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Mrs. Taylor: On the first point raised by the hon. Gentleman, the vast majority of hon. Members welcomed your statement, Madam Speaker. I pointed out earlier that we have no proposals to change the legislation on oaths of allegiance. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

In respect of yesterday's statement and the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), Opposition Members ought to cast their minds back. Being in opposition is different from being in government. One cannot assume that one knows everything all the time. The procedures that have been adopted by this Government are no less respectful of the House than any previously adopted. The hon. Member for Woodspring simply made a mistake yesterday. There have been occasions when Ministers have made mistakes, and I have stood at the Dispatch Box, acknowledged that fact and apologised to the House. Yesterday was not one of those occasions.

There have been discussions on the Government of Wales Bill through the usual channels with the party of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) and minority parties. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that his is the only party which has expressed reservations about taking the Bill partly on the Floor and partly in Standing Committee. All the parties that are represented in Wales are in favour of splitting the Bill.

Mr. Burns: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. There seems to be some discrepancy in an answer given

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by the Leader of the House. She seems to rest her argument on the fact that written answers are put on the board for hon. Members at 3.30 pm. That is not so. The vast majority of written answers go on the board after 3.30 pm and at any time up to early evening. So that we can get to the bottom of the issue, would you, Madam Speaker, make inquiries of the House authorities about when written answers generally go on the board and when they did yesterday--

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman talks about "generally go on the board" and precisely "at 3.30 pm". What is his point of order? It is either precise or general. Which is it to be?

Mr. Burns: The point that I am trying to make, however inadequately, is that the Leader of the House said that written answers go on the board for hon. Members at 3.30 pm. They do not. They might start going on the board at 3.30 pm, but they do so throughout the afternoon and early evening--

Madam Speaker: Order. This is an administrative matter, not a point of order. Of course, I always want to be helpful to the House. We have had a good exchange on this matter, and the hon. Member might leave it at that. I shall see what I can do, without any commitment. I always seek to protect the procedures of the House and to be helpful to hon. Members.


School Standards and Framework

Mr. Secretary Blunkett, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Davies, Mr. Stephen Byers and Estelle Morris, presented a Bill to make new provision with respect to school education and the provision of nursery education otherwise than at school; to enable arrangements to be made for the provision of further education for young persons partly at schools and partly at further education institutions; to make provision with respect to the Education Assets Board; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed [Bill 95].

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European Union

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Clelland.]

4.57 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): Last week, on behalf of the Government and Britain, I visited three of the larger countries in central Europe that are seeking membership of the European Union: Hungary, Czech Republic and Poland. I commend a similar experience to Conservative Members, who bring to this debate doubts about Europe, suspicion of foreigners and anxiety to have as little as possible to do with either of them. If they visit the countries that are trying to enter the EU, they will find a consensus across the major political parties, which is in no doubt about the importance of the EU and shows a determination that their country will acquire full EU membership as soon as possible. Nor do politicians alone share that ambition. The people also share that ambition.

In the relatively intimate setting of this debate, I can risk sharing with the House the news that there was an internal split in the Foreign Office on the way to Poland on to what extent I should be frank with the Polish Government about the discriminatory duty that they apply to Scotch whisky. There was a strong view that we should tell it like it was and that such duty could not survive EU membership. There was a contrary view that that would compromise our attempt to establish warm friendship with the Polish Government. I finally decided that I had to tell it to them like it was and, if they wished to join the European Union, they had to drink whisky. Therefore, at a conference on Britain and Poland attended by 400 people, I took a deep breath and said that it was wholly unacceptable that a bottle of whisky should cost twice as much in Warsaw as in Prague.

I have to report to the House that the roof caved in under thunderous applause from all 400 present. It turned out to be the most popular statement that I made in my three days in central Europe. It underlined the fact that the ordinary people also see attractions for themselves in membership of the European Union, as workers who can export to it, as travellers who can move more freely across it and as consumers who will have easier access to the goods produced within it.

Britain has an opportunity in central Europe to strengthen our standing in Europe. English is by far the second most common language of those who live in those countries, easily eclipsing German. Older residents of those countries have memories of the historic role of Britain in defeating fascism. Indeed, the Foreign Minister of Poland recalled as a child demonstrating outside the British embassy in support of our decision to enter the war as a result of the invasion of Poland. The younger people of those countries have great enthusiasm for the authentic western culture that they identify in Britain.

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Britain has a strategic opportunity, especially during our presidency, to emerge as a sponsor and a patron of membership of the European Union for those countries seeking to apply. However, one condition applies--those countries must be convinced that we want them as members of the European Union to strengthen it, not to dilute it. I allow that the previous Government supported enlargement of the European Union. Unfortunately, they took little trouble to disguise that they wanted those countries in as part of a looser, wider and weaker Europe. Those countries do not want a weaker Europe: they want to be members of a stronger Europe. That is what we want too, and that is why we give priority to enlargement.

We want a bigger, stronger Union with 100 million extra consumers, who will make even larger what is already the wealthiest single market in the world and give us a bigger voice in the world and in trade talks. A bigger, stronger Union will end the unacceptable model of a fortress Europe in which affluent countries are within and poorer countries are outside. That model is unacceptable and, as we are discovering, unsustainable, as organised crime, money laundering and drugs trafficking undermine the walls we build around the fortress.

It is because we want those countries to join, to create that stronger Union, that repeatedly those whom I met in central Europe welcomed the fact that Britain is now back in Europe, playing the part that they want us to play as a leading partner in Europe--with influence, not isolation in Brussels and with respect, not resentment in other member states. [Interruption.]

As usual, the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) is making boorish remarks from a sedentary position, but if he does not believe what I am saying he should read what the European papers say about the new Labour Government in Britain. Let us review what has been written in those papers in the past six months. Those six months began with the Amsterdam summit. At that summit, Britain retained the legal right to retain border controls; we stopped the merger of the Western European Union with the European Union and prevented the European Union from becoming a defence organisation; and we secured new treaty language on our priorities of employment, the environment and fraud against the Union. On the Monday after the summit, La Repubblica ran the headline "Britain 4--Continent 0".

The past six months have drawn to a close with the special jobs summit in Luxembourg. Britain secured at that summit guidelines that fully reflect our economic priorities of raising skills, improving the labour market and raising competitiveness. On the Monday after that summit, Le Monde ran an editorial under the headline "Tony Blair's summit".

I know that it is too much to hope that Conservative Members read the leading newspapers of Europe. Probably they are right in suspecting that they are written by foreigners. However, Conservative Members are alone in Europe in representing the outcome of those two major summits as defeats for Britain. I know that Tories are in opposition, but they claim to be the great backers of Britain and the British national interest. Therefore, it is odd that they persist in seeing failure for Britain where the rest of Europe sees success for Britain.

A spirit of reciprocity is appropriate in foreign relations and I hope that that spirit will inform this debate. If we review the events of the past six months, I hope that it is

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legitimate to roam over what they have meant for the debate on Europe in the Tory party. Those six months started with the general election and finished with the Winchester and Beckenham by-elections. In those six months, the Conservative party lost 21,000 electors in those two constituencies.

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