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7.21 pm

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): I wish to make a short contribution to the debate, but before I do so I apologise for my late arrival. I was detained in my constituency.

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Since I have been here, I have heard several interesting maiden speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) made a well-informed, persuasive and detailed speech, bringing to the Chamber his enormous experience as a former Member of the European Parliament. Indeed, he was the leader of the Labour group there. I particularly welcome him as a former fellow graduate of Cardiff university; there should be a few more of us in the Chamber.

The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) made an eloquent speech and clearly showed that he is easily making the transition from scribe in one or other of the disreputable newspapers to politician. I welcome him to this place.

The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) gave a speech of clear conviction and demonstrated much affection for his constituency. I was interested in his remarks about introducing voting at the age of 16. I am not convinced of the need for that, but there is a case to be made and he made it well.

I welcome the hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink), as a fellow Essex Member, to the Chamber. He made an impassioned anti-European speech. Although I was not convinced by its substance, its style was excellent. He spoke eloquently and movingly about his predecessors.

A debate on Britain's relationship with the European Union and on our membership of the EU is welcome so soon after the general election in which—let us not forget it—Britain's membership of the EU featured prominently. It must be underlined that there was a strong belief in the Conservative party in the weeks and months in the run-up to the general election that opposition to the single currency and vitriolic hostility to the EU and all its works would move opinion massively and significantly towards that party.

For days and weeks, we heard that the final seven days of the campaign were going to be devoted to the single currency and that that would be the issue that would lead people to switch their votes to the Conservative party. At the very least, we should note that that simply did not happen. The more that the Conservative party focused on Europe, the EU and the single currency, the more people began to question why it was not talking about other important issues, such as schools, hospitals, railways and much else.

The campaign and the way in which the result came about convinced me more than ever that the British people are not intrinsically anti-European. I believe that they are Euro-sceptic or sceptical about Europe, but not in the way that the Conservative party has taken over the notion of scepticism. They are sceptical in the true sense of the word. They are questioning, concerned and anxious about the future, and they desire more information, but that does not amount to hostility.

The detailed polling evidence that appeared during the election campaign showed clearly—this was borne out by my experience of talking to thousands of people on the doorstep in my constituency—that there is not a majority for British withdrawal from the EU. Depending on how the question is put and the opinion poll that one consults, there may be a majority for joining the single currency at some stage in the future if and when the criteria are met. That is very different from the prospectus on which the Conservative party campaigned.

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Another factor that I found on the doorstep in the election campaign—it relates specifically to the debate—is that, whatever view people take on the EU, its budget and the single currency, they overwhelmingly wanted the issues to be debated and to receive more information. They want the type of honest argument that, all too often, we do not have. Our job as politicians of all parties and of all views is to provide that information. We do not receive it from the national newspapers. On the issues of Europe and particularly the single currency and the budget, their approach is one of crude caricature and prejudice. We need information, facts and details as well as a broad philosophical debate on the kind of Europe we want and what Britain's position in it should be.

If we have such a debate, I am confident that, when the criteria for entry into the single currency are met, we will be able to take the case to the British people in a referendum and win the argument. Whatever views individuals take, we should have a referendum when the criteria are met. I never understood the Conservative party's position of opposing that, because it is the single most important economic issue in a generation. It must be decided.

In the debate, I have heard repeated references to the experience of referendums elsewhere in the EU. In particular, the referendums in Denmark and the Irish Republic have been used to provide justification for the Conservative party's view that the EU is heading for the rocks. I would not go too far down that road, because there were specific reasons that explain why those referendums were lost. Those issues do not resonate in this country.

In Denmark, the overwhelming reason why people rejected the single currency in a referendum was that they thought that joining it would lead to the Danish welfare state being undermined.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The debate on the Bill's Second Reading is tightly drawn and the hon. Gentleman is now ranging rather wide of the mark.

Mr. Rammell: I take your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I take note of the time. I shall move on.

I wish to comment on the interesting remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd)—and they must have been in order because he made them. He referred to the fact that some people have doubts about the single currency because of their doubts about European institutions. That argument is worth considering, and he made some positive points.

My hon. Friend also strongly made a point that relates specifically to the EU budget. He stressed the need for better scrutiny by this Chamber of the EU's budget and affairs. I strongly support him in that view. I served for four years in the previous Parliament as a member of the European Scrutiny Committee and it does very good work, but all Members have a responsibility to scrutinise the EU's work and budget. All too often, we do not take that responsibility and too few Members take a real interest in these issues.

