House of Commons
Wednesday 14 June 2006
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
In the current financial year we have allocated £5 million to bilateral programmes in Russia. Other United Kingdom funds, available through the global conflict prevention pool and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office global opportunities fund, amount to some £3 million.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but is it right that British taxpayers’ money is given to Russia when last year its defence budget rose by more than 28 per cent? Would it not be better to put that money into areas of real conflict and suffering such as Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the progress that Russia has made. He will remember that as recently as 1999, when Russia was going through a period of financial crisis, substantial numbers—almost 40 per cent. of the population—were living in real poverty. Since that time, the number living in poverty has declined by almost half. The hon. Gentleman’s point about the need to divert resources to the very poorest countries is well made, and that is one of the reasons why we have taken a decision to close our programme next year. We will remain engaged in a small way in Russia, because there continue to be particular development challenges, not least the issues of HIV/AIDS, but we are increasingly directing more of our resources to the very poorest countries.
We have had a series of discussions with the Russian authorities in the run-up to the St. Petersburg summit. My hon. Friend may know that the Russian authorities have prioritised the issues of energy security, education and infectious diseases for discussion at that summit, and we have been working to ensure that there is a development perspective to all those discussions. There will be a report at the summit on progress since Gleneagles. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is expecting to lead a discussion on progress in Africa since then. My hon. Friend may also be interested to know that we have already begun discussions with German colleagues in advance of their presidency next year.
Russia, alongside other eastern European countries such as Ukraine, has significant and escalating HIV and TB epidemics and the fastest growing coterminous infection rate in the world. The G8 summit in St. Petersburg must address infectious diseases, especially the challenging multi-drug-resistant TB. Considering DFID’s strategy towards middle income countries and the Duma’s decision to restrict the operations of foreign non-governmental organisations, how does DFID intend to halt and reverse the incidence of infectious diseases? Will the Minister confirm that he will be working towards a specific commitment at the G8 to endorse and fund the global plan?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight both the rising prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Russia and more generally in central and eastern Europe. The adult prevalence rate is more than 1 per cent. in Russia. Although the epidemic is currently concentrated among high-risk groups, particularly injecting drug users, there are worrying signs that it is spreading into the more general population. We have over the past two years been closely collaborating with UNAIDS. We have a programme of £1 million over this two-year period. We have in recent years seen rising spend and rising recognition, including in speeches by President Putin, by the Russian authorities on this issue.
On the wider point about Gleneagles and specific commitments on HIV/AIDS and TB, we have indicated our support for the global plan. We want it discussed and backed at St. Petersburg and we want the summit also to move on the HIV/AIDS agenda.
I remain gravely concerned about Darfur and in particular about continued insecurity that threatens the massive humanitarian effort that is needed. The Darfur peace agreement should provide the basis for a long-term solution to the crisis, and there appears to have been a reduction in the number of clashes between the Government of Sudan and the rebels since it was signed. However, attacks by the Arab militias continue and their disarmament, as required by the DPA, is a matter of urgency. We continue to press the Government to live up to their commitments.
The Secretary of State is right to be deeply concerned about the situation in Darfur, particularly as it appears to be spreading into Chad. How does his work fit comfortably with the previous Foreign Secretary’s comment that we have a responsibility to protect people from both massacres and human rights abuses, because that clearly is not happening at the moment in those two tragic countries?
I accept the right hon. Gentleman’s point entirely. The first thing that we are doing is providing humanitarian assistance, because that is a practical way in which we can help people to stay alive. Britain and the international community have played an honourable part in that respect, but as he will know, the only solution is a political solution that brings an end to the fighting. That is why the priorities now are, first, to enable the people of Darfur to understand what is in the Darfur peace agreement—the African Union is taking the lead on that, with some support from us—and, secondly, to encourage Minni Minnawi, who leads the one movement that has signed the agreement, to implement that commitment and fulfil the responsibilities that he has taken on. Thirdly, we shall continue to put pressure on the Government of Sudan to prepare their plan for the disarmament of the Janjaweed. Finally, and in my view most important of all, we shall support the United Nations and the African Union, which are at one in wanting the UN mission to take over from AMIS—the African Union mission in Sudan—as quickly as possible. That is why the arrival last week of the joint AU/UN planning mission was so significant. However, we shall still have some work to do to persuade the Government of Sudan to accept that mission, which I believe is desperately needed.
The hon. Gentleman’s question goes to the heart of the discussions with the Government of Sudan, because they are expressing considerable concern about the prospect of that mission having a chapter 7 mandate. Part of the purpose of the planning mission is to provide an answer to that question, so that the Security Council can take a decision. Based on my experience and the visits that I have paid to Darfur on a number of occasions, I think that the UN mission will have to help both to oversee the ceasefire and to ensure that civilians are protected if people do not honour the obligations that they have entered into. Ultimately, the aim must be to protect people from continuing to be attacked.
There is a responsibility both on the Government of Sudan to disarm the militia and on the movements to stop fighting, and I regret very much that two of the movements—the faction led by Abdul Wahid and the Justice and Equality Movement—have not yet signed the agreement. I can see no possible justification for having failed to sign the agreement because, in truth, it gives the movements everything that they were looking for.
As my hon. Friend knows, last year the UN Security Council agreed to refer the terrible crimes that have been committed in Darfur to the ICC. I pay tribute to the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), for the role that he played with others in persuading the Security Council to do that, because it sends a strong message from the international community. That links to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), because it shows that we are serious about calling to account the people who have committed those crimes. At the same time, we continue to support the UN in preparing for the mission so that people can be protected and the agreement enforced, because that is the only way in which people will be able to go home.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the good work that the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund is doing in Darfur. Today, we are privileged to have the chairman of SCIAF, His Eminence Cardinal Keith O’Brien, with us in Westminster. Is it not appropriate to recognise in the forthcoming White Paper the role of faith groups, not only in delivering aid but in raising awareness in schools and communities throughout our country?
I echo everything that my right hon. Friend has said. I had the opportunity to meet Cardinal O’Brien yesterday to discuss his impressions of his recent visit to Darfur. In the not-too-distant future, DFID will publish a policy statement on working with faith communities. When people in poor countries are asked which institutions they respect, rely on and have greatest confidence in, they say faith organisations—their churches and the institutions of their religions—which are often present in the most difficult circumstances when the instruments of government either do not exist or have fallen apart because of conflict.
What plans do the Government have to ensure greater international co-operation in efforts to ensure that those who are guilty of the serious criminal activities in Darfur are brought to justice, which will help to achieve greater stability in the province and the surrounding region?
First, we support the referring of events in Darfur to the International Criminal Court, and its investigations continue. Secondly, we strongly supported the establishment of the sanctions committee which, however, did not receive the wholehearted support of every member of the Security Council so, regrettably, it took some time. Sanctions have been imposed on four individuals who were named and investigated. We continue to press for action—I know that the African Union will do the same—if individuals obstruct the implementation of the peace agreement. It is one thing to say that one is not prepared to sign, but it is another to obstruct the implementation of an agreement that others are prepared to sign. We should therefore not be reluctant to take strong action against individuals who impede the only hope that the people of Darfur have of a better life.
We acknowledge the Secretary of State’s personal commitment to the issue, but does he accept that the Sudanese Government, who sponsored mass murder in Darfur, are now engaged in ethnic cleansing in neighbouring Chad? Given Britain’s pivotal position in the United Nations, what steps or new energy will he use to ensure that a UN force with a clear, unambiguous mandate is deployed without further delay?
I accept the fact that the conflict over the border with Chad makes an already difficult and complex conflict even more challenging. The rebel movement in Chad is trying to depose President Déby who, in turn, has accused the Sudanese Government of supporting those efforts. In fairness to the British Government, the UK was one of the first countries to recognise that a UN force was needed, not least because the African Union mission which did a sterling job in difficult circumstances, as the hon. Gentleman knows because he has had a chance to see for himself, simply does not have the number of troops, the capacity or the funding that it needs. That is why we strongly advocated the deployment of a UN force, and why we pressed hard for a planning mission in Khartoum. We are resolute in pressing the Sudanese Government to allow that force to come in, because in my view and, I am sure, in the hon. Gentleman’s, it is desperately needed.
The Secretary of State rightly praised the African Union, and he knows that its chairman wrote to the Secretary-General of NATO, pleading for specific assistance. What steps has Britain urged its NATO allies to take to meet the African Union request for help with, for example, airlifts, training and logistical support, ahead of the long-awaited UN deployment?
NATO, in fact, has met the AU, and it made several offers of assistance, including the co-ordination of airlifts, which has been agreed; staff capacity-building, which has been agreed; support for the joint forward mission headquarters, including a joint operations centre, which is new assistance; and the provision of troop pre-deployment certification training—that, too, is new assistance. The AU asked NATO to support it in a “lessons learned” exercise, because as well as trying to get it right now, it wants to build capacity to mount such missions in future. I therefore hope that I have reassured the hon. Gentleman that NATO is on the case, as the AU has accepted its offer of assistance.
The Secretary of State will be aware that only a few weeks ago the UN said that it had to halve food rations to people who depended on food aid in Darfur. Can he give us an assessment of the situation to show that the food aid funding crisis has been turned around? Given the potential for similar conflicts to develop in Chad and eastern Sudan, what measures has the Department for International Development taken to make sure that food and humanitarian aid flow much faster in any similar crisis?
On the first point made by the hon. Lady, the World Programme had to halve rations in May because of the funding shortfall. Last week, I met Jim Morris, the head of the World Food Programme, who told me that from the beginning of June the ration has increased to 84 per cent., because additional food has arrived from the USA and because the Sudanese Government has been able to make a contribution. Unfortunately, the cut in the ration coincided with the agreement in Abuja, so some people may have drawn the wrong conclusions. Overall, the UN work plan in Sudan for 2006 is about 40 per cent. funded. The UK, as the hon. Lady will know, is one of the countries that will give slightly more this year, but that is not the case for all the other donors. But the hon. Lady will also be aware that some money has come to Darfur from the new humanitarian fund, which I very much welcome.
We continue to support all the agencies to the fullest extent possible to help them bring help to people where it is needed. As the security situation changes, the humanitarian organisations can access an area one day, but the next day it may be more difficult. That is why peace and disarmament are needed, to enable them to get help to everyone who requires it.
We target approximately 15 per cent. of our £4 million funding to Nicaragua to the Atlantic coast. Through our support, municipal governments on the Atlantic coast are providing community services and improving local infrastructure. Our funding for HIV/AIDS has enabled the Ministry of Health in Nicaragua to provide services so far to 40 per cent. of the Atlantic coast. We are also working to improve local people’s livelihoods on the Atlantic coast.
I acknowledge the good work that the Department is doing on the Atlantic coast. Does the Minister accept, however, that the Government in Managua pay little attention to the Atlantic coast, which is a forgotten coast as far as they are concerned? When I met peoples over there on the Atlantic coast, their view was that when the horse leaves Managua laden with aid, it dies halfway across the country. What steps can the Minister take to encourage the Managua Government to look after the Atlantic coast? Is not Bluefields, with a population of 60,000, a way to connect it with the rest of the country?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the disparity in progress on development on the Atlantic coast compared with the rest of the country. On average, gross domestic product per person on the Atlantic coast is less than half of GDP in the rest of Nicaragua. We have sought to use our funding to leverage more Government funding into the Atlantic coast, and similarly to put pressure on the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank to leverage more of their funding into the Atlantic coast. Given his interest in Nicaragua, the hon. Gentleman will be particularly pleased to know that for the first time the World Bank, in its next assistance programme for Nicaragua, will have a set of loans specifically for the Atlantic coast work.
