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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 21 November 2012

[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]

UK Constituent Parts (EU)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Joseph Johnson.)

9.30 am

Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): Good morning, Mr Crausby. It is a great pleasure to have you chairing this important debate.

The 2014 referendum on Scotland’s future is a landmark in our constitutional history, although it is extraordinary that support for the proposition is steadily declining, even before the introduction of the enabling legislation at Holyrood. The fact that it is occurring at a time of increasing volatility, at home and globally, makes the arguments for and against even more contentious. I shall return to volatility later in my remarks, but let me make one observation at the outset: we most definitely will witness in the next two years a period of relentless tricky questions. I noted at the weekend that the university of Dundee is launching a project on “5 Million Questions”, which may take us up to the end of the current century although it is certainly a worthwhile programme. The vast majority of Scots are clearly unconvinced by the proposition of separation, and will be asking many complex, multifaceted questions about the effect that such a move would have on them, their families, their communities and their nation. Ironically, however, in the Scottish Government are masters of avoiding tricky questions. In the political arts, they could win numerous plaudits for their ability to body swerve many difficult areas of policy over a sustained period. That has served them well up to now, but those days are over and, as was evidenced at the Scottish National party annual conference this year, many of its own members are in for a difficult and unsettling experience.

My colleague, Catherine Stihler, one of Scotland’s Members of the European Parliament, asked a deceptively simple question in a freedom of information request last year, but it has been explosive in its effect and deeply revealing about the lack of transparency at the very heart of the Scottish Government. Regardless of how anyone views the European Union, everyone in the Chamber today agrees that whether Scotland would automatically be an EU member if it separated from the rest of the United Kingdom, and whether it would be required to renegotiate the major terms of its membership are both key questions on which the public require clear information.

About 70% of Scotland’s exports are to other EU nations. Let us not forget that if Scotland were not part of the EU, it would probably also face renegotiating entry into the World Trade Organisation, which is responsible for setting the criteria for just about all the remaining 30% of our export markets, including our valuable whisky market.

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Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): My hon. Friend has already made a compelling case in the first few minutes of her contribution. Will she also reflect on the fact that recent Scottish Enterprise figures show that two thirds of Scotland’s “exports” actually go to the other component parts of the United Kingdom?

Ann McKechin: My hon. Friend makes a good point. If Scotland were not part of the EU in a post-separation scenario, obviously its trading relationship with the rest of the UK would be in question—what criteria, tariffs and so on would be in force? Scotland’s economy relies heavily on having a stable export market, and many thousands of jobs depend on foreign trade, but the manner in which the Scottish Government have twisted and turned at every corner to avoid a clear answer as to what legal advice they had on such questions can only corrode public trust. I shall give way in the hope that the questions may be elucidated.

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I am listening carefully to what the hon. Lady is saying but, given the increasing Euroscepticism in the UK population and what is happening in this Parliament, how can she even be sure that the UK—with or without Scotland—will be a member of the EU in the next five to 10 years?

Ann McKechin: The hon. Gentleman may be surprised to know that on that issue I am united with them. The quality of our alliances and partnerships is what will allow Scotland to succeed, which is why I want to be part of a strong European Union, as much as I want to be part of a strong United Kingdom.

Let us return to the question of our status in Europe. Every time that the Scottish Government have been asked about the question of status, they have always sought to give the firm impression that continued EU membership was guaranteed and that no real material change in membership obligations would result from separation. One example of that sorry story is the interpretation of the Scottish Government ministerial code. That document was apparently altered—in a way that begs even more tricky questions—between the FOI request being made and the truth being forced out last month. Paragraph 2.35 of the code states, and I emphasise the first sentence:

“The fact that legal advice has or has not been given to the Scottish Government by the Law Officers and the content of any legal advice given by them or anyone else must not be revealed outwith the Scottish Government without the Law Officers’ prior consent. The only exception to this rule is that it is acknowledged publicly that the Law Officers have advised on the legislative competence of Government Bills introduced in the Parliament…Views given by the Law Officers in their Ministerial capacity are not subject to this restriction.”

I am grateful for the comments made by Ian Smart, the former president of the Law Society of Scotland, in a recent blog, which points out the revelation that legal advice given by “anyone else”—not the Scottish Law Officers—does not require the consent of the Law Officers; only the content of that advice must not be disclosed. Ian Smart said:

“And that is, on any view, deliberately the way the code reads for otherwise the first sentence would be the much simpler.”

The First Minister, however, in his interview on “Scotland Tonight” four weeks ago stated:

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“That’s quite clear in the Ministerial code. It’s both the fact of whether it exists, and the content. I would need to clear it with the Lord Advocate if I wanted to say that I had not sought legal advice.”

That is simply not the case if we read the code accurately. Given the outcry about his remarks in the now famous TV interview with Andrew Neil back in March, we might have thought that the First Minister would have taken the opportunity to reread his own ministerial code before rushing into the TV studio. The tricky question that needs to be answered now is whether the First Minister sought legal advice from “anyone else” before that FOI request or his interview with Andrew Neil in March. If so, who was that from and what was said?

There may be some clues. On Tuesday, 30 October, the Lord Advocate wrote to Ruth Davidson, MSP. The third paragraph of that letter contains an interesting statement:

“As was made clear by the Deputy First Minister the Scottish Government has now requested specific legal advice from the Law Officers on EU membership. As you will be aware legal advice on many issues is provided by the lawyers in the Scottish Government Legal Department…but in relation to certain matters the Government will seek a legal opinion from the Law Officers. That is what is happening in relation to the matter of EU membership.”

That same afternoon, Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy First Minister, summed up a debate on this very matter and, soon after 16.38 in the Official Report, said:

“Clearly, if ministers have sought legal advice, the law officers will provide that legal advice, so to reveal that legal advice has been sought from the law officers reveals the fact of such advice and puts us in breach of the ministerial code.”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 30 October 2012; c. 12755.]

Both of those statements cannot be true, however. Catherine Stihler’s inquiry remains whether the Government have been given any legal advice, and on that point there is still deafening silence.

The First Minister and his colleagues may argue that, when they make contentions on EU membership, they are speaking about evidence from a variety of experts—“in terms of the debate” is the phrase most commonly used—but that is not the same as legal advice. They know the difference. Some of the people quoted are not lawyers; some have died; and most of the statements seem to have been made prior to the Lisbon treaty, which made fundamental changes to the European Union’s constitution. None of those represent a legal opinion, and just as many eminent people disagree with those expert opinions, including no less a person than the current EU President.

Here is one simple question the Scottish Government should clarify urgently. Have they already had legal advice from their legal directorate? It is difficult to imagine that, when the Scottish Government issued their White Paper, “Your Scotland, Your Voice: A National Conversation” in 2009, they did not run it past their own legal department. That document contains examples of ambiguous phrasing in its comments about EU membership. I draw hon. Members attention to page 110, paragraph 8.12:

“Settling the details of European Union membership would take place in parallel to independence negotiations with the United Kingdom Government”.

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That phrase sounds as though it were written by a lawyer, and as I am a lawyer and a member of the Law Society of Scotland, I speak with some experience. Will the Minister confirm whether his Department has received any information about whether the legal department was consulted on that document, and whether it asked his office for advice or information about EU membership if Scotland were to separate?

That brings me back to volatility. As other hon. Members have said this morning, the EU is undoubtedly experiencing the most challenging and volatile period in its history. Its fiscal policies are under constant stress, there is significant unrest in many regions caused by massive hikes in unemployment and cuts to public services, and there are major differences of opinion in the political leadership. That is where legal opinion hits realpolitik.

Yes Scotland’s latest leaflet states without reservation:

“We can all see the one thing holding us back—we let someone else take decisions for us.”

lf the Scottish Government want our country to remain part of the EU come what may—that seems to be what the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) said—the painful truth is that other people will make decisions for us on how long the application process will take, the conditions for membership, the size of our contribution, our entry into the eurozone, and our entitlements under the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries agreement. As one small nation in 28, our negotiating position, at best, will be fairly weak.

Mr Weir: That is all very interesting, but has the hon. Lady bothered to listen to the news from Europe, where the Prime Minister is going to discuss the European budget? It seems that the rest of the EU is ganging up to cut the UK out of the EU, and to cut the famous rebate that everyone goes on about.

Ann McKechin: I thank the hon. Gentleman for proving my case about volatility and disputes in the European Union. Any union or partnership that lasts a long time has difficult phases, and this is one. He has proved my point that the negotiations will not involve simply providing a list—that is what the First Minister always seems to suggest—saying what Scotland would like and expecting people to nod and say, “That’s fine. Don’t worry. That’s okay with us.” That will not happen, and any attempt to try to prove the opposite shows the weakness of the argument.

On the national central bank and financial regulators, Croatia’s recent entry negotiations show that they are not tick-box exercises, and again there is no guarantee that other EU members would be attracted to the solution that the Scottish Government prefer at the moment of relying on another EU member to provide both important institutions, and that is if that EU member agreed to that in the first place.

Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. I remind her that the most recent entry to the EU, Croatia, had to satisfy stringent tests about guaranteeing bank deposits, the independence of its central bank, monetary policy and financial security. Does she see anything in any of the plans produced by the Yes Scotland campaign that deals with any of those points?

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Ann McKechin: My hon. Friend raises a good point. It is understandable, given the financial and economic crisis that the EU has suffered over the past five years, that it would take a precautionary approach on any banking issue and financial regulation particularly. The Scottish Government’s proposals are untested. They have never been used by another EU member in the way proposed, and we have no idea how they would work, because we have received no details in response to the many questions that the Scottish Government have been asked. Apparently, we must wait until autumn 2013 for the revelation, apparently in tomes. The questions should be asked now if we want a proper analysis and expert opinion not only in our own country, but throughout the EU. We need that information now.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): As far as I know, Croatia does not have a particularly large international banking presence—I hope that I am not being unjust—but Scotland is still the headquarters not just of some UK banks, but of international banks. Does that not emphasise that in any new treaty, if Scotland were to become independent, the EU would be keen to ensure that proper regulatory arrangements were in place for the Scottish banking sector?

Ann McKechin: My hon. Friend has spent much of his time campaigning on financial services, because they are relevant in his constituency. He hits the nail on the head, because we have a significant financial services sector in Scotland. It is the second largest outside the City of London, and has many jobs, not just in banking, but in other financial services, such as equity markets and insurance funds. Many of the people who use those funds and many investors live not in Scotland, but in other parts of the United Kingdom.

There are many questions to be asked about the currency that will be used, and the regulations. We can take it as certain that the EU will take a precautionary approach, and will ask for those issues to be tested and examined in great detail. As yet, the Scottish Government have not produced a comprehensive document setting out the proposals. At the moment, they seem to think that the rest of the UK will continue to act as the financial regulator, but there is no guarantee that it would be tempted to do so. Why would it take on the risks and responsibility for institutions outwith its borders and over which this Parliament would have no direct control or responsibility? The UK Parliament’s risk would increase.

Given the gridlock of other membership requests, and that other EU states are much less relaxed about national referendums for secession, there is every risk that the application and negotiations could drag on with consequent risks and uncertainty to our economy and particularly our financial services. I would be interested to hear today the Foreign Office’s perspective on such a scenario. Will the Minister confirm what the legal standing of a separate Scotland would be with the World Trade Organisation if at the point of secession it was not a member of the EU? Have the Scottish Government ever asked his Department for information about that? Has there been any formal dialogue with the EU Commission on the proposal for another EU member’s central bank to be Scotland’s bank of last resort?

