The House of Commons debated, yesterday, the annual adjustment of the remuneration of EU staff. During the debate Bill Cash made the following interventions:
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Miss Chloe Smith): I beg to move, That this House takes note of European Union Documents No. 17625/11 and Addendum, relating to a draft Regulation adjusting, from 1 July 2011, the rate of contribution to the pension scheme of officials and other servants of the European Union and a Commission staff working paper: Eurostat report on the 2011 update of the 2010 actuarial assessment of the Pension Scheme for European Officials, and No. 17627/11, a Commission Communication to the Council providing supplementary information on the Commission report on the Exception Clause of 13 July 2011; questions the European Commission’s conclusion that recent and challenging economic conditions do not warrant application of the Exception Clause; regrets that the Commission has not modified the salary adjustment method this year; stresses that consequent increases in EU staff pay, proposed by the Commission, are completely unacceptable when as part of its fiscal consolidation plans the Government has imposed restraints on public sector pay; notes that the framework for setting EU remuneration requires reform to increase Member States’ oversight and control, which the ongoing review of the EU Staff Regulations may enable; and commits to achieve very significant reductions in EU administrative spending in the next Multiannual Financial Framework as part of the UK’s overarching goal to impose real budgetary restraint.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the 2011 EU salary adjustment and the Government’s agenda to reform and reduce EU administrative spending. The House is familiar with the context for EU spending: while Europe’s economy remains very fragile, delivering and supporting plans to consolidate public finances remains crucial and, at the same time, we must also seek to promote growth using available resources.
There are two clear implications for the EU budget. First, the EU must live within its means; high spending is not the way to fix Europe’s problems. Secondly, all EU spending must deliver the highest added value. Strict and rigorous prioritisation is necessary to reduce waste and inefficiency.
Over the past few years, the Government have worked hard to establish a new framework for budget discipline at EU level. That is an important task because current EU spending targets, agreed by the previous Government, set a rising trajectory for EU spending to 2013 that is no longer realistic.
We have pursued our goal with considerable success. For 2011, growth in EU spending was limited to 2.91%, far below the unacceptable 6% increase demanded by the Commission and European Parliament, and last year, the 2012 EU budget was set at only 2.02% above the original 2011 budget, exactly as proposed by the European Council in July. That delivered on the Prime Minister’s determination to freeze the EU budget in real terms, and set spending €4 billion below the level advocated by the European Parliament.
A drive to limit EU administrative savings is a key plank of the Government’s approach to budgetary restraint at EU level. It reflects the tough domestic measures the Government are taking to find savings. As set out in the spending review, the administrative budgets of central Whitehall Departments will be reduced by 34%, saving £5.9 billion a year by 2014-15 so that resources can be focused on front-line services.
The EU should show a similar drive to find efficiency savings. Any suggestion of waste in the EU budget damages the standing of the EU institutions and of the EU as a whole. Its ambition, however, is evidently lacking. Strikingly, for 2012 the Commission proposed to save only €695, much less than one 1,000th of its €3.3 billion budget. We are clear, however, that the EU institutions must manage themselves and the programmes that they help to manage far better and on lower budgets. We have called for a cash freeze in EU administrative spending in recent annual budget negotiations and we want to see cash cuts in that area over the next multi-annual financial framework.
Today, I can inform the House that the Chancellor took the unprecedented step of voting against discharging the accounts for the 2010 EU budget. We have not seen enough progress in reducing the level of errors in EU transactions, which is unacceptable. We should remember that national taxpayers stand behind the EU budget and that is why we have clearly signalled the need for important and urgent improvements to the quality of EU financial management.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): I am sorry to intervene on the Minister because of the effects of her unfortunate accident, but is there a blocking minority against the proposals and has it been exercised? May I ask whether we are not only voting against it, but have voted against it, and what the outcome was?
Miss Smith: I think I will cover all those points in my speech, although I am grateful to my extremely well-informed hon. Friend for his prompt to do so. Let me turn now to the 2011 EU salary adjustment. The Commission’s attitude towards EU staff pay adjustments is another clear indication of its estrangement from reality. In the UK, the public sector pay bill makes up more than half of departmental resource spending, so action on pay is inevitably part of the Government’s fiscal consolidation strategy. Accordingly, the Government have announced a two-year public sector pay freeze for those earning above £21,000, with pay awards following that averaging at only 1%. Those measures are estimated to save around £3.3 billion a year by 2014-15.
