I beg to move,
That this House
takes note of European Union Documents No. 17625/11 and Addendum, relating to a draft Regulation adjusting, from
questions the European Commission’s conclusion that recent and challenging economic conditions do not warrant application of the Exception Clause;
regrets that the Commission has not modified the salary adjustment method this year;
stresses that consequent increases in EU staff pay, proposed by the Commission, are completely unacceptable when as part of its fiscal consolidation plans the Government has imposed restraints on public sector pay;
notes that the framework for setting EU remuneration requires reform to increase Member States’
oversight and control, which the ongoing review of the EU Staff Regulations may enable;
and commits to achieve very significant reductions in EU administrative spending in the next Multiannual Financial Framework as part of the UK’s overarching goal to impose real budgetary restraint.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the 2011 EU salary adjustment and the Government’s agenda to reform and reduce EU administrative spending. The House is familiar with the context for EU spending: while Europe’s economy remains very fragile, delivering and supporting plans to consolidate public finances remains crucial and, at the same time, we must also seek to promote growth using available resources.
There are two clear implications for the EU budget. First, the EU must live within its means; high spending is not the way to fix Europe’s problems. Secondly, all EU spending must deliver the highest added value. Strict and rigorous prioritisation is necessary to reduce waste and inefficiency.
Over the past few years, the Government have worked hard to establish a new framework for budget discipline at EU level. That is an important task because current EU spending targets, agreed by the previous Government, set a rising trajectory for EU spending to 2013 that is no longer realistic.
We have pursued our goal with considerable success. For 2011, growth in EU spending was limited to 2.91%, far below the unacceptable 6% increase demanded by the Commission and European Parliament, and last year, the 2012 EU budget was set at only 2.02% above the original 2011 budget, exactly as proposed by the European Council in July. That delivered on the Prime Minister’s determination to freeze the EU budget in real terms, and set spending €4 billion below the level advocated by the European Parliament.
A drive to limit EU administrative savings is a key plank of the Government’s approach to budgetary restraint at EU level. It reflects the tough domestic measures the Government are taking to find savings. As set out in the spending review, the administrative budgets of central Whitehall Departments will be reduced by 34%, saving £5.9 billion a year by 2014-15 so that resources can be focused on front-line services.
The EU should show a similar drive to find efficiency savings. Any suggestion of waste in the EU budget damages the standing of the EU institutions and of the EU as a whole. Its ambition, however, is evidently lacking. Strikingly, for 2012 the Commission proposed to save only €695, much less than one 1,000th of its €3.3 billion budget. We are clear, however, that the EU institutions must manage themselves and the programmes that they help to manage far better and on lower budgets. We have called for a cash freeze in EU administrative spending in recent annual budget negotiations and we want to see cash cuts in that area over the next multi-annual financial framework.
Today, I can inform the House that the Chancellor took the unprecedented step of voting against discharging the accounts for the 2010 EU budget. We have not seen enough progress in reducing the level of errors in EU transactions, which is unacceptable. We should remember that national taxpayers stand behind the EU budget and that is why we have clearly signalled the need for important and urgent improvements to the quality of EU financial management.
I am sorry to intervene on the Minister because of the effects of her unfortunate accident, but is there a blocking minority against the proposals and has it been exercised? May I ask whether we are not only voting against it, but have voted against it, and what the outcome was?
I think I will cover all those points in my speech, although I am grateful to my extremely well-informed hon. Friend for his prompt to do so.
Let me turn now to the 2011 EU salary adjustment. The Commission’s attitude towards EU staff pay adjustments is another clear indication of its estrangement from reality. In the UK, the public sector pay bill makes up more than half of departmental resource spending, so action on pay is inevitably part of the Government’s fiscal consolidation strategy. Accordingly, the Government have announced a two-year public sector pay freeze for those earning above £21,000, with pay awards following that averaging at only 1%. Those measures are estimated to save around £3.3 billion a year by 2014-15.
At EU level, on the contrary, staff remunerations counted for 69% of the Commission’s budget in 2011, which means that EU annual salary adjustments have important implications for the size of EU administrative costs. However, rather than taking action to reduce its wage bill the Commission proposed to increase it by 1.7%, representing an extra €39 million, in the year from July 2011, despite the fact that the vast majority of EU officials earn significantly more than most public officials in the UK and many other member states.
I turn now to the position of the UK and the Council. Clearly, any pay increase for EU staff is unacceptable. In conjunction with other member states, the Government called on the Commission to lower its proposals, taking into account the economic situation and the policy measures in many member states to curb public wage bills. The request was made not once but twice, first in December 2010 and again in November 2011. The requests were made by invoking the so-called exception clause—article 10 of the 11th annex to the EU staff
regulations—the only means for seeking to alter the mechanistic salary adjustment process under the current system.
Each time, the Commission has stubbornly refused to reduce growth in EU staff pay. Its defence for its inaction has been internally inconsistent, self-serving and, as the European Scrutiny Committee observed, one-sided. By claiming that there has been no
“sudden and serious deterioration in the economic and social situation”
in the EU, the Commission has undertaken faulty analysis. For example, it based its rosy evaluation on forecast indicators that did not pertain to the period defined for its assessment.
More seriously, the Commission ignored the huge number of important fiscal consolidation measures adopted and implemented by member states during the period under review. The Commission itself has strongly advocated such measures, yet incredibly it used stabilising debt and deficit levels to justify higher pay for its own staff.
Most seriously of all, the Commission has manipulated the current system to deprive member states of the opportunity to evaluate the situation independently and to adopt appropriate measures, at a time when it is evident to us all that taking immediate action to curb growth in EU staff pay is the right thing to do. That is why the UK and the wider Council rejected the 1.7% pay increase in December. It is also why we have blocked reductions in EU staff contribution rates to their pension scheme. In addition, the Council has lodged a court case against the Commission for mishandling the 2011 salary adjustment.
