“Human rights and equality are two sides of the same coin”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 3 March 2011; Vol. 725, c. 1181.]

I think she was right. The five aims that have been set out for UN Women are expanding women’s voice, leadership and participation; ending violence against women; strengthening women’s full participation in conflict resolution and peace processes; enhancing women’s economic empowerment; and ensuring that gender priorities are reflected in national plans and budgets. All are equally laudable, but the fourth aim strikes me especially strongly, particularly because evidence shows that the benefits to children are immense. Research from Asia, Africa and Latin America, which has been touched upon, has found that improvements to food security and nutrition are associated with women’s access to income and their role in household decisions and expenditure.

Thinking back to my own childhood, I remember that my late mother, who was a strong woman and in charge of the household budget, put herself last in the queue for everything. Her strength was her selflessness. I suppose I should point out that research unfortunately shows that when men are in charge, there is a greater propensity for alcohol and tobacco spending. I shall move swiftly on from that point.

Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): Actually, that is a really important point. We often talk about the creation of jobs in developing countries through inward investment and say that it helps families, but in fact, where those jobs are to do with minerals and mainly men are employed, most of the money that those guys earn is spent on the mine sites themselves. The role of women in employment and how money gets passed into families is fundamental.

Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which I had not actually thought of. We can think back to periods in our own highland history. When men were away working together in such jobs and operations, the propensity for alcohol spending on the site was exactly as he points out.

Like other Members, I have had the opportunity to go abroad. I went to Cambodia with VSO’s political volunteering programme in September 2008, and from

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that experience I can see exactly the benefits of an organisation such as UN Women. I commend VSO for that scheme. The learning curve was steep for me on a multitude of issues, and I am still learning, of course. I should like it to consider expanding the scheme to other sectors outside politics, because it was very useful. Those who control levers in society could engage with the professional bodies in this country that are needed in developing countries.

Claire Perry: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most depressing things for parents of daughters, as we both are, is the lack of understanding of some of our young women about opportunities in the global perspective? One of the saddest statistics that I know, which I read recently, is that whereas 32% of teenage girls want to be models, only 4% want to be engineers. That is a deep indictment of our society, and initiatives such as he mentions will help to raise the profile of opportunities for women globally.

Mr MacNeil: I thank the hon. Lady for that valuable contribution. I have not had a conversation with any of my daughters about modelling or engineering, but my second daughter keeps telling me that she wants to look after the sheep when I go. I do not know whether that is a model profession.

There is an opportunity for us to engage with professional bodies whose work is needed in countries across the world, which can do something very important. Perhaps we even need to engage with the much derided financial institutions in this country and with individuals of high net worth, who could be shown the needs that exist and ways to help practically. They could simply have their hearts touched.

I was recently in Rwanda with an organisation called Results UK, which I am grateful to for taking me there. Rwanda is one of Africa’s most progressive and impressive societies. Its economy is growing by 6% year on year, health indicators are going the right way, HIV is down to less than 2%, tuberculosis is really falling owing to being treated along with HIV, participation in education is growing and agricultural techniques are improving. The country is ambitious and has a “Vision 2020” for changes and improvements that will hopefully be brought about in the next nine years.

Rwandans are returning home, and I met a very impressive young woman, Dr Angelique, who had returned from Boston to drive Government training of health professionals. Her drop in salary was matched only by the size of her commitment. I thought she was impressive enough, but she then took me to a meeting, along with the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), chaired by a formidable woman, Dr Agnes. Her view was that 2020 was just around the corner. In that particular meeting, data corrections were required from various bodies for the health training plan, and she told those bodies that she wanted the improvements within three days.

Margaret Curran: May I offer the hon. Gentleman an apology? I have known him for many years, but have not realised that he is a key ally in the women’s agenda. I am glad to stand corrected. I will quote him endlessly in Scotland as a supporter of our agenda.

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On a serious note, the hon. Gentleman and I share a commitment to Scotland. Women in Rwanda have achieved very significant levels of representation, but likewise, the Scottish Parliament has significant representation. Does he agree, first, that there is a key link between women’s representation in a given institution and the promotion of a women’s agenda, and secondly, that it would be disappointing if the Scottish Parliament went back on that? We need to do something about that.

Mr MacNeil: The hon. Lady makes a very good point and perhaps anticipates what I was going to say.

The Health Minister of Rwanda told me that the nation’s wealth was its human capital and that Rwanda hopes to maximise that in the years come, and contrasted that position with countries that think their wealth is in resources. The people in Rwanda feel that they are all important. Needless to say, Rwanda has pulled itself up by the boot strings in the last few years and, as the hon. Lady just said, it has the highest rate of women in Parliament in the world. Doubtless that is an example of using all the people and all the talents to the benefit of the country. A Senator in Rwanda asked me to spread the good news about his country if I were ever given the opportunity. I have such an opportunity now. His phrase was, “It has a great climate for investment in a good climate.” I hope that Rwanda goes from strength to strength in the years to come.

That is part of the story in Rwanda, but bringing about change, as I saw in Rwanda, is often not complicated—it is not rocket science; it just takes will and intent. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said earlier, it is not a luxury to move forward with the women’s agenda, which benefits everybody.

Can the UK Government ensure that a group with five aims in that direction hits the ground running? Let us not wait to commit again to something that we intended to commit to anyway. Let us instead signal and lead that. By committing money, we can encourage others to do likewise, and give women a better chance and greater hope for the future. That will also help men in future, because helping women today helps the children of today, who are the men and women of the future. Can we commit our £21 million annually of core funding to the UN Women’s fund?

3.2 pm

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): I should like to take this opportunity to raise the issue of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, and to pay tribute to Wajeha al-Huwaider, a remarkable woman—an author, journalist and human rights campaigner—who has done so much at great personal cost to raise the profile of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

Women in Saudi have the status of perpetual minors and are denied the most basic human rights. Those abuses stem from the male guardianship system and the strict gender segregation in Saudi. A 2008 Human Rights Watch report spells out what that means in practice. Every Saudi woman must have a male guardian—normally a father or husband—who is tasked with making the most basic decisions on her behalf. An adult woman will sometimes have her son appointed as a guardian.

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Fully competent adult women are treated as legal minors, with little or no authority over their lives, bodies or well-being. Every Saudi woman is affected, regardless of her economic or social status. Adult women must obtain permission from their guardian to study, work or travel, and many are denied the right to make even the most basic decisions on behalf of their children. All hon. Members know that whenever women are hidden away, with few rights, the risk of domestic violence is increased, but the male guardianship system makes it almost impossible for those women to gain access to justice even when they are subject to violence.

Officials may—and frequently do—demand a guardian’s consent even when no law or guideline requires it. Many women have been asked to produce written consent from a male guardian for medical treatment. The Saudi authorities insist that the rules are being relaxed, but in practice, I am afraid that they are not. In theory, a woman—only over 45, mind you—may travel without permission. In practice, however, many women without written permission from their guardian are turned away at airports.

Wajeha al-Huwaider first came to international attention on international women’s day in 2008, when—rather shockingly—she drove her car on her own. Subsequently many Saudi women tried to follow her lead, and one woman was seriously injured after being forced off the road. Following that, women were so ostracised for such actions that they ceased.

This was not always the case. Wajeha al-Huwaider described how in her grandmother’s day women had much greater freedoms: they were allowed to work in markets, travel freely and go abroad without permission; there were not the same dress restrictions; and they could divorce and remarry easily without being ostracised. I am afraid, however, that that is no longer the case in Saudi Arabia.

As women in this country and across the world look forward to the Olympics, women in Saudi Arabia are banned from the Olympic team, and have no access to public sport at all. Not only is it impossible for a Saudi woman to participate in a football match, for example, but she is banned from attending one as a spectator. That is truly shocking. From a letter of support from both sides of the House to Wajeha al-Huwaider last year and subsequent correspondence, we know that she is not seeking to westernise Saudi society; she is seeking fundamental human rights. Women must be free to travel, study and access medical care, and to escape from violent and abusive relationships without the consent of a male guardian.

Saudi Arabia has vast wealth and vast opportunities to spread that wealth, but half its population are among the most deprived people in the world. As we move towards the Olympics, I ask the Minister to use this opportunity to highlight the fundamental right of women to take exercise—a right denied to Saudi women. Will she join me in calling for all countries participating in the Olympics to allow women not just to sit in the spectators’ gallery, but to take their rightful place on the starting line?

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3.7 pm

Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who took this good opportunity to highlight one of the great injustices in the international world. I believe that by talking about these things and working across the House, we can bring appropriate pressure to bear on such repressive regimes. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) for working so hard to secure this debate, and also the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who battled against the forces not of evil, but perhaps of darkness to get this debate on the books. It is greatly appreciated.

I want to speak on the question of what women want. In my view, they want nothing that Mel Gibson has ever been able to offer, but the same things that men want: in this country, they want strong communities, not streets scarred by crime, violence and fear; they want a world-class NHS, not a country in which the chances of surviving breast cancer are worse than they are 20 miles away in France; they want excellent schools for our children where teachers are free to teach, motivate and drive our young people to achieve all that they can; and they want a dynamic economy that creates jobs, generates taxes and means that we can afford strong, robust and sustainable public services. I think that the Government are delivering all those things. For Opposition Members to say that we are ideologically targeting women by cleaning up the messy economic legacy we have been left is frankly absurd and does not do those hon. Members, for whom I have great respect, any favours.

Women and men also want an end to discrimination and injustice in this country and globally, which is why I strongly support the launch of the UN Women initiative, which will work collectively to address some of the problems we have heard about today—for instance, the fact that 70% of the world’s poorest people are women, and that women generate only 10% of the world’s gross domestic product.

I want to use something that has been happening locally in my constituency for almost three decades as an illustration—a microcosm, as it were—of what can happen when the knowledge, resources and commitment of the global north are exchanged with the global south. The Marlborough Brandt Group, which was set up in the wake of the Brandt report, has worked to build exchanges, linkages and transfers between leafy Marlborough and a Muslim community called the Gunjur in south-east Gambia. One of the interesting and unexpected results of those linkages has been the enormous solidarity that has built up between the young women of both communities. The head of the organisation, Dr Nick Morris, e-mailed me to say:

“When I first went to Gunjur 25 years ago village meetings were held under a mango tree and only men were present. Now, 25 years later,”

meetings are still held

“under the same mango tree,”

and women are not only present, but are

“in the front row and are leading the”

programme. He continued:

“A…literacy programme run by women for women in Gunjur and surrounding villages”—

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a programme funded by DFID since 1995—

“has empowered women to make choices.”

He quoted the case of Fatou Gibba, who

“went on to study to be a teacher and…now runs the main pre-school in Gunjur where over 2,000 children,”

in what is a small community,

“have had a headstart before attending the Government primary school.”

Nicola Blackwood: Given the example that my hon. Friend has just described, does she not agree that the crucial thing that women want is the opportunity to take part in decision making and to choose what is best for their communities, and that where they are involved in these processes, they are stronger and produce the more resilient communities that she mentioned at the beginning of her speech?

Claire Perry: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Involvement in formal and informal decision-making processes is the key to achieving many of the objectives that we all share.

