HC Deb 16 February 2000 vol 344 cc225-44WH

11.3 am

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)

The delayed start to the debate is regrettable; nevertheless I wish Mr. Win Griffiths well.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Keith Vaz)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for the fact that the sitting had to be suspended. I was addressing a group that came over on the state visit of the Queen of Denmark. I apologise for the fact that I was not able to be here earlier.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Thank you, Mr. Vaz.

11.4 am

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

I am pleased that I have this opportunity to debate the draft charter of fundamental rights of the European Union in this Chamber and to give a progress report to the House as its member on the convention drafting the charter. I was prompted to initiate the debate by one or two articles that appeared in the press between the convention's first business meeting, which took place just before Christmas, and the February meeting. Europhobes had once again dreamed up a fantasy island of fear about the charter; they wanted to damn and attack the Government and the European Union. Our debate is a good opportunity to set the record straight and to give Members a flavour of what the charter is about.

The process started at the Cologne summit. In a declaration made at the end of the summit, the European Council said: Fundamental rights applicable at the Union level should be consolidated in a Charter and thereby made more evident. An annexe to that declaration stated: Protection of fundamental rights is a founding principle of the Union and an indispensable prerequisite for her legitimacy. The obligation of the Union to respect fundamental rights has been confirmed and defined by the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice. There appears to be need, at the present stage of the Union's development, to establish a Charter of fundamental rights in order to make their overriding importance and relevance more visible to the Union's citizens". The statement continued, stating that the charter was based upon the constitutional traditions of member states and general principles of Community law. It stated also that rights under the charter should apply only to European Union citizens and that the charter should take into account the European social charter, the Community charter of fundamental social rights of workers and the European convention on human rights.

A unique body was set up to draft the document before the Council meets in December 2000. The idea is that the European Council will propose to the European Parliament and the Commission that they and the Council should solemnly proclaim a European charter of fundamental rights. Consideration would then have to be given to whether, and if so how, the charter should be integrated into the treaties.

The convention will include representatives of each of the 15 Governments of the member states of the European Union, one representative of the Commission, 16 Members of the European Parliament and 30 Members of national Parliaments. The United Kingdom will be represented by me, speaking for the House of Commons, and Lord Bowness, who speaks for the Conservative party in the House of Lords. A system of alternates will be in operation if either I or Lord Bowness cannot attend—the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) will take my place, and Baroness Howells of St. Davids will attend instead of Lord Bowness. Both alternates are, of course, members of the Liberal Democrat party.

The European Court of Justice has the right to two observers, one of whom will be a member of the European Court of Human Rights. In setting up the convention, the Council specifically asked that the Committee of the Regions, the Economic and Social Committee and the European ombudsman should be invited to give their views to the convention. That was done at our last meeting. Other bodies, social groups, experts and non-governmental organisations have been invited to express their views, and hearings will be held. The Royal National Institute for the Blind has been quick off the mark in sending me a copy of the statement that it gave to the President in office of the Council of Ministers on 22 July 1999, shortly after the Cologne announcement about the rights that disabled people should have.

We have already held two meetings; the first was on 17 and 18 December 1999, the second on 1 and 2 February 2000. We hope that the convention will meet as a full body in March, June, September and October and that it will meet as a working group later this month, twice in March, April, May and June, once in July and September and perhaps in October. That is a rigorous set-up, involving 11 or perhaps 12 meetings of the working group and four meetings of the convention. A lot of work will have to be done in the coming eight or nine months. Before each meeting of the convention as a working group, a drafting committee will meet. It will consist, in effect, of the executive body of the convention.

I return to the remit of the convention. Our purpose is to focus on the fundamental rights enjoyed by all European citizens and residents while also referring to rights bestowed by the other conventions, charters and so on to which member states are parties and of which the European convention on human rights is the outstanding example. First, the charter could emphasise communal values within the European Union. Secondly, it could raise awareness of existing fundamental civil, political and other rights that support human dignity, and oppose all types of discrimination and xenophobia. Thirdly, it could bring out the essential interface between rights and responsibilities for both individuals and Governments. Fourthly, it could declare boldy to European citizens their right to participate in the democratic process, to live, study and work, to provide and receive services and to set up businesses anywhere in the European Union.

The Heads of Government have made it clear that the charter should take account of economic and social rights, as intended in the European social charter and the Community charter on the fundamental social rights of workers. The ambition of the convention should be to highlight clearly the fundamental rights already deriving from treaties and from the Community law system, including case law built up in the European Court of Justice. It should not go beyond that or render void existing national and international law concerning fundamental rights.

It is clear that the charter is not meant at this stage to be a legal document and that such an option of inclusion in the treaties will be considered by the Council later. Despite that undoubted clarity of remit, there has been debate from day one in the convention on whether the charter process is sufficient to meet the challenges facing an ever-expanding Union. Some people see it as an opportunity to create an all-embracing and justiciable treaty-incorporated charter that will take the Union into new waters. The most ambitious protagonists of that view are Members of the European Parliament, most of whom—I speak as a former MEP—see the charter as an opportunity to enlarge and strengthen the European Union and to enhance its citizens' rights. Some MEPs are happy to take up the challenge of the Council's charter remit. A few would like to use the exercise to regain for nation states some of the sovereignty that they have pooled within the European Union. The majority, however, seek a charter that will at least be a protocol of the treaty but which will preferably be a legally binding document that is incorporated into the treaty and which covers all aspects of European Union activity, including common foreign and security policy, justice and home affairs and institutions such as Europol. Of the elected members of the convention, the European Parliament has the most opportunity, time and resources to develop an institutional view of the charter. Six of its committees are providing opinions for the report being prepared by the committee on constitutional affairs.