Nicaragua is the second poorest country in Latin America and the disparities of income are the worst in that region. Can my hon. Friend say a little about DFID programmes to tackle the grinding poverty, especially in rural areas near the Atlantic coast? Are the governance, social and economic inclusion and public sector reform programmes advertised on the DFID website starting to bear fruit?
Our spending is directed at building and maintaining access to roads, helping to improve rubbish collection, and helping to improve access to rural electricity, both on-grid solutions and investment in off-grid solutions such as solar and wind power. As I said in my previous answer, our funding is beginning to leverage more funding from Government and from the big multilateral donors such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Our funding is making a difference to HIV/AIDS on the Atlantic coast. However, it is equally clear that more needs to be done, both by the Nicaraguan Government and by the international community generally. We will stay alive to that.
Twenty years ago, I spent a year on a Church mission, working with the Carib people on the Atlantic coast of central America as a voluntary teacher. Do we have any aid programmes that channel aid through the valuable work that Church missions do in that part of the world?
The hon. Gentleman is right to praise the valuable work that such missions and civil society more generally do in Nicaragua and across the developing world. We have extensive programmes of work with civil society groups, particularly in relation to HIV/AIDS. On the hon. Gentleman’s specific question about work with Church missions, I will look into that and write to him.
There is no general food-related humanitarian crisis in Nepal, but the World Food Programme has recently launched an emergency programme in 10 of the country’s 75 districts after poor winter rains led to local food shortages. The conflict has, however, created a human rights crisis, with abuses being committed by both security forces and the Maoists, and it has forced thousands of people to leave their homes. The recent ceasefire should lead to an improvement.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. The new civilian Government in Nepal certainly provide cause for optimism. What progress has been made in negotiating an end to the civil war? And what support is my hon. Friend providing in order to bring about stability, development and, most importantly, peace?
As my hon. Friend knows, there has been considerable progress following the handing back of political power to the parties in April. A ceasefire has been agreed between the Government and the Maoists. Negotiation teams have been appointed and a number of confidence-building measures have been implemented, including the release of prisoners, the lifting of curfews and greater ease of movement around the country. Now we need effective monitoring of the ceasefire and agreement on the timing and conditions for the Maoists to join the Government and on the arrangements for a constituent assembly. The UK is currently looking at how we can provide technical assistance, support for the elections to a constituent assembly and disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programmes.
One of the groups most affected by the recent tragedies in Nepal are the street children of Kathmandu. In commending the good work of two charities, the Child Welfare Scheme and Asha Nepal, may I ask what plans the Minister has to target aid at that needy group in Kathmandu?
I, too, praise those organisations. On Asha Nepal in particular, I have asked officials to re-examine the question of funding. In light of the changed circumstances in Nepal, we are reviewing what more we might do. We had to cut back the programme, because, as the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, Nepal was a difficult place in which to work. If the progress is maintained, the Under-Secretary of State for International Development and I will consider what more we can do to tackle poverty in Nepal.
The Central Emergency Response Fund was launched on 9 March 2006. It is now helping UN humanitarian agencies to respond immediately to sudden disasters and to increase activity in underfunded emergencies. So far, CERF has committed $92 million to a number of humanitarian crises, the largest being the Horn of Africa, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In total, 43 donors have contributed $262 million, and the UK has been the largest contributor.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to the implementation of a world fund, which can be used wherever disasters take place. What long-term funding have the Government provided? And how can we ensure that other partners which are as wealthy as, if not more wealthy than, this country are making long-term contributions?
My hon. Friend is right. Having established the fund, we will need it every year, because disasters strike every year. At a Red Cross event last week, I announced that over the next three years Britain will contribute £40 million, £40 million and £40 million—£120 million over three years. I intend to talk to our partner countries and say, “Britain is prepared to make a long-term commitment to the fund. Are you?”
Although I agree with the Secretary of State that the fund is welcome and important, we need more effective co-ordination. Does he acknowledge the concern that the more co-ordination there is at international level, the harder it is for smaller, locally based NGOs and charities in countries affected to access funds? Will he use his good offices to ensure that such bodies are included in what is a worldwide response?
The hon. Gentleman has raised an extremely important point. In truth, about 60 per cent. of the funding that comes through the UN system for humanitarian relief ends up in the hands of NGOs, which do the work on the ground. Jan Egeland is conscious that he should be able to take quick decisions on spending money from CERF. I praise him and his team for their work, because such money gets down to NGOs, which deliver increasing amounts of humanitarian assistance when crises strike. I hope that we have got the right mechanisms in place to ensure that there is proper debate and dialogue between the NGO community and the UN system, because we are all in it together in trying to provide assistance when crises strike.
I can indeed offer the hon. Gentleman that assurance. That is precisely why we give the assistance. Most recently, when the earthquake struck in Indonesia on the island of Java, Britain contributed £5 million—£3 million to UN, £1 million to the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, and £1 million to NGOs that are delivering help on the ground. In those circumstances, the world demonstrated its capacity to respond quickly to give very practical help—shelter, blankets, bedding, medical supplies, water, sanitation and food—because that is what people need when they have lost everything.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Twenty-one out of the 31 Bichard recommendations have now been implemented. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, which will put into place the new vetting and barring scheme, has completed its passage through the House of Lords and will have its Second Reading in the House of Commons on 19 June. We are reporting progress regularly to Parliament, most recently on 25 May, and we see no need at present to reconvene the inquiry team.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. As he knows, it is now two years since Sir Michael Bichard made his central recommendation for the police national information technology system. That system will not be available, if at all, until after 2010, and some of the latest cost estimates are up around the £2 billion mark. Will my right hon. Friend reconsider recalling Sir Michael Bichard, first, to allow him to judge progress against his recommendations, and secondly, to ensure that his recommendations do not go the same way as those that came from Dunblane?
I entirely understand why my hon. Friend raises this. It is very important to say that although the full impact recommendations will not come in until later, the data-sharing arrangements, including the sharing of intelligence, will come in next year. We will certainly look at how we can speed up the recommendations. However, as my hon. Friend rightly says, this is going to be difficult and complicated. It requires a lot of changes, not only in police practice but elsewhere, and we have to ensure that we get the delivery of this programme right. I ask him to bear in mind that, as I say, from the end of next year we should have the main data-sharing arrangements in place. If we can possibly speed that up—if necessary, we are perfectly happy to reconvene the inquiry team if that helps, but at the moment we do not think that it would—then we will of course do so.
Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will join me in mourning the death of Captain Jim Philippson, who was killed in action in Afghanistan at the weekend. I know that we all extend our deep sympathy and condolences to his family and friends.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.
May I, too, express my sympathies to the families concerned?
Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing the England team every continuing success? While football is centre-stage, will he also join me in welcoming the report of the independent European sport review, which was initiated under our presidency and under the leadership of our Sports Minister, Captain Caborn? Will the Prime Minister set out what action he can take on the report, which is designed to protect football and—
First, I am sure that we all wish the England team the best of luck in the match tomorrow. Secondly, as I said in answer to a question a few weeks ago, some recommendations in the independent European report are difficult—for example, trying to set a cap on players’ wages. However, some of the other aspects, especially those that try to bring greater integrity to the way in which some of the financial transactions are conducted, are worth while and we will study the report carefully.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Captain Jim Philippson and sending our condolences to his family. Our troops are doing difficult work in Afghanistan, and they have our support.
In the past 40 days, the new Home Secretary has been hard at work. He potentially undermined his Department’s deportation proceedings, he shelved his anti-crime campaign at the last minute, he misled the public about the employment of illegal immigrants in his Department and now he has criticised judges for their implementation of new Labour law. Can the Prime Minister detect any early signs that this Home Secretary will be any better than the last?
Since the right hon. Gentleman and his shadow Home Secretary have been complaining about life sentences and prisoners being released early after being sentenced to life, I want to explain to the House how that has come about. Of the 53 prisoners, the vast bulk were given automatic life sentences under the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997—before we came to office. The automatic life sentences were given for second offences. We changed the law in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to allow indeterminate sentences to be given. Since April 2005, when the Act came into effect, there have been 1,000 of those sentences. Six of those people have been considered for parole and no parole has been given.
However, that is not the point that I wanted to make. I wanted to make the point that, when the Criminal Justice Act came before the House, the Conservative party voted against it.
Let us go straight to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and consider the Home Secretary’s attack on the judge who gave the paedophile a sentence that could turn out to be as little as six years. Is not it the case that the 18-year sentence was reduced by a third because of the Sentencing Guidelines Council that the Prime Minister introduced? Is not it also the case that the individual could be let out halfway through his sentence—only six years—under the 2003 Act that the Prime Minister introduced and we voted against?
The right hon. Gentleman is talking absolute rubbish. The Sentencing Guidelines Council was supported across the House. The individual whom he mentions and others do not now need to be released because of the powers in the Act. Before the 2003 Act—he can check this with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis)—someone who was sentenced to more than four years’ imprisonment was automatically paroled at the two thirds point, irrespective of what happened. Under the Act, that right to automatic parole was taken away. The right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues voted against that as well.
If we are going to talk about facts—and I am happy to talk about antisocial behaviour, about which he attacked us and which he again dismissed as a gimmick, even though the powers are doing good in communities throughout the country, or assets recovery, which his lot tried to water down—the truth is that he and his hon. Friends talk tough in the media and vote soft in Parliament.
I know a thing or two about the 2003 Act because I sat on the Bill Committee. Let me tell the House something that I said at the time:
“If there is one thing that undermines people’s confidence in the criminal justice system, it is the feeling that time after time sentences are handed down but people are released halfway through them.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 11 February 2003; c. 954.]
That is why we opposed it.
Can the Prime Minister confirm something else? The only reason why this case—[Interruption.] They are shouting because they do not like it. They know that they are on the wrong side. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the only reason why this case can be sent back to the Court of Appeal for a tougher sentence to be considered is the Criminal Justice Act that we passed and which he voted against?
Again, all that we have done is to toughen the ability of the Attorney-General—[Interruption.] Yes, we have, as a matter of fact. I want to go back to what the right hon. Gentleman has said. He is completely wrong. Under the 2003 Act, if someone is sentenced to more than four years in prison—in other words, if it is a serious offence—they can no longer be paroled at the two-thirds point. Since April 2005, 1,000 indeterminate sentences have been handed down and no one has been paroled because of that Act. The right hon. Gentleman says that he and his colleagues support tough measures, but I have before me a press release put out just the other day by the shadow Leader of the House. We remember debating the 90 days or the 28 days for the detention of suspected terrorists. We were forced, because of the right hon. Gentleman’s votes, to have the 28 days. The shadow Leader of the House then attacked us for not introducing this measure quickly enough. The reason we are unable to introduce it quickly is that the Conservatives insisted on a longer consultation period, which prevented us from doing that. So at every stage, whether it involves antisocial behaviour, assets recovery, the Criminal Justice Act or terrorist legislation, the right hon. Gentleman talks tough but he votes soft.
Why does not the Prime Minister understand that the reason why criminals are not let out two thirds of the way through their sentence now is that, under his legislation, they are let out halfway through their sentence? In the past 40 days, the Home Secretary has blamed the judges, blamed the civil servants and tried to blame the public. Will the Prime Minister tell him to stop trying to blame everyone else and to get on with his job?