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We have discovered in the last few weeks that the truth can be difficult to admit, but surely anyone who believes that a country’s citizens should be able to make the right choices also believes that they should be provided with full answers to those tricky questions, because they will not go away.

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): I will call the Front Bench Members at about 10.40 am. Although I am not going to impose a time limit, it would be helpful if Members kept their contributions to not much more than five minutes.

9.49 am

Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing the debate. Although it may not be a regular occurrence, I concur with a lot of what she said.

I confess that I have always been puzzled by the Scottish National party’s policy of independence in Europe, or whatever its particular slogan is at the time. Although I profoundly disagree with independence for Scotland, there is logicality in believing that Scotland should be a master of its own destiny: that it should break away from a currency, a monetary and fiscal union, and a political union, and decide matters for herself. I do not agree with that, however. I think that the union has been one of the most successful political, social and economic entities that the world has ever seen, and it would be a tragedy if Scotland split away from it. There is, however, logic in saying, “We want to be masters of our own destiny and decide policies for ourselves.”

What I find illogical is the argument that being in one union is so disadvantageous to Scotland that we should split away, destroying 300 years of shared history and experience, and then rush straight into an even bigger one. That is illogical, and I contend that in such a union, Scotland would have a far weaker influence than it currently has in the United Kingdom.

Mr Weir: I do not understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument. The UK is part of the European Union and has surrendered some sovereignty to joint decision making, but that is different from an encompassing political union, which some in the EU want. I presume that he is very much against that, but that is the position in which Scotland finds itself within the EU, and there is nothing illogical in seeking to get out of the United Kingdom in order to join together with other nations in the EU, to a restricted degree.

Iain Stewart: I am tempted to go down the path of having a debate on the wider issue of the EU’s direction—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) would be only too happy to join in—but I think I might exceed my five-minute allowance. The point is that if Scotland became an independent member of the EU—I will come on to why that will not be a straightforward process—it would be joining an ever-deepening union. I do not want the United Kingdom to be part of that, but that is what Scotland would be forced to sign up to. Under the terms of the EU treaties,

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all new member states are obliged to make the political and legal commitment to join the economic and monetary union, and to adopt the euro as a currency.

Mr Weir: That is simply not the case. Under the EU treaties, a nation has to join the exchange rate mechanism II before moving on to the euro. ERM II is voluntary, and in the case of Sweden, it has made it clear that it is not moving towards the euro, although it joined the EU later. Scotland would be in the same position. There is no obligation on Scotland to join the euro.

Iain Stewart: I profoundly disagree with that analysis. Sweden is obligated to join the euro once it has satisfied the economic conditions. That is the position, and I disagree profoundly with the hon. Gentleman’s position. He has said nothing that dissuades me from the view that an independent Scotland would be sucked in to a full economic and monetary union, and that would not be in Scotland’s interests.

It is far from certain that Scotland would become an automatic, independent member of the EU. There is no precedent for a current EU member state splitting up into constituent parts, with the part that broke away becoming a separate member. Therefore, we must look at what the treaty on European Union says, and article 4.2 is clear that the EU must respect the fundamental, constitutional and political structures and the territorial integrity of a member state, which has exclusive competence in such matters. The EU cannot therefore recognise a unilateral declaration of independence by part of a member state. Furthermore, according to article 49, the hypothetical new state would need to request membership and attain the unanimous support of the European Council for that request, and have its membership approved through an accession treaty, to be ratified by the Parliaments of all member states.

If one looks at the political reality of other member states in Europe, that is far from a foregone conclusion. Would Spain, for example, agree to it with its issues in Catalonia and the Basque country? Would Belgium, whose constitutional integrity is under question, agree? I do not believe that that process would be automatic. I am not suggesting that Scotland could not become an independent EU member, but I ask at what time and at what cost. Croatia’s accession to the EU has been mentioned, and that has been going on for over 10 years. Slovenia made an objection to that process, and although it was overcome, it took time.

I ask again what the cost to Scotland would be. What uncertainty would be created for business at a fragile time for the global economy? What else would she have to surrender to get membership agreed? I believe that euro membership would be inevitable. What about Scotland’s budget contribution, which is a topical issue? The SNP contends that Scotland has a budget surplus in the United Kingdom. I think that issue is far from settled, but for the purpose of the argument, let us accept that the SNP is correct and that Scotland pays more into the United Kingdom coffers than she receives from it. Does that not mean that Scotland would be forced to pay a much higher contribution to the EU budget? Has that been factored into anyone’s calculations? I do not believe so. What about other issues, such as

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Schengen and the common fisheries policy? What influence would Scotland have to protect her current freedoms? It is all uncertain.

As the hon. Member for Glasgow North said, the Scottish Government are making it up as they go along. There is no certainty, which I believe we should have. The United Kingdom should remain strong and intact. The debate about our position in the EU is a broader question; personally, I want to get us back to more of a common market, and certainly not into a deeper political and monetary union. However, we are better off fighting this together and not splitting up into component parts, when we would have no certainty and Scotland’s interests would be subsumed into the wider interests of Europe.

9.57 am

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Crausby. I am sure that when you got up this morning you realised you had picked the short straw in chairing this debate, given some of the dreary contributions that we have heard thus far. I sometimes think that we should reorganise the furniture when we are debating Scotland’s constitution, given that so many hon. Members agree, and that everything seems to be put to the Scottish Government and the SNP. I feel, sometimes, that we should be sitting in the Minister’s place—perhaps that would be more helpful, in terms of responding to the debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) both on securing this morning’s debate and on turning up on time. We were all here two weeks ago, practically in the same spot. It was a shambles. We were ready to go, but the hon. Member who had secured the debate came rushing in several minutes late. It sometimes seems as though Labour cannot organise a Euro-rant in a Belgian brewery.

Listening to hon. Members’ contributions today, there is not exactly the warm glow of positivity—more like the deep chill of relentless negativity, which is what characterises these debates.

Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Pete Wishart: I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman. There are 640 of you guys and only six of us, so I will use my time, if that is all right.

Over the past few weeks, the debate has fallen to a new all-time low, with some appalling personal attacks. Things were said in the Scottish Parliament that would never have been allowed by you, Mr Crausby, or the Speaker, and yet, the guys who made such remarks complain about the comments in the online section of The Scotsman sinking to such a low spectacle. What are they saying? Not only are they saying that we will not get European membership, but according to the former Prime Minister, we will be little more than a British colony. According to the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling)—their campaign leader—independence would be nothing more than the road to “serfdom”. People cannot say too poor, too weak and too stupid any more; they know that that is not a great way to enlist the Scottish people’s support. They only hint at that now. The most comical remark, the one that I have enjoyed most in the last two weeks, was that the

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music that I had spent 15 years making would no longer be my music—British music would not be ours any more—as if music, the ridiculously free-spirited and wonderful thing that it is, has frontiers or boundaries, but that is what these people are saying. They are scaremongering on culture. Welcome to the positive case for the Union.

Of course, the plat du jour this week is scaremongering on Europe. That is what they are doing, and doing well. Barely a day goes past without another instalment in the scaremongering stories, always in association with their friends in the press. Their message to the Scottish people when it comes to Europe is, “You cannae dae this, we’re no gonna let you do that and don’t even think about this!” If I have got their position right, it is something like this: “You’re not going to get into Europe. You’re going to go to the back of the queue behind all the accession states.” That is their position; I think that that is their top line. But if we do somehow manage to get into Europe, it will be on the worst possible terms and conditions. I think that I am right in saying that this is their position. Then if we do manage to get into Europe and on the worst possible terms and conditions, we will be forced to join the euro—but do not worry, because we will not get into Europe anyway.

Ian Murray: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Pete Wishart: I said that I was not giving way.

These people need to get their act together on the scaremongering, so that we can understand what they are saying.

The subject of this debate is the constituent parts of the UK and EU membership. Scotland is a constituent part of the United Kingdom. We are currently a member of the European Union. After independence, we will continue to be a member of the European Union. We are in the European—

Graeme Morrice (Livingston) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Pete Wishart: I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman.

We are a member of the European Union because the UK took us into the European Union, the old EEC, back in 1973, but the European Union is not the only union. The UK is a union. It is based on the Act of Union, which brought together the Scottish and English Parliaments three centuries ago, so when Scotland secures its independence, the Act of Union falls and there will be two successor states. That is what will happen. Whatever happens to an independent Scotland will happen to the rest of the United Kingdom. It will be just like what happened with Czechoslovakia: the Czech Republic and Slovakia were treated as two new nations. These people sometimes like to use the example of Russia—

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Pete Wishart: I am not giving way to the hon. Lady.

These people sometimes use the example of Russia when it comes to these situations, but not even the most rabid cybernat has ever compared the United Kingdom to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. That is how ridiculous their argument has become. When it comes

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to European membership, whatever happens to an independent Scotland will happen to the rest of the United Kingdom, but let me reassure all the English Members who are sitting here today: their European place is safe. There is simply no precedent or process to kick a constituent part of the European Union out. That just does not happen—there is no way. This fox was effectively shot by Graham Avery of Oxford university, who is a senior adviser at the European Policy Centre in Brussels and honorary director general of the European Commission, when he said to Westminster’s Select Committee on Foreign Affairs:

“For practical and political reasons the idea of Scotland leaving the EU, and subsequently applying to join it, is not feasible.”

It is not feasible.

Ann McKechin: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Pete Wishart: I am not giving way to the hon. Lady.

There is only one part of Europe that has left the European Union—the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) will recall this—Greenland. It took something like two years for Greenland to get out of the European Union, and it wanted to go. It had a vote that said that it wanted to leave the European Union. It was only after complex negotiations that it was allowed to go.

These people believe that somehow Scotland will be stripped of its European Union membership and all the European rights that we have built up in the course of 40 years. Scotland is actually enthusiastic about Europe, unlike the hon. Member for Stone and his hon. Friends. It is absolutely absurd to suggest that an independent Scotland would not be welcomed with open arms to the European Union. We are talking about oil-rich Scotland, fisheries-rich Scotland, renewable-energy-rich Scotland. Scotland complies with every single piece of European legislation and is enthusiastic about its European membership. The idea that Scotland would be kicked out of the European Union is totally absurd.

These people also say that we will be forced into euro membership. That was blown out of the water by Dr Fabian Zuleeg, chief economist at the European Policy Centre, who reminded the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee that euro membership is based on strict criteria. My hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Mr Weir) is absolutely right about this. There are five conditions for joining the euro. One is membership of the exchange rate mechanism. Joining the ERM is voluntary. That is why Sweden is not in the euro. I do not know how many times we have to explain this to Labour Members. Scotland will not join the euro, because Sweden has not joined the euro, because it is based on ERM membership.