While the European Parliament wants to travel further beyond the remit of the Council than anyone else, it has allies who share its view that the charter must be legally binding. For example, the Council of Europe wants its own convention to be incorporated into Community law. The European Court of Human Rights would then be responsible for it. Not surprisingly, the court takes the same view. The European ombudsman wants the charter to be legally binding, as do the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions.

On the other side of the argument are the European Council, the European Commission, most representatives of national Parliaments, and the European Ministers of the German federal states. The scene develops continually and we shall receive many more views in the coming months.

That might become the defining issue of our discussions on the convention. Views have already been expressed on both sides of the argument; convention members have received enough views to fill a book from individuals and organisations on the contents and nature of the charter.

Most members of the convention wish to carry out its remit as provided by the Council. That seems a significant and ambitious task when one bears in mind the paucity of European citizens' knowledge of the European Union. We want to produce a clear statement of fundamental European Union rights, preferably on no more than two sides of an A4 sheet of paper—a formidable task. To give hon. Members a flavour of the rights, I have written—on two sides of an A4 sheet—some of the possible inclusions. Examples are the dignity of the human person, the right to life, liberty and security, access to justice and procedural rights with no retroactive criminal law, respect for privacy and family life, freedom to found a family, freedom of conscience, thought and religion, and freedom of expression.

Some of the rights are fundamental and we can all agree on them. However, should we include a right to a healthy environment, or is that just a worthy political objective? Might consumer rights be included? Are the rights to safety and health, to fair remuneration, to paid holidays, to a pension and to training at work and to social security fundamental, or are they matters that Governments and political parties have as worthy objectives, which should not be included in such a declaration?

EU citizens might be said to have specific rights. Those might include freedom of movement and of residence, the ability to vote and to stand in European and local elections, rights to diplomatic and consulate protection, to petition the European Parliament, to apply to the European ombudsman, not to be subject to discrimination, to have equal access to the Community civil service and the right to write to and to receive letters from the European Commission and its institutions in one's mother tongue. There is a raft of possibilities for discussion. All my examples, and many more rights that I have not mentioned, can be referred back to a treaty, convention or charter to which the European Union, or its member states, has signed.

There will be problems to overcome. There might be an issue of the fundamental rights of non-citizens who fall within the scope of European Union legislation, such as workers from countries outside the Union. We must also remember that the Council might be minded to incorporate the charter into the treaty at a later stage. The charter should, perhaps, be a two-phase document. One phase could include the clear, concise and crucial statement of rights to which I have referred; the second could be a more detailed document, providing the relevant treaty, convention and charter references from which the fundamental rights were derived. Although the charter may not be a justiciable document, European Union citizens will be able to find out, by referring to the back-up document, what parts of the treaty and other documents may give them recourse to law.

However challenging the task may be, it will not be enough for those who want to create a legally binding charter immediately, going beyond the current competencies of the European Union to create an all-singing, all-dancing, all-embracing charter of fundamental rights. If time allows, the convention could consider, in a separate document, strongly perceived gaps and shortcomings in current enforceable fundamental rights in the European Union—an annexe of aspirations, so to speak. The two issues need to be clearly separated. I look forward to the convention's completing, in the next eight months, its primary task of drawing up a charter of fundamental rights of the European Union, declaring to all its citizens the rights that they hold under the treaties and other instruments of the European Union and its member states.

At this point I would have mentioned some of the fundamental statements made by key players in the convention process, but because many hon. Members obviously want to take part in the debate, I shall sit down and listen keenly.

11.21 am
Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) on securing this Adjournment debate. The issue may not be the stuff of headlines—"EU proposes charter of fundamental rights"—but it is important and needs airing. We need to be rigorous in scrutinising the purpose of the charter and its implications.

I do not regard myself as a Europhobe in my own party or by anyone's parliamentary standards. I am an enthusiastic supporter of human rights. On the face of it, the European Union intends by the charter to make the issue of human rights more visible to citizens of member states and thereby to raise the profile of human rights protection. I am sure that we all enthusiastically support that aim, particularly since the passing of the Human Rights Act 1998. However, the issue is controversial.

The nub of the matter is that we already have a European convention on human rights. It was drawn up 50 years ago, mainly by British lawyers. The European Court of Human Rights has 50 years of experience and expertise and has amassed considerable case law. We send to the Council of Europe a sizeable United Kingdom delegation, which works hard and is well respected, led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis).

The charter was debated on 25 January at the last meeting of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, and a clear position was set out. The Select Committee on European Scrutiny has taken a keen interest. It spent two days in Brussels in December, and took evidence from several key players in the drafting of the charter.

Several important questions need answers. First, what will be the status of the proposed charter? My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend began to deal with the issue, but it is worrying that although a drafting body is to work intensively for eight months, it is still unclear whether the resulting charter will be legally binding. If it will, thereby enabling citizens of European Union member states to take grievances or breaches of fundamental rights to the European Court of Justice, there will be two courts in Europe that deal with human or fundamental rights. I am not a lawyer, but will not that lead to confusion and competition between the two courts? Human rights protection should not be a matter of competition. If the ultimate aim of the EU is to write the charter into a treaty, it can do that simply by taking up the invitation that the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly extended to it on 25 January this year to incorporate the European convention on human rights into a Community treaty.