A significant proportion of the laws that affect the lives of people in this country emanate from the EU, but they receive nothing like the scrutiny that we devote to legislation that originates from Westminster, which is a cause for concern. We have to consider providing the

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European Scrutiny Committee with a procedural device so that it is more able to get its concerns debated on the Floor of the House.

There is often a case for the European Scrutiny Committee to take on the role of a more traditional Select Committee. It is instructive to compare its work on budgets with the role of the European Union Committee in the other place, which carries out more detailed and wide-ranging investigations. We can learn from that.

Dr. Palmer: Is there merit in moving towards the Danish approach of having a committee that needs to give its consent before the Government decide on European Union issues?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We are not discussing other structures, as I have explained.

Mr. Rammell: I take your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, especially in light of the look on the face of my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary. However, it is an interesting point.

The Bill is positive. It cements the outcome of the successful 1999 European Council negotiations in Berlin, which produced constructive proposals. The Bill is a prerequisite to enlargement. That is also true of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill to ratify the Nice treaty, which we will discuss tomorrow. That fact needs to be underlined. I am concerned when politicians say that they are in favour of enlargement progressing quickly, but when it comes to the means and decisions to achieve that there is not so much enthusiasm. That is especially the case with Conservative Members.

Without the changes, we will not have enlargement, which would be a cause for concern. Not only is it in Britain's economic self-interest to enlarge the EU from a single market of 370 million people to 500 million consumers, but we have an ethical and moral responsibility to former eastern bloc countries, which for decades we encouraged to reject totalitarianism and change their societies fundamentally. They did that and are keen to join the EU. The longer the debate about enlargement drags on without—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The debate is not about enlargement.

Mr. Rammell: It is about the financial means to achieve enlargement, and we should introduce the measures to do that as soon as possible.

I welcome the move from own resources to GNP as a result of the deal that was struck in Berlin, which will provide a fairer and more affordable mechanism to fund EU activities in the long term. Despite the claims about the outcome of European Council deliberations on EU budgets when the previous Conservative Government were in power, the two earlier negotiations resulted in significant increases in expenditure. After this round of negotiations, there will be no rise in real terms at the end of the period in question.

It is also noteworthy to explain, as others have done, that we have safeguarded the British abatement. Many other EU Governments were keen to end that, which we avoided by successful negotiation. Indeed, many

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Conservatives consistently claimed in the run-up to the Berlin Council that we would be forced to give way and lose the abatement, but that did not materialise.

It is worth recognising that the UK's net contribution after enlargement will be of the same order as that paid by France or Italy. That was not the case in the 1980s and early 1990s when the Conservatives were in power and our contribution to the EU was disproportionate to our national wealth. The Bill and the deal reached in Berlin move us firmly in the right direction.

Progress on the common agricultural policy is also welcome. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire said about the need to go much further on CAP reform. However, Berlin represented the most radical reform of the CAP since it was established. There will be significant price cuts for cereals, beef and milk, and the annual contribution will fall by about £70 a year for the average family.

Since 1988, the proportion of the EU's budget spent on farming has fallen from 67 per cent. to 46 per cent. today. That figure is still too high, but it shows that we are making progress. However, although the achievement at Berlin was important and historic, we must consider why we did not go further. Germany is often prepared to support an unjustifiable defence of the CAP by the French Government because of the historic Franco-German alliance. The British Government and British people can learn from that. We have an opportunity to work with that arrangement and provide a tripartite leadership instead of relying on the Franco-German alliance to be the motor of the EU.

The Bill provides us with the opportunity to tackle fraud and financial mismanagement. The new European anti-fraud office was the initiative of the Chancellor and the Government and it has already conducted major investigations. The European Commission's decision to appoint Neil Kinnock with special responsibility for reform is especially significant. Achievements include the code of conduct for Commissioners, the whistleblowers' charter and, in particular, the new and fair arrangements for appointments to senior posts so that we do not continue with Buggins' turn, which happened too often in the Commission. When we talk about fraud and financial mismanagement as the responsibility of the EU, we should note that 85 per cent. of its spending is delivered by individual national Governments. The responsibility to tackle fraud lies not only at the centre, but with national Governments.

The Bill is an achievement. It takes us forward and provides for sound and well-established EU funding. If we pass the Bill and the European Communities (Amendment) Bill tomorrow, we will lead the way to EU enlargement, which will be one of the most significant and historic developments on our continent in the next decade. I hope that all hon. Members will support it.

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