At EU level, on the contrary, staff remunerations counted for 69% of the Commission’s budget in 2011, which means that EU annual salary adjustments have important implications for the size of EU administrative costs. However, rather than taking action to reduce its wage bill the Commission proposed to increase it by 1.7%, representing an extra €39 million, in the year from July 2011, despite the fact that the vast majority of EU officials earn significantly more than most public officials in the UK and many other member states.
I turn now to the position of the UK and the Council. Clearly, any pay increase for EU staff is unacceptable. In conjunction with other member states, the Government called on the Commission to lower its proposals, taking into account the economic situation and the policy measures in many member states to curb public wage bills. The request was made not once but twice, first in December 2010 and again in November 2011. The requests were made by invoking the so-called exception clause—article 10 of the 11th annex to the EU staff regulations—the only means for seeking to alter the mechanistic salary adjustment process under the current system.
Each time, the Commission has stubbornly refused to reduce growth in EU staff pay. Its defence for its inaction has been internally inconsistent, self-serving and, as the European Scrutiny Committee observed, one-sided. By claiming that there has been no
“sudden and serious deterioration in the economic and social situation” in the EU, the Commission has undertaken faulty analysis. For example, it based its rosy evaluation on forecast indicators that did not pertain to the period defined for its assessment.
More seriously, the Commission ignored the huge number of important fiscal consolidation measures adopted and implemented by member states during the period under review. The Commission itself has strongly advocated such measures, yet incredibly it used stabilising debt and deficit levels to justify higher pay for its own staff.
Most seriously of all, the Commission has manipulated the current system to deprive member states of the opportunity to evaluate the situation independently and to adopt appropriate measures, at a time when it is evident to us all that taking immediate action to curb growth in EU staff pay is the right thing to do. That is why the UK and the wider Council rejected the 1.7% pay increase in December. It is also why we have blocked reductions in EU staff contribution rates to their pension scheme. In addition, the Council has lodged a court case against the Commission for mishandling the 2011 salary adjustment.
The Council’s decision to proceed with legal action against the Commission indicates the seriousness with which we treat the issue. Should the Council lose the case, it will simply add weight to our view that the current process is defunct and cannot adapt properly to difficult economic circumstances. In any event, reform of the salary adjustment system is urgent.
The ongoing review of the EU staff regulations, which set out the rules in this area, provides an important opportunity to make that happen. Delivering a subtler and more responsive way of setting EU staff pay, which empowers the Council to make suitable adjustments in times of economic distress and more generally, is an important objective. One part of the Government’s broader agenda to achieve efficiency gains and financial savings in the EU budget is via reform of the staff regulations that determine such a high level of the EU’s administrative budget.
Overall, the potential for savings is high. This dossier is subject to qualified majority voting and co-decision with the European Parliament. Our success will depend on building firm alliances, so the Government are already working closely with other member states to agree cost-saving ideas that can command broad support in Council.
Cathy Jamieson: I had better not incur the wrath of the Speaker by commenting, other than to congratulate those MPs who were able to take part. I note that, apart from my hon. Friend, none of them is here to participate in the debate. Perhaps they are recovering.
I begin by thanking the European Scrutiny Committee for recommending this for debate on the Floor of the House and for the work it has done in scrutinising these documents. European institutions can sometimes seem remote and impenetrable, but as we are aware, the workings of the EU in general, and of the Commission, have a significant impact on a range of issues that affect us all. We also know that the EU produces a huge volume of documents, and members of the European Scrutiny Committee do us a service by examining a number of those in detail, and recommending debate on the Floor of the House where there are further questions for the Government to consider.
The Committee’s reason for drawing attention to these documents relates to a number of specific concerns: first, the process that has led us to the position where once again we might see a legal battle between the Commission and the Council in the European Court of Justice; secondly, the Commission’s view that there was no justification for invoking the exception clause; and thirdly, questions about what action the Government have taken, and will take, regarding the negotiations on the amendment of Annex XI.