There is a threat to Scotland’s European membership. It does not come from an independent Scotland. It comes from the Union; it comes from the Westminster Tories, because they are at it again. They are even prepared to defeat their Government to ensure that they get this country out of the European Union. I looked at William Hill yesterday. It is offering odds of 2:1 that by 2020 there will be a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU—a straight in-out referendum. It is offering odds of 6:1, which I think are very generous, that the UK will be out of the EU by 2020. That is the threat to Scotland’s EU membership. It does not come from an

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independent Scotland; it comes from the Westminster Tories. Westminster Tories are running absolutely terrified of the UK Independence party, which is now odds-on favourite to win the next European election. That is what is informing Government policy when it comes to Europe. What we have now is a surly, sulky UK as a member of the European Union. That is what Scotland has to put up with as it secures its EU membership. The UK is looking for the “Out” door—

Ann McKechin: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Pete Wishart: I am not giving way to the hon. Lady; I have told her that.

That is what we have in terms of Scotland’s EU membership represented by the UK. What would be better? An independent Scotland, independent in Europe and seated at the top table. Our number of MEPs would be increased from six to 13; there would be 13 champions putting Scotland’s case. That is what Scotland needs; that is what Scotland requires.

There is a clear choice facing the Scottish people when it comes to European Union membership: independence in Europe, a seat at the top table, our own representation in Europe, or isolation in a United Kingdom that is on the way out of the European Union and almost relaxed about its decline and failure. I know the choice that the Scottish people will make in 2014. It will be the positive choice—it will be for Scotland’s independence and national liberation.

10.6 am

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): I am fascinated by the line that has just been taken with respect to the situation of the United Kingdom in relation to the European Union. There are many of us who believe that the time has come not only to have a referendum, but to leave the existing treaties. The reality is that 56% of the British people have recently indicated that that is what they would like, and that raises very interesting and very important questions. It is also highly relevant to what is going on here in this debate today with respect to Scotland. Of course, there is also the question of Northern Ireland and of Wales, neither of which has even been touched on so far in the debate. One thing that we have to remember is that the—

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that, having listened to the very eloquent disquisition on the place of Scotland at the top table, and given this week’s announcement about the G8 coming to Northern Ireland, we can look forward, in the halcyon days in the future of Scotland’s independence, to a G9 coming to Northern Ireland, with Scotland at the top table?

Mr Cash: That is an extremely apposite remark, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for it.

One thing that needs to be considered is the implications that would arise for the European Communities Act 1972, which has not yet been mentioned, because of course if we have a referendum and if the vote is yes—at the moment, that seems extremely unlikely, but I will not presume to say that it will not happen—the reality is

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that that in itself will not create the legal and constitutional consequences that would flow from that political decision. The reality is that we then have to look at the 1972 Act. All the obligations under section 2, through our own enactment here, of which Scotland is currently a part, would have to be dealt with. It will be an extremely complex business to deal with the issues between the United Kingdom and Scotland, let alone between Scotland and the European Union or the United Kingdom and the European Union.

I would like to refer on the record to the extremely good—extremely well written—note from the House of Commons Library. I mention that on the record because I think that many people who will want to consider this question will do well to look at that note if they can get access to it. It draws together a lot of the complications that arise in international law and constitutional law. It includes a lot of discussion about the allegations made against the First Minister; I will not enter that debate, but simply say that there are complex questions.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) pointed out, there is no provision in the European treaties for the secession of states. He mentioned article 4.2 and the unanimity of all 27 member states. The European Commission made some comments on that in response to an MEP, but that was on the basis of the thinking then. If I may say, having read all the papers, I do not think that there is a settled view about what would happen.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) is right to say that there would be massive uncertainty. For example, in respect of financial regulation, the jurisdiction has been already transferred, extremely unwisely, to the European institutions, but the consequences are that it is already being done in relation to the City of London with serious consequences, of an unlawful nature, for voting rights between ourselves and member states in the eurozone. There are so many uncertainties that the issue will have to be given much more consideration. There is also the question of the repeal of the Act of Union. None of the legal consequences of the referendum, even if there was a yes vote, are capable of being unravelled until we have got to grips with the constitutional implications of the matters I mention.

Despite the fact that we have one and a half hours, going into all the questions today would be far too complicated, so that is all I want to say. I put down a marker that a yes vote will be monumentally bad for the UK, monumentally bad for Scotland and monumentally bad for the people governed under the Act of Union. I and many others take that view, and I think it will prevail.

There are implications for the European Scrutiny Committee, in that it must look at all the legislation as it applies to the UK, in respect of those matters that apply to it under the Standing Orders. I will leave my contribution at that. The complications regarding Scotland have not been thought through. It is not only an emotional question or even a purely political question, but a question of grave uncertainty. The more the vote tends towards no—the direction that public opinion seems to be going—the better.

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): To accommodate all Members who wish to speak, it would be appreciated if Members kept their remarks to four minutes.

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10.13 am

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): Thank you for that challenge, Mr Crausby. I thank you for presiding over the debate today and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing this important debate. I am pleased to follow the previous two contributions and the rant from my neighbour, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). I must admit that there is significant confusion in many people’s minds and I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to blow away that confusion when he gets to his feet.

We have already heard that Scotland benefits from being part of the EU through the UK’s membership, but it is not clear whether an independent Scotland would become a member of the EU, and the contributions from SNP Members today do not make it any clearer. A long list of people, whom I feel that I should be able to trust, suggest that Scottish membership would not be automatic and might be subject to application, queuing, objections and delays. Those individuals include: José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission; Romano Prodi, a former President of the Commission; Joe Borg, a former European Commissioner; Dr Jo Murkens, European and constitutional law expert; and Professor Robert Hazell, University college London. Will the Minister say whether those are trustworthy sources and whether their comments are appropriate, or should I trust the contribution from the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire?

As has been said, the First Minister wants to retain the pound sterling. We all know the potential difficulties and drawbacks that would have for monetary policy in an independent Scotland. If Scotland becomes independent, and an EU member at some point in future, perhaps the First Minister will not get his way. Is it the Minister’s understanding that between 2004 and 2007 every accession state also agreed to join the euro?

As has been mentioned, we recently discussed the accession of Croatia to the EU in the House. In the negotiations, significant emphasis was placed on Croatia being able to regulate its own financial institutions. How can Scotland do that? Alex Salmond wants to retain the pound and rejoin the EU, but if he keeps the pound, he will not have an independent national central bank, because he wants to use the Bank of England. That in itself may prevent him from using the pound and force an independent Scotland into the euro on day one.

People appreciate the benefits of our opt-out from the Schengen agreement, which was touched on this morning. If and when an independent Scotland is successful in its application to join the EU, I am concerned that it will have to comply with the agreement. Will the Minister confirm that new EU member states are bound to implement the Schengen agreement as part of the existing body of EU law? If that is the case, surely Scotland would have to make all the efforts it could to police its borders to ensure security, not only for itself, but for the rest of the Schengen-operating countries. Because the rest of the UK is not signed up to Schengen, that would mean border controls between Scotland and the remaining UK, including the land border with England.

That issue was raised in a debate I took part in recently in Scotland. Keith Brown MSP, the housing Minister in the Scottish Government, went out of his

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way to tell the audience, in no uncertain manner, that an independent Scotland would not implement the Schengen agreement. Like so many other assertions made by the SNP on European issues, it seems that it was an assurance that the SNP is perhaps unable to effect. If my interpretation of the matter is wrong, I am sure that the Minister will be delighted to point out the folly of my ways.

My third and final point is linked to the UK’s general opt-outs and rebate. Professor Hazell says:

“An independent Scotland would not inherit the opt-out the UK negotiated for the Treaty of Maastricht.”

There are also the benefits to the UK from the 1984 rebate negotiations, which, according to a House of Commons paper, result in Scotland’s contribution to the EU being £16 per head. It would be more than £90 per head without the rebate. It is unreasonable to assume that Scotland would benefit from similar treatment on rebates.

SNP Members’ claims of automatic entry into the EU, which they presumably feel would happen on the same day as any transition to an independent state, do not seem to have the support of the people needed to make it happen. The President of the Commission does not agree with them. The vice-president of the European Commission and Commissioner for Justice does not seem to agree with them. The Spanish Foreign Minister does not seem to agree with them. Cyprus does not seem to agree with them. That does not appear to be a very good start.

Alex Salmond is desperate to ride roughshod over the Electoral Commission’s role in the forthcoming referendum, and he appears to feel that he can do the same with Europe and EU membership or take the Scottish people for mugs. He cannot be a player and a referee in the referendum. I tell Members here and now that there is no way that the powers of Europe will allow him to carry on in his delusional approach to future European negotiations, and there is no way that the Scottish people will be conned by that shambolic and disrespectful approach to such an important issue for Scottish economic prosperity.

10.19 am

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) published a speech that he would have made, entitled, “The Speech They Feared”. The scariest thing about it is that his incoherent, negative rants are actually scripted. He is fond of attacking the pro-UK cause as “negative”, but unbelievably that speech attacked the negativity of others before they had even made their contributions. We will take no lessons today from the SNP about talking Scotland down, when he does just that in a prepared speech.

Today, I want to be as clear as possible about Scotland’s future in the EU and to bust some of the myths put about by the SNP—myths dressed up as reality and opinion dressed up as fact. Let us start with some words from the hon. Gentleman’s speech:

“When Scotland becomes an independent nation Scotland will remain a member of the European Union.”

He did not write that Scotland might have to apply, that there will be a process and that the process carries risks, but that,

“Scotland will remain a member”.

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That is an assertion, not a fact. It is an opinion and nothing more.

That is a completely different position from that of Graham Avery, a senior member of St Anthony’s college and a senior adviser at the European Policy Centre, whom the First Minister and the hon. Gentleman have quoted. The SNP asserts that his comments justify its position. Indeed, it positively hangs on the man’s every word. I see the hon. Gentleman nodding in agreement. The First Minister has said,

“I have read out Graham Avery’s credentials. Given that he is an honorary director general of the European Commission, I suspect he knows rather more about these issues.”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 1 November 2012; c. 12926.]

I agree with the First Minister, so let us examine what Graham Avery actually said. First, he has said:

“The EU has no historical precedent for dealing with Scottish independence.”

Uncomfortable as it is, we now know—if we did not already—that anything the SNP says on the question of EU membership is based on opinion, not fact or precedent. He has also said:

“Scotland has been in the EU for 40 years; and its people have acquired rights as European citizens.”

Note that Mr Avery is very clear in his choice of words: the people of Scotland might well have acquired rights, but that is not the same as the legal entity that would be the separate state of an independent Scotland.

In his next paragraph, Mr Avery said that

“negotiations on the terms of…membership would take place in the period between the referendum and the planned date of independence. We do not know at this stage how long that period would be; complicated negotiations…would have to take place”.

Therein lies the rub of any deal: six words to ring alarm bells in the heart of the pro-separation camp—

“negotiations on the terms of…membership”.

For even if we accept everything that anybody in the SNP has ever said about Scotland’s being welcomed as a member of the EU following an application to join, it is the terms of membership that are important. Those terms are crucial to the rights of our citizens and the security of our borders, and are essential for determining whether we use the euro. For no one—not the hon. Gentleman nor even Alex Salmond—can say with certainty what will happen.

Let us refer again to Mr Avery. He said:

“In accession negotiations with non-member countries the EU has always strongly resisted other changes or opt-outs from the basic Treaties”.

The expert on whom the SNP is so fond of relying is holing its argument below the waterline. What terms would Scotland be forced to accept on application? Not the SNP’s terms, but those of other member nations. The common theme that runs through such contradictions is that nationalists assume the right to make their own rules and that everyone else will abandon theirs to abide by those of the nationalists, and that every member state will act not in its own country’s or citizens’ interests, but in the interests only of Scotland. We all know that the opposite is true.