The idea of focusing resources on issues of inequality has enormous local and global benefits. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said earlier, it is insane to miss out on the opportunity to educate over half the world’s population. Indeed, that is one of the reasons that frequently comes up when I am justifying our laudable commitment to maintain DFID spending. I say, “Look, surely we are all better off if we develop and invest in the world’s poorest populations,” and in this case in the world’s very poorest people.

Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): Does my hon. Friend think that we can do more through international collaboration to ensure that we help businesses, education and people right round the world?

Claire Perry: I absolutely do, and that is why we both support the valuable launch of this UN agency and our Government’s commitment to provide it with funding and support.

If this afternoon’s debate comes to a vote, I shall of course be supporting this excellent motion. I would also—if we got to this point—vote in support of the amendment. As the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and I have discussed on several occasions, having worked together on a number of all-party groups, such organisations would provide a powerful cross-party focus for some of the things that actually matter. When we make tough spending decisions, we of course have to think about what they look like in the round. One of the unintended consequences has affected funding for citizens advice bureaux. I am happy to say that in my constituency and county of Wiltshire we have maintained CAB funding. However, as a Government—we know that Ministers share this view—it is important that we should maintain funding in the round for such important organisations.

I will finish with the example of my campaign to provide the option of having an opt-in system for internet porn, which the hon. Lady also supported—indeed, she was involved in the debate. This issue provides a fascinating example of how men and women can come at something from very different points of view. The idea has been on the table several times, but when we

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first had the debate, the industry said, “No thank you—far too difficult to implement and regulate.” However, we then funded some research that showed that although only 73% of men thought it a problem that our children were watching extreme internet porn, 93% of women thought that it was a significant problem. The majority of women said that they would like an opt-in system, which would give them the option of not having this stuff piped into their homes. That was an interesting example of how such committees can look at policy in the round and put a different focus on some of the recommendations.

3.14 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): It is an honour to participate in this debate today. I cannot think of a time in this Chamber when I have heard a higher number of excellent contributions from both sides of the House. My short speech will concentrate on the UK, and it will be somewhat lighter than some of the serious and sometimes harrowing contributions that we have heard.

I shall start with an anecdote. When I was very young—this was shortly after the Equal Pay Act 1970 had been introduced; it is that long ago—I was elected as a student governor at Dudley technical college, where I was doing my A-levels. I remember to this day the first time I piped up on an issue, only to be told by an elderly matriarch, “That’s it, my dear! Throw your brassiere over the windmill!” In my political life, I have been told to do some very strange things, some of which would have been physically impossible, but that one sticks in my mind. At least I got the point that speaking up is a very good thing for a girl to do.

In the 40 years that I have been conscious of equality issues, however, I have been deeply disappointed at how short a distance we have come. I strongly support the main motion today, as well as the excellent amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and other colleagues. She made a fantastic case for the creation of an equalities audit committee. Unless we audit these issues and measure how well we are doing, we will always be fobbed off with a long line of patronising excuses for why we cannot do certain things. After 100 years, we are still so far away from achieving equality, and we really need that extra strength. I hope that the Government will seriously consider the possibility of introducing such a committee.

Colleagues have talked about many topics today but, in the short time available, I should like to concentrate on women in the workplace in Britain. Work is key to dignity, self-worth and independence, in whatever country we are talking about—or at least, it should be. Too often, women are undervalued, patronised and, occasionally, worse. We sometimes reach positions of influence, however. A Conservative colleague told me a joke the other day that just about sums up our situation. Let us picture a cartoon of a boardroom. The board members sitting round the table are all men, with the exception of one woman. The chairman says, “Yes, that is an excellent suggestion, Miss Carruthers. Now, would one of the men like to propose it?”

Lord Davies recently published his excellent report, “Women on boards”, but he stopped short of recommending quotas for boards. He said:

“Many other people told us that quotas would not be their preferred option”.

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Well, of course they would not! Those people are locked into a syndrome of appointing “people like us”—not only white middle class men, but white middle class men who went to the same school and probably belong to the same club.

Amber Rudd: Does the hon. Lady agree that it is also important to make the point to companies that it is in their own interest, as well as that of the women, to appoint women to their boards? It has recently been proved that the share price of a company is much more likely to go up when there are women on the board.

Lorely Burt: The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. In fact, I was about to say that, if only those people would take a look, they would see a wealth of talent that is not like them, but that has different, fresh perspectives and can bring wealth to the business because it can see different angles and opportunities. The gauntlet has nevertheless been thrown down for those companies, and Britain’s 100 biggest companies have five years to double the proportion of women on their boards from the current average level of one in eight to one in four—or else they will face mandatory quotas.

Claire Perry: Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the great impediments to achieving that number on the boards is that many of us often hit our career strides just as we hit our reproductive peak—and it is a ghastly problem, as many of us know, managing children and careers at the same time? Support for more flexible working and more co-parental leave is critical to achieving the sort of targets to which we both aspire.

Lorely Burt: I totally agree, and I am wondering whether the hon. Lady has read my speech, as I was just about to come on to that. I hope that the threat of quotas will speed up the process of appointing far more women to company boards. In fairness, I know my description was a bit of a caricature, as there are some good measures in place to convince boards of the economic benefits that would follow and that the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) mentioned.

The coalition Government are delivering some good things for equality. As the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) just mentioned, the right to flexible working for all will be a great equaliser. Employees without children will potentially benefit from greater flexibility, too, which is great for our well-being agenda. Research demonstrates that people who have a balanced life and are able to work flexibly are more productive, more loyal, absent less and suffer less stress within the work environment. Everybody wins from that situation.

The division of maternity leave between parents is another important step towards introducing the concept of equality in the home as well as in the workplace. Men usually want to play a more important role in caring for their children, although our friends in the press have yet to understand that, as the Deputy Prime Minister was vilified for having the temerity to want to take a share of the child care with his working wife. These measures will help, although we still have a long way to go towards a time when workplace culture measures an individual by the contribution they make, not by the number of hours they are physically present.

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Nicola Blackwood: Does the hon. Lady agree that one area where we have the opportunity to make up one of the most disproportionate representations is in the area of STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects? We have a Government who are happily committed to enhancing the low-carbon, high-tech economy, so does the hon. Lady agree that we could make a lot of progress in this area in a very short time?

Lorely Burt: I totally agree with the hon. Lady and I could talk about it all afternoon; unfortunately, I have only two minutes left.

On the continuing vexatious issue of pay, the gender gap is still more than 15%. I am disappointed that we did not enforce section 78 of the Equality Act 2010, which required companies with more than 250 employees to introduce pay reporting. If companies are not held accountable for the inequalities they perpetrate, what incentive is there for them to change? They remain able to sweep the figures under the proverbial carpet and carry on paying women less than men.

That is why I have today tabled early-day motion 1571 on the gender pay gap, which urges the Government to look again at the issue in 2013 and legislate to introduce pay reporting if a marked improvement is not seen in the next 18 months. I hope that hon. Members from both sides of the House will be minded to sign this early-day motion. If this threat stays over the heads of the unwilling, we can hope for ongoing improvement. This is one area where we can make all the difference. As to all the other grave issues that other colleagues have raised today, we must all keep fighting to use our relatively privileged position to do all we can to assist.

3.24 pm

Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): I thank the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who was determined not to back down and who received considerable support from my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison). That proves that women should not take whatever is thrown at them, but should stand up and be counted—which is what they both did, and I thank them for it. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who tabled the motion and who produced an excellent summary of women’s issues both nationally and internationally.

It strikes me that we may have made history today. Probably for the first time in a debate such as this, more Conservative Members than members of all the other parties combined were present at the start. That is a step forward for our party. I also applaud the men who are present for the debate. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), this is not a luxury or fringe issue but one that involves the suffering of human beings and economies, which affects us all. It is therefore important for us all to be here.

Let me begin on a positive note. Women have made significant contributions to society over the centuries. We need only consider Boadicea, the British Celtic warrior queen who led a revolt against the Roman occupation; Joan of Arc; Queen Victoria, who presided over one of the largest empires ever seen; Florence Nightingale; Emmeline Pankhurst; Marie Curie; Mother

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Teresa of Calcutta; and of course, last but not least, an incredibly talented woman and amazing role model—our former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister in Europe. Evidence suggests, however, that women are being held back from making a full contribution. Internationally, women in all parts of the world still suffer violence and discrimination. Across Europe the average gender pay gap is 17.5%, and in the United Kingdom, despite the Equal Pay Act 1970, men still earn more than women in most job categories.

There are many ways in which we can tackle those issues. I want to focus on two key areas: empowering women and addressing violence against them. There is no doubt that empowering women in the world will be good for the global economy, not to mention the overall security of the world. The United Nations has argued that the empowerment of women is perhaps fundamental to the achievement of many other millennium development goals, given the multifaceted role typically played by women as mothers, leaders, students, decision makers, workers and voters.

Nicola Blackwood: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that although women make up 70% of the world’s poor, UNIFEM’s budget in 2009 was just 1% of the total UN budget?

Mary Macleod: I agree. Much more needs to be done.

I welcome the launch of UN Women and the comments of Ban Ki-Moon, the leader of the United Nations, who said:

“UN Women is a recognition of a simple truth: equality for women and girls is… a basic human right… a social and economic imperative.”

As we have already heard today, schemes to empower women have led to very positive results in developing countries. MicroLoan Foundation, a charity in Chiswick in my constituency, has demonstrated that working on a micro scale often delivers significant benefits. The foundation provides small loans for women in rural parts of Africa to enable them to set up their own self-sustaining businesses. Those who receive the loans—about 20,000 women so far—are treated as business people rather than recipients of charity. They are expected to pay the money back when their businesses are up and running, and an amazing 99% do pay it back. The money is then lent to a new group of women, and a virtuous circle of investment is thus created.

Education is another key part of empowerment, and we still have much to do internationally in that regard. In sub-Saharan Africa, north Africa and south and west Asia, women do not have easy access to education beyond primary level, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). It is therefore incredibly important for us to continue our education work.

Closer to home, much remains to be done to achieve the goal of empowering women, first by putting women on company boards. With the celebration of international women’s day this week and the publication of the Lord Davies report last month, much has been said recently about the need for more women at senior levels in UK companies. The evidence is now clear: companies that have more women at senior levels perform better, with stronger stock market growth, higher returns on sales, capital invested and equity, improved decision making

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and better corporate governance. Yet only 7.8% of the directors of FTSE 250 companies are women, and more than half of those companies have no women at all on the board. I welcome the publication of the Lord Davies report, and his call for our largest companies to aim for a 25% minimum proportion of women board members. However, I also want to challenge the chief executives of the FTSE 250 companies to include diversity in the performance objectives of senior executives, so that they are measured on that and remunerated accordingly.

Amber Rudd: Is my hon. Friend aware that an organisation called the 30% Club has been set up in the City by a number of chief executives, in order for them to work together to achieve higher representation of women on their boards?

Mary Macleod: Yes, that is an excellent initiative. There is another scheme under which the chairmen and chief executives of various boards mentor the next level of senior women in the City, which is working extremely well.

The second area I want to address is women’s entrepreneurship. Again, there is a lot we need to do. The Federation of Small Businesses published a report suggesting that women in the UK could make a much more significant contribution to the economy. Currently, women constitute only 29% of the self-employed population in the UK, despite making up 46% of the active working economy.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): In respect of both that point and the issue of women’s representation in larger organisations, does my hon. Friend agree that there are two types of discrimination at play: an ageist attitude as well as an attitude against women? Does she also agree that, given that from now on women will be working for much longer and flexible working will be far more widely available, women will be more able to fulfil their desire to have both a family and a career?

