EU: Fundamental Rights Agency

– in the House of Lords at 11:10 am on 23rd March 2006.

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Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch Conservative Independent 11:10 am, 23rd March 2006

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they support the establishment of the European Union's fundamental rights agency in Vienna.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, the Government welcome the Commission's proposal to establish a European fundamental rights agency. There are at present no such bodies to assist Community institutions.

Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch Conservative Independent

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, which is, however, rather alarming if we recall that, before the French and Dutch votes on the EU constitution, Mr Keith Vaz told us that the Charter of Fundamental Rights would have no more force than the Beano, and the Prime Minister assured us that the charter would not be justiciable in the Luxembourg court. Therefore, is the Minister aware that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor admitted in Starred Questions on 14 December that the Luxembourg court was already starting to take note of the charter in its judgments and that her noble friend Lord Triesman, in a Written Answer on 11 January, revealed that the legal basis for the agency had not yet been agreed? If the Government stand by those replies, do they not mean that the whole awe-inspiring fundamental rights initiative, which seeks to impose EU law on our economy, employment, welfare, education, health, environment and culture, is taking place in a legal vacuum?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, the fundamental rights agency will be based on Article 308, with which I think the noble Lord is familiar. It is a kind of catch-all provision that is being used sparingly—in this case, I believe, appropriately—to establish an agency the purpose of which will be to support institutions, not least the Commission, perhaps by looking at legislation rather as governments here look at their legislation to see whether it is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. As the Prime Minister said, the charter remains what I would describe as the backdrop to what we do; it does not have legal force.

Photo of Lord Tomlinson Lord Tomlinson Labour

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that even the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, on the law of averages, is bound sometime to come to a correct conclusion, even if it is for totally wrong reasons? Does she agree that there is no European human rights agency, merely a proposal for one? Does she also agree that such a proposal is somewhat ill founded, as such an agency is unnecessary, because the work that it would cover would conflict with the work that is already being done over a wider number of nation states by the mechanisms of the Council of Europe? Will she therefore use all her energies in the council to ensure that the proposal is resisted?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, during the UK presidency of the European Union I spent many a happy hour with the LIBE committee in the European Parliament, which has responsibility for this. The role of the Council of Europe was addressed seriously there, as indeed it has been addressed in my discussions with the House of Lords Select Committee and with colleagues from other European states. I was in the Netherlands last week discussing this very issue. My noble friend is right: there is a serious issue to be worked through about the relationship between the work of the Council of Europe and the fundamental rights agency.

Photo of Lord Grenfell Lord Grenfell Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, as the Minister is aware, the proposal for a fundamental rights agency has for the past five months been under intense scrutiny by Sub-Committee E of the European Union Select Committee, under the very able chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood. Indeed, the Minister has given useful evidence to it. Are Her Majesty's Government aware that the committee plans to publish its report within the next two weeks? Will the Minister confirm that the Government will, as usual, give it careful and, we hope, sympathetic consideration? In accordance with the House's scrutiny reserve resolution, will the Government not take a final position on the proposal until they have fully studied the report and commented on it?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I spent a happy two and a half hours before the committee, which was extremely useful because, as the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, says, the committee has huge expertise. I hope that the committee found it as useful as I did. I can confirm that we will consider carefully what the committee has said. It is our understanding that the Austrian presidency wishes to bring this to a conclusion in the final Council in June. It will be dealt with by the main Council, not by Justice and Home Affairs, because of the way in which the agency has been put forward. We will indeed have high regard for what the committee says.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Leader, Parliament, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, will the Minister agree that even the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, occasionally, and generously, strikes a note of consensus? He is absolutely right in some of his concerns. It is correct that the new commission is yet to be set up. However, the Charter of Fundamental Rights sort of hangs in the ether—not embodied in any treaty, because there is no treaty—and yet it has been made clear that the European Court of Justice will take account of the propositions in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Can the Minister explain what the real status is and whether the ECJ is right in taking that stance? If not, should we not say so?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, the description that I used was "backdrop"; perhaps another description would be "a reference document". As the noble Lord will be aware, the UK Government approached the discussions on the European constitution by referencing all the charter issues back to national legislation. Indeed, my understanding is that, when the European Court of Justice looks at the questions it addresses, it will look at the charter in that context. There is nothing unusual in that. We are very firm in what we have said in the context of it being a reference document.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Deputy Leader, House of Lords, Spokesperson in the Lords, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs

My Lords, does the Minister accept that we have no difficulty with the European Union looking at fundamental rights issues across an EU of 25—shortly to be 27? It is rather anomalous that the European Union imposes conditions about human rights, prisons, judges, and so on, on applicant members, but that those conditions start to weaken once they become members. So there is an appropriate role for such an agency. The question is very much about how it is set up, if it is to be set up, how it relates to the existing Council of Europe agency, and the problems of duplication in human rights courts and agencies that are beginning to emerge with the increasing overlap between the Council of Europe and the European Union.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord: there are real issues about duplication and scope. Noble Lords will be aware that, certainly in the six months that I spent dealing with this, there was no sense of unanimity across the Council or the Parliament—so of course it would be the Council's decision—on either of those questions. I say again that there are real concerns about the relationship with the Council of Europe. There is a recognition that the charter has a role to play, but it is not a legal role. We have to be clear that if the fundamental rights agency comes into being, it must have an absolutely clear remit that does not overlap.