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If these changes are not made by this Government and there is no referendum, it would be legitimate for a newly elected successor government to pursue detailed delineation of these matters within the EU and include them in UK legislation within two years of taking office.
In other words, should a Conservative Government be elected after the next general election, without the amendments being accepted or a referendum being held, the sensible way of reassuring people about incremental creep would be to introduce a UK parliamentary brake, whereby all change had to be made in primary legislation before action was taken. That would reassure people that Parliament remained in control. I welcome the suggestion and believe that the Government should take it into account.
Mr. Francois: As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) has already introduced his amendments ably and in some detail, I will be relatively brief, not least so that we can preserve time for the main debate on the ratchet clause.
Amendment No. 48 would require a Minister to seek parliamentary approval before voting in the European Council for a proposal that would transfer further powers to the European Union. The amendment has much to recommend it, not least because it would have prevented the Government from signing the Lisbon treaty without first seeking input from Parliament.
The need to put the right of parliamentary consultation before signing important EU documents on a statutory footing is strongly borne out by the case of the Lisbon treaty. The procedure of the European Scrutiny reserve already exists. If the Prime Minister had obeyed that convention, we would have been spared the bizarre
spectacle of the Prime Ministers belated signing of the treaty in Lisbon without first even consulting Parliament about his authority to sign it.
However, as is often the case, the Prime Minister did not obey the scrutiny reserve. The European Scrutiny Committee specifically said that there should be a Commons debate before the Prime Minister signed the treaty. There was no such debate. Conservative Members have already proposed putting the scrutiny reserve on a statutory footing, which would require Ministers to consult Parliament before signing important documents, while preserving their ability to negotiate more generally.
I would like to say a few words about amendment No. 47. It would prevent a Minister from voting to transfer further powers to the EU or from allowing, by abstaining, further powers to be given up on a piecemeal basis. Unfortunately, clause 6 has, like most other provisions, survived intact from the wreckage of the original constitution.
Clause 6 will, for the first time, make a European treaty self-amendable on a major scale. It flies in the face of the Prime Ministers contention that the treaty marks the end of EU institutional change.
By amending clause 6 so that a Minister cannot vote to transfer powers through the ratchet process, the amendment would remove one of the most worrisome aspects of the treaty without, in the process, wrecking the Bill. It will compel Ministers who wish to transfer powers to the EU to do so by the current method of a full treaty followed by an Act of Parliament. It therefore deserves our support.
Amendment No. 18 is similar in design to Amendment No. 47, so I do not need to reprise the argument but, on balance, the draftsmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells is slightly superior to ours, so I am minded to support amendment No. 47.
I should like to say a few words about amendments Nos. 42 to 46 and 49. Clause 6(1) includes a list of methods whereby the Government could vote to transfer further powers to the EU without Parliaments consent. At first glance, it looks like an exhaustive list. However, it did not escape the notice of my eagle-eyed right hon. Friend the Member for Wells that the Government have missed several important instances in which further powers can be transferred to the EU by a Minister without a vote in Parliament. Those include and would be addressed by: amendments Nos. 42 and 43 regarding aspects of criminal justice, found in articles 82(2)(d) and 83; amendment No. 44 regarding the adoption of the European public prosecutor under the process of enhanced co-operation; amendment No. 45 concerning the European public prosecutor; amendment No. 46, which concerns the establishment of a European common defence; and amendment No. 49, which includes the opt-ins for the justice and home affairs proposals in the treaty. Given the many years that the Government have had to plan the Bill, working back from the original constitution, it seems incredible that they have still omitted those important powers from clause 6, which should have been set out in the Bill and which should, in our view, be subject to Acts of Parliament. All the amendments that I have listed would therefore improve the Bill without wrecking it.
Let me briefly say a few words about the amendments that the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) has tabled. I am afraid that I cannot follow him entirely, but I can understand why he made his case and conveyed a considerable sense of frustration, which came across as genuine. The Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee also made the point that when he met COSACin effect, the liaison committee of other European scrutiny committees around Europehe discovered that a number of people in other countries had realised that their postal services were under threat, too, and that they were beginning to worry.
If those people come to the United Kingdom, they will find that members of the Cabinet have realised that their post offices are under threat, too. Now they have started to campaign against that in their constituencies, despite being members of the Government who approved the closure proposals in the first place. Our European partners might look at what is happening in the United Kingdom and feel slightly under-whelmed to see senior members of our Government who think it fine to approve a programme in principle, but who oppose it locally in their constituencies, while being happy to see post offices close elsewhere, including in a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends constituencies.