That means that Scotland might well be forced to join the euro. I accept that it may not, but it might. That is not good enough for the people of Scotland or those

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who do business in Scotland. It is not good enough for the SNP to say, “Maybe it is aye; maybe it is no.” It is not good enough for them not to be straight and honest with the people of Scotland on the risks of independence. It might also mean, although we cannot be sure, Scotland losing its opt-out on Schengen. For people listening or watching outside this House who are not familiar with what that would mean for Scotland and Scots, let us be clear: the Schengen opt-out means that travellers from EU states entering the UK are subject to border and passport controls, and losing that opt-out would mean free entry into Scotland with all the implications of that.

There may or may not be controls, and the hon. Gentleman and Alex Salmond cannot be sure whether or not there will be—they cannot state it as fact. For the 800,000 Scots living in England and the thousands of Scottish families with relatives in England or Wales, “not sure” is simply not good enough. Whatever else happens in the debate on Scotland’s future, the people of Scotland deserve answers, honesty and transparency, and a debate based on facts, not assertions, and on reality, not myths.

10.24 am

Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing the debate. I associate myself with the comment by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) when he congratulated her on turning up on time this morning.

Scotland’s membership of the EU has been discussed in pubs up and down Scotland during the past few weeks. That is not, sadly, because it has been in the news, but because of the Scottish Government’s failed attempt to keep secret the fact that the First Minister lied to the Scottish people about seeking advice on the matter. In fact, he did not just lie about seeking legal advice. We know that he was told by his Lord Advocate and Solicitor General that a separate Scotland would not automatically be an EU state. Not only Scottish Government lawyers say that. In the past two weeks, a plethora of expert opinion has confirmed what everyone, including the SNP, already knows—that Scotland would not be guaranteed membership of the European Union.

It was incredibly kind of the hon. Gentleman to give me and the entire world advance notice of his speech today. He did not stray far from what was on his website two weeks ago, when he published even the well-rehearsed bad jokes that we were robbed of the chance of hearing. In publishing that, he single-handedly wiped out any lingering notion of the SNP’s ears being open to the facts. His only intent in this debate has been to propagate his party’s myths. His speech was without substance when he wrote it two weeks ago, and it had not matured well by today. I cannot understand why he still feels that a Scotland separate from the UK would automatically be a member of the EU, when everyone outside his party disagrees.

Most of the people in this room are here because they share my love and concern for Scotland, when we have a Scottish Government who have repeatedly been caught being dishonest about the facts that will inform voters’ choice in 2014. They simply cannot be trusted. Scotland

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benefits from being in the UK in the EU, and Scottish people deserve to have laid before them the actual facts, rather than the Scottish Government’s version of them. It is their responsibility to provide clarity and evidence about their proposals for the future, not to waste taxpayers’ money on unnecessary court cases. The First Minister misled the Scottish people, but now we are expected to trust him.

In contrast, the UK Government have made it clear that they have received legal advice. They have stated that, in the event of Scotland separating from the UK, the residual UK would be considered by the EU to be the continuing state; and Scotland would legally be a seceded, new state and therefore not a member state. I would appreciate it if the Minister confirmed that he agrees with the President and vice-president of the European Commission that a new state wanting to join the EU has to apply like any other.

Pete Wishart: Two new states.

Pamela Nash: No, not the residual UK.

Earlier this year, Salmond declared that

“the negotiation on Scotland’s representation would be conducted from within the European Union.”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 19 January 2012; c. 5500.]

That is not impossible, but it is not automatic, and it would be a difficult negotiation. There is no need to take only my word for that; notable members of the European political community and academics have said the same over the past few months.

Accession would need to be approved by all 27—soon to be 28—member states. Although Spain has not confirmed that it would block an application from Scotland, it has said that we would need to join the queue. It is difficult to see how the Spanish Government could reconcile their position on Catalonia with a new Scottish state joining the European Union.

There is also the issue of the euro. Contrary to the proclamations of the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir), all new EU member states have been required to sign up to the eurozone. Sweden joined the EU in 1995, but it is still obliged, when conditions are met, to join the euro.

Mr Weir: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Pamela Nash: No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman, because his colleague, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, did not have the courtesy to give way to any of mine.

The UK is one of only three countries that currently benefit from an opt-out. The SNP has said that a separate Scotland could opt out of the euro, but the evidence suggests otherwise. There is also the small matter of the Schengen agreement, and of many other opt-outs from which Scotland now benefits as part of the UK. The Schengen agreement would involve passport controls at the border with England, as we have heard in the Scottish Affairs Committee. The SNP has simply dismissed that as scaremongering, because that does not fit with its campaign strategy, but the evidence again suggests otherwise.

In conclusion, this issue is too important for the people of Scotland to be continually misled from one side of the debate. I hope that today’s debate helps inform them, and helps them make an important decision in two years’ time.

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10.29 am

Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing this debate and on speaking with such authority and passion in her opening remarks. One of my best decisions since being elected to this House three years ago was last November when I asked the Commons Library to publish a paper on the implications for Scotland of the debate around separation, in particular what it meant for continuing—or perhaps not continuing as we have uncovered in this debate—EU membership. Indeed, many of the points in that document will form the basis of the rest of the debate today.

As a member of the Labour Movement for Europe, I care passionately about our having a positive engagement with the European Union. Scotland can best protect, embrace and progress its national interests as part of a large state—the United Kingdom—which has a good degree of influence, and which, under the new arrangements, will have proportionately more votes within the Council.

The process for new accession countries—which Scotland would clearly be, according to the consensus of advice coming from the European Commission and the important statement from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office a couple of weeks ago—is arduous. As we explored in a debate in the main Chamber a couple of weeks ago, Croatia went through stringent steps in establishing the independence of its central bank, to show that proper procedures were in place to control its financial system, and to prove that it had a system to regulate and guarantee deposits. None of those concepts has been dealt with in the proposals from those who argue for Scotland to separate from the rest of the UK. Indeed, none of the countries that has acceded to the European Union has relied on the central bank and financial institutions of another state to show that it has sufficient financial independence in its own territory. The position put forward by the Scottish Government simply does not add up.

I want to put on record a couple of points that are important in relation to international constitutional law—perhaps a reference back to my old life before I became a Member of this House. The Scottish Government have relied on a couple of arguments: one in relation to the Vienna convention; and the other in relation to EU citizenship.

First, on the Vienna convention, the Scottish Government have said that Scotland would sign up to all the treaty commitments that the United Kingdom has at the moment, but, frankly, that is fatuous. The Vienna convention is primarily concerned with the process of decolonisation. Indeed, the International Law Commission withdrew a category of quasi newly independent states to deal with cases of secession. A new state is not entitled automatically to become a party to the constituent treaty and a member of an organisation as a successor state simply because at the date of secession, its territory was subject to the treaty and within the ambit of the organisation. That principle, which is recognised in article 4 of the Vienna convention and is the declared legal opinion of the International Law Commission, is entirely contrary to the position of the Scottish Government.

Citizenship of the EU is not distinct from being a citizen of the member state. It does not provide a legal basis for re-entry to the European Union. As other

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Members have said, that must come about as a result of a process of negotiation and unanimity with what will soon be 27 other member states. When the Soviet Union was dissolved, only Russia was able to succeed to most international agreements.

[Interruption.]

I am not saying that the United Kingdom is remotely like the Soviet Union. It would be absurd for any Member of this House to make an assertion that the two states were in any way comparable.

This debate matters hugely. The referendum must proceed on the basis of fact and law, not assertion and bluff. The debate has been important in distinguishing those two characteristics this morning. I care passionately about our future. If we want Scotland to thrive within Europe, that means that we will continue—and I hope that people will vote to have us thriving—within the United Kingdom.

10.35 am

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing this important debate today. It is not surprising that those who have different views on the relationship between Scotland and the UK should also try to find different arguments to support their position about Scotland’s relationship within the European Union. There are arguments on both sides that draw on various legal authorities. The arguments put forward by people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) are much stronger than those that have been put forward by the SNP. None the less, I accept that arguments can be found from various sources to support different positions in the debate. Of course this is not just a legal and constitutional argument. Ultimately, whatever the legal position is, it is also a political issue that the European Union will have to face if Scotland were to become independent. Whatever side of the argument one takes, it is inevitably the case that if Scotland were to be independent, whether or not one regards it as one of the successor states to the UK or as a new state, there would have to be a new treaty. That is undoubtedly the case whatever one’s legal analysis of the position.

The new treaty would require a negotiating process, and we have heard today a number of the issues that would have to be clarified and resolved in that process. There are the institutional relationships and structures of the EU, internal matters such as the rota for which country takes over the presidency, and the number of MEPs and the number of votes. Even those matters have in the past been the subject of many years of negotiation in relation to new treaties.

There are also much weightier issues, such as the UK rebate and whether Scotland would succeed to some share of that, which would require substantial negotiation. There is also the common fisheries policy. Given the SNP’s position on fisheries issues over recent years, one assumes that it would want to see the repatriation of the common fisheries policy towards an independent Scotland. One cannot imagine that that is something that can be simply agreed within negotiations in a matter of weeks or months. It will clearly require considerable and lengthy

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negotiations as part of a new treaty. The same could be said of many other issues that have been referred to in this debate.

Such issues may eventually be resolved. However, in trying to resolve them, there are two factors that will have to be taken into account. As a strong supporter of UK and Scottish membership of the EU, I can say that the EU does not do things quickly. We all know that it does not resolve outstanding issues quickly, because it is a complex organisation with many member states.

Mr Weir: Following the precedent of Greenland, will the hon. Gentleman not accept that even if he is correct and there will have to be negotiations, those negotiations will be done not outwith the EU but within, as happened with Greenland when it wanted to leave the EU. Scotland will still be a constituent part of the EU after independence until negotiations are complete.

Mark Lazarowicz: That is an arguable position. I will not go into that debate now. My point is that there will have to be lengthy negotiations whatever happens. Moreover, wherever those negotiations take place in an organisational sense, they will be the subject of horse-trading and of give and take. Let us take, for example, the fisheries policy. If the SNP wanted to achieve its objective in relation to the fisheries policy, another country somewhere in the EU would demand something else. If the SNP were to get the opt out of Schengen, which it seems to want, someone else in the EU would want to achieve something else. Even with goodwill on all sides, which may be a matter of some question given that other member states might not wish to encourage easy secession, to put it mildly, from another member state, this is a process that will be lengthy and complex. That is why it is right to point that out and right to ask the question, “At the end of the day, would the benefit from leaving the UK be worth the substantial negotiations and the period of time that would be spent in undertaking those negotiations?” More importantly, it also means that it is only reasonable to ask another question: “What would be the outcome of this process?”

For the SNP to suggest that even asking those questions is in some sense disloyal to Scotland does a disservice to the people of Scotland, who are asking those questions themselves. They want to know at the end of the process what will be the relationship of Scotland with the EU? To know what that relationship would be, we need to ask the questions and we need to try to get some answers from the Scottish Government and the SNP. We then need to find out from debates and discussions with other European states what the likely response would be to the demands coming from the Scottish Government and the SNP if independence were to be supported in a referendum.