The Council’s decision to proceed with legal action against the Commission indicates the seriousness with which we treat the issue. Should the Council lose the case, it will simply add weight to our view that the current process is defunct and cannot adapt properly to difficult economic circumstances. In any event, reform of the salary adjustment system is urgent. The ongoing review of the EU staff regulations, which set out the rules in this area, provides an important opportunity to make that happen.
Delivering a subtler and more responsive way of setting EU staff pay, which empowers the Council to make suitable adjustments in times of economic distress and more generally, is an important objective. One part of the Government’s broader agenda to achieve efficiency gains and financial savings in the EU budget is via reform of the staff regulations that determine such a high level of the EU’s administrative budget.
Overall, the potential for savings is high. This dossier is subject to qualified majority voting and co-decision with the European Parliament. Our success will depend on building firm alliances, so the Government are already working closely with other member states to agree cost-saving ideas that can command broad support in Council.
I certainly agree that everybody associated with European institutions needs to show restraint at this time, as I think the debate will show in some detail, so I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention. He will be reassured that alongside the measures I have already laid out, we intend to pursue the modernisation of EU institutions, in order to help them become more effective, and to encourage a better geographical spread of EU officials from across member states.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend Mr Chope, is the Minister aware that the European Court of Justice has ruled that sufficient circumstances did not exist for abandoning the pay rise proposed in 2009? It has therefore been judge in its own cause, abandoning one of the founding principles of natural justice.
My hon. Friend makes a further fine point, as he frequently does. By failing to restrain the budget, the Commission is almost, metaphorically speaking, acting as judge and jury in its own case, deciding the matter in a way that could clearly be said to be self-serving. My hon. Friends will all be pleased to hear that reform of the staff regulations is extremely important in the next multi-annual financial framework, because it is there that we can control administrative expenditure year in, year out.
The House is aware that we need to promote budgetary restraint at every opportunity. That is the UK’s top priority. That means that we need to ensure that the EU budget contributes to domestic fiscal consolidation. The Prime Minister has stated, jointly with his EU counterparts, that the maximum acceptable expenditure increase through the next financial perspective is a real freeze in payments. To deliver this, we want very substantial reductions in many areas of EU spending, compared to the Commission’s proposals, including on salaries, pensions and benefits, as well as discretionary administrative spending, such as buildings policy and IT. The EU cannot continue to insulate itself from cuts at the expense of UK taxpayers.
The Minister talks about ways of cutting back expenditure. What representations have the Government made recently on the terribly wasteful and inefficient practice by the European institutions, particularly the Parliament, of moving between Strasbourg and Brussels? Have the Government pressed that issue recently?
As I hope my comments have made clear to all hon. Members in the Chamber, this Government take extremely seriously all aspects of budgetary restraint. I firmly expect us to review the situation with the same principles at hand. We are looking for the kind of restraint in the EU institutions that we can show proudly to UK taxpayers back at home. That is what I am laying out today across a number of areas. I mentioned buildings policy, for example, in my comments a moment ago.
I shall conclude in order to allow other hon. Members to have their say on this extremely important topic. The Commission must not be allowed to cosset its officials with pay packages that are grossly inflated. It has a clear responsibility to put forward an ambitious
programme of reform to reduce its administrative budget. That is why this Government will continue to challenge the current system in order to contain the costs of Europe. I commend the motion to the House.
With reference to the annual adjustment of the remuneration of EU staff, I feel certain.
On the subject of the annual adjustment of the remuneration of EU staff, my hon. Friend may be aware that when the MPs team won this morning, that was the sole topic of discussion.
I had better not incur the wrath of the Speaker by commenting, other than to congratulate those MPs who were able to take part. I note that, apart from my hon. Friend, none of them is here to participate in the debate. Perhaps they are recovering.
I begin by thanking the European Scrutiny Committee for recommending this for debate on the Floor of the House and for the work it has done in scrutinising these documents. European institutions can sometimes seem remote and impenetrable, but as we are aware, the workings of the EU in general, and of the Commission, have a significant impact on a range of issues that affect us all. We also know that the EU produces a huge volume of documents, and members of the European Scrutiny Committee do us a service by examining a number of those in detail, and recommending debate on the Floor of the House where there are further questions for the Government to consider.
The Committee’s reason for drawing attention to these documents relates to a number of specific concerns: first, the process that has led us to the position where once again we might see a legal battle between the Commission and the Council in the European Court of Justice; secondly, the Commission’s view that there was no justification for invoking the exception clause; and thirdly, questions about what action the Government have taken, and will take, regarding the negotiations on the amendment of Annex XI.
As the European Scrutiny Committee recognised, the documents are technical in content, but they nevertheless raise issues of far greater political importance. In properly scrutinising these documents, it is important to understand their background and history. The Minister has already covered some of that territory and I will not seek to repeat it. However, it is worth highlighting some of the context again, because it is entirely linked to the wider economic situation we face.
In less difficult financial times such documents, which essentially put in place the necessary paperwork for
salary upgrading, may have passed, if not entirely unnoticed—the Scrutiny Committee would always have had an eye on them—at least without significant comment, except from Members who view anything to do with Europe as by its nature a bad thing. I do not take that view, but we are in a climate where there is justified anger at excessive pay, outrage at bankers’ bonuses and a general feeling that staff who are already highly paid should not get extra rewards simply for doing their job properly.
Is there not a further point on economic performance arising from the hon. Lady’s comments? The calculations being made are based on the assumption that there is reasonable growth in the European Union, which simply is not the case. It falls on economic as well as legal grounds.
The hon. Gentleman makes a useful point that I will address in greater detail later.
Being somewhat older than the Minister, I can recall the days when the so-called Eurocrats were high on the hit list of public anger, as salaries and conditions in European institutions were perceived to be far more generous than those enjoyed at home. Some of the most highly paid officials might be relieved that they are no longer the focus of that anger as bankers and others have taken over. However, the subject of EU salaries and pensions remains important. As the European Scrutiny Committee has highlighted, it is clear that this subject needs greater clarity and resolution. As we have heard, the Commission took the Council to the Court over EU salaries and pensions in 2009, and only last month it announced its intention to do so again. In advance of today’s debate, I asked the House of Commons Library about the costs involved in the last case. I was told:
“There is no straightforward way of getting a figure for the costs borne by the Council in Case C-40/10.”
