as article 235, even under the Treaty of Rome, so it is not quite as new an arrangement as some people have come to believe. It is a rolling-up provision, and for that very reason it should not be misused.
It is perfectly clear that the arrangements for the passerelle, as it is now called—it is otherwise known as a footbridge or by some other name—function as a stepping stone for what, by any reasonable standards, would be regarded as ultra vires; that is, beyond the powers of the existing body of a treaty or legislation. That passerelle is now being employed to invade areas that must be regarded as fundamental—for example, whether a provision of a European Union treaty, regulation or decision should be subject to unanimity of by majority voting.
It so happens that on the very day when the establishment of the fundamental rights agency is considered, a monumental decision will be taken about the extension of majority voting to questions of justice, home affairs and all the other related matters. I do not happen to know which will come first. To some, it might seem purely academic, but if the majority voting arrangements go through, we will be in a position. I am not stretching the ambit of the documents before us in any way when I say that that issue, which relates not merely to the fundamental rights agency but to the question of the extension to title 6, is a matter of fundamental sovereignty. At the moment it is open to the Government to veto an arrangement.
It is a question of the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament. Why have the Government not introduced before Parliament, under the Queen’s Speech, a European Union Bill incorporating the provisions before us? I have tabled a motion drawing attention to this bizarre, grotesque state of affairs. As I asked when the Prime Minister said in answer to me, “We can’t implement part of a treaty,” why can we not do so? We know that the French and the Dutch have vetoed it, and that the German constitutional court has severe reservations about the European constitution. For that reason, the proposal ought not to be on the Order Paper at all or included in Council of Ministers discussions.
I speak as a member of the European Scrutiny Committee: why are we here considering arrangements introduced on the spurious grounds that somehow there is a shading or tipping point between the European Community, the European Union, and the European constitution, which is being rejected in Europe and which the Government do not dare to introduce during this Session in the form of a European Union Bill because they know perfectly well that it is completely unjustified?
The arrangements, which are embedded in the European Union constitution and would remove the British people’s right to make decisions for themselves about vital matters, are being discussed here because the Council of Ministers will consider those vital questions on 4 and 5 December without any regard to the absurdity that will arise because the whole thing has now been put in the dustbin by the voters of Europe. On crime, legal questions and immigration, I have already said that in the most recent opinion poll, 72 per cent. of British people say that they do not want the measures. When will the British Parliament hear a wake-up call?
It does not make any sense, even on the basis of the Government’s own behaviour. If they believe in this nonsense, they should be introducing a European Union Bill, but they are not. I have grave, fundamental objections to the whole procedure. I cannot understand how it is that we find ourselves considering a document that states, among its other preambles, and even allowing for the fact that it does not refer to the European Union, but to the Community, that the
“Community and its Member States must respect Fundamental Rights when implementing Community law.”
The Minister made what I think was a slightly silly point about the fact that I came in a tiny bit late—I think that I was 30 seconds late. In any case, she knows that I clearly heard her say that the question of—[Interruption.] I have been thrown by a note from a Whip—a most unusual event in my life. However, the question of where the fundamental rights take us goes to the heart of control orders and the issue of the rights that should be given to persons allegedly connected with terrorist acts.
I abstained when that prevention of terrorism provision was going through. It might be known that in a report this month by the European Scrutiny Committee regarding justice and home affairs, the Committee stated:
“In our view, the proposal for the use of the passerelle is of constitutional importance. Decisions on, for example, what constitutes a crime, what sanctions there should be for offences, procedural rights and other matters covered by Title VI of the EU Treaty concern national sovereignty.”
It continued:
“We note with alarm that, for example, the UK might not be able”—
I note that the former Home Secretary who is responsible for a lot of this nonsense is sitting here in complete silence and has not muttered a word, despite the fact that he is the genesis of most of it—
“to make bi-lateral agreements with third countries for the extradition of terrorists.”
Control orders, the application of the 28-day rule, the statements by the Attorney-General, the question of fundamental rights which bears on the issue of whether we should adopt this legislation in the United Kingdom, and the contradictions between the Government and the Prime Minister asking for 90 days and the Attorney-General for 28—by all appearances, my own colleagues are prepared to go for 28 days—seem to raise a very serious question about whether such provisions should be allowed through.
I am not going to elaborate further other than to say this in conclusion: this is a travesty. Even if we vote against it, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk said rightly that we will, in reality it will not add up to a row of beans. Even if we were to win the vote in this Committee, it would be reversed on the Floor of the House. That shows the extent to which this House is being diminished in its right to legislate on behalf of the people who have elected us to it. When 72 per cent. say that they do not want this to go through, what the Dickens is the Government doing ensuring that it will?
6.8 pm
Bridget Prentice: I am very pleased that the Committee has pressed the Government to explain their position. However, in response to the question from the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, and for the sake of clarity, I shall reiterate that we are very firm on the position of the charter and that the proposals will not extend to the third pillar.
I shall not be able to reassure the hon. Member for Stone, for whom I have I have a soft spot because I believe that his wife shares her Christian name with me. I have always felt a certain affinity for someone who has had the good sense to marry someone with that name. However, that has to be as far as any meeting of minds with him goes. I will not follow the path that he tried to lead us down at the end of his remarks, because, as I have said, this is not a third pillar issue and we intend it to remain that way.
I apologise to the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk as I should have made it absolutely clear that the network will be subsumed into the agency but the gender institute will not.
I strongly agree with what the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said about the importance of ensuring that there is no overlap between the agency and the other organisations. The decision establishing the programme mandates the Commission to ensure that there is no duplication between the activities of the agency and the programme. It is also important that hon. Members recognise that the agency is a body that is set up to gather information on fundamental rights and to give advice to EU institutions and member states. There is no existing EU organisation that will check that the EU itself is compliant with fundamental rights. The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia has no remit to check fundamental rights as such.
I reassure the Committee that we will ensure that all references to the charter are accompanied by references to its legal status and accompanying explanations. It has been a long-established practice under international human rights law that the United Nations system co-exists with regional systems for the protection of human rights, such as the Council of Europe, to which I reiterate our gratitude for the excellent work that it does. There is no reason why the Council of Europe and the European Union cannot co-exist and reinforce each other to protect fundamental rights in Europe. On that basis, I commend this to proposal the Committee.
Question put:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 4.
Division No. 1]
Clarke, rh Mr. Charles
Cunningham, Tony
Flello, Mr. Robert
Hughes, Simon
Lepper, David
Linton, Martin
Lucas, Ian
Prentice, Bridget
Ellwood, Mr. Tobias
Bellingham, Mr. Henry
Fraser, Mr. Christopher
Hurd, Mr. Nick
Question accordingly agreed to.
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.
Committee rose at thirteen minutes past Six o’clock.
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Prepared 29 November 2006