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Commons Chamber

Volume 461: debated on Wednesday 20 June 2007

House of Commons

Wednesday 20 June 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Death of a member

I regret to have to report to the House the death of Piara Singh Khabra Esquire, Member for Ealing, Southall.

I am sure that Members on all sides of the House will join me in mourning the loss of a colleague and in extending our sympathy to the hon. Member’s family and friends.

Oral Answers to Questions

Duchy of Lancaster

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Family Nurses

Experiencing pregnancy in the early years of life profoundly affects the resulting child’s life chances. The family nurse partnership pilots, which are based on the extremely successful US nurse family partnership scheme, will help to improve parental and child outcomes through structured and intensive home visiting to mothers from early pregnancy until the child is aged two. I have recently visited the Slough and Barnsley pilots, where I was very impressed by the good work of the nurses and the enthusiasm with which the programme was received by all involved.

I am looking forward to the evaluation of the pilot. I am particularly interested in the pilot in Tower Hamlets, which is a borough neighbouring Hackney. Will my right hon. Friend indicate when that evaluation will take place? What particular work is being done with teenage mothers, who have three times the rate of post-natal depression of other mothers and who are a particularly vulnerable group in my constituency?

The programme is targeted at any women aged 20 or less who present themselves as pregnant in the pilot areas, so it will be offered to every prospective teenage parent in those areas. My hon. Friend is right that Tower Hamlets was the successful applicant, and I am sorry that Hackney’s application was unsuccessful. The pilots are currently being evaluated at Birkbeck college, and we anticipate that that will be a two-year programme. We are discussing across Government how we can pick up on the lessons learned as quickly as possible in order to enable many other young mothers around the country to benefit from the programme.

The nurse family partnership is one of a panoply of pilots from the Cabinet Office. As the right hon. Lady prepares to leave office, does she think that that multiplicity of pilots has contributed usefully to tackling social exclusion, or does she think that the fact that Britain is more unequal and that the lot of the very poorest has got worse since 1997 suggests that, for all the Government rhetoric, the reality of life for the most socially excluded has got little better during her time in office?

For many hundreds of thousands of children life has got better, because of the success of universal programmes such as Sure Start, improvements in education, the introduction of tax credits and changes to child benefit. There have been significant improvements for many children. We are the first Government to seek to identify and work with those who have simply not got to the starting gate in the past. Because no one has done that successfully in the past, the right thing to do is to pilot programmes to find out what works, which means that we will be better able to persuade taxpayers that we are using their money effectively in helping families to turn around their circumstances.

My right hon. Friend has referred to her visit to the nurse family partnership in my constituency. The evidence from America is that for every dollar spent on such projects, $5 is saved. That $5 saving will happen in 15 or 16 years. What consultation is she having with colleagues to try to make sure that they back investment in such programmes in order to save future spending on, for example, prisons and remedial education?

My hon. Friend anticipates the work that is going on across Government leading up to the comprehensive spending review. I have had enormous support from colleagues across Government for this particular programme. There is real interest, and many people want to visit the pilots and find out about it. One of the reasons why we are evaluating it so carefully is that our circumstances are different from those in the United States, because we already have universal services. I see that progressive universalism as a way to tackle problems. If we can make savings, we will secure the future of the programme for a long time to come.

May I start by wishing the right hon. Lady well as she leaves the Front Bench after 19 years, with two years as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the late John Smith and six years in the Cabinet? Perhaps now she will have a little more time for Sunderland football club. I do not know whether she has been giving the manager, Roy Keane, any of her Chief Whip’s tips, but I notice that the team has just got promoted.

Given that poverty is getting worse and that Professor Olds, the US pioneer of her pilot scheme, has said that success in the UK may be much reduced, when will she, or her successor, consider rolling out the programme nationally, and will there be enough health visitors and midwives to make it possible?

David Olds has said that it may be more difficult for us to gain as much as in America precisely because he recognises, and is a bit overwhelmed by, the quality of universal services in this country and how those services have ensured that not nearly as many children fall into poverty and that there is not nearly the same problem for families as there is in the United States. That is why we are going to evaluate things well in this country. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take the opportunity to visit some of these programmes, because then he will see the enormous enthusiasm of health visitors and their hope that the recent report will enable them to concentrate much more on working with the most disadvantaged, because that is where they think that their skills will be best used.

Early Intervention (Nottingham)

2. What progress has been made in setting up a national and local partners group to examine the concept of a package of early intervention measures in Nottingham. (143852)

Let me begin by joining the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) in paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who has been a good friend of mine for many years. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband), would agree that we have both very much enjoyed working with her in the past year and have learned a great deal from her.

I am keen to support Nottingham’s proposals for developing the idea of the early intervention city, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s energetic campaign in that regard. As he will know, my officials have had regular contact with local agencies in Nottingham regarding this issue. In March, they attended a meeting setting out the policy context, and I understand that we expect to have a first steering group meeting between officials and local partners in August.

May I, from the Back Benches, join my Front-Bench colleagues in their congratulations to my right hon. Friend, particularly on her personal energy and commitment in the area of early intervention, which has made a big difference to many of us?

Does my hon. Friend the Minister accept that a definition of an early intervention policy must mean that it seeks to break the inter-generational cycle of deprivation, not merely maintain it? Although the nurse family partnership is a cornerstone of that policy, does he accept that there are many other aspects to that package of policies, including working with youngsters at primary school, working with young mothers, and developing a set of pre-parenting skills, as we are trying to do in Nottingham? Will he therefore redouble his efforts—

I agree that the nurse family partnership is only one aspect of what is needed to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty and social exclusion. There are many other excellent programmes out there, including the incredible years programme, which is being pioneered in north Wales and other parts of the country. It is very exciting that my hon. Friend and other partners in Nottingham are trying to develop an all-encompassing approach in order to do the best job that they can in breaking that cycle of disadvantage and increasing opportunity for the next generation of Nottingham’s children.

Civil Service Jobs

3. What steps her Department is taking to change the geographical distribution of civil service jobs. (143853)

The Government remain committed to meeting our target of moving 20,000 posts out of London and the south-east by 2010. We have made good progress so far with more than 11,000 posts moved to all nations and regions in the UK as of December 2006.

My hon. Friend will know that Dundee in particular has recently suffered a spate of job losses, with major employers—including NCR, Tesco and the Wood Group, to name but three—announcing redundancies. In the light of that, many Dundee people hope that civil service jobs that are being relocated from London and the south-east may make their way to Dundee. What will my hon. Friend do to ensure that jobs come to Dundee as a matter of urgency to help offset the job losses that have been announced recently?

I am aware of the recent announcements of job losses in my hon. Friend’s constituency and nearby that he cited. I am also aware of the excellent job that he has done in speaking up for his constituents over the issue. He makes a strong case, and the Government will continue with the relocation process because the civil service serves the whole of the UK and it makes sense to ensure that some posts are located to parts of the country where property and other costs are lower than they may be in central London. We will continue the process from now to the end of the time scale that we have set.

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Sustainable Cities

As chair of the China Taskforce, I hold regular discussions on sustainable cities with a range of stakeholders across UK business, academia and Government, including Cabinet colleagues.

Creating sustainable cities is important to tackling climate change, especially in China, where 15 million people a year are expected to migrate to the cities over the next 20 years.

The taskforce has recently been working on a proposal for strengthening co-operation between the UK and China on developing sustainable cities within the framework of a low carbon economy.

In April this year, I discussed the taskforce proposal with State Councillor Tang and Premier Wen. I hope that a further report on sustainable cities will be presented at the summit of the two Premiers in the autumn.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and I am sure that the House will join me in warmly welcoming him back to the Front Bench after his recent illness.

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to discuss with his colleagues the innovative proposals for the renaissance of our cities that were unveiled in Bristol last Friday? Does he share his predecessor’s view that the best way to create sustainable cities is to cut the regional development agencies, the learning and skills councils and, for good measure, English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her kind remarks and for all the good wishes to me. I want especially to thank all the hard-working doctors, nurses and staff at University College hospital, who work day and night, as the staff in all our hospitals do, to help all of us who are suffering from illness. I think that every one of us would like to express our congratulations to all our NHS hospitals.

No, I do not agree with what Mr. Heseltine said in Bristol about the renaissance of cities. I have been in the House long enough to know that he went to Liverpool with a bus load of bankers and a Merseyside urban development corporation that gave no powers to the local authority, developed a garden city and led to further decline in Merseyside. If my hon. Friend examines the report of Labour, which has used the RDAs and English Partnerships, it is clear that we have been able to show that the major cities in this country, including Bristol and Liverpool, reflect the comments of Michael Parkinson in a recent review. He said:

“England’s cities are now better placed than at any time since the end of the 19th century to become motors of national advance…The years of decline and decay have been overcome.”

That is genuine renaissance; that is a decade of delivery.

I, too, welcome the Deputy Prime Minister back from his illness. How does he reconcile the claim in his annual report that he spent 10 years developing and implementing sustainable communities with the devastating report of the Sustainable Development Commission, to the effect that the Government’s housing programme is characterised by lack of consultation, poor design standards and lack of attention to public transport, shops and parks?

I just do not agree with that conclusion because of the number of houses we have built and the degree of our investment in transport. To provide one classic example, in 1997, I rescued the Channel tunnel rail link from going bankrupt. That was the most important investment in transport innovation in this country and was particularly important for the development of the whole south-east and the whole Olympic village. If we take into account the pathfinder formulas, the millennium village and the 2 million people now living in better accommodation as a result of our decent homes programme, I have no reason to make an apology. There have been improvements and people will make a judgment when they see the final conclusion.

Departmental Budget

My Department’s budget for 2007-08 is £2.5 million, in line with Treasury guidelines. That figure has already been published in a number of places, including the departmental main estimates and the Department’s annual report, a copy of which is available in the Library for the reference of Members.

Does the right hon. Gentleman really think that this budget is big enough to enable any one of his six potential successors to do what he has been able to do over the past 10 years?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that money has been better spent by this Government than by the previous Administration. I recall in particular that the hon. Gentleman was an advocate of the poll tax. How anyone can come here and talk about this amount of resources when £5 billion was wasted on the poll tax, which he advocated, I do not know. Perhaps he should not be doing that. Let me tell him that he should stick to his original position when he was the MP for Basildon. He launched a song called “I love Basildon” and then got on the chicken run to Southend. It is now rumoured that he is composing another song called “I love Southend”—good luck!

In welcoming the Deputy Prime Minister back to the House in what is clearly robust good health, may I say that for once I was very pleased with his answer, because it clearly illustrates that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has just assumed his place on the Treasury Bench, will not need his Department any longer? Does the right hon. Gentleman assume that he will be the last holder of that office?

That is clearly a matter for the incoming Prime Minister, who I have no doubt will do an excellent job.

Has the Department had any money available to spend on opinion polls? If not, has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to look at the recent opinion poll in The Times, which showed that there was unanimous support on the Government Benches for equality measures and next to no agreement on the Conservative Benches? May I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on 10 years of absolutely resolute support for equality for lesbians and gay men?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. No, we have not invested in polls to find that out; quite frankly, I am not a great believer in them. The Department has not spent any money on that. I welcome my hon. Friend’s remarks about our contribution to equality. It has not been easy to make some of those arguments in the past, as he well knows, but I am glad to have belonged to a Government who have made those radical changes.

On behalf of Conservative Members, may I extend all our personal good wishes to the Deputy Prime Minister in respect of his rapid recovery and his return to rude good health, which seems clear from his answers to the previous questions? Before extending even further good wishes, may I ask him one last question of substance? Since his departmental budget is paid largely for him to be a kind of marriage guidance counsellor between the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, can he assure the House that the two of them have reached complete agreement on the Government’s negotiating position for the European summit, which starts tomorrow?

My experience is that there has always been good agreement between my two colleagues and I am sure that it will continue. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. It seems that while I was away, the Leader of the Opposition had something to say about me, too. He described me as a cross between Ernie Bevin and Dameosthenes—[Laughter.] It seems that I have not yet figured it out. Well, the Leader of the Opposition reminds me of someone, too. When I read classics and Greek mythology at the Ellesmere Port secondary modern school, we learned about Narcissus. The House will know that he died because he could only love his own image. Yes, he was all image and no substance. Speaking as an historian, does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me?

I am sure that Dame Osthenes will be very flattered that the Deputy Prime Minister has singled her out for praise today. This only goes to show that, for all the harsh words that the right hon. Gentleman and I have exchanged over the years, politics will be dramatically less entertaining without him. Not only do we not know how the Labour party will manage without him; we do not know how the Conservatives will manage without him. Nevertheless, we wish him a thumping good retirement, with many years of good humour and good health off the Front Bench.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. We live in truly remarkable times. As a previous Leader of the Opposition, he must have heard the present Leader of the Opposition say this week that the Tories were

“not abandoning Conservative principles, but applying them in new ways to new challenges”.

