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Regional Government

6. Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): If he will make a statement on the position of county councils within the proposals in the regional government White Paper. [64159]

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State (Mr. John Prescott): Before a referendum on whether a region wants an elected assembly, the Boundary Committee will carry out an independent review. The review will consider how those parts of the region with county and district boundaries can be restructured on a unitary basis. It will be for the committee to decide whether unitary authorities will be based on existing counties.

Hugh Robertson: Will the Deputy Prime Minister accept that some areas have strong regional ties but that in some, such as my own, local links are much more important? What estimate has been made of the cost of reorganisation and the annual running costs of the new regional assemblies?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: The estimates that have been made for the establishment of the authorities are for some £20 million to begin with, which is similar to the sum for the new London authority. We will make further estimates as the process continues. The judgments about the powers and resources of the authorities have been spelled out in the White Paper and the committee that will consider the boundaries will take them into account.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Is my right hon. Friend aware that a recent BBC opinion poll showed that 54 per cent. of people of England and 65 per cent. of people in the north-east want regional government regardless of its effect on local government? Does he agree that the best way to assess public opinion is to have

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a referendum? Whether people are in favour of or against regional government, they should join forces to call for a referendum and settle the matter once and for all.

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I agree very much with my hon. Friend and, indeed, the White Paper is entitled "Your Choice". It is the people's choice. We will have a referendum and the people will make the decision.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister back to the redoubt of his once mighty empire. We will try to make his stay as comfortable as possible. If the people of Kent reject regional government in a referendum, why will he impose a system of regional government on them?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his role as shadow spokesman for local government, housing and the regions, although the Leader of the Opposition has not seen fit to make him shadow deputy Leader of the Opposition. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman does not wish to suggest who should succeed him.

A decision will be made in the referendum and, alongside that decision, we will have the report on unitary authorities from the Boundary Committee. People will have a choice about their local authority and what sort of regional authority they wish to have.

Mr. Pickles: So if the people of Kent say no, the right hon. Gentleman will say yes. Can he demonstrate the homogenous nature of the south-east by naming three things that Aylesbury and Folkestone have in common?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I do not understand what the hon. Gentleman means. If the referendum result is a rejection of regional government, the local government structure will stay exactly as it is. It is the people's choice, and that is what we will observe.


7. Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth): If he will make a statement on travellers and unauthorised encampments. [64160]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty): I fully appreciate the concerns of my hon. Friend and his constituents regarding unauthorised encampments over the last few years. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is working closely with other Government agencies to develop policies and initiatives on the management of unauthorised encampments by travellers. The Department is issuing new guidance jointly with the Home Office on managing unauthorised camping in the very near future.

Mr. Wright: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. The guidance will certainly be warmly welcomed by my constituents and, indeed, in the many villages in my

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constituency, but may I ask for an assurance that he will consult those parish councils that are involved before he issues the guidance?

Mr. McNulty: I do not think that we will be able to consult parish councils before the guidance is issued because it is imminent, but I assure my hon. Friend that we very much welcome and encourage the views of parish councils, along with a range of other stakeholders, because we want to get the whole issue of travellers and unauthorised encampments right.


The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [64184] Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 3 July.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

On behalf of the House, Mr. Speaker, may I wish you a very happy birthday?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: How does the Prime Minister reconcile his professed belief in devolution with what the Government are doing to local parish and town councils by imposing a highly bureaucratic and intrusive code of conduct and register of interests on those voluntary councils? In my own constituency alone, that has caused the resignation of two entire councils and many individual councillors. The Prime Minister should be aware of that policy, since he sacked the Secretary of State and the junior Minister responsible for it last month; so will he use the opportunity to withdraw those measures, or is it the aim—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

The Prime Minister: No, I understand that there were extensive consultations before those proposals were introduced, and we believe in greater openness and transparency in parish and local councils.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley): Does the Prime Minister agree—I am sure he does—that the new £70 million investment in linear accelerators, which, incidentally, are manufactured in my constituency, is a fantastic contribution to our cancer plan and will ensure that we reach our target? Will he make sure that we redouble our efforts so that we have enough trained people to get the best from that equipment?

