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"the Court's judgement vindicates the primacy of Parliament, as opposed to the Executive".
As a consequence, from 9.45 am today until emergency legislation is passed next week, terrorist suspects can access their assets. Let us be clear. As we speak, there is no law in place to prevent terrorist suspects from accessing frozen assets, despite the Prime Minister's repeated assurances. As a result of their incompetence, the Government have failed in their primary duty to protect their citizens.
I reiterate that this is in no way intended to be a precedent that parliamentary scrutiny will be overridden. I go back to the original question of
my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty). We had to conclude agreement by 30 November because it was the last opportunity to adopt the agreement before the Lisbon procedures took effect, and we had unanimous agreement among member states. Otherwise, all the negotiations would have had to start all over again. That would have meant a delay of six months or more during which the programme would have been unable to function correctly. It was possible, within the time scale, for the matter to go through the appropriate procedure for Common's parliamentary scrutiny.
I come back to the point that unanimity means that it is implicit that all member states will opt in. The question being asked today is whether we have parliamentary scrutiny over the opt-in, and of course, under ordinary circumstances, we would expect that to happen. Because we recognise that this as an exceptional case, we propose not to exercise the opt-out but to opt in.
With regard to the asset-freezing case referred to by the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban), my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House will be announcing at business questions that on Monday we will be taking all stages of the Terrorist Asset-Freezing (Temporary Provisions) Bill.
Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): The Government gave a clear and unequivocal undertaking that they would allow Parliament eight weeks to scrutinise opt-in decisions of this type. The Minister now seems to be confusing, in her mind or her remarks, process and undertaking with outcomes. Will she turn her attention to the following points?
On civil liberties, my understanding is that Germany and Austria were concerned about sharing information with third parties, and along with Greece and Hungary abstained when the EU voted on the matter last November. So it is not as non-contentious as the Minister appears to imply. Furthermore, as I understand it, genuine concerns have been expressed that when so-called pin-point requests are made for data that cannot be acceded to, all relevant data are supplied, including names, addresses and personal identification numbers. Therefore, there is all the more reason to look at this case carefully.
Am I right in my understanding that the European Parliament was given only a limited time to undertake scrutiny on this process, and that it was signed off the day before the Lisbon treaty came into effect? Does that not further confirm, in my mind and that of every other hon. Member, that we should be given the full eight weeks to look at this matter rather than one week, which is a reneging on the undertaking given by the Government themselves?
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I want to address some of the hon. Gentleman's concerns about data protection. The European Commission designated the French counter-terrorism judge, Mr. Jean-Louis Bruguière, to the issue, and he produced a report which confirmed the accuracy of the US Treasury Department's representations to the EU on data protection practices. He concluded that the programme has generated significant security benefits for the EU. The new agreement improves the protection afforded to EU citizens compared with that under the previous programme, which was done under a US Treasury subpoena.
Under the proposed agreement, the decision to authorise transfer of data to the US Treasury Department will be made by a European judicial authority, which must verify the legality of the request. The agreement provides for reviews of the way that it is operating so as to assess, in particular, compliance with data protection safeguards. While there were some concerns from other member states, that is the reason why the agreement has only a 10-month life, which means that there will be a new agreement that will have full scrutiny in all parts of this House and all parts of the EU. As I say, it is important in this case that we maintain the programme; that is why we have taken the decision that we will opt into the programme in the interests of national security and of protecting against terrorist financing.
