The House of Commons debated yesterday the UK’s 2014 justice and home affairs opt-out decision. Bill Cash made the following speech and interventions:
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UK’s 2014 justice and home affairs opt-out decision.
We return once more to the important issue of the United Kingdom’s opt-out decision in relation to justice and home affairs matters under the Lisbon treaty—an issue that not only raises important questions about the protection of individual rights, but that directly affects our law enforcement agencies’ ability to work with their EU counterparts to keep British citizens safe. It is an issue in which a number of right hon. and hon. Members have taken a keen interest, and the Government are grateful to them for their work in this area so far, not least the Select Committees on Home Affairs and on Justice and the European Scrutiny Committee, before all of which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and I have appeared on a number of occasions.
Those Committees have produced many valuable reports on the 2014 opt-outs. Their most recent was a joint report that was published on 26 March, in which they expressed the view that the Government have not engaged properly with Parliament on this issue. We deeply regret that they take that view and respectfully disagree. The Government have strongly supported and, indeed, encouraged Parliament’s scrutiny of this important matter from the very start of the process. I made an initial statement in October 2012 because the Government considered it important to communicate their proposed direction of travel at an early stage to enable scrutiny of the position to take place. That was in line with standard practice on EU police and criminal justice matters.
Since then, the Government have invited the Committees to play their part in this important work and have supported them in doing so. Well over 12 hours of ministerial time have been committed to giving evidence before the Committees. The Government have also submitted written evidence to inquiries and corresponded with the Committees on a regular basis. In addition, we have answered more than 300 parliamentary questions on this matter.
None the less, we take the Committees’ disappointment seriously. In the light of their disappointment and the views of other right hon. and hon. Members, the Government have allocated time this afternoon for the House to debate this important issue once again.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): I endorse what the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee said with one qualification. It is not just a question of whether Parliament is given the opportunity to deliberate before decisions are taken behind closed doors, but a question of whether Parliament is, in effect, being asked to rubber stamp something that has already been decided in negotiations behind those closed doors. The problem is one of the matter therefore being hidden from the searching gaze of the public and Parliament itself.
Mrs May: Of course, by definition, the Government’s role is negotiating with the parties I have just indicated—the Council, the Commission and the member states—on those measures to which they agree it is possible for us to opt back into. That process, which takes some time, has been put in motion. I will describe where we are a little later but, by definition, the process must be undertaken by the Government. We have been clear that we will come back to Parliament, which will have the opportunity to debate and vote on the package of measures.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) is well aware, we have indicated the measures on which we wish to opt back in. The discussions are in place with the European Commission and the other member states as to their views—whether or not they wish the UK to opt back in—and any other matters they wish to discuss with us as part of that negotiation.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: Before my right hon. Friend leaves the subject of proportionality, may I ask whether she has seen reports in today’s papers about a meeting of the Council of Ministers at which the French and Germans have indicated that they do not think that the proportionality test meets the requirements of European law?
Mrs May: I am aware of the report in today’s press, but I do not think that it referred to a Council of Ministers meeting. It may have referred to a document that possibly had been leaked from the European Commission. I say to my hon. Friend that, as I have made very clear, there are matters for discussion and matters for negotiation that we have to undertake as we go through this process, but other member states do have within their own systems a greater ability to deal with issues such as proportionality, and I think it is right that we have taken powers ourselves within our own legislation to do that.
Returning to my point, I think it is in our national interest to have an effective extradition system in place and no other extradition system would be as effective. We owe it to the victims of crime, and their families, to return the alleged perpetrators of serious crimes to this country and ensure that they face justice. There are many examples of that, of which I will cite only a few. The arrest warrant recently helped the British authorities to secure the extradition and conviction of Francis Paul Cullen, a former priest who sexually assaulted seven children before spending more than two decades on the run in Spain. Thanks to the European arrest warrant, he will now swap the Spanish sun for a 15-year term in a British jail. (…)
Mrs May: The argument I make in relation to the European arrest warrant is on both those aspects of its operation. I have just cited a case where there was an issue of whether an individual would have been able to be extradited back to the UK had we not had the European arrest warrant. There are other cases where it is a matter of fact that the European arrest warrant has been able to be exercised more quickly on average than extraditions were before the EAW was in place. So it is not just that there are people who would not come back unless we had the EAW; it is that it also smoothes the process and makes this quicker and brings people here to justice quicker.