That sounds like my

“traditional values in a modern setting”.

So now we know. The Leader of the Opposition is not the heir to Blair; he is a prophet of Prezza.

Poverty Reduction

13. What recent discussions he has had on the co-ordination of the Government’s policies on reducing poverty. (143845)

The Government have made considerable progress in reducing poverty and helping the most vulnerable families and older people. The House will recall that, under the Tories, child poverty doubled and one in four pensioners were living in poverty. Thanks to measures such as the national minimum wage and tax credits, relative child poverty has reduced faster than in any other country in Europe, 600,000 fewer children are living in relative poverty than in 1998-99, and absolute pensioner poverty has been cut by three quarters. That is the result of 10 years of a Labour Government, and it is something that I am proud to have played a part in.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. I also want to wish him a happy anniversary, as he entered the House on 18 June 1970. Labour policies have benefited the average family in my constituency by almost £3,000 a year, but in the past 12 months, my constituents have been made systematically poorer by Brent council, a Lib-Dem and Tory-run council. It has changed the payment terms for council tax from 12 to 10 months, it promised 0 per cent. council tax increases but delivered 5 per cent., and it has increased charges to the elderly by 300 per cent. What can I say? Will my right hon. Friend—

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind remarks. I am receiving so many today that I might even come back—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] My hon. Friend has raised the important issue of the difference between a Labour Administration and a Liberal Administration. It is important to so many people living in poverty and to so many people in jobs. Let us judge what the Liberals do in local government; that will give us an idea of what they might do in national Government if they ever got the chance.

As a working-class lad, how does the Deputy Prime Minister explain the fact that, during his tenure in office, the gap between the rich and the poor has got ever wider?

The hon. Gentleman knows, because it has been said by the Prime Minister and others at this Dispatch Box, that poverty has gone down. Relative poverty is an important issue, and property prices have played an important part in that. It is equally true, however, that everyone has gained from the prosperity of this Government in the past 10 years.

In congratulating my right hon. Friend on the 37th anniversary of his election to the House of Commons on 18 June, may I thank him on behalf of my constituents for the neighbourhood renewal policies that have lifted the Northmoor area in particular out of abject poverty? We now have a cohesive community with rising property prices and wonderful community facilities. That is what my right hon. Friend has done for my constituents.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his remarks. The improvement is obvious in our cities: the new deal programme has helped to reduce unemployment and crime and improve housing in the poorest parts of our communities, making them areas where people now want to live. There are many examples of the success of our policies, particularly in the inner cites. The Government made that promise, and we have delivered on it. May I also congratulate my right hon. Friend, as he came into the House at the same time as me, and has also been here for 37 years?

Since we are on congratulations, may I express to you, Mr. Speaker, and the whole House, my appreciation of the kindness and generosity shown to me during my years in this job, through good times and bad, of which I have had my share? I cannot say that about the feral beasts or penny scribblers in the Gallery—with some notable exceptions, of course. While we are on Greek mythology, may I say that they remind me of Hermes the messenger god? The House will know that Hermes was the god of shepherds, and, boy, do they operate in a herd. As for invention, need I say more? Best of all, he was

“the god of cunning and liars”.

Enough said. I look forward to reading all their rave reviews tomorrow. But whatever they say, I am proud to have been a member of this Government. In a decade of delivery, we have transformed our country for the better, following traditional values in a modern setting.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to Lance-Corporal James Cartwright of Badger Squadron, 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, who died in a vehicle accident while on active operation in Iraq on Saturday night. We send our sympathy and condolences to his family and friends.

The whole House will be sad to learn of the death of Piara Khabra, who passed away yesterday. As his many friends on both sides of the House know, he was a tireless campaigner, particularly on international development and racial equality. He was a tremendous servant to his constituents. We all remember him, as I do, often asking questions from the Bench just behind me. He will be greatly missed, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time.

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 associate myself with the Prime Minister’s expression of condolences? May I also join him in paying tribute to my dear friend the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra)? He was a friend for a long time, and a dedicated servant of the people.

My right hon. Friend has created a great spirit of multiculturalism and of campaigning against racism. In all the years I have known him, no other Prime Minister has been able to deliver with such a spirit. I praise him for that.

As we approach the 60th anniversary of Indian independence, there are 1 million people of Indian origin in this country. Will he join me in praising their great contribution to this country and their achievement? Finally—

It is particularly appropriate that my hon. Friend asks that question after the sad news about Piara Khabra. I endorse entirely what he says about the tremendous contribution made by the Indian community—1 million of them—in this country. The state of the relationship between the UK and India has never been stronger, and it is a wonderful example of how our relationships with countries can change over the years. Today, this country has about 20,000 Indian students, which represents a major increase in the numbers coming to study here. We are the third largest investor in India today, and I can see our relationship only getting stronger in the years to come.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance-Corporal James Cartwright, who was killed in southern Iraq. I also join him in paying tribute to Piara Khabra, who served his constituents energetically and enthusiastically for 15 years and will be sadly missed both in the House and in Ealing.

This week we have the scandal of the Prime Minister, in his last few days in office, opening the prison gates and releasing 25,000 prisoners on to our streets. Can he tell us when he was first warned that the prison population would exceed 80,000?

Let me explain what is actually happening. We have exceeded even the top-end projection for the number of people in prison—that projection having been made last year—so there is a requirement for us to release prisoners early, 18 days before the end of their sentences—in other words, 18 days before they would have been released anyway—as a temporary measure while new prison places are being built, to ensure that we do not breach the prison conditions regulations. I regret having to do it, but we have to do it.

Why is it having to be done? First, the number of people in prison has risen dramatically as a result of a 25 per cent. increase in sentencing. Secondly, this Government are now recalling people who breach their licence conditions, and as a consequence there are 5,000 extra people in prison. Thirdly, we now have almost 3,000 people in prison serving indeterminate sentences for violent and sexual offences.

When we build the new prison places, as we shall—8,000 places, and now a further 1,500—we shall be able to retrieve the situation. I regret having had to do this, but it was necessary.

I asked the Prime Minister a very simple question: when did he first know that the prison population would exceed 80,000?

The truth is that the Prime Minister was told by the Home Office in 2002, five years ago, that the prison population this year was projected to be not 80,000 but 88,000. That was five years ago. Why did the Government so comprehensively fail to act in response to that warning?

As I have just explained to the right hon. Gentleman, the projection that we were given at about this time last year—we deal with this matter on a year-by-year basis—was a projection that we have exceeded, and have exceeded now. We must therefore take this temporary measure, but let us be absolutely clear: the reason there are more people in prison than ever before is that under this Government there are tougher sentences—particularly for violent and dangerous criminals—and there are 20,000 more prison places. We are now going to build an extra 9,500 places on top of that. Most important of all, crime has fallen under this Government as a result of the measures that we have taken. Incidentally, the most serious violent crime has fallen by more than 20 per cent. in the past year.

The truth is that those indeterminate sentences were introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 2003. As I have said many times, the right hon. Gentleman and his party refused to support the Act, and voted against it. It is true that we will have to take this measure as a temporary measure—and I hope it is very temporary—but it is important to recognise that under this Government prison places are up and crime is down.

The Prime Minister tells us that he examines the position on a year-by-year basis. That tells us all we need to know: there was a complete failure of planning. The Government were told about this five years ago.

The Prime Minister mentioned the Criminal Justice Act 2003. I checked the record, and I think Members will find that the Prime Minister and I voted the same way. I did not support the Act because I do not believe in letting people out of prison half way through their sentences; the Prime Minister did not support it because he could not be bothered to turn up.

Not only were the Government not thinking about this matter five years ago; they were not thinking about it a month ago. Last month, the Secretary of State for Justice said:

“I am not going to announce early releases because of prison overcrowding… Any early releases, no…  It is simply wrong.”

Why on earth did he say that?

First, let me make something clear about the Criminal Justice Act. The Tory party voted against the Criminal Justice Act, and the fact that the right hon. Gentleman did not turn up to vote on it does not alter that.

The reason we have more people in prison today is the tough measures that we introduced for violent and sexual offenders—which the right hon. Gentleman and his party opposed—to put more people in prison. I have already said that I regret having to take this action as a temporary measure, but we are going to build an extra 9,500 prison places.

Let me just point out that the Tory party voted not only against the tougher measures, but against the extra investment in prison places. The one group of people from whom we will not take lessons on this matter are the right hon. Gentleman and his party.

I am glad the Prime Minister mentions the money, because I have checked that, too. Let us look back at the five years since 2002. In 2002, the Home Office budget was £14 billion; in 2003, it was £13 billion; and in 2004, it was £13 billion. There was not any extra money, and the person responsible is sitting next to the Prime Minister. I shall ask the Prime Minister again. The Justice Secretary said one month ago that any early release system was simply wrong. Why did he say that?

The right hon. Gentleman said that investment in prisons has not gone up. It has gone up by 35 per cent. in real terms, so when he gets to his feet again, let him apologise for saying that investment in prisons has not gone up. It has gone up, and his party voted against the Budget measure that introduced that. On the reasons for introducing this measure, we have said again and again that it is important that we make sure that we deal with violent and sexual offenders most severely. That is why there are 3,000 people in prison today on indeterminate sentences. If the right hon. Gentleman’s party had had its way, those people would not be there.

Things have come to a bit of a pass when the Prime Minister will not even defend his former flatmate. Let me put the question to him again. The Justice Secretary said one month ago that any early release system was simply wrong. Why did he make that statement?

We hoped for a long time to avoid having to do this, but we have had to do it because, as I have said, the projections for the prison population, which we do on a year-by-year basis, have been exceeded even at the top end. As I have also said, I regret having to do this. However, as a result of the measures announced yesterday and those announced by the Chancellor in the Budget, we will now have an extra 9,500 prison places. We will be able to make sure that this is a temporary measure. Most importantly, violent crime is falling and the crime rate is coming down because we have more investment in prisons and the police and tougher measures, many of which the Tory party voted against.

We have had foreign criminals let out of prison when they should have been deported, and the Prime Minister now plans to release more prisoners this year than the entire prison population of Australia. Ten years ago, he told us that he would be tough on crime; now he is releasing 25,000 criminals on to our streets. Should he not, just this once, apologise for what can only be described as an abject failure to deliver?

When we came to power in 1997, crime had doubled. When we came to power in 1997, there were no proper plans for making sure that we had the money to invest in our prison system. As I have said, I regret very much having to take the measures on early release. However, over the 10 years of this Government we have reduced crime, increased the number of police officers and introduced measures on antisocial behaviour, and we have 20,000 extra prison places. When we compare the 18 years of a Government who doubled crime with the 10 years of this Government, it is clear who people should vote for on law and order.

Has the Prime Minister read an article in this morning’s Financial Times in which someone called Lord Harris, who I understand owns several academy schools, is quoted? He is reported to have said in a conversation:

“I have a very good relationship with Andrew [Adonis]. He rings me up and says, ‘Do you want this school?’ and I ask what it’s like and if it sounds like the sort of place that we are interested in I say yes.”

Does the Prime Minister believe that the language of that exchange is appropriate for people charged with looking after the education of young people, or does he think that it is more appropriate for 21st century spivs?

As my hon. Friend knows, I have only got a week to go and I am not keen on making too many more enemies. However, I will have to doubly disappoint him. First, I think that Lord Adonis has done a superb job on the city academy programme. Secondly, although Lord Harris is from a different political party, as a result of the work he has done in education, not least in Peckham, he has given some of the poorest kids in the country the opportunity to get a decent education for the first time. If those two people are having an exchange about how we can improve our education system and give opportunity to kids who do not currently have it, that is good.

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s expressions of sympathy and condolence and his generous tribute to Piara Khabra? [Interruption.]

Does the Prime Minister believe it right for private equity executives to pay tax at a lower rate than those who clean their offices?

It is precisely because of the concerns over whether people are paying an appropriate level of tax that a review has been set up that will report around the time of the pre-Budget report later this year. However, it is important to distinguish between that question, which it is perfectly legitimate to raise, and condemning all the work that private equity companies do, because that would not be right at all. But yes, of course people have concerns about this issue, which is exactly why we said that we will look into it in a sensible and serious way and reflect on what we can do.

While this review is taking place, we are giving a tax break of £6 billion per annum to some of the wealthiest people in the United Kingdom. Would it not be much fairer to give tax cuts to lower and middle-income families, who have suffered most under this Government? Would that not be an illustration of governing for the many, and not the few?

I know that the Liberal Democrats like to say, “Here is this great pot of gold that is waiting to be redistributed to the families of the country.” Incidentally, it is just nonsense. However, there are real issues here, and they have been raised right across the political spectrum and by sensible people within the private equity field itself. The serious way of approaching this is to examine these claims carefully and to deal with the matter in the pre-Budget report, and that is what, very sensibly, the Chancellor is doing.