Two other issues have important implications. First, the proposed charter could send out the signal that we are creating a two-tier system of human rights protection within Europe. The Council of Europe, with 41 members, has a much larger membership than the EU. Even with the proposed EU enlargement, EU membership could appear to provide a superior protection to the remaining 26 members of the Council of Europe. In the context of a wider Europe in which we are trying to incorporate many eastern European countries, it would not be wise to advocate such divisive action. The implementation of human rights should not be a matter of competition between the EU and the Council of Europe.

The second issue raises the question of what the charter says about the Council of Europe. What are we to make of what is going on? What signals does it send out? Although the issue has not been readily picked up by the national press, on 8 February The Independent carried an article on the charter. In the first paragraph, its legal affairs correspondent described the charter as replacing the outdated European Convention on Human Rights. Although that is the correspondent's reading of what is going on, it is interesting that a serious newspaper should choose to print that opinion.

Mr. Win Griffiths

That was one reason why I wanted the debate. The claim was outrageous and far from anything that had been discussed. One of the charter's great sensitivities is how to ensure that the European convention on human rights remains a pre-eminent player. We are looking at the issue of signing up so that the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg continues to play a pre-eminent role.

Ms Jones

I thank my hon. Friend for making that statement, but even if the correspondent in The Independent is wrong, the paper has a wide readership. Its interpretation of why the charter has been drafted showed how it decided to read the signals.

In conclusion, I am not a Europhobe, but we need to question why the Government need to sign up to a charter. We have the Human Rights Act 1998 and are active in the Council of Europe. I am not convinced that the charter will build on our experience or benefit UK citizens any more than they benefit from the 1998 Act. We need to tread cautiously.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Before I call the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) I must advise hon. Members that an informal protocol allows Front-Bench spokesman to use the final 30 minutes to respond to the debate. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), who introduced the debate, considerately curtailed his comments to make time for other hon. Members. I know that several right hon. Members wish to make a contribution, so I ask them to bear it in mind that we have only about 30 minutes for the debate.

11.30 am
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) on obtaining the debate. I applaud the fact that he is obviously ahead of the game because as yet awareness of this topic is low. I can comply with your request to be brief, Mr. Cook, because the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) has covered much of the ground that I intended to cover. I wanted to pose exactly the question that she posed: what is the charter all about? The hon. Lady was right to emphasise that the issue is controversial. As a former colleague of the hon. Lady at the Council of Europe, I am only too well aware of the existing convention and European Court of Human Rights. One has a certain apprehension about the prospect of another court being created to deal with such matters. Many institutions, at home and abroad, could be made to work better, and it would be in our long-term interests to try to make existing institutions work better instead of creating rival institutions, which is likely to lead to the problems mentioned by the hon. Lady.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I must remind hon. Members that this is not a Committee. This is a sitting of the House and I am a Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Gill

I do apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

My concern is that, in Europe today, we see the establishment of rival institutions to those that have served Europe tolerably well since they were created in the aftermath of the second world war. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West referred to the Council of Europe, which now represents 41 nations. That represents a broader body of opinion than does the European Union, which comprises only 15 nations.

However, it is not only in relation to human rights that we see the European Union making a grab for more territory. We can see the corpus juris proposals coming down the track, which will challenge, and perhaps ultimately take over, national jurisprudence. Only yesterday, I read in the newspapers that European Union Foreign Ministers took a major step towards the creation of a European army, in that they approved an embryonic military staff with an operational role in early warning and strategic planning. Of course, colleagues on the Benches to my left, who are all members of the Western European Union as well as the Council of Europe, know exactly what the European Union said very recently about the future of the WEU. In creating euroland, the European Union is creating an alternative form of currency to national currencies. I am concerned that this debate about the charter of fundamental rights offers another illustration of how the European Union is trying to take over something that already exists and does not need to be duplicated, especially as it is questionable whether the new convention will be any more successful than the current institutions.

The reason why I felt moved to speak in the debate, albeit briefly, is that although politicians on the continent are frank about their aims, objectives and long-term aspirations, in this country we still pretend that certain things will not happen; we pretend that the European Union will not be able to grab more powers in more areas. It is greatly to the credit of the hon. Member for Bridgend that he has given us the opportunity to debate these matters and, as I said earlier, my interest in the debate is in flagging up the fact that the European Union is making a grab for territory that it does not need to make a bid for. I suspect that the British public, and Members of Parliament, are unaware of what is going on and unaware of where we are being led. We should take note of the report of the words of Romano Prodi, the President of the European Commission, 10 days ago. Under the headline, "Commission becoming a government, says Prodi," it stated: Europe is forging its own government and army, Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission claimed yesterday. I am grateful to have the opportunity to flag up the dangers involved when our own politicians are economical with the truth.

11.36 am
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) on securing the debate. He beat me and my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) to the draw; we had decided that once the debate on the Ilisu dam was out of the way, we were going to apply for a debate on the proposed European charter because of our anxiety about some of the statements made in Strasbourg about attitudes to it.

