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Clause 6 — Parliamentary control of decisions

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 10:15 pm on 4th March 2008.

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Photo of Jim Murphy Jim Murphy Minister of State (Europe) 10:15 pm, 4th March 2008

I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to the debate on this group of amendments. I am delighted, too, that Sir Nicholas Winterton has taken part in the debate because, like everyone in the House, I hold him in great regard. We disagree on Europe, but he was frank enough to acknowledge his in-principle objection to our continued membership of the European Union. He is an entirely reasonable man, so I hope that he accepts the way in which I have tried to engage in these debates over the past month or so. My record in recent years shows that I hold the House in great regard, and I would like the Chamber to continue to play an important role in national life. I have genuinely spoken about that in the past, and did so even before I became Minister for Europe.

The hon. Member for Macclesfield rightly paid tribute to the informed and relatively brief tutorial on the treaties by Mr. Cash, who took us back to 1649, up and down St. George's hill and everything else. We enjoyed his interventions, too. At the beginning of the debate, we heard about the paucity of attendance by Labour Back Benchers. There was one contribution from a Labour Back Bencher, and I am reminded never to confuse Back-Bench attendance with support. We heard from Sir Patrick Cormack, whom I also hold in great personal regard. Although we had a limited opportunity to hear from Mr. Duncan Smith, I am glad that he is here and has heard me say so. I am pleased, too, that Mr. Davies is in the Chamber. Unbeknown to most hon. Members, he has quietly and patiently paid great attention to the detail of our debate. As the Committee will acknowledge, he is a one-man band—that is not meant disparagingly—and he has paid great attention to the detail of the treaty.

Clause 6(2) provides that, if any draft decision under the listed provision comes before the European Council or the Council, the UK may not agree to the adoption of the decision unless parliamentary approval has first been given. Approval must be signified by the agreement of both Houses of Parliament to motions approving the Government's intention to support the decision as it was received. Clause 6(3) provides flexibility, if Parliament agrees, to allow the Government to agree a text that is worded differently from the motion approved by Parliament.

There are two scenarios. In the first, a Minister asks Parliament to agree a motion under subsection (1)(g) on a straight yes-no question. That is the basis of the amending measures or passerelles, and it provides the House with an opportunity to decide a yes-no question. There is no flexibility built into that first scenario. If, after the Minister asks Parliament to agree the motion, Parliament says no, the motion falls. If Parliament assents, the motion is agreed and the Minister can take it forward.

In the second scenario, a Minister asks Parliament to agree a motion, for example under subsection (1)(g), with flexibility built in. The Minister asks Parliament to agree to the motion. If Parliament says no to the motion, it falls, but if it says yes, the motion is agreed. The Minister would have to return to the House to confirm that the Government had voted in line with the parameters granted by either House on the amended motion. As for the specifics of clause 6, as I have suggested, the Bill goes much further than it needs to in terms of the ratification of the treaty.

In my conversations with Europe Ministers in many Governments across the EU, I have discovered that the UK, in ratifying the Lisbon treaty, is alone in taking the opportunity to enshrine the right of Parliament, in both Houses, to make the decision on prior assent. I think that there are nine passerelle clauses.

A parliamentary lock is set out in the treaty on three of the nine passerelles in the Bill, namely the two general passerelles and the passerelle on family law with cross-border implications. In those three passerelles, where the treaty requires parliamentary approval or adoption in line with national constitutional requirements, national Parliaments would only have the chance to object after a decision has been made. The Bill gives us the opportunity to go much further than the treaty envisaged with a further lock on six passerelles, which have no parliamentary lock under the treaty—I suspect that the Committee will thank me if I do not go into the detail of each of those locks, although I will do so if that is what hon. Members want.

The European Union has agreed that the process of continuing reform on IGC processes and treaties must end. Passerelles represent a safety valve inside that declaration, for example, to ensure a minor change for the amending of the treaties without going through a full-blown IGC process. Those passerelle processes are not new, because they were agreed in 1986 in the Single European Act. Before the Single European Act, there was no opportunity enshrined in legislation for either House of Parliament to have prior assent in the exercise of passerelles. We are the first Government in the European Union of whom I am aware to use the process to ensure that the powers are enshrined to Parliament. This is also the first time in UK law that a Government have sought the opportunity in ratifying a treaty to ensure the prior assent of either House of Parliament on passerelles.

Passerelles are potentially important. The one implementation of passerelles concerned the creation of a European order of payment, which has simplified procedure for court judgments on uncontested claims and established a small claims procedure for disputes involving less than €2,000. With the right framework to ensure Parliament's prior assent, passerelles are an important way to make minor changes given the end of the IGC process for new treaties.

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