Q2. May I thank my right hon. Friend for keeping the promise that he made to me on 8 January 2005, the day when my constituency was devastated by floods? During our telephone conversation, he said that moneys would be available to build flood defences to protect the people of Carlisle. Some £30 million was made available and those defences are being constructed. However, given the problems that we have seen today in the south of England, and given the problems of global warming and climate change, is he convinced that, following the comprehensive spending review, there will be enough money available to protect other communities from the devastation that we suffered in Carlisle? (143827)

My hon. Friend raises a perfectly reasonable point, and it is one of the reasons we are committed to spending an additional £600 million in this financial year on our costal defences. Since 1997, we have invested some £4 billion in coastal defences. This is an indication of how, over time, as a result of the changing climate, countries will have to invest very large sums in protecting ourselves against the changing weather. However, I entirely agree with hon. Friend, and I can assure him that this will obviously form a very significant and serious part of the comprehensive spending settlement.

Q3. When the Prime Minister referred to the Chancellor as the “big clunking fist”, was it a term of endearment or based on bitter personal experience? (143828)

I fear that the bitter experience will be felt on the hon. Gentleman’s side of the House once my right hon. Friend gets going.

My right hon. Friend will recall meeting representatives of Mountain Rescue England and Wales on 14 March. Will he find time during his final days in office to review its request for public funding similar to that available in Scotland? If he is unable to resolve the issue, will he ensure that the request is in the in-tray of our right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown)?

I can assure my hon. Friend that, as I explained to those representatives when I met them, I will take a close interest in this issue right up to the time of my departure. It is a very live issue that we are considering.

Q4. Reading’s increasingly congested roads are becoming a major constraint on economic success. We urgently need a third Thames bridge and north-south bypass. While Reading chokes, the local authorities are spending their time squabbling with each other. Will the Prime Minister help me to sort out those squabbling neighbours? (143829)

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern and the desire for a new road crossing. The trouble is, as he knows, there is a dispute. He called it a squabble, but unfortunately the view he expressed is not shared by some of the local authorities. The trouble is that it will, in the end, have to be resolved at a local level. I know that the Department for Transport is also engaged with the issue and I am sure that it will do everything it can to mediate, but to get it done local agreement will in the end be necessary.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that since being elected to this House I have campaigned for formal recognition of the Bevin Boys and the role that they played in our world war two success and the defeat of Nazism. In January, the Prime Minister acknowledged their role and said that he would make progress on some kind of formal recognition for those brave men. Will he be able to bring that to a conclusion before he leaves office next week?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the campaign that he has mounted for some recognition for the Bevin Boys and the extraordinary work that they did in world war two, without which our war effort would have been seriously hindered. We will have a special commemorative badge for the Bevin Boys, and we will announce that later today. It will provide some recognition for the tremendous work that they did, express the sense of gratitude that the country has for them, and show why it is a good idea that on this day we should commemorate their work.

Q5. When the Chancellor says that he wants to see Britain governed in a different way, and Government to be more open and accountable, what does the Prime Minister think that he means? (143830)

I am sure that over the course of my right hon. Friend’s premiership he will want to carry on changes that we have been making. For example, we now have a Freedom of Information Act and devolution, which we have never had before. We also have a London Assembly and Mayor, which we have not had before. I am sure that such changes will continue over the years and fortunately, in the circumstances, that is something that I happily leave to my right hon. Friend.

Crime has been falling for many years: why are there huge increases in the number of people, including women, in prison? Does my right hon. Friend now agree with a former leader of the Tory party that prison works?

I have never agreed that, in itself, prison is what works, but if people are committing violent offences or are a threat or danger to the public, it is important that they are imprisoned, if that is what a court feels is appropriate. There are more people in prison because sentences have been getting tougher. I mentioned a few moments ago the more than 5,000 people who have been recalled to prison as a result of the breach of their licensing conditions. In 1997, that figure was around 200. People out on parole would breach their conditions, but nothing would happen to them—now it does, and that is one reason why the most serious violent crime has fallen by more than 20 per cent. in the last year. In the crime partnership areas where crime has been highest, specific focus has been put on 44 of them and crime, especially violent crime, has fallen by 7 per cent. or more in the last year in those areas. We have to protect the public first, and that is what we are doing.

Q6. Last Saturday, a 23-year-old man was lost at sea off my constituency when his small boat overturned in Hoy sound. Two months ago, eight Norwegian seamen lost their lives when the Bourbon Dolphin capsized and sank 85 miles off Shetland. In both cases, as in so many others, the role of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, in co-ordinating the search and rescue, was crucial and very much appreciated. Will the Prime Minister, in the time that remains to him, knock some heads together among the senior management of that agency to ensure that the current industrial dispute is resolved and the coastguards are paid the money they deserve? Or will that have to wait until things get so bad that the dispute escalates and lives are lost? (143832)

First, I am sure that the whole House will join the hon. Gentleman in sending condolences to the family of his constituent who died. Secondly, we of course regret that the dispute is going on. Thirdly, I will be happy to look into the matter and to correspond with him about it. Obviously, we want the maritime service to return to full strength as quickly as possible.

Q7. Over the years, my right hon. Friend has visited my constituency on a number of occasions—[Interruption.] Some visits have been more memorable than others, but on his most recent visit he came to the £2 million local improvement finance trust scheme at Woodgate Valley primary care centre, one of 200 LIFT schemes across the country. Does he agree such schemes demonstrate real investment in the NHS and real commitment to our patients, compared with the half-baked ideas that we get from the Opposition? (143833)

I recall the LIFT scheme in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and it is one of the many around the country that have led to some 2,500 GP premises being renovated. In 1997, 50 per cent. of the NHS estate was older than the NHS itself, but today that figure is 20 per cent. As a result of that massive capital investment, waiting times are falling and we are also able to provide the most up-to-date equipment for our constituents. I deprecate the Opposition’s policy to scrap the target of an 18-week maximum wait for NHS treatment, with an average of seven or eight weeks. That policy would be a disastrous and retrograde step, whereas we intend to keep to the targets and make sure that we deliver on them.

Since taking office, there has been more investment in schools, local health services have been protected and young families have benefited from more free nursery care—all provided by the new Scottish National party Government. Will the Prime Minister congratulate the First Minister on those excellent developments?

I think that I prefer to say that investment on any scale can be made only because my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has run the most effective economy in this country for 30 years or more. We are able to invest in health and education because of the sensible policies of this Labour Chancellor, not because of the SNP’s economic policies.

Q8. Today, world refugee day is being marked across the globe. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in praising the refugee awareness projects being run by Refugee Action in Bristol, Nottingham and Liverpool? The project workers go into local communities to challenge the many myths and media distortions about refugees and asylum seekers, and to help the refugees who have genuinely fled persecution in their homelands to find a safe haven in this country. (143834)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and the Government are making a financial commitment to supporting refugee week. It is right for us to reduce the number of unfounded claims and make sure that only genuine asylum seekers can claim asylum here, but none the less we must make it clear that this country should always be open to genuine refugees fleeing tyranny. This country has a very proud record in that regard, and I am sure that that will continue.

Q9. As there might just be some misunderstandings over the next few weeks, does the Prime Minister agree with Baroness Morgan, his old friend and former Downing street aide? On the radio this week, she said that the Chancellor was“really involved in the nitty gritty of how to phrase the argument, and it made a difference.”Was that the role that the Chancellor played with respect to Iraq? (143835)

The position on Iraq was the position of the whole Government. I happen to believe that removing Saddam was the right thing to do, as is standing up against those people who would by terrorism prevent democracy from flourishing in Iraq. I pay tribute to the support provided by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. It is important that those fighting us in Iraq understand that our position on Iraq is shared by the whole Government, and I am sure that they do.

Is my right hon. Friend able to use his influence in the case of baby Sebastian, who was born in Texas to my constituent Samantha Lowry and abducted to Mexico at the age of nine weeks by her estranged and unstable partner? Does he agree that the best place for Sebastian is with his mother, who is best breastfeeding him? Will he use his influence with the Mexican Government to get the case dealt with as soon as possible?

I am aware of the case and I sympathise with Samantha and her family. I assure my hon. Friend that full consular support is being provided to the family by UK consular staff in Houston and Mexico City. We are also in touch with the FBI about the case, and are ready to give every support to the US and Mexico’s FBI to ensure the safe return of Sebastian.

Q10. Does the Prime Minister agree that we should all be concerned about the growth of air travel, especially in relation to climate change? What are his suggestions for curbing that growth? (143836)

We must be careful, because many people have travel opportunities, particularly on cheap flights, that they have never had before. As politicians we must be careful that we do not appear to say that opening up such opportunities for people is somehow wrong. The best way to deal with aviation is through the European Union emissions trading system. As a result of the work done by the Government there is the prospect of aviation coming within the system, which will incentivise business and industry to develop ways of saving on harmful emissions. Personally, I do not believe the way to do so is to try to ban domestic travel on aeroplanes, as I think some people in the hon. Gentleman’s party have suggested. I do not think that is realistic.

Last week, my right hon. Friend opened the new management centre at Knowsley community college. Apart from that and 240 extra medical staff in the NHS, a brand new hospital, an 18 per cent. increase in GCSE passes, seven new learning centres and halving the rate of unemployment, what has my right hon. Friend ever done for Knowsley?

In addition, we have the minimum wage, paid holidays, extra increases in child benefit and all the investment that has gone into this country over the past few years. The reason we have been able to invest, as I said a moment or two ago, is that we have run a strong economy—my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has been its steward over that time. It is important always to recognise that for the first time this Labour Government are able to combine a more just and fair society with a well functioning, strong economy. Under this Government that is exactly what will continue.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During the recent exchanges, my constituent, Lord Harris, was referred to as a spiv. Will you rule, Mr. Speaker, that that is inappropriate language to describe a member of the other place?

Disability Benefits (Single Assessment)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a single assessment process for disability benefits; and for connected purposes.

Disability benefits are complex and convoluted; they are not something that any rational person would want to spend a huge amount of time trying to understand unless they had to do so, but 6 million disabled people in the UK have to do just that, including up to 400,000 families with disabled children. For them, the benefit system is simultaneously a lifeline and a nightmare. I suggest to the House that it is time we did better.

I will not test Members’ patience by going into enormous detail about the complicated differences in eligibility criteria for the disability living allowance, the attendance allowance, the disabled facilities grant, the community equipment fund, the carer’s allowance, the independent living fund, the industrial injuries disablement benefit and incapacity benefit. I wondered whether the complexity of the system might be a function of the complexity of disability itself; but why, when we spend £26 billion annually on benefits for disabled people, are there so many complaints?

There are complaints from taxpayers who, despite the fact that they want their money used to support the most vulnerable people in society, constantly read stories in the media about disability benefits being claimed by people who are patently not disabled. There are also complaints from disabled people themselves, who all too often have to put up with a system that lets them down, frustrates them and humiliates them by asking them to repeat information about their disability a thousand times over, squandering money on official error, waste and fraud, and all too often failing to reach the very people it most needs to reach: those most at risk of falling into and becoming trapped in poverty.

In my research, I discovered that most unusual of things in modern politics: a relatively simple solution that does not cost any money. I will return to that later, but first let me give the House an example of the crazy complexity of the current system. A couple of weeks ago, I met a man who, a few years earlier, had been going to the shops with his daughter. He was walking along his local high street when a car careered off the road and crashed into him. He was carried some distance. Fortunately, his daughter was unharmed, although she had severe psychological trauma, but he ended up in a coma and when he came round he had an acquired brain injury. As a result, he was unable to continue with his job. Someone in that situation is eligible for up to eight different benefits. If he were to apply for them all, he would have to answer a total of 1,275 questions over 352 pages.

Let me put that in context. An A-level student doing maths, physics and chemistry has to answer 510 questions. Someone applying to do a masters in law at Harvard has to answer 54 questions. So, our welfare state, which is supposed to be the pinnacle of a civilised society, makes a man with an acquired brain injury answer more questions than our brightest A-level students or our most ambitious lawyers. That cannot be right. I wondered whether, because disabilities are complicated, we needed to ask all those questions, but in fact 80 per cent. of the questions are repeated. A third of the questions are repeated twice and a quarter are repeated four times. Think not about the waste of employing Department for Work and Pensions officials to process the same information over and over again. Think not about how that money could be put to much better use. Think instead of the man with an acquired brain injury and the signal that this sends to him about our willingness as a society to help him piece his life together. Think also of those parents who discover that they have a child with severe disabilities and the signal it sends to them that we ask them to answer more questions than if they were applying for a mortgage, a credit card or a bank account.

