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General Committee Debates
European Committee Debates
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 18th January 2011|
Publications on the internet
General Committee Debates
European Committee Debates
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Alison Groves, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The Chair: As no member of the European Scrutiny Committee wishes to make a brief explanatory statement about the decision to refer the relevant document to this Committee, I call the Minister to make his opening statement.
The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I am pleased that the European Scrutiny Committee has referred the European citizen’s initiative for debate.
The Government regard as important the principle of participatory democracy, which lies behind the ECI. That same principle lies behind our plans for a system of national petitioning to Parliament. For too long, the general public in this country have felt disconnected from the European Union and from the decisions it reaches on behalf of the United Kingdom. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary stated on Second Reading of the European Union Bill,
The ECI will help by enabling citizens of EU member states to play a participative role. It will give them the ability to highlight key concerns about major political issues. I shall not pretend for one moment that it will be a magic bullet, but it will be one way in which to give citizens a voice in Europe. At the same time, we shall continue to urge the EU to improve its systems for consultation and its arrangements for assessing the impacts of its proposals. The ECI, however, is still a positive step. It will enable people to petition the Commission to propose or initiate change within areas of EU competence. It is worth my repeating that point to put it beyond doubt.
The citizens’ initiative cannot be used to put forward ideas that would require treaty change in order for the EU to act. Any proposal for legislation that was introduced following a petition under the ECI would have to be negotiated through the Council and Parliament in the usual way, and therefore would be subject to scrutiny in this House. The measure does not provide a procedure that allows the Commission to bypass normal legislative process.
Of course, there is a risk that the ECI will end up being a lobby group charter, with one lobby group petitioning in one direction and another doing so in the opposite direction. We must try to guard against that. There is also a risk that petitions will be introduced that most people in this country do not like, but we should not be defeatist. The ECI will also allow people to petition the Commission to suggest areas of legislation
Although I have sympathy with the overall aim of greater engagement between citizens of EU member states and the European Union institutions, I had grave doubts about the early version of the proposal. It was one of the first legislative measures that I looked at after taking office and it was not wholly reassuring. The initial approach was excessively bureaucratic and would not have delivered good value for money. It risked treating what should be a light-touch mechanism for generating good ideas into something closer to an election campaign for public office, which risked discouraging people from signing a petition. I wanted to ensure that the system was more in accordance with national laws and practice. In particular, I wanted to guard against any risk that the Government might be compelled by the regulation to establish a system of personal identification numbers or cards just so that UK citizens would be able to sign petitions to the European Union. That would have gone against the heart of what the coalition Government stand for, and would have added further to the substantial erosion of civil liberties that happened under the previous Government. That battle has been well won.
The Government have negotiated hard and worked with other member states, the Commission and the European Parliament to achieve a number of important alterations to the original proposal, which I shall spell out for the Committee. First, we secured an addition in article 9 of the regulation that checks should take place
Secondly, there has been a simplification of the process for deciding whether a petition is admissible. The initial proposal had a two-stage admissibility check, which risked campaigners going to a lot of trouble to get a petition going and amassing a large number of signatures only to discover at a relatively late stage that the idea that they wished to promote was not within European Union competence and therefore could not be taken forward by the Commission. We have succeeded in replacing this bureaucratic approach with a single admissibility check by the Commission before signatures are collected by petition authors.
Thirdly, there will be a review of the whole ECI in three years rather than five. This will enable us to check that it really is working in a light-touch way and meeting the purpose for which it was set up. It will also give us the opportunity to revisit those parts of the proposal on which I would have liked further simplification.
Fourthly, we secured agreement on a random sampling approach to the verification of signatures on petitions instead of a requirement for blanket verification, which will greatly reduce the expense of the verification exercise. Fifthly, we obtained an exemption for British residents from having to provide personal identification numbers, including passport numbers. This clearly reduces the risks of compromising sensitive personal data and also means that we do not have to set up a system to verify
The regulation agreed at December’s General Affairs Council is still not perfect, however. I shall describe the issues that still cause us concern and dissatisfaction. First, there is an issue around the protection of citizens’ data. That is a matter of concern for not only us, but all member states. For example, we have concerns about requirements to certify the compliance of online data collection systems with data protection legislation for every ECI. That is a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach, rather than a risk-based approach to compliance, and in our view it is unnecessarily expensive.