As the European Scrutiny Committee recognised, the documents are technical in content, but they nevertheless raise issues of far greater political importance. In properly scrutinising these documents, it is important to understand their background and history. The Minister has already covered some of that territory and I will not seek to repeat it. However, it is worth highlighting some of the context again, because it is entirely linked to the wider economic situation we face. In less difficult financial times such documents, which essentially put in place the necessary paperwork for salary upgrading, may have passed, if not entirely unnoticed—the Scrutiny Committee would always have had an eye on them—at least without significant comment, except from Members who view anything to do with Europe as by its nature a bad thing. I do not take that view, but we are in a climate where there is justified anger at excessive pay, outrage at bankers’ bonuses and a general feeling that staff who are already highly paid should not get extra rewards simply for doing their job properly.
Mr Cash: Is there not a further point on economic performance arising from the hon. Lady’s comments? The calculations being made are based on the assumption that there is reasonable growth in the European Union, which simply is not the case. It falls on economic as well as legal grounds. Cathy Jamieson: The hon. Gentleman makes a useful point that I will address in greater detail later.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): I am in the unusual position of largely agreeing with not only my own party’s Front Benchers—that is always a great pleasure, if something of a rarity in European affairs—but, as it happens, the Opposition spokesman. This is a very important debate, because it indicates what is going on in the European Union. There is a complete cloud cuckoo land, which I observed when I went to the multi-annual surveillance framework meeting a few months ago.
Mr Lidington indicated assent.
Mr Cash: I am glad that my right hon. Friend is nodding vigorously, because it was simply staggering. There we were, faced with a huge European financial crisis, and all people were doing was getting up, one after another, and demanding more and more money.
There is so much common ground in the House that I am happy to be brief and allow my hon. Friends to explain their points of view and concerns. I am conscious of the fact that I have had quite a few opportunities to do so. However, I wish to point out that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently signed a joint letter with Mr Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain, and other EU leaders. It is also signed by the Prime Ministers of a number of Nordic and Baltic countries, together with the Polish Prime Minister. It is about building up a sense of alliance, and it is reported in today’s Financial Times under the headline, “Cameron steps up moves to rebuild links with Europe”. I trust that that is being done on an entirely realistic basis. For example, to return to the point that I made to the Economic Secretary, I hope that the group getting a blocking minority and voting consistently against the measures in question will include a sufficient number of member states to ensure that the Commission cannot get away with what is no more or less than the manipulation of the rather arcane formulae contained in the regulations. The European Scrutiny Committee is deeply concerned about the situation, as other Members will be.
I entirely agree that the European Commission’s analysis is faulty, and it is also completely out of date, to say the very least. I am being rather generous in saying that, because it has fitted the facts to what it wants to hear. That is why the Committee describes what it has done as “self-serving”. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) said, there is also the problem that the Commission is the judge and jury in its own case.
We must also consider what we might expect to get from the European Court of Justice. Serious questions often arise about whether many of its decisions are taken on too much of a political basis rather than a strictly juridical one.
Mark Reckless: On a recent visit to Brussels, I had the pleasure of meeting the civil servant who negotiated the package in question. He was absolutely up front in saying to me that his role was to do the best for his colleagues. Having done that so successfully, he was promoted. What more do we need to know to see that the EU is run for the benefit not of its members but of its staff?
Mr Cash: Indeed, and that is far too much of an endemic problem throughout the EU. We know about the case of Marta Andreasen, who was one of the chief accounting officers in the EU some time ago and had the temerity to challenge the basis on which its administration in the Court of Auditors was being run. She was sacked. Before that, there was Bernard Connolly. I am given to understand today that in Greece the chief representative for EUROSTAT, who has to operate within its regulations, is under siege and under incredible personal pressure, and may even be taken to court because he has taken unpopular decisions.
The problem lies in the idea of acting as judge and jury and being self-serving when the whole of Europe is in a state of complete crisis. People are, frankly, lining their own pockets at public expense at a time when we know, because we have just had our letters from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, that we are not going to be given an increase, any more than are the civil servants and so forth. The disparity between what is going on in the European Union and what is going on in the domestic administration of this country is so glaringly obvious that we have every reason as a Parliament not only to debate the issue but really to put our foot down.
How are the Government approaching the negotiations on annex 11 of the staff regulations, which deals with annual salary adjustments? It strikes our Committee that the procedure by which the exception clause is being invoked is tantamount to a breach of natural justice, as the Commission, in effect, decides whether it should freeze the salaries of its own staff. I would be grateful if the Minister explained how she would like this procedure to be amended.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Would it not be natural justice for European bureaucrats to have exactly the same conditions as our own civil service, with no additional money being paid by this country so that they get an add-on to their salaries?