The most pernicious outcome of the complexity is not the frustration that it causes disabled people; it is the fact that it makes it so difficult for them to get back into the world of work. All the benefits have different rules about how much work someone is and is not allowed to do. On incapacity benefit and carer’s allowance, one can earn £87 a week. On income support, it is £20 a week. On housing benefit, after £20 a week, a person’s benefit is deducted at a marginal rate of 65 per cent. On council tax benefit, it is 20 per cent. The result is that for many disabled people the simplest and safest thing is not to work. That leads on to another problem: poverty. We know that, according to the Government’s preferred measure, child poverty is increasing. A third of parents of disabled children say that they are put off applying for the disability living allowance because of the complexity of the application form.

My Bill will not solve all those problems at a stroke, but it will transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people by requiring the Department for Work and Pensions to get its computer systems to talk to each other, so that, if a disabled person consents to it, they need only supply information about their disability once and that can be used across all the different benefit streams. Every year, the Department for Work and Pensions processes 7.2 billion questions from disability benefit applicants. Nearly 6 billion of those are repeated questions. This measure will save money in administration costs, but, more importantly, it will save huge frustration and aggravation for disabled people.

The Government do not have a good record on technology projects. However, that should not obscure the fact that technology can transform the lives of the most socially disadvantaged. Why should the IT revolution benefit only the BlackBerry generation of adults or the MySpace generation of children? Why should it not benefit disabled people as well?

We cannot remove people’s impairments, but we can remove the obstacles that the state needlessly and carelessly puts in their way that make it more difficult for them to find a job, to live independently, or to hold their family together. Only once should disabled people have to supply information about their disability, unless or until that disability changes. Only once should a family with a disabled child have to supply information about that child’s disability, unless or until that changes. Only once should that information be processed by the Department for Work and Pensions. My Bill is a modest measure. It would not get us there all in one go, but it would allow progress to be made in the right direction. For that reason, I urge the House to support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jeremy Hunt, Natascha Engel, Greg Clark, Malcolm Bruce, Michael Gove, Ms Sally Keeble, Stephen Hammond, Anne Milton, Mr. Graham Stuart, Mr. Stewart Jackson, John Penrose and Mr. Paul Goodman.

Disability Benefits (Single Assessment)

Mr. Jeremy Hunt accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for a single assessment process for disability benefits; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 128].

European Affairs

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Liz Blackman.]

I returned yesterday from the General Affairs Council. Tomorrow and on Friday, the Prime Minister and I will attend the European Council, which is the final summit of the German presidency. Discussions at the General Affairs Council were wide-ranging. In that, they reflected the pivotal role that working with and through the European Union plays in meeting the domestic and foreign policy priorities of this country. Not least of the subjects discussed was the ongoing and extremely difficult situation in the Palestinian occupied territories. I expect that the topics covered by the European Council and included in the final conclusions will be equally broad. If I may, I will return to some of them a little later.

There is no doubt that the main issue at stake at this European Council will be treaty reform. During my first pre-European Council debate in the Chamber, I recall that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said that he hoped that I would enjoy his speech because he feared that I would hear it on a number of occasions, since such debates tended to be attended by the same people and to have almost exactly the same content. However, this debate might be a little different.

Specifically, two years on from the rejection of the proposed constitutional treaty by Dutch and French voters, the Council must consider what treaty adjustments would help the European Union to work as effectively and efficiently as possible in the interests of its 27 member states. The report of the discussions that the German presidency produced last Thursday showed there were still significant differences among European countries about what those next steps could or should be. In the next two days, Europe’s leaders will be looking for a way to reconcile those differences.

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I would like to get a little further into my argument.

Those negotiations cannot be conducted in public, let alone in advance of the Council itself. I could not and will not attempt to prejudge what the outcome of those negotiations might be, but I will be as plain and unequivocal as I can about what the Government’s position going into those negotiations will be.

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me—normally I do give way, as he knows, and I will give way during my speech if he still wishes to intervene, but it would be helpful for the House if I give an indication first of where we are.

First, we want a European Union that is able to deliver and that makes a positive difference to people’s lives, but we want a European Union of sovereign nations, not a superstate. We want greater efficiency and more accountability. We want more say for national Parliaments and Governments. Above all, we want a European Union that takes action where it is needed, on issues like climate security, economic reform and energy, and leaves national Governments in charge of key areas including taxes, foreign policy, defence and the domestic economy.

In short, we want a European Union that delivers jobs, security, growth and influence in a globalised world—a Europe that helps to equip citizens in every member state to meet the challenges of, and to thrive in, the 21st century. That is our positive vision for Europe’s future—a clear conception of an EU that we want, and that we believe this country needs.

Let no one be in doubt that the reason we place so much emphasis on taking the right decisions over the next two days is nothing to do with the blocking tactics that we have seen in previous years. It is the exact opposite. We want a strong and effective Europe, but we want one that is focused on delivering results, not building bureaucracy. So let me be clear on some of the specific issues that we are likely to have to resolve over the next two days.

We support a charter of fundamental rights that brings together existing rights found in the European convention on human rights, current EC treaties and other instruments. We support qualified majority voting to unlock decision making in those areas where it is in Britain’s interest. Despite ridiculous claims that are sometimes made that no change at all must be made, let me remind the House that it was Lady Thatcher who first gave up the veto, and that under her, qualified majority voting was extended to 12 articles, and under her successor, John Major, to 30—three zero—policy areas. I do not criticise them for those changes. They made them because they knew that sometimes it was and is in Britain’s interest to do so when, for example, change that we in the House may all believe is wanted and needed might otherwise be blocked by those who resist that change.

We are in favour of a Europe-wide response both to organised crime and to international terrorism. I imagine that that, again, is common ground across the House. In fact, more than that, we think a Europe-wide response is a vital necessity, but we are equally clear that any EU initiatives should not affect fundamental aspects of our criminal justice system, should not undermine our ability to safeguard national security, and should not weaken control of our own borders.

We believe in a common foreign and security policy that will boost our collective influence abroad, but not in a single foreign policy. It must be based on consensus, by which I mean unanimity. We would support a reform of the Commission that promoted effectiveness, efficiency and strong leadership. We would like to see the subsidiarity mechanism in the current constitutional treaty proposals strengthened. We believe it will help us to find the best balance between action at regional, national and European levels, and in so doing will better connect Europe to its citizens. We would support a full-time Chair of the European Council with the same role and powers now exercised by the Council president of the day, because we believe it could help to ensure greater coherence and consistency in the EU’s agenda.

If we are able to agree such a package at the Council it would make the EU stronger and better able to deliver on its priorities. The House should make no mistake—that would be of direct benefit to the people of the UK.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving way. Officials in Brussels yesterday agreed a draft intergovernmental conference mandate which says that the object of the discussions will be to seek to clarify

“the respective competences of the EU and the Member States and their delimitation”.

At Foreign Office questions the Foreign Secretary said she hoped that

“that level of detail will not be in the amending treaty.”—[Official Report, 5 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 120.]

That was in relation to the common fisheries policy. Is she going back on that position, or has it become clear in the past few weeks that there will be that degree of delimitation in the final agreement this week?

I think that there is a misunderstanding. I hope that I heard the hon. Gentleman correctly, because I do not want to correct him if I did not, but I think that he said that officials had agreed a mandate, and that is not the case. The document produced in Brussels yesterday was the German presidency’s proposal, and that is what we will be discussing at the weekend. It has not been agreed by anybody.

I have the document in front of me and it clearly says that the word “Community” will throughout be replaced by the word “Union”, that it will be stated that the two treaties constitute the treaties on which the Union is founded and that the Union replaces and succeeds the Community.

There cannot be a much more fundamental change than that, so will the Foreign Secretary agree that, on that basis, unless the proposals are rejected, there will be a referendum on them?

I can only say—I do not say this as a criticism—that I find it absolutely inconceivable that anybody could make proposals that the hon. Gentleman would not believe required a referendum. Whether one agrees is quite another matter.

It is perfectly possible to bring in these improvements to the way in which the EU works by building on and amending existing treaties, and without engaging major questions of national sovereignty or competence.

Europe has a choice. It could agree an amending treaty—that path is proven; it has delivered on many occasions in the past. Or it could try to bundle important and necessary reforms into a wholly unnecessary constitutional cloak—that path is very far from proven; indeed, it was explicitly rejected by the people of France and the Netherlands just two summers ago.

At this same debate exactly a year ago, the Foreign Secretary said that

“the EU needed to reconnect more closely with the people of Europe.”—[Official Report, 14 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 781.]

Other than simply imploring that that happen, what efforts has the Foreign Secretary made in recent months to ensure that the EU really does reconnect more closely with the people of Europe?

For one thing, the very strong effort made by the Government over a considerable period of time, but made with particular strength in the run-up to the spring Council, to get the EU to agree to take a position well ahead of the pack in terms of energy and climate security, is exactly the kind of thing that reconnects the EU to the people of Europe. For a start, it is so clearly an area where no nation state acting alone can be effective, yet also an area that is of real concern to people when they think about their own future and that of their children.

On the subject of reconnection, do not we in this place have to look anew at how we debate EU proposals? In particular, is there not a political case to be made for one Minister to be answerable for all the various deals being reached in Brussels and to have a question and answer session on that?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. However, it might be rather more difficult to achieve than it sometimes sounds. I am reminded of the debate that always takes place, particularly around issues such as the environment, about whether this, that or the other policy area should be included, because surely this crosses them all. In the end, there is no substitute for having a Government and having different people who deal with the detail of what is being agreed, because otherwise we would get into considerable difficulty.

The Foreign Secretary mentioned the principle of subsidiarity. Will she, in her negotiations, support proposals to enhance the powers and involvement of national Parliaments in European decision making?

Yes, we will look with great sympathy at the proposals that have been made, for example, by the Netherlands. Not everyone thinks that this is the right course of action, but certainly this Government very much approve of efforts to increase the role and the opportunities of national Parliaments to contribute.

Even if we accept only part of what we have read in the media in the last few days, it is clear that the Government have a fight on their hands in defending this country’s national interest in these negotiations. In those circumstances, was it not weakening our position for the Prime Minister to say that we would not be having a referendum on the results of these negotiations? Could we therefore conclude that, given that the Minister is now sketching out carefully the grounds where the Government are intent on not giving way, if they are forced to do so in the negotiations, the British people will be able to reconnect with the Government and in Europe in having a say in what happens?

I understand the logic of my right hon. Friend’s comments. If we are able to agree an amending treaty, that will be a considerable achievement. For many member states it is a source of considerable discomfort that, having ratified a proposed constitutional treaty and having explained to their electorates—and in the case of the Spanish Government having had a referendum in which they succeeded in obtaining the approval of their electorate—that this was to their advantage, they may then have to go back to their people and say that there will not be a new constitution for Europe, but that there will be, as there has been in the past, an amending treaty. That would be no easier for them than it would be for us to say that we will go ahead with a constitutional treaty even though it has once been rejected.

However, whatever the logic of discussion about any potential referendum, one can only judge whether a treaty would require a referendum when one sees its content—assuming that it is an amending treaty; nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Secondly—I hope that my right hon. Friend will sympathise with this argument, which I feel quite strongly about—I see no reason whatever why we should have had a string of amending treaties from Conservative Governments that never attracted a referendum, no matter how much they extended, for example, qualified majority voting, but a Labour Government are somehow not allowed to do it.

I am grateful for that answer, but two wrongs do not make a right. Again, I am anxious about how strong our negotiating hand is. Is the Foreign Secretary saying that if in these key areas we are not successful in negotiating, at the end of the day the Government will think of vetoing?

I have already said that it is not inevitable that there will be an agreement this weekend. I very much hope that there will be, because if there can be an agreement that we can accept, Europe can put the issue behind us. I share the view, probably held across the House, that nothing more distances the peoples of Europe from the institutions of the EU than wrangling about legal texts and the division of powers.

I am blessed with a plethora of requests. I give way to the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell).

Will the Foreign Secretary bear in mind in all these negotiations that the great majority of our people do not wish to see any extension of EU powers over this country, but rather a major repatriation of powers that we have surrendered to the EU to this sovereign Parliament?

I simply say that I always view these exchanges on this matter with some irony, since I am well aware of the many, many Opposition Members who campaigned vigorously for a yes vote in 1975 when I campaigned for a no vote. All I can say is, “Don’t come crying to me.”

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s indication that foreign policy must be unanimous. Will she be equally clear that the Government would reject the amalgamation of the roles of external relations commissioner and external relations high representative, and say emphatically that we would oppose the creation of an EU diplomatic service?

I will not confirm that, because there is a great deal to be said for a more efficient means of operation. We will do everything that we can to ensure that it is made clear that the common foreign and security policy is an intergovernmental policy and that we retain the rights and powers that we believe that we should have.