Secondly, member states have a duty to check a random sample of statements of support to verify that the petition is accurate. Depending on how many ECIs are launched, this could create a sizeable administrative burden. We have reduced the amount of checking, but not eliminated it entirely. Thirdly, there will be a 12-month implementation period, and it will be extremely challenging for us to set up the necessary structures in time. Fourthly, we think the absence of a full impact assessment report is, frankly, unacceptable. We will take that up at the review, when data will be available on the actual impact.
For those reasons, and because scrutiny clearance had not been granted by Parliament, I abstained on the vote at the General Affairs Council, having tried to delay political agreement in Brussels against considerable opposition from the presidency and other member states. I regret that we were not able to discuss those issues with the European Scrutiny Committee before political agreement on the regulation was reached at First Reading, which was due to the rapid progress in negotiations. However, I hope that I have been able to show that, during the negotiations, we made considerable progress in following up the concerns of the European Scrutiny Committee about reducing the burden of verification and admissibility checks.
The regulation text will now go to the Council on 14 February for final adoption. No further discussion is proposed. I plan to confirm our position—to abstain—even if the proposal has by then cleared parliamentary scrutiny. We will seek to dovetail the implementation of the measure with plans to introduce a national petitioning system to Parliament.
The Government remain committed to playing a strong, positive and active role in the European Union, while robustly championing our national interests. We want to bring the citizen closer to decisions made in Brussels and to give ordinary people greater sway over matters that affect them. We made progress during the negotiations on ensuring that the ECI provides our citizens with a light-touch vehicle for influencing the issues with which the EU should concern itself and make progress on, and we will now implement the regulation in the least burdensome way possible.
The Chair: We have until 5.30 pm for questions to the Minister. I remind Members that such questions should be brief. It is open to a Member, subject to my discretion, to ask related supplementary questions. I suggest that
My first three questions are general but, with permission, I shall proceed to more specific questions later. The Minister has already touched on two of points that I wanted to raise, but I shall press him a little more.
The Minister indicated that he is already aware of my first point—what safeguards would be in place for a member state if individuals from seven member states came forward with a petition that would have a particular impact on another member state. Is there any safeguard whatsoever if the Commission wished, after a full petition, to introduce an initiative with a direct impact on that other member state?
The Minister also referred to the subject of my second question: lobby groups. It is almost inevitable that organised lobby groups, with members in several member states, will see the measure as an opportunity for them to push their particular cause or case. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but the emphasis is still very much on citizens’ ideas. Is there any way in which the Commission can differentiate between organised lobbies and the spontaneous views of citizens?
Thirdly, does the Minister believe that there might be a danger in the European Commission deciding which issues focused on by the initiatives will be permissible? For example, an entry dated 15 December on the Commission’s website states clearly:
However, what might be “frivolous, abusive or vexatious” to the Commission might not be so to other people. Those subjective terms imply that there will be a subjective evaluation, so is there any safeguard about that?
Mr Lidington: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions because they raise some important issues. The truth is that the Commission has a considerable measure of discretion within the framework of rules laid down in the text of the regulation.
Let me take each of the hon. Gentleman’s points in turn. He first asked about a situation in which we have petitioners from seven member states—the minimum permitted—ganging up, in effect, against the interests of one other member state. Nothing in the text guards against that any more than there is such a safeguard in any current law-making process in the European Union. Of course, the Commission would have to decide whether to bring forward any legislation—there is no obligation on it to do so in response to a citizens’ initiative—and it would have to follow due process. If such a measure required unanimity, the member state affected would undoubtedly block it. If it did not, that state would try to assemble a blocking minority in exactly the way that we do when we hold day-to-day negotiations over European Union measures that would adversely affect our interests. The Commission would be wary of trying to take on any member state without having regard to the impact that that would have on other EU business.
The hon. Gentleman asked about lobbyists. Again, nothing is spelled out in the text to enable people to distinguish between causes promoted by lobbies and those that we might agree are genuine products of citizens’ opinions. It is difficult to draw a line. Does a big, voluntary organisation—the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, for example—count as a lobby, or is it simply expressing the views of its mass membership? The important point is that the action of lobbyists should be as transparent as possible. If lobbyists are trying to campaign on a Europe-wide level on an ECI matter, it will be pretty obvious that they are behind the initiative.