I notice that the right hon. Gentleman repeats the point that he is getting wrong. Since April 2005, 1,000 indeterminate sentences have been given, six have been considered for parole, and no one has been paroled. Those are the facts. As for the rest of the Tory attack, the fact is that, on all these pieces of legislation, they have either voted against them, dismissed them as gimmicks or refused to support them and tried to dilute them. However, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be bringing forward further measures, and we will then have the chance to see whether the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are prepared to back up their tough talk by changing the habits of opposition and actually voting for the legislation that does the job.
I know that the Prime Minister and the whole House will sympathise with the extreme distress and trauma caused to the three-year-old child who was abducted and sexually abused in Cardiff, and with the distress caused to her family, who are my constituents in Cardiff, North. I know that my right hon. Friend will not want to comment on the individual case, but will he do his best to press the Sentencing Guidelines Council to ensure that, following the review that it is undertaking, there will no longer be an automatic reduction in sentence in return for a guilty plea in the cases of the most serious crimes and the most dangerous offenders?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is exactly why, with indeterminate sentences, people are not able to get parole automatically, as they used to. Under the 2003 Act, the indeterminate sentence provisions were extended to a schedule of no fewer than 66 different offences. Therefore, even in circumstances where people are considered for parole, there is no automatic right to it. I think that that entirely meets her point. Furthermore, it is important to realise that, partly as a result of the work of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, but also as a result of what has happened over the past few years, not only has the number of prison places increased but sentences are longer and people are serving longer sentences. In relation to sexual offences in particular, the law has been strengthened considerably. The powers are there, and I hope that the courts use them to the fullest extent possible.
I associate myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends with the condolences and sympathy expressed by the Prime Minister a moment or two ago.
In 2003, the energy White Paper described nuclear energy as an unattractive proposition on grounds of cost and waste. Can the Prime Minister tell us what has changed now?
I certainly can. First, energy prices are rising the entire time, which is why the whole issue of nuclear energy is back on the agenda not just of this country but of many other countries around the world. I think that 50 to 60 different nuclear power stations are being built this year, including the first in Europe for a long time. Secondly, our anxiety about climate change and the need to find clean sources of energy is increasing. Thirdly, when we consider our self-sufficiency in energy, we find that we are about 80 to 90 per cent. sufficient in oil and gas. Over the next 15 to 20 years, that will reverse, and we will have to import. Therefore, there are reasons of security of supply, rising energy costs and climate change. I am not saying that nuclear is the only answer—of course it is not. There are renewables, energy efficiency and everything else. However, I still think that nuclear must be at least part of the debate and argument if we are to make sure that our energy needs are properly and cleanly met for the future. That answers the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s question.
The Prime Minister was not precise on the costs of nuclear power. Can he confirm that the taxpayer is liable for up to £90 billion to clean up the existing generation of nuclear power stations? Who will pay for a new generation of nuclear power stations? Will it be business, the taxpayer or the consumer?
Let me point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the decommissioning costs of existing nuclear power stations will have to be met in any event. The whole point—[Interruption.] Will hon. Members listen to the answer? The technology of nuclear power is also changing, and the new generation of nuclear power stations generate around one tenth of the waste of the previous generation. Therefore, if we are to take the correct long-term decisions for the future of this country, the debate must be engaged in and decided on now.
I am happy to meet my hon. Friend, and I extend my sympathy in relation to the situation that his constituent has experienced. He will know that employment tribunal awards, if unpaid, are enforced through the civil courts. The forthcoming Courts and Tribunals Bill, which we intend to publish in draft during this Parliament, will set out proposals for the reform of the current system of enforcement. At the moment, as he rightly points out, there is real anxiety that the system of enforcement does not adequately meet the needs of claimants. Publishing the Bill in draft will give us an opportunity to debate the issue and to see how we strengthen the law. I look forward to discussing the issue with him.
Multiple sclerosis nurses take the burden off the NHS, provide high-quality care and give patients the treatment that they need. Is the Prime Minister aware that the MS Trust says that, because of NHS cuts, a quarter of specialist posts are at risk? Given that each MS nurse saves the NHS £64,000, what will the Prime Minister do to ensure that crisis cuts to reduce budget deficits do not do long-term damage to our NHS?
Obviously, we have to make sure that the difficult financial decisions that need to be taken are taken, and that the NHS is in balance. Of course, the vast majority of trusts are either breaking even or are in balance. It is also important, however, to recognise that, even with the financial situation in the national health service, there is a huge amount of additional money going in, which has to be used by trusts in the most effective and efficient way possible. On MS, we have of course put a massive amount of additional money into MS, and into many of the other diseases that need management by the individual and by the system over a long period of time.
But it is not just MS nurses who are being affected; according to the Royal College of Nursing, 15,000 NHS jobs are being lost. At the Horton hospital in Banbury—an acute general hospital—we are seeing nursing posts being removed, the potential loss of consultants and emergency procedures in the maternity unit, and the ending of a full-time children’s service. Those sorts of cuts are happening throughout the NHS and are profoundly affecting the hospitals that serve our constituents, yet the Health Secretary says that this is the best ever year for the health service. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to apologise to the thousands of NHS staff for the crass insensitivity of that remark?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about job losses, but with the greatest of respect, when we look into a lot of those so-called job losses, we find that they are actually either posts that are not being filled or agency workers who are not being hired. Since we came to power, there have been about 250,000 additional people working in the national health service, and, in addition, we are paying them better than ever before and protecting their pensions. It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to say that he is speaking up for the NHS and the nurses, but he opposed the extra investment in the national health service, he opposed the extra jobs in the national health service, he opposed the pay deals in the national health service, and now he wants to take away their pensions. So whoever else is in a good position to represent them, he certainly is not.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in warmly welcoming the apology given by the Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner, Andy Hayman, to the family whose home was raided and the residents of Forest Gate? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while the police must protect the public by acting on intelligence, they must do so in a sensitive way that does not alienate the community—in this case, the Muslim community?
First, I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s concern, which she very properly raises as the constituency Member of Parliament. I also of course fully endorse what Andy Hayman said. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to say one other thing. Andy Hayman and his team do a superb job in protecting this country. They are faced with very difficult situations when they receive information or intelligence, and we can only imagine what would happen if they received intelligence, did not act on it, and something terrible occurred. Although I entirely endorse everything that Andy has very properly said, I also stand 101 per cent. behind the police and the security services in the difficult work that they do, and I do not want them to be inhibited in doing that work. They have to do what is necessary to protect the public, and they do it in a very fine and outstanding way.
My hon. Friend is right to say that local government has a responsibility too, but it is not for us to enforce that. I can assure him that we will do our best to persuade local government to join in the central Government initiative. He is also right to say that this country has a key leadership position on climate change, because we are meeting the Kyoto targets and have introduced the climate change levy. Incidentally, I notice that although the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives were supposed to be building a cross-party consensus on this, one of them has now—
The Prime Minister said that fewer people were getting parole as a direct consequence of his policies. That is wrong. Does he not realise that fewer people are getting parole because the probation service and the Parole Board have been destroyed by this Government? As a direct consequence of the activities of his Government, the Parole Board is unable to interview directly prisoners who should not be released, so they are released and commit terrible crimes. It is no good the Prime Minister shouting at the Opposition: he should know the facts before he makes such pronouncements.
With the greatest respect, the fact is that as a result of the Act the automatic parole that used to apply after two thirds of the sentence no longer applies. In relation to the Parole Board, we are trying to give a greater say to victims, and I would have thought that the hon. and learned Gentleman welcomed that.
It is important to recognise that for all the difficulties in carrying through a tough process of public service reform, we have—as my hon. Friend rightly implies—employed some 80,000 extra nurses in the national health service, and about 250,000 more staff in total. Incidentally, they are not bureaucrats but front-line staff engaged in delivering good care. It is also true that we are paying our nurses, consultants and GPs a lot more. I personally think that that is a good idea and that they are worth it. In return for that, of course, we want to see the necessary changes made. My hon. Friend is right that it is the mixture of investment and reform that is at the heart of the issue, and it appears that the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives oppose both.
May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that we intervened in this case in order to ensure that the rules of international law and state immunity are fully and accurately presented and upheld? That is important for us as a country and for others. But our strong position against torture remains unchanged: we utterly condemn it in every set of circumstances.
Another cloud of anxiety that hangs over the future of our energy supplies stems from the reports recently by the electricity generating industry that many of our coastline power stations are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In the energy review, are the Government prepared to consider whether new major power stations—including nuclear ones—should be sited inland?
I am sure that in the course of the energy review we will look at all those different issues, but my hon. Friend’s question highlights the urgency of the climate change question. It is apparent from all the evidence that has been presented, even in the past couple of years, on the issue of climate change that it is not only that the science has been accepted, but that the process of warming may be happening at a faster rate than we anticipated. My greatest worry is that there is a mismatch between the timing of the international community in getting the right agreements in place and the absolute necessity of taking urgent action now.
I cannot agree with that. In the end, the test for decommissioning has to be applied by the Independent Monitoring Commission. Throughout the peace process of the past few years, we have sought some form of independent verification of whether claims made by the IRA, or others, are justified. That is why we introduced the IMC. It will look at all the evidence, including statements from people in the Republic or in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and make up its mind as a result. We must make our judgments on the basis of what it says. If we do not, we will lose the essential objectivity that is the only way to determine claim and counterclaim. The hon. Gentleman has long experience of these issues and will know that claims and counterclaims are made on all sides. The only way to determine them finally is through the process that we set up—and which he supported at the time.
I am very happy to look at what my hon. Friend says. I understand the concern to which he refers, and I shall get back to him with an answer. I know that what happened still causes people a great deal of distress and hurt, even after all these years.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 16 May, a Health Minister informed the House that Hertfordshire would be served by two primary care trusts, as part of the shake-up of PCTs. However, I fear that both I and the Minister have been misled by the East of England strategic health authority, which has written to me today to say that
“the two PCT Boards should be served by one management team and one Chief Executive.”
To all intents and purposes, that sounds like one PCT in everything but name. How can I best alert the Minister to that slipperiness and obfuscation, so that he can deal with it?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In a written answer that I received from the Home Office last Friday, it was revealed that 23 life prisoners—who had been released on licence and who therefore should have been supervised by the Home Office—had gone on the run. That is a clear indication that this Government do not enforce life sentences properly. Today, it has emerged that the Prime Minister told The Sun newspaper, outside the House, that he backs its excellent campaign that life should mean life. However, no Home Office Minister has come to the House to explain—
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I submitted a named day question to the Home Secretary on 26 April concerning the very important issue of foreign prisoner releases from Peterborough prison in my constituency. Six weeks later, I have yet to receive a substantive answer. I seek your guidance on what I believe to be the shoddy treatment of a Back Bencher attempting to fulfil his duty in holding the Executive to account.
An earlier point of order on this subject was raised about 10 days ago by the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). I took it up, and I assure the House that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is very concerned about the backlog in answering parliamentary questions and is working with his ministerial team to ensure that it is dealt with as quickly as possible. However, I must tell the House that the number of parliamentary questions that the Home Office receives has shot up in recent weeks. That is understandable, given the public concern, but although it is important that hon. Members’ questions are answered in a timely way, the House will know that it is also important that they are answered accurately and comprehensively. I assure you, Mr. Speaker, and the House, that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and all his Ministers are fully seized of the issue.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During Prime Minister’s questions, you quite rightly admonished a Labour Member who was sitting in the Gangway for shouting at the Leader of the Opposition. Am I not right in thinking that the Gangway is not technically part of the Chamber, and that there was thus an added abuse of the House? Will you take steps to ensure that the abuse of the Gangway is discontinued?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In the light of your advice to my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), may we request that a Home Office Minister come to the House to make a statement about life prisoners being released and absconding?