As other hon. Members seem to be bearing their breast on their attitudes to Europe, I shall do the same. I am happy about the euro, federalism holds no problems for me and loss of sovereignty does not mean a great deal. What is important, however, is that we have working institutions and that, as Members of Parliament, we can defend the interests of our constituents and our country as best we can in those institutions. I am happy about what is taking place and I wish that we had already signed up to the euro.

Having nailed my colours to the mast, I now explain my grave concern about the proposed charter of human rights. The charter has grown like Topsy; it started as a proposal to have a European ombudsman within the European Community to deal with malpractice in administration, just as our ombudsman does. People with a grievance about what was happening in Europe and its institutions would be able to go to the ombudsman, which was perfect and proper. However, in Cologne, the idea grew a new dimension and went onwards and upwards. People said, "Perhaps we should do something about a charter of human rights," and "Perhaps we should have something that is justiciable," and "Perhaps we should take everything over and take everything in." It is obvious from the work load that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend described that it would be startling and fantastic to try to get through so much in eight months or a year.

I have no objection to a general charter on "The Rights of Man", or a proclamation, as in 1916, setting out basic, fundamental human rights. That would be fine, great, splendid. The problem arises when such a charter becomes justiciable. We and our fellow members of the Council of Europe have spent many years reforming the European Court of Justice, changing and streamlining its procedures and the appointment of its judges to meet the extra work load resulting from the expansion of the Council of Europe. A great deal of important work is likely to be thrown down the drain if the European Union produces a set of justiciable principles.

My hon Friend the Member for Bridgend referred to conflicting jurisdictions and different courts reaching different decisions. The court at Luxembourg already has some human rights jurisdiction arising from the treaties. That was one of the problems that we sought to raise when the Maastricht and Amsterdam treaties were being negotiated, because it created a possible area of conflict. The powers that be at that time did not consider it so large, but now it is likely to to be very large indeed. Therefore, our first problem is one of conflicting jurisdictions However, what is more important to me, and what most concerns me, is the prospect that the conflict may split the membership of the Council of Europe between the rich countries that are members of the European Union, and the countries that are not and are never likely to be, under the present terms and conditions.

One of the Council of Europe's strengths has been the fact that former communist countries and countries that have broken away from the Soviet Union have been admitted under strict conditions regarding the application of human rights. Indeed, Belarus is outside the Council of Europe because it cannot meet the requirements. We have had problems with countries such as Ukraine over the death penalty, abolition of which we were eventually able to achieve through the force of the Council of Europe's moral persuasion. Less than 18 months ago, a large number of people were on death row in Ukraine. Those who were to be executed did not know when they would be executed, and their families did not know two months after the execution. The pressure exerted by the Council of Europe changed that situation. We can do it by saying "You must meet these standards." However, if there are to be two rival jurisdictions, with the European Union countries looking to Luxembourg rather than to Strasbourg, there will be one court for the rich countries—the established countries—and another for lesser breeds without the law, and that will be a real problem.

One of the strengths of the struggling democratic parties in those countries is that, against precedents or Governments seeking to be dictatorial, they can turn round and say, "We have the convention on human rights. We must abide by that. When decisions have gone against countries like Britain and Germany"— a large number of decisions have gone against the British Government—"those countries have nevertheless accepted the decisions and worked the system." If we have gone away and a weak grouping is left outside, the pressure to follow the European convention on human rights and so on will be limited. Those countries want to be in, but if we take ourselves one step further away, it will be much more difficult to enforce those rights internationally in Europe among the struggling democracies that have weak judiciaries, poor social services, corrupt police forces and terrible administration systems, because they will be seen to be separate and apart. The European Union and the convention looking at those matters should seriously consider that point. Justice should be universal, it should not be confined to the rich few in the centre. We should be able to expand it in that way.

I hope that a fine statement of principles will emerge from the convention, but the principles that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend read out started off like articles 1 and 2 of the convention on human rights, so why are we repeating them in that way? Can we put into a justiciable document matters relating to social policy, much of which I support, but which will differ from country to country and may cause the Europhobes to foam at the mouth? There are matters that should properly be the responsibility of member states, and it is right that as many decisions as possible be taken at a lower level. However, universal principles of justice should be a matter not merely for the European Union but for Europe as a whole. It is regrettable that the United States has not signed the universal declaration of human rights; had it done so, the whole world might have a proper scheme.

11.45 am
Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill)

We are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) for taking this opportunity to report in detail on his work for what I prefer to call the drafting committee for the charter, rather than a convention, because there has been a tendency to confuse it with the convention on human rights. I hope that he will seek further opportunities to initiate such debates during the next eight months; otherwise, I feel sure that our hon. Friends will.

It is clear that hon. Members share a common view on the matter. I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), who used to be a member of the delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Although there may be differences of emphasis, the common concern among hon. Members is the development of the charter for human rights. As leader of the United Kingdom delegation, I can say that none of its members would disagree with the general thrust of what has been said this morning on the effects of duplication.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Ludlow when he says—I hope that I am quoting him correctly—that politicians on the continent take a different view. My experience has been that politicians in Parliaments throughout the 41 member states in the Council of Europe have expressed concerns similar to ours.

Mr. Gill

My point was that European politicians take an approach to Europe that differs from that of their British counterparts, inasmuch as they spell out exactly what they want to achieve. In this country, we are not so frank, although we may be heading for the same destination. I doubt whether members of the Council of Europe take the view that the right hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Davis

I would never suggest that the hon. Member for Ludlow was less than frank in his views. My point is that politicians in national Parliaments in other member states of the Council of Europe are concerned about the implications of the charter for human rights, particularly in respect of duplication, and for two reasons.