I was also told that the Library had attempted to obtain information, but the Court had said that
“replying would be a massive undertaking that will require all sorts of cost allocation analyses (within the Commission’s legal service and the European Court of Justice), at great expense to European taxpayers”.
The Court might be unable to tell us exactly how much that wrangling cost, but it is clear that any legal fight will have come at great expense to the taxpayer. The questions that taxpayers will no doubt ask is whether that ping-pong between the Commission and the Council is really the best way to resolve such matters, and I was pleased to hear the Minister refer to that. However, taxpayers will want to know exactly what the Government have done in the past year to push for reform so that we are not faced with this annual tit for tat and ongoing uncertainty.
The second area of major concern for the European Scrutiny Committee was the Commission’s decision not to provide for an alternative salary adjustment in its 2011 report and the basis on which that decision was taken. Members of the Scrutiny Committee amplified their concerns in the conclusions of their report of
There are different opinions on Europe across the political parties, and indeed within them, but there is one thing that I am sure we can agree on: times are now tough across Europe. GDP fell throughout Europe at the end of the previous quarter, unemployment in the eurozone is at a record high and we continue to face uncertainty surrounding the eurozone crisis. In reality, apart from those at the very top, people in work in both the public and private sectors are already experiencing those tough times, and families are bearing the brunt. Every day we hear that small business are struggling, and they consistently report that they cannot get the finance that they need or, indeed, previously had. It is becoming harder and harder for people to buy their first home, with the deposits required now out of reach for many young people starting out in family life.
Yet, despite that wider economic climate, the Commission did not deem the general economic outlook in Europe to be an “extraordinary situation” as defined by the European Court of Justice. Try to explain that to the low-paid couple who are set to lose about £4,000 in working tax credits when they hear that a highly paid official could gain an extra £4,000 under the proposals.
If we are not in an extraordinary economic situation, what would make for one? We have to question why it is deemed correct to ask hundreds of thousands of public sector workers in the UK and throughout Europe to take the hit and to face a cap in their pay and an uncertain future, while no similar restraint is shown by the EU institutions.
Another part of the problem is that, owing to the structure of the current arrangement, annual adjustments are implemented across the board irrespective of salary levels, meaning that a high earner who is already on £200,000 will receive thousands of pounds more under the proposals.
The Opposition have made it clear that financial discipline in the public and private sector must be accompanied by fairness, and in terms of salary scales, just as at home, we must be tougher on those at the top to help protect those at the bottom. Have the Government made representations on that point during any part of the negotiations?
I agree with the European Scrutiny Committee that the process smacks of being one-sided, and it could be argued that the Commission’s conclusion that we do not face extraordinary times has made a mockery of the exception clause, so urgent reform is clearly needed.
That brings me to my next point, and the Committee’s third area of concern: the Government’s action and representations on the issue. We hear a lot from the Government, as we have again today, about them taking a tough position on EU administrative expenditure and wanting to see real budgetary restraint in the EU over the coming years. They spell that out in their memorandum on the subject, and they go on to express dissatisfaction with the substance and procedure of the salary and pension adjustment proposals, making the point that the formal proposals were first circulated only on
Again today, although we have heard a great deal about the facts of the situation, we have not heard in detail how the Government intend that tough position to manifest itself, or who exactly they are going to be
tough on. The fear and worry for many will be that this is just another example of talk but not necessarily action on Europe by the Government, so I should like to hear from the Minister how the Government expect to take the lead in talks on reform at a time when the UK’s political capital in Europe is at its lowest in a generation.
In recent months we have seen how the Prime Minister’s actions have left Britain somewhat isolated in Europe, because leading up to last December’s summit he did not appear to put any real effort into alliance building.
The hon. Lady’s argument would gain more conviction were it not for the record of the Government whom she supported, because those issues, particularly the structural issues in terms of the European Union institutions, did not begin in May 2010. Does she think that the process she supports was improved by a previous Prime Minister giving away a huge rebate?
I have listened closely to the hon. Gentleman, but his party is now in government and it has to take responsibility for what has happened in the past year. I absolutely understand that past decisions have implications for the issue before us, but I want to focus on where we go in the future and what this Government have done in the past year. My concern is that, apart from trips to Berlin and Paris, for example, neither the Prime Minister nor the Foreign Secretary travelled to the EU’s capitals before they went to Brussels. Britain was singled out for criticism by the Foreign Minister of Poland, a country that was one of our potential allies. If we want to change things in Europe, surely we must build alliances rather than destroy them.
Just to correct the record, the Prime Minister did travel to see Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy in the run-up to the December Council and the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers had conversations with their counterparts in a number of other member states as the Council approached.
I am happy to accept that correction to the record. However, I want the House to be aware of our concern that what was presented by the UK was done very much at the last minute. I hope that in future we will spend time building alliances, rather than be sidelined.
I want to focus again on the issue of budgetary restraint. The Minister has indicated that there is an intention to be tough on Europe on budgetary restraint, but we have not seen or heard the detail today of how that will happen.
“isolated and marginalised within the European Union”.
The Italian Prime Minister, Mario Monti, has said that Britain will no longer be
“in the heart of Europe”
following the veto and that our “capacity to influence” events will be greatly diminished. The concern of people
in the wider world is that the Prime Minister has indicated that he is willing to put appeasing his own party first and the national interest second. Let us be clear about one thing: our place in Europe and our seat at the table are too important for that. To cut ourselves off from a market of 500 million customers would be devastating to British companies. In an era of billion-person countries and trillion-pound economies, we need to find ways to amplify our voice, not dampen it.