Parliamentary and Local Elections (Choice of Electoral Systems)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the holding of referendums about methods of election to the House of Commons and to local authorities; to enable a specified number of electors to require the holding of such a referendum; to require the Electoral Commission to establish a Citizens’ Assembly to perform functions in relation to referendums; to provide for the adoption by a local authority of a different method of election; and for connected purposes.
The Bill responds to widespread concern about public confidence in, and the legitimacy of, our democratic processes. It is presented in the context of declining participation in national and local elections, and growing concern about disengagement and alienation from the political process, especially among young people.
In brief, the Bill proposes the mechanism of a referendum to decide on the merits of different voting systems for both parliamentary and municipal elections. For general elections, the mechanism for that would be a petition containing the signatures of at least 5 per cent. of the relevant electorate. For local elections, the mechanism would be either 5 per cent. of the relevant electorate, or a simple resolution of the local authority. In both cases, the question in the referendum would provide a simple choice between the election system in force and one of the five alternative systems specified in the Bill. The decision on which of the alternatives should be included in the question for a national referendum would be the responsibility of the Electoral Commission after it had taken the advice of a citizens assembly, which would comprise a randomly selected group of individual electors. The assembly would have the prime function of considering and reporting on the merits of the different systems.
As we approach the 175th anniversary of the Great Reform Act of 1832, our democracy is in need of further great reform. Although I recognise that the voting system is only one aspect of our democratic machinery, it nevertheless has a crucial influence on the general perception of the credibility of government at all levels. It can affect the willingness of people to participate in elections and to put themselves forward for elections. It is vital that the public have confidence that all their votes can help to make a difference and that those who stand for election broadly reflect the composition of the population as a whole.
I stress that the Bill does not simply reopen the debate about majoritarian and proportional systems of voting, and nor is it designed simply to introduce proportional representation by the back door. As the promoter of the Bill, it is my view that no single electoral system is perfect. Different systems have different strengths and weaknesses, so a healthy democracy needs a mix of systems to provide the right blend of checks and balances.
The Bill expresses no preference as between different voting systems. Its only purpose is to ensure that the voices of ordinary citizens are heard, and that they have power to choose directly the means by which they elect their representatives. However, the Bill does require that the advocates of different voting systems state their case positively and win their argument, rather than maintaining the status quo through inertia or misinformation. Although the Bill expresses no preference between different systems, the mechanism of the referendum would require the advocates of all systems actively to engage ordinary people in the merits of their case.
The basic statistics on the level of democratic participation in the United Kingdom are not encouraging. The 2005 general election delivered a Government with a healthy majority of 66, built on the votes of a mere 35 per cent. of the electorate—the lowest share of the vote for any governing party since 1918. With a turnout of only 61 per cent., the 35 per cent. share of the vote delivered 55 per cent. of the seats, but with the active support of barely one in five of the total of those eligible to vote. Of the world’s democracies, only Turkey has a majority Government elected with a lower share of the vote. In the European Union, only the coalition Governments of Estonia and Lithuania were elected with a lower share of the vote. The turnout in last year’s general election was the second lowest since 1918, and with the exception of elections in the five former Soviet bloc countries, last year’s general election had the lowest turnout of all recent parliamentary elections in the European Union.
I do not argue that the current electoral system is solely responsible for those depressing statistics. However, we can no longer ignore the long-term consequences of the declining enthusiasm for the ballot box. With the exception of France, Britain is the only country in the EU to use first past the post for parliamentary elections, and almost all the world’s most recently established democracies have opted for a system with a strong proportional element. The House has notably chosen to avoid the use of pure first past the post in the voting systems for the devolved assemblies.
That brings me to the question of local democracy. There will be those who say that by allowing for the possibility of different electoral systems in neighbouring local authorities, the Bill would cause confusion and introduce further complexity—but we have already accepted the principle of variability in local democratic procedures. The Greater London assembly, for example, has an electoral system different from that for individual London boroughs, and local authorities that have adopted the system of directly elected mayors have already adopted systems of political accountability different from those of authorities that have retained a leader and cabinet system. The Bill provides for exactly the same mechanism—a petition bearing the signatures of at least 5 per cent. of the electorate—as the House has already agreed for the establishment of directly elected mayors.
I do not argue that the system of elected mayors has brought about an immediate transformation of local government, although I think that there are many examples of very successful elected mayors, but I do say that if the House has already agreed that it is acceptable for neighbouring local authorities to have different systems of political accountability, it must follow that it is equally acceptable for them to have different electoral systems. Similarly, if the House has accepted the use of the referendum as an appropriate means of enabling voters to choose the structure of their council’s political leadership, it must follow that a referendum is an equally appropriate means of enabling voters to determine how their local political leaders should be elected.
That brings me to the heart of the Bill. By devolving power over such decisions away from the political caucus to the individual citizen, and away from the Westminster village to the real villages, towns and cities of the United Kingdom in which 60 million people live, the Bill would help to reinvigorate a debate about the nature of political representation that has been dormant for far too long.
The Bill requires the Electoral Commission to establish a citizens assembly—a randomly selected group of citizens who would take on the task of considering in some detail the merits of different voting systems, and then making recommendations to the Electoral Commission on the forming of the question in the referendum. By engaging the public in such a process, we would open up the debate much more directly than would be the case if the arguments were restricted to the more conventional forms of parliamentary procedures and progressed through the use of national commissions of inquiry composed entirely of the great and the good.
As the Bill expresses no preference for any single electoral system but simply requires that people should be able to choose directly the system under which they wish to be governed, it paves the way for a great national debate, or an extensive series of local debates, about the future of our democracy, in which ordinary people would be fully involved. Of course, it should also be possible for those on either side of the debate on electoral reform, together with those who are genuinely undecided or who support hybrid systems, to support the Bill.
To conclude, the Bill proposes the use of a referendum to consider alternative systems of voting for local and parliamentary elections. It requires the signatures of at least 5 per cent. of the relevant electorate to trigger the referendum. The referendum question would offer a simple choice between the current system and one alternative.
The Bill is supported by a number of well established organisations, which have come together as the electoral choice steering committee. Its members include the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, Charter88, the New Politics Network and the Electoral Reform Society. I am grateful to the electoral choice steering committee for its assistance in promoting the Bill. Whatever the Bill’s future, the issue of electoral choice will return again and again until the argument for a referendum is finally won. I commend the Bill to the House.
As far as I can see, this Bill would implement a hitherto forgotten part of the Government’s 1997 programme. It is important to start by looking back at why the proposal for a referendum on electoral reform was included. It is because in the run-up to the 1997 general election, the Prime Minister did not think that he would win sufficient seats in the House to form a majority. He therefore did a deal with the then leader of the Liberal Democrats, Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, which provided for the Prime Minister to introduce a referendum if Lord Ashdown’s party supported the proposal.
However, what the Prime Minister did not say at the time—although I am sure that it what he would have said—is that it is one thing to bring in a referendum, and another to ensure that it is carried with the support of the Labour party. It is my belief that Labour Back Benchers and many Labour voters up and down the country, in common with many on the Conservative Benches, would have voted against such a referendum, and Lord Ashdown would have been stymied. The Prime Minister was quite content with that, so when he had a majority, he did not introduce legislation of this kind.
Why is the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) now introducing this Bill? Is it because he and his hon. Friends believe something that they did not believe seven or eight years ago? Is it because they believe something that they have been unable to implement over the lifetime of two and a half Labour Governments? Is it because they believe that in a year or two they will no longer command a majority in the House, and are grasping at whatever straw is available to amend or fiddle the electoral system to their advantage, as some of their colleagues have done before? Why are Labour Back Benchers becoming interested in electoral reform again?
The hon. Gentleman says—and I believe him—that he is concerned about declining levels of participation in our democracy. I do not believe that those declining levels can be remedied by structural fiddling of this kind. What is wrong with our democracy is not whether people turn out when they have the opportunity to do so, but the incapacity of Members on both sides of the House to engage the electors sufficiently to make them believe that voting can make a difference. What matters is not how one votes, but whether one can vote for a party that will make a difference. It is fair to acknowledge that at the last election, the public did not believe that the Conservative party could form a majority, so in many parts of the country they saw no point in turning out to support us. On the other hand, they saw no point in turning out in elections to defend the Labour party either, because in many constituencies the Labour party was unassailable.
It is not structural change that will engage people in politics, but the belief that by such engagement they can change the country for the better. I am confident that by the time we get to the next general election, the belief that voting can change the country for the better will be much wider. The hon. Member for Bury, North complains about the lowest turnout in the western world, but the current electoral system did not lead to that, and when a real choice is put before the British people and an opportunity presented to vote for change, the turnout will certainly be high enough.
The hon. Gentlemen says that democracy is in need of greater reform, and I agree with him. I agree that we need greater accountability, but I must say that I have not seen that introduced as a result of the Government’s changes in local government. Instead of a system of committees, we now have a system of elective dictatorship—but I did not see the hon. Gentleman vote against that. I agree with referendums and I think that they are a good idea, but I do not see why they should be confined to votes on issues that the Government and their supporters believe people should be allowed to vote on. People should be entitled to choose which issues to vote on for themselves. Perhaps they should have an opportunity to bring forward propositions of their own—[Interruption.] Yes, propositions to protect grammar schools, or propositions on sentencing, capital punishment and other issues that really engage with this country’s electors.
The hon. Member for Bury, North suggested bringing forward five alternative systems of voting, which are specified in the Bill, but we are not to give people the opportunity to choose a system of democracy for themselves. Rather, they are to be handed down a system of democracy from the very place that the hon. Gentleman describes as the Westminster village, from which he says he is going to take away these powers.
The hon. Gentleman says that people will be able to adopt a system of democracy appropriate to their area, but I must tell him, in all candour, that politicians in those areas would—as the Government did in their Bills for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—adopt the electoral system that they believed would lead to the outcome that they desired. That, I am afraid, will be the consequence of introducing a range of different electoral systems in different countries. The proportional system in Northern Ireland has merely spread power to the extremities in politics, rather than give a greater voice to the men of good sense and moderation, like ourselves, in the middle. I cannot see how introducing a system—either by the front door or by the back door—that allows politicians to pick and choose the electoral system that will keep them in power can be good for democracy.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman suggested giving greater responsibility to the Electoral Commission—as if it did not have enough to do already. For example, it is examining the boundary review system to ensure that we do not start with unfair boundaries and end up with unfair boundaries. As if the Electoral Commission could not be doing more to look into votes for members of the armed forces, or as if it did not have enough to worry about in respect of impersonation and postal votes! The Electoral Commission consumes a huge amount of money and it does not require additional responsibilities, but instead should focus on its current responsibilities.
The hon. Gentleman is convinced that his Bill will take power away from the Westminster village into towns and villages up and down the country. I wish that that were true. He believes that ordinary people in their pubs and clubs spend their time discussing the electoral system by which their local authorities are elected—but he must live in a world very different from that of the Isle of Wight. In my constituency, very little time is spent discussing the electoral system. The Bill will not give power to ordinary citizens. It is an adventure playground for political anoraks, and I urge the House to reject it.
Two contributions are allowed: the promoter of the Bill and one Member who opposes it. That is enough. We then take a vote.
Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Steve McCabe.]
Tomorrow and on Friday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I will represent the United Kingdom at the European Council in Brussels. We expect discussions to focus on the constitutional treaty, enlargement and Hampton Court follow-up, as well, of course, as current world problems. This afternoon, the House has its customary opportunity to debate the Government’s priorities.