First, if there is a curse in Europe, it is the constant petty jealousy among organisations such as the European Union, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. There is constant jockeying for position, and a constant wish to take—as the hon. Member for Ludlow described it—and duplicate anything that is popular. Indeed, the charter for human rights owes its genesis to growing disillusion among many member states with the European Union itself, and a search was undertaken to find a measure that could enhance its popularity.

Nevertheless, looking at the matter objectively, there may be advantages in having some kind of charter or declaration, provided we avoid the disadvantages, which my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Ludlow have eloquently described. The problem with duplication is not only the confusion that would arise if there were two conventions or charters that were both subject to legal proceedings—as my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) explained—but the confusion that would arise if there were two courts, which would be even worse if they reached different decisions.

Another big disadvantage, which I ask the Minister to take particularly into account, is that duplication equals waste. It results in additional, unnecessary expenditure. It is no good telling us that the additional expenditure would come from Community resources. It would be a burden, however great or small, for the British taxpayer in two ways—through our Government's expenditure and because the resources of the European Union ultimately come from its citizens. We should be concerned about that expenditure, and I hope that the Minister and his Government colleagues will take the matter seriously into account.

11.50 am
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) on securing the debate. It has been a useful first canter round the course of the subject, and I am sure that we shall return to it on many occasions. A common thread has emerged in that hon. Members from a wide range of parties have expressed a cautious approach to the suggested changes. I shall explain the Liberal Democrats' stance in due course.

I should like to set out the fundamental principles that should form the underlying benchmarks by which we judge any changes to European Community legislation—in this case, whether we want to make progress towards a new charter. One of the most important benchmarks is the question whether the charter would do anything to help individuals throughout Europe. My view of British and European politics is that our activities should centre on releasing the potential of individuals throughout the Community. Ensuring that fundamental human rights are in place, and enhancing those rights, is an important factor in that. How that is to be achieved is a big question, to which the charter could provide part of the solution. From that perspective, we welcome the initial discussions that are taking place.

Although the Liberal Democrats welcomed the Human Rights Act 1998, we should like the Government to go further and introduce an equality Bill that would extend some of the areas that are not covered by the 1998 Act.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with the European convention on human rights is the fact that it does not tackle issues such as age discrimination and same-sex relationships, or address problems that arise in respect of new information technology and e-commerce? Those issues are very much in the frame in terms of human rights, which is one of the reasons why an equality Bill should be considered.

Mr. Oaten

My hon. Friend makes an important point. A great deal of work remains to be done on existing legislation before we move too quickly into other areas. Given my hon. Friend's role on the committee with responsibility for scrutiny, I am sure that he will be able to raise some of those points.

Mr. McNamara

With regard to the convention's being outdated, is the hon. Gentleman aware that a new protocol that will provide sexual and gender equality has just been passed?

Mr. Oaten

Clearly, we welcome that. Some of the new issues that are emerging need time to bed down so that we can judge their effectiveness, and any additions during that period could cause problems in their implementation.

The Liberal Democrats are committed to reforming Europe and developing a charter of human rights for the European Union. That will be a fundamental step in the right direction. For 50 years, Europe has co-operated heavily in the economic sphere. Over the next 50 years, the focus should shift to co-operation not only on regulation, but on the rights of individuals. The charter could redefine that, and help to make people more aware that the Eurpoean Union has a role for them as individuals in future.

Why is change necessary? A layman might think that the European convention on human rights already provided enough protection in the EU, but he would be wrong. Unlike our national courts, the 'European Court of Justice cannot give direct effect to the European convention on human rights because that convention is not an integral part of the EU. EU treaties have no code of human rights, and the European Court of Human Rights is not able to redress the situation when EU institutions, rather than individual member states, breach convention rights, because the EU has not acceded to the ECHR. In this context, there are loopholes, and we need to improve the situation.

I move on from those questions of ideals to the more difficult question of how a charter might work. Many issues need to be considered and we should not underestimate the complexity of the task in hand. First, on the difficult question of subsidiarity, the Cologne Council made it explicit that the charter of fundamental rights was not an attempt to subvert the current constitutional order of member states and that it should strengthen the EU's identity and policies. That is the right approach. Secondly, the charter must not reduce the rights of citizens—on the contrary, it should, if possible, safeguard such rights in each member state. That, too, is right and proper. Thirdly, the charter should enhance rather than undermine the European convention on human rights, which I agree needs enhancing. We welcome some reforms, but the ECHR is, in many respects, rather old fashioned and its application in EU countries has been rather uneven. The ECHR of 1950 is common to all member states, but not all subsequent protocols have been signed or ratified by member states.

Mr. Chidgey

That is extremely important. The ECHR is 16 pages long, but the number of reservations and declarations runs to 60 pages. That clearly shows that there is a need to clean up the document and to make it more relevant to the modern world.

Mr. Oaten

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. Perhaps the charter will help to generate reforms and improve our current procedures.

One of the most difficult problems involves the date at which, and the extent to which, the charter should encroach on national preferences. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) discussed what the charter's legal character would be in that context. It is crucial to get it right.