On the grounds on which the Commission may reject an initiative, it is for the Commission to decide whether it is frivolous, abusive or vexatious, although I think that the phrase is actually “manifestly” frivolous, abusive or vexatious. The Commission must also reject a proposal that is manifestly beyond its competence—in other words, a proposal that would require a treaty change—or that is manifestly contrary to the values of the European Union, as embodied in article 2 of the treaty on European Union, which states that the EU is committed to democracy, human rights and so on. For example, I suspect that if an initiative was made by fascist groups from around Europe to take action against people on the grounds of ethnicity, religion or sex, the Commission would rule it out of order by using that provision. It is right that there is such a safeguard.
If citizens do not like the Commission’s decision, they can go either to the European ombudsman or probably, if they think that the Commission is acting illegally, to the European Court of Justice. We are waiting to hear from European institutions exactly how the safeguards will operate, but it will be possible for organisers to challenge the Commission’s verdict, if they have grounds on which to do so.
Mr David: Going from general to more specific questions, I was interested to read the Minister’s correspondence in the document bundle. First, has he received any indication of the projected cost of the implementation of the initiative, and have the Government decided which lucky Department will have responsibility for running it?
Secondly, I understand from the paperwork that some member states will require legal changes—I assume that that does not apply to the United Kingdom. Will the Minister indicate which countries need to change their statute book for this Europe-wide initiative? Obviously, those changes must be made before the European Union as a whole can engage in the initiative. Is the time scale, which was referred to earlier and is in the documentation, entirely realistic? If it is not met, because member states are not able to change their statute books, what do we do about it?
Thirdly, the Minister mentioned, quite rightly, that the European Commission is likely to rule out of order any attempt by extremist groups—fascists, for example—to make use of this process. It is possible, and perhaps desirable, for political parties to make use of the initiative. As some of us are aware, there are Europe-wide political parties, such as the European People’s party and the party of European Socialists. I imagine that there are some individuals in those parties who have the structures in place, however embryonic, and who would want to make use of this initiative. Would the European Commission be glad to receive that, or would it frown upon it? Would the Minister respond to that?
Mr Lidington: Let me answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions in reverse order. On political parties, there is nothing in the language of the measure that stops them from taking the lead, although there would have to be named individuals in each of the seven or more member states who were legally charged with the duty of organising and taking on the responsibility of data protection, which would come with being an organiser. We expect the Commission and the European Parliament to produce some guidance or illustrative examples on topics that would be permissible. Provided, however, that a measure proposed by a political party dealt with something within existing EU competence, respected article 2 and was not blatantly frivolous and vexatious, then I see no problem.
Mr Lidington: Or manifestly vexatious and frivolous—indeed. On the other questions that the hon. Gentleman asked, we are nearing a decision on which Department should take responsibility for this measure. As he knows, when a European measure is under negotiation, the Foreign Office takes the default position of being in charge until the final allocation of departmental responsibility for implementing that measure is agreed.
The issues of cost and primary legislation are tied up with exactly how we implement this. Since it was only agreed at the General Affairs Council shortly before Christmas, and will be finally signed off later this month, we are at the early stages of that work. The cost will partly depend on exactly how onerous the verification exercise turns out to be, and also on the number of citizens’ initiatives that are introduced forward each year. Our hope is that we would be looking at annual costs of six, rather than seven, figures. There will be a start-up cost as well, to get the system up and running. On that basis we believe that it would not be excessive for the Government as a whole.
Primary legislation depends on what source we use to verify the identity of people in this country who have signed a petition. One of the most obvious sources to use would be the electoral register, but we have not taken a decision on that. If we were to use it, we would need to see how the use of the data in that register fitted alongside current data protection legislation. It is possible that there might have to be legislative change, but the Government are still considering that. We do not know which other member states will need to change their law. In a sense, it would be easier for states to have an identity card or national database system of some sort, but that is not something on which they have shared information with us.
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 8399/10 and Addendum 1 relating to the draft European Citizens’ Initiative Regulation, on which political agreement was reached by Council and Parliament at First Reading in December 2010; and supports the Government’s intention to develop a mechanism to implement the Citizens’ Initiative which encourages citizen engagement while minimising the burden on Member States.—(Mr Lidington.)