The Prime Minister: Of course it is true that the number of linear accelerators has increased by more than 20 per cent. By 2004, it will have increased by more than 40 per cent. That will, of course, dramatically improve cancer treatment, and it is in addition to the recruitment of extra staff, extra specialists, extra nurses and the extra

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beds in the national health service. There is one big difference: we are in favour of that money and investment going in; the Conservative party would take it out.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): May I join the Prime Minister in wishing you many happy returns today, Mr. Speaker?

A year after the launch of the Brixton scheme to decriminalise drug possession, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis says:

He clearly thinks that the scheme has failed. Does the Prime Minister agree with him?

The Prime Minister: What is important is that we assess the experiment that has taken place; we need to ensure that it is right. I do not think it right to give a firm opinion until we have studied all the available evidence. Of course we will listen very carefully to what the Commissioner says.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Community leaders in the area are all complaining about the scheme, and one of them has said:

A year ago, the Prime Minister promised

Will he stop the scheme now?

The Prime Minister: It is surely important that we learn the lessons and, of course, discuss the scheme with local community leaders. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has just indicated to me that what the right hon. Gentleman said a moment or two ago is not correct. There are differences of opinion about whether or not the scheme has worked, but I can assure him that, if sensible people come to the view that it is not working, of course we shall not do it.

It is important that we consider this on the basis of all the available evidence. We will take into account the views of community leaders, the views of the police, and the views of the experts on the ground. I would have thought that we both want to make sure that any such experiment is considered on the basis of the evidence. That is what we will do.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The police figures are absolutely clear already. They show that drug trafficking has doubled and total drug offences have trebled in Lambeth over the last year.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett) indicated dissent.

Mr. Duncan Smith: It is absolutely true. It is absolutely clear that the Home Secretary has indicated that he is minded to extend the pilot nation wide. If one of the Prime Minister's hon. Friends, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), has said that he should stand up for local people, should he not make absolutely clear now who will be responsible for assessing and making the

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decision as to whether to go ahead and extend the pilot? If he has now made himself the chief of the nation's police, why does he not say, "We are going to stop it now"?

The Prime Minister: This is a pointless line of questioning, as we must evaluate the evidence carefully. That is what the right hon. Gentleman would want to do, and what we want to do. His point that the pilot has resulted in increases in the number of offences is disputed by what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has just told me in relation to category A offences. What we must do is evaluate the pilot properly to see whether it works or not. Of course, if it does not work, we will not extend it, but it is important that we take into account all the relevant views that are put to us.

If we are talking about how to deal with the issue of drugs, however, may I make one plea to the right hon. Gentleman? The Conservative party is holding up the progress of the Proceeds of Crime Bill, which is the single most important measure to confiscate the assets of drug dealers in this country. It is supported by the police and by everyone who has considered the procedure objectively. Even at this late stage, I ask the Conservative party to give its support to the Bill. If we are to deal with the drugs menace, being able to tackle the proceeds of crime—the assets of drugs dealers—is an important part of our strategy.

Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw): I know that the Prime Minister sets great store by being able to identify with the needs, aspirations and fears of ordinary families throughout the United Kingdom. Nearly 10,000 of those families in and around my constituency have contacted me saying, "Enough is enough. We are fed up with the fear and misery that is caused by the misuse of fireworks." That fear and misery is felt by young people, by the elderly and even by household pets. Will the Prime Minister agree to consider an early measure to fight the misuse of fireworks throughout the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend may know, as a result of the representations that we have received we are examining this urgently with the industry, consumer groups and safety groups, to see what more can be done. We are not proposing additional legislation at present, but we are giving urgent consideration to the problem. Perhaps I can respond further to my hon. Friend when the outcome of those discussions is known.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): Does the Prime Minister agree that the single European currency debate deserves better than being reduced to gross caricature, playing on people's fears and prejudices, of the type that we have seen in the already notorious broadcast issued today by the no campaign?