We could pursue various options to reach a solution. First, a proclamation could be used to give the EU a human face, which would involve a set of values or a written document. However, that would be a wasted opportunity if it failed to close some of the current loopholes. Secondly, a declaration could be issued that described the current state of affairs, informed EU institutions of their duties and used a stronger form of wording. A third option would involve using a protocol and amending the treaty so as to oblige the European Court of Justice and member states to be informed of its terms. Should that approach be enshrined in the treaty? Should that requirement be enforceable in national courts, and should individuals have direct access to the European Court of Justice as a matter of last resort? Or, bluntly, are we going too fast and too far, and should we pause while we put some of the institutions in place?

I was attracted by the two-phase approach that the hon. Member for Bridgend suggested. There is merit in that approach, which might involve firm time scales that would ensure that we achieved targets before moving on.

Liberal Democrats believe that there is logic in moving towards a structure that incorporates the charter, but that we should avoid creating a two-tier system, which the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) discussed. I was taken by his observation that a two-tier system might allow poor and richer countries to be treated differently. It would be a nonsense if two different legal opinions competed over the issue of rights.

The common-sense approach involves accepting that existing structures improve performance radically and that additional elements could be added. Much can be done to reform the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights, which should take on some of the new elements that could be added to them. It should also be a priority that they should be in a position to cope with enlargement by up to 12 new member states over the next few years.

One need only ask any farmer—I acknowledge that this is not directly related to the issue—whether it makes sense to have a battle lasting nearly two years in the European courts to resolve the beef issue. Our current systems are too slow and need to be improved. The incorporation of the European convention on human rights into United Kingdom law is a welcome development, but is an on-going process. It will take a considerable time for our judicial systems to adjust to it.

In conclusion, we welcome the Government's approach, but we suggest that it should be a cautious one. If we ensure that our current institutions are up to speed, in order and providing a good service for people, we can then ensure that the convention and the changes relating to the new charter can be brought on track. At this stage, however, we should monitor progress carefully to make sure that that happens at a time appropriate to the best interests of individuals throughout Europe.

12 noon

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) on raising this important issue. It has not been the focus of much public attention, and today's debate will concentrate minds on what is happening, give hon. Members an opportunity to express their concerns—they have already made some very pertinent observations—and allow the Government to clarify their position.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the mandate for the establishment of the charter was set out in Cologne in June 1999. That made it clear that the charter would contain rights and freedoms set out in the European convention as well as rights pertaining to European Union citizens. It also stated that account should be taken of economic and social rights. The Cologne communiqué, which was approved by the Prime Minister, clearly allows the drafting convention to set out a wide-ranging and far-reaching set of rights, should it wish to do so. Initial indications show that that is exactly what is happening.

Two claims have been made. First, it was said that the charter would cover only existing rights. Secondly, it was said that it would not be legally binding. Those assertions have been repeated on a number of occasions, and I would like to explore them in this debate. However, I should first like to comment on the observations made by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones). She asked some important questions about the status and applicability of the charter, a point that was amplified well by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill).

The Foreign Secretary told the House of Commons that we are not proposing a constitution of Europe. We are proposing that a charter of rights should codify in a single place the rights that already exist in European legislation…we broadly welcome that European charter of rights".—[Official Report, 25 May 1999; Vol. 332, c. 184.] Moreover, the Minister of State told the House:

I made it clear in my evidence to the Scrutiny Committee that it is a charter of existing rights. It sets out the rights that have been granted to EU citizens as a result of treaties and legislation. It is not binding or enforceable. It is a charter, as we have said, not a new treaty."—[Official Report, 1 December 1999; Vol. 340, c. 400-401.] However, we are now rather used to hearing such reassurances from the Government. We have heard them in the past, and they are frequently not matched by reality. We are used to being told that items that have been agreed at European level pose no threat, only to find that they are far more integrationist than anything originally envisaged—or, more important, supported—by the British people. We are used to Ministers saying one thing in Britain and signing up to something rather different in Brussels. We must read the small print carefully.

The Government must provide concrete guarantees on some of the fundamental issues arising from the charter. They must provide a specific guarantee that a whole new set of wide-ranging rights will not be created at a European level. It is becoming clear that the extent of rights discussed by the convention goes far beyond anything already contained in the treaties. During its second plenary session earlier this month, the convention was reported to have accepted, as a working basis, a list of so-called rights drawn up by its secretariat. That list includes economic and social rights, such as the right to work; rights governing working conditions, including rights to fair pay, weekly rest and paid leave; collective rights including worker information and consultation; and a right to strike. It includes social protection rights such as a right to health, social protection, health insurance, maternity protection, and integration of disabled people.

Mr. Win Griffiths

I pointed out earlier that those were merely subjects for discussion. In relation to some of the rights mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, I questioned whether they were fundamental rights or objectives that political parties might regard as good to put in their manifestos. We should not regard the convention as a monolith that will swallow any view wholesale. I hope that my earlier speech outlined the different strands of opinion on the matter.

Mr. Spring

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I accept that diverse views exist. The question is what will ultimately happen. At a European level, rights have been amplified and expanded, which creates all sorts of problems. I want to address that point with regard to nation states. At first glance, we can all agree with the hon. Gentleman on the broad aim of improving provision for European citizens in most areas. However, who defines those rights? Who decides whether current employment legislation in Britain contravenes a European right to strike? Who decides whether the current level of the minimum wage constitutes fair pay? Who decides whether the Government's changes to incapacity benefit will contravene rights to social protection and the integration of disabled people? Will the Government guarantee that the charter will include only rights already established in the treaties?

