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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 February 2008, 11:52 GMT
EU rights Charter under fire
By Sean Curran
BBC Radio 4's Yesterday in Parliament

After weeks of waiting and many, many hours of argument and debate Super Duper Tuesday finally dawned at Westminster.

EU flag
The Lisbon Treaty will make the Charter of Rights legally binding

Yes, day three of the marathon debate about the Lisbon Treaty - or EU Reform Treaty - or European Constitution, which saw MPs at last focus their attention on the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The charter does not appear in the treaty but a reference to it in the document will make its rights legally binding.

When Tony Blair was prime minister he argued that Britain had secured an opt-out from the charter.

Now the government says that it neither sought nor achieved an opt-out.

Labour anger

What the UK has got is a guarantee that the charter cannot be used by the European Court to change or alter British labour law.

A number of Labour MPs are deeply unhappy.

If it is to do with keeping the CBI sweet, I simply have to say to my front bench that that I think is not the job of a Labour government
Labour MP Michael Meacher

They fear the government has sold British workers down the river, leaving them with fewer employment rights than their counterparts in other European Union countries.

Jon Cruddas, who stood for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party last year, complained that the deal secured by the government favoured the rights of business over the rights of workers.

"I would like to think that in future the government would not seek to celebrate the way that it has excluded British workers from protections afforded to European workers and indeed to make a virtue out of this to the CBI and the press," said Mr Cruddas.

When MPs first discussed the controversial parliamentary arrangements for dealing with the Lisbon Treaty, the Labour MP Jon Trickett was so angry at what saw as attempts to restrict the scope of the debate he threatened to rebel.

'Proper debate' call

Last night he repeated his complaints against the government.

"Why on earth are we not having a proper debate, on government time, about these labour market issues which are of great concern inside the labour movement. Why are we being asked to deal with the debate in this particular way?

"Why were promises made to me privately, which appear to have been dishonoured? I do not think it is acceptable that we are having to address these matters in this way," said Mr Trickett.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind
Sir Malcolm Rifkind is concerned about the Charter's power over UK law

Another Labour member, Colin Burgon, said he was worried about the role of working people in the European Union.

He said unless the EU struck roots with the people of Europe it would have no future as an institution.

"If the direction of travel of the EU is in an increasingly market-orientated, neo-liberal way, then ministers can rest assured that many of us on these benches will begin to doubt the so-called construct of a social Europe.

"And Europe will never engage the hearts and minds of millions of working people across the continent."

Working hours

These Labour critics were joined by the former minister, Michael Meacher, who wanted to know why the British government, was, in his words so "adamantly opposed" to the charter.

He then attempted to answer the question by offering what he called a "pragmatic explanation".

"It would ban excessive working hours, when the British worker already works longer hours per week than anyone else in Europe and the CBI would like to keep it that way," said the former minister.

Mr Meacher said another possible explanation was that the charter might also allow secondary industrial action.

"If it is to do with keeping the CBI sweet, I simply have to say to my front bench that that I think is not the job of a Labour government."

'Major new law'

Conservative backbenchers were unhappy for entirely different reasons.

Former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind argued that even if the Fundamental Charter did not create any new rights, it would influence the European Court of Justice whose judges would make, what he called "major new law" which the British Parliament would not be able to change.

"When we are not dealing with our own national courts, but with the European court, then that is a new situation, because there is no way in which, in a democratic fashion, the decision of that court can be reversed by those upon whom its judgement has an impact," said Sir Malcolm.

Another Conservative, David Heathcoat-Amory, said that the issues covered by the charter, should be debated, argued about, and decided in the Commons.

He told MPs that removing the rights from the parliamentary arena would lead to more frustration and less democracy.

As for the European Court, Mr Heathcoat-Amory said it was not neutral in legal arguments between member states and EU institutions.

"It is required, or will be required if this is ratified, by treaty law to practice mutual, sincere cooperation.

"We would never go to court in this country - I would never go to court - if I knew that the court had to practice mutual, sincere cooperation with my legal opponent, but that is the situation."

But when it came to the vote a Conservative amendment was defeated by 362 votes to 170, a government majority of 192.

And the government's own motion was passed by a majority of 195.

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