The Prime Minister: A joke is a joke, but in so far as a serious point lay behind the broadcast, it is a shame if the anti-euro campaign wants to base itself on a view of Europe that is more than half a century out of date. I am

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sure that, if the economic tests are passed and there is a referendum, the debate will be conducted on a better and higher level.

Mr. Kennedy: The Prime Minister may dismiss the matter lightly, saying that a joke is a joke, but the fact is that, for many communities in this country, this broadcast has generated considerable offence. What action will he take to sanction the Labour MPs who lent their names and their presence to this deplorable piece of advertising?

The Prime Minister: The best response to this or any other campaign of that nature is to mount an argument as to why it is right in principle in terms of industry, jobs and investment to be in favour of the single currency. That is why we have taken the position that we have, which is to be in favour of the single currency in principle and to say that, in practice, the economic tests are going to be met. In the end, the issue will not be decided by celebrities, pop stars, comedians or anyone else; it will be decided on the basis of what is right for British jobs, British industry, British investment and the British economy.

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is utterly insensitive of ITV to broadcast next week a programme on Harold Shipman—the very same week when 500 families will find out whether he murdered their relatives?

The Prime Minister: I entirely understand the concern that my hon. Friend has expressed on behalf of his constituents. Very sensitive and difficult issues are involved, and I hope that those broadcasting material about the Shipman case will take account of them.

I know that my hon. Friend will join me in the following sentiment. We set up an inquiry to learn the lessons of the Shipman case, but it was a wholly exceptional case. I would therefore like to take the opportunity to say that, although it is necessary that the inquiry goes ahead and that we learn the lessons of the case, the vast majority of GPs and doctors in this country do a wonderful job on behalf of their patients. I hope very much that those commenting on the Shipman case will do so after taking account of the sensitivities of his victims.

Q2. [64185] Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): If the Prime Minister were to visit Somerby in my constituency, he would probably be roasted on a spit. Like the characters in "The Archers", the people there are furious at the closure of their local doctor's surgery. Notwithstanding the important lessons that must be learned from the issue that has just been raised, may I draw the Prime Minister's attention to an increasing failure in the structure—not the financing—of the health service? His policy of not wanting single doctor practices is, in fact, making people in rural areas travel miles when they are ill. What initiative might he introduce to alleviate this growing problem?

The Prime Minister: Obviously, I do not know, and cannot comment on, the individual circumstances in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. There has been a move over time away from single-handed practices so as to improve the quality of care that people receive. That has been based on a great deal of evidence over a long time.

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Of course, the move has to be done sensitively, and as I said, I do not know enough about the circumstances of this particular case. However, let us be clear. Overall, we are increasing the number of doctors, we are increasing investment in the health service and we are increasing investment in primary care. Whenever Conservative Members want more resources for the health service in particular, we must point out that they are opposed to them in general.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): In my constituency, there has been £14 million of investment in mental health and we have a new day-case surgery unit. Nightingale wards are being removed and today we have had the wonderful announcement that Clatterbridge will be part of the linear accelerator programme. Whom should my constituents believe—Ian Bogle and his statement that this is part of the sustained investment until 2020, or those people who suffer from Conservative amnesia?

The Prime Minister: I simply point out that the most important thing for us is to get the investment going into the health service year on year on year. In the Budget, we put additional resources into our health care system and that will allow us to sustain that investment over many, many years. That means more nurses, more doctors, more equipment for cancer and better treatment for heart patients. It will take time, but the only answer is to increase capacity through investment. We are in favour of that investment; the Conservative party is opposed to it.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Since the Prime Minister took office, what proportion of care homes for the elderly have closed?