The second fundamental issue is whether the charter will be integrated into the treaties, and whether that will cause it to be legally enforceable through the European Court of Justice. That is the approach favoured by the European Parliament. The British Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament, Andrew Duff, who is one of the European Parliament's rapporteurs on the matter, has reportedly called for a binding charter, and for the European Union to have a legal personality so that it may subscribe to the European convention on human rights. Liberal Democrat Members of the European Parliament voted for the charter to have a legally binding effect.

When Lord Goldsmith, who is the Government's representative, submitted a paper that placed emphasis on the need to adopt a simple text that could have maximum public impact, the representative from the Dutch Parliament responded: We are not here to draw up a brochure to promote Europe but to draw up a legal text, transposable into law". Many have expressed concern about recent judgments by the European Court of Human Rights. An example was the appeal by the killers of James Bulger. Concern has been expressed about the effect of incorporating the convention into UK law, especially in Scotland, where it is already enforced. Examples exist of Scottish law being judged incompatible with European human rights law. It would be wholly unacceptable to have a new tranche of so-called rights forced on Britain by a European court that has a track record of interpreting treaty articles in an integrationist way. The charter may start as a non-binding statement, but it may not end up that way. The social chapter, for example, started life as a non-binding statement. It is now incorporated into the treaty, and allows social legislation to be imposed on Britain, often by qualified majority voting.

That is how integration in Europe evolves—step by step. Others have recognised the reality of that. As one contributor to the convention's second meeting noted: Even if it is not our intention to adopt a text with legal value, we must be careful as this text could become binding. It is worth recalling that Commission President Romano Prodi has boasted about this process. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow alluded to that. Only a few days ago Mr. Prodi boasted to The Independent that "step by step" the Commission was behaving "like a growing government".

First, we are given a list of generalised principles. Then there is a far-reaching range of broad so-called rights. First there is non-binding statement, and then there is a treaty chapter incorporated into the treaties and enforceable in the European Court of Justice. First there is a bland outline of generalised aims, and then there is a charter for wide-ranging interference in British law.

Mr. Oaten

The hon. Gentleman has set out a course of activity. Where would the British Conservative party draw the line?

Mr. Spring

I hope to receive some clear assurances from the Government about exactly where they are drawing the line. We will certainly wish to respond in detail to that information. We all look forward to hearing the Minister in a few minutes.

The second guarantee that we seek is that the charter will never be incorporated into the treaty or be made legally enforceable. That is a guarantee that the Foreign Secretary signally failed to provide when challenged by the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), in the House yesterday. For many, the charter is all part of a wider integrationist agenda in Europe. The integrationists are pushing for a European Union with its own Government, army, taxes, foreign policy, criminal justice system, constitution and concept of citizenship as well as currency—in other words, a single European state. It is vital that this charter does not become part of that process. It is vital that the Government stand up for the view of the mainstream majority of the British public. It is vital that they end the process of marching, step by step, towards a single European state.

12.12 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Keith Vaz)

I begin, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by apologising again for being late for the start of this debate. As I explained to the Deputy Speaker at the time, I was addressing a meeting of students who had come over with the Queen of Denmark as part of the state visit and I was unavoidably delayed. I apologise to hon. Members for keeping them waiting.

I join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) on his success in securing the debate. As he has the support of those sitting next to him, he was bound to be successful in the ballot. I am delighted to see so many other hon. Members present, including the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) who, as usual, wants to broaden out the debate into other matters. I shall deal with all the arguments.

This is an excellent opportunity to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend about the excellent work that he and others are doing on the drafting body of the charter of rights. This is perhaps our only mechanism to get a report back on what is happening. I hope that he will be successful again in the near future so that he may give us an update on what is happening there. There is no point in hearing from the man who is reading the manuscript when one can hear from the man who is writing the book.

We welcome the fact that we have two excellent representatives, from the House and the other place. We have another excellent representative, the Prime Minister's representative Lord Goldsmith, who was appointed at the start of this procedure and who comes to the task, unlike my hon. Friend, as a lawyer. He is perhaps one of the most eminent silks of his generation. It is good to have three such outstanding people at the drafting body of the charter of rights. All in the House will welcome the fact that the United Kingdom's place is assured by having such good representation.

A number of hon. Members mentioned the Cologne conclusions. It may be helpful to read out paragraph 44, which states:

The European Council takes the view that, at the present stage of development of the European Union, the fundamental rights applicable at Union level should be consolidated in a charter and thereby made more evident. That is why the charter of rights was set up which, as the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) said, the Prime Minister was glad to approve. We all feel that it is high time for a document to be produced that clarifies the rights and responsibilities of European citizens and is submitted to the European Council and the people of Europe.

The charter of rights is part of the Government's reform agenda on the European Union. The charter will set out existing legal rights enfranchising the people of Europe. New rights will not be added, as it would be inappropriate for the drafting body to legislate on behalf of the European Union. That is partly because the charter body is outside existing EU structures, a setup which enables us to have representatives such as Lord Goldsmith, who can give the drafting bodies expertise and insight that Members of this House and various European Parliaments may not have.

I am amazed that the hon. Member for West Suffolk suggested that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend was talking about an attempt to legislate. There is no such attempt. As European citizens, we already have rights and responsibilities.