Mary Macleod: My hon. Friend is entirely right. We must have flexible working in order to make progress. We need more examples like Cath Kidston in Chiswick in my constituency. She has set up her shops from scratch and has been incredibly successful. In the UK, 150,000 start-ups would be created per year if women started businesses at the same rate as men.

The third area I want to talk about is very dear to my heart: women in politics. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) talked about Rwanda and how well it has done politically. We currently have the highest number ever of female representatives in the House of Commons and the Lords, but it is still low; it is still just 22% in the House of Commons, and more needs to be done. That is why I have set up the all-party group for women in Parliament to look at how we can take the issue forward and work together across the House to make sure that we keep delivering change and give women the opportunity to get into politics. The key is for women to work together, act as role models, and reach out and mentor the next generation of women in politics. We must also break down the barriers that undoubtedly still exist.

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Mrs Grant: Does my hon. Friend agree that better and more affordable child care is also part of the process, in that it enables women to get out of the home and back into the work force as wealth creators, entrepreneurs and taxpayers?

Mary Macleod: I agree entirely; that is a very good point.

In conclusion, I want to talk about violence against women—another subject that is extremely close to my heart, first, because it is a major issue for me in Hounslow in my constituency and, secondly, because Refuge was set up in Chiswick in my constituency. My hon. Friends the Members for Epping Forest and for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) have discussed this subject very well and have laid out some of the major issues that we face. There have been more than 1 million female victims of domestic abuse in England and Wales in the last year. That is a huge figure. We need to talk about the problem more, and to try to speak to the next generation in schools and elsewhere to convey that domestic violence is completely unacceptable.

Fiona Mactaggart rose

Mary Macleod: I am almost finished, so I shall not give way.

The Home Secretary has spoken firmly on the issue of violence against women and girls, saying that our

“ambition is nothing less than ending all forms of violence against women and girls.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 52WS.]

I also congratulate the Mayor of London on what he has done to quadruple the number of rape crisis centres in London. We have a duty to keep talking about what women have achieved across the globe and about the challenges and issues that still exist. That is why this debate is so important. By collaborating and working together we can achieve so much more and deliver a real change across the world.

3.35 pm

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): First, may I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the House for not being here at the beginning of this debate? I am very pleased to be able to participate in it.

It seems appropriate, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of international women’s day, to be welcoming the formation of UN Women. I welcome not only its formation, but the fact that it has set itself some challenging tasks. It seeks not only to be a global champion for women and girls, but to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, to empower women and to ensure that they achieve equality as beneficiaries of development aid, human rights, humanitarian action and peace and security.

UN Women is very much to be welcomed, but we might wish to reflect for just a moment on why it is essential to have such an organisation. Some of us who have pressed for UN reform for many years are very glad to see it and think that its setting up is not before time. One of my arguments for a global body examining what is happening to women’s rights was the failure to deliver on the millennium development goals. We know from a series of recent reports that little progress is

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being made on wiping out poverty in the world’s poorest countries, and the situation is being made worse by the global recession. Although aid to developing countries is at an all-time high, it is still £13 billion short on commitments for this year.

The progress has been particularly slow for women, who bear the brunt of poverty and its effects. According to research by the children’s development organisation, Plan International, girls are still far more likely to die before their fifth birthday than boys, and mostly from diseases that can be prevented, such as malaria and tuberculosis. Many rich nations that pledged aid are reneging on their promises, which is having a knock-on effect across the range of MDG targets. The overall level of donations in 2010 was estimated at about £108 billion, but that represents an £18 billion shortfall on commitments. The situation is having a disproportionate effect on women, because the least progress has been made on achieving the targets set for MDGs 4 and 5, on reducing maternal and child mortality, and helping women access reproductive health care.

That means that a huge task has been set for UN Women, and I want to discuss that in the context of a country that I know very well—Afghanistan. A number of us will know that women in Afghanistan suffer dreadfully from the impact of poverty and a lack of rights. The situation is improving, and we should note that, but there is still a lot to be done. We believe that about 87% of women in Afghanistan suffer some form of domestic abuse, and that about 60% to 80% are forced into marriage. There is a very low level of participation in education there, too. Again, the situation is improving, and many more girls have entered education, particularly primary school, since 2002, but a low level of participation in higher levels of education remains. Life expectancy is very low, at only 44.

It would be totally wrong to present women in Afghanistan as victims. The many women whom I have met, including parliamentarians, are extremely strong and resilient and they want to play a more active role in their society, not only at a social level and in governance but in the economy. I was pleased to see that DFID recently put an additional £85 million of funding into micro-finance initiatives. I have seen some of those initiatives in Afghanistan. They give women a lifeline in a number of ways. Not only do they give them a job and the means of earning a living, but, because women are seen to contribute on the economic front, their status in their family and wider kinship group changes. We hope that that can be built on for the future.

We also know that a lot of our aid money is helping women to play a much greater role, and not only in governance. We must remember that 25% of the Parliament in Afghanistan is made up of women, although they need a lot more encouragement and support to find their voice. Through the UN, many women in Afghanistan are being encouraged to play an active part in their security and police forces. There is now a commitment to try to ensure that 30% of the police force is made up of women.

Fiona Mactaggart: Like my hon. Friend, I have been impressed by the women of Afghanistan. Is she confident that the voices of those women will be heard in any negotiations about the future of Afghanistan in which forces from the US and the UK might talk about withdrawal, leaving them to whatever is left behind?

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Roberta Blackman-Woods: My hon. Friend makes an important point. By being vigilant, we must ensure when we withdraw on the military front that strong support structures are left in place, so that the many gains made by women in Afghanistan remain and are built on. We need to support the women parliamentarians—they will be the people who will be there and who will be able to put the monitoring systems in place.

The UN has funded a number of referral centres that are giving women in Afghanistan a safe haven and have been established in the 34 Afghan provinces. If such improvements are to continue and to be further developed, it is essential that UN Women gets the resources that it needs. Some of the preliminary figures are worrying—at the moment, only about 10% of the $500 million target is in place. We all need to press for additional resources.

We have all spoken about the women who are in Parliament in Afghanistan and we know that if things are to improve for women we need more women in politics and in decision-making structures. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and other networks helpfully enable us to share our experiences and to learn from women in different parliamentary contexts. If we are to continue to do that, we must be careful about the messages that we send from this country about women’s potential and what we do to support women. I am hesitant about introducing some party political conflict into the debate, but I am concerned about the impact that the cuts are having on women in my community. Not only are jobs being lost. Cuts are being made to child care and the public services on which women rely, changes are being made to the Child Support Agency and there is a lack of opportunities in housing. Our universities and colleges might even become less open to women in the future, if women are concerned about debt. I hope that the Government will consider that point and adopt the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) to implement a gender audit. I shall support the amendment and the main motion today.

3.45 pm

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I was not going to speak at all, but I have listened to the debate and thought I would try, so I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if it comes out rather badly. I want to talk about the courage of women, especially the courage that I have witnessed. First, I remember watching a woman walking out of Srebrenica holding a baby, in 1993, when we arrived there. She held her head high. We were tired and hungry, but we looked at this woman who had lost everything and we were inspired: here was someone very special. A few days later, I saw a woman who was going to be shot. She was holding a baby and in what were apparently the last few moments of her life she sheltered the baby. She was not shot—we avoided that—but that shook me to the core.

I know that my mother learned to parachute at the age of 22 at Ringway airport, when she joined the Special Operations Executive, and I remember seeing my wife, Claire, in Bosnia, in 1993. I was sitting in my tank watching an artillery barrage in the valley below when I saw a person walking down the road in the middle of the barrage. I put my magnification on and saw that it was a woman; more than that, it was an International Committee of the Red Cross delegate

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whom I knew—now my wife, Claire. I drove down there, opened the hatch of my vehicle and asked, “What the heck do you think you’re doing?”




Please do not laugh, because it happened. She said, “Would you please go away? You’re bringing fire on to my position.” I said, “What are you doing?” and she replied, “I’m going to the front lines to register prisoners.” “Would you like me to escort you?” I asked. “Certainly not!” she said, “We don’t want soldiers around us when we do that sort of thing.”

My view is that women not only civilise war situations but calm them. It is absolutely crucial that women are involved in any peace process because they are at the core of our society. In my experience, they are the only people who stay looking after the children when the men depart. They never give up their responsibility to children. That makes them not only equal but very special. I fully endorse the idea that women are equal in all senses, but I also think that they are more than that: they are very special because they do things that men do not—sometimes. Of course, they are impossible in some respects. My wife is French and I have been trying to make sure that her English is perfect, but, my goodness, does she ever learn, “I’m sorry, it’s my fault”? No, she does not. Seriously though, I fully believe that women are terribly important in the peace process. On that note, I think I will sit down because I have caused enough suffering.

3.49 pm

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for an excellent contribution.

It is a great pleasure and honour for me as a new MP to speak for Labour from the Front Bench. In government and opposition, and throughout its history, the Labour party has fought relentlessly for women both in Britain and internationally.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) and members of the Backbench Business Committee on securing today’s debate on UN Women, in the week of the centenary of international women’s day. It is disappointing that, unlike past years, Government time was not found for this important debate. Let us hope it does not symbolise a lack of commitment to women by this Government.

As we recognise and celebrate 100 years of women’s advancement, it is clear from the debate how much more there is still to do in our own country and around the world. Members on both sides of the House spoke movingly of the importance of UN Women and its potential contribution in the coming years.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) spoke of the importance of the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and of the Equality Act 2010. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) talked about his VSO work in Bangladesh. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) spoke movingly about the plight of women in the Palestinian territories. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) spoke powerfully about the experience of women who face sexual violence and rape in many conflict zones.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) talked about the pay gap between men and women in this country and elsewhere. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr Macshane) told us of the plight of women faced with trafficking and prostitution, and many other powerful contributions were made by Members on the Opposition Benches.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest spoke of the importance of this once in a lifetime opportunity for us to back UN Women, to fight for women’s interests around the globe. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) also referred to the importance of providing women with support, especially to ensure that they can play a strong role in peace and security initiatives. There were many powerful contributions from both sides of the House, often based on direct experience in countries around the world as well as in the UK.

I turn to the substance of the debate: why UN Women is such an important agency and why it provides such a unique opportunity for our generation to tackle the challenges facing women around the world. Only 19% of the world’s parliamentarians are women. That is not good enough. We must do more to empower women in political life. Many Members spoke about that issue. We must do more to ensure that our political institutions hold their Governments to account on policies affecting women, as the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough powerfully highlights.

A third of the world’s female population have been beaten, abused or coerced into sex. Women have the right to live free from violence, and the world must do more. As we know, women’s rights and interests are often an afterthought in matters of war and peace. We must do more to strengthen women’s participation in peace processes and conflict resolution, as was highlighted in the debate. We must do more to empower women in terms of their life chances.

I am proud that in the UK my party did a huge amount to improve women’s representation in Parliament. Other parties have followed suit, but only 20% of MPs are women and in this Government only four Cabinet Ministers are women. I hope that we will see many more women on the Government Front Bench in years to come.