It is now a year since two founding member states of the European Union, France and the Netherlands, rejected the draft treaty establishing a constitution for Europe. Out of those two decisions and the intense debate that they provoked came a very clear message: the European Union needed to reconnect more closely with the people of Europe. They were wary of a European Union that seemed to set its own direction with minimal reference to what they actually wanted out of it, or what was relevant to and would improve their daily lives. That may be an unjust perception, but it was clearly a strong one. Citizens were looking for an effective Europe: one that helped member states to overcome problems together and by so doing brought concrete benefits to their citizens on the things that mattered to them—in short, a Europe that was part of the solution, not part of the problem. That is the kind of Europe towards which this Government are working.
Let me emphasise one point. An effective Europe is exactly that. I do not mean automatically less Europe, whatever that means. I do not mean a weaker Europe and I certainly do not mean a Europe in which the British Government fail seriously to engage, and in consequence fail to advance or defend Britain’s interests. This Government believe, as I do, that the best interests of the British people are served by this country being a strong member of a confident, effective, outward-looking European Union—one that delivers security and prosperity to its citizens. We are committed to working with our European partners to achieve that.
On that point, I have to say to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) that it is far from clear to me that withdrawal from one of the major political groupings in the European Union will be of assistance in fighting Britain’s corner. I should say at once that I have every sympathy for him in the predicament in which he finds himself. When he was leader of the Conservative party, he sensibly chose to keep his party within the European People’s party. Now he has been lumbered with a foolish pledge made by his leader in a moment of desperation during the recent leadership contest, and I understand that he has been forced to meet some pretty unsavoury characters in his attempts to cobble together a new coalition. Indeed, one of his own MEPs called them
“a pretty unappealing ragbag of fringe politicians”.
From the point of view of the British public, it is a sorry state of affairs when the man who notably led clarion calls to save the pound and to prevent Britain from becoming a foreign land is now regarded as a moderate in his party on these issues.
Tomorrow’s is the first European Council that I shall attend, but it is only the latest development in a process of sustained engagement with the Union’s institutions. In negotiations both within Europe and at international level, I have seen just how great a difference our engagement in and with the EU can make. We want and need to be an influential part of that effective European Union. Many of the challenges we face as a country can be met only if we work together with our European partners.
The right hon. Lady started by saying that the discussions over the next two days would be about, among other things, the constitutional treaty. If my memory serves me correctly, when the constitutional treaty was signed, we were told that if it did not pass within two years, it would fall. What is the position now?
I do not recall hearing that, but no doubt my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe will deal with that when he winds up the debate.
Let me give one classic example of problems that, by their very nature, transcend national boundaries: environmental issues, not least climate change. Many of the substantial environmental improvements that we in the UK have seen in recent years—cleaner air and cleaner water—have been driven by regulation agreed at EU level and can be said to be “due” to the EU. There can be little doubt that climate change, the greatest long-term threat facing the world, is a trans-boundary problem. Climate change will have a direct impact on the lives of people in this country and across the EU, and people across Europe are demanding that their Governments take action. However, neither the UK nor any other member state can hope to succeed through unilateral action. Carbon emissions anywhere affect the climate everywhere, and international consensus and action within and beyond the borders of the EU are imperative.
It is because, under the present Government, the UK’s voice is recognised and respected within Europe that we have been at the forefront of European Union efforts to tackle climate change. Those efforts have led to concerted action among the 25 member states to reduce their own carbon emissions. There is still much more to do, but what we have already achieved would have been unthinkable if we had needed to rely solely on a network of bilateral agreements.
As my right hon. Friend has pointed out, many EU countries have implemented measures to combat climate change, often to the detriment of their domestic industries. By far the two greatest contributors to global warming and climate change are the United States of America and China. Does she envisage the EU taking a much more robust position to persuade those two countries to reduce their emissions?
We have always taken a forward-looking and robust position on climate change. The whole House will recall the tremendous efforts made by the Prime Minister last year, particularly during our G8 presidency, to create an atmosphere in which the US could agree to do as they did in Montreal and take forward the discussions—something that it had been resisting until then. Similarly, my hon. Friend will recall that, as well as the G8, we invited to Gleneagles what are known as the “plus five” countries—five major energy users now and in the future and consequently five countries that may have substantial emissions—and that we successfully drew them into the discussions. Both the United States and China are participants in the Gleneagles follow-up dialogue, of which the next meeting will be held in Mexico this autumn.
No. The G8 is a grouping in which the United States is a participant and China was invited to the meeting. However, one of the reasons why we were able to get that agreement at the G8 is the strength of the ties between the European members of that body.
It is no good the hon. Gentleman shaking his head—to disagree with that is to fly in the face of the facts.
Beyond the EU, it is as a negotiating group that we have a much stronger voice on the international stage. In five years of climate change negotiations, culminating in Montreal, I have seen it demonstrated time and again that the EU as a group plays a pivotal role in brokering agreement. We could not play that role or reach agreements such as the one reached in Montreal if Europe did not speak with a single voice.
The forthcoming European Council should adopt the EU’s revised sustainable development strategy. For the first time, we shall have a single, coherent and, I hope, accessible strategy that brings together all the Community’s internal and external objectives in that field. Two of the seven objectives within that strategy relate to climate change and clean energy. On climate change in particular, we want the European Council to make a clear statement on the need for a global consensus on the scale of the action that must be taken if we are to avoid dangerous climate change, including a long-term stabilisation goal and a truly global debate. That debate cannot only be between Governments; it must include business, investors, non-governmental organisations and consumers.
The Foreign Secretary mentioned business interests. Does she accept that it is open to the United Kingdom Parliament to legislate on its own terms unilaterally if negotiations fail on removing unnecessary burdens on business that emanate from the EU and to require the judiciary to give effect to that latest inconsistent, clearly set out legislation, so that we can remove those burdens ourselves?
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was listening other than to the thread of the ideas that he has honourably pursued for a long time. I pointed out that a huge proportion—I have never worked out a precise figure—of the environmental improvements that have been made in this country in recent years and which are rightly welcomed on both sides of the House have come directly as a result of European regulations, which I know he hates. He refers to burdens on business, but some of the changes that are beneficial to the public, not least in terms of the impact on their health, are regarded by some people in the business community as burdens because they regard all regulation as a burden. One of the reasons why the Government made better regulation a theme of our EU presidency is that there is such a thing as beneficial regulation—even, dare I say, if it comes from Europe.
I shall not give way again to the hon. Gentleman, at least not for the time being, although I do not rule it out for ever.
On energy, the European Council will discuss the external aspects of EU energy policy as agreed by the spring European Council, with a view to maintaining the momentum of the work and giving a clear mandate to the Finnish presidency to develop it further. We shall continue to press for external aspects of energy policy to be reflected fully in the Commission’s strategic energy review, which is due in spring 2007.
Does the right hon. Lady think that it would aid public understanding if the law-making process in the Council of Ministers was opened up to the public? That was Government policy until very recently—indeed, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), when he was Minister for Europe, wrote that it remained the UK objective
“to push for all of the Council’s legislative business to be opened up to the public”.
Yesterday in the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Foreign Secretary said that that is no longer her position. Will she explain why she has resiled from the commitment to openness, transparency and public understanding?
I agree that it would be beneficial if the legislative process were opened up to a greater degree. That is precisely why the Government made that proposal, which we stand by. However, I said to the right hon. Gentleman yesterday that I thought that he had misunderstood the remarks that my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander) made. My right hon. Friend was talking about all legislative business or items of legislative business and not necessarily every single aspect of the process. I shall return to the point.
Returning to an earlier point about emissions, the aim cannot be to stifle China’s economic development. Instead, Europe should assist China to develop methods of carbon capture, and we should adopt such a strategy in this country, as well.
My hon. Friend is right. He may know that, during our presidency last year, we presided over the EU-China summit and reached an agreement with China that the UK, through the EU, would help to pilot a clean-coal power station. China, India and the United States have substantial coal reserves that they are bound to use, particularly as development is the highest priority for China and India. There can be few more beneficial things both for development and for the cause of climate change than developing the capacity for clean-coal power
As I said at the beginning of my speech, we expect discussions at the Council on the constitutional treaty, enlargement and the Hampton Court follow-up. Since the rejection of the constitutional treaty last summer, Europe has been in a period of reflection. Throughout that time, the United Kingdom’s position has been consistent and clear. An effective Europe should focus on the things that matter to its citizens: creating jobs, cutting crime, tackling terrorism and protecting the environment. Those are the questions that face the European Union, and we strongly believe that the answer will not be found in more institutional wrangling which, to the outside observer, is at best opaque and at worst self-indulgent.
May I welcome the right hon. Lady to her post as Foreign Secretary? In Helsinki last week, members of the Select Committee on European Scrutiny were told by the incoming Finnish presidency that, during the period of reflection, it would seriously consider invoking the passerelle clause on justice and home affairs issues. That would be a radical development, so would the UK Government support it?
We would want to look carefully at the implications, but I will return to that in a few moments.
In his speech last June to the European Parliament, the Prime Minister set out the challenge for European leaders. That was the agenda we took forward, and which Europe agreed, at the informal summit at Hampton Court. It is the direction in which we will urge our European partners to continue at tomorrow’s council. In his statement to the House on 31 January 2006, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South said that the Hampton Court informal summit had already entered the European Union lexicon. I understand, however, that in French the Hampton Court agenda is known as “L’Europe des Projets”. Whatever the language, the tune is the same. It points to detailed, concrete work on matters such as improving European universities, increasing support for research and development, and finding a common European energy policy. We want the European Council to make a strong and clear statement in its conclusions that maintains the agenda’s momentum and profile and reaffirms the commitment of the whole of Europe to follow it.
My right hon. Friend has not touched on the important collective role that the European Union plays in negotiations in the World Trade Organisation. Does she believe, like me, that Europe’s position in that body is not facilitated by the protectionist stance that has emerged in some EU states and by our historical commitment to agricultural protectionism and intervention?
Both within Europe and outside, there are worrying signs of the growth of protectionism. I entirely share my hon. Friend’s view that that is harmful to the UK and to the world community, so it must be resisted in agriculture and in other fields. He may know that on Monday, the General Affairs and External Relations Council considered a report by the Trade Commissioner, who said that the world community accepts that there is scope for each group to move its position. They must do so if we are to achieve a Doha round agreement. He clearly does not despair of the prospects for such an agreement, and we all hope that he is right.
The Commission’s communication, “A Citizens’ Agenda”, which was published in May, suggests that it, too, has understood the message that building an effective Europe is key to Europe’s future. Europe is effective when it can make decisions that make it easier for the EU to tackle problems that have an impact on people’s lives. The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) asked me about the field of justice and home affairs.
I should like to leave a thought about the period of reflection with the Foreign Secretary. We have all seen the poster that says, “Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits.” I am not entirely sure what the British Government are doing, but there comes a time when one just looks stupid doing so.
I am not accusing my right hon. Friend of sitting on the issue, which is difficult and complex. If we accept that there is still a period of reflection—[Interruption.] I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) is needed in the agriculture debate. Given that the EU has 25 members, and may have 27 members next year, we can move forward in some areas without the need for legislation, as that would help the transparency and efficiency of the EU. If we work with our colleagues on, for example, science and the proposed university, we could advance the agenda without the need for a constitution.
I am grateful that the matter has been raised. Is the Minister saying that the constitution has not been approved, but European leaders and the Government intend to implement bits of it anyway under existing rules? Does that not give the lie to the statement that was constantly made when the constitution was under consideration—that only by accepting everything in the constitution could we make progress on anything?