Once we have that information, the Scottish people can decide in the run-up to the referendum whether they should support independence or oppose it because of what I believe is the situation—the fact that we would be worse off in a smaller member state, even if that smaller state were able at the end of the day to enter into and complete negotiations, than if we were part of a larger member state, with all the negotiating strength that we have at the moment and that I would not want to see us lose.

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10.41 am

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing this debate.

It is the passionate belief of the Labour party that the United Kingdom is stronger together and that the United Kingdom is stronger in the world as a member of the European Union. The referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 is an incredibly serious matter that will affect all of us in the United Kingdom and, as has been stressed by several of my hon. Friends, when the Scottish people vote in that referendum they deserve to have at their disposal the full facts about the implications of a separate Scotland.

Unfortunately, far from providing clarity about the facts, the Scottish Government have created a great deal of confusion about the potential consequences of Scottish separation for Scotland’s relationship with the European Union. It is pretty extraordinary—indeed, it beggars belief—that, as has already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North, in response to a freedom of information request from one of our colleagues in the European Parliament, the Labour MEP Catherine Stihler, the Scottish First Minister initially said that he would not disclose legal advice, only for him to be contradicted by the deputy First Minister of Scotland who said that such legal advice had not even been sought, let alone received.

Ann McKechin: Just in the last hour, it has been announced in the Court of Session papers regarding that FOI request that the Scottish Government stated that to reveal whether or not they had received legal advice would cause mischief. That is an extraordinary statement, given the Scottish National Party’s supposed links with the people of Scotland and given their ability to know what the facts of that case are. Does my hon. Friend agree that that lack of transparency, which included taunting people for the number of FOI requests that they had put in to the Scottish Government, is indicative of a Government who are actually scared of telling the truth?

Emma Reynolds: That lack of transparency is of concern to all of us, and it has blown a hole in the credibility of what the First Minister has said on this issue.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) has made a speech today, which I have had the fortune—or misfortune—to have read before the debate, in which he made some strange references to giant pandas and “The X Factor”, but remarkably he made no reference to the European treaties and perhaps more tellingly he also did not refer to any other European Union member state. If he had cared to take a look at them, he would have seen that those treaties make it very clear that new member states must apply for membership of the European Union. Article 52 of the treaty on European Union lists the members of the European Union, including the UK, and article 49 of that treaty states that new member states must apply for membership of the European Union. Moreover, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire

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(Gordon Banks) has made clear, the European Commission President has also stated the clear facts. He has said recently:

“A new state, if it wants to join the EU, has to apply to become a member of the EU, like any state.”

Mr Weir: The hon. Lady keeps going on about new states, but the point is that Scotland is already a member of the EU. We have already cited the position of Greenland. Scotland is not a new state; it is already a member of the EU; we have rights as European citizens, as has been said by other experts; and we will not be starting from the same place as Croatia, which keeps being mentioned by Labour Members.

Emma Reynolds: I beg to differ with the hon. Gentleman. The four nations of the United Kingdom are a member of the European Union, by virtue of being part of the United Kingdom. I will quote another European Commission President, Romano Prodi, who was a very respected President. He confirmed that

“a newly independent region would, by the fact of its independence, become a third country with respect to the European Union and the treaties would, from the day of its independence, not apply any more in its territory.”

Beyond the pronouncements of European Commission Presidents current and past, there is the brutal truth that the SNP must face up to—that this decision about a separate Scotland’s membership of the European Union would be a political decision and one taken by all of the other 27 member states, who are soon to be 28.

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman—he should listen to this carefully—that, as has already been stressed in this debate, the pronouncements by the Spanish Foreign Minister are not encouraging. That is hardly surprising. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North has already pointed out that the context in which we find ourselves in the European Union is one in which we are going through the most challenging and volatile period in European history. In September, 1.5 million Catalans took to the streets in Barcelona in an independence rally.

Mr Cash: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Emma Reynolds: I will give way, in a minute.

It is therefore unsurprising that the Spanish Government are concerned about any precedent being set and it is equally unsurprising that the Spanish Foreign Minister recently told the Spanish Senate that an independent Scotland would need to “join the queue” and negotiate its accession as a new member state. In addition, as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) set out in his very eloquent speech, there are other EU member states that would also have great concerns about any precedent being set by Scotland; Belgium is one of them. Furthermore, the EU member states that do not wish to recognise the independence of Kosovo—namely Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain—would be concerned about a precedent being set by Scotland. It is within that context that the framework of any hypothetical case in which an independent Scotland—if there were one—applied to join the European Union must be seen.

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Unfortunately—I say this with regret—there is enlargement fatigue in the European Union. For example, France has said that for any future accession beyond that of Croatia there will be a referendum in France. Two weeks ago, we discussed the case of Croatia and we know that for a period of 10 years there has been negotiation about Croatia’s accession, and the last member state to join the EU in less than five years was Finland, which joined in 1995.

Consequently, it is absolutely clear that the SNP and the Scottish Government have no basis on which to make the claim that Scotland’s membership of the European Union would be automatic. They also have no basis on which to make the claim—made by the First Minister in the interview with Andrew Neil earlier this year—that a separate Scotland would also inherit the United Kingdom’s opt-out from the single currency and Schengen. The facts fly in the face of that assertion. There has been no member state since 1973 that has negotiated an opt-out, since the agreement in Maastricht, from the single currency. With regard to Schengen, an opt-out from that agreement would have to be negotiated.

It is also clear that Scotland would have to negotiate its own contribution to the European Union budget, and according to the House of Commons Library—[Interruption.] Maybe the SNP Members want to listen to the objective facts, as set out by the Library. According to the House of Commons Library, without a rebate Scotland’s contribution to the European Union is likely to rise from £16 a head to £92 a head.

Leaving the United Kingdom would leave a separate Scotland in limbo in Europe. There would be no automatic accession and no automatic opt-outs. Instead, there would be a sensitive and difficult negotiation with the 27—soon to be 28—other member states of the European Union.

10.49 am

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): It is a pleasure to serve under you this morning, Mr Crausby. May I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing this important debate? May I also congratulate hon. Members on both sides on their contributions and on the insight they have provided on this critical issue?

I need not remind hon. Members that the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union touches the lives of all our citizens. Much of our trade is with the EU: our total exports to the EU in 2011 were worth £234 billion. The single market underpins a large portion of our economy, allowing our businesses to trade freely across a market of half a billion people. The EU facilitates collective action on issues that are too big for any one nation to tackle on its own. It magnifies our voice in the world on pressing international questions, such as the current situation in the middle east and our concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

It is the United Kingdom, of course, that is the member state: it is named in the European Union’s fundamental treaties as such. It is the Government of the United Kingdom that must therefore negotiate in the EU’s various formations in the best interests of all its citizens. That means that we take into account the

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interests of the devolved Administrations when formulating the UK’s position on EU negotiations that touch on areas of policy that fall to the Scottish and Welsh Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive. That is good for people in businesses in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as in England; it means that they all have a strong voice in the formulation of policy that matters to them.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Will the Minister give way?

Mr Swire: The hon. Gentleman was not even in the debate.

The voting weight, capability and credibility of the UK’s negotiations in the EU are mobilised in the service of all UK citizens. However, that does not mean the devolved Administrations are involved in EU policy only when we are coming up with an agreed negotiating position for the UK. The Government have been open to having Ministers from the devolved Administrations in the room, where appropriate, during the negotiations themselves.

The current devolution arrangements allow the special circumstances of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to be championed by one of the largest and most influential member states. Scottish independence, with a complex accession negotiation and no guarantee of favourable terms of membership at the end of it, would inevitably put a stop to that. Those advocating splitting off from the UK need to be clear about what that means in practice and to use evidence to set out their position.

As we have heard this morning, some advocate a fundamental reworking of the existing constitutional settlement that so benefits the people of the UK. Those who argue for an independent Scotland suggest that only independence will give their nation a voice in Europe. Their argument is underpinned by the assertion—it is only an assertion—that an independent Scotland would simply continue in membership of the EU, automatically inheriting the same arrangements that pertain to the UK now.

We learned only a few weeks ago, and we heard again this morning—the SNP was forced to reveal this following a freedom of information request—that it had not previously commissioned any legal advice on an independent Scotland’s place in the EU. Yet, the SNP has been making assertions that it had for several years while in government. Many will find it absolutely astonishing that while seeking to make its case for splitting Scotland from the UK, the SNP has been basing its case on unfounded assertions, rather than cold facts.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), whom I like very much indeed, referred to his earlier musical career in Runrig. He will remember a song, which he may have written, called “The Message”. It says:

“You take your message to the waters

And you watch the ripples flow”.

Perhaps it is time he and his colleagues made sure that that message was backed up by substance and fact.

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I do not need to remind hon. Members that the UK has, over the years, managed to negotiate exemptions from membership of the euro and the Schengen common visa area, ensuring that the UK can maintain control over its monetary and border policies.

Mr Bain: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Swire: I am afraid I have no time. I will at the end if I have time.

In addition, hon. Members will be only too aware of the importance of the UK’s rebate, negotiated with great skill and determination more than 25 years ago. The rebate continues to ensure that the UK taxpayer is relieved of some of the burden of supporting some of the most imbalanced parts of the EU budget, which is of great concern to us all at the moment.

The UK therefore has a permanent opt-out from the euro and from the Schengen border-free zone; a permanent rebate on our net contributions to the EU budget; a choice whether to join new EU laws in justice and home affairs; and a protocol on how the charter of fundamental rights applies to the UK. However, if Scotland left the UK and applied to join the EU, all those issues would be subject to negotiation, and there is no guarantee whatever that it would obtain any of the special rights the UK currently enjoys.

It is precisely the UK’s weight and influence as one of the largest member states that has helped us to succeed in negotiating such arrangements. Scotland, like England, Northern Ireland and Wales, derives enormous advantage from them. I can see why the SNP is so keen to suggest to those voting in the referendum before the end of 2014 that those arrangements would simply continue in the event of independence, as if nothing had changed. However, the fact is that if Scotland became independent, everything would change. Independence is not simply an extension of the devolution arrangements that have worked so well; it is not merely a further point on the constitutional continuum; it is a fundamental change—a definitive split from the rest of the UK, and an irreversible step. Independence would bring devolution to an end.

As set out in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office memorandum to the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into a separate Scotland, independence would create a new state, one that would have to take its place on an already crowded international stage. England, Northern Ireland and Wales would continue the international legal personality of the UK; Scotland, having decided to leave the UK, would start afresh. The overwhelming weight of international legal precedent underscores that point. There are many examples. One is India and Pakistan: following independence, India continued the UN membership, and Pakistan joined the UN as a new state. Another, as we have heard, is the USSR: Russia continued the legal personality of the USSR, and the other former Soviet Union states were treated as new states. There are also Ethiopia and Eritrea, and Sudan and South Sudan.

The new state would need to decide which international organisations it wanted to belong to, in the context of its overall foreign policy. Obviously, it could not simply assert its membership of any of those organisations. The most likely scenario by far is that an independent Scotland would have to apply to join the EU as a new

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state, involving negotiation with the rest of the UK and other member states, the outcome of which cannot be predicted.

Scotland would no longer be represented through a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Nor would a separate Scotland qualify for the G8 or the G20. In answer to the question from the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) about the WTO, there have been no discussions with the Scottish Government on the issue. We are not in the business of pre-negotiating, as we do not believe the people of Scotland will vote for independence.