Mr David: I will be quite brief. In a previous life, I was a member of the European Parliament, as was my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley. For a short time, I served on the European Parliament’s Committee on Petitions. That was an interesting experience, as we saw all manner of petitions, and they all came from individual member states. During my decade there, I do not recall a petition with signatories from more than one member state. In principle, it is a good thing but, thanks to the Lisbon treaty, such a facility will soon be put in place.
I have some reservations about the concept behind such petitions. The Minister will have heard of the coalition agreement to the commitment for a citizens’ initiative of sorts to make representations to Parliament, but I have a certain reservation on a European level about representations being made and the Commission, the initiator of legislation, then being legally obliged to produce a response that may lead to legally binding legislation.
Britain and the European Union essentially have a representative democracy, where individuals are elected on universal franchise by the people on the basis of manifestos, then make decisions and are held accountable to the electorate for those decisions. My guess is that we might well touch on that issue next week when we consider the European Union Bill and the Government’s proposal possibly to have referendums on a host of different Bills—and what exactly that says about the role of the mother of Parliaments in our democracy. It adds certain conceptual reservations about the move in the European Union.
I agree with the Minister that, initially, the draft regulations from the Commission certainly did seem to be excessively bureaucratic. It is frequently the criticism made of the European Union institutions that there is a lot of bureaucracy in such matters. Rather than provide a link between the institutions and the people, my worry is that the measure would create another bureaucratic system to muddy the waters still more of the already tenuous connection. I am pleased that the Government have been successful in negotiating changes to what is being proposed, and I hope that further clarification can be achieved during the next few weeks and possibly months before final implementation.
Finally, I was pleased that the Minister said that, because of respect for Parliament and the European Scrutiny Committee, the Government have decided to abstain at the General Affairs Council and not give their support to the initiative. However, I was slightly confused when he added that, even though we have gone through the scrutiny process with support for the
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): Since I was referred to, I would like briefly to mention my experience of dealing with petitions in the European Parliament. Before I was an elected Member, I took the first petition from the United Kingdom to the European Parliament. A group of women went in a minibus all the way to Luxembourg, to introduce a petition calling for equal treatment for men and women. It referred to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equal Pay Act 1970. As we were the first from the UK, a reception was put on for us in the European Parliament. I sat next to Mrs Elaine Kellett-Bowman, whom some Members may remember. She asked what the petition was about and, when I told her, she snorted, “If I had known the subject matter, I would not be here at this lunch.” The petition was discussed in a subject committee of the European Parliament because we followed its progress but, of course, nothing happened afterwards.
That is my concern: raising expectations. People expect something to happen as a result of putting in a petition. It is important not to raise expectations because, unfortunately, too many people are sceptical about Europe as it is. I hope that when this proposal is introduced people do not expect too much.
I would principally like to record wholehearted support for the proposals in the European citizens’ initiative regulation. The initiative will increase direct democracy in the European Union and enable citizens to have a direct say in its affairs, raising those citizens effectively to the same level as members of the European Council, as they will be able directly to influence the political priorities of the Union. That form of direct democracy is a very effective tool to improve engagement and ownership of our political institution by its electorate.
An individual’s need to participate in direct democracy increases as the elected representative and representative institutions become more remote. Remoteness is certainly the perception of many of the European Parliament. A couple of years ago, one of the Scottish news teams went on to the streets of Edinburgh offering residents £5 for every Scottish MEP they could name. Needless to say, that was not an expensive afternoon. More people named my predecessor John Barrett from Edinburgh West than named many of the MEPs serving at that time.
The ability to take part in direct democracy of this type is to be welcomed and will serve only to strengthen links between citizens and their European representatives and Parliament. This type of direct democracy already exists, to a lesser extent, in that modern Parliament in Edinburgh, through the workings of the Public Petitions Committee. That initiative has proved very popular, with the Committee receiving almost 1,000 petitions in
I can provide some statistics on where petitions have come from and the types of groups involved, which might be useful for our debate. Over half of them were submitted by individuals; 18% by community groups; and only 15% by pressure groups. Political parties have been mentioned: only 1% of petitions to the Scottish Parliament have come from political parties, with twice as many, 2%, from unions.
We can expect more direct local involvement once another part of the coalition agreement is enacted, which will allow petitions with 100,000 signatures to be debated in this House. While supporting the principles, I welcome the UK Government’s efforts to ensure that the system is workable and minimises bureaucratic burden and implementation costs. That is a fine line to tread, but I believe the final proposals before us manage it very well.