As much as I enjoy debating with the Under-Secretary, I am sure that the irony is not lost on him that the Government’s International Development and Foreign Affairs teams are both male-dominated. I hope that in future we will see women in those teams speaking up for women in this country and around the world.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr Stephen O'Brien): To ensure that the hon. Lady’s last point does not deflect from the most substantive parts of the debate, I think it is helpful to note that our spokesman in the other place is Baroness Verma and that our coalition partner’s spokesman is Baroness Northover. I would be most grateful if the hon. Lady would let us know the names and gender of all members of Labour’s International Development team at the time of the previous Government’s departure.

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Rushanara Ali: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Under Labour, there were many women in Cabinet posts, but not enough. I hope that we can work across the parties to ensure even greater representation of women in positions of power in this country, because we are a symbol of progress around the globe and have a responsibility to ensure that more women are in positions of power.

Let me move on to the issue of violence against women. Women still bear the brunt far too often in conflicts around the world, facing sexual and domestic violence as well as human trafficking. Whether in Haiti, Congo, Afghanistan or Darfur, women have been exposed to brutal attacks, often as deliberate tools of political and ethnic violence. Mass rape is used as a weapon of war. I am only too aware of just what that means, as someone who was born in Bangladesh, a country that gained its independence 40 years ago in a war that cost 3 million lives. To this day, that society remains haunted by stories of rape and brutalisation. In other countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, women are far more likely than soldiers to be victims of violence. In south Kivu in the DRC, around 40 women are raped every day.

Women most need protection against sexual violence in times of war and conflict, yet the Government are watering down the European convention to combat violence against women—an international agreement that would protect women against domestic and sexual violence—arguing that it should apply only in peacetime, not in conflict situations. They are refusing to treat violence against women as a violation of human rights. As we have heard, the Government failed to sign up to the EU directive on human trafficking. Those policies, if supported, would save lives and protect millions of women around the world.

On economic empowerment, we will not unlock development and economic growth in developing countries unless we ensure that women have the same rights as men to access finance, the workplace and education, and have the same property rights. We will not meet the third millennium development goal without tackling gender inequality. Women do two thirds of the world’s work and yet receive only 10% of the world’s income. Here in the UK, as has been mentioned, women are bearing the brunt of the cuts. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) has shown so powerfully in her campaign for the Fawcett Society, women are being hit by the cuts much more than men are.

There is also a political and moral side to development. It is why we fought and won the argument about landmines, and it is why we believe that democracy, civil society and empowerment are essential to development. For women, globally, it means that we need an organisation, such as UN Women, not just to champion poverty reduction, but to improve the status of women. That is why we need to fund UN Women.

Britain has been a leader in international development, and if we delay support, we risk holding others back, so I repeat our calls to unlock the core funding that is so desperately needed for UN Women. Ministers repeatedly assured us that, on the conclusion of the multilateral aid review, a decision would be made on funding UN Women, yet no decision was made, and now we are told that a decision will not be made until June. I therefore

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ask the Minister: are we going to see any movement on transitional funding between now and June? We have heard talk of between £1 million and £10 million being released. Can we have an assurance that, if it is released, it will not represent the total allocation? We also call on the Government to support fully the European convention on combating violence against women, and to sign up to the EU directive on human trafficking.

The motion before us rightly places tackling international gender inequality at the heart of our support for UN Women, and I hope that this House will give its wholehearted support to that and to UN Women. I hope, too, that Treasury Ministers see the strength of feeling in the House in this debate and unlock that badly needed funding for UN Women. I also hope that by the time we celebrate international women’s day next year, we will see a flourishing UN Women, working with the UK Government to empower women throughout the world.

4.2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr Stephen O'Brien): I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), because she demonstrates that there is genuine, sincerely felt and broad unanimity across the House about the importance and dynamism of the agenda, and about the cause to which we all adhere.

It is a genuine pleasure to be here on the centenary of international women’s day to celebrate the achievements of women past and present. Great strides have been made in the recognition and promotion of women’s rights, but it is important to recognise that, whatever strides have been made, there is much more that needs to be done.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing). Her opening speech was so excellent that I hope it will become a candidate for one of the greatest parliamentary speeches of the 2010s, because, along with others to whom I pay tribute, she not only battled to have this debate at all, and in the way in which we are having it, but absolutely nailed the universality of the cause, the importance of it here in the UK and internationally, hence a DFID Minister is answering today, and how important it is not to lose sight of the absolute core argument, which is about empowering women wherever, however, at all times and without any let-up.

I was deeply impressed by my hon. Friend’s speech, and she put her finger on something very important: if we are to have any chance of achieving the millennium development goals, we have to focus not only on women and girls, who are central, but on adolescent girls, because they are the key to stopping poverty and, above all, inequality surviving from generation to generation. She made a very powerful point about optimising the world’s interest by removing all discrimination, above all, against women, and it is by that means that the greatest amount of peace, respect and security can be secured for our world.

We have had a series of outstanding speeches. Many people have contributed, and I will try to do justice to the contributions in the time available. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) made a very powerful series of points about the need for, and indeed

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evidence on, consensus and leadership, and the need for the UK to demonstrate leadership in the drive forward. I will come to the answers prompted by the questions put by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow, who spoke for the Opposition, but I did note that it is very important to agree on how much the national action plan becomes a core focus of what we can do to move things forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) made a powerful and well-researched speech. She said that peace and security in Afghanistan should not be at the expense of women having to revert, or even approximately revert, to anything like the terrible conditions and cultural impacts that they have had to suffer in times past. We should all get right behind that. She described the importance of Ms Bachelet embedding the role of women in security and peacebuilding, as much as anything else, at the core of her agenda. I note that she was pleased to make mention of the importance of UN resolution 1325 as regards the equalities agenda in Nepal.

Joan Ruddock: Has the Minister made any inquiries about the shelter programme in Kabul? There has been great controversy about the Afghan Government trying to take over the shelters that are being run by NGOs, and women there feel very strongly that they could be in real difficulty were that to happen.

Mr O’Brien: I am aware of that problem. We are talking to a series of international partners very urgently; indeed, one of my ministerial colleagues is not far from the region at the moment, and I know that he is seized of the issue. As the right hon. Lady has intervened, I add that I thought her comments on the position of women and girls in Egypt were very powerful. She talked about working through partners throughout the middle east and north Africa, as well as the importance of constitutionality in underpinning rights. Her reference to the testimony of Nawal El Saadawi made a deep impact on the House.

Speaking of impacts on the House, I turn now to the tremendous speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant). It was truly moving. I think we all felt that she not only fully understands domestic violence but is able to try to see round the corner as to how we can truly tackle it in all its abhorrence and inexcusability. In the course of her inspiring speech, I was particularly touched by her reference to the first women’s refuge being set up in Carlisle. By complete coincidence, I am familiar with that because my own mother has had an involvement in helping and assisting it through the nursing profession. I pay tribute to that wonderful institution, which my hon. Friend’s mother was so instrumental in founding.

My hon. Friend was right to show how important it is to understand the connection with education in affecting the attitudes and behaviours of boys and girls alike in being able to make progress. I felt—as, I am sure, did the whole House—that in speaking about women and girls in the United Kingdom, she spoke for girls and women around the world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) spoke with a background in VSO, which has been terribly instrumental for many people

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who have had the opportunity to work abroad. They made some important points about leadership and ensuring that we allow testimony to inform policy and follow recommendations, whether from the Conservative Human Rights Commission or the Godmothers campaign.

The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow said that she had been born abroad. I share that experience, having also been born abroad. These things give one an insight, whatever the circumstances, into some of the issues that take us a long way from our own setting and our own experience, and that can only be useful, we hope. I will of course return to the resourcing of UN Women, which has been a feature of many of the speeches.

The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) made a very powerful and deeply passionate and committed speech. I respect her for her views and her experience in raising these issues. She talked about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and about her wish to see how we can drive forward this agenda—how we hold people’s feet to the fire and really influence things. That is what lay behind her amendment. I promise to cover that properly when I get to the substance of my prepared remarks.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) made an important point about access to education, which is so restricted at the moment in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) illuminated the issue with an enjoyable, anecdotal speech. Above all, she made the significant point that girls must be encouraged to have the confidence, as early as possible, to speak up. That will so often carry them through in later years to break through many of the ceilings and barriers that have been put in their way, and further the cause.

The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) made an important contribution on trafficking and made a number of interventions. Above all, he asked how we can monitor the progress of the new law to ensure that it has the desired effect. He said that there is some evidence that the very nature of prosecution could lead to some people not presenting the problem in the first place. That evidence is still very uncertain, which is why it is important that we keep a close eye on how it can be monitored. However, the cause is unarguable.

The testimony of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) made it clear that when women are given a full chance, they surface everywhere on merit. It is vital to recognise above all that it is only false barriers and discrimination that keep people back.

The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) drew the important conclusion that we should be vigilant in ensuring not only that people have access to paid work, but that the caring role has a value, particularly in relation to children. That point was picked up by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) in his passionate speech and his testimony of what he saw on the front line as a soldier. It is vital that the role of carers and lone parents is central in this argument.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) touched on an issue that is always difficult to raise in this House, but that it is vital we give a proper

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hearing to, and that is the absolute abomination of female genital mutilation. I witnessed this issue last year when I visited the hospital in Bo in Sierra Leone. About 82% of the women in Sierra Leone have suffered genital mutilation. It is important to find champions in the older generation of women to help to ensure that younger girls are not subjected to it and to break the cultural expectation, which is driven by the totality of the family, rather than just the men. There are also serious cases of women dying of fistula, which is part of the problem. Going to the fistula clinic in Bo is obviously harrowing, but equally, it is an inspiration for all who are passionate about making the right decisions for development and about driving for results that will make a difference.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) for raising the work of the Marlborough Brandt Group in Gunjur in south-eastern Gambia. Although she credited the Department for International Development with funding it, I had yet to become familiar with it. She said it was important to root our efforts to empower women in the recognition that we must focus on women and young girls.

The next in this series of outstanding speeches that I will react to is that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), who gave a balanced speech, despite saying at one point that men were untrainable. She talked about the Barefoot college, which trains women in solar electrification systems that can supply villages with electricity off-grid, and said that 97 villages had trained their own women. I must confess that solar electrification is an area in which I am certainly an untrainable man. That said, it was a powerful example of precisely how we should be thinking.

My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) raised the difficult but important issue of how it can be acceptable for the Olympic games to have a culture whereby women from Saudi Arabia are not eligible to take part. I undertake to have discussions with the Minister for Sport and the Olympics and to ensure that we come back with a considered response on that important issue, which is about the fundamental right of women not only to enjoy and participate in sport, but to be able to participate in all competitions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) encouraged us to sign up wholeheartedly to all the UN initiatives and to what UN Women is doing, and he rightly encouraged us to have more women in Parliament. He also focused on how to deliver results, which is totally consonant with the approach that DFID has taken in the reviews of our bilateral and multilateral programmes. The results of Lord Ashdown’s humanitarian and emergency response review will be announced shortly, when he has concluded it.

We also heard from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil)—I think I have pronounced that more or less correctly. I had to go on holiday to South Uist last summer to ensure that I had mastered the constituency’s name.

Mr MacShane: Say it again.

Mr O'Brien: Na h-Eileanan an Iar, I think it is. I will have to take a sip after that.

Mr MacShane: I hope that’s water.