The Foreign Secretary has stated that she campaigned against ratification in 1975. I was only three years old at the time, so I was unable to vote against it. Millions of people in this country under the age of 40 have never had a say over changes to our relationship with Europe. Surely the time has come to consult the British people—people of my generation—on whether we are prepared to hand over any more powers to the European Union.

It was only because of a Labour Government that anyone had a chance to vote. The Conservative party took Britain into the European Community and, despite having said that that would not be done without the consent of either a general election or a referendum, no such commitment was honoured. Perhaps we are seeing double standards here.

It should have come as no surprise to anyone—nevertheless, it was apparently a surprise to some—that the United Kingdom is strongly in favour of an amending treaty, not a constitutional treaty. Indeed, I think the General Affairs Council as a whole has at least tacitly agreed that that is the only course that we can follow. The type of amending treaty to which the United Kingdom would agree should be no different in style or importance of content from those brought to this House by previous Governments, including previous Conservative Governments.

In the past, such treaties have never been subject to a national referendum. Indeed, the only national referendum that we have ever had in this country occurred after the decision to join the European Community in 1972. An amending treaty of the sort that I have described would not involve a decision on anything like the scale of the decision in 1972, which the British people endorsed in 1975. Let me be absolutely blunt with the House and with the country: the UK will not agree to a treaty in Brussels that we judge would require a referendum in this country.

It is worth repeating that any treaty that results from this European Council and any subsequent intergovernmental conference would, of course, be laid before Parliament, where it would be subject to extensive examination and debate. It could not be ratified until any necessary amendments to the European Communities Act 1972 had been passed by this House.

On one point, I suspect that the shadow Foreign Secretary and I agree—it will not be sufficient simply to change the title of the document. An amending treaty must be different from the constitutional treaty that preceded it in content, in form and in purpose.

The European Union as a whole must acknowledge, as this Government have done, that the reality on the ground has changed. We accepted the constitutional treaty, and we were prepared—indeed we were preparing—to recommend it to the British people. We thought it was, on balance, a good deal for Britain—incidentally, so did many of our European partners, in many cases with considerable frustration and regret. However, the treaty was rejected by the voters of France and the Netherlands, two founder members of the European Union, which not only changed things, but changed them dramatically.

The people of those countries had spoken, and the leaders of Europe had to take heed. So we embarked on a so-called “period of reflection”. During that time, we deliberately shifted the focus of the European Union back on to those things that we judge matter most to our citizens, not least through the informal summit at Hampton Court held during the UK presidency. We made it clear that our priority was not internal institutional wrangling, but the challenges of globalisation—climate change, energy security, jobs and growth. It would serve Europe very ill indeed if now, two years down the line, we acted as if we had simply not listened, as if the period of reflection counted for nothing and as if we wanted simply to turn the clock back to before summer 2005.

My right hon. Friend is making admirable efforts to distinguish what is on the table now from the treaty, but the reality is that Chancellor Merkel, Mr. Barroso and others are determined to get through what they had before either piecemeal or all in one go. My right hon. Friend is making the case strongly, but is it accepted in Europe and is this not just a way to manoeuvre ourselves past the possibility of a referendum?

This is not a matter of manoeuvring. In the conversation on Sunday night among the General Affairs Council, it was clear that for a large number of member states that have ratified the constitutional treaty the notion of abandoning that treaty and instead having an amending treaty of the kind that we and others have suggested is extremely painful and difficult. Indeed, that idea has been resisted until this present time. We must all recognise what is required, if we are to reach an agreement over this weekend.

If there is an agreement such that the Government feel able to say after the weekend that there will no longer be a need for a referendum, may I take it that that position will be made explicitly clear to the House next week? If so, will the Government, in view of the importance of parliamentary and public engagement on those matters, set out how Parliament will be involved in any process towards an intergovernmental conference under the Portuguese presidency, particularly if that might be held during the recess or shortly after the House resumes in the autumn?

My hon. Friend has made an important point, and I will certainly take heed of his concerns. I was about to send a note to the shadow Foreign Secretary and others who are particularly concerned stating that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make a statement on Monday. I will not be here, because I have an engagement in the United States that I am unable to change. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) that my right hon. Friend is aware of his questions.

The Foreign Secretary is making a powerful and important speech. May I ask her a specific question? When she said that the Government will not accept any new treaty that would require a referendum in this country, did she include in that any new treaty that provides opt-outs for the United Kingdom but that ensures that many of the aspects of the original constitution are still in place for the rest of the European Union?

The balance of treaty proposals is a judgment that we can make only at the weekend, when we will see the proposed amendments to the ideas advanced by the German presidency. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, we can only make that judgment at that point.

If it comes down to deal or no deal at this European Council, the UK Government are clear, as I said on record in Brussels on Monday, that no deal might be better than buying any old pig in a poke.

I am pleased to hear what my right hon. Friend has said about the possibility of no deal. Does she agree that if other countries choose to put the revised treaty to their people in a referendum after a deal is done, the British people should also have that opportunity?

No, I do not accept that. Apart from anything else—my hon. Friend may not be aware of this—the Irish Government have a constitutional requirement to have a referendum, so there is no question but that there will be at least one referendum. Whether there will be more than one is entirely another matter.

As I said a little earlier, this Council meeting will also acknowledge the wider achievements of the German presidency: things that Europe’s citizens will actually see and feel. Those include an agreement to open up Europe’s energy market and make it more competitive, action to cut mobile phone charges, and sharing information between police forces to tackle cross-border crime. And, of course, at the last European Council in spring, we saw Europe at its best. The EU took a vital step not only in leading the global response to one of the greatest threats that we face—climate change—but in so doing beginning the process of creating the world’s first low-carbon and energy- efficient economy. If we make that transition successfully, it will mean that Europe, and the UK, will have a competitive economic advantage for perhaps a generation to come. Similarly, the EU has recently agreed the services directive, which is set to add £2.5 billion, and up to 135,000 jobs, to the UK’s economy.

So Europe as it now stands can deliver and is delivering. It would not be in crisis—it would not be paralysed—if no agreement on institutional reform were reached.

If the European Union is working so well in the way that the Foreign Secretary describes, why do we need an amending treaty or any extension of majority voting?

The right hon. Gentleman has perfect timing, if I may say so. We on the Labour Benches are absolutely clear that we want such an agreement because it would mean that Europe could deliver even better and more efficiently. It would not be a crisis if we were unable to secure an amending treaty, but it would be an opportunity missed.

If Europe is working as well as the Foreign Secretary says, what harm could be done by putting the whole issue of whether we wish to retain our status as a member of the European Union to the British people in a referendum?

I do not intend to get involved in yet another wrangle about whether Britain should leave the European Union, but I notice that the Conservatives are, as ever, perhaps not entirely of one mind on the matter.

When this Government came to power in 1997, we inherited from the Conservative party an acrimonious and stagnant relationship with our European Union partners in which Britain had mostly been represented by, at best, an empty chair, with our voice not even being heard. The rest of the European Union viewed us with a mixture of confusion and frustration. The result was that we had little or no influence in the European Union and could not lead the European debate in the directions that we wanted. The attitude that the Conservatives had then, which some clearly still hold, was not only an abdication of responsibility, and with it influence, but was based on a circular argument. So sure were they that Europe was a bad thing and that the UK could never achieve anything in the European Union that they very rarely did. That was, and is, a self-fulfilling prophecy that did immense damage to our national interest.

Under this Government, the position is very different.

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I must get on.

Last week, the French Minister for Europe, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, told Le Figaro:

“I want France to be at the centre of thinking in Brussels, which is currently dominated by the British and Germans”.

Can anyone in this House imagine such an opinion being aired in Paris when the Conservatives ran this country’s European policy?

I will not do so any more.

Positive engagement leads to positive action: the biggest reform of the common agricultural policy for 50 years; reform, after 40 years, of the sugar regime; and, for the first time ever, a budget whereby similar-sized economies such as France and Italy are making payments on a par with our own, which, despite all Margaret Thatcher’s talk of rebates and hand-bagging, is something that the Conservatives never came even close to achieving. We have, for the first time, European security and defence policy missions beyond Europe’s borders. We have, as I said, bold action on climate security and energy security. Through the Hampton Court agenda, we have brought a new focus on reinvigorating the European economy and on investment in the future. Just last year, UK exports to continental Europe were up by 24 per cent. to £150 billion.

Over the next two days, the European Union has the opportunity to agree improvements that will make it work even better. If it takes that opportunity, Europe will be stronger and more effective. That would be good for this country and for the people of this country. This Government have always recognised that a strong UK in a strong Europe is the only way in which to face the challenges of the next decade and the next century. It is for exactly that—a strong UK in a strong Europe—that the Prime Minister and I will argue in Brussels.

I have, as ever, listened with care to the words of the Foreign Secretary. The part of her speech when she reminded us that she was opposed to British membership of Europe in 1975, and that we should not therefore come crying to her about its faults, was said with some feeling, by contrast with the other parts of the speech, which were perhaps drafted in the Foreign Office and gave the rest of us a lecture about being more positive in our attitudes to engagement with the European Union.

No doubt there are some areas of agreement between what the Foreign Secretary said and the case that I want to put to the House. Nevertheless, as she acknowledged at the beginning of her speech, matters have now moved on sufficiently in European affairs that we have all had to prepare a new speech for this occasion. Very important things may be about to happen in the European Union over the next few days. Tomorrow, the European Union’s Heads of State and Government meet to try to negotiate a treaty of fundamental importance to the EU’s future. The European constitution, which was emphatically and rightly rejected by French and Dutch voters two years ago, is in many substantial senses being revived. That constitution was, as the Belgian Prime Minister put it at the time, the “capstone” of a “federal…state”. The German Europe Minister of the time said that it was the

“birth certificate of the United States of Europe”.

If the Government accept parts of that constitution under another guise, let us be clear that they risk taking another significant step away from what the European Union ought to be—a community of nations working together intimately for mutual benefit—and towards the integrated state that some in Europe honestly wish for, but that has never been the desired goal of the people of Britain.

The Government’s response to the efforts of other Governments to revive the constitution has been, in our view, truly extraordinary. As French and German leaders have proclaimed their views and sherpas have rushed round EU capitals, our Government have spent a great deal of time denying that any negotiations have been taking place. That has demonstrated neither forethought nor leadership. After the constitution’s rejection there was, understandably—the Foreign Secretary referred to it—a pause for reflection. There has since been a debate about Europe’s future to which the Government have made no notable contribution over the past two years.

I believe that this will go down in history as one of the great wasted opportunities for Britain to set the terms of debate on Europe’s future. The federalists had seen their great achievement—a constitution for Europe, to which this Government agreed—rejected by the voters. It was clear that the goal of ever closer political union was out of tune with what many of the peoples of Europe wanted. That was the time for British leadership to push for the only model of European Union that can work for all of Europe in the long term—a flexible, open Europe. It was time to look again at some failing policies.

Today’s Europe is ready, in large parts and for the first time, to listen to that alternative vision. Enlargement has profoundly changed the dynamics of the European Union. Countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland do not want ever closer political union; they have been calling for a different direction. In the Netherlands, political leaders have reflected deeply on the referendum result and the relationship between the European Union and the nation state. Yet instead of taking the lead, the Government have buried their head in the sand for most of the past two years. On Sunday, the Foreign Secretary said on the BBC that she now finds the prospect of the summit “nerve-wracking”—not something to strike terror into other countries’ negotiators, I am afraid. This should have been a time for a confident British Government to give a lead to those who question the need for a new treaty.

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman would expand on exactly what constitutes an open Europe before moving to personal attacks. I respect the right hon. Gentleman’s views and he knows that I like his writing, too. Are you saying that you wish to repudiate the Single European Act and Mrs. Thatcher’s work in Europe? Is that what you mean by going back?

Order. I am not saying anything. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman means the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague).

No, I do not repudiate the Single European Act. I do not make personal attacks on the Foreign Secretary; I merely make personal teasers now and again, simply to pick up on her comments from time to time. I am not one for personal attacks.

I emphasise to the hon. Gentleman that there is a strong case—which I have set out in lengthy speeches; I am happy to send him copies—for a more open and flexible model of the European Union, which allows some powers to come back to the nation states of Europe and some powers to pass down from the European Union to the nation states. The Czech Government are asking for that in proposing their flexibility clause. There is a different model and this country should be its champion.

Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify the Conservative party’s position on fisheries? It has done a flip-flop on its policy on that subject in the past 12 months. Is it in favour of withdrawing from the common fisheries policy? That was the position just over a year ago.

We want great change in the European Union’s fishing policies because the CFP has been a disaster environmentally and economically. We have ruled nothing out in the way in which we achieve those changes. We will have more to say about that in future.

I agree with some of the right hon. Gentleman’s ideas on the way to create a reformed European Union. When did his party leader last discuss them with Mrs Merkel?