Mr Cash: The Home Secretary has given us a number of indications of concerns that have arisen in some member states. Is she conscious of the fact that the French have said the UK requirements risk imposing an undue burden on other member states, that the Germans raise serious doubts about compatibility with European law, that Spain says the Legal Service should give its opinion and that the Dutch have said that there are a number of fundamental and practical problems? Is it not all rather running into the sand?
Mrs May: No it is not, and I have to say to my hon. Friend that he is not party to the discussions that we are party to, but I am interested that he mentions Germany because it is one of the countries that has a greater ability to deal with the proportionality issue than the United Kingdom. As I say, there are other member states who have themselves already, either automatically because of their constitution or because they have taken powers, taken steps to ensure they can deal with the very issues we are dealing with in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act I referred to earlier.
Florian Baboi is a Romanian national who was returned to the UK from Romania under an arrest warrant to stand trial for the murder of David McArthur in Birmingham in August 2011. He was found guilty in May 2012 and sentenced to life in prison. That is another case where the EAW has helped to bring dangerous offenders to justice.
So it is unsurprising that the Association of Chief Police Officers’ evidence to the Home Affairs Committee made clear its view that the arrest warrant is an “essential weapon” in the fight against serious criminality. This view was echoed by the outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions, who was clear that the streamlined process of the arrest warrant makes it easier to bring serious criminals back to face justice. I agree wholeheartedly with those assessments.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): Before I get into the substance of the arguments on the matter before us, I would like to refer to the letter that the Chairmen of the European Scrutiny Committee, the Home Affairs Committee and the Justice Committee received yesterday. It is addressed to each of us and it comes from the Secretary of State for Justice and the Home Secretary. It begins by saying that they would like to express their gratitude for the continued work of our Committees with regard to the 2014 opt-out decision.
It then says:
“We have noted and considered your joint report. We deeply regret your collective view that the Government’s engagement has not been satisfactory on this matter. However, our view on the Government’s engagement with Parliament has not changed.”
There we have it. The letter goes on to say: “As you will know, we intend to hold a general debate on Government time on 7 April”— that is today.
The letter continues:
“For the avoidance of doubt, we reaffirm our commitment to hold a second vote in both Houses of Parliament before making a formal application to rejoin any measures.”
However, it may be noted that that does not state that the second vote would take place before the negotiations have been finalised. I will come on to that in my subsequent remarks.
The difficulty that we face is that this matter has, to a very considerable extent, been a poor substitute for the debate that the European Scrutiny, Home Affairs and Justice Committees requested. This is the first time ever that all members of three independent, all-party Select Committees have unanimously agreed to a joint report on an unprecedented scale. The debate would give Parliament a genuine say and vote in determining which measures the Government should seek to rejoin before—I repeat, before—embarking on negotiations with the Commission and Council.
The motion that we are invited to support today merely refers to the consideration of the United Kingdom’s
“2014 justice and home affairs opt-out decision.”
That decision was considered in Parliament last July, when the Government secured a majority for their recommendation to exercise the UK’s block opt-out of around 130 pre-Lisbon police and criminal justice measures.
The real question for us now, surely, is what the Government—a coalition Government who are largely taking account of considerations on EU matters which have been pushed forward by members of the Liberal Democrat party—will do about the 35 matters that are now up for rejoining.
The Prime Minister formally notified the Council of the UK’s decision to exercise the block opt-out on 24 July 2013. All the measures subject to that block opt-out will, as a result, cease to apply to the United Kingdom on 1 December 2014, unless, crucially, the United Kingdom submits a formal application to rejoin some of them.
Command Paper 8671, which was published merely a matter of days before the debate last July, includes a list of 35 measures that the Government say they seek to rejoin. I have to say, without prejudice to my differences of opinion with the shadow Home Secretary, that some of the cases that she put forward demonstrate that the issues are, in many instances, not quite as substantial as some might have imagined.
The motion that the Government wanted the House to approve last July would have endorsed the Government’s recommendation to enter into formal negotiations with the Commission and the Council on the list of the 35 measures, pre-empting any further consideration of the content and significance of those measures by the House and its Select Committees.
The Home Secretary came to the Floor of the House and I said at the time that I thought she was making the problem considerably worse by what she was saying. My intervention as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, together with the Chairmen of the Home Affairs and Justice Committees, ensured that the House had the opportunity to consider the matter further, and was informed by the reports that all three Committees undertook to produce.
