European Council — Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:12 pm on 19th October 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords 6:12 pm, 19th October 2015

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement that the Prime Minister made in the other place. I suppose that we should not be too surprised that the issue that is talked about so much outside the European Council meetings was not formally debated at this Council meeting but yet again deferred until December. I certainly understand why the Prime Minister would want that, but do the Government really understand that it is not just the British public or Conservative politicians who need clarity. Even Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has asked for greater clarity about the Prime Minister’s intentions. The problem is that it appears that the Government do not themselves know what they are proposing. That creates greater uncertainty, and when there is such uncertainty, it allows rumours and speculation to take hold.

The issue raised in the other place but not answered was on one of those rumours, concerning the protection of those working here in the UK. Both the working time directive and the social chapter have served British workers well, and I hope that the noble Baroness can confirm from the Dispatch Box that the Government also value the rights of those in employment and that the speculation that they could be undermined or scrapped is completely and totally unfounded.

Of great interest to your Lordships’ House are the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act. When the Labour Government signed up to that convention, they ensured that British citizens did not have to leave the UK to pursue their rights but could do so at in their home country within the UK legal system. It was bringing rights home. Can the noble Baroness clarify the Government’s position on this?

We support the right of national Parliaments to have a greater influence on EU legislation—and so the proposed red card mechanism. That was a commitment in our manifesto at the election and we stand by it.

We also support European co-operation on a wide range of issues. The Government have to understand that on so many issues, we need co-operate with European partners if we are to have any significant impact. I refer to issues such as crime and climate change, on which we had debates earlier in the year, corporate regulation, tax avoidance and, indeed, people trafficking. We have seen the result of that in the Mediterranean. Our acceptance and promotion of European co-operation in these areas strengthens our case for EU co-operation on refugees and Syria.

We have been clear: we do not support business as usual, we support reform. But we want to be part of that reform and have influence on it, not merely shouting from the sidelines with no credibility or influence. The noble Baroness may remember—her Chief Whip certainly will—debating the Government’s hokey-cokey of the opt-out, opt back in again to tackle the most serious and organised crime. We were disappointed that the Government’s approach was more about political management than about the important and serious issues at stake. If the Prime Minister is to have any success in his negotiations, he must be convincing that he has changed and believes in a Britain at the heart of Europe with serious influence within it.

The Leader of the House will be aware of the amendments tabled to allow 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in the EU referendum. I hope that she understands why we have tabled them. First, it concerns the future of these young people. A decision on a referendum is way beyond a decision for the next general election or council election; it is the most important of decisions, not just a one-term decision. We saw in Scotland that when young people, 16 and 17 year-olds, were engaged in the debate and decision-making about their future, they were fired up about the issue. It was the right thing to do then, and it is the right thing to do now.

I will not press the noble Baroness on the substance of the issue today, but will she think a bit further about what it really means to extend and engage that wider franchise? I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, spoke about it as being the same franchise as for a general election—“except”. One of those exceptions is that it has already changed to allow Members of your Lordships’ House to vote. I welcome that; I miss greatly not having a vote in a general election, so I welcome the fact that the law is being changed to allow me and your Lordships to vote in the referendum. But with the greatest respect to all of us here, most 16 and 17 year-olds will have to live with that decision a lot longer than we will. It will have a far greater impact on their lives. I find it difficult to accept that we in this House can have the vote but 16 and 17 year-olds cannot.

Over the weekend, I read yet again about the tragic deaths of children and their families when trying to find sanctuary. I worry that images of the distraught and the dying are becoming so regular that they no longer convey the absolute horror of the refugee crisis. There is a responsibility on all European nations to act in a co-ordinated way, first, to help the refugees but, secondly, to deal with the reasons why so many are fleeing and to try to resolve the conflict that is driving Syrians to leave their homeland.

We commend the Government on the level of aid that they have provided to refugee camps in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region. That is welcome and has been supported on all sides of your Lordships’ House. However—this is where the gap is—we must do more to aid those who have come to Europe. I understand that Turkey has now requested £2.2 billion to aid and support it in dealing with 2.5 million refugees who have come to the country. There was some information in the Statement, but can the noble Baroness tell us more about the negotiations regarding that request? What negotiations were there at the Council for all the countries of Europe to welcome their fair share of Syrian refugees?

Yvette Cooper, who is heading up Labour’s task force on refugees said:

“There is chaos at borders across Europe, people are dying and children are walking miles, sleeping in the open despite the falling temperatures. It is unbelievable we are seeing scenes like this in a continent which includes four out of the top ten richest countries in the world”.

The Minister responsible for Syrian refugees was unable to provide figures to the Home Affairs Select Committee a few days ago regarding how many Syrians were accepted under the Government’s vulnerable persons relocation scheme. The question was also asked in the other place. Can the noble Baroness update the House now on how many have been accepted? Also, European Council conclusion 2(d) states that we should be,

“providing lasting prospects and adequate procedures for refugees and their families, including through access to education and jobs, until return to their country of origin is possible”.

We have an Immigration Bill going through Parliament. To ensure that we are able to comply with those words from the European Council, can the Minister confirm that, if necessary, amendments will be made to the Immigration Bill?

If the UK played a more positive role on this front, it might create good will in Europe to make headway in the forthcoming negotiations. It is right that we take firm action against the evil trade of people smuggling and I was interested in the comments in the PM’s Statement. Can the noble Baroness provide any information about the naval operation and the Royal Navy’s role? If she does not have that information to hand today, I would be happy for her to place it in the Library. And would the Prime Minister agree that the refugee crisis will not be resolved without greater efforts from all countries, and therefore look at the UN target percentage of GDP on international development? This country has taken a lead in ensuring we meet that 0.7%. I congratulate the Government on that as well, but will the Prime Minister work with us and across the House to put pressure on other EU countries as well?

The situation in Syria, which the Statement also covered, is complex and we welcome the words of the European Council that:

“The EU is fully engaged in finding a political solution to the conflict in close cooperation with the UN and the countries of the region”.

However, the Statement also recognises,

“the risk of further military escalation”.

The humanitarian crisis has seen half the population of Syria leave their homes—millions to neighbouring countries, which have borne the greatest burden—and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians from Syria have been killed, the vast majority at the hands of Assad’s forces. Clearly, a political solution is essential and that means the world needs an answer to ISIL’s abhorrent brutality, which also threatens us here in the UK. So we need concerted action to cut off the supply of money, arms and fighters; we need a co-ordinated plan to drive back ISIL from Iraq and from Syria. The noble Baroness will be aware that if the Government were to consider working with their allies to establish safe zones within Syria, some of the millions of displaced people could return to their homes, humanitarian aid could get in, and we could stop the killing that has gone on for far too long. When I listened to the Statement in the other place, I heard the PM’s response to the request to urgently seek a new UN Security Council resolution on a comprehensive approach including action against ISIL. I thought his response was disappointing, so can the noble Baroness say whether there have been any discussions at all with the Security Council members?

Finally, with regard to Libya, the European Council conclusions state that:

“The EU reiterates its offer of substantial political and financial support to the Government of National Accord as soon as it takes office”.

Can the Minister give us any indication on the possible timescale and process for this to take place?

The Statement refers to promoting national and economic security. Will the noble Baroness agree that promoting British influence in European decision-making is also important?