My right hon. Friend will have discussed them when he met Mrs Merkel during the leadership election. I discussed them with her when I met her in Berlin last year. My right hon. Friend discussed those plans with other European leaders such as Mr. Sarkozy, who has since become the President of France. There is no shortage of discussion between the Conservative party and European leaders. Indeed, those discussions moved Mr. Sarkozy to send a good wishes message to the Conservative party conference last year. The hon. Lady need not worry about such matters.

I agree with my right hon. Friend that the Government have had their heads in the sand. That is especially true in recent weeks, when according to the diary of the Bundesregierung website, Mrs Merkel held one-to-one meetings with the Polish leader—on 15 May—the French leader, the Danish leader and the Swedish leader, and also had discussions with Ireland, Belgium, Italy, Hungary, Lithuania and so on. Meanwhile, our Prime Minister has been on a legacy tour and failed to stand up for Britain’s interests when he was most needed in the past six weeks.

Let me make two points. First, extensive conversations have taken place on the telephone—which exists—between the German Chancellor and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman might have noticed that the Prime Minister attended the G8 meeting.

Now we know that conversations have taken place, but they are distinct from negotiations in the Foreign Secretary’s world. Earlier, she said that discussions had taken place about the future of the constitution, and now she says that there have been conversations. That sounds suspiciously like negotiations, which she denies, to the rest of us.

My right hon. Friend refers to conversations and discussions, but we require action. It was noticeable that the Foreign Secretary was unable to give an example of what she has done during her tenure and Great Britain’s presidency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government could have achieved the introduction of a common European gas market, which would have helped control gas prices in the UK, especially given that Russia has an increasing influence over prices?

That is another thing that people may seek. I do not claim that the Government have achieved nothing. Under the German presidency, with our Government’s encouragement, an important achievement, to which the Foreign Secretary referred, was made at the European summit a few months ago on climate change. However, on constitutional change and the run-up to the summit, the Government have not made the case for an alternative vision of the future of Europe.

The debate is becoming a Conservative party Question Time, which is premature, although it will be necessary in future. I shall therefore give way only once or twice again.

The thrust of the right hon. Gentleman’s critique of the Government is rightly the proper use of British influence. If, in due course, he found himself occupying the post of Foreign Secretary and exercising powers and authority on behalf of a future British Government, his early days would be dominated by his leader’s wish to withdraw from the European People’s party and cast the new amorphous and intriguing group that might emerge from the British Conservatives in the European context. Will he give us a wee update on how he is getting on with that interesting scenario?

Speaking of amorphous groupings, I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman is one of the Liberal Democrats who is looking to be in the Cabinet next week. That grouping would be very amorphous. Perhaps his interest in how a Foreign Secretary should behave is partly motivated by those negotiations.

For the record, given that we are both former leaders, I am delighted to say that answering such questions is now well above my pay grade, as it is above the right hon. Gentleman’s.

I see. The right hon. Gentleman’s successor as party leader might agree to his joining the Cabinet. That is especially interesting. The Conservative party’s commitment to forming a new group in the European Parliament with our Czech colleagues in 2009 is categorical. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will show even more interest in it at that time.

The shadow Foreign Secretary has made much of an open Europe policy, which devolves power downwards. Does he accept that there are instances when power should be centred in Europe and that the way to build a new Europe is on an agenda such as climate change, on which there is agreement in Europe that sovereignty sometimes needs to be given to a greater authority? That is the way to build a new Europe—on an agenda of genuine issues rather than the theoretical basis with which the bureaucrats endlessly confront us.

I largely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Climate change should form an important part of building a genuine European agenda. However, he should not believe that that means that more power should be located in the European Union. The Foreign Secretary told the European Scrutiny Committee last week that everything on climate change

“can all be done, is being done and has been done within existing treaties.”

That is the way to proceed. Institutional change is not required.

I am much encouraged to hear my right hon. Friend say that we want some repatriation of powers, which is crucial. However, that poses the question of how we can achieve that, because we also want to achieve economic competitiveness. If we could not achieve our objectives through negotiation with other member states by tackling the problem through invading the acquis, will he reconfirm the party’s vote last year on the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, in this House and in this House of Lords, to override the European Communities Act 1972 when necessary and require the judiciary to obey the latest inconsistent Act of the Westminster Parliament?

In that vote, we simply recognised what we understand as the constitutional position, which the Prime Minister restated last week: that the House has ultimate sovereignty. However, it is not necessary to expand on that further today.

The Government are again faced with substantial parts of the constitution, which they privately but forlornly hoped would go away if they said nothing about it. The German presidency’s approach was spelled out in the questionnaire that it sent to European capitals a few weeks ago. It referred to preserving the substance of the constitution while making the necessary presentational changes. Such an approach is a profound mistake. I think that the Foreign Secretary believes that it is a mistake. As the Laeken declaration in December 2001 recognised, the crucial question is how the EU can be brought closer to its peoples. There can be no surer way of worsening the democratic deficit and disconnection between EU institutions and peoples than ignoring the verdict of the voters.

There are those who say that the EU is a project pushed forward by a political elite who do not care what ordinary people want because they think they know better, so what better way to confirm that argument than by saying that if the people democratically reject the EU constitution, we will just bring it back with a few presentational tweaks? If people do not feel ownership over the EU, they will steadily turn against it, which would not be in Britain’s or Europe’s interest. Further political integration must have the people’s permission. In our view, political integration has already gone too far. Either way, however, it should be for the British people to decide.

The Prime Minister appeared to recognise that when he agreed that there should be a referendum on the EU constitution. He famously discovered his reverse gear—we all watched him doing it in the House in April 2004—by saying, “Let battle be joined”. With the zeal of a convert, he gave cast-iron assurances that the British people would have their say. During the general election campaign, he told The Sun:

“We don’t know what is going to happen in France, but we will have a referendum on the constitution in any event”—

and that, he told The Sun, was “a Government promise”. He went even further by saying:

“What you can’t do is have a situation where you get a rejection of the treaty and then you just bring it back with a few amendments and say we will have another go.”

The Government have absolutely no democratic mandate to bring in parts of the constitution without a referendum of the British people. That is why, if there is a new treaty that transfers competences from Britain to the EU by bringing back parts of the constitution, we are clear that there must be referendum. That must apply whether the transfer of competence is handed over on day one of the new treaty or whether a ratchet effect is initiated that will see power shift to the EU as decisions and judgments are made over the years.

It most certainly did, and I shall make three points here. First, the Minister is clearly trying to make a point about consistency. He will recall that Labour MPs voted for a referendum on that occasion, so the argument about consistency can be made either way. Secondly, I remind the Minister that the most important thing in the treaty was the provision to join the euro if the Government wished it in the future—and on that, the Government of the time offered a referendum. Thirdly, I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that the situation is different now from what it was 15 years ago because the arguments have changed and the peoples of this and other countries have moved on in their belief that political integration has now gone far enough. That is why further political integration requires their democratic consent.

I was one Member who voted against the Maastricht treaty and who wanted a referendum. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it might help Labour Members who want a referendum if any changes are made to give more powers to Europe if he admitted that sometimes the Conservative party as well as the Labour party can get it wrong? Perhaps the Conservatives were wrong not to allow a referendum on the Maastricht treaty.

I readily admit that politicians of all parties get things wrong, but I would have to give longer thought to the particular question of whether we were wrong about Maastricht. As I said, however, the consistency argument can be levelled against the Minister for Europe, but the hon. Lady has made her point.

The Government’s position on whether there should be a referendum is more than a little unclear, and the Foreign Secretary has just added a twist to it in her speech. Perhaps the Minister for Europe will be able to expand on it when he winds up the debate. The Prime Minister has said that there will not be a referendum on the treaty. The Foreign Secretary said a few days ago—despite having stood on a manifesto promising a referendum—that she preferred a model of Government without referendums. I believe that she said yesterday to the Select Committee that we would be able to tell on Monday whether it would be necessary to have a referendum, but today she has said that the Government will not agree to anything that requires a referendum in their judgment, which means, of course, that it will not be necessary to work anything out on Monday. There are several contradictory statements there.

The Chancellor has said that we will have to wait and see and the Minister for Europe, who is now being touted as the Chancellor’s close ally—I have to tell him, however, that the Chancellor has about 330 close allies on the Government Benches at the moment, all hoping for what the right hon. Gentleman is hoping for next Thursday afternoon, namely, a telephone call with encouraging news—says that it will all depend on the final package. What is the Government’s view? Will they keep or break their promise? Will they let the British people decide or will they try to ignore them?

While they are at it—again, the Minister could deal with this in his winding-up speech—can someone in the Government clear up another intriguing point in their position? Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made much of the fact that the new treaty will not have the “characteristics of a constitution”, but what are those characteristics? The Government have persistently refused to say what those characteristics are. It is wholly illogical to claim that a treaty does not require a referendum because it fails to pass the test of characteristics, and then be totally unable to say what that test is. That is wholly of a piece with the Government’s utterly confused and disjointed approach to this matter.

The Government have had eight different policies in the past seven years. In 2000, the Prime Minister explained:

“It is perhaps easier for the British than for others to recognise that a constitutional debate must not necessarily end with a single, legally binding document called a Constitution”.

In 2002, he said that

“we do need a proper Constitution for Europe”.

By 2003, the current Northern Ireland Secretary was saying it was just a “tidying-up exercise”, and not important enough for a referendum. Later that year, the Prime Minister said that holding a referendum would be

“a gross and irresponsible betrayal of the true British national interest”—

in other words, it was too important to hold a referendum on this issue. Despite that, he was soon in favour of exactly such a referendum to resolve “once and for all” where Britain stood in Europe. It was “time to decide” what was “our destiny”, so we should let “the issue be put”.

Yet that vital statement of mission and purpose went the way of every previous statement on this subject. It was as if Nelson had said:

“England expects every man to do his duty”—

but then said, “On second thoughts, perhaps not, as we might do this in a few years’ time or forget it altogether”. Now, the Prime Minister says, having agreed to the constitution then, that we do not need a constitution after all and that we must “listen to the people”, which apparently means not asking them what they think. We now find that the constitution, which he had described as a “success for Britain” needs four “major changes”, without which Britain will veto the new treaty, although there is no explanation of why these red lines were apparently not a problem when the whole thing was negotiated the first time round.

The Government have had so many positions that they are now recycling the old ones. On Sunday, the Foreign Secretary told the BBC that the whole business was intended to “tidy up the rule book”, taking us back to the position of the Northern Ireland Secretary four years ago. That is the consistency, vision and backbone of a jellyfish. That is what we have had from the Government in recent years.

As the Prime Minister’s former chief economic adviser said the last time the constitution was on the table:

“The Government never saw the discussions on the Constitution as an opportunity to stand back and think clearly about the appropriate political and economic framework to sustain the EU… the Government’s response was tactical rather than strategic”—

and nothing has changed since.

I really must proceed, but I may give way one or two more times later. It is already becoming a long speech.

Instead of accountability, we have had desperate secrecy. Never before have I known three chairmen of Select Committees, all from the governing party, express such strongly and similarly worded frustration over the Government’s behaviour. The Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee has called it “non-transparency”. The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee has had to write to the Foreign Secretary to complain of the

“failure of accountability to Parliament”.

The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee has pointed out that the Government have refused to say what position, if any, they have on the vital issue of whether criminal justice should be moved from the intergovernmental third pillar to full Community competence.

Indeed, when the Foreign Secretary told the European Scrutiny Committee last week that

“nothing that you could really call negotiations has taken place”,

we could not work out whether she had been kept so utterly out of the loop by the Prime Minister that she simply did not know what was going on, or whether she had a completely different understanding of the word “negotiate” from the rest of us. That very day, the French President told reporters how he and the Prime Minister had agreed the basis of a new treaty and the German Foreign Minister informed MEPs in Brussels how near to a conclusion he had brought the talks. Was that position reached without the Foreign Office being involved in any negotiation of any kind? That is an alarming thought, if it is true.

When the Prime Minister set out his so-called red lines on Monday, it was the first time that Parliament or the British public had heard what the Government’s view was. Indeed, it must have come as quite a surprise to the Foreign Secretary, who told the European Scrutiny Committee that nothing was going on at all, and that in any case

“the less I say about what we might in principle accept and what we might not, the more I preserve the maximum amount of negotiating space to resist anything that I think is not in Britain’s national interest”.

The Prime Minister took a different view on Monday. His remarks deserve serious scrutiny, because what he did not mention was more significant than what he did. He said nothing about the proposed permanent EU President, nothing about a single legal personality for the EU, nothing about the proposed primacy of EU law over our laws, and nothing about the hugely important points buried in the small print of the original constitution. He said that there would be no qualified majority voting on any provision that

“can have a big say in our own tax and benefits system”.

So would qualified majority voting that had a small say be all right? Will the Minister enlighten us on that when he winds up the debate?

The Prime Minister said that he would not agree to anything that

“displaces the role of British foreign policy”.