The need for further detailed consideration by Parliament cannot be doubted. The report by my Committee concluded that the list of measures was “incoherent”, and that it bore all the hallmarks of coalition politics rather than a serious analysis of the merits of each measure, or a careful balancing of the benefits of participation in extremely sensitive areas affecting fairness, liberty and justice, which are and should be accorded to individual United Kingdom citizens, and that the benefits of that participation should be set against the risks associated with accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
Mr Redwood: Will my hon. Friend confirm that this is a desperately serious matter because if we opt in to any of these things, those subjects are no longer under the control of the House and the British people?
Mr Cash: Indeed, and not only that, those people are no longer able to have recourse to our courts system in the same way that they would have done because the European Court of Justice, once it has made an adjudication and a judgment, binds our Supreme Court. Moreover, under section 3 of the European Communities Act 1972, it also binds this Parliament. That is why, with respect to the charter of fundamental rights, we said in a report that we published only last week that the situation was so serious. We voluntarily entered into the Act in 1972, and I emphasise the word “voluntarily” because what is entered into voluntarily can be adjusted later.
Those two features led us to conclude, in respect of the conflict on the perception of the charter of fundamental rights, that the then Prime Minister, who specifically stated on 27 June 2007 that it was absolutely clear that the charter of fundamental rights was an opt-out, was wrong. Furthermore, he was not only wrong but, in effect, contradicted by the Attorney-General of the time when he gave evidence to us only a few weeks ago.
The consequence of this, which is extremely serious, is that we have an Act of Parliament that is covered in confusion, with some judges saying one thing and other judges saying another. As there is no doubt that the charter applies to the United Kingdom, the only way of dealing with this is not, with respect to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice, by having another legal challenge, as he proposes, but by amending the 1972 Act, because the situation is so serious that we have to bring in primary legislation in order to get it right in the interests of the people of this country.
All the rights contained in the charter overlap with rights of the sort that people in this country, as citizens of the United Kingdom, would expect to be accorded to them. These are the kinds of matters that arise in respect of what we are considering as a result of the whole question of the 35 measures.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is right. One of the key issues now is how many opt-ins there should be. I would probably err on the side of there being more than 35. He probably errs on the side of there being fewer than 35. The Commission might want to say that there have to be 53, or none. Who knows what the end result of all this will be? What I do not understand—perhaps he will be able to explain it, because he knows the Home Secretary’s mind better than I do—is why on earth the Government would not want an amendable motion to be presented to the House before they start the negotiation so that they know beforehand that they have Parliament behind them.
Mr Cash: I am rather attracted to the idea of an amendable motion. Indeed, in effect, I have just said so myself. If we have a vote beforehand, the coalition Government will know what Parliament thinks.
The Home Secretary clearly indicated that the Government must have a free hand in entering into these negotiations. In an intervention, I mentioned the complications involved in this and its rejection, or apparent rejection, by several countries. I referred to Spain, Germany, France and Holland, and there are others that say that the matter should be put to a referendum. The situation is so complex, and running so far into the sand, that it would be a good idea, in these very special circumstances, to discuss the question of a block opt-out. It is very important that Parliament should be given the opportunity to vote on an amendable motion before the negotiations are concluded. It is particularly important as we get down to discussing the finer detail of precisely what should be done in the interests of fairness, liberty and justice for individual citizens, who will be bound by these Court decisions against which there will be no appeal. Unless this is subject to an amendment of the 1972 Act, there will be no way of retrieving the situation to protect those citizens.
Sir Gerald Howarth: I am very exercised about the application of the role of the European Court of Justice. As my hon. Friend will know, I asked the Home Secretary to what extent the safeguards she has secured with regard to the European arrest warrant will be respected by the ECJ. Does he have a view on that?
Mr Cash: Yes, I am deeply concerned about the matters that my hon. Friend raises. Indeed, the whole question of the role of the European Court of Justice is a matter of great concern, not only in this country but in many other countries of the European Union. I will not go all the way down the route of discussing the role of the Court. However, there are issues about who is qualified to be members of the Court and whether members of our own Supreme Court are entirely satisfied with the nature of the decisions that come out of it, just as they are concerned about questions regarding the European Court of Human Rights.
The reports of all three Committees are tagged to today’s debate, as is a joint report castigating the Government for their refusal to allow Parliament a debate and vote on the measures the United Kingdom should seek to rejoin before negotiations begin with the European Union institutions.
Dr Huppert: I presume the hon. Gentleman would accept that it is much harder for someone to negotiate when their hands are tied. Will he reassure me that he is not trying to ensure that we leave everything by making all the negotiations so difficult that they simply cannot be brought home? Is that what he is trying to achieve?