Is the hon. Lady really arguing that we should go headlong into whatever political alliances the European Union wants us to enter, just for the sake of free trade? Is it not the case that we are able to have free trade without surrendering sovereignty?
If the hon. Gentleman had been listening carefully, he would have realised that I am saying nothing of the sort. I am saying that in an era when we have to compete in a global economy, we must ensure that our voice is heard. We therefore have to take our seat at whatever table there is to put the interests of the UK forward. Where we have shared goals, such as in climate change negotiations, tackling cross-border crime and dealing with human trafficking, working together surely makes global agreements more likely. We need a mature and positive approach to Europe from the Government.
The hon. Gentleman will have heard the Leader of the Labour party say on numerous occasions that he would not have walked out of the negotiations. There was no treaty on the table at that time.
I want to move on, because this point is important. As I have said, we need a mature and positive approach to Europe from the Government. When we get the opportunity to work on a cross-party basis, we should do so. We should engage in Europe and build alliances so that when important issues come up, such as those that we are debating, we have credibility and influence among our European neighbours.
No, I want to move on. We will no doubt continue to debate the other issues that I have raised on other occasions.
To return to the topic of this debate, it is clear that the view from all parts of the House is that the issue of EU salaries and the exception clause is important. It is clear also that we simply cannot have a situation in
which the dispute between the Commission and the Council continues as an annual tit-for-tat with serious financial consequences.
I once again thank the European Scrutiny Committee for recommending that such an important issue be debated on the Floor of the House. I look forward to hearing what members of the Scrutiny Committee and other Members have to say, and to hearing the Minister’s response to the questions that I have asked specifically about what action has been taken in the past year and how Ministers propose to ensure that we do not face a similar situation at any point in the future.
I am in the unusual position of largely agreeing with not only my own party’s Front Benchers—that is always a great pleasure, if something of a rarity in European affairs—but, as it happens, the Opposition spokesman. This is a very important debate, because it indicates what is going on in the European Union. There is a complete cloud cuckoo land, which I observed when I went to the multi-annual surveillance framework meeting a few months ago.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend is nodding vigorously, because it was simply staggering. There we were, faced with a huge European financial crisis, and all people were doing was getting up, one after another, and demanding more and more money.
There is so much common ground in the House that I am happy to be brief and allow my hon. Friends to explain their points of view and concerns. I am conscious of the fact that I have had quite a few opportunities to do so. However, I wish to point out that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently signed a joint letter with Mr Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain, and other EU leaders. It is also signed by the Prime Ministers of a number of Nordic and Baltic countries, together with the Polish Prime Minister. It is about building up a sense of alliance, and it is reported in today’s Financial Times under the headline, “Cameron steps up moves to rebuild links with Europe”. I trust that that is being done on an entirely realistic basis.
For example, to return to the point that I made to the Economic Secretary, I hope that the group getting a blocking minority and voting consistently against the measures in question will include a sufficient number of member states to ensure that the Commission cannot get away with what is no more or less than the manipulation of the rather arcane formulae contained in the regulations. The European Scrutiny Committee is deeply concerned about the situation, as other Members will be.
I entirely agree that the European Commission’s analysis is faulty, and it is also completely out of date, to say the very least. I am being rather generous in saying that, because it has fitted the facts to what it wants to hear. That is why the Committee describes what it has done as “self-serving”. As my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg said, there is also the problem that the Commission is the judge and jury in its own case.
We must also consider what we might expect to get from the European Court of Justice. Serious questions often arise about whether many of its decisions are taken on too much of a political basis rather than a strictly juridical one.
On a recent visit to Brussels, I had the pleasure of meeting the civil servant who negotiated the package in question. He was absolutely up front in saying to me that his role was to do the best for his colleagues. Having done that so successfully, he was promoted. What more do we need to know to see that the EU is run for the benefit not of its members but of its staff?
Indeed, and that is far too much of an endemic problem throughout the EU. We know about the case of Marta Andreasen, who was one of the chief accounting officers in the EU some time ago and had the temerity to challenge the basis on which its administration in the Court of Auditors was being run. She was sacked. Before that, there was Bernard Connolly. I am given to understand today that in Greece the chief representative for EUROSTAT, who has to operate within its regulations, is under siege and under incredible personal pressure, and may even be taken to court because he has taken unpopular decisions.
The problem lies in the idea of acting as judge and jury and being self-serving when the whole of Europe is in a state of complete crisis. People are, frankly, lining their own pockets at public expense at a time when we know, because we have just had our letters from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, that we are not going to be given an increase, any more than are the civil servants and so forth. The disparity between what is going on in the European Union and what is going on in the domestic administration of this country is so glaringly obvious that we have every reason as a Parliament not only to debate the issue but really to put our foot down.
How are the Government approaching the negotiations on annex 11 of the staff regulations, which deals with annual salary adjustments? It strikes our Committee that the procedure by which the exception clause is being invoked is tantamount to a breach of natural justice, as the Commission, in effect, decides whether it should freeze the salaries of its own staff. I would be grateful if the Minister explained how she would like this procedure to be amended.
Would it not be natural justice for European bureaucrats to have exactly the same conditions as our own civil service, with no additional money being paid by this country so that they get an add-on to their salaries?
I certainly agree with that, and I would say the same about the European Parliament and the analogy with this House. The reality is that there is an air of unreality. In the words of T. S. Eliot,
“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
It is time that we sorted this out.
I stand together with the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, of which I am delighted to be a member, on this issue. When we have these debates, I worry about the constant references to Europe. Europe is a wonderful place; I go there for my vacations and I love everything about it. The European Union is not Europe; it is a political construct invented by someone or other and imposed on the peoples of Europe. We should always refer to the European Union, because that is what we are discussing; it does not even cover all the countries of Europe.
