Clause 6 — Parliamentary control of decisions

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 8:00 pm on 4th March 2008.

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Photo of Jim Murphy Jim Murphy Minister of State (Europe) 8:00 pm, 4th March 2008

My hon. Friend has continued to argue that case strongly, today and on previous occasions. We continue to support the further liberalisation of the postal services of other member states. A suggestion was made earlier that there had been a derogation from the proposal, but that is not the case. There has been a two-year delay, particularly for some of the newer member states, to ensure that they can adapt and make progress in that regard. It is because we have taken a decision in the UK Parliament—not with unanimous agreement, of course—to liberalise our own postal network that we believe it important for the UK postal network and other carriers to be able to compete in the European market. We therefore remain committed to liberalisation across the rest of the European Union.

Many points were made about the post office network, and about individual post office closures. The fact remains, however, that the Government are committed to putting £150 million a year in subsidy into the network. That is in great contrast to the fact that the Conservatives never put in a penny piece of subsidy when they were in government. Although there is not unanimity on some of the concerns that have been raised, I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth—by the tone and the content of my response to his amendments—that we take these matters very seriously indeed.

One of the assertions underpinning my hon. Friend's comments concerned the potential disconnect between European Union leaders and the citizens of the EU. The fact is that we have spent seven years debating this treaty and the old constitution while China's economy has continued to grow to remarkable levels and the challenges from Russia have started to become apparent. That is why it is important that the European Union collectively has said that the period of institutional change must come to an end, and that there will be no further treaties for the foreseeable future.

With the permission of the Committee I shall turn to the more specific amendments to clause 6. We have set out provisions on the so-called passerelles that allow member states, by unanimity, to make one-off changes to the treaty. The Government's position on amending provisions is clear. Such provisions can, and could, be beneficial to the UK if we wanted to make a change to the treaty—for example, a minor change to the EU's machinery—without a full-blown intergovernmental conference. The Government's view is that we are unlikely to want to use that option often, but amending provisions to move treaty powers to qualified majority voting have been around not since the Maastricht treaty, as was suggested earlier, but since the Single European Act. They have been used on only one occasion since then. No responsible Government would say, in the abstract, that their use could never be in the UK's interest, as amendment No. 18—tabled by Mr. Hague—suggests.

Points were raised about prior control in regard to moves to QMV or co-decision. As the Prime Minister promised on 22 October 2007, we have before us in the Bill a series of attempts to change the mechanism of parliamentary control. Amendment No. 47, tabled by the right hon. Member for Wells, seeks to change the Bill so that the Government would be compelled to "vote against", rather than not being able to vote for, any of the listed measures, if Parliament had given its approval. But that is exactly what we would be doing. Under clause 6, the Government

"may not vote in favour of or otherwise support a decision" to use any of the listed amending provisions. An abstention would not prevent a measure from being adopted. That is important in regard to the specifics in the Bill. The words

"may not vote in favour" relate to when the European Council votes on an issue, based on unanimity. The words "otherwise support" relate to when the Council seeks to come to a decision by consensus. That relates to not being able to abstain when there is an attempt to reach a decision based on consensus. If the European Council sought to come to a decision based on consensus, the provision in clause 6 would mean that we would have to vote to break that consensus by not abstaining. That is the important protection contained in clause 6(1).

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