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing this urgent question, which is very important. Can I urge the Minister not to mistake the substance for the process? The anger on these Benches is not about the agreement, but about the fact that Parliament has been reassured, time and again, particularly post-Lisbon, that we have proper processes-and what happens then? On the very first occasion post-Lisbon, we again find that Parliament is just some irritating thing that has somehow to be dealt with. The Leader of the House is also sitting on the Front Bench. This is simply not good enough-Parliament needs to be respected, and it has not been on this occasion.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I recognise my hon. Friend's concerns, but I would only repeat that this agreement was reached before the Lisbon treaty came into effect, so, in a sense, it straddles the two agreements. That is why this is right in this case.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): The Minister has just said that this is not intended to be a precedent, but does she accept that it is a precedent, and that it is a precedent to prove that the promises that were repeatedly made throughout the Lisbon treaty process that there would be an increase in the powers of national Parliaments have been completely jettisoned in the most ramshackle manner? Her windbaggery today, if I may say so, demonstrates the fact that there is no real respect for this Parliament and that the procedures are simply being washed to one side.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Given that I am noted for my rather concise and to-the-point remarks in normal cases, I rather take exception to the word "windbaggery", particularly from the hon. Gentleman. I can only repeat that this agreement was made prior to the Lisbon treaty, and it in no way undermines our commitment to full parliamentary scrutiny. This is an exceptional case and one in which I think that the right decision has been made.
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con):
Does the Minister recall that during the debates on the Lisbon treaty we were assured in terms that scrutiny rights for national Parliaments would be enhanced? Is it not therefore a disgrace that at this first test the Government have forgotten and breached their promises and are signing up to very sensitive criminal justice matters that go to the heart of parliamentary democracy without the promised parliamentary scrutiny? Does not this show not only that the public were let down by not
having the promised referendum on that treaty, but that Parliament was misled during those debates and therefore voted under a misapprehension on assurances that the Government were not sincere in giving?
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: If this were the first agreement under the new Lisbon treaty and under the qualified majority voting procedures, I could have some sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman's view. However, as the agreement was made unanimously before qualified majority voting, I do not agree.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): The Minister has tried to put the defence quite strongly, but the truth of the matter is this-I will read from her own letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty):
"The Council takes such a view in this case and is therefore expediting adoption as soon as the European Parliament gives its assent, which could be as early as 9 February. This means that on this occasion the Government is unable to grant to Parliament the agreed period of eight weeks to scrutinise the decision".
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I am more than happy to take responsibility for my actions. I believe that it is in the best interests of this country that this agreement goes ahead, and that is why on this occasion I am prepared to allow the opt-in. To opt out would send totally the wrong message about this country's commitment to tackling terrorism and stopping terrorist financing going around the world.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I feel very sorry for the Minister, who is being left almost in splendid isolation; the Deputy Prime Minister has come to her rescue. Does the Minister not understand that we do not want the Executive's decision on this-we want Parliament's decision? It is not the Executive's decision but Parliament's decision that is required.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I can only return to the points that I originally made. The European Scrutiny Committee had the opportunity to scrutinise the original agreement, and it did. The agreement was made under unanimity. We are talking about keeping a regime going. The agreement is for only 10 months. This is in order to allow full scrutiny in all parts of the European Union, including this House, to ensure that the final agreement that we end up with is one of which everyone has had the chance to be part.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Does the Minister not understand that there is deep concern and fear in the country about the European process, and that this decision is feeding the siren calls from those who wish to leave the EU? If eight weeks was not possible, why did the Minister not find another process and come to the Floor of the House to say, "These are the issues", so that, as was suggested, we had scrutiny of the proposal, even if it was not in its original form?
I think that I have made that clear. I accept that many people in this country have concerns about the European Union. I also suggest that many people in this country have deep concerns about
terrorism and how the financing of that terrorism goes around the world. Because the actual agreement has been scrutinised under Commons procedures, I feel that in this case it is acceptable to go to the opt-in, given that it is a temporary agreement and that it was agreed before Lisbon came into force, and given that the House will have ample further opportunity to scrutinise the new agreement. It is not the first test under the Lisbon treaty.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The Minister is missing the point. This is not about the substance-it is about the process. Undertakings were given for this House to make the decisions, and at the first opportunity the Government have broken their word. The Leader of House, who is sat next to the Minister, has clearly failed in her duty to look after the interests of this House and has put the Government first. Why did the Minister not refer this matter to the European Scrutiny Committee at the earliest opportunity rather than leaving it to the last possible moment?