My hon. Friend Cathy Jamieson talked about making alliances. Some alliances are little short of conspiracies against countries’ peoples. The Greek Government are made up of PASOK, an allegedly socialist party, and New Democracy, an allegedly conservative party, standing together against their own people. In the elections, at least 43% of the population will vote for the left and probably an equal number will vote for right-wing parties that are not even represented in their Parliament. When Front Benchers start to agree with each other against their own peoples, democracy is in danger. We should sometimes take different views, and when we form alliances, we should do so on the basis of what we believe in, and not for political convenience in order to conspire.
On salaries at the European Union, I believe that senior officials there have been bought for generations. When I worked as a scribe at the TUC some 35 years ago, one of our colleagues, who was left of centre, was suddenly jetted off to Brussels to become a European Union, or Common Market, official. His salary was astronomical, and he had to pay no national taxes. It was obvious that he was plucked out so that he could be bought. The people in Brussels wanted to pick out some key people of the left from the trade union movement, which was sceptical about the Common Market, and get them over there literally to buy their loyalty.
It is not just about salaries but benefits in kind and allowances—duty-free cars and things like that. These are incredible perks that no one else in Europe gets.
This may be a light-hearted comment, but it always strikes me that people I have known who have gone to work in the European Union come back with a rather fuller figure than when they went. I may be wrong, but that is the impression I get. They are certainly loyal to their new organisation.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for consistently being right on this subject. Does he think it is rather perverse and insidious that one of the caveats attached to someone being awarded a pension by these European institutions is that they are specifically proscribed from criticising those organisations? Perhaps that is something that the Deputy Prime Minister takes on board on a regular basis.
It is a feature of all authoritarian regimes that they cannot bear criticism, particularly from the inside. In a healthy democracy, we should accept challenges from time to time. If we are governing,
it is very useful to have people telling us that perhaps we have not got it right. Even at my modest level as a Member of Parliament, I like my staff to tell me when I have got something wrong. I do not sack them; I say “I thank you for your comments, and I’ve got to think about this.” Occasionally they put me right, and sometimes I am right, but debate of that kind is always healthy in a democracy. It is anti-democratic to sack somebody simply for disagreeing or criticising. In the end, we always do things by debating and voting, one hopes, with openness and transparency.
I have a story from a few years ago. Someone I knew who was involved in Brussels arrangements drifted into a meeting unexpectedly and found senior officials discussing among themselves whom they wanted to get into the post of Social Affairs Commissioner. They openly said, “We don’t want Social Affairs to be effective because it is only there as a decoration to get trade unionists and socialists onside, so we want somebody weak and ineffectual. Who shall we have?” Eventually they found an innocuous, sufficiently weak commissioner from one of the minor eastern European countries—I will not mention the name—to make sure that the post was not effective. The person sat in the room astonished at what was going on. The officials were deciding who the commissioner was going to be, and of course it transpired that that is who it was.
That is how the European Union operates. It is very anti-democratic, secretive and closed. We cannot get a verbatim report, or any kind of report, of what goes on in the Council of Ministers. When the European Council meets, a decision is made by officials before it meets. People talk for a couple of hours in the meeting, and they come out and the decision is adopted. It was been drafted beforehand and is invariably accepted, because that is the way things work. Let us not pretend that we are involved in some thrusting, democratic organisation—it is a bureaucratic structure where people are expected to fall into line.
I would enter a caveat for low-paid staff in any organisation—cleaners, security officers, people who work in the restaurants, and so on, who should have trade unions representing them to make sure that they have reasonable pay. We are talking about the highly paid officials who are part of the slush fund of the European Union and are clearly looking after themselves, with those who believe in this organisation being prepared to turn a blind eye to their vast salaries because they want to secure their loyalty for the foreseeable future. The whole structure needs to be opened up so that we have proper democratic controls at every level.
If the European Union is serious about reducing administrative costs, the way to achieve that is to cut out some of the things that it does. For example, there would be a substantial reduction in administrative costs if we got rid of the common fisheries policy and abandoned the common agricultural policy, as we should. We have talked about the repatriation of regional policy. If Governments decided what was appropriate for their regions, moneys would not be sent directly to our regions by Brussels, but would come through our Governments. If those unnecessary activities were repatriated, the administrative costs of the EU would be dramatically reduced and it would be a much more acceptable organisation.
I support the motion and commend Mr Cash, the Chair of the Committee, for bringing it to the House.
The exemption clause states:
“If there is a serious and sudden deterioration in the economic and social situation within the Community, assessed in the light of objective data supplied for this purpose by the Commission, the latter shall submit appropriate proposals on which the Council shall act in accordance with the procedure laid down in Article 283 of the EC Treaty”,
which has subsequently changed. The EU has decided that there has never been such an exception, even though we have been through the most extraordinary economic crisis in the past few years.
Yesterday, European Committee B discussed a Commission document that states:
“EU economic growth is faltering. In the euro area, this is exacerbated by the sovereign debt crisis and fragilities in the banking sector. These have created a dangerous feedback loop.”
The Commission says that the economy faces a crisis and that it is in a “dangerous feedback loop” but that there is no reason on earth why it should consider the salaries that it and others who work within EU institutions are paid.
The Minister has said that the economic situation in this country is serious enough for a freeze in public pay, and we know that the EU prescription for Greece and other countries that face economic crisis is austerity and pay cuts, but when it comes to the EU institutions, the situation is different—they say there is no real crisis or problem, and no exceptional circumstances, and that they must therefore carry on regardless. Can that possibly be a proper, moral or respectable way for an international body to proceed?
What can the Government do about it? So far, they have rightly pointed out to the Commission that they think the circumstances are exceptional and have tried to persuade it to change the basis for raising salaries, but the Commission has refused, with the backing of the European Court of Justice, which I shall come to in a moment.
The Government could, however, take another action. Under article 336 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, Governments are entitled to change the employment terms of people employed by EU institutions. If those terms are changed, the exceptional circumstances clause could be removed or changed—the whole basis for pay increases could be changed. That is where the Government ought to start. They should say to other member states that the employment terms and conditions no longer apply and are no longer relevant for the circumstances that we face. They can do so even if the Commission objects—that is in the treaty.