The Prime Minister: Since we took office, it is correct to say that the number of care homes is down by a net amount in the hundreds and that the net number of beds down is somewhere in the region of 19,000. However, it is also correct to say that there are more than 40,000 additional home care packages since we came to power; and of course we are now increasing substantially the investment in social services.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The figure that the Prime Minister never gives is that 50,000 beds have been lost since the Government came to power. The answer is that nearly one in six of all homes have now closed. That means that 250 frail and vulnerable people are shunted from one place to another because their home is closing. Does he accept that the burden of regulation that the Government have imposed since they came to power has resulted in this terrible crisis?

The Prime Minister: Let me deal first with the figures. The right hon. Gentleman is wrong. The net figure is the one that I gave—19,000 beds.

On the other points, there are two essential explanations to consider. Care homes have expressed worries about regulations on wheelchair access, room size, lifts and so on. I simply point out that those do not come into force until 2007 and it is correct that the National Care Standards Commission is looking at how they will be implemented.

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The single biggest reason for closures is, frankly, the level of fees in homes. As a result of the additional money, which again the Conservatives oppose, the majority of local authorities have agreed to fee rises this year, so I am told, of more than 3 per cent., and 35 per cent. have agreed to 10 per cent. or more. We have set aside from the Budget a 6 per cent. real-terms increase in social services spending. That is our commitment to the social services sector. I ask the right hon. Gentleman again: if he wants to help that sector, why does he oppose the extra money?

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister carefully does not explain to his less intelligent colleagues that the money he plans to give from the last Budget is dwarfed by the extra costs from the increased regulation. It is an absolute clear fact. All independent inquiries show that the majority of care homes are closing because of the burden of regulation, not because of the levels of money—[Interruption.] Yes, they do. The worst aspect of that is that two thirds of the homes that have closed have done so with reports that have found them to be excellent or good. So the Prime Minister is losing not the bad ones, but the good ones, which is the tragedy. Will he admit that the Government's policy for the past five years of imposing extra regulations, which has forced homes to think about closing, has resulted in this crisis?

The Prime Minister: Again, let me repeat that the regulations that are complained of do not come into effect until 2007. That is why it is important to take some account at least of the fact that the real complaint of many care homes has been about the level of fees, especially when those homes are situated on very high-value property areas, such as in London and the south.

The only way we will increase the provision—[Interruption.] If the right hon. Gentleman will listen for a moment, the only way we will increase provision is to put more money into the care home sector. It is a cruel deceit, based on opportunism, for him to suggest that he can stop all care home closures not by giving more money to the sector, but simply by removing the prospect of regulations that do not even come into effect until 2007. The fact is that the best way to secure that sector is to put in the extra investment. I repeat my challenge to the right hon. Gentleman: if he wants extra money to go into that social care sector, why has he opposed the Budget, the precise purpose of which is to put that money in?

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): Is the Prime Minister aware that there are families in this country that have been living in temporary accommodation for 16 years? Does he share my anguish at the case of a 23-year-old woman who has shared a bedroom with her father her entire life because the family has been on the council waiting list for years and cannot possibly afford to rent or buy in London? While commending the Government for trebling the money available for social housing—we will not hear a word from the Conservatives, who left people on council estates to rot—[Interruption.] If they realise what their legacy was, I do not know how they can sleep at night. Can I ask—

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Mr. Speaker: Order. The Prime Minister will be able to answer.

The Prime Minister: I think I got the point, Mr. Speaker.

My hon. Friend is right: it is important that we provide for social housing. It is also important to look at how we can increase the provision of housing in London. If we manage to ensure, as we are trying to do, an increase in the housing stock, in particular to provide for key workers in London, that will alleviate some of the pressure. But we are obviously looking urgently at what more can be done.