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: This is not the first opportunity under the Lisbon treaty. I have to balance the wider interests of people in this country against the proliferation of terrorist finances. Given that the substance of the agreement had been scrutinised under this House's procedures, the only other option that I had was to opt out of this agreement, which would send totally the wrong message about whether this country- [ Interruption. ]
Mr. Speaker: Order. I say to Mr. Cash that he has asked a very full question, and I am sure that the House is grateful to him for doing so, but he really must exercise what self-restraint he is able to muster in the circumstances.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I assure the House that we take our responsibilities on terrorist financing very seriously, and that I take my responsibilities to this House very seriously. This is an exceptional occasion in which, given all the points that I have made, I think that we should agree to this opt-in, and that is what I intend to do.
Tuesday 9 February-Motion to approve a money resolution on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, followed by consideration in Committee of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (Day 6), followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords Amendments.
Wednesday 10 February-If necessary, consideration of Lords Amendments, followed by motion on section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, followed by motion to approve a resolution relating to the House of Commons Disqualification Act, followed by motion to approve an instruction relating to the Crime and Security Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords Amendments.
Monday 1 March-Opposition Day (Half-day) [4th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by motion relating to the draft Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 (Continuance in Force of Sections 1 to 9) Order 2010, followed by motion relating to the draft Social Security Benefits Uprating Order 2010.
Sir George Young: The House is grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the forthcoming business. I am sure that the House will want to return to the issue raised in the rather unsatisfactory exchanges that we have just heard. Members will have noted that in about half an hour, there was not one supportive question for the hapless Treasury Minister.
On Monday's business dealing with terrorist assets, may I ask why the Government had no contingency plan for what has just happened? Lord Newton's Committee warned the Government about the loophole six years ago, and the Government have known about the challenges to orders on terrorist assets since April 2008. Last week the Government had a 40-clause Bill, but now they have a three-clause Bill. There is no law to prevent terrorists from going to the bank between now and Monday and claiming their money back. Why were the Government so ill prepared?
On political reform and the business for the first Monday back after the recess, may I press the right hon. and learned Lady further on the Government's disastrous handling of the Wright Committee report? She is wasting time next Tuesday on the alternative vote, but putting at risk progress on the recommendations of an elected Select Committee of the House. Two weeks ago she said that some Wright reforms could be
"in operation before the House rises."-[ Official Report, 21 January 2010; Vol. 504, c. 449.]
But on Tuesday at the Liaison Committee, the Prime Minister admitted that if proposals were objected to, there might not be enough parliamentary time for them to be implemented before an election. Is the Leader of the House aware that there is a growing feeling that people simply cannot take this Government seriously on reform? No fewer than seven constitutional campaign groups are urging her to look again at the procedure for the debate. Will she give a firm commitment that the House will have proper time to get changes made to Standing Orders, as the Wright Committee wished, before the election? Given the approaching recess, will she ensure that the motions that the Government intend to take forward will be tabled by next Monday at the very latest?
May we have a debate on the chaos of the Student Loans Company? Many hon. Members will have had complaints from their constituents about the endless delays and inefficiencies of that body, and today we learn that two months after the Government said that the problems were being fixed, more than two thirds of students with disabilities or special needs have failed to receive the crucial funds that they need for their studies. May we have a full statement from the Government to explain what they are doing to remedy and mitigate that distressing problem?
The Leader of the House will be aware that the findings on the Government's management of the out-of-hours contracts will be laid bare today by a report to the Department of Health and by the coroner's verdict following an inquest into the tragic deaths in Cambridgeshire. Will she ensure that a Health Minister comes to the House to make a statement on the review of the out-of-hours service?
When can we have the annual debate on international development? It was postponed last November and was meant to be rescheduled for next Wednesday, but it does not appear in the business that the Leader of the House has just read out.
Given that the right hon. and learned Lady has so far failed to meet my requests for a debate on the crisis in Haiti, will she now guarantee that that important debate will be held as soon as possible on our return from the February recess?
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