The proposals simplify verification procedures for participants in the UK so that they are broadly in line with inclusion on the electoral register. They limit the information required from UK citizens, so only randomised verification is now required, which provides a balance between the minimisation of an implementation burden and the deterrence of fraudulent submissions of statements of support.
My one remaining concern is on data protection access across multiple member states with differing data protection laws. Putting together a petition of 1 million names with sufficient data to enable verification means that many millions of valuable pieces of personal data will, in some cases, be harvested by online systems. We must do everything we can to ensure both that we minimise the amount of data necessarily collected and that sufficient security is in place for its transmission and storage.
With that proviso, I return to where I started by expressing my enthusiastic support for what I believe is a step forward in the democratisation of the Union and the creation of a link between its too often remote institutions and its citizens. The citizens’ initiative will be a huge boost to the popular legitimacy of the European Union.
Mr Lidington: I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West for his support. I also thank the hon. Member for Caerphilly and the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley for their constructive approach to the debate. I shall try to respond to the points that they made.
Let me start by sharing with the Committee some information that I received during the debate about the position of lobbyists promoting a petition. The organisers of a petition will need to declare the source of their funding when they submit petition questions. I think that that obligation will help to identify lobbyists at
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West was right to draw attention to continuing concerns about data protection. That was why, when I came to deal with the final text at last month’s General Affairs Council, I abstained on the grounds of both parliamentary scrutiny and substance. That is also why we will abstain when the measure comes back for formal sign-off on 14 February.
There are still some major concerns about the way in which the measure will affect data protection. Under the initiative, a citizens’ committee has to be established for a petition to be considered by the Commission. At least seven different people from seven different member states will sit on the citizens’ committees, and they will collect signatures from seven different member states with seven different implementations of the data protection directive 95/46/EC. There is a risk that that will present challenges as to which member state’s law will apply if something goes wrong and data are misused or records are not properly kept. Let us say, for example, that a member of a citizens’ committee in Bulgaria shared information with his colleagues on the committee and data relating to someone in Ireland were misused in a way that led to a risk of identity fraud in breach of data protection law. Would a prosecution be brought forward on the basis of Bulgarian law, or on the basis of Irish law? We simply do not know; the position is still unclear.
The exact obligations on the authors of petitions are also still unclear. The regulation designates the organisers of ECIs and the competent authorities designated by the Government of each member state as data controllers for the purposes of the data protection directive. The directive imposes significant legal duties on data controllers, such as the duties to process data fairly and lawfully, to use them only for the purpose for which they have been collected, and to ensure that they are kept and stored no longer than necessary. The question, however, is whether unnecessary burdens and liabilities will be imposed on individuals that would not be imposed on them for the purposes of data protection for any reason other than the ECI. For example, under the measure, data controllers must register with the Information Commissioner and pay a yearly fee. In most cases, the individuals who would be petition organisers would not, were it not for the ECI, have to register as a data controller, because any data that they processed as an individual would usually fall within the domestic purposes exemption of our law, which, of course, also applies European data protection law in this country. Failure to register as a data controller when required is a criminal offence, but we could be talking about an ordinary citizen with no expert knowledge of data protection law. Partly for those reasons, we therefore have concerns about substance, as well as about parliamentary scrutiny, which have led us to abstain.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly expressed concern that the measure represented a shift too far away from representative democracy and towards a model based more on direct and participatory democracy. I want to emphasise that the ECI in no way undermines our rights and responsibilities as the elected representatives
In case I misspoke earlier, I want to put a point clearly on record about the verification of statements of support for a petition: the regulation does not require member states to verify statements of support universally. We battled for—and secured—text in the regulation to allow member states to carry out such verifications on the basis of random sampling and according to national law and practice.
The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley rightly advised the Committee that we should not raise expectations beyond a level that is appropriate, which is probably good advice for politicians at European and national level when dealing with any legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West was correct to say that the measure is a step forward. It gives a political instrument to the men and women whom we represent. If they choose, they can use that instrument to tell the institutions and decision takers in the European Union that there are priorities that citizens wish them to follow. In that sprit, the measure is to be welcomed, and I hope that it has the Committee’s support.
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 18th January 2011|