Perhaps my hon. Friend followed those debates more closely than I did before I took up my responsibilities but, with respect, I do not remember anyone making that point. There is a world of difference between trying to find a way to take forward bits of the constitution in the original package and considering measures that do not rely on a new treaty and legal basis. Inevitably, because the constitution drew together different strands and ideas that were discussed at the time, some issues in the constitutional treaty do not require a new legal basis, so it would be open to the European Union to consider them on the basis of existing treaties. A decision has not been made or even discussed about whether or not Europe should embark on the process. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) asked, quite reasonably, whether any thinking is taking place. It is, but we are not at the stage of making proposals, let alone decisions.
May I welcome the Foreign Secretary to this collection of Euro-obsessives who regularly gather together, doling out anoraks before we begin? I am sure that she will be enlightened by the end of the day. On a serious note, there are some areas in which treaty change is necessary. If Croatia joined the European Union, for instance, the voting strengths of council members would have to be redrawn, and the number of MEPs would have to be changed. That would require treaty change, but could it be achieved through accession treaties?
My hon. Friend invites me stray into territory which, with respect, I do not intend to tread today. We are rather a long way from the accession of Croatia and the legal issues that that raises. The subject is not likely to arise in that form at this week’s European Council.
The hon. Member for Moray asked me about problems in the field of justice and home affairs, such as cross-border crime, drug trafficking and people trafficking. It is precisely because some justice and home affairs issues are of their nature pan-European that we are prepared to keep an open mind on any potential proposals for changing the way we take some of the decisions in this area. The ideas that have been put forward in the European Commission’s “Citizens’ Agenda” paper on the so-called passerelle are complex. They deserve serious consideration and thought, and that is what we will give them. We do not intend to indulge in scaremongering about loss of veto or about introducing the constitutional treaty by the back door, neither of which is true.
Co-operation in this field can be vital. For instance, it was the European arrest warrant, which was agreed two years ago, that helped to ensure the speedy return to the United Kingdom of one of the suspects following the events of 21 July. In this area, as so often, it is solving the problems that matters more than gesture politics or grandstanding.
Similarly, I do not believe in gesture politics when it comes to transparency. I am sorry to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who asked me about transparency, is not in his place. There is no doubt that opening up every aspect of Council deliberations, as is being proposed, may give a veneer of greater democracy and efficiency, but having spent seven of the past nine years in Councils which legislate, my firm belief is that it would simply mean backroom deals done away from the cameras, an EU that is less—rather than more—open, and potentially less effective as well, which would certainly be disadvantageous.
The right hon. Lady spoke about terrorism and about the need for the European Union to be effective. Given that the Government of Burma are guilty of state terrorism and massive human rights abuses, including rape as a weapon of war, compulsory relocation, the use of child soldiers and the use of human minesweepers, does she agree that this is a scandalous state of affairs, and that it is time that the French stopped putting the pursuit of filthy lucre before democratic values, and that we got a decent and robust common policy that might bring about change in that benighted country?
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. There is no doubt that there is a terrible situation in Burma, and that it is incumbent on us all to do everything we can to put pressure on the Burmese Government. However, the subject is unlikely to come up at this weekend’s Council, although no doubt there will be occasions to pursue it in the future. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that whenever there are, I will endeavour to do so.
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Lady. May I say to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) that I still live in hope that we will get his interventions down to a more compact form, but when he tries to supplement them from a sedentary position, that is going a little too far?
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
On the status of the constitutional treaty, we do not believe that now is the time for the European Council to take a definitive decision. There was a clear consensus last June that a period of reflection was needed. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston asked me about that. The ongoing national debates on the future of Europe show that there is no clear consensus on the constitutional treaty. It seems to us that the European Council should respect that diversity of opinion and agree to extend the period of reflection.
With regard to enlargement, this European Council was due to take a decision on whether Bulgaria and Romania should accede to the Union in 2007 as scheduled or whether to delay accession until 2008. The Commission has now recommended deferring that decision until October, given its concerns about the readiness of both countries. There will be a report from the Commission in October. However, we expect that the topic of enlargement may still be raised at the European Council. Here, as in the debate on the future of Europe, the United Kingdom’s position has always been very clear, and I am pleased to acknowledge that it has received full support from both sides of the House.
There is no better example of how the European Union can bring tangible benefits to its citizens than through successive waves of enlargement. Those benefits have been most obvious in the countries acceding. They have gained both greater economic growth and greater political stability. That was true back in the 1980s when countries such as Spain and Greece emerged from dictatorship, and it was true in 2003 when the 10 new member states stepped out from the shadow of communist totalitarianism.
Existing member states have benefited too. Our peace and security have been enhanced by that spreading stability and by the spreading of the rule of law to an ever-wider circle of neighbours. As we have seen from the most recent wave of enlargement, it has opened up new markets and given us access to much needed skilled labour. Any enlargement has to be managed carefully. It must take into account a number of factors, including the ability of the European Union to absorb new member states, as the European Council acknowledged at Copenhagen in 1993.
Will my right hon. Friend draw the attention of her colleagues to the success that the United Kingdom has had in taking a more open approach to new members joining the European Union and the migration of labour that has been achieved with that, very much to the benefit of this country’s economy, by contrast with performance elsewhere?
My hon. Friend is right. I am not carrying all the details in my head at this moment, but he may like to know that a number of member states are reconsidering the decision that they made, and there may be another four or five that will open up to varying degrees to further movement of members of the work force.
While the capacity to absorb new member states must be considered, the accession negotiation process must be implemented rigorously and all candidates must meet EU standards, but the European Union should not use either of these perfectly valid concerns as a pretext to renege on existing commitments on enlargement, and it would be quite wrong for any changes to the EU’s policy to rule out the possibility of future, further enlargements.
I have spoken about the need for an effective European Union. That is just as true outside Europe’s borders as within them. The European Council will discuss a paper from Commission President Barroso on greater coherence on the EU’s external policies. It will contain proposals to improve internal Commission co-ordination, to develop co-operation between member states, the Commission, the high representative and the Council, and to enhance the visibility and accountability of the European Union’s external actions.
On specific aspects of external relations, we expect discussion of the middle east to take place. I will be discussing the peace process with my colleagues over dinner on Thursday night. I know that many Members of the House have a particular interest in that area and intend to use this debate as an opportunity to discuss some of the pressing problems in that region.
Are the foreign relations problems under discussion likely to include the situation in Uzbekistan, given the fact that the EU arms embargo and visa bans are both set to expire in October? Surely the time is right now to discuss their extension, which would be widely welcomed.
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. I do not anticipate that the issues of Uzbekistan are likely to be on the European Council agenda. As he will have observed, it is a fairly full agenda, but I am sure those issues will be on the agenda of the General Affairs Council before the next European Council meeting takes place.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the discussions on the middle east. Can she give us an indication whether the temporary implementation mechanism for assistance to the Palestinian people is likely to make any significant progress in the next few days, given the acute political crisis, the crisis of violence and the humanitarian needs of the people in Palestine?
My hon. Friend’s timing is, as ever, impeccable. I was about to turn to exactly that issue. I very much hope that those discussions will make progress over the next few days. As he and the House will know, the Commission is leading the development of the temporary international mechanism to help support the basic needs of the Palestinian people, and the UK is working with the Commission to try and get the mechanism set up urgently. My hon. Friend and the House will appreciate that there is a great deal of technical work to do, to make sure that the mechanism is accountable and transparent so that we can all know exactly where the money is going. As a result, the details of what it will support and how it will work are still under discussion. When that has been finalised, I will of course report on these matters to the House.
I understand the constraints of this weekend’s agenda. Given that the Minister used the words “accountability” and “transparency”, what is wrong with public excoriation of EU member states which prop up regimes that abuse human rights? What is wrong with that tactic?
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I do not intend at this stage to enter into a theoretical discussion about the circumstances in which member states may or may not criticise each other’s courses of action, especially as I am almost at the end of my speech and conscious of how many other hon. Members wish to speak. I simply say to him that he has made a very important point about the position in Burma and he knows that the Government share his concern for that unhappy country.
Iran will be probably be a main topic of the Council discussions. The Council is also likely, so far as we can judge, to hear a report on how discussions with the Iranian Government are taking place, and it will be conscious of the importance of achieving success in that arena.
The EU needs to continue to play an active role in all these matters. Returning to the middle east peace process and the issues surrounding it, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and I met Prime Minister Olmert on Monday and Tuesday and discussed with him how to take the peace process forward. We have no wish to go down any path other than that of a negotiated settlement, and we agreed with Prime Minister Olmert that that should be our primary objective. However, the process has to advance, and if it proves impossible to proceed on that basis, which we all must hope does not happen, then other ways will need to be considered. Let me be clear that, as our Prime Minister himself set out, not least in his press conference, it is our task in the international community, the UK, the EU and the broader Quartet to do everything that we can to ensure that there is the best possible chance for a negotiated settlement.
Both cases—Iran and the middle east peace process—are striking examples of how joint European action can make a real difference to peace and stability beyond Europe’s borders, and in so doing enhance security and stability within those borders.
Much of what this Government and the people of this country want to achieve can be achieved only by working with and through the European Union.
I would have given way earlier but I am on my final sentence, so the hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me.
It is for that reason that we will continue to press for the European Union to be as effective as possible in tackling the challenges that face our citizens and in delivering the real benefits that they expect; and we will continue to play an effective role on behalf of Britain’s goals and to maintain our influence in the European Union.
I begin by welcoming the Foreign Secretary to her first full-scale debate in the House as Foreign Secretary, although we have had a chance to congratulate her before. Let me say on behalf of all Members in all parties that we wish her well in her post, because many of the matters that she has to deal with, such as the middle eastern issues that she mentioned and the difficulties with Iran, go far beyond party politics and the scope of this debate. There will be many crises during which we will all look to her to act in the national interest, and I wish her well in doing so.
In her role, the Foreign Secretary will be able to look forward to the traditional six-monthly debates before European Council meetings. She will notice that it is also traditional for the same Members to attend them and make a speech that is 95 per cent. the same as the one that they made on the previous occasion. I will try to break out of that a little bit this time, as no doubt will other hon. Members. It is very important that we have such debates before European Council meetings, but it leads one to reflect that there may be additional ways whereby parliamentary scrutiny of Government policy at European Councils could be improved. I hope that the Government will want to consider those in future.
The Foreign Secretary has already discussed European matters at a Select Committee meeting yesterday, after which the press referred to her ability to say a great deal without saying very much—probably an essential attribute of a Foreign Secretary. It was noted in the press that when she was asked whether European issues required Cabinet representation in their own right, she uttered an immediate and abrupt no—a very straightforward answer. That perhaps helps to explain the oddity of the fact that the Minister for Europe gave a speech about Europe at the Centre for European Reform just three hours ago, before the commencement of this debate. His objective, so far as one can discover, was to restart the debate in this country about the European Union. I say, “so far as one can discover”, because even two hours ago the Foreign Office website was not immune from the wave of public apathy that greeted his speech, so I have not yet been able to examine it in detail.
Once again the Government are talking about restarting the debate on the European Union. Only two years ago, the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and said of Europe:
“Let the issue be put and let the battle be joined.”—[Official Report, 20 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 157.]
Since then, he has made hardly any speeches about Europe and has tried to resist debating it at all, apart from one other speech at the European Parliament that I will come to in a moment.