The UK Government are not alone in taking a factual and legally based approach to the issue. José Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, made clear:

“A new state, if it wants to join the European Union, has to apply to become a member like any state.”

Recent correspondence between the Spanish Government and Commissioner Reding on the issue also supported that interpretation.

In simple terms, an independent Scotland could not just assert that it would be a member of the club; the other members would need to agree as well. The comments of the Spanish Foreign Minister, José Manuel Garcia-Margallo, to the Spanish Parliament on the 23 October must be noted:

“in the hypothetical case of independence, Scotland would have to join the queue and ask to be admitted, needing the unanimous approval of all Member States to obtain the status of a candidate country.”

The Spanish Foreign Minister was referring to the list of candidate countries wanting to join the EU, which include Iceland, Serbia, Montenegro and Turkey. Those are the remarks of a Foreign Minister of a major EU member state with an obvious interest in this issue. The Scottish Government must be prepared to respond and to be up front about the uncertainties surrounding their position.

An independent Scotland would not, therefore, simply continue automatically in membership of the EU. The EU treaties would have to be amended to allow it to join, and that would involve a negotiation. What terms would Scotland secure? Would it be able to avoid the commitment to join the euro or the Schengen area, which every new member state since 1992 has taken on? The simple answer is that we do not know—none of this is clear.

In contrast to the SNP, the UK Government are taking a transparent approach to analysing the legal issues, including by engaging with eminent legal experts. On 2 October this year, the Advocate-General for Scotland—one of the UK Government’s three Law Officers—delivered a speech at the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law, setting out the Government’s initial view on the legal questions. The Government have also made it clear that we will provide detailed evidence and analysis so that people in Scotland can make an informed decision about whether to stay in the UK and about the implications of leaving it. We will publish that analysis over the course of 2013.

It is the clear position of the UK Government that Scotland is better off in the UK, and the UK is better off with Scotland in it. We are backing up that position

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with a robust programme of analysis and evidence. Those advocating independence for Scotland are making assertions and pursue their argument with no solid foundation in fact.

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Housing Benefit (Under-25s)

11 am

Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): I am grateful to have been chosen to lead this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby.

I want to say first that although I understand that the Government have not yet adopted the policy in question, the mere suggestion that the Prime Minister proposes to cut housing benefit to those aged under 25 has raised great concern nationally. I have received—for which I am grateful—briefings from several relevant organisations, including the Prince’s Trust, Places for People, Crisis, Shelter and the National Housing Federation, organisations that help and support the most vulnerable young people aged under 25. I intend to draw heavily on their evidence in the debate.

We all know that cuts are necessary to balance the country’s books, but the burden of paying for them must, as we all know and believe, fall on the shoulders of those most able to pay. That does not include those who are just starting out in life, or young people who, through no fault of their own, have no family support to help them into adulthood and towards independence. Nationally, the policy would affect more than 380,000 households. The cuts would save £1.8 billion, but cutting housing benefit to under-25s is a false economy, as I shall demonstrate.

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): I represent one of the youngest constituencies in the country. About a third of my constituents are under the age of 24, and there is an explosion in the number of 20-year-olds moving into the constituency. Nationally, last year, a third of those accepted by their council as homeless were aged 16—that is very young— to 24. Of those, 10,000 said that the reason they lost their previous home was that their parents would not or could not house them. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s approach seems to ignore the reality of family breakdown? It is a reality for many young people in my constituency.

Mrs Glindon: Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend, and I will refer to those statistics. Unless we have been through the same situation as those young people, none of us can imagine it, and I wonder how it will affect their future.

Of those aged under 25 who claim housing benefit, 17% are in work, but, as the Prince’s Trust has pointed out, they need that benefit to close the gap between their earnings and accommodation costs. Many young people earn only low rates of pay, and the national minimum wage for 16 to 17-year-olds is only £3.68 an hour; it is £4.98 an hour for those aged 18 to 20. Young people on apprenticeships earn only £2.60 an hour. The Low Pay Commission has found that young people are disproportionately likely to be paid the minimum wage for their age: 13% of young people aged between 18 and 20 are on the minimum wage of £4.98 an hour. Most young people who claim housing benefit are not in work, but young people all want to work. In a recent survey by the Prince’s Trust, young people who had previously been unemployed were asked how many jobs they had applied for, and the most common response was that they had made more than 100 applications.

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The Government say that they want young people to take up their apprentice schemes, but apprenticeship wages are low, at £2.60 an hour. If the Government take housing benefit from those young people—particularly the most vulnerable, whom we want to get into apprenticeships—it will be yet another barrier to their future in work. The Prince’s Trust has also pointed out that young people who want to strike out on their own in business, and take up the trust’s enterprise programme, are often lone parents who claim housing benefit. They need housing benefit to supplement their incomes until their business is profitable enough to allow them enough salary to cover accommodation costs. Why should those young people be denied opportunity because they cannot afford a roof over their head, while the very rich get huge tax breaks from the Government?

The Government have said that some young people will be exempted from the cuts, but how will those exemptions be worked out, and who will be eligible? I hope that the Minister will tell us.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The issue will be one of the biggest in my constituency, and I perceive great difficulties, come next year. Is the hon. Lady aware that there have been discussions with the Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly about changes that may help the system to work? Perhaps the changes proposed for Northern Ireland could be brought across to the rest of the United Kingdom. We are not getting everything we want for Northern Ireland, but I understand that we are getting some helpful concessions. Would the hon. Lady want to suggest that the Government might discuss that with her, and that they might enable the changes to be made UK-wide?

Mrs Glindon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and hope that the Minister will have listened to what he said.

Many young people live with their parents, because that is the only way they can manage work; they simply cannot live in a home of their own. The consequences for young people who cannot live with their parents are serious. Crisis has found that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) said, one third of those accepted as homeless by their councils were under 25, and 10,000 had lost their home because their parents could not or would not house them. What will happen to those young people if housing benefit is cut?

Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I have a concern about the night shelter in my constituency, which receives a third of its funding directly through housing benefit. The hon. Lady mentioned exemptions, and representatives have raised with me the question whether the shelter would be supported exempt accommodation under the new rules. Has the hon. Lady considered that point? Perhaps the Minister would respond to it.

Mrs Glindon: That is a concern of several agencies and organisations that are in the same boat. I hope that the Minister will say something about it.

Half the young people who receive housing benefit have children. Moreover, 28,000 young people receiving housing benefit are sick or disabled. How would the

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Minister expect those people to cope without any housing benefit at all? While places such as St Mungo’s provide accommodation to more than 17,000 people every night and help thousands more who are sleeping rough or are at risk of homelessness, we can only wonder what it would be like if those who rely on housing benefit were to lose it and no longer have that safety net. How would those figures be magnified?

I am pleased to say that in my constituency, there is a scheme called Maritime Court, which is run by Places for People as an individual support project. It is a customer-led service that offers support and guidance. Everyone using the scheme is encouraged to discuss their needs, and appropriate information is provided to assist them to make informed decisions. They get advice and support on issues such as life skills, benefits, budgeting, employment and education, with the ultimate aim of developing life skills to enable independent living within the community. The service offers a low to medium level of housing-related support. It has 24-hour staffing all year round. Young people get support for up to two years, living in accommodation there until such time that they are able to move into accommodation in the community. As has been mentioned, such projects are concerned about proposals for the future.

Jim Shannon: The issue of affordable housing is one that Barnardo’s, Save the Children and many other organisations are raising. Does the hon. Lady feel that the Government need to address the issues of affordable housing and of housing that is suitable within the housing benefit range?

Mrs Glindon: The hon. Gentleman has raised a particularly important point—one that we come back to time and again. When we see the low wages for apprentices and many young people, how else can they afford a home, with or without housing benefit?

I want to give a couple of examples to show how young people’s lives need to and can be turned around, and why housing benefit is crucial; obviously, I will use supplemented names. The following case study is from Maritime Court. A young woman, Sue, went into the project when she was 17, with a number of support needs. She had been re-homed and resided in one of Depaul UK’s lodgings within a family home environment, because she had been asked to leave her parents’ house. She had some skills but no experience of living on her own or managing a tenancy. She had led a chaotic lifestyle, as a lot of young people do, which was compounded because her mother had moved around, having had a lot of debt and rent arrears. Her parents had separated, and she had an awkward relationship with her mother. She was often left to fend for herself and her young sister from an early age. She received no family support when she was at home with her mother, so she was a young person on her own. She had also suffered domestic abuse from family members and friends, so she was a vulnerable young person. The support that she needed was with money management, how to develop relationships and tackling offending behaviour. She also had mental health and communication problems, to say but a few.

During Sue’s time with the scheme, the massive support she received enabled her to overcome many of her problems, and she became a mature person, who was

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able to deal with difficult situations. She has moved on through Maritime Court and has been able to work with North Tyneside council and get into independent living. The case study explains how the staff worked through issues with her and provided support. She has now moved on—she is starting a placement and is looking forward to training for a new career. That would not have happened had it not been for Maritime Court and for housing benefit.

Another referral that was made to Maritime Court was from North Tyneside council’s men’s direct access unit. Lee, as I will call him, had mild learning difficulties and cerebral palsy. He engaged well with staff from day one, but he seemed to rely on staff for company. He would often go out and have a good drink, but he was never aggressive. Staff realised that he was a very vulnerable person because the only way he could have friends was by allowing people into his flat in Maritime Court. He lived on the ground floor, so the staff moved him upstairs, which helped to solve some of his problems.

Lee was on a lot of benefit because of his disabilities, but he would often come back with no money once he had got paid, because people were taking advantage of him. The people at Maritime Court took over the management of his money and helped him with his benefit. He started to turn his life around. Eventually, staff found him a place in South Shields, which is across the river, in an area near where his girlfriend lives. With all the support he had, he was able to set up in Dock street in South Shields, and he is still doing extremely well there.

I could go on, but I cannot give more examples in the time allotted. What I want to put to the Minister is that, should the proposals go ahead, as I and others have said, thousands of young people who are now able to enjoy a roof over their head will be made homeless.

Meg Hillier: One concern in my constituency and nationally is the number of under-25s who themselves are parents. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that it would be helpful if the Minister clarified the Government’s current thinking on those young people.

Mrs Glindon: As I have asked, and as my hon. Friend has pointed out, what will become of those young parents and their children? What will become of the organisations that enable young people, such as the ones I have talked about in Maritime Court, to have an independent life, with housing benefit as a crutch until they are able to stand on their own two feet? The system will be complicated. How will exemptions be worked through? I hope that the proposal never becomes policy, and I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure all of us present who, on behalf of probably many other people and many of our colleagues, feel that such a move would be wrong and would simply condemn many young people to a life of misery.

11.17 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Don Foster): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) not only on securing the debate,

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but on presenting her case so passionately. May I also say how pleased I am to see the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) in his place? He has taken a keen interest in the issue, and I will refer to him again towards the end of my remarks.

The hon. Lady said that the idea is something that the Government might effect, but the fact that something was said at a Conservative party conference does not mean that it becomes coalition policy. At the moment, it certainly is not. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) will know that both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have said that, were such a move to become reality, vulnerable groups, particularly those in care, will be protected.