On the Court, in 2009 the Council instructed the Commission to use the exceptional circumstances clause. The Commission took the council to court and won the judgment of the EU in case C-40/10. The Court held that exceptional circumstances did not exist, and therefore overrode what the Council had done and reinstated the Commission’s proposals, which was interesting. When I raised the point with a lawyer, and said, “Well, what about the judges themselves? How are they paid?”
the lawyer said, “It is inconceivable—inconceivable!—that the judges themselves could be beneficiaries of the scheme on which they had ruled.” I said, “It may be inconceivable, but is it possible to find out?”
“The terms and conditions for judges and advocates-general of the European Court of Justice…are set out in European Communities staff regulations.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 18 June 2008; Vol. 702, c. WA166.]
The staff regulations are subject to the system whereby the terms and conditions may be changed in exceptional circumstances. I therefore looked at the regulations, thinking once again that it surely cannot be true that the EU—an institution that might not be liked and loved by many, but that is thought to understand basic principles of justice—has a situation in which judges decide on their own pay rise.
I therefore looked through “Title 1: General provisions”, article 1(21)(73)(96), which sounds very scientific. The provision states:
“These Staff Regulations shall apply to officials of the Communities.”
The document goes on to state:
“For the purposes of these Staff Regulations, ‘official of the Communities’ means any person who has been appointed, as provided for in these Staff Regulations, to an established post on the staff of one of the institutions of the Communities”.
The next step was to check what exactly are the institutions of the EU, because I still could not believe that there was such an affront to justice within the EU. I would have been very surprised had the European Court of Justice turned out to be such an institution, but when I looked at article 13 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, I found that the Court of Justice of the European Union, as it is properly called, is indeed one of the institutions of the EU. And yet according to the Commission, the Court’s judges had ruled so clearly that exceptional circumstances did not exist.
I may or may not be the lawyer who described the idea that judges could be beneficiaries of a scheme on which they had ruled idea as “inconceivable”, but does my hon. Friend agree that if true, far from being inconceivable, it is utterly disgraceful?
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend because he gave me time to find the right quotation in my papers, which shows that he is even wiser and more helpful than I had thought. The Commission says that the Court found, in paragraph 74 of its judgment, that an extraordinary situation did not exist, and that it must enable
“account to be taken of the consequences of a deterioration in the economic and social situation which is both serious and sudden…under the normal method”.
The decision was that the economic and social situation was not serious and sudden enough.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the situation he has so clearly described is just one example of how incestuous the EU system has become? One layer perpetuates and supports the other. If we are to get to grips with such arrangements, the only thing the Government can do is make it clear that we will not continue to finance them?
I have great sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. We ought to start thinking about withholding money. I have long had doubts about how the EU works and the ratchet, but I had the idea that the judges—though they may have a political objective; though they may be in favour of a federal Europe; and though they may push the law to the most extreme point to make the case for a federal European state—would not break basic principles of natural justice. The principle is nemo iudex in causa sua—a famous principle judged on and upheld in this country for centuries, and not just in this country, but abrogated in the EU.
I am glad to say, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the requirement not to be rude about judges applies only to judges in this country. It does not apply to judges in the EU, so let me be rude about them. Let me indulge in the floccinaucinihilipilification of EU judges and quote from the book of Amos about them:
“For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right.”
Those are the judges of the EU. Her Majesty’s Government are right to stand up to them. They do not deserve their money and it is iniquitous that they have allowed themselves to be judges in their own cause. It is a breach of justice; it ought to be criminal.
It is a great joy to follow Jacob Rees-Mogg—although, I must say, I do not think that I can follow his eloquence, knowledge and so on.
I want to put on the record where the Democratic Unionist party stands on this issue. Members on both sides of the House have expressed their opinion on the decision to increase salaries and remuneration for those who work in the European Union. That will be financed by taxpayers from the United Kingdom at a time when we are imposing austerity measures on our own population, when our own public servants are being asked to accept pay freezes and when many people in the private sector are taking pay cuts. At the same time, the countries of the EU are telling the people of Greece, Italy and the Irish Republic that their Governments must cut back to the point that jobs are lost and salaries are cut. So for those who make and impose these decisions to then say, “By the way, we’re exempt”, will strike many people as grossly unfair and grotesque.
There must be huge anger in all EU states, which are all going through exactly the same problems as we are. I just do not understand why other countries in Europe are not as angry as we are in the Chamber about the suggested increase in salaries.
That is quite right. Any objective observer is bound to be angry about the fact that there seems to be one set of rules for those cosseted within the
structures of the EU, and another for the millions ruled by them and on whom it imposes its wishes. Social disorder is now appearing on the streets of Greece, Italy and other European countries. One can understand why people are angry at the imposition of rules by people who seem totally out of touch and by institutions that, as the hon. Member for North East Somerset clearly explained, are so incestuous in their decision making—they collaborate with each other, supporting one layer of the institution with another layer—so we are bound to get the kind of reaction we have seen.
The hon. Gentleman says that the institutions of the EU are out of touch, but of course, in the case of judges, they are also unelected and, it would seem, unanswerable to anybody. Does he agree?
That is one reason why we get the kind of decisions we get from EU judges—whether they are about whom we can deport from the UK or about pay structures for EU civil servants.
Some will say that those who take my stance simply want to have a go at Europe. I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that I am a member of the Better Off Out group. I believe that we ought to loosen our ties with the EU so that it is what was originally intended—a free-trade area, not a political entity. But I want to leave my political views aside for a moment. I am pleased that the Prime Minister has taken the stance that he has in recent days on Europe, and I hope that he does not weaken it. I hope that he keeps the strong backbone that he has shown. However, one way of hurting the EU is for us to say, “We’re not prepared to finance this grotesque behaviour in the face of the austerity affecting all the EU nations.”
