Previous Section Index Home Page

5 Feb 2008 : Column 803

Today, we live in a different age from when the European Union was founded. It comprised six, nine and then 15 states. It has almost doubled in size, bringing together 27 politically and culturally diverse members. The time is not beyond the memory of many in the House when a trip across the channel required a feat of logistics, including having to take one’s passport to the bank to withdraw a maximum of £250-worth of European currency in one year.

Nowadays, British citizens make 55 million trips to Europe each year. Around three quarters of a million of us have homes in Spain, with a further quarter of a million with homes in France, while hundreds of thousands have settled or work elsewhere in the EU. Today, our constituents benefit from the EU and think nothing of living, working and travelling across it.

There is a damaging fallacy that human rights are something for the “other”. The old home guard is wheeled out in the name of the defence of British interests. They paint a dismal picture of some form of Napoleonic resurgence, threatening the borders and well-being of the United Kingdom. The only response as they see it—we experienced it again this afternoon—is drawing back from Europe into the comfort of narrow parochialism. They seem to miss the fact that the British interest of the British people—yes, those who fly the flag and want it to be flown more often—is best served by being in Europe so that we can influence Europe. I want my constituents to receive the same protection when on holiday or on business abroad in Europe as they are afforded at home.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Straw: Before giving way, let me first make the same argument in the House as I do in discussions in my constituency when the issue arises. I ask my constituents where they go on holiday, whether they know anyone with an apartment or home in Spain, Italy or France, or anyone who has made use of his or her right to work elsewhere in the European Union. I point out to them that they would have far fewer rights when living or working abroad without our participation in Europe.

The Government ensured through the Human Rights Act 1998 that the rights contained in the convention were brought home to become directly enforceable by British judges in British courts.

Mr. Clappison rose—

Mr. Straw: I said that I would give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Clappison: The rights that the Secretary of State has described existed long before the charter of fundamental rights. May I take him back to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) asked? Since the European Union wishes to accede to the convention and the Government claim that the charter will not create any justiciable rights in this country, what practical benefit is the charter for the people of this country? Is the high point of the Government’s case that they are protecting us from the wonderful document’s having any effect?

5 Feb 2008 : Column 804

Mr. Straw: The benefit of the charter is, as the European Commission said, that it assembles existing rights, which were previously scattered over a range of sources and therefore not always easy to trace. [Interruption.] It concerns existing rights and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that. Perhaps he will tell his Front-Bench colleagues.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the previous intervention demonstrates the difficulty that we on this side of the House have with the Opposition? They do not understand that membership of the European Union is a two-way street or that the rights of UK citizens when in other countries are protected through such provisions. It was the same in the debate on justice and home affairs, when they did not understand that minimum standards in criminal law could affect UK citizens beneficially when abroad. Similarly, in the debate on energy the issue for the Tories seemed to be all about people nicking our energy supplies in time of crisis, rather than energy supplies from other member states coming here. It is the same in this debate—they do not understand the protections that our citizens can enjoy abroad owing to those fundamental rights.

Mr. Straw: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I know that he has had the privilege and benefit of attending each of these debates and hearing what has been said. Yes, the European Union is a two-way street, but my point to my constituents, which they accept, is that when they go abroad, they want better rights than they would be afforded in many non-EU foreign countries. They benefit in EU countries, but they also want to know that if, for instance, they want to enforce their property rights, they can do so better within the European Union.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): I have the greatest affection for my right hon. Friend and I always enjoy the sight of him skating very fast on thin ice. I am not a lawyer and this debate is in danger of becoming an argument between lawyers, so will he identify one new right—just one—that the legislation will introduce?

Mr. Straw: The answer— [ Interruption. ] The answer to my hon. Friend—[Hon. Members: “She’s marvellous!”] I absolutely agree—she is marvellous, and I love her to bits. The answer to my hon. Friend, with whom I have a long and close association going back some years, is that the charter does not create new rights; rather, it brings together rights that were already there, as I have just said.

Mr. Grieve: Will the Lord Chancellor confirm that every country that is a member of the European Union is also a signatory of the European convention on human rights? Indeed, I believe that every single one has incorporated it. In view of that, what is the purpose of the charter of fundamental rights? If it is innocuous, as he says it is, why have the Government negotiated a protocol that will supposedly make it ineffective?

Mr. Straw: If the hon. Gentleman bears with me, I shall answer his question in full and at tedious length.

5 Feb 2008 : Column 805

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Can the Lord Chancellor confirm that the charter applies those rights for the first time to the European Union institutions? That is a key part of the whole policy development.

Mr. Straw: Yes, I can, although many of those rights applied in any event. I can also say what the benefit is of assembling those rights together in a single document. It is that the people of Britain, among many others, can see what they are in a single document, rather than having to delve into various obscure—

Mr. Shepherd: Will the Lord Chancellor give way?

Mr. Straw: No, I am going to make some progress.

Mr. Shepherd: You have got four and a half hours.

Mr. Straw: Not all for me, for Pete’s sake! I have given way to the hon. Gentleman already. I will give way to him later, but now I must make some progress.

As the House knows, the charter was originally drafted as a declaratory document agreed at the Cologne summit in 1999. Before agreeing that the charter should have treaty status, the Government insisted that greater clarity was required to define precisely what the scope and effect of such a status would be, which is the answer to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. We pledged that nothing in the charter of fundamental rights would give national or European courts any new powers to strike down or reinterpret UK law, including with regard to labour and social legislation. That is what we have delivered.

We have also negotiated an extensive package of safeguards. Four measures in particular have been put in place: the new wording of article 6 of the Lisbon treaty; the charter’s horizontal articles, found in articles 51 and 52; the revised official explanations accompanying the charter; and the binding protocol on page 172. Individually and taken together, those measures represent a substantial degree of protection for British interests. I will deal with them in turn.