Q3. [64186] Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): The Prime Minister may be interested to learn that the independent mayor of Northleach in my constituency said in a recent letter to me:

Does the Prime Minister agree that the mark of a civilised society is its treatment of its elderly people? If so, will he now launch an inquiry into how that Act has led directly to the closure of 47,000 beds in our nursing home sector since his Government came to power?

The Prime Minister: It is also a mark of a civilised society that we have proper standards of care for those people who are in a home. I point out to the hon. Gentleman and to the Conservative party that when the Bill passed through the House of Commons, my understanding is that they did not oppose its Second or Third Reading. I simply ask them to understand that the vast bulk of the regulations are intended to improve the quality of life for people in homes, and they would probably be supported by most people. As I said, many of those about which there is controversy will not be introduced for five years.

It really is pointless to ignore the issues of funding and fee levels for homes, and if the hon. Gentleman talks to people in the care home sector, he will find that they too are deeply concerned about them. I point out to him, as I did to his leader a few moments ago, that it is utter opportunism on the part of the Conservatives to complain about this matter but to oppose the extra funding necessary to deal with it.

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford): My right hon. Friend will be aware that this week the British Medical Association is holding its annual conference, and he may have seen some of the comments of its leader, Dr. Ian Bogle, broadly supporting what the Government are doing to improve health services. Given that health is still a No. 1 priority for people, particularly in my constituency, what plans does he have to ensure that they see real improvements in health services on a day-to-day basis?

The Prime Minister: There are of course real changes taking place, and it was heartening to hear people in cancer services saying today that although there is still a great deal to do, genuine improvements are being made. With the additional nurses and consultants, the hospital building programme and the additional equipment, people can see that even though there is still much to do, a lot of progress is being made. However, none of that can work

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without increased capacity in the health service financed by investment. I say to my hon. Friend and his constituents that the best way to preserve that investment is to keep on supporting the party that advocates it, not the party that opposes it.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): May I refer the Prime Minister to his reply today to the letter written to him yesterday by the Leader of the Opposition, and incidentally thank him for the belated concession to common sense signalled in the other place on the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill?

That letter was a response to the continuing violence in Northern Ireland and to the continuing evidence of activity by paramilitary groups. The Prime Minister's reply said:

Does it not strike him, as it strikes me, that his response is remarkably passive? Does not he realise that there is a clear obligation on him, as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, to address this situation?

How does the Prime Minister think the inhabitants of Cluan Place in east Belfast, where five people have recently been shot and wounded by republicans, houses have been burned out and the majority of people have been driven away in deliberate attacks, will respond to that passivity? Is it not now time for him to ensure that his Government get control of the situation in Belfast?

The Prime Minister: I utterly condemn paramilitary violence, whether it is from republicans or loyalists. Indeed, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, there has been violence from both quarters over the past few months, and that is unacceptable. I do not mean to be passive about the situation at all. As he knows, the reason I will engage in talks with people about how we make progress is that it is not acceptable to have a halfway house in which paramilitaries of whatever description believe that there is a tolerated level of violence; there is no level of violence that can be tolerated.

That is why, with the right hon. Gentleman and the other partners in the peace process in Northern Ireland, we have to construct a way forward to make sure that that halfway house is not merely considered unacceptable but made unacceptable, and that we continue the transition to a peaceful and democratic Northern Ireland where we bank the gains that have been made. I urge him to accept—in truth I know that he does—that major gains have been made by the peace process in Northern Ireland. However, I totally agree with him that we cannot have a situation in which paramilitary organisations believe that there will be tolerance for continuing a certain level of violence. We must disabuse them of that belief, and if that requires action, action there will be.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): Does the Prime Minister agree that the latest tragic killings at the wedding in Afghanistan could further alienate Muslim opinion and weaken the coalition that he worked so hard to put

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together? Will he use his influence with the Americans to persuade them that that sort of warfare only causes more suffering to an already suffering nation?

