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Veterans

19. Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): What steps he is taking to improve the handling of veterans' issues. [40916]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): Since the announcement of the veterans initiative, and my appointment as Minister with responsibility for veterans' affairs one year ago, we have built up a partnership with veterans organisations and with other Government Departments to develop an integrated policy for veterans. This is well advanced, and will address veterans' concerns across government and identify means of improving the delivery of services to veterans, particularly the most vulnerable.

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Working through a veterans forum and a ministerial taskforce, we have agreed an action plan and commissioned nine working groups, made up jointly of representatives of the veterans community and of interested Departments, to identify ways of giving practical expression to the plan. We expect to see the first results of this work later this year.

Mrs. Williams: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Several of my constituents were very grateful for the settlement for far east prisoners of war that was announced in November 2000. Does my hon. Friend recognise, however, that prisoners of war who suffered horribly in German camps and on forced marches have still not been recognised in this way? I believe that they have been unfairly treated.

Dr. Moonie: This is a matter to which we return time and again during parliamentary questions and in Adjournment debates. I recognise the level of suffering of former prisoners in German prisoner of war camps, but it did not, in general, match that experienced by the prisoners of war of the Japanese. This matter has been very carefully looked at in the past, and I believe that the prisoners of war to whom my hon. Friend refers have been treated sympathetically and appropriately.

Terrorism

20. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): What plans he has to adjust defence capabilities in respect of the coalition against international terrorism. [40917]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The work being conducted in the Ministry of Defence on a new chapter to the strategic defence review is designed to ensure that we have the right concepts, forces and capabilities in place to deal with the threats that were manifest on 11 September. This work builds on the solid foundation of the strategic defence review, which left the United Kingdom well placed to meet the additional challenges that we now face. I expect to be in a position to announce some conclusions in the spring or early summer.

Lawrie Quinn: Notwithstanding the deliberations that his Department is undertaking, will the Secretary of State tell us whether, in the event of a new problem appearing on the horizon, the Department would have the facilities needed to implement the changes, representations and conclusions embodied in the work in progress, and to respond to any further terrorist threat?

Mr. Hoon: I can give that assurance. Obviously further policy work is under way, but it does not affect our practical ability to deal with a new terrorist threat should it manifest itself.

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European Council (Barcelona)

3.30 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the European Council in Barcelona on 15 and 16 March.

Two years ago at Lisbon, the European Union set out to become the world's most competitive and dynamic economy by 2010. Since that time, the European Union has created 5 million new jobs. There are now nearly 3 million more women in work. Tax rates on low wage earners have been falling. We have agreed a new framework for competitive telecoms markets. Telecoms liberalisation has cut the price of calls across the European Union by almost a half. As a result of the EU action plan, internet access has doubled across the EU. We have cut red tape for small firms so that a private limited company can now be set up in under two weeks in 10 EU member states. We have recently agreed proposals to deliver a single EU securities market, and cheaper capital for small firms.

However, the recent difficulties faced by the world economy mean that we cannot rely on cyclical growth to deliver the employment that Europe's citizens need. We must therefore push ahead with the structural reforms to Europe's economy.

At Stockholm a year ago, progress stalled. Barcelona had to recover momentum. There is no doubt that after Barcelona we are indeed moving again, although there is still much ground to be made up by 2010. Such progress as there is represents a tribute to the European Commission and the leadership of the Spanish presidency, and I pay tribute to the excellent chairmanship of Prime Minister Aznar.

We set a timetable under majority voting to complete the single market in financial services, itself capable of boosting Europe's national income by half a percentage point. No fewer than 25 different liberalising measures have already been agreed. Seven more key measures will be agreed by the end of the year. Most of all, we made a breakthrough in opening up the European energy market. All member states have now agreed fully to open up the non-domestic market by 2004 with free and fair competition. That represents over 60 per cent. of the total market in gas and electricity. In addition, it is clear that the overriding majority of EU countries are now ready to open up their domestic markets as well. We agreed a decision on the relevant directives to be taken by majority vote, at the latest by the end of 2002. That means that for the first time a single market in energy is now attainable.

We agreed to deliver broadband technology across the European Union by 2005. That means internet access at 10 times the present speed. We agreed to boost our commitment to research and development towards a target of 3 per cent. of gross domestic product by 2010. The new research framework programme will spend 17.5 billion euro to that end. New industries such as the growing biotech market will benefit significantly. We agreed to implement by the end of 2002 proposals to reduce regulation on business, and a new system for consultation with business before regulation is introduced.

Those steps go hand in hand with a social policy that seeks to encourage more and better jobs for all. The record of the British Government in this regard is strong.

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We have guaranteed fair rights at work. We have a national minimum wage. Our disability, gender and race equality legislation is among the most advanced in Europe. We have introduced a new system of tax credits to make work pay. Our new deal has put more than 300,000 young people into work. Since we came to power, unemployment in Britain has therefore fallen to its lowest level for 25 years. We have one of the highest employment rates in Europe overall, including for women and for older workers. [Hon. Members: "Barcelona?"] At Barcelona, Europe agreed that the enlargement agenda must focus on measures such as those, targeted at jobs, enterprise and moving people into work rather benefit, without heavy-handed regulation. It was, in other words, in agreement with the British approach—increasingly a European one. As the Barcelona conclusions say,


The enlargement countries came to Barcelona and for the first time participated in policy debates. We also discussed how to make our decision making more streamlined and efficient once we become a European Union of 25, 27 and more member states. I welcome the proposals of the Secretary General of the Council, Javier Solana, which will now be taken forward by the Spanish presidency. In many respects, those echo the ideas that Chancellor Schroder of Germany and I put forward in a recent paper on Council reform.

The Council also addressed a range of pressing international issues. The European Union committed to increase its average development aid to 0.39 per cent. of GDP by 2006. That achievement owes a lot to the lead given by my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the International Development Secretary. It is worth an extra $7 billion a year. If delivered it means another 80 million children in schooling for the first time in Africa and elsewhere.

On the middle east, we underlined the extreme gravity of the present situation and called on both sides to take action to stop the bloodshed. We welcomed the resolution adopted by the United Nations Security Council last week and the initiative taken by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia offering full normalisation of relations with Israel in return for full withdrawal from occupied territories. There must be an immediate ceasefire all round to give the peace process a chance to start to work again.

On Zimbabwe, the European Council accepted our judgment that the elections were neither free nor fair. It agreed to take forward specific measures through the Foreign Ministers.

On the Balkans, the Council warmly welcomed the agreement brokered by Javier Solana between the authorities in Serbia and Montenegro for a new relationship within a single state. That agreement underlines just how far the countries of south-east Europe have come in the past four years. A democratic Government is in place in Belgrade. Milosevic is on trial in The Hague. Kosovo has held successful elections for its provisional Government. Moderates are in power in Croatia and Bosnia. The noose is tightening around Karadzic. In Macedonia, active diplomacy last year stopped what would have become another Balkan war.

Progress at Barcelona came about in large part through Britain acting in alliance with others. Prior to the summit, we took initiatives with no fewer than seven different countries. Five years ago, such alliances between Britain and those other countries would have been unthinkable.

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Under the last Conservative Government, Britain was marginalised, without influence appropriate to our weight and size, in the isolation room of Europe. Now, from the economy to defence to institutional reform, Britain is in there, shaping Europe's future, making Europe work in a way that is better for Britain and for Europe. The policy of constructive engagement is right. Britain's proper role is as a leader and partner in Europe. We will continue to get the best for Britain out of Europe. Under this Government, the days of weakness and isolation will not return.


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