Emily Thornberry Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury
To read a transcript of the while debate click here.
Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): I must admit that I find myself called to the Dispatch Box today in a state of some bewilderment. We are here to debate two matters. The first is whether a new position should be established within an organisation with the somewhat abstruse name of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia Stabilisation and Association Council. Establishing that new position in some way facilitates the admission of Macedonia as an observer to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. The second provision relates to the continuation of the tripartite social summit for growth and employment. I think that is why I am here.
There appears to be a need to update the formal basis of this summit, mostly in recognition of the fact that its function now relates to the “agenda for jobs and growth” and not the “agenda for employment and growth” as was previously the case. Will the Minister confirm that that is the case? If it is, the substance of this Bill is almost the definition of bureaucratic minutiae. Although I understand that both provisions relate to draft decisions of the European Council, which need to be approved by each individual member state as well as by the European Parliament, I find the use of primary legislation in these circumstances quite extraordinary. It comes at a time when the Government are hacking away at the social safety net via secondary legislation, on which it is frankly an uphill struggle to get Minsters to agree even to a short debate up in the Committee corridor. It suggests that the Government do not have their priorities in order.
Anyway, here we are, and I will use my time briefly to recap some of the context of these proposals, which I do not expect to be the subject of raging controversy in today’s debate. As we have heard, the first part of the Bill relates to the admission of Macedonia as an observer
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at the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. That move follows a report from the European Commission, which was published earlier this year and which set out a number of recommendations to revive Macedonia’s long-stalled candidacy for accession to the EU.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware that the Greeks get very upset when the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is called Macedonia. Perhaps she could use the full title to ensure that we do not upset our Greek colleagues.
Emily Thornberry: My hon. Friend is quite right. I do apologise. I hope that Hansard will get it right even if I do not.
This process was initiated in 2005, but has been put on hold as a result of widespread concerns more recently over the country’s deteriorating record on human rights. The admission as an observer of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights was one of a number of recommendations made in the European Commission’s recent report. As the Minister helpfully explained during the debate on Second Reading, it is hoped that
“Observer status at the agency could allow the country to have access to advice and assistance on fundamental rights issues to help to tackle its reform challenges, and provide assistance and help to the country on human rights issues.”-[Official Report, 3 November 2015; Vol. 601, c. 897.]
At the rate this Government are going-I am talking about removing the requirement to respect international law from the Ministerial Code and pressing ahead with their plan to repeal the Human Rights Act-perhaps the Minister and a few of her colleagues should join the Macedonian delegation and learn a few lessons.
The second provision relates to changes to the basis of the EU’s tripartite social summit for growth and employment. The Bill’s explanatory notes describe this summit as:
“a regular forum for meetings of representatives of the European social partner organisations, the European Commission, and the Council to enable high level discussion between the three parties of employment and social aspects of the European agenda for growth and jobs.”
Beyond those exceptionally vague generalities, further details of the summit’s role are surprisingly hard to come by. Nevertheless, any discussion of jobs and growth is hardly objectionable, and certainly not objected to by me. In fact, should representatives of the UK take part in any upcoming meetings, it might provide an ideal opportunity for Ministers to take on board some of the valuable lessons that our European friends may have to offer. At a time when our jobs market is not exactly the envy of the entire continent, the Government should welcome such an opportunity. We have, for example, a higher proportion of graduates doing jobs for which they are over qualified-at 59%-than any other country in the European Union, apart from Greece and Estonia. We have a higher rate of underemployment-with a 10th of our entire workforce working less than they want to-than any other EU country except for Ireland, Spain and again Greece. That particular problem appears to be getting worse. The most recent employment figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that, even though the number of people in work in the UK
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has risen, the total number of hours worked by the UK has actually fallen. Perhaps the Minister’s European counterparts could teach her a thing or two.
We do not intend to oppose this Bill. In fact, I welcome it, at least as far as it goes, as it offers a reminder of some of the things for which we have to be grateful in our membership of the EU, not least the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms, including some of the most basic rights in the workplace, which many people take for granted. At a time when the Government are undermining those rights on a number of fronts, particularly in the Trade Union Bill, we should welcome the opportunity that this debate provides to remember the positive role that the EU can play in our lives, particularly when it comes to protecting dignity and security in the workplace. It is disappointing that the Government do not seem to share those values.