Mr Cash: I certainly agree with that, and I would say the same about the European Parliament and the analogy with this House. The reality is that there is an air of unreality. In the words of T. S. Eliot,
“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
It is time that we sorted this out.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): The exemption clause states:
“If there is a serious and sudden deterioration in the economic and social situation within the Community, assessed in the light of objective data supplied for this purpose by the Commission, the latter shall submit appropriate proposals on which the Council shall act in accordance with the procedure laid down in Article 283 of the EC Treaty”, which has subsequently changed. The EU has decided that there has never been such an exception, even though we have been through the most extraordinary economic crisis in the past few years.
Yesterday, European Committee B discussed a Commission document that states:
“EU economic growth is faltering. In the euro area, this is exacerbated by the sovereign debt crisis and fragilities in the banking sector. These have created a dangerous feedback loop.”
The Commission says that the economy faces a crisis and that it is in a “dangerous feedback loop” but that there is no reason on earth why it should consider the salaries that it and others who work within EU institutions are paid.
The Minister has said that the economic situation in this country is serious enough for a freeze in public pay, and we know that the EU prescription for Greece and other countries that face economic crisis is austerity and pay cuts, but when it comes to the EU institutions, the situation is different—they say there is no real crisis or problem, and no exceptional circumstances, and that they must therefore carry on regardless. Can that possibly be a proper, moral or respectable way for an international body to proceed?
What can the Government do about it? So far, they have rightly pointed out to the Commission that they think the circumstances are exceptional and have tried to persuade it to change the basis for raising salaries, but the Commission has refused, with the backing of the European Court of Justice, which I shall come to in a moment.
The Government could, however, take another action. Under article 336 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, Governments are entitled to change the employment terms of people employed by EU institutions. If those terms are changed, the exceptional circumstances clause could be removed or changed—the whole basis for pay increases could be changed. That is where the Government ought to start. They should say to other member states that the employment terms and conditions no longer apply and are no longer relevant for the circumstances that we face. They can do so even if the Commission objects—that is in the treaty.
On the Court, in 2009 the Council instructed the Commission to use the exceptional circumstances clause. The Commission took the council to court and won the judgment of the EU in case C-40/10. The Court held that exceptional circumstances did not exist, and therefore overrode what the Council had done and reinstated the Commission’s proposals, which was interesting. When I raised the point with a lawyer, and said, “Well, what about the judges themselves? How are they paid?” the lawyer said, “It is inconceivable—inconceivable!—that the judges themselves could be beneficiaries of the scheme on which they had ruled.” I said, “It may be inconceivable, but is it possible to find out?”
A parliamentary answer from Lord Malloch-Brown, the then Foreign Office Minister, to a question from Lord Lester of Herne Hill, was helpful in that regard. Lord Malloch-Brown states:
“The terms and conditions for judges and advocates-general of the European Court of Justice…are set out in European Communities staff regulations.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 June 2008; Vol. 702, c. WA166.]
The staff regulations are subject to the system whereby the terms and conditions may be changed in exceptional circumstances. I therefore looked at the regulations, thinking once again that it surely cannot be true that the EU—an institution that might not be liked and loved by many, but that is thought to understand basic principles of justice—has a situation in which judges decide on their own pay rise.
I therefore looked through “Title 1: General provisions”, article 1(21)(73)(96), which sounds very scientific. The provision states:
“These Staff Regulations shall apply to officials of the Communities.”
The document goes on to state:
“For the purposes of these Staff Regulations, ‘official of the Communities’ means any person who has been appointed, as provided for in these Staff Regulations, to an established post on the staff of one of the institutions of the Communities”.
The next step was to check what exactly are the institutions of the EU, because I still could not believe that there was such an affront to justice within the EU. I would have been very surprised had the European Court of Justice turned out to be such an institution, but when I looked at article 13 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, I found that the Court of Justice of the European Union, as it is properly called, is indeed one of the institutions of the EU. And yet according to the Commission, the Court’s judges had ruled so clearly that exceptional circumstances did not exist.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: I have great sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. We ought to start thinking about withholding money. I have long had doubts about how the EU works and the ratchet, but I had the idea that the judges—though they may have a political objective; though they may be in favour of a federal Europe; and though they may push the law to the most extreme point to make the case for a federal European state—would not break basic principles of natural justice. The principle is nemo iudex in causa sua—a famous principle judged on and upheld in this country for centuries, and not just in this country, but abrogated in the EU.