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Mr O'Brien: Unfortunately it is not Budget day, and I am not the Chancellor.

The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar made the call for immediate funding, and I promise that I shall come on to that. He talked about the need to strengthen women’s participation in conflict resolution, which was a theme of a number of the important contributions today. We in DFID are examining the centrality of women and girls in delivering all aspects of development, which is necessary partly because of their deep adherence to peace and security. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham said, we need to enable them to carry out the added role on which they will never let up even if there is total equality—ensuring that children have the very best safety and the best context in which to be raised and thrive. That was an important part of the debate.

The hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), who spoke at the end of the debate, made a powerful addition to it. She centred her remarks on the fact that our own experience here in the UK is informative for programmes that we design to be effective and drive through results in some of the poorest countries. Those programmes reach some of the most wretched people, above all women, who, as has been said many times, make up 70% to 80% of those affected.

I listened with great care to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod), as she happens to be my sister’s MP. She talked about a range of matters, and she introduced the important point that we must challenge people at all levels. It is right to challenge FTSE 250 companies and recognise that there are as many brilliant business women as there have ever been business men. We need to ensure that they are given exactly the same levels of responsibility for entrepreneurship and management, and that they feel there is always the possibility of progression and never a glass ceiling.

Despite many advances, we are still faced with enormous challenges, particularly in the poorest countries, although I do not in any way want to decry the serious challenges that still exist in our own society. Every year, more than a third of a million women die completely avoidable deaths in pregnancy and childbirth. It is vital that we take steps that will be transformational. We know that women own less than 10% of the world’s property and that, globally, 10 million more girls than boys are out of school. As many as 41 million girls worldwide are still denied a primary education. In some countries, as many as 60% of women say that they have been physically or sexually abused by their intimate partners. That puts in context some of the points about female genital mutilation, important though they are.

Women and girls continue to bear a greatly disproportionate burden of global poverty. We know that gender inequality lies behind the slow progress—very slow in certain places—towards the off-track millennium development goals, particularly MDG 5 on maternal health. Progress is also lagging on most targets under MDG 3 on gender equality, including those on secondary education, political participation and access to paid employment.

An important point was made earlier about water and sanitation, and the fact that it is vital to recognise that if we want to make it likely that girls will stay on into secondary education, we have to provide latrines

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and fresh water in schools so that they do not feel the embarrassment of the onset of puberty and menstruation. That is often one of the reasons why they leave school for ever and are subjected to an early marriage, which it would have been possible to avoid.

If we are to be transformative, UK support must make a difference, as it is doing. For instance, we supported the Ghana Government to remove health service fees for pregnant women, which led to a 50% increase in the uptake of maternal health services. Since May, the coalition Government have put girls and women at the very heart of development—they are front and centre of all our programmes; a stream running through everything that the Department does—and we are making strong progress. The Prime Minister has appointed my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities, whom I am pleased to see in the Chamber today, as ministerial champion to lead our efforts to tackle violence against girls and women overseas. She is helping to ensure that we implement our important action plan.

Our work with multilateral partners is vital in helping us to achieve results for girls and women. The UK has played an integral, leadership role in the successful establishment of UN Women, which is why we have a place on the executive board. Let it be said that my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary and the Conservative party have given full, unequivocal support, not only in opposition, but in government, to accelerating initiatives and leading as champions.

I was asked about the Secretary of State. He met the head of the agency, the former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet the day after her appointment in September and again at Davos in January. Baroness Verma attended the official launch of the agency in New York on 24 February, and everyone is actively encouraging donor support for it. We are in very close contact with the UN Women transition team and are offering at this point $1 million of transitional funding in the current financial year, a high level secondment and any other support that is asked of us, so that we can help to ensure that the agency gets off to the strongest possible start, which answers some of the questions that I was asked in the debate.

As was agreed with Miss Bachelet—the letter was handed over by Baroness Verma on 24 February—the core funding will be announced after the strategic plan, which will be available in June, to ensure that its priorities and the results that it will deliver are detailed. Members on both sides of the House have asked us to ensure that that funding is in place, as is right and reasonable. I hope that no one in the House regards spending UK taxpayers’ money as necessary until there is a clear plan of the results that we seek to achieve for women and girls worldwide. In the meantime, as I said, the transitional funding of $1 million can be accessed, which will ensure fast progress, which is important.

On international women’s day, DFID published its new strategic vision for girls and women—the various documents are on the website—setting out what the UK will do to achieve transformative changes in their lives, which includes saving the lives of at least 50,000 women in pregnancy and childbirth and 250,000 new-born babies; giving at least 10 million women access to modern methods of family planning; getting 9 million children into primary education, at least half of whom will be girls, and 700,000 girls into secondary education; working

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in at least 15 countries to prevent violence against girls and women; and getting about 2.3 million women access to jobs and 18 million women access to financial services.

It is right that the amendment was selected—I can see the hon. Member for Slough poised to intervene—but it is a matter for the House and not the Government to decide on Select Committee formulation and so forth, as I think she recognises. Therefore, considering how to take such a proposal forward is a matter not for the Government, but for House officials, who will no doubt canvass opinion. If I may give her some encouragement, the key to sustainable, transformational improvement for women and girls here and internationally is chasing those results, and to ensure that we drive for effectiveness. I fully recognise that audits can be a very useful spur for action—soundings will need to be taken on that—but one must recognise that audit processes look backwards. The question that we have been debating today, and on which there has been unanimity across the House, is about how we ensure that we are rooted for the future. Wherever we are on the spectrum, we need to ensure that the improvement is transformational, urgent and accelerated, and UN Women is probably one of the best ways of championing that across the world in all different countries’ circumstances and cultures.

Fiona Mactaggart: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous remarks, and I have been heartened by the support from across the House for my proposal. However, I accept that it is a matter for the House and that we need to engage other people in these discussions, so I intend to withdraw my amendment to ensure that we can finish the debate in the tone in which we have conducted it—absolutely unanimously.

Mr O'Brien: I am deeply grateful to the hon. Lady, because she has taken the sense of the House in how the debate has been conducted. We have heard not just excellent speeches, but a great sense of determination to make this new step work in a much more transformational way than before. Without question, Government policy, DFID and other Departments recognise that to achieve the results in empowering girls and women here and across the world, we have to increase the opportunity for girls and women to make informed choices and control the decisions that affect them. We need the laws to protect their rights, and we need to increase the value placed on them by society and the boys and men around them. We will know that we have succeeded only when women and girls themselves tell all of us—that is women and men—with confidence that their lives have improved sustainably and will continue to improve. I fully endorse the motion on the Order Paper.

4.26 pm

Mrs Laing: I thank the Minister sincerely on behalf of the whole House—that is an unusual thing to happen—for his support for today’s motion, for his and the Government’s support for the new UN Women agency, and for how he has assiduously taken onboard all of today’s points and made reference to them. No doubt he will take them on board in the future. That means that this has been a useful and constructive debate. I mention in passing that he deserves congratulation on

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what he has done not as a Minister—well, as a Minister as well—but long before that in setting up the excellent charity, the Malaria Consortium, which does a wonderful job in combating malaria, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. We should bear in mind that it is mostly women and children who die of malaria. On behalf of the House, I praise him for the work he has done.

We have heard this afternoon many speeches in a serious debate on a serious motion that actually means something. For the sake of time, I will not refer to any speeches in particular, except for that from my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). It is important that we tell him that he is absolutely right; it is true that women are impossible, and it is entirely deliberate. We are also determined and never give up. [Interruption.] I think that was a “Hear, hear” from my hon. Friend.

I am sorry that I cannot support the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). However, I agree entirely with the intention of the amendment, and she is right to put it before the House. She has drawn attention to the fact that it is up to all of us, as Members of Parliament, in every area in which we are working, and in every Department, to hold the Government to account in tackling inequality and injustice. The House has delivered a strong message this afternoon that this Parliament is determined to fulfil its international duties in driving forward the millennium development goals, by empowering women for the greater good not just of women, but of the societies everywhere in the world in which they live and where they can have influence.

Here at home, new Members of the House will not appreciate that in recent years we have made enormous breakthroughs. I pay tribute to some of the hon. Ladies in the Chamber this afternoon for their work in ensuring that gender equality is taken seriously in this place. It is not so long ago that it was not taken seriously. Some of us have had to fight very hard to get to where we are now. That does not mean that we have won—we have a long way to go—but now most Members of Parliament, if not all, see the point of marking international women’s day, and that equality is worth it not just for its own sake, but for the sake of utilising the talents and abilities of the whole population of our country, not just half of it. The message is simple: where women are oppressed, society suffers; where women are set free, society prospers.

Fiona Mactaggart: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question put and agreed to .

Resolved ,

That this House recognises that around the world women continue to suffer discrimination and injustice simply because of their gender; notes that underlying inequality between men and women is the driving force that results in 70 per cent. of the world’s poor being female; recognises that empowering women will drive progress towards all the Millennium Development Goals; welcomes the launch of UN Women, the UN Agency for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, on 1 January 2011; recognises that the agency is an example of UN reform to improve efficiency and co-ordination; and calls on the Government to provide support to the new agency to ensure it has the resources required to end the discrimination that keeps millions of women in poverty.

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Inter-Parliamentary Scrutiny (EU Foreign, Defence and Security Policy)

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): I should inform the House that the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter) has not been selected.

4.32 pm

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House pays tribute to the work of the European Security and Defence Assembly and the members of the UK Delegation; notes the continuing need for coordinated scrutiny by national parliaments of intergovernmental activities under the EU’s foreign, defence and security policies; welcomes the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Future inter-parliamentary scrutiny of EU foreign, defence and security policy, HC 697; and approves its approach to delivering that scrutiny.

Having just listened to the passionate speech by my good friend the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), I feel a bit of a spoilsport in bringing on such a dry subject, but that is democracy. Anyway, I congratulate her on her speech.

The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs report that we are debating today puts forward a proposal for intergovernmental scrutiny of the EU common foreign and security policy, including the common security and defence policy, following the demise of the Western European Union, including its parliamentary assembly, in mid-2011. Along with other national Parliaments, this House finds itself having to have this debate today because it was left somewhat in the lurch by the decision of national Governments to dissolve the Western European Union. The WEU has carried out active and serious international parliamentary oversight of the EU’s common security and defence policy for many years. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the assembly and the UK delegation to it. In particular, I would mention my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter), as the president of the assembly and leader of the UK delegation.

Following the decision to dissolve the WEU, member state Governments, including in the UK, have encouraged national Parliaments to come up with successor arrangements to the WEU assembly, to provide continuing inter-parliamentary scrutiny. In response, an ad hoc committee was formed comprising me, as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), as Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset, and Lords Roper and Teverson, as Chairs of the House of Lords Select Committee on European Union and its Sub-Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Development Policy. We met and decided to refer the matter to the Speaker and invite him to make an appointment to chair an ad hoc committee to address the issue.

Somewhat to our surprise, the Speaker declined to get involved in this debate. As a result, the ad hoc committee met again and considered what proposals to put forward. A proposal, which subsequently became the basis of the report that we are debating today, was agreed by the Members present and endorsed by their

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Committees. Unfortunately, due to an administrative cock-up, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset was not present, but his evidence was taken into account as, fortunately, he had given us written evidence. We decided that the best way to proceed would be for the two Houses to adopt a formal public position on the arrangements for the WEU Assembly’s successor, and for a relevant proposal to be presented to each House in the form of a Select Committee report.