On restarting the European debate, people living in fishing communities around the country have been interested to learn that the Conservative party, which shamefully took us into the common fisheries policy, has now reneged on its policy to withdraw from it and is content to stay within it. Is that part of the new Tory approach in Scotland—vote Tory and get a Labour Government?
I am not aware of any such approach. The common fisheries policy has failed economically and environmentally; we are very clear about that, as is the hon. Gentleman. We have long sought more local and national control in fisheries policy and agricultural policies. In our policy review, we will want to look closely at ways of achieving policies that encourage sustainable fishing, do not place excessive burdens on taxpayers, and enrich and protect the environment. We have not come to any conclusion about that, but we will of course do so before the next general election. Other parties should be engaged in that process instead of being content not to try to change such a failing policy.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I should like to develop my opening remarks a little.
It is rather a shame that the former Leader of the House, who is now Minister for Europe, chose to restart the debate on Europe somewhere else—neither in our debate nor sufficiently in advance of it that hon. Members have had a chance to digest and analyse his speech. If that is revealing, the content, so far as it is possible to discern it, was a little more so. He said—I agree with him about this—that people in Britain have come to associate Europe with “obscure constitutional arrangements”. He also refused to rule out the revival of the European constitution. I must warn him that in doing so, he is taking a different path from the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who has pretty much said in this House that the European constitution is dead. In fact, the last time that he was asked about it by my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, he said:
“it is difficult to argue that the constitution is not dead.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 147.]
He went on to say that it is in “in limbo”. Whatever theological contortions that may have led him into, it is apparent to all that one cannot be in limbo without being dead. While he did not like to put it bluntly, his message was pretty clear. The deeply flawed constitution—a centralising, integrationist treaty whose time has truly passed—could not be revived, as the Dutch Foreign Minister has stated categorically. It is a pity that Ministers do not have the courage to say that bluntly.
Is the aggression that the right hon. Gentleman is unfairly directing at my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe partly due to the fact that on reshuffle day he issued a press release condemning the creation of a Department of European Affairs that was never actually created?
I think that the Minister thought that it was going to be created, which was one of the reasons why he accepted the job. Yes, there was certainly some confusion among the Opposition as to what was going on, but that was nothing compared with the confusion in No. 10. I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman thinks that this is aggression—it is merely good-natured advice to the Minister for Europe, to whom I bear no malice whatsoever. However, it is well known that he was offered a job and that, a couple of hours later, No. 10 had to ring up and explain that it was an entirely different job. That is doubtless because the Foreign Secretary asserted herself in no uncertain terms and I do not blame her for that.
Before the Minister for Europe says anything more about reviving the European constitution or refusing to rule it out, does not he realise the extent of the relief in the Government and the barely concealed sense of heaven-sent reprieve in 10 Downing street and the Foreign Office when the constitution was defeated in the referendums in France and the Netherlands? Does he believe that, if the constitution were put back on the rails and won approval elsewhere and the Government had to hold a referendum in this country, the Prime Minister or the Chancellor would think that that was a good idea? He has just experienced one downward move in his ministerial career—I say that in the continuing spirit of friendly advice—and if he comes back with the European constitution alive and kicking, he will be junior Under-Secretary for paperclips in no time.
I probably share some of the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the constitution. However, in fairness to my right hon. Friend, recent press reports show that Italy, France, Germany and Austria have all spoken about the revival of the constitution. Indeed, the Belgian Prime Minister said that 15 states have already ratified and that, when we get to four fifths, the matter should be referred back to the European Council. The decision about reviving the constitution could well be out of my right hon. Friend’s hands.
The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to efforts to revive the constitution in other parts of Europe—including, bizarrely, some countries where the people have rejected it, for example, France. That is all the more reason for our Government to make their position clear and speak out. This country would not be alone in rejecting the constitution in a referendum. Indeed, if the Governments of some of the countries that approved it had had the courage to put it to their people, it would have been rejected.
Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. That happens because there is a growing public and political sense in Europe that the combination of the vast enlargement of the European Union, the pace of globalisation and the rejection of the constitution require new ideas about the future of Europe that are different from the failed orthodoxies of the past 20 years. I should like the Government to move on to those new ideas.
Why did not the Minister give the speech in the debate rather than outside the House? I am the bearer of news of his speech and am thus doing the House a service, but it should not be necessary for me to do that.
The Minister said that the debate in Europe should be about globalisation, the developing world and environmental concerns. So it should. During the British presidency last year, where were all the proposals on globalisation, the developing world and environmental concerns? With the Lisbon agenda stalled, where were the new proposals from Her Majesty’s Government in their presidency to drive forward the European response to globalisation?
Of course I have not forgotten. We agree about much of that. However, when the Government caved in on common agricultural policy reform and agreed to a reduction of £7 billion in the British rebate with no guarantee of reform, where was the concern for developing countries which the Minister claims is at the forefront of the Government’s mind?
That is the trouble with what we have gleaned so far of the Minister’s speech. It represents the identification of vague priorities after a major opportunity has been lost. It conveys no sense of energy or vision in tackling those priorities, or of being prepared to stand up and say that the defeat of the constitution, the vast enlargement of the EU and the pace of globalisation require a change in the way in which Europe develops. The speech has all the hallmarks of Ministers sitting in a room, saying, “We will be accused of saying nothing in the debate, so let’s say something just before it, even if it amounts to very little.”
People throughout Europe have unfortunately become cynical about British ministerial pronouncements that are trumpeted and followed by little of the action for which they call. In the Prime Minister’s other recent speech about Europe—his speech to the European Parliament last year at the beginning of the British presidency—he said:
“The people are blowing the trumpets round the city walls.”
That caused some alarm among Members of the European Parliament, who thought that a crowd had formed outside for the first time in their experience. He continued:
“They are wanting our leadership. It is time we gave it to them.”
One can imagine the Prime Minister with the crowd outside: “What do we want?” “Leadership!” “When do we want it?” “After an indefinite period of reflection.” That is the position that we have reached and it is time for the Government to give clearer leadership in Europe than they have shown so far.
I am always grateful for career advice from the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and I acknowledge that we are both in reduced circumstances these days. However, when he gave Conservative Members of the European Parliament advice as party leader, he advised them to remain allied to the group of the European People’s party in the European Parliament. What has changed since then?
On careers, I go down and up but the right hon. Gentleman goes down and down.
The Minister criticises us for trying to form a new group in the European Parliament and people ask, “Why do you want to talk to people in Poland and be allied with them?” Yet, only on Monday, the right hon. Gentleman said:
“Poland and the UK are old friends in the new Europe and links between the two countries have never been stronger.”
What on earth is wrong with political parties in this country aiming to forge closer links with other countries and political parties in Europe with which they agree?
I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s characteristically witty speech. Perhaps the answer to his question is that it depends on what those other parties stand for. I stand with him in wishing for closer alignment with Poland but surely parties’ ideology and commitments must be examined, too.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the need for fresh ideas. Although he always delivers wit and sometimes considerable acerbic grit in his speeches, I have not yet heard any substance. His remarks on the common fisheries policy suggest that we will not have any in his speech today.
Yes, it is the fault of the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd)—[Interruption.] I am glad that he takes responsibility for it.
I want to ask several specific questions about the forthcoming summit. The Foreign Secretary referred to aid to Palestinian people and specifically answered the question about that. I hope that the Minister can enlarge on that in his winding-up speech, because the Quartet agreed more than a month ago that urgent delivery of aid to Palestinians was necessary and instructed the EU to take the lead on a temporary international mechanism. When I was in the occupied territories only a few weeks ago, I got the impression that the need was urgent, that the Palestinian economy is contracting more sharply than might have been expected and that that is likely to cause great hardship. Reports have emerged that the United States has rejected the European proposal. Is it true that the United States has asked the EU to go back to the drawing board? What is the state of the preparations for establishing the temporary international mechanism? Will the Foreign Secretary take steps—her speech implied that she would—to resolve the matter at this week’s summit? Will the Minister tell us more about the mechanism and when it is likely to be in place?
Secondly, may I press Ministers further on the transparency issue, which the Foreign Secretary addressed briefly in her opening speech? One item to be discussed at the summit is greater transparency at meetings of the Council of the European Union. We have long supported an end to closed meetings of the Council, for reasons that the European Scrutiny Committee set out in the relevant report. First, national Parliaments and electorates cannot hold Ministers to account if it is not clear how they have acted in the Council. Secondly, it is easy for Governments to blame Brussels for decisions that they might themselves have agreed to in closed meetings. Thirdly, closed meetings can result in deals that no Government fully accountable to their own Parliament would have agreed to. Lastly, the arrangement makes a large part of the EU’s business invisible to the citizen.
I hope that I can clarify this matter for the right hon. Gentleman because this is an issue on which there might be some misunderstanding. What we proposed—and what was accepted—in our presidency was that legislative proposals, especially those that involved co-decision and perhaps others, should be open to much greater scrutiny than hitherto, and that the initial sets of proposals should be open to public scrutiny and on public view, as should votes, explanations of votes and so on. We proposed a great deal more transparency than we have now. However, what has been proposed in these Council conclusions is to take a significant—to my mind—step further and to say that every bit of deliberation on such detailed negotiations should be in the public domain.
I would draw an analogy with the way in which we conduct ourselves in this place. Of course the decisions that are reached, what they mean, the extent to which they are considered to be an advantage, and how they can be defended are all in the public domain. However, the detailed deliberations of the parties, for example, on how they come to their views are not in the public domain and are never likely to be.
I am not sure that the analogy with this place is to the Foreign Secretary’s advantage on this issue. The deliberations of Parliament are fully open to the public—not just the decisions reached. And the Council of Ministers is now, in effect, a legislative body. In fact, the Council of the European Union and North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly are now the world’s only legislatures that meet in secret. Those of us who are fond of our 18th century history will remember that, in the 1770s, the case was still being put in this House that its proceedings could not possibly be reported in public because Members would not be able to speak frankly and would be open to influence by the public. That is what people in this country thought more than 200 years ago. Now the same case is being made, as I understand it, by the Foreign Secretary in the Council of Ministers.
So strong has been the case for transparency that we have had cross-party consensus on the matter in this country. The leaders of all the British parties in the European Parliament signed a declaration to that effect and the Government put forward a paper during their presidency proposing to make Council meetings and business more open. Those proposals contained two options. The European Council agreed to partial openness, which is what the Foreign Secretary has just referred to. However, the then Minister for Europe, now the Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), then wrote to the European Scrutiny Committee to assure it that the British objective
“remains to push for all of the Council’s legislative business to be opened up to the public”,
although the more ambitious option favoured by the UK would have required a change to the Council’s procedures. However, it seems that the Foreign Secretary has now thrown a spanner in the works by saying that there would be too much openness, so we might have to keep some of the same old secrecy.
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to clarify something? If he is in favour of greater openness and transparency, and of the ability for people to understand what is being decided—I am sure that he has been in meetings where just throwing open the doors would not create understanding—would he, if there were ever a Conservative Government again, support the notion of a Europe Minister at Cabinet level to explain all the decisions made at Brussels level that have domestic policy implications?
I would support the Minister for Europe setting out his policy for Europe in this House rather than elsewhere. I cannot say that that would involve having a Minister at Cabinet level; I think that the Foreign Secretary and I agree on that issue. Those matters should be the responsibility of the Foreign Secretary in Cabinet. However, I do believe that this House’s procedures for scrutinising European Council proceedings and European legislation need many improvements, and that such improvements would be part of making the workings of the European Union more accountable to the people of this country.
My question to Ministers on this matter is the same as that of the French Government, who are reported to have asked
“how can you not be in favour”
of more transparency? The Labour manifesto of 1997 said:
“Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in government and defective policy decisions.”