Mr Cash: What I am saying is that voting in this House is a test of our democracy. We have already had ample opportunity to consider the ramifications of the block opt-out and we now know the 35 matters in question. Given the importance of those issues to UK citizens, those who represent their individual constituencies in this House should now have the opportunity to vote on them. That is a matter of principle and it is also a matter of democracy. Once the decisions become irrevocable, the reality is that they will be binding, through the European Communities Act 1972, in a way that would not be the case if this were a general debate about home affairs policy.
This debate is tied to the role of the European Court of Justice, against which there is no appeal.
Why have the Government set their face against an open, transparent and informed debate and vote on these measures before negotiations are concluded? In the absence of any convincing explanation from the Government—I say with great respect to the Secretaries of State that we have not had one—we are compelled to conclude that the risk of unravelling a carefully crafted coalition deal weighs more heavily than the desire for democratic accountability. Such an approach is inimical to this House’s European scrutiny system, which is based on our Standing Orders and on early analysis and assessment of the legal and policy implications of EU policies and legislation so that Parliament has a genuine opportunity to influence not only the Government’s position in negotiations, but their outcome as well.
In this case, however, the position is reversed. As I said in an intervention, Parliament will simply be asked to rubber stamp the outcome of negotiations that are being held behind closed doors and hidden from the searching gaze of the public and Parliament. Negotiations are being held behind closed doors not only by the Council of Ministers and the European institutions, but by the coalition itself. We do not know the basis on which these decisions have been reached. It is a double whammy.
Pete Wishart: The hon. Gentleman needs to forget about the Liberals, because there is a big elephant sitting in the room and its name is Nigel. Does the hon. Gentleman think that growing support for the UK Independence party has been a factor in the way in which this process has evolved?
Mr Cash: I do not think so. The driving force behind the arguments being made by the Conservative part of the coalition from the Back Benches is based on objective analysis in the interests of democracy, transparency and accountability in Parliament. Mr Farage cannot deliver anything, because he does not have one Member of Parliament. He cannot change one word of legislation—he can do nothing about any of this. I know that the situation is uncomfortable for the Secretaries of State at this moment in time, but I know for a fact that they will agree emphatically that the United Kingdom Independence party can achieve absolutely nothing. They know perfectly well that Conservative Back Benchers can achieve something. As in relation to many other European matters, Conservative Back Benchers can, by doing what we are doing now—working towards, we hope, a listening Government and listening Secretaries of State—achieve the results that we need, in the interests of the country as a whole. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s very useful question.
Mr Redwood: So do not make that mistake.
Mr Cash: Let us be in no doubt about that, as my right hon. Friend and distinguished colleague says—and more power to his elbow.
Let us for a moment return to first principles and remind ourselves why the United Kingdom, alone among member states, has a block opt-out. In this context, it is worth remembering that we do not of course have a written constitution, and that gives us flexibility, unlike every other member state. We are not therefore insular or isolationist in taking such a view; as I know both Secretaries of State will appreciate, we are exercising our democratic right to express our views in a free forum—this House of Commons, to which we are elected to represent our constituents—and, as Chairmen of three significant Select Committees, we have worked together on an all-party basis to agree a view on a matter of such importance.
United Kingdom Governments of all political persuasions have been wary of extending the full jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice to EU police and criminal justice measures—that has been true of Governments of all parties—because they have recognised that conferring primacy on a court beyond the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, and of our Supreme Court and of this Parliament, is a very profound and grave constitutional step.
Whatever views may be expressed in the debate—some will perhaps advocate opting back in to a far wider range of measures, while others will say, “None at all”; and when it comes to the vote, there may be splits and fragmentations in political parties on both sides of the House—I say to the Secretaries of State that surely we can all agree on the significance of the negotiations on which the Government are about to embark and the vital need for Parliament to have a genuine say and vote at the right time, before the negotiations have been concluded, on a matter of profound practical and constitutional significance, which bears very heavily on the liberty of the subject. What matters now is not what we have opted out of, but what measures we propose to rejoin. I ask my right hon. Friends to consider this very carefully: this is the time for the Government to think again.
On the basis of the leaks and information about the discussions that come through to us in various shapes and forms, I have referred to what has been happening in many countries throughout the European Union, and I understand that very little headway has been made in negotiations so far. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary shakes her head. Perhaps she would like to get up and tell us that everything is going fine.
I trust that today’s debate will cause the Government to think again and allow Parliament to vote on these important measures before the negotiations are concluded. This matter of principle needs to be settled not after the horse has bolted, but now, so I tell my right hon. Friends that this is the moment. This serious matter is of grave concern to many of our citizens, and this is the time to think again. (…)
Mr Cash: The hon. Gentleman raises the question of those people for whom the word “Europe” raises all kinds of spectres. [Interruption.] Well, he got very close to it. He is only repeating Bismarck in the late 19th century, when he said, “Whenever anybody uses the word ‘Europe’, I then realise what they are up to.”