So why not put the case earlier that the Foreign Secretary, evidently uncomfortably, had to put to Foreign Ministers a few nights ago? She put the case against qualified majority voting and against an EU Foreign Minister having a diplomatic service in the European Union. The Prime Minister also said that he would not accept a treaty that allowed the charter of fundamental rights to change UK law. But would it be acceptable to give the charter legal standing so that it could change EU law, which would ultimately affect this country? He said that he would not agree to give up our ability to control our common law and judicial and police systems. Does that mean that the veto over criminal justice will be kept and that, crucially, criminal justice will remain in the intergovernmental third pillar?

It has taken weeks, while other Governments have staked out positions, proposed new articles and campaigned for their views, for our Government to set out their so-called red lines, four days before the summit itself. Those red lines turn out not only to be red herrings but, on examination, to prove to be so carefully phrased by the Prime Minister that he could sign up to an EU treaty that transferred substantial powers to the EU and enacted much of the constitution and yet not breach his four red lines. The Prime Minister could give the charter of fundamental rights legal standing, move criminal law to Community control, and agree to a Foreign Minister in all but name with an EU external action service and European embassies, a permanent President of the Council, a common asylum policy, widespread extension of qualified majority voting elsewhere and a broadening of EU competence over employment policy—and still say that his red lines had not been breached. Those so-called red lines in the sand are but chaff thrown up to con the British public that the Government want simply to defend the British national interest, when their central priority is to avoid holding a referendum at all costs.

The Foreign Secretary gave the game away when she said that any treaty that, in the Government’s judgment, required a referendum would not be signed. The idea is that the great leader will go forward on behalf of the British public, and that we do not have to worry because he would not sign anything—would he?—that would require the people to trouble themselves with casting their vote. That is a patronising attitude towards the electorate and a breach of the Government’s election promise.

As the right hon. Gentleman has been making a point about the importance of clarity, will he tell the House whether his party would seek any changes to the present framework in Europe and, in particular, whether it would seek a referendum on the proposal made by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) that we should reconsider our membership of the European Union?

No, I do not agree with that and will not be proposing a referendum on that subject, either now or at the next general election. We have put forward our preferred model for the development of the European Union—the right hon. Gentleman will be added to the list of Members to whom I must send my seminal speeches on these subjects—and I could go on about it at even greater length than I have been doing. However, the immediate issue at hand is what will happen tomorrow and on Friday at the summit.

If we had a Government with a clear vision for a modern Europe, the negotiations at the summit would present not only challenges but opportunities. The Foreign Secretary has mentioned one or two of the relevant points. The Dutch Government have proposed giving national Parliaments the right to block legislation that breaches the principle of subsidiarity. For far too long, and to the deep frustration of many on both sides of this House, this important principle has had no proper enforcement mechanism. The Dutch proposal at least attempts to provide it with an effective one and we urge the Government to support it, and not just to treat it with sympathy, as the Foreign Secretary said a little while ago.

The Czech Government have proposed a flexibility clause that would allow member states to return powers to national control where appropriate. For far too long, the EU has been a one-way ratchet, taking powers from member states but unable to return them. We hope that the Government will support the Czechs on that imaginative proposal. Perhaps they should have put forward the proposal with the Czechs and campaigned for it across Europe.

The Government declare themselves neutral on the question of voting weights, but I am not sure that Ministers have entirely thought the German proposal through. In particular, the new system, with its exact correspondence between population and voting weight, will make it harder to admit large but poor countries into the European Union. Indeed, some suspect that it was devised with that purpose in mind. Given the fundamental importance of the goal of Turkish membership of the EU, that area needs to be considered very carefully indeed.

However, the biggest omission of all by the Government is that they have missed the opportunity to say what I suspect the Foreign Secretary believes, namely, that we do not need a new treaty for Europe’s countries to act together. It is simply not true that a Europe of 27 is not working with the old rules. As the Foreign Secretary has admitted, the EU is coping perfectly well without new rules.

Yes, the Prime Minister should go to the summit saying that no deal is better than a bad deal—but he should also have been saying for a long time that the time for political integration is over, and that the time to look outwards to the great challenges of global warming, global poverty and globalised competition must begin. The EU’s focus should be on practical issues that matter—a point made earlier by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)—such as success in the world trade round, going further with the single market and improving the emissions trading scheme to create long-term incentives for business to invest in green technology. Those should be the priorities and we do not need a treaty to accomplish them, as the Foreign Secretary has made clear several times.

The Prime Minister should point out those facts to some of his colleagues. He should be advising other leaders to respond to the unhappiness in their own countries, rather than choosing to ignore it in his own. He should be saying that Britain does not support a revived constitution. If he did these things, and if he had done them over the past two years, he would at last, in Europe, have something that he could call a legacy.

Order. I must remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, and that that operates from now.

I should like to say to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) that if he wishes to send me any of his writings, he should not send me anything that I can read in Hansard, because I have already read those, and I am not convinced that he is not still just playing the game. If he were ever to become Foreign Secretary, he might take a more positive view of the need for an amending treaty—or a number of amending treaties—to allow Europe to continue to advance.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the backbone of a jellyfish, and about the need for the Government to be responsive and reflective. As the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, I believe that we have made remarkable strides in the past two years. Perhaps there was not a dialogue or a conversation, but there was certainly one-way traffic from those of us who did not think that the convention would bring in a proposal for a constitution, which was unnecessary, and that what should have been proposed was an amending treaty. That would have taken on the recommendation in the Laeken proposals to get closer to the people of Europe.

I would like to see the introduction of a red card. Such a card would be held not by the Government using the Whip, but by Parliament, where we could have a free vote on whether to demand that something be taken back by the Commission. There is now talk of an orange card being added to the yellow card. Anything better than a white card will suit me. The role of Parliaments should be strengthened with regard to the decisions that should be taken at this level under subsidiarity. I do not mind whether that involves repatriation on an item-by-item basis or a method of preventing the Commission from creeping—a term I use often—even further along with its proposals.

I am concerned that those who are demanding a referendum are not really debating the constitution proposals, but are trying to portray the European Union, as it currently stands, as a malevolent force. I do not see the European Union as a malevolent force, and I am sure that the shadow Foreign Secretary does not, although some of his Back-Bench colleagues might. I see it as a positive arrangement. It does need amendment, and he is wrong to think that an amending treaty is unnecessary. It is clear that the Commission is too large, and that the proposal to bring a series of presidencies into one consistent presidency title and process works. Recently, we went to Germany and then Portugal to see the informal troika arrangement. Rather than distinct changes from presidency to presidency, a consistent synergy and purposefulness can be achieved from one presidency to the next over five presidencies. The proposal is similar to that whereby the European Parliament renews its officers after a two-and-a-half-year term.

I will not take interventions at the moment.

We need to consider seriously whether we would accept an amending treaty if the constitution is not introduced.

I agree that those who spend time in either the European Parliament or the European Commission have a tendency to go native. Perhaps those who get tied up in European Council meetings also move increasingly close to the Commission’s view. We must find a way of countering that, and the concept of a stronger card than a yellow card would deal with that. Clearly people went native on the convention, which was taken over by Giscard d’Estaing and other powerful figures and members of the Commission. They produced a treaty for a constitution, which was not what we thought they were setting out to produce. That has since been repudiated by the members of the convention from this Parliament—both the member representing the Opposition, who signed up to an amended treaty, and the member representing the Labour Benches. Questions have also been raised about whether the then Minister for Europe has doubts about what he signed up for. I could not necessarily be accused of undergoing that process, either at the time or afterwards. Last week, in a speech on the future of Europe, I said:

“The UK”—

both Parliament and people—

“will not be lectured, hectored or bullied”

into signing a treaty detrimental to the people of the UK.

We should pause to consider some facts. Many people outside do not necessarily understand the matter being discussed, and they are confused by the language that we use. People might want to read a good note in the Library about the concept of treaties. There is only really one treaty—the treaty of Rome. Every other treaty has merely amended the treaty of Rome. Even the treaty of Amsterdam—which changed all the numbering of the original treaty of Rome—and the Maastricht treaty were amending treaties. The treaty proposed by the convention, however, would have been different. It would have been a new treaty, because it collapsed all other treaties and proposed a constitution. People reacted against that more than anything else.

Even the shadow Foreign Secretary talked about EU law, but my understanding is that there is no EU law; there is EC—European Community—law. All the directives and regulations are EC directives, not EU directives. If the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash)—he has left the Chamber quickly, probably to attend my Committee—is correct that the EC is to be changed to the EU, that would be a significant and fundamental matter, which I have not heard addressed by those on our Front Bench or anyone with whom I have debated the issue over the past couple of years. I would like that to be clarified.

What made the constitutional treaty a constitution were the fundamental points addressed by the Prime Minister. It is irritating that we have not been able to have an open dialogue during the period of reflection of the past couple of years. At the Liaison Committee, the Prime Minister made clear what he believed those points were. I am sorry that the shadow Foreign Secretary did not think that that changed the nature of what is proposed from Europe. Those with whom I have debated the issue in the European Parliament, COSAC meetings and future of Europe debates are certainly of the opinion that if the four points referred to by the Prime Minister are taken out, it will not be the constitution that they voted for. They do not want us to take those points out, but they should be taken out.

The Prime Minister made the position clear:

“What it does not need is a Constitutional Treaty or a treaty with the characteristics of a constitution, to put it in the words that the Dutch have used.”

He continued:

“First, we will not accept a treaty that allows the Charter of Fundamental Rights to change UK law in any way.”

Other countries want that and have spoken strongly in favour of it. If UK law is not affected, we should not stand in the way of those countries, because, as I think the shadow Foreign Secretary was saying, other countries have the right to make their decisions independently and to sign up to them.

The Prime Minister went on:

“Secondly, we will not agree to something which displaces the role of British foreign policy and our foreign minister.”

It is wrong to hold out as a threat the idea that those doing peacekeeping on behalf of the EU in, I think, 16 countries, should not be supported by some kind of bureaucracy that allows them to continue such fundamental work. That should not replace ours, or our seat at the UN, and the Prime Minister has made it clear that he would not allow that to happen.

The Prime Minister continued:

“Thirdly, we will not agree to give up our ability to control our common law and judicial and police system.”

That means that justice and home affairs, as recommended by the Home Affairs Committee, should not be transferred from the third to the first pillar, and should not therefore become subject to qualified majority voting. That is fundamental.

The Prime Minister went on:

“Fourthly, we will not agree to anything that moves to Qualified Majority Voting, something that can have a big say in our own tax and benefit system”.

In other words, we still have the veto. He made the position clear:

“we must have the right…to determine it by unanimity.”

Those four fundamental changes have been the result not just of the comments made by Opposition Members but by members of the European Scrutiny Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and like-minded people across the Chamber. I hope that that will change fundamentally the outcome of the Council meeting. If so, we will be talking not about a new constitution but about another amending treaty to the original treaty of Rome, which does not do any of the threatening things that the shadow Foreign Secretary has suggested. If he were in the Government and negotiating, at any time in the future, with his European counterparts, I am sure that he would agree with most of the common-sense proposals left in the original treaty. Some of them could be stripped out, and some of them, especially proposals relating to the power of parliaments, as opposed to the power of Executives, could be strengthened; I would certainly support that.

The institutional changes might founder on the Polish problem. When Poland signed up to the treaty of Nice, it was given a great deal, whereby it would have 27 votes, and Germany would have 29. Of course it signed up to that. It was rather strange that the convention then brought forward a proposal that would give Germany twice as many votes as Poland. How can one ask a country to enter a new system, and then change the voting balance? A wondrous system has been suggested whereby the number of votes a country has should be based on the square root of its population. Actually, it is quite simple: if Germany had nine votes, the UK would have eight votes, and Poland would have five and a half—alternatively, those countries would have 18, 16 and 11 votes respectively.

We need to deal with those institutional matters to get a solution. Agreement should not founder, however, on the myth that if the four fundamental parts of the amending treaty are taken out, a referendum will be required. I do not like referendums; they are not a sensible part of the system of government of this country. We have a liberal press, who would run the referendum according to what they thought the conditions were. With the best will in the world, even people like me, who are Euro-anoraks, could not make people understand the complexities of what we were voting on. It would be an emotional vote.

I hope that people will stop all this posturing, and wish the Prime Minister well in the coming Council. I hope that he will get an amending treaty that will safeguard Britain’s position, and I shall certainly support him in that.

Our debates on European affairs are among the most reliable features of the parliamentary calendar—reliable in that they turn up on schedule twice a year, and reliable in the predictable way in which they unfold—and that comforting familiarity has been on display in the Chamber again today.