The Prime Minister: The facts of the incident are still being debated and are not yet fully known, but if innocent civilians have died, that is a tragedy and deeply regrettable. However, let me point out two things to my hon. Friend. First, most people in Afghanistan, whatever their concerns about the continuing campaign, feel a profound sense of liberation from the Taliban who were in power before. They have greater freedom and greater potential for prosperity than they had even a year ago.

Secondly, I urge my hon. Friend and all hon. Members to bear in mind the reason why the campaign continues. The al-Qaeda network continues to be a threat not only in Afghanistan, but in the rest of the world. There is a real danger that as 11 September becomes a more distant memory, people will forget that there are terrorist networks out there that are absolutely determined to wreak destruction. The reason why we have to continue to pursue them in Afghanistan and elsewhere is to protect the security not only of people in Afghanistan, but of people here in this country.

Q4. [64187] Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): May I bring to the Prime Minister's attention the situation of my constituent Mrs. Biz Ivol, who is being prosecuted for the cultivation of cannabis which she uses to get some relief from the pain that she suffers as a result of having multiple sclerosis? Does the Prime Minister really believe that the war against drugs will be won by making a criminal of a 54-year-old woman who has led an otherwise blameless life and who is now confined to a wheelchair? When will the Government act to legalise the medicinal use of cannabis and bring an end to the nonsense of prosecutions such as the one facing my constituent?

The Prime Minister: I understand the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises and those of his constituent. As he probably knows, we are currently reviewing the issue of cannabis and people with diseases such as multiple sclerosis. We are not yet in a position to state the findings of that review, but we are giving it urgent consideration. We understand that there is potentially a distinction between those who need cannabis for medicinal purposes and those who do not. I am sure that people will take a sympathetic view of the position of the hon. Gentleman's constituent, although that must remain a matter for the authorities, not the Government.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate), I welcome the statements made earlier this week by Ian Bogle. He recognises that there will be significant investment in the national health service in the next five years. Although there will be investment in bricks and mortar, what we really need are additional doctors and nurses, not more managers. Will the Prime Minister give an assurance on that?

The Prime Minister: We have increased enormously the number of nurses in the health service, and the numbers of doctors and consultants are rising too. It is also important that the national health service be properly

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managed. The most important point that Ian Bogle made is that five years ago there had been such cuts in investment, beds and nurses—such flagrant dereliction of duty by the previous Government in respect of the health service—that part of the investment we made in our first few years in government was used to make good the deficit that we had inherited. However, people can see the effects of much of the investment that is now being made in increased provision in their constituencies. That increased provision is real delivery, on the ground, for people, and if we continue it year on year on year, we will have the health service that we need in this country.

Q5. [64188] Ann Winterton (Congleton): The Prime Minister's recent difficulty at Seville was due to his being unable to gain the unanimous agreement of all 15 member states. Does he therefore accept that unanimity is necessary—and indeed essential—for any future direction changes to European Union treaties that would, for example, return more powers to nation states? Does he accept that that will become more difficult to achieve after enlargement, when there may be 28 members?

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The Prime Minister: I could not quite follow that train of thought. If the hon. Lady is saying that she wants to retain unanimity at all levels, I point out that it was precisely because we had to take the unanimity route that we were unable to make the progress that we wanted at Seville, even though we were in the majority. That is why the previous Conservative Government—the Conservative party had a slightly more sensible position on Europe in those days—supported the largest extension of qualified majority voting that this country has ever seen.

The point that the hon. Lady made at the end of her question was absolutely right: of course, once the European Union is enlarged and an extra 10 countries come in in 2004, it will be necessary to have more qualified majority voting to make Europe work more effectively and, most importantly of all, to allow this country to get its own way. I do not know whether she has had a Damascene conversion, but I urge her to try to adopt a more sensible attitude to Europe and to have greater confidence that we can get our way, because I believe that this country's future is at the heart of Europe and that, if we follow that through, we will get the best out of Europe for Britain.

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