Dr Huppert: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that enlightening quote. He can choose to describe himself how he likes. (…)
Mr Cash: Many examples have been given of perceived injustices as a result of the European arrest warrant being applied in other countries. For example, is my hon. Friend aware that, under the European arrest warrant, a man from a neighbouring Staffordshire constituency was convicted in Italy, in absentia, for a murder that he could not have committed, because he was serving in a restaurant at the time, and sentenced to 15 years? It is definitely not just a one-way street.
Mark Reckless: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that example to the attention of the House. It goes to show that in principle we cannot sign up to the European arrest warrant, because we do not have a sufficient degree of trust in the similarity and protections of all EU 27 judicial and policing systems to allow us to do that. People in our country deserve and have had, over centuries, protections that are greater than those now offered within the European arrest warrant. It is for that reason that I hope and believe that it is still possible that we will choose not to opt back into it. (…)
Jacob Rees-Mogg: Does my hon. Friend agree that this issue is of such constitutional importance that it might be better to delay it until after a general election? If we did not exercise the opt-ins, and if the Liberal Democrats left the coalition and we had an early election, there would be no great harm in that.
Mark Reckless: My hon. Friend has made a very sensible point. I think that, as we get nearer to the election, we need to differentiate between what we believe in as Conservatives and what we have been forced to agree to by the need to be in harness with the Liberal Democrats. Given that they have not fulfilled their promises to us, and as we discover in the course of our negotiations with our European partners that we may not be able to secure protections in every area in which we would like to secure them, we shall have to consider, in those new circumstances, the balance of the opt-ins that are proposed, and decide whether we, as Conservatives, wish to agree to them.
Mr Cash: There is yet another example. The Liberal Democrats and the Labour party agreed to allow the European Union (Referendum) Bill, presented by the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), to complete its passage in the House of Commons, but when it reached the House of Lords, those same two parties made certain that it would not be passed, and we now understand that the Liberal Democrats are refusing to allow a money resolution to be tabled in respect of any future Bill that may be subject to the Parliament Acts. Mark Reckless: I think the Liberal Democrats will ultimately find that as we act to others, so they will act to us.
Mr Cash: Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that on 27 June 2007—the very day on which he handed the reins of power to his successor—the former Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, stated that it was absolutely clear that we had an opt-out from the charter of fundamental rights, and also from justice and home affairs. What he did not mention was the fact that the overall system contained a power to rejoin.
Sadiq Khan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for reminding us all of his excellent memory of historical facts and dates. I am afraid that I cannot comment on that particular remark by Tony Blair, although I can comment on most of his remarks. (…)
Mr Cash: My right hon. Friend might recall giving evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee in respect of the charter of fundamental rights, which has a significant overlap in relation to the rights of the citizen and which, of course, relates indirectly to the European convention on human rights. This is very special, however, because Labour actually wanted to prevent the charter of fundamental rights from applying in the United Kingdom and took what the then Prime Minister described as a clear opt-out. However, my right hon. Friend knows that we now have an Act of Parliament saying one thing and a Court of Justice ruling saying another. What is he going to do about that? Is he going to adopt our proposal to amend the European Communities Act?
Chris Grayling: Let us be clear: what the last Government said about the charter of fundamental rights was simply an untruth. There are many quotes in which they clearly talked about an opt-out from the charter, but that opt-out does not exist. We on the Government Benches have our differences on aspects of human rights law, but there is unity across the coalition on the role and presence of the charter of fundamental rights. None of us wishes to see it become part of UK law, and none of us wishes the ambitions of some in Brussels who talk about it being extended into national law come to pass. We will resist that absolutely. As my hon. Friend knows, we are testing the current legal position in the courts, and I have no doubt that I will be giving further evidence on this subject to his Committee in the near future. (…)
Mr Cash: Will the Secretary of State give us a clear indication as to the extent to which the decisions that are being taken by the Government are being guided, if not directed, by the politics of the coalition?
Chris Grayling: We have had long discussions across Government about how best to shape the right package for the country. Inevitably, we have had those discussions. We now have a package that provides a sensible balance between a number of different factors and different interests, which is why we have brought that package to the House for consideration. It is why we brought it to the House last summer and why we have set it out in our negotiations on the future of our participation in these measures.