With a few topical flourishes, today’s debate so far has been almost a rerun of the many debates on Europe that littered the period before and after the constitutional treaty finally appeared on the scene in 2004. It has been characterised by precious little being given away by the Secretary of State, save hints at red lines that have been well trailed in the media, and precious little being held back by the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who demanded that pretty well anything resembling a treaty—let alone a constitution—should merit a referendum. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) made a characteristically robust speech.

I make no apologies for entering into the spirit of the afternoon by going over some old ground myself. However, as we have also observed today, there are topics other than the amending treaty that deserve some of our attention, and I hope to touch on one or two of them later.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the treaty of Rome. Whatever our thoughts about the future, we ought at the very least to reflect on that, and on what has been achieved in the intervening time. In the course of the expansion of the European Union from six to 27 member states, communist and fascist states have been transformed, and the risks of war within Europe have been largely put behind us. Democratic values and institutions have been the priorities for many countries striving to join the European Union, and those values have become entrenched once the countries have joined. Similarly, their prosperity has increased many times as they have become embedded in Europe’s trading system and economy of nearly 500 million people.

Over the last five decades Europe has learnt to work as a whole, and to tackle problems that are beyond the control of individual countries. In an era of globalisation, climate change and international terrorism, the requirement for countries to work together has not dimmed. Britain has been a beneficiary of that co-operation, not least in dealing with terrorism. We should remember that one of the suspects involved in the failed attempts to bomb the London Underground two years ago was extradited from Italy within days of his arrest in Rome. Such a fast-track process has only been made possible by co-operation in justice and home affairs. It is just one example of the importance of being part of the European Union. Rather than displaying the ambiguity of some in the Labour party or the barely concealed antipathy of many Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats’ approach recognises the importance of the European Union and the importance of the United Kingdom’s playing a full part in it.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of new European member states putting aside some of their communist and fascist past, but does he not agree that in countries such as Italy, Austria and Poland, proportional representation has allowed political views of that kind to rear their ugly heads again?

I do not wish to be distracted into a debate on voting systems, tempting as that might be. The point is that by embracing those countries within the European Union, we have strengthened their democratic traditions and the values that underpin their Governments and way of life in this modern era.

It is now some two years since the French and Dutch referendum votes cast Europe into what was politely termed its “period of reflection”. The Liberal Democrats welcome the German presidency’s efforts to leave behind that period of doubt and uncertainty, particularly as the recent accession of Romania and Bulgaria has only emphasised the inadequacy of the current institutional arrangements. However, we need to move beyond the current navel-gazing: the time has come for the Union to refocus on the real tests in Europe and abroad. Globally, the EU’s combined political and financial clout should be used to tackle global problems, not least in furthering international development as a force for good in the fight against poverty.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the European Union could do better in the world as a collective than as a group of individual states. Surely that does not apply to aid, in respect of which Britain, for example, does a much better job than the European Union. Is there not a case for saying that although some of the very strong countries such as Germany, France, Italy, Britain and many others could work as a loose collective if they needed to, individually they can do tremendous work in the world, and indeed may be held back by the restrictive nature of the European Union?

I respect the hon. Gentleman’s view, but I do not agree with it. I acknowledge that difficulties that may arise, but I believe that when countries can work together they can get more from their pound or euro than they necessarily can on a bilateral basis.

Europe needs to accept that it must enhance its capabilities on the global stage, and it needs to look carefully at the way in which it does that. In the context of the growth of India and China, Europe still has much to do to address the economic disparity among its member states, and to complete the single market in line with the objectives of the Lisbon agenda. Those are some of the real challenges for Europe and its leaders—challenges that affect everyday lives in our constituencies and those of our European counterparts. It is on those issues that people look for action, not constitutions and their associated trappings.

To deal with those key issues, however, we need a new institutional settlement. It is unsustainable to continue arrangements designed for a Union of six nations when there are now 27. There are obvious areas crying out for reform. For a start, it is essential for the principles of conferral, subsidiarity and proportionality to be put explicitly at the heart of the Union and its operation. We desperately need to tackle the lack of transparency in the institutions, and to clarify the roles of European and national Parliaments.

It is pretty obvious that the Union needs more continuity and direction in delivering its agenda, so it makes sense to replace the six-month rotating presidency with a longer-lasting arrangement. Equally, the large—to an increasingly embarrassing degree—Commission creates unnecessary bureaucracy, and should be slimmed down to create a more efficient and effective body. There is surely no disagreement about the fact that we need more efficiency, effectiveness and transparency in the Union. The need for institutional reform should unite us all. If only!

Three years ago we supported the constitutional treaty as a package that was, on balance, in the interests of Britain and the European Union as a whole. The treaty was certainly not perfect, however, and it raised important constitutional questions. Indeed, we believed that it contained some measures that altered the balance of power between the Union’s institutions and the member states sufficiently to require a referendum.

There are many reports on the current state of negotiations on the successor treaty, but we do not know for certain what will be presented at the Council meeting this weekend. The Foreign Secretary repeated today what she has said in the past—that she will not reveal her negotiating position in public—but as the shadow Foreign Secretary observed, not everyone has been quite so discreet. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have allowed the media to know their views, which have been well trailed by Members who have spoken today. They are all perfectly valid, but there is a rather hackneyed feel to them. That is not surprising, as they bear more than a passing resemblance to the red lines that were set out—and not breached, the Government told us, thanks to opt-outs and emergency brakes—in the original constitutional treaty. It is surely more than a little implausible that a mini-version of that treaty will seek to breach them now. As the shadow Foreign Secretary said, the red lines could more honestly be described as red herrings.

The hon. Gentleman referred to his party’s previous position of support for a referendum on the constitutional treaty, but he also said that the current situation was not yet clear. Has he seen the draft intergovernmental conference mandate document produced by the German presidency? It would change some aspects of the constitutional treaty’s proposals. If he has seen that document, does he believe on the basis of it that the Liberal Democrats will still support a referendum?

The hon. Gentleman tempts me into dangerous territory. I have seen the mandate—it has been kicked around—and there are many different interpretations of it. As I will come on to say, we will do best to wait and see the actual documents before making judgments, rather than get ahead of ourselves.

If the outline—or the detail—of an amending treaty emerges from the summit this weekend, that will be welcome. Of course, if the Government do not succeed in their declared aim of much reducing the scope of the treaty, we will have to consider carefully how it should be ratified. We firmly believe that any significant changes, other than overdue institutional alterations, ought not to be introduced by stealth, and we will have to assess the text carefully to determine if a referendum is the appropriate way forward again. We cannot make that assessment at this stage. We will undoubtedly return to this issue time and again. We seem cursed to do so—and no doubt an excited public can barely wait.

The summit has an ambitious agenda, but we must hope that time will be found to discuss some pressing foreign policy issues. In particular, there ought to be an urgent discussion about the situation in Kosovo. Some eight years have now passed since NATO intervened to halt the murderous campaigns by Serbia. The “transitional arrangements” which were put in place then are now unsustainable. As many others have done, I visited Kosovo earlier this year, and the tension there was obvious. It is clear that the desire for independence and autonomy cannot be contained indefinitely. If there is no progress, there is a genuine risk of a new crisis.

We know that there are difficulties in the Security Council about the way forward. There are reports in today’s press about the latest initiative; perhaps the Minister will comment on that in his speech. We must be careful, particularly in the light of Russia’s position. The threat of the veto remains a key obstacle. There is a danger that the carefully worked out proposals put forward by Martti Ahtisaari will be scuppered.

We have a particular responsibility to the people of Kosovo, who are fellow Europeans. The European Union is central to the future status of Kosovo. Preparations for civilian support for the Administration are already under way and any new settlement is likely to be policed by an EU mission. It is therefore imperative that the European Council agree a robust position that can withstand Russian and Serbian attempts to prevent a solution. Britain’s and Europe’s interests in this dispute and in the region are clear and legitimate. The intervention in Kosovo was one of the high points of the Prime Minister’s foreign policy, but it remains unfinished business.

There is one other foreign policy issue that is rarely far from our minds, and which will demand time from the heads of Government this weekend. The serious and destabilising events in the occupied territories in the past fortnight have rightly already occupied some of our time in the House this week. Financial aid is essential to the ordinary Palestinians, who are most affected by these events but who have least say in them. Over the past year, aid has been severely restricted as a result of Hamas winning the Palestinian elections, with the Israelis holding back tax revenues and the European Union joining others in restricting the flow of funds through the temporary international mechanism.

There are serious problems with Hamas; we cannot duck that. In particular, its stated intent to obliterate the state of Israel is repugnant. But international attempts to force it to recognise Israel or to force it out of office have so far failed, and now the military wing of the organisation has asserted itself over the political wing. Hamas and Fatah are solely responsible for the violence of recent times, but the international community has failed to make any progress on the key Quartet principles by marginalising the political wing of Hamas.

Peace, the recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements are nowhere in sight. There will have to be a new approach when the immediate priority of humanitarian aid is resolved. The United States, Israel and the European Union have already decided to restore direct funding to the Palestinian Authority and its emergency Government, which we welcome. However, the new reality in Palestine is that there are two Governments: one in Gaza and one in the west bank. Given that the emergency Government have little or no influence in Gaza, it is essential that the European Union explore ways to ensure that vital aid reaches the desperate and impoverished people there as well. That must be a priority for the European leaders later this week.

The risk of failure at this week’s summit is high. Europe desperately needs to show that it has found a new direction and sense of purpose after two years of introspection. It needs to show that it can lead on the key foreign policy issues of the day. While leadership in our country is changing hands, we cannot afford to be distracted. More than ever, it is vital that the United Kingdom finally play a central part in Europe and help to make a new European Union a reality.

Last July, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs published a report on developments in the European Union, in which we said:

“Although the Treaty is not dead, it is comatose and on life support. At some point, Europe’s leaders are going to have to decide whether to switch it off. We conclude that the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe is unlikely ever to come into force, although attempts may be made to enact some of its provisions by other means.”

The Foreign Secretary yesterday told the Select Committee that many EU countries had been in denial about the facts that we pointed out. I have to say that not every member of our Government was saying last year that the treaty was dead; there was obviously a diplomatic reluctance to say so, even though everyone in this country knew that there was no prospect of a treaty that had been rejected in France and the Netherlands being endorsed in the United Kingdom.

We are where we are, and the negotiations this weekend will be difficult. Not only have 18 countries ratified the constitutional treaty, but about three others would do so through their Parliaments if they thought that there was any point. Other Governments, including ours, are in a different situation. The French and the Dutch rejected the treaty, the Poles have a particular position and the Czech Government also have some problems. It is not only the UK that has difficulties, red lines or concerns, but it will not be easy to get agreement on the basis of what has been put forward so far.

I have read the draft intergovernmental conference mandate document produced by the German presidency and made available yesterday, and I have studied certain aspects of it. It is unfortunate that Members of this House and parliamentarians across Europe have had such a late opportunity to consider it. As I have already said, I believe that whatever comes out of the negotiations at the weekend, if it is decided that we in this country will not conduct a ratification process by means of a referendum, there must be thorough engagement by parliamentarians. I do not like referendums. I agree with Clement Attlee’s remarks about devices of demagogues and dictators—a phrase that Baroness Thatcher also used in a debate in this place.

We need Parliament to be sovereign on these matters—Parliament as the expression of the popular will, able to engage in, debate and consider such provisions clause by clause. If and when we get something that can be put forward for ratification, it is essential that we have a parliamentary process leading up to the intergovernmental conference envisaged under the Portuguese presidency.

If that conference is not to be held until September, October or even November, we need to have established a mechanism in the meantime. If something tangible emerges next week, I will consult my Committee colleagues about how we can consider such a process, even through the recess. We have experience of that: the Minister for the Middle East came before our Committee last September, when the House was in recess. I cannot give an undertaking in that regard because my Committee will have to take the decision, but I certainly hope that Parliament will consider these proposals in detail before any ratification process is concluded, and before the intergovernmental conference is held. The long summer recess does present a difficulty, given that the Portuguese presidency starts at the beginning of July.

Although I am absolutely in favour of a referendum, I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend’s view that we should have a strong debate before any agreement is reached. However, given what happened at the end of the British presidency, when the Prime Minister at the last minute gave away a deal on the budget without reference to anybody and astonished his fellow leaders in the European Union, does my hon. Friend fear that that might happen again?

No, I am not fearful of that, because I believe that these issues have been flagged up sufficiently. I am prepared to accept the Foreign Secretary’s assurance that there will be no agreement, except on the basis that she outlined. We will have to wait to see what happens next week.

We hope that we can engage in detail in this process, both up to the beginning of the Portuguese presidency and beyond. It is clear that getting such legislation through this House will not happen quickly—it must also go through the other place—so intensive debate into 2008 will, presumably, be required, taking up many hours. I remember well the hon. Member for Stafford, who is sitting on the Back Benches—

I apologise. I believe that the hon. Gentleman’s constituency was once called Stafford and Stone.