We need Government U-turns on Europe, but this is not one of them.
I am conscious of the time, so I shall miss out some of the subjects that I was going to raise—[Hon. Members: “The substance!”] Hon. Members are so generous with their interventions.
Enlargement is an issue that we also need to address in the debate. This week has marked the opening of the first chapter of accession talks with Turkey. We strongly welcome that, and I offer my congratulations to the Government on the strong and consistent stance that they have taken in favour of Turkey’s membership. We should be proud of the fact that there is cross-party consensus in this country on this wider enlargement. Will the Minister confirm, however, that no member state can ultimately join the EU if it does not recognise another or give its vessels access to its ports and airspace? This is an area of extreme delicacy, but does he not agree that it is vital that we do not leave the Cypriot problem frozen while accession negotiations proceed, because in the end neither process can succeed without the other?
Does the Minister also agree that enlargement cannot stop with Turkey? The Foreign Secretary touched on this in her opening remarks. We want our European neighbourhood to be stable, democratic, rich and peaceful. We know that offering EU membership is the best incentive to persuade countries to make the hard political decisions that mark the road to that end. We also know the likely cost of refusing entry to the EU. In the Balkans and Ukraine, it would be nationalism, populism, corruption and criminality. So will the Minister join us in pledging that, while their accession might take many years, the western Balkans, Ukraine and Belarus have every right, in the long term, to join the EU, should they wish to do so?
The summit is important in many other ways, as the Foreign Secretary has made clear. It comes a year after the rejection of the constitution. We have had the period of reflection, which has now been extended for another year. The constitution is a subject that has not been sufficiently debated in this country, yet it is of profound importance. Some people in Europe want it brought back, while others want it left on the shelf while being implemented through the back door. Perhaps we should recognise that the peoples of Europe do not want this kind of integration, respect their verdict and look again at what the EU should be doing.
The summit’s draft conclusions say that the European Council has carried out a first assessment of the period of reflection based on information provided by the member states. I presume that, in Britain’s case, that means that the Government have passed on our advice—or someone else’s—because they have had nothing to say about that period until this morning. They now have another chance, and I hope that they will take the opportunity to make several things clear, not least on justice and home affairs.
In the context of the flexible, open Europe to which my right hon. Friend has referred in a recent speech, and of the regaining of national control of social and employment legislation, does he agree that it would be highly desirable for the Government to spell out that all this thrashing around in an attempt to bring a constitution in through the back door would best be resolved simply by stating that we would like an association of nation states, preserving the ability of those countries to govern themselves and ensuring that the democracy that we all want can be achieved in this House and elsewhere in Europe?
I actually think that this thrashing around, as my hon. Friend describes it, can best be dealt with by the Government taking a clear stand on some of the issues coming up at the summit and subsequently. I want to mention a couple of those issues before I give other hon. Members a chance to take part in the debate.
On justice and home affairs, the Government should reflect that Governments who do nothing have things done to them. That is indeed what is happening now, most seriously in the context of the EU’s powers over justice and home affairs. Tomorrow’s summit will consider the Commission’s proposal to move policing and judicial co-operation, under the remit of the Commission, the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice, from third to first pillar, and to abolish national vetoes. Not only would that be a profound increase in the European Union’s power and a diminution of national sovereignty in an area where voters demand national accountability, but it would implement part of the constitution through the back door, which the Government promised that they would not allow.
The Foreign Secretary might recall that shortly before the Labour party came into government nine years ago, it explicitly promised that it would keep this area under intergovernmental supervision. It is therefore extraordinary that the Government refused to come out against that proposal in a recent written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady). The Foreign Secretary has again refused to come out against it today. When the Minister for Europe winds up, will he tell us what the position is? Would not that move be a clear breach of the Government’s promises?
One would have thought that the Government would learn the danger of accepting qualified majority voting from their experience with the recent directive on the free movement of EU citizens and their families, the decision on which was moved from unanimity to QMV by the Nice treaty. We warned the Government against that at the time. They expressed opposition to parts of that directive because they said that it would make it hard to deport EU citizens or members of their families who were not conducive to the public good. They were outvoted, however, and we all know how that contributed to the current mess over foreign criminals. Why are the Government now ready to allow an expansion of the EU’s power in this area, when recent history tells us that it will lead to them presiding helplessly over some new fiasco in the future, with their hands almost certainly tied by European law?
We are facing the usual EU fault in this area: rather than concentrating on practical measures that will be of real use and that will preserve our liberties, for which the Minister has been calling, it is still engaged in a desperate search for “more Europe”. Thus the recent European evidence warrant dispenses with the crucial safeguard of dual criminality, but the proposal for the harmonisation of criminal proceedings applies to an ill-defined list of crimes and fails to tackle urgent issues of terrorism and national security. Nor did the Commission consult member states where there are cross-border issues or real concerns.
It is not only in justice and home affairs—
I might not put it in exactly the terms that my hon. Friend uses, but yes, it would be a mistake to lift the arms embargo on China. That is a long-held position of the United States, and that is what my party and my predecessors as shadow Foreign Secretary have stated. I agree with the purpose of my hon. Friend’s intervention.
No, the hon. Gentleman has had one intervention. I shall move on and try to conclude my remarks.
Another recent Commission paper on the subject calls for the EU to
“give further consideration to sharing of premises and support services for Member State and EU external representations in third countries”,
and therefore calls, in effect, for an EU consular service. The direction of those proposals is the revival of the external action service contained in the constitution and the Commission’s attempts to win a foreign policy remit. Let me remind the Government again that, before coming to office, they explicitly pledged to keep foreign policy an intergovernmental area. When I asked the Prime Minister on the Floor of the House in February 2003 about an EU diplomatic service, he said:
“There is no way that the foreign or defence policy of this country will be conducted by an EU diplomatic service.”—[Official Report, 25 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 131.]
Should not the Government therefore express strong opposition to proposals for this embryonic EU consular service at the forthcoming summit?
The background to the summit is a slow-burning crisis in the European Union. We know that many of Europe’s economies are performing poorly—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) says from a sedentary position that I said that last time. I did say that, normally, 95 per cent. of the content of speeches in such debates is a repeat of what was said last time. I have tried to reduce that to only 10 per cent. in this speech. This, however, is an especially important point that needs repeating every time. On current trends, Europe faces the greatest loss of economic influence in the world of any group of countries in peacetime in modern history. The latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report says that,
“at current trends, the average U.S. citizen will be twice as rich as a Frenchman or German in 20 years”.
Such assessments are ominous.
The assumptions of the past 50 years no longer hold true. Where once Europe’s priority was political harmony, it must now be economic dynamism. Thanks to the radical changes in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s, Britain is well placed to lead on that, to challenge some of the orthodoxies of recent decades and to call on Europe to replace habits of heavy regulation and rigidity with freedom and flexibility. Ministers should say clearly in speeches in the next few months that the attempt to create a politically united Europe was a response to the problems of the 20th century and the aftermath of world wars, and it is now time to bring the vision of Europe up to date and to advocate a Europe of decentralisation and diversity in the spirit of the 21st century.
That means emphasising some of the issues mentioned by the Minister for Europe. It means emphasising trade to a much greater extent, including the ideas that I and the Chancellor have raised for freer transatlantic free trade. We look forward to Foreign Office Ministers following that up with great vigour. That has not been the case with the Chancellor’s previous statements on such subjects, which have not been followed up in practice by the Government.
This is the call for the change that is needed in Europe. If nothing changes, and if the EU as a whole continues to think that the establishment of a constitution should be its chief priority, it will do nothing for our citizens and will give succour to those who claim that we now face a set of European institutions that are beyond reform. Ministers should have the courage to say so, and they should have the courage to say it this weekend.
I welcome my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to her new portfolio. It is interesting, when discussing European issues, to remember that in 1998, when she was Leader of the House, she was responsible for giving us better Standing Orders and more powers of scrutiny. Over the past eight years, we have benefited from the pre and post-Council scrutiny, the increase in Standing Committees from two to three and the scrutiny reserve, which has been important. That has been helpful, but we need to move on and have more powers. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, when he was Leader of the House, was supportive of such progressive proposals, for which I give him credit, and to which I shall return later.
I am grateful to the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee for allowing such an early intervention. On scrutiny of European business in the House, does he agree that there are two challenges? First, Members need to take their obligations seriously, whether in Standing Committees or the European Scrutiny Committee. I note the unfortunate new statistics that show that the Liberal Democrats’ participation in the European Scrutiny Committee is less than 30 per cent., so they miss more than 70 per cent. of meetings. Secondly, does he agree that if we are to have proper scrutiny, it is unfortunate that the Government keep timetabling debates on European business to clash with the European Scrutiny Committee, which means that Members like me cannot take part in those debates?
I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, and not for the first time he has a gripe about some of his colleagues among the Opposition who are on the European Scrutiny Committee. It is also fair to say, however, that the scheduling of Standing and Select Committees can be helpful. By coincidence or other means, the European Scrutiny Committee has unfortunately been busy with other matters when we have had such debates. I understand his position, and he has made his point.
Surely it cannot be true that the Liberal Democrats attended only 30 per cent. of such meetings, given their enormous interest in the debate today, to the extent that the Liberal Democrat spokesman will not even be capable of getting a seconder should there be a vote before the end of the debate.
My hon. Friend makes his point.
There are many topical issues under the heading of today’s debate—European affairs—but I shall concentrate on two: the enlargement process and the period of reflection on the constitutional treaty, which, as I shall explain, are related. I should also like to talk about our system of scrutiny, which was alluded to earlier.
Ten new member states joined the European Union at the start of 2004, and so far it looks as though that rapid increase in membership has been a success. The economies of the new states are growing—and not at the expense of the rest of the European Union. It has already been decided that Romania and Bulgaria will join at the beginning of either 2007 or 2008. The Council of Ministers has recently concluded that the final decision should be taken later this year, based on reports on how the two countries are progressing in meeting all the criteria laid down for accession.
This Parliament has passed a Bill to allow that accession to take place, and I believe that the widespread consensus is that both countries should join as soon as possible. However, although both have made great progress, we will do them no favours if we ignore the criteria and allow them to join for the wrong reasons. Not only would they have joined before they were ready; there would also be implications for further enlargements.
Croatia and Turkey are on the accession waiting list, and we are expecting applications from the whole of the rest of the western Balkans. There will be many advantages to us, and to them, in welcoming further states into the European Union, but all the tests have to be satisfied. If we do agree in principle to letting in further states, subject to their meeting all the criteria, we must be in a position to deliver on our own undertakings.
We need to ensure that the European institutions can cope with further enlargement, which cannot be done on the basis of the existing treaties and certainly not on the basis of the constitutional treaty, because, as we know, it has been rejected by France and the Netherlands. Much has been said about that, but to be fair there is a strong suspicion, which I share, that if the UK had a referendum on the constitutional treaty, the same result could occur.
When the European Scrutiny Committee visited Helsinki last week, we discussed this issue with our colleagues in the Finnish Parliament, who are in the process of examining and agreeing the constitutional treaty. I told them in as friendly and fraternal a way as possible that, in my view, that was not a wise thing to do. I told them politely but bluntly that, given that they know that the treaty has been voted against by two member states, agreeing it in their own Parliament would send out all the wrong messages. We are in danger of the political elite talking to the political elite. When the constitutional treaty was first debated, reference was made to the need to re-engage the citizen, but if we go down that route, we are in serious danger of getting further and further away from that goal.