The House is today being asked to endorse an approach to this issue which is not the Foreign Affairs Committee’s alone; our deliberations form the basis of the report, but it has been endorsed by three Select Committees: the FAC, the European Scrutiny Committee and the Defence Committee. I am grateful to those Committees, their Chairmen and their members for their co-operation. The House should also be made aware that the proposal being put forward in the FAC report has also been put forward by the House of Lords European Union Committee in a report of its own. That Committee will ask the full House of Lords to endorse its report, but it is waiting for the Commons to reach a decision and to act.

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I have been looking at the formal minutes of 12 January of the decisions to which my hon. Friend has referred. Can he explain why an amendment proposing that this matter should be decided on a free vote was turned down by the Committee on his casting vote? Surely, if ever anything was free vote business, it is the question of whether Parliament supports the line being taken by the Select Committee.

Richard Ottaway: I just took the view that a free vote was not appropriate. It was a simple subjective judgment; it was as straightforward as that.

The key objective of the report and of the motion before the House today is to ensure that the WEU Assembly has a successor. We want scrutiny of intergovernmental activity to continue with national Parliaments in the lead. I say to the House, however, that if national Parliaments do not get their act together, there is a risk that inter-parliamentary scrutiny will wither and that the European Parliament will, by default, take over the main role in this field. There is therefore a responsibility on national Parliaments in this respect.

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an important point. Does he agree that, like it or not, there is going to be much more to scrutinise, owing to the provisions of the treaty of Lisbon, the advent of the European External Action Service and the new clause in the Lisbon treaty that provides for additional measures in the field of common European defence?

Richard Ottaway: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I shall allude obliquely to the point that he has made. While he was making his intervention, I had the opportunity to consider further the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). I can inform him that I decided that the report should remain silent, rather than making any recommendation on whipping.

The point that I was about to make is that we want co-operation with the European Parliament, and, in our proposals, it would be a full member of the proposed conference. Like it or not, the Lisbon treaty has made

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the European Parliament a more powerful actor in certain areas of EU external relations. Whatever our views on the European Parliament, it would be in everyone’s interests for national Parliaments and the European Parliament to work together in this context, but—and it is an important “but”—decision making in the common foreign and security policy remains intergovernmental, and inter-parliamentary scrutiny of that decision making must reflect that. That is the basis of the proposal put forward in the report. National Parliaments would remain clearly in the lead, with the Parliaments of the rotating EU Council presidency countries chairing the proposed conference and taking organisational responsibilities.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): It is all very well having scrutiny, but if it does not lead to action, it is fairly pointless. Will my hon. Friend note that, on 19 February 2009, the European Parliament decided, by resolution, to have something called Synchronised Armed Forces Europe, which would introduce something that looks remarkably like a military covenant that has been codified? This links into the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison). As we debate these subjects in the House, and as we do so even more in the future, our debates could be eclipsed by what is going on in Europe, yet the House has not, to my knowledge, debated the decision of 19 February 2009.

Richard Ottaway: I think I follow my hon. Friend’s point. My point is that unless we get our act together so that Parliaments across Europe adopt the proposals, there will be no counterweight to what is coming from the European Parliament, to which he just referred.

Mr Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; I might be able to help him. Early in 2009, the European Parliament passed a resolution, paragraph 74 of which

“Recalls that the European Parliament is the only supranational institution with a legitimate claim to exercise democratic supervision over the EU’s security and defence policy”.

Richard Ottaway: I am sorry, but I missed the beginning of my hon. Friend’s intervention. Will he clarify who made that point?

Mr Walter: It was made in a motion to the European Parliament, which was then passed.

Richard Ottaway: The European Parliament is free to pass all the motions it likes. The truth of the matter is that the Lisbon treaty invites national Parliaments to exercise a scrutiny function over European foreign, defence and security policy. What we are doing is putting forward a proposal. If we cannot agree on it, we cannot influence the debate—going on in Belgium, not in Brussels—and we will not have a seat at the table. What I hope will happen today is that the UK Parliament will come up with a proposal to lead the charge in providing a counterweight to the European Parliament.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman is aware that these discussions have gone on for quite a long time. In fact, they pre-date the re-establishment of the Foreign Affairs Committee after

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the last election. I was involved in discussions in late 2009 and early 2010. I would like to stress that this is a very important statement of intent by our national Parliament to say to certain people in the European Parliament who have certain aspirations, “Get your tanks off our lawn; national Parliaments are in the lead on this matter, and we are going to remain in the lead on it. We are working with you, but you are not going to get away with the claim that the European Parliament is the sole democratic institution.”

Richard Ottaway: The hon. Gentleman makes his point eloquently. It is an important subject. Perhaps 10 years ago, this debate would have taken place in a packed Chamber, which illustrates how the world has moved on in considering some of these issues.

Dr Murrison: In support of the point made by the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), I note that Guido Westerwelle said at the Munich security conference in February last year:

“The long-term goal is the establishment of a European army under full parliamentary control.”

I share the dismay that today’s Chamber is not full with Members concerned about such remarks being made by very senior politicians in Europe, and particularly in Germany.

Richard Ottaway: My hon. Friend makes his point well and I rather share the sentiments behind it. For the benefit of those who bring up illustrations of the weight that the European Parliament places on these issues, however, may I draw attention to some of the details of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report?

Mr Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from consideration of the European Parliament I must say that I take the points that a number of Members have raised about it. I find the recommendation before us somewhat surprising in its suggestion that the European Parliament should be involved in the new body, which should be for national Parliaments primarily. Would it not be better simply to acknowledge that the European Parliament has its own distinct mode, but that national Parliaments have theirs as well?

Richard Ottaway: It was felt that the European Parliament has some expertise in this area, but the hon. Gentleman leads me neatly on to the details of our proposals that I was about to set out. The European Parliament would have the same sized delegation to the proposed conference as all other Parliaments, which is six members. With the 20-plus members of the EU each having six members, and only six from the European Parliament, it is clear that the European Parliament will not be in a dominant position. I will come back to the rival proposal in a few moments.

What is proposed is that, as set out in the Lisbon treaty, we establish an EU inter-parliamentary conference on foreign affairs, defence and security, to be known as COFADS, which would meet twice a year. Its members would be the EU national Parliaments and the European Parliament; the Parliaments of the EU candidate countries—Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Iceland, Montenegro and Turkey—would be invited to attend as observers. The conference would be able, but not obliged, to adopt conclusions by consensus,

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which would not be binding on participants or their Parliaments. It would replace the current informal conferences of Foreign Affairs Committee Chairs and Defence Committee Chairs, known respectively as COFACC and CODCC.

The urgency of today’s debate is connected with the fact that the Assembly of the Western European Union has already held its last regular plenary session and will hold an extraordinary final session in May. The forum that is trying to establish agreement on a future inter-parliamentary scrutiny committee is the EU Speakers’ conference, which will meet on 4 and 5 April. It will consider a proposal presented by the Belgian presidency, on which comments are invited. They must be submitted by 14 March, hence the need for the debate to be held today.

The Speakers’ conference is already aware of the Foreign Affairs Committee report and the parallel report from the House of Lords. If the House of Commons approves the Foreign Affairs Committee report today, we will of course make that known to the conference, and the Speaker or his representative at the conference will be able to refer to the motion. Given the United Kingdom’s importance in relation to European foreign, defence and security issues, the express view of the Westminster Parliament could be expected to carry considerable weight.

The Belgian presidency proposal—the rival proposal—would put the European Parliament in a stronger position than the proposal in the FAC report. Under the Belgian proposal, the European Parliament would be able to send up to a third of the participants in the new conference. It would co-chair the rotating presidency country Parliament, and it would provide the secretariat. In my judgment, that is not the kind of national Parliament-led forum that we want. It is not in keeping with the intergovernmental nature of the common foreign and security policy. Today’s debate, and the motion, constitute a key part of the effort to get that message across to the Speakers’ conference.

The FAC report has been widely circulated, and efforts are under way to seek support actively. I am able to report, with pleasure, that either through the passage of resolutions or through correspondence, the French, Swedish, Czech and Portuguese Parliaments, or committees thereof, have already indicated their support for the model proposed in the FAC report rather than the proposal from the Belgian presidency. It would therefore be a matter of some international difficulty, not to mention embarrassment, if the House were to decline to endorse the approach that we have taken.

Mr Chope: Is not the problem with the approach being taken by my hon. Friend and his Committee that it excludes parliamentarians from non-EU European NATO countries, whose inclusion was a specific requirement laid down by the Minister for Europe when he first responded to this process?

Richard Ottaway: My hon. Friend has made a good point. The candidate countries will, of course, be invited to attend as observers and to participate fully. Given that there will be no votes in the committee, they would in practice be fully engaged.

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Mr Chope: I think that my hon. Friend has missed the point. We are not talking only about candidate countries; we are also talking about non-EU members of NATO, such as Norway. I am not aware that Norway has any aspiration to join the EU.

Richard Ottaway: My hon. Friend is quite right. There is also the question of Albania, which is to be resolved but which is one of the issues that the Speakers’ conference will have to address.

I leave it to the Minister to set out the Government’s position, but I will say that the Minister for Europe participated in several of the meetings that I have held with my colleagues on this issue. I thank him for his co-operation, and thank his officials for their help.

When national Governments disbanded the WEU, they also effectively withdrew their funding and left Parliaments responsible for finding the resources that would enable them to continue their inter-parliamentary scrutiny. In formulating our proposals for a successor, we have had our eye very much on the international budgetary situation, and the need to have scrutiny while setting that against considerations of cost and the risk of being seen to be establishing a new EU talking shop. Keeping costs to a minimum has been a guiding principle of our proposals, and that underpins our wish to see as much as possible done through existing institutions, the national Parliaments and the COSAC secretariat.

That is the approach that the Foreign Affairs Committee considers appropriate, and I urge the House to support the motion.

4.50 pm

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): This really is a pretty shoddy second-rate shambles. We are going to betray the Norwegians, our closest allies and friends, we are reducing the Turks, the biggest single military contributor to NATO in terms of personnel, to observer status—I suppose they can bring in the coffee—and we have not got support from one major EU country. The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee rattled off a few—

Mike Gapes: Is France not a major country?

Mr MacShane: France has only just rejoined NATO. It does not have quite the same weight in NATO councils as ourselves, Germany and Italy. We have a real problem.

We could have been a lot more robust about preserving the Western European Union. The idea was put to me when I was a Minister, but it was one of those topics that just get put back in the box in the hope that it dies. The last Labour Government and their Foreign and Commonwealth Office team should not be awfully proud of that. The WEU was not the greatest organisation in the world, but it did bring together serious, real-life parliamentarians from countries that were directly involved in military activities. Instead, we have now got an absolute disaster of a sequence of proposals, of which I worry most about the proposal from the presidency of the EU, which is currently held by Belgium. I do not know where that proposal comes from because Belgium does not have a Government to put a proposal forward.

We heard some interesting comments in this week’s debate on the EU referendum Bill from the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), the Chairman of the European

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Scrutiny Committee. He started animadverting on something called a non-paper and treated the concept with immense scorn, but a non-paper or aide memoire is quite a common bit of diplomatic terminology. However, this is the first time that the current House of Commons has had to deal with a very major proposal relegating its importance, and coming from a non-Government.