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. If the Prime Minister wants his hand strengthened in his arguments with Europe on budgetary issues, and Europe’s interference with our courts and the rules affecting this country, one way of doing so is to have the backing of the people, in a referendum, for a different relationship with Europe. When one sees this kind of insular attitude being adopted, one understands why there will be increasing support for a referendum allowing for a change in the relationship.
As one who voted enthusiastically yes in the early ’70s, swept away, intoxicated by Margaret Thatcher’s endorsement of it, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that many people seeking a referendum simply wish to underline once and for all that this is no longer a question that we should return to every year, and that many of those seeking a referendum are pro-Europeans—a group among whom I proudly number myself.
Ironically, the pro-Europeans are the people who have most vigorously opposed such a referendum. If the hon. Gentleman believed what he was saying, he would join me in saying, “Let’s have a referendum.
Let’s hear what the people say”, although I suspect that he and many like him are afraid of what the people’s verdict might be. The one thing that I can be sure of is that this issue will reinforce the case that many of us in the House are making—that we ought to consider how our relationship with Europe can be altered so that we do not end up financing this kind of nonsense.
We should be grateful to the European Scrutiny Committee for throwing a spotlight on yet another example of an unconscionable lack of accountability on the part of Eurocrats at the expense of democratically elected Governments. Ostensibly, the determination of pay and pension contributions for EU civil servants is the preserve of the Council, in co-decision with the European Parliament and on the basis of qualified majority voting. That is what it says, but of course, as we have heard today in eloquent speeches from those on the Government Front Bench and, in particular, my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Commission has frustrated the will of the democratically elected and accountable politicians.
As my hon. Friend said very eloquently, at the beginning of 2011 the Council decided to invoke the exemption clause allowing for a departure from the automatic uprating of remuneration in the event of a serious or sudden deterioration in the economic or social conditions in the EU. It is fairly clear that the Commission ignored that decision but was required to publish a review after being asked to reconsider. The Commission came to the conclusion, however, that there should still be a 1.7% increase in remuneration and a cut—I repeat, a cut—in the contributions of civil servants to their pension pot. This is at a time, I hasten to add, when, in this country, owing to longevity and the rising cost of pensions, we are asking for higher contributions from public servants.
To my hon. Friend’s knowledge, has the European Union ever been asked to cut its own civil service—or has it done so itself—by such-and-such a percent, as we have had to do in this country?
I am terribly pleased that my hon. Friend asks that question. The House of Commons Library told me, about two hours ago, that spending on remuneration and pension contributions for EU civil servants from 2005 to last year went up by a staggering 63% in cash terms. So “No cuts” is the answer to his pertinent question.
When the Commission argued in the summer of 2011 that there were no triggers under the exemption clause—it argues that there was no serious or sudden deterioration in the economic or social conditions in Europe—it came up with a couple of what I can only call classics. They are comedy gold, and with your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to quote from the Commission’s report. It says:
“The forecasts released by DG ECFIN on
wait for this one—
“despite short-term indicators pointing to an ongoing slowing of economic activity in the EU, the overall growth performance for this year is still relatively strong.”
You couldn’t make this nonsense up. They are meant to be economic experts in the Commission, but they can still print, publish and stand by judgments such as that, when all the evidence to any sentient human being is to the effect that the downside risks to the EU economy are very considerable indeed.
The second comedy classic in that document is where the Commission is rebutting the call from the Council to trigger the exception clause:
“General government deficit within the EU is projected to decrease further from close to 7% in both 2009 and 2010 to 4.7% in 2011 according to the Autumn and Spring Forecasts. Fiscal consolidation is forecasted to progress with public deficits set to decline”—
the Commission was talking about the annual deficit, by the way—and, wait for this:
“even though EU public debt remains a constant concern for the EU economy at least since 2007.”
Well, you can say that again. We have seen colossal debt-to-GDP ratios right across the continent, including in this country. Added to that heady brew of incompetent economic forecasting and putting a rosy glow on a fairly dangerous economic position, the Commission prayed in aid the precedent set by the European Court of Justice, as we heard earlier, referring to the fact that the Court had ruled that the EU was not facing an extraordinary situation. So our old friend the European Court of Justice intervened, in support of the Commission.
We have already heard that the circumstances in this country and other mature industrialised economies in the EU are dire, so we should congratulate ourselves on the noticeable public constraint that this Government have imposed, introducing a two-year pay freeze, followed by two years of average rises of 1%. However, we in this country are paying very large amounts of money, as part of the net EU contribution; and as we know, that figure will go up from this year to the last year of this Parliament. This will outrage members of the British public—hard-working taxpayers who are seeing their private pensions hit, perhaps with the final salary schemes or corporate plans that they are part of closing down, as they face redundancy or lose their jobs.
It is worth reminding ourselves what contribution the British taxpayer is making to the pensions that are the subject of this evening’s motion. The cost to the British taxpayer of gold-plated pensions for retired European bureaucrats is expected to double in the next 30 years unless action is taken—by the way, those are the European Commission’s own projections. If we go further out—say, 50 years—the total contribution from Britain to EU civil servants’ pensions will be a staggering £8.5 billion, which is again a EUROSTAT figure. Many EU civil servants qualify for pensions worth up to three quarters of their final pay packet on retirement. The average annual pension for a retired EU civil servant is just under £60,000 a year. The number of retired civil servants entitled to EU-sponsored pensions is expected to increase from 17,500 this year to 37,500 in 2040. These are large amounts of money which, unless we act, will go towards financing a large pension burden.
I would like to close by reminding the House of what exactly we are getting for our money. Let us remember how utterly useless those civil servants are who do work in the new EU global diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service, and how nugatory their beneficial impact on the lives of British people is. The service will have an annual budget of £5.8 billion and an army of ambassadors across 137 embassies, with up to 7,000 European civil servants who will benefit from the arrangements that we are debating this evening. The EU will have a surprising 46 full-time diplomats in the Caribbean holiday destination of Barbados. The diplomatic corps, which was set up recently, will have 29 diplomats in Tajikistan, 53 in Madagascar, no fewer than 59 in Burkina Faso, 21 in Costa Rica, 46 in Mauritania, 39 in the Indian ocean holiday destination of Mauritius, 26 in Namibia and 27 in Papua New Guinea.