I say to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that the Government are willing to seek what advice they can from Northern Ireland. We will certainly look forward to any comments that he can forward to us. On the important issue of affordable housing, he is absolutely right that one of the key things we have to do is increase its availability. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington knows only too well, when the Labour Government were in office, we saw a reduction of some 421,000 social homes.

The Government intend to ensure that we move forward with the provision of affordable housing by committing to provide 170,000 affordable houses by 2015.

My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) mentioned night shelters. Clearly, as that is not a Government policy, I cannot comment on who would or would not be affected by that, because I currently have no details and such details may not be forthcoming.

The hon. Member for North Tyneside raises an important issue, and I recognise that young people face difficult circumstances. The effects of what is, after all, the worst recession in a generation continue to cause hardship for households across the country. That is why homelessness and housing support remain a key priority for me, my Department and the Government as a whole, but we need to keep the issue in perspective. As a result of the work of local authorities, their partners and the Government, and of the investment we are making, homelessness is half the average rate that it reached under the previous Administration. The homelessness rate remains lower today than in 28 of the past 30 years. Of course, I recognise that that is no comfort to those currently dealing with the trauma of homelessness, and we are determined to take every opportunity to move forward. That is why the Government are providing support through investment, reform and leadership.

The homelessness prevention grant was protected in the spending review, and we are investing £400 million in homelessness prevention over the four-year period. We recognise that continuing financial pressures have made it hard for many people, which is why we provided an additional £70 million last year to address homelessness. That included a £20 million homelessness transition fund and a further £18.5 million for the first ever single homelessness prevention fund.

Additionally, the Government are providing £390 million to help families in difficult situations adjust to changes in the welfare system. I recognise what the hon. Lady said about troubled families, and she will be aware of the Government’s successful work to address that issue.

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In addition to the funding, we are reforming the system. The Localism Act 2011 gives local authorities more freedom to move people quickly out of expensive temporary accommodation and into suitable settled homes, thereby reducing costs on councils and housing waiting lists. That power allows local authorities to use good quality accommodation in the private rented sector so that households are not left sitting in expensive and inappropriate temporary accommodation while they wait for social housing.

The Government take homelessness seriously, and we have established a ministerial working group on homelessness that brings together eight Departments to address the complex causes, which include not only housing, but, just as importantly, health, work and training. The group provides the leadership we need to address homelessness.

The group produced its first report, “Vision to end rough sleeping”, in July 2010. Since then, we have made significant progress and provided £20 million through the homelessness transition fund to help roll out, for example, the Mayor of London’s “no second night out” approach. We announced the most recent tranche of grants for the fund in August 2012 with a further £3.6 million to 21 homelessness charities. Five areas, including 51 local authorities, have now introduced “no second night out”: Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Cheshire, Kent and Northamptonshire.

We have committed to a new rough sleeping helpline that will ensure that anyone who is concerned for someone sleeping rough can contact the right service to get them help. StreetLink, as it is to be called, will be in place by Christmas 2012, and the website is already live.

Preventing youth homelessness was a key part of the ministerial working group on homelessness’s second report, “Making every contact count”, which we published in August. The report considered how to address the complex underlying causes of homelessness, how to prevent homelessness at an earlier stage and how to deliver integrated services. It focused on youth homelessness and set out an innovative approach to addressing that important issue.

The Government are providing investment, reform and leadership, but we are also calling on local agencies across the country to respond with innovation and passion. England has one of the strongest safety nets in the world for families with children and for vulnerable people who become homeless through no fault of their own. Sixteen and 17-year-olds, care leavers under the age of 21 and people over 21 who are vulnerable as a result of being in care are priority groups and, as such, should they find themselves without a roof over their head, they will be housed by local authorities.

Local authorities already know that it is in nobody’s interest for things to get that far. Preventing homelessness, through supporting young people to resolve issues at home—the hon. Lady raised that point—and stay with their families, must remain a priority.

My Department continues to work with the Department for Education to support local authority homelessness and children’s services to prevent homelessness and to address its effects on young people. We have funded youth homelessness charity St Basils to support local authorities and their partners in that work. Thanks to the work of young people’s homelessness charities such

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as St Basils, Centrepoint and Depaul—and others mentioned by the hon. Lady—and to the work of local authorities, it is now very rare for young people under 18 to end up on our streets.

Many people experiencing homelessness have had a range of negative experiences in their childhood or youth. We accept that young people are a key risk group—35% of those accepted by local authorities as homeless in 2011-12 were under 25. As the hon. Lady rightly said, family breakdown is a prime cause of youth homelessness. Young people with experience of care are particularly vulnerable, with 16% of rough sleepers surveyed by a recent study having experienced care at some point during their childhood.

Supporting vulnerable young people to make a successful transition to adulthood helps them avoid long-term benefit dependency and expensive interventions by specialist health services, social care, the criminal justice system and, of course, homelessness services. Homelessness is a stigmatising experience for a young person, and an integrated approach to preventing that is needed.

Mrs Glindon: I am pleased to hear about all those programmes and about the investment the Government are making. What commitment is there to keeping housing benefit for those young people under 25? Once they have benefited from all the support, not being able to work may stop those in rented accommodation being able to pay the full rent. What assurance is there that that cushion will remain for as long as people need it so they can live in a home of their own?

Mr Foster: The hon. Lady tempts me to predict what announcements will be made in due course, which I cannot possibly do. I cannot give her an assurance one way or the other. All I can do is tell her that that is not currently the Government’s policy. We will both have to wait to see what emerges.

The hon. Lady will be aware that, as a country, we are facing a very difficult financial crisis, and we have to address that. Unless we get the economy straight and create the growth that we desperately need to get people back into work, problems will continue to multiply. That will continue to be our first priority.

Mrs Glindon: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Foster: We have about two seconds remaining, but I will give way if the hon. Lady wants the last word.

Mrs Glindon: As I said at the beginning, cannot that burden be put on the very rich, rather than on these areas?

Mr Foster: The hon. Lady is well aware of the Deputy Prime Minister’s statements on the importance of ensuring that those with the broadest shoulders make the greatest contribution.

I end by saying to the hon. Lady that we have worked with charities to develop a pathway to try to ensure that we provide the necessary support. I hope that she will listen to her colleague, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, who on 13 December is organising a huge event in Parliament on youth homelessness. He is to be congratulated on organising that event, and I hope we will be able to continue the debate on that occasion.

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I congratulate the hon. Lady on raising this important issue, which the Government take seriously and are doing an enormous amount of work to address.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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Cycling Safety

[Mr Dai Havard in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): I am pleased to open this debate on cycling safety and the wearing of cycle helmets. I know that the topic is incredibly important to many Members and many of our constituents. Rather appropriately, we are in the middle of road safety week, organised by the charity Brake, which is held every November to raise awareness of death and injury on our roads and the steps that can be taken to improve road safety, including for cyclists.

Since the last debate here in February, we have had the Olympics. I want to take a moment to put on record the enormous contributions of our cycling sportsmen and women to cycling and to raising its profile internationally. The Olympics showcased the best of British. Some of our cycling Olympians, such as Sir Chris Hoy, were already household names, but others have joined the sporting pantheon. In addition, individual gold medals were won by Jason Kenny, Laura Trott, Victoria Pendleton and Bradley Wiggins. In the Paralympics, Sarah Storey won a sensational four individual gold medals, and David Stone, Anthony Kappes, Mark Colbourne and Neil Fachie also won individual Paralympic golds. Team gold and silver medals and individual silver and bronze medals were won as well, adding up to a record medal haul. Also, the incomparable Bradley Wiggins kicked off our summer sporting celebrations by winning the Tour de France, a truly magnificent achievement.

For those of us glued to the television or lucky enough to be in the velodrome, each British win was a memorable moment. It was a golden summer for British cycling. Undoubtedly, when a country does well in a particular sport, as we did in cycling, and produces new sporting heroes, it inspires a new generation to take up that sporting discipline, or at least think seriously about taking it up. Sometimes, it even inspires those of us who are a bit longer in the tooth to take up an activity once again. I am sure that all Members will agree that that is a thoroughly good thing.

Cycling obviously has positive benefits for individual health and the environment. The organisation CTC has cited studies showing that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by a factor of 20 to 1. Estimates from the Department for Transport—perhaps the Minister will give us more detailed figures if he has them—suggest that 11% of adults in England now cycle for at least 30 minutes once a month. However, that is still some way behind numerous other European nations.

One key thing that holds people back from cycling is concerns about road safety. In the past few weeks, there have been a number of road accidents involving high-profile individuals, which has brought the issue of road safety for cyclists to the top of the national agenda once again. Early this month, Bradley Wiggins was knocked off his mountain bike by a van coming out of a petrol station near his home in Lancashire. He was taken to hospital with bruises to his right hand and ribs. The next day, Shane Sutton, head coach for the GB cycling team, was knocked off his bike by a car while cycling along the

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Stockport road near a junction. He suffered a concussion and small bleeding on the brain, but thankfully, his condition soon stabilised.

As we all know, those accidents made the national news. They even took the US presidential election out of the top news spot for a while. “Newsround”, the BBC children’s news programme, asked its viewers whether they felt safe on their bikes. Many did not. One caller said:

“Although it helps you to keep fit, I think riding a bike on roads is dangerous and unsafe because vehicles may not be able to see you.”

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On the point about road safety, does he also accept that the Government recently made available an additional £30 million to tackle dangerous junctions and £15 million for infrastructure, including cycle routes and facilities at stations and across the country?

Alok Sharma: Of course. I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government have made additional moneys available to the £600 million sustainability fund, to which I will return. Funding is right, and it is one aspect of ensuring that we have a road infrastructure that works for everyone.

To return to the issue of children and cycling safety, if there is a perception among the young as well as adults that being on a road is dangerous, it is a serious deterrent to cycling, which is particularly bad news. The latest statistics from the Department for Transport are concerning. In the year ending June 2012, the number of pedal cyclists killed or seriously injured on our roads increased by 9% compared with the previous year, and so far this calendar year, 108 cyclists have been tragically killed in the UK. The total for 2011 was 107. More than 3,000 people were seriously injured on UK roads while riding a bike last year, a 16% increase in the number of reported serious injuries to cyclists.

It is absolutely clear that more must be done to improve conditions for cyclists on our roads. Cycling organisations such as British Cycling have been calling on the Government to put cycling at the heart of transport policy to ensure that cycle safety is built into the design of all new roads, junctions and transport projects. I absolutely endorse that view. In the 21st century, we must plan for and ultimately have a transport infrastructure that is safe and fit for purpose for all users: drivers, pedestrians, commuters and cyclists.

In recent years, there have been a number of campaigns to improve safety for cyclists. One of the latest, launched in February this year, is TheTimes newspaper’s Cities Fit for Cycling campaign, which involved the publication of an eight-point manifesto. The campaign, which has attracted cross-party support, was launched by The Times after one of its reporters, Mary Bowers, sustained serious injuries in a collision with a lorry while cycling to work. It is an excellent campaign that has provided an impetus for a continued focus on road safety for cyclists. It is also helping provide funding for the all-party group’s report, which will be published next year.