I hope we can be robust on this issue, because let us be quite clear: the Belgian presidency proposal sets up a new committee of which six members will come from the Westminster Parliament—both Houses—and 54 from the European Parliament, so it will have nine times more representatives on the committee. Having spent some time in the couloirs of European Union decision making, let me assure Members that a proposal put forward by the country holding the EU presidency carries a lot more weight than a resolution of any particular committee of any particular national Parliament, much as we all respect, love and admire our own Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mr Chope: The situation is even worse than the right hon. Gentleman describes, because the Belgian presidency proposal is that each Parliament would have four representatives, while the European Parliament would have 54.

Mr MacShane: There we are. I never get to eat as many Belgian chocolates as I would wish, and the amount is going down minute by minute. I thought the figure was six, but now it is four, which amounts to 13 or 14 times less representation than that of the European Parliament.

The Foreign Affairs Committee report is what the French would call a nombriliste discussion, which is to say a lot of navel gazing. It is a discussion about different bits of the axis between your Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the Woolsack. There is some reference to the Speaker not appointing a Chair. I am very interested in what the constitutional and parliamentary reasons for, or implications of, that are, but this is about what we say to each other in three Select Committees in this House and two in the other place. What is not on the record is what we should have been doing. We are utterly incapable of doing this, although we actually did start debating the matter a bit on Tuesday. I am talking about working out how we connect this House to other national Parliaments and parliamentarians in order to discuss EU business.

It is no use just sitting on endless piles of the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph in London or telling each other across the Chamber about these wretched things called the European Union and the European Parliament, which some hon. Members do not like. We need to reorganise how we link up with many like-minded members of national Parliaments to put in place a more effective national parliamentary network to look at how the affairs of the European Union can better mesh and integrate with the work of national Parliaments. That is because, in essence, a huge transfer of authority is taking place away from the now defunct WEU to the European Union and the European Parliament. We do, however, have the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, which is a very worthwhile outfit, to which many of the member states that will now be excluded can come and others can come by invitation.

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We are seeing that Europe is completely unable to respond to the Libyan crisis in the southern Mediterranean with a degree of muscular soft power or slightly less than full military hard power. In our debates, we find that the new structure being proposed is expected to provide the European parliamentary supervision of exactly the decisions that are or are not being taken on Libya and the other north African countries in revolt. A Heads of Government meeting will take place tomorrow, and I wish the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and his team well in coming up with a policy that can connect, but it will have to have some parliamentary oversight. We are already being told no to war. We are being told that NATO must not intervene. We can sense a protest building out there, whereby if this country were to be involved in some kind of decision, with or without UN sanctions, that might produce a public opinion backlash. Again, we have given up adequate parliamentary supervision and discussion of these issues. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter), who valiantly tried to keep the WEU alive, made all sorts of concessions and worked with colleagues, but was steamrollered by Whitehall.

Mr Walter: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words. This relates to the point about responding to a crisis such as the one in Libya. Let us suppose that we were to follow the Foreign Affairs Committee’s recommendation, to which I shall refer in a moment, if I catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. If that Committee had met three weeks ago, it would be another six months before it could express any opinion on our collective response to the Libyan crisis.

Mr MacShane: I accept that fully and it is true of all inter-parliamentary oversight committees. We are, willy-nilly, increasingly having to discuss how, collectively, at European level, we express our common foreign policy goals when we decide what they are. Yesterday, the Prime Minister slapped down the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) when he called for an in/out EU referendum. The Prime Minister said, “We are staying in the EU and that is it.” I am glad that he said that after five years of encouraging the hopes of Eurosceptics, but if it is the case, this House has to work out how best to take part in debates and decisions on what Europe is going to do—we cannot wish it away.

I am not criticising the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee or the officials who have worked on this report, because it is probably the best they could manage of a bad job, but it is exactly a reflection of our House’s inability to network and create alternative sources of democratic parliamentary legitimacy and oversight for what is done at European level.

Mr Clappison rose

Mr MacShane: I am trying to finish my remarks, but I shall give way one last time.

Mr Clappison: I am listening with great interest to the right hon. Gentleman. I agree with his analysis that more decisions are being taken at European level. Does he think that that process enjoys the democratic consent of the British people?

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Mr MacShane: Until such time as we elect a Government—coalition or majority—who decide to withdraw from the European Union, I have to say yes. That is what the Prime Minister said yesterday: we are in the EU, we have to make it work and that is the end of the matter. We are in NATO, the World Trade Organisation, the convention on the law of the sea and lots of different treaty organisations that take decisions that impact on us and we have to make them work.

I am worried. One cannot call the WEU back into being but I am extremely worried that we are sending a signal to our friends, particularly in Turkey, about the reduction of their status on European defence matters, all the more so as the Mediterranean boils up, if I may use that metaphor. I resent deeply the message we are sending to Norway. Frankly, Albania needs to sort out its own parliamentary incoherence and misbehaviours before I am willing to pat it on the back, fond as I am of the Albanian people in that country and in Kosovo.

Twice in one week, with a small number attending—a worrying point—we have seen the absolutely wrong and incoherent way that this House of Commons deals with the European question. Until we have a proper debate and rethink our structures, we will always be running after the event and will have to try to persuade a non-Government not to push forward with a new structure that will reduce the Commons to bag-carriers for a much greater number of colleagues in the European Parliament.

5.2 pm

Mr Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): May I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) and the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs for the work that they have done on this subject? As hon. Members will gather in a moment, I do not entirely agree with their conclusions, which are very similar to the work of Lord Roper and his Select Committee on the European Union in the House of Lords. May I also express a slight concern that a number of my colleagues who are members of the WEU Assembly, representing this Parliament, might have been here had it not been for the fact that we had only 48 hours’ notice? I and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) were involved in other meetings and have had to return to take part in this debate. Let us move on, however.

I shall briefly give the background. In December 2009, I was telephoned by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the then Minister for Europe, who told me that he wanted to save €2.3 million, which was the United Kingdom’s contribution to the WEU—to the whole organisation, not just the Assembly. The Assembly’s cost to the United Kingdom was considerably less than that. The UK was therefore seeking to renounce the Brussels treaty.

Mr Clappison: Cost is a very important factor and we all need to consider carefully the costs of what we do. Has my hon. Friend seen the reports that the European External Action Service and the High Representative are taking on additional public relations consultants at a cost of €10 billion? Has my hon. Friend done any maths to see whether the cost to which he has just referred might be much less than the cost of some additional spin doctors for the EEAS?

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Mr Walter: I can tell my hon. Friend that the entire global cost of the WEU organisation—the body located in Brussels as well as the Assembly in Paris—was considerably less than the figure he mentions for PR staff for the EEAS. In fact, the total bill to the United Kingdom Parliament for the Parliamentary Assembly was about €1 million.

Mr MacShane: Not even a banker’s bonus!

Mr Walter: Indeed.

The WEU’s history goes back to 1948 and the Brussels treaty. The treaty was amended in 1954, which is when the Assembly came into effect. One very good thing about the treaty is its article 5—a common defence pact that, as it is not in any way replicated in the Lisbon treaty, we will lose as a result of the WEU and Brussels treaty ending in June. The Assembly, which was part of the treaty, has evolved over the years and has been known as the European Security and Defence Assembly for some time. It has brought together parliamentarians from all 27 European Union member states as well as non-EU NATO members in Europe, which have had associate status within the body. As such, they have been able to speak and vote but have not contributed to the budget. Eventually, as a result of the discussions I have mentioned, on 30 March 2010—the very last day before the general election on which business could be introduced in the House—a written ministerial statement from the then Foreign Secretary indicated that the United Kingdom intended to withdraw from the Brussels treaty. I think the other signatories to the treaty must have had some notice of that because the following day all 10 of them indicated that they too would cease operations before the end of June 2011.

Those statements and a statement that the EU Foreign Affairs Council made a month later all paid tribute to the Assembly and said that its work should be continued by another inter-parliamentary body and that it should involve the non-EU NATO members in that parliamentary scrutiny. We all believed that was a way forward but, sadly, not much has happened since then. It has been a considerable frustration to me and my colleagues from all Parliaments across Europe that nobody has given any guidance on what we should do next. The EU Speakers Conference decided to take an initiative and ask its Belgian presidency to report on what the way forward should be. It was to report next month but, as we are all aware, Belgium had an election just after our election and although it took us five days to form a coalition, the Belgians are still working on it. As a result, there has been little action in Belgium on this matter.

However, our Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has produced a report, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South, and has—quite rightly, because it needs democratic legitimacy—put it before the House. In the report, my hon. Friend repeats an error to which I have just referred. Paragraph 3, on termination of the WEU, points out that

“the then Government announced that it intended to withdraw…from the WEU”


“commented that the WEU was ‘no longer relevant to today’s European security architecture’”.

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Richard Ottaway: That is a quote.

Mr Walter: It is an absolute quote and I am not sure that I agree with it. Although it is factually correct, I am not sure that the WEU was no longer relevant to today’s European security architecture. We have just entered a number of agreements with France on defence, which are a form of what the Lisbon treaty calls “structured co-operation”. But that is another matter.

The report notes that

“the role being played by the Assembly did not justify its cost to the UK of over €2 million per year.”

As I pointed out just now, the Assembly costs were not €2 million a year; they were barely €1 million to the UK.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Jeremy Browne): May I inform the House about the costs as I understand them? Annual membership of the Western European Union costs the British taxpayer €2.3 million, so after withdrawal the United Kingdom will no longer have to pay the full €2.3 million subscription, although it will continue to be liable for a share of the cost of WEU staff pensions. We will recoup some money from the sale of the WEU building in Paris, which the UK part-owns with other member states.

Mr Walter: I am grateful to the Minister for making those points. My point was that the €2.3 million is the cost of the WEU organisation, not the cost of the Parliamentary Assembly of the WEU, which is half that. I am delighted by the Minister’s assumption that the United Kingdom will gain from the sale of the building in Paris, because there had been rumours that it was to be gifted to the French Government. As holder of the presidency of the Assembly, we took the precaution of having an independent valuation of the building; it is worth at least €50 million, so the UK should benefit somewhat from its sale.

The Foreign Affairs Committee has been diligent in looking at the structures. Paragraph 5 of the European Union Committee report refers to some of the existing structures:

“We backed a ‘conference of committees’-type institution to replace the WEU Assembly, comprising a combined and enlarged version of the current informal Conference of Foreign Affairs Committee Chairpersons (COFACC) and Conference of Defence Committee Chairpersons (CODCC).”

The only problem with that is that, to my knowledge, the Conference of Defence Committee Chairpersons has not met for at least the past two years, so we are not actually replacing an effective body.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): It was interesting to hear that list of terminology. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the only way forward for dealing with the European Union is to put the matter to the British people in a referendum, so that we can have a debate in this country and decide whether we want to stay in that hugely bureaucratic organisation, or leave it and become an independent country again?

Mr Walter: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention, although I think it goes a little beyond the scope of the motion. However, we and the Assembly of which I have the honour to be president are dealing with what are almost entirely intergovernmental structures

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consisting of European Union member states and other states in Europe such as Turkey, which has been mentioned several times, Norway or Iceland. We come together as willing partners in collective defence and security operations. Community institutions are not in any way relevant to our debate today; we are debating intergovernmental functions that are entered into freely.