It gets even better: the tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, which has a population of around 200,000, will have six European civil servants to look after British interests, and there will be thousands more at EEAS headquarters in Brussels, and in Paris, Vienna, Rome and—let us not forget our old friend—Strasbourg.
I am coming to the end of my remarks.
We have had an interesting debate today, and I am delighted to hear from the Economic Secretary about the hard line that the Government are taking. However, I shall close my remarks by asking her to explain precisely what the next step in this story will be. We know that there is a court case. We await the details from her of when it will take place and what the likely options are if for some reason the European Court of Justice does not find in favour of the Council, which, with all its faults, is—I repeat—composed of democratically elected politicians.
I thank colleagues on both sides of the House for an interesting and consensual exchange of views. The British Parliament has clearly said today that it believes that the Commission’s proposals to increase EU staff pay are unacceptable, and that they serve only to demonstrate how out of touch the institution is with the domestic challenges that we face. This shows how important it is to act in our national interest, financially and politically.
I shall do my best to respond to the questions that have been raised in the debate. If I leave out any details, I shall attempt to furnish colleagues with that information in other ways if they so wish. I shall respond first to some of the political points that have been made. It was suggested that the Prime Minister’s actions in looking after our national financial interests could have left the UK isolated in Europe, but it is clear to most Members that he has stood up for the UK’s national interests. Indeed, even President Sarkozy said last week at the Anglo-French summit that he might have acted in the same way. In contrast, the former Prime Minister gave up a large slice of our rebate, leaving us £2 billion a year worse off, as has been ably pointed out.
Several hon. Members have asked what action the Government will take to deliver on our tough stance. In the ongoing review of the staff regulations, we are seeking to deliver savings in a number of ways: first, by cutting the package of allowances for EU staff, especially the 16% expatriation allowance; secondly, by improving the affordability of EU pensions, which I know my hon. Friend Mr Ruffley will be pleased to hear; and thirdly, by adjusting the system for EU staff pay so that we can avoid higher pay in future. That adjustment involves a complicated method with which some colleagues will be familiar.
I think that his tie and mine are from the same shop. In fact, I know they are. The hon. Gentleman read out a long list of places where he thought there should be either no representation or minimal representation, including Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea has a high level of representation because it has the second largest rain forest in the world, and it is essential to climate change work. If the EU is to perform its work effectively, it needs representation there, and I hope that the Minister will not succumb to easy attacks.
Nor will I succumb to interventions that could take us far beyond the scope of today’s debate. I know, however, that the hon. Gentleman will be particularly pleased to hear that the lobby that we have put in place to give effect to our tough stance has already had an effect. For example, the Commission, having been put under pressure, is preparing to reduce European Union staff levels by 5% between 2014 and 2020.
Returning to the actions taken in the past year to deliver the agenda for EU administrative spending, and to what we are doing on staff regulations reform, I can tell the House that the UK has been a signatory to two joint letters calling on the Commission to deliver “significant” savings in EU administrative spending over the next multi-annual financial framework. One was signed by 17 member states, and it represents a strong blocking minority, which I know my hon. Friend Mr Cash—who has moved from his place—will be happy to note. He will be pleased to know that we intend to hold that strong blocking minority together as we press for more specific changes to the way in which the EU institutions work.
I refer hon. Members to two more letters, one of which is dated
A number of questions were asked about the cost of court cases. The costs of the 2009 court case were met from existing Council budgets, as per normal standards. However, it is clearly not ideal to deal with these matters
through court cases. Clearly we need to seek deeper reform, and that is what we are endeavouring to do. I was asked whether we should distinguish between high and low earning EU staff. Other hon. Members have spoken eloquently about this today, notably in respect of the judiciary. EU officials fall into the category of highly paid officials, and we therefore think that they are a legitimate target for key financial savings.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone asked whether the Government were taking a blocking minority on the 2010 EU budget discharge. I am afraid he is still not in his place to hear my answer, but I shall be happy to discuss it with him later. At ECOFIN today, the UK voted against that; it was not, in technical terms, a blocking minority.
My hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg asked how the Commission could possibly not invoke this course of action, and said that the economic situation was patently a crisis. I know that he will welcome my agreeing with him on that. There is patently an economic crisis, and highly paid officials cannot be immune from that. I know that he will appreciate being reminded that the Delphic oracle talked about “nothing in excess”. I believe that that applies to EU salaries, and the House has eloquently agreed with me today.
Our debate today sends a clear signal that the Commission must take the challenge of modernising its institutions far more seriously and, most important, it must work harder to deliver efficiency savings in administration. Stopping an unjustified hike in EU staff pay is an obvious and good place to start, and our debate today sends a clear signal that we stand behind the principle outlined in the court case brought against the Commission for refusing to take action on the 2011 salary adjustment. Disputing higher staff pay in 2011 was not only the right thing to do; it also highlighted the fact that the current process is defunct and cannot adapt properly to difficult economic circumstances.
If the court rules in the wrong way, if there is no change, and if all our protests here come to nothing, does the Minister agree that no one in the European Union will listen unless the Government take back some of the money from the amount that we were going to pay? When are we going to do something practical to show that we mean what we say, rather than simply repeating all these warm words that never change anything?
The hon. Lady makes a fine point. I want to reassure her that the Prime Minister has worked hard during the past year to take serious action, and the Chancellor has taken serious action at ECOFIN today to demonstrate how seriously we take the improvement of the way in which the EU budget is managed and spent. The action that she suggests might be at the far end of the spectrum, but we take the full agenda very seriously none the less. We are resolved to lobby hard for cuts to EU administrative spending in future years, as part of the real freeze in the overall EU budget over the next framework. I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.