I am glad to say, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the requirement not to be rude about judges applies only to judges in this country. It does not apply to judges in the EU, so let me be rude about them. Let me indulge in the floccinaucinihilipilification of EU judges and quote from the book of Amos about them:
“For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right.”
Those are the judges of the EU. Her Majesty’s Government are right to stand up to them. They do not deserve their money and it is iniquitous that they have allowed themselves to be judges in their own cause. It is a breach of justice; it ought to be criminal.
Miss Smith: Nor will I succumb to interventions that could take us far beyond the scope of today’s debate. I know, however, that the hon. Gentleman will be particularly pleased to hear that the lobby that we have put in place to give effect to our tough stance has already had an effect. For example, the Commission, having been put under pressure, is preparing to reduce European Union staff levels by 5% between 2014 and 2020.
Returning to the actions taken in the past year to deliver the agenda for EU administrative spending, and to what we are doing on staff regulations reform, I can tell the House that the UK has been a signatory to two joint letters calling on the Commission to deliver “significant” savings in EU administrative spending over the next multi-annual financial framework. One was signed by 17 member states, and it represents a strong blocking minority, which I know my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash)—who has moved from his place—will be happy to note. He will be pleased to know that we intend to hold that strong blocking minority together as we press for more specific changes to the way in which the EU institutions work.
I refer hon. Members to two more letters, one of which is dated 20 February 2012 and deals with a plan for growth in Europe. It has been signed by 12 European Union leaders, and it talks about the effort that we must all make to put our national and international finances on a sustainable footing. In the second, dated 18 December 2010, our Prime Minister and those of four other countries state that the challenge to the European Union is not to spend more but to spend better.
A number of questions were asked about the cost of court cases. The costs of the 2009 court case were met from existing Council budgets, as per normal standards. However, it is clearly not ideal to deal with these matters through court cases. Clearly we need to seek deeper reform, and that is what we are endeavouring to do. I was asked whether we should distinguish between high and low earning EU staff. Other hon. Members have spoken eloquently about this today, notably in respect of the judiciary. EU officials fall into the category of highly paid officials, and we therefore think that they are a legitimate target for key financial savings.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone asked whether the Government were taking a blocking minority on the 2010 EU budget discharge. I am afraid he is still not in his place to hear my answer, but I shall be happy to discuss it with him later. At ECOFIN today, the UK voted against that; it was not, in technical terms, a blocking minority.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) asked how the Commission could possibly not invoke this course of action, and said that the economic situation was patently a crisis. I know that he will welcome my agreeing with him on that. There is patently an economic crisis, and highly paid officials cannot be immune from that. I know that he will appreciate being reminded that the Delphic oracle talked about “nothing in excess”. I believe that that applies to EU salaries, and the House has eloquently agreed with me today.
Our debate today sends a clear signal that the Commission must take the challenge of modernising its institutions far more seriously and, most important, it must work harder to deliver efficiency savings in administration. Stopping an unjustified hike in EU staff pay is an obvious and good place to start, and our debate today sends a clear signal that we stand behind the principle outlined in the court case brought against the Commission for refusing to take action on the 2011 salary adjustment. Disputing higher staff pay in 2011 was not only the right thing to do; it also highlighted the fact that the current process is defunct and cannot adapt properly to difficult economic circumstances.
Kate Hoey: If the court rules in the wrong way, if there is no change, and if all our protests here come to nothing, does the Minister agree that no one in the European Union will listen unless the Government take back some of the money from the amount that we were going to pay? When are we going to do something practical to show that we mean what we say, rather than simply repeating all these warm words that never change anything?
Miss Smith: The hon. Lady makes a fine point. I want to reassure her that the Prime Minister has worked hard during the past year to take serious action, and the Chancellor has taken serious action at ECOFIN today to demonstrate how seriously we take the improvement of the way in which the EU budget is managed and spent. The action that she suggests might be at the far end of the spectrum, but we take the full agenda very seriously none the less. We are resolved to lobby hard for cuts to EU administrative spending in future years, as part of the real freeze in the overall EU budget over the next framework. I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.