My final point on the Foreign Affairs Committee report relates to the reference to the EU Speakers’ Conference, which will take place in April. The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee has already referred to the Belgian text—Belgium holds the EU presidency—which proposes an inter-parliamentary conference for common foreign and security policy and common security and defence policy, composed of delegations of the national Parliaments of EU member states. Paragraph 2 of that text suggests:

“Each national parliamentary delegation shall consist of four members.”

Paragraph 3 requests that

“The total number of delegates from the European Parliament shall not exceed one third of the members of the Conference.”

Therefore, if there are 108 members from national Parliaments, there will be 54 from the European Parliament.

On a reasonably rough approximation the UK and France together contribute around 60% of Europe’s defence budget, and we will have eight votes between us. However, the European Parliament, which makes absolutely no contribution to Europe’s defence budget, has no troops at its disposal, does not buy any aircraft carriers or other warships, aircraft or fighters, and has no troops deployed anywhere in the world, will have 54 votes. Is that the right proportion in terms of democratic accountability? I hasten to suggest that it is probably an imbalance. I am not averse to the European Parliament having some role and that its voice should be heard, but the presumption that its voice should somehow be considerably greater than that of the United Kingdom, France and others that contribute to Europe’s defence is nonsense.

The Belgian text goes on to suggest:

“The Conference shall have its seat in the European Parliament in Brussels. Meetings shall be organized twice a year in Brussels or in the country holding the rotating Council Presidency…The meetings shall jointly be presided over by the national Parliament of the Member State holding the rotating Council Presidency and the European Parliament.”

That means that responsibility is now to be divided 50:50. Paragraph 9 proposes:

“The secretariat of the Conference shall be provided by the European Parliament.”

The agenda will be set by the European Parliament, the conference will meet in the European Parliament and one third of the conference’s members will be Members of the European Parliament. My view is that that body will simply be an extraordinary meeting of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee: twice a year, it will invite Members of national Parliaments to come along to Brussels to hear what it has been doing. It will not be exercising genuine parliamentary scrutiny.

Mr Chope: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Does he accept that what is proposed is inconsistent with article 10 of protocol 1 of the treaty on the European Union, which mentions a conference of parliamentary

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committees submitting contributions for the attention of the European Parliament? That is completely different from what is being proposed by the Belgian presidency.

Mr Walter: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not want to become too legalistic, but I will refer to a number of principles that I and colleagues have laid down that suggest we should have a much stronger inter-parliamentary standing conference. The principles on which we based that suggestion are all entirely consistent with the Lisbon treaty, which I know my hon. Friend and others were not enthusiasts for; none the less it is where we are.

Article 12 of the Lisbon treaty states:

“National Parliaments contribute actively to the good functioning of the Union.”

Article 10 of protocol states:

“A conference”—

which my hon. Friend has just referred to—

“of Parliamentary Committees for Union affairs may…organise interparliamentary conferences on specific topics, in particular to debate matters of common foreign and security policy, including common security and defence policy.”

The most important words in the treaty are in declaration 14, which states:

“The Conference also notes that the provisions covering the Common Foreign and Security Policy do not…increase the role of the European Parliament.”

In fact, the European Parliament has therefore no new competence as a result of the Lisbon treaty, but if we read the Parliament’s documents we find that it assumes that it does have that new role. Even if it does not, it is jolly well going to grab it and take it, because national Parliaments are doing nothing about it. That is why we need a strong functioning body. Madam Deputy Speaker, I know that you do not propose to call my amendment, but the spirit of my proposal was that we should have a much stronger body than that which the Foreign Affairs Committee proposes.

We propose a standing conference of inter-parliamentary representatives, which would carry on the work of the European Security and Defence Assembly, the Assembly of the Western European Union, enabling us to have effective inter-parliamentary scrutiny that would embrace at least the ground that it covered and include the five non-EU European NATO members, who provide considerable support to the work of the European Union and, collectively, to European defence.

We believe that that inter-parliamentary standing conference could be based in Brussels. It could have been based in Paris, but the Minister tells us that we are going to sell the building, so it cannot. The conference’s prime role would be to engage on European foreign affairs and defence issues with the Council of the European Union, its supporting and executive agencies, member Governments and Parliaments as appropriate. Recommendations and opinions would be made, but they would not necessarily bind national Parliaments.

The Council of the European Union, and especially the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, would make regular reports to that standing conference.

Mr Clappison: My hon. Friend has made some very powerful points throughout his speech, and the last two have been the most powerful of all. Is there not a

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danger that, if there is no such body as he describes, there will be a gap into which the European Parliament will be unable to resist the temptation to move?

Mr Walter: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, because the alternative, which is before us today, is a body that would meet for one-and-a-half days every six months. The security and defence sub-committee of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee meets approximately every fortnight, and it has a large secretariat and research staff working for it. It will easily work its way in to provide such scrutiny and, because it is located in Brussels, summon the High Representative or the director-general of the EU military staff, who until recently was a British general and who has now been, I am pleased to say, promoted to the office of Black Rod in the other place. That alternative would be an absolute negation of what we believe to be parliamentary scrutiny, in that the European Parliament would take on that role.

Before I sit down, I want to deal with the question of funding, because that is the one argument against our having such a standing conference, which would have a small secretariat and perhaps two committees as opposed to the existing Assembly’s six. Staff at the existing Assembly have worked out the following figure in detail, however, and the feeling is that we could run an entire inter-parliamentary body, based in Brussels with a small specialist secretariat, for about €1.5 million. That would mean, spread out among the 27 member states, that the contribution of the United Kingdom would probably be about €100,000 at the most. Let me tell the House that in the 2011 Budget, this Parliament’s contribution to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly—of which I have no criticism—was €465,845, and that was just towards its administration. The contribution to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe for this current year is €267,035. The contribution towards our proposed standing conference—a body to scrutinise areas of activity where our armed forces are putting their lives at risk—would have been barely €100,000, or considerably less than £100,000. I therefore do not believe that cost should be the determining factor in this.

We should have a strong inter-parliamentary conference that involves Members of national Parliaments who have an interest in defence matters, drawn from our national foreign affairs and defence committees, among others. None of the members of the current Assembly, bar two or three, are members of their national committees, but that does not mean that they do not have expertise in these areas. The acknowledged need for continued inter-parliamentary scrutiny of common security and defence policy involving the 27 member states, plus the five non-EU members, is beyond question. As the Foreign Affairs Committee has indicated, there are different ways of approaching this question, but we need a much stronger framework within which to work.

5.27 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): I have some sympathy with the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter), who obviously feels passionately about the organisation that he has been chairing, which is about to go out of existence. I can understand his frustration. I appreciate many of the points that he

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made, particularly his attack on those in the European Parliament whose view of their organisation is that it is somehow superior to national Parliaments and should be the body that scrutinises defence, security and foreign policy matters to the minimisation, or potential exclusion, of national Parliaments. That is something that we have to confront.

This debate is really about how we put into practice the Lisbon treaty requirement that there be a mechanism within the European Union based on national parliamentary committees coming together and co-operating to deal with matters that are dealt with on a national co-operative basis, not a communautaire basis. There is a deep philosophical difference in the views of those Members of the European Parliament. The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and I were in discussion with them when we visited Brussels in September. Some of them have a view, and a model, that goes even further than the paper produced by the Belgian Council presidency—a federalist view that says that the European Parliament is the supreme democratic body on all matters to do with the European Union.

We need to be very clear about this. There will be a negotiation, and the position that our Parliament and other national Parliaments put forward will probably not be its final outcome. It is therefore important that we lay down some principles about where we are starting from. The work that the Foreign Affairs Committee has done in this Parliament began in the previous Parliament when I was discussing this with the then Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), just before the general election. We had been presented with this situation, and we were trying to find a way to secure some accountability and a mechanism, knowing that Parliament was going to be dissolved and that it would be some months before new Committees were established. We were trying at that point to get some initiatives based on the successful work over several years of the Conference of Foreign Affairs Committee Chairpersons, or COFACC, and the Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees of Parliaments of the European Union, or COSAC, which are the two bodies that bring together the representatives of Foreign Affairs Committees and European Scrutiny Committees periodically to discuss common concerns. That is not a perfect model and it probably needs some beefing up and development.

We must be aware of the danger that there are people in the European Parliament who want a permanent, well-funded secretariat based in the European Parliament, serviced by people who serve its Committee on Foreign Affairs. Those people have an ideological dispensation towards a certain approach to foreign, security and defence policy matters. We need to find a mechanism that takes account of the clear point in the Lisbon treaty that the body should be based not on the European Parliament, but on bringing together the national Parliaments. After it is established, the national Parliaments might decide to co-opt or bring in representatives who attended the meetings of the assembly of the Western European Union. They might also decide, in time, to establish a secretariat of their own to assist the rotating troika model that we have put forward in the report.

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Basing the mechanism on the rotation may well not be perfect. From time to time, there is a presidency country that has more resources and a greater ability to host such meetings.

From my experience of attending COFACC meetings over five years, that is a very good model. We did not have interminable discussions over the entrails of commas and full stops in meaningless resolutions that would never go anywhere, but had a real exchange of views. People such as Mr Solana, Cathy Ashton, and the Foreign Minister or Prime Minister of the country that had the Council presidency came before us, answered questions and were accountable to the spectrum of opinion from the 27 member states.

Today, we frankly either have to agree to this report or have no position. If we have no position, we are effectively undermining our friends in like-minded countries. I had discussions with the Speaker of the Portuguese Parliament in January last year when the Foreign Affairs Committee visited Lisbon and when this idea was first developed. Concerns have been expressed in like-minded European Union countries about the aggrandisement, or even quasi-megalomania, of some in the European Parliament in relation to how these matters should go forward post the Lisbon treaty. If we have no position, we will undermine the work of our partner countries that are on the same wavelength as us, to which the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee referred. I intervened on my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), who is not present at the moment, to point out that France is not an insignificant country in the European Union. We have friends in a diverse group of countries, including Finland and Portugal, who hold similar views about how defence, security and foreign policy should be scrutinised and how accountability should be dealt with.

We have not reached the final position, because there will have to be negotiation and there will probably be an almighty row. People in the European Parliament who do not like the suggested model will clearly resist it. Some countries, such as Belgium, will do so—I could make a joke about chocolate soldiers, but I will not, because it is an old joke from a previous decade. The Belgians are not alone—there are people in Germany, Italy and other European countries who have a similar attitude to the European Parliament and its aspirations. We need to come to a view today that helps the debate and clarifies it for the future.

Mr Chope: We do not need to come to a view today in adopting the Committee’s report. At the beginning of April, Mr Deputy Speaker, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), will represent Mr Speaker at the conference. I am sure that he will faithfully reflect the balance of opinion in today’s debate when he represents this Parliament at that conference. It will not be suggested that we are not doing anything, because we are achieving a lot through today’s debate.

Mike Gapes: I would rather we had a clear position to guide our representatives when they take part in those negotiations. Of course, a negotiation ultimately leads to some movement and compromise. From the thrust of the remarks of the hon. Member for North Dorset, I believe that although he is not entirely happy with the report, he is more happy with it than the approach that came from the Belgian Council presidency.