My hon. Friends the Members for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) have asked whether there will be any overlap with the European convention on human rights. I hope that there will not, which is why we have representatives who, to use the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis), ensure that duplication and waste do not occur. My right hon. Friend is a veteran of the Council of Europe and knows how important it is that European institutions do not duplicate the work of other bodies.

Of course, there will be some common issues. However, the drafting body will ensure that there is no duplication. We will set out the source of existing rights in the European convention if, indeed, there are any such rights. I therefore commend to the House Lord Goldsmith's effective paper, a copy of which has been placed in the Library. It sets out a user-friendly approach to the whole process, stating clearly in ordinary, simple language what people's rights are and the source of those rights.

That is the background to the charter of rights. The hon. Member for Ludlow expects my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend and his colleagues to write a great constitution. However, I must disabuse him of that notion. If my hon. Friend and five Europeans were to meet in a café in Brussels for a cup of tea, the hon. Member for Ludlow would believe that they were plotting the formation of a superstate. He must calm down, as there are no shadows in the charter of rights. There is no possibility of any advance on the Cologne conclusions, which were repeated by President Herzog of the charter drafting committee, and others. So the hon. Gentleman need not worry.

The hon. Member for West Suffolk asked about the European army. There is no such army. No decision was taken on Monday or Tuesday to have a European army. I was present when a decision was taken that was in line with the policy of successive Governments, Conservative and Labour—that Europe should have the capability to deal with crisis management in Europe: the so-called Petersberg tasks.

Mr. Spring

The Minister may misunderstand the point. The President of the Commission has expressed a wish to move towards a European army. The Commission is driving the agenda towards an integrationist Europe, with all its attendant institutions. That is obvious; it is on the record and has been said before. I hope that the Minister will reject that viewpoint now.

Mr. Vaz

The hon. Gentleman is obsessed with the sayings—or alleged sayings—of Romano Prodi. I welcome the hon. Gentleman formally to the Front Bench as shadow Minister for Europe. I can take him with me on my next trip to Brussels so that he can see what is happening—[Interruption.] I had only a brief lunch on Monday because we were busy dealing with important issues. When he goes to Brussels, the hon. Gentleman will find that the representatives of the United Kingdom—at official and ministerial level—fight extremely hard to maintain the interests of this country. We fight our corner as everyone else does, but we also believe in the notion of Europe—a Europe of nation states, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said in the House of Commons yesterday.

Let us not get carried away with the European superstate, with the charter of rights as a European constitution, or with the allegation that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), Lord Goldsmith, Lord Bowness and others are seeking to stick things in which we shall not find out about. I want to make it clear to the House of Commons that we shall see the fruits of our efforts in draft form. Although the Commission and European Parliament are more than welcome to their opinions and more than welcome to try to shape the debate as they have always done, the final decision on the proposals rests with the European Council. I was asked whether the decision would be legally binding—

Mr. McNamara

Will the House of Commons have an opportunity to debate the draft proposals before a decision is taken?

Mr. Vaz

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend and others will seek every opportunity to debate these matters. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North knows, I and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary always come to the House of Commons to debate forthcoming European Council events. We did so before Helsinki and we shall do so again before Nice. It is hoped that the process will be completed this year. There will be ample opportunity to question Ministers through the mechanisms that have been established to facilitate debate.

Hon. Members should not wait for a debate in the House to debate the charter of rights. The hon. Members for Ludlow and for West Suffolk can e-mail and write to Lord Goldsmith, to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend and to Lord Bowness if they wish to pursue a point. They can even write to me and they will receive a reply. There are many opportunities for hon. Members to present their views on this important issue.

I wish to make it clear that the Government regard the charter of rights as extremely important. For the first time ever, European citizens will know their rights and responsibilities. The user-friendly approach adopted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend and by Lord Goldsmith is the right approach. For too long, people have believed that the European Union is shrouded in mystery. It attracts the attention of people such as the hon. Member for Ludlow, who believe that sinister actions are taking place in Strasbourg and Brussels. They believe that terrible things happen at our meetings in the shadows and margins of the European Union. That is simply not the case.

The charter of rights represents a first step on the way to explaining in simple and user-friendly language exactly how people benefit from membership of the European Union. I do not yet know the final form that it will take. It could be a small pledge card or a larger document. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend will have his way and it will be on two sides of A4 paper. The Foreign Secretary and those who serve on the drafting body, as well as myself, want to ensure that it will not be a legalistic document incomprehensible to people in Ludlow, Ipswich, Winchester or Hull. It must be relevant to people's lives.

The constant thrust from the Conservative party—although not from the Liberal Democrats—is that everything that happens in relation to Europe is negative. When we go to our European Council meetings and when my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend and others attend meetings of the drafting bodies, we make a valuable contribution. In the 18 weeks since I became a Minister,' I have been overwhelmed by the support that the United Kingdom has received in leading and guiding debate on the European Union. The enlargement process that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary announced in the House only yesterday gives us another opportunity to ensure that the rights, responsibilities and values that we hold so dear in the European Union can be exported to the new applicant countries. This is a great opportunity to show Europe—and the whole world—the benefits of the EU. I hope that hon. Members will continue to support the work that is being done so that we have a charter of rights of which we can be proud.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam)

Order. We can proceed to the next debate, but I would ask those hon. Members who wish to leave to do so quietly now.