Having got that off my chest, I shall conclude. Amendment No. 47 would seek to prevent the use of the passerelles without wrecking the Bill and would therefore remove one of its more worrisome aspects. If I understand the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) correctly, unless the Minister comes up with something incredible, she and her Liberal colleagues are likely to follow us into the Division Lobby, if we follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells on amendment No. 47. I therefore urge my right hon. Friend to press amendment No. 47, as we would be happy to support him, for the reasons that I have outlined to the House.
The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to this evenings debate. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) is currently not in his place, but I will refer to him every evening until he returns in order to get over the humiliation that I felt yesterday. I welcome the tone of this debate, which has been very wide ranging. I am not sure that I followed every detail of the assessment that Europe is to blame for many of the social evils or challenges that we face.
We had the opportunity to hear again from the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), albeit more briefly than on other evenings. On previous occasions I thought that he broke the parliamentary etiquettein a humorous way, of courseby quoting himself as an authoritative figure, as I mentioned. However, that etiquette was tested more by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael
Connarty), when he quoted the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) quoting my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk agreeing with himselfa remarkable passing of the baton of consensus.
My hon. Friend is not in his place now, but I want to put it on record that we are not attracted to the radical change in the Danish system of having pre-agreement scrutiny. That is not because, as my hon. Friend mentioned, the Danish Prime Minister often has to telephone the chair of the scrutiny committee of the Danish Parliament at 3 oclock in the morning. However, I recall an occasion four years ago when, as my hon. Friends Whip, I had to call him at 4 oclock in the morning to ask where he was. I do not want to share the detail of that conversation with the House, but my hon. Friend was not in Denmark; he was in Linlithgow and East Falkirk when I, as a Whip, thought that he should have been here.
Mr. Cash: It is just possible that the Minister gave the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee the benefit of his wisdom, because the Committee quite properly condemned the treaty in most respects and described it as substantially equivalent to the original constitution. That is a matter of recordis it true or false?
Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk is not here, so we may have to go through this when he arrives. As I saidand as the hon. Gentleman is awarethe incident happened four years ago. I was simply giving my hon. Friend the benefit of my judgment as a Whip on the matters in hand in Parliament the next morning.
Notwithstanding the comments that the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) made about the amendments that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) spoke in favour of, I happen to agree with the sentiment of much that my hon. Friend said, because anyone who joins the Labour party has to have at least an emotional attachment and a values-based affection for many of the things that he said. I have held the belief for some time that prosperity in Europe has never been about simply the creation of wealth for the creation of wealths sake; rather, it has been about a fair deal for workers and consumers across the European Union. That is why, both in these debates and, more importantly, for a long time before they began, I have talked about the need for Europe to deliver for the 92 million people who are economically inactive in the Union. When one in five young people in Europe are without a job, it is perhaps hardly surprising that one in six young people in Europe leave school without any formal qualifications.
My hon. Friend asked about agency workers. I should declare an interest because, as I think my hon. Friend knows, my father is still an agency worker at the age of 60, working on building sites throughout the United Kingdom. I am therefore lobbied about the matter on a daily basis, not only by constituents, but by family.
I agree with my hon. Friend that we must continually try to find more effective ways to scrutinise European proposals and provisions, which is why the process that
the Leader and deputy Leader of the House have undertaken on such matters is so important.
My hon. Friends amendments Nos. 286 and 287 would require the Governments negotiating mandate to be laid before Parliament for approval before the Prime Minister could attend any meeting of the European Council and before any Minister could attend any meeting of the Council. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) said, in his own way, we are not attracted to the proposal at this time, but perhaps I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth on some of the points that he raised, first in respect of health, which has been an EU competence since the treaty of Maastricht.
My hon. Friend has expressed his concern about the matter with respect to public health, but the Lisbon treaty strengthens national control over public health. For the first time, it explicitly classifies the protection and improvement of human health as a supporting competence. In other words, it sets a clear, legally binding limit to EU competence. The treaty specifies that a supporting competence cannot replace member states competence. Article 2(12) states:
in certain areas...the Union shall have competence to carry out actions to support...the Member States.
Legally binding acts of the Union...relating to these areas shall not entail harmonisation of Member States laws or regulations.
Union action shall respect the responsibilities of the Member States for the definition of their health policy and for the organisation and delivery of health services and medical care. The responsibilities of the Member States shall include the management of health services and medical care and
the allocation of the resources assigned to them.