I know that Members present will be familiar with the eight-point manifesto, but I will set it out again for the record. The Cities Fit for Cycling campaign calls for heavy goods vehicles entering city centres to be fitted with sensors, audible turning alarms, extra mirrors and

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safety bars; identification of the 500 most dangerous road junctions, and their redesign or fitting with priority traffic lights and Trixi mirrors; a national audit of cycling; the earmarking of 2% of the Highways Agency’s annual budget for next-generation cycle routes; improved training of cyclists and drivers, including making cycle safety a core part of the driving test; a mandatory default speed limit of 20 mph in residential areas where there are no cycle lanes; invitations to businesses to sponsor cycle schemes, as has happened in London; and the appointment of a cycling commissioner in every city.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on cycling, who unfortunately could not be here, secured a debate in February relating to the campaign. It was incredibly well attended, and I know that some Members present today also contributed to that debate. In his response to that debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) set out the Government’s thoughts at the time on the campaign’s manifesto points. On the first point, my hon. Friend responded that his Department was involved in discussions at European level about improving standards for heavy goods vehicles to help reduce accidents. I would be grateful if the Minister responding to this debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), updated us on any progress in those European discussions.

On the second manifesto point, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes noted that he had already given all local authorities in England the authority to install Trixi mirrors as and where they deem it appropriate. Again, it would be useful if the Minister provided us with any statistics his Department may have on the number of Trixi mirrors installed by local authorities over the past six months.

On the third point, relating to a national audit of cycling, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes explained that his Department had commissioned a new question in the Sport England active people survey, to provide more detailed information on cycling at local level. I was pleased that in August the Department published for the first time ever local authority data on cycling, based on responses to the active people survey. I hope that the Minister will tell us how often he expects these data to be published, so that we can start to gauge the trend in cycling across individual local authorities. This should, over time, prove to be a powerful tool in helping to focus on which authorities are good at encouraging cycling and which need to try harder.

Regarding the earmarking of 2% of the Highway Agency’s annual budget for next generation cycle routes, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes was understandably hesitant about adopting a specific figure, but mentioned that the Department was undertaking a stocktake of Highway Agency routes to consider what might be possible in future. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister has an update on that stocktake and what this may mean for improved cycle routes.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman might know that I am chairman of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. Will he include in that stocktake the fact that we must go back to having targets for accident reduction, whether

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in respect of cyclists or other category of road user, including pedestrians? We have in the past two years renounced targets, but we know that if there are no targets across Europe casualties start to increase. Will he make a plea in his speech for getting back to targets, so that we can get accident reduction for cyclists and other road users?

Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has eloquently put on the record his views on targets. I am sure that the Minister will give us his thoughts, and those of his Department, on that point.

On improving training for cyclists and motorists, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes also talked about the work of the Department’s Bikeability initiative, among other matters, as well as noting that he had established a cycle safety sub-committee of the stakeholder forum. I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister has in recent weeks led his Department’s THINK! Cyclist campaign. I am grateful for the work that he is doing to improve road safety, but it would be useful to have some feedback on, and his view of, the work of the new safety sub-committee.

With regard to the sixth issue in The Times’ campaign—the 20 mph speed limit— my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes noted in February that he had already taken action to make it easier for local authorities to introduce 20 mph zones and a 20 mph limit. Does my hon. Friend the Minister have any update on the number of new 20 mph zones introduced in the past 12 months by local authorities? If he has, I hope that he will provide that in his response.

The Times’ campaign’s seventh manifesto point relates to encouraging businesses to follow the lead of Barclays in London and back cycling schemes and initiatives. There is universal support in the House for this idea. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes said that his Department would send out the message to encourage this. Will the Minister update us on whether the Department has had any traction in this respect with other potential business sponsors?

The manifesto’s final point calls on every city to appoint a cycling commissioner to champion cycling-friendly reforms. Clearly, this is a matter for local authorities, but I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes wrote earlier in the year to the leaders and chief executives of each council across England, encouraging them to consider whether someone in their organisation should take a lead role on cycling. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister provides some feedback on the responses that he has received and on the number of local authorities that have appointed a cycling champion.

I have asked my hon. Friend to respond to a range of issues, but I also want to put on the record that I know, having talked to him, that he is committed to improving road safety for cyclists. His Department has provided £600 million through the local sustainable transport fund to support local authorities in their use of transport to lever growth and cut carbon locally. Many of the 96 projects have a cycling element. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) mentioned a number of other funding streams that have come on line from the Department and I am sure that

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the Minister will give us a full view on everything that his Department is doing to provide further funding to help cycling and cyclists.

Rehman Chishti: On road safety and cycling safety, the figures that I have from the DFT say that in 2011, 111 people were killed in cycling incidents and 3,085 were seriously injured. Does my hon. Friend have any evidence showing how many of those incidents, whether fatality or serious injury, could have been avoided if those persons were wearing a cycling helmet?

Alok Sharma: I will talk about an independent report produced for the Department for Transport in 2009, which demonstrated that the use of cycling helmets absolutely makes a difference in reducing fatalities and injuries. Let me come on to that later.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Is not it absurd that Members of Parliament still pretend that wearing a cycle helmet increases the risk?

Alok Sharma: My hon. Friend, as ever, makes a good point. There is clear evidence that using a cycling helmet, whether as an adult or a child, reduces the risk of injury. I will talk about cycle helmets, but in this debate there is almost a gulf between those hon. Members who believe that cycle helmets should be made compulsory and others who do not. Organisations out there have similar or differing views, as well. My hon. Friend is right—it has been concluded in independent reports and reports produced by the Department—that wearing a cycle helmet makes a difference in terms of improving safety.

I was talking about the contribution that the Minister and the Department have made. He is also committed to supporting Bikeability cycle training for the remainder of this Parliament, which is welcome. I am pleased about that good news. However, I shall return to my central theme. All hon. Members who are supporters of cycling want cycling to be put at the very heart of transport policy. I hope that the Minister will tell us—apart from all the funding streams and all the work that is going on—how cycling will be, or is already, a central part of his Department’s policy.

Proper provision for cyclists on the road is not just something that cyclists want. Hon. Members will know that the AA recently undertook a survey of its members, and 62% of the 20,261 AA members who responded to it said that there are not enough cycle lanes. An increased number of cyclists on busy roads is leaving many motorists feeling insecure about how to interact with cyclists. The majority view is that clearly defined cycle lanes would be good news for both motorists and cyclists. That means a lot more than slapping down a few white lines intermittently along the pavement, as happens, unfortunately, in my home town of Reading.

Ahead of this debate the Mayor of London’s office was in touch with me—I am sure that it was in touch with other colleagues as well—setting out the Mayor’s commitment to making London even more of a cycling city. The aim of the Mayor’s cycling strategy is to increase cycling by 400% by 2026, from 2001 1evels. I understand that record levels of investment in cycling over the past four years have supported the cycling strategy, with investment levels now approaching those of other leading European cycling cities. A number of

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European cities have significantly higher per capita spending on cycling than we do in many of our cities. It will be interesting to hear the Department’s view on that, and on how the situation can be rectified. Alongside the Mayor’s flagship schemes of Barclays cycle hire, cycle superhighways and biking boroughs, a range of complementary activities has led to a 70% increase in cycling in the capital over the past four years. Many of our cities, towns and local authorities can learn from the example of London and, no doubt, Members will have other best practice from their own areas to share.

The second part of the debate relates to the wearing of cycle helmets, which can be a controversial subject, but I have no wish for a particularly emotional debate. We need to be dispassionate in discussion, and to debate on the basis of evidence rather than emotion. I asked for the debate today because I was prompted by a recent meeting with the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, a national, award-winning charity based in Reading. The trust is committed to saving young people’s lives by promoting safer cycling and, in particular, the use of cycle helmets. The organisation was founded in 1988 by a paediatric nurse who, through her work, saw the devastation that head injury can cause, not only to the child but to the whole family. Since the charity’s conception, it has grown in drive and commitment to be an advocate for the child and young person. It also provides a community service by highlighting the need for safer cycling practices that incorporate the distinctive needs of children and young people. The charity is a national resource working with parents, teachers, police, road safety officers, Departments and health care professionals by promoting and providing educational programmes in schools on the need for helmet use and safer cycling practice throughout the United Kingdom.

The trust has worked successfully with the Department for Transport in the past and it recently submitted another proposal, for a project that aims to complement the Bikeability programme. It would engage with areas in need, which may not be part of training programmes due to social challenges, and work with young people to develop their understanding of road safety and self-safety. As part of its proposal, the trust wants to work in local communities to develop partnerships and to draw on local private sector organisations to provide safety packs to children who, because of the cost, might be without helmets, lights and reflector bands, or without access to training. I hope that the Minister will agree to meet representatives of the trust and me, so that we can explain to him in detail the objectives of the latest proposal, and that we will secure his personal support for the project.

The Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust is absolutely committed in its advocacy for children and young people to wear cycle helmets. I very much share that view, and the statistics on serious injuries to cyclists bear out why wearing a cycle helmet is so important, especially for children. In 2011, just over 3,000 seriously injured road casualties involving pedal cyclists were recorded by police. In addition, almost 16,000 incidents of pedal cyclists being casualties in slight accidents were recorded. Of the 3,000 serious injuries, 349 casualties—or 12% of the total—were children aged nought to 15. However, according to NHS statistics, almost 9,000 emergency road traffic hospital admissions last year involved pedal

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cyclists, so there is a threefold understatement in police-recorded injuries compared with NHS admissions. One reason for that is that not every injury or incident takes place on a road—it can be off road, in particular for children, and I will focus on that as I progress. Furthermore, of the 9,000 emergency road traffic hospital admissions, more than 3,000 were of children aged nought to 15—35% of the total. The understatement in police-recorded injuries compared with NHS admissions for children in connection with cycling injuries was therefore tenfold. That demonstrates that, when children are involved in accidents, a lot of the time, they do not happen on the road or the highway, but off road. Children may be cycling with friends in the playground or in woods, and we must bear that clear distinction in mind when we discuss cycle helmet usage as potentially compulsory for children as opposed to adults.

Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. I am sure that anything we can do to make cycling safer would receive broad support, although I draw to his attention the attempt by the former Member for Carlisle, Eric Martlew, to introduce a private Member’s Bill. The manner in which he and the Bill’s supporters were attacked was absolutely unbelievable, yet beneath it all were people with a genuine desire to see children cycling safely, whether on roads, on footways as toddlers, in playgrounds or elsewhere. We need to do something to tackle that, to see a definitive decrease in the number of injuries.

Alok Sharma: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and he makes it passionately. It is vital that we see a reduction in injuries and fatalities not only for children but for adults. I will come to the 2004 private Member’s Bill, but we have moved on since then, because there is more evidence. As I said at the start of the debate, however, there is clearly a chasm between those who believe that wearing helmets should be mandatory and those who do not.

Members might remember a few weeks ago when Bradley Wiggins tweeted on the subject. In my view, he is an absolute god, but even Bradley Wiggins came in for quite a lot of stick, and he of course then made further statements about his views on the compulsory wearing of helmets. Yet we cannot get away from the fact that wearing helmets saves lives and cuts down on injuries.

Mr Sheerman: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that when we organised the seat belt legislation some 28 years ago, a passionate group attacked us for undermining individual liberty? Many made the argument that wearing seat belts would make people drive faster and therefore kill more people. The proud record is that we have saved many lives over that 25 years.

Alok Sharma: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I will come on to that. That Bill eventually became law because of the courage of Members in the House at the time, and it is now second nature for us to wear seat belts. There is no question but that wearing seat belts saves lives, and there is no kind of negative impact.