The amended article 6 states:

The horizontal articles contained in title VII stipulate:


In addition, the official explanations to the charter, which indicate the source of the rights and principles it contains, provide further clarification:

5 Feb 2008 : Column 806

The explanations demonstrate that the charter does not create any new rights, but reaffirms rights that are already recognised.

The final measure, the protocol, which we have secured along with Poland, completes the protection. The language is unusually clear for an EU instrument:

Then there is a further limb to the protocol.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): While the charter may indeed not provide for new rights, the European Court will for the first time be able to interpret that charter in countries where it is justiciable and thereby—the charter is drafted in very broad terms—effectively make major new law, as supreme courts do around the world. Does that not explain why the protocol is crucial, but only if it is watertight? Will the Secretary of State explain why it was not made clear when the terms of the protocol were negotiated that it would apply regardless of any other European treaty or other law made by the European Court? Without that, there is a real risk, notwithstanding the generally welcome protocol, that a loophole within it may negate its purpose.

Mr. Straw: I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for that helpful intervention. It is our view that the protocol—it should be taken together with the other three safeguards, but this applies even to the terms of the protocol itself—contains the safeguards that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the British Government seek. [Interruption.] If he thinks otherwise, I look forward to hearing his speech, but that is our view. It is very clear that the safeguards that I have described mean that the charter does not introduce new justiciable rights and that the courts, domestic or European, are being given no new powers to overrule the will of the House.

I should point out for the avoidance of doubt, and since the issue is raised teasingly in the Opposition amendment, that the protocol does not operate like an opt-out, but the broad purpose is similar: opt-outs and protocols are there to provide safeguards for the UK. It does not disapply rights to UK citizens; given that the United Kingdom fully accepts the rights reaffirmed in the charter, there would be no need to do so. However, it ensures that what is in the charter is not additionally justiciable, as it might have been had it not been for the charter.

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con) rose—

Mr. Straw: No, I am going to make some progress and deal with the issue of labour rights, which is of concern to Members on both sides of the House. Paradoxically, critics of the charter either bemoan the potential disparity in the level of workers’ rights across Europe, which they suggest will lead to legal chaos, or
5 Feb 2008 : Column 807
alternatively complain that the charter will open up our own employment laws to new legal challenges. Let me clarify the position.

UK employees and citizens in general will not have fewer rights because of the protocol. In any event, as I said, the charter does not provide any new rights. Rather, it simply makes the rights that we already have more visible, and once the treaty comes into effect, it calls on EU institutions and member states to abide by them when they are implementing EU law. I have already quoted what the European Commission sets out on its website.

It is true that, under the treaty establishing the European Community, the European Union already has power to legislate, by unanimity, for collective defence of workers’ interests in the social chapter, but it has no powers to decide what rights to strike should exist in national law. Article 137 states:

The Lisbon treaty does not change that; nor does the charter affect it. The explanation to Article 28 is explicit:

The existing rights and principles recorded in the charter will continue to work as they always have. The protocol serves to put that beyond doubt, but it does not create any disparity between workers across Europe.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Straw: No; I want to make some progress.

The Government can be proud of their record in championing the rights of British workers. Perhaps the most substantial, as well as the most symbolic, difference between us in the Labour Government and Opposition Members lies in the social chapter. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham put it so aptly,

I am proud that we signed up to it.

The social chapter was designed to create a minimum guaranteed level of social protection across Europe. It prevents countries from competing unfairly by allowing their workers to be exploited. I should have thought that, given all the concern about competition from eastern European workers, the Conservative party would now have realised the error of its ways. The last Conservative Government negotiated an opt-out, but we had a manifesto commitment, and we joined the chapter in 1997. As many Conservatives think that there are demons in it, let me mention that it includes the right to paid maternity and paternity leave—is the House opposed to that?—and the right not to be discriminated against on grounds of sexuality, religion or belief, or age.

5 Feb 2008 : Column 808

The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has said that he supports flexible working, yet he told his party conference:

Opting out of social chapter rights would simply make it harder for parents to balance work and their caring responsibilities, and could even remove the right to paid holidays. The Opposition have consistently opposed the basic minimum standards enshrined in the chapter and reiterated in the treaty, which have been of particular benefit to low-paid women workers. I hope that the hon. Member for Aylesbury will tell us which elements of the chapter—they have delivered real rights and benefits to our citizens—the Conservative party plans to remove.

As well as clarifying and guaranteeing the rights of men and women, the treaty means that, for the first time, the European Union establishes the rights of the child as one of the general objectives of the Union.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I look forward to hearing from my right hon. Friend about the rights of children, which the treaty fundamentally improves. However, it is clear that parts of article 137—article 153 of the consolidated treaty—will be subject to a passerelle clause. I am thinking of

Should the passerelle be applied, those provisions might be subject to qualified majority voting rather than unanimity, and this country could lose its veto. Other countries could decide to override it if they gained a majority in the Council.

Mr. Straw: Where there is a passerelle clause, the move from unanimity to qualified majority voting can take place only if unanimity itself exists. We have an absolute veto in relation to whether we wish to move to qualified majority voting. Moreover—I know that this is not a matter to be discussed today, but I will mention it in passing—the Bill makes special provision whereby the House must vote in respect of any move from unanimity to qualified majority voting via a passerelle.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Straw: I wish to conclude now; I am sorry to disappoint—

Mr. Shepherd: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: Go on then.

Mr. Shepherd: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way—although, to add a note of sourness, I feel that I must say that his performance would have been better given in Blackburn market.

Two courts are relevant to this House: the European Court of Justice sitting at Strasbourg and the European Court for this treaty arrangement. Where there is a conflict in interpretation of human rights, which court prevails?

Next Section Index Home Page