Other points were raised about public education. There has never been an EU competence to decide how member states should organise their education systems or their content. The Lisbon treaty does not alter that at all. Similarly, social housing is not an EU competence, and there is no proposal for it to become one. Social services relating to social housing are outside the scope of the EU internal market as well. So there is no competence because there is no treaty power on social housing.
On the issue of the Common Commercial Policy Special Committee, it is our view that, to insist that the Government present their negotiating position prior to attending a meeting would, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West pointed out, expose our negotiating position on important trade discussions. On the wider point about the Post Office, I must point out that, even after the closure programme that is now under way, the Government are committed to retaining a post office network that, in number of branches and chains, is greater in size than all the major high street banks combined, and three times the size of the five supermarket chains in the United Kingdom combined.
Mr. Drew: One way in which the Government could really show their commitment would be to ensure that all the big couriers, including the Dutch Post Office and the German Post Office, sign up to a universal service obligation. We have had an assurance that Ministers are looking into that matter. Where have the Government got to in that regard?
Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend has continued to argue that case strongly, today and on previous occasions. We continue to support the further liberalisation of the postal services of other member states. A suggestion was made earlier that there had been a derogation from the proposal, but that is not the case. There has been a two-year delay, particularly for some of the newer member states, to ensure that they can adapt and make progress in that regard. It is because we have taken a decision in the UK Parliamentnot with unanimous agreement, of courseto liberalise our own postal network that we believe it important for the UK postal network and other carriers to be able to compete in the European market. We therefore remain committed to liberalisation across the rest of the European Union.
Many points were made about the post office network, and about individual post office closures. The fact remains, however, that the Government are committed to putting £150 million a year in subsidy into the network. That is in great contrast to the fact that the Conservatives never put in a penny piece of subsidy when they were in government. Although there is not unanimity on some of the concerns that have been raised, I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworthby the tone and the content of my response to his amendmentsthat we take these matters very seriously indeed.
One of the assertions underpinning my hon. Friends comments concerned the potential disconnect between European Union leaders and the citizens of the EU. The fact is that we have spent seven years debating this treaty and the old constitution while Chinas economy has continued to grow to remarkable levels and the challenges from Russia have started to become apparent. That is why it is important that the European Union collectively has said that the period of institutional change must come to an end, and that there will be no further treaties for the foreseeable future.
With the permission of the Committee I shall turn to the more specific amendments to clause 6. We have set out provisions on the so-called passerelles that allow member states, by unanimity, to make one-off changes to the treaty. The Governments position on amending provisions is clear. Such provisions can, and could, be beneficial to the UK if we wanted to make a change to the treatyfor example, a minor change to the EUs machinerywithout a full-blown intergovernmental conference. The Governments view is that we are unlikely to want to use that option often, but amending provisions to move treaty powers to qualified majority voting have been around not since the Maastricht treaty, as was suggested earlier, but since the Single European Act. They have been used on only one occasion since then. No responsible Government would say, in the abstract, that their use could never be in the UKs interest, as amendment No. 18tabled by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)suggests.
Points were raised about prior control in regard to moves to QMV or co-decision. As the Prime Minister promised on 22 October 2007, we have before us in the Bill a series of attempts to change the mechanism of parliamentary control. Amendment No. 47, tabled by the right hon. Member for Wells, seeks to change the Bill so that the Government would be compelled to vote against, rather than not being able to vote for, any of the listed measures, if Parliament had given its approval. But that is exactly what we would be doing. Under clause 6, the Government
may not vote in favour of or otherwise support a decision
may not vote in favour
relate to when the European Council votes on an issue, based on unanimity. The words otherwise support relate to when the Council seeks to come to a decision by consensus. That relates to not being able to abstain when there is an attempt to reach a decision based on consensus. If the European Council sought to come to a decision based on consensus, the provision in clause 6 would mean that we would have to vote to break that consensus by not abstaining. That is the important protection contained in clause 6(1).
Jo Swinson: I am interested in the Ministers use of semantics. If he is saying that the present wording is effectively the same as that of amendment No. 47because an abstention would have that effectwhat is his objection to the amendment, if it is seen to be written in clearer language?
Mr. Murphy: There is a basic principle that we should not accept redundant amendments, on the basis that they are unnecessary. It is unusual in these debates for some of the votes to be up for influence on the specifics. The hon. Lady has said that my response will influence whether she votes for or against the amendment. The proposed wording in amendment No. 47 is
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