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Homicide (Amendment)

3.30 pm

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South) : I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Homicide Act 1957 in respect of the defence of provocation.

I appreciate that the Maastricht treaty has wide-ranging implications for people, but my Bill has far-reaching implications for the individuals whom it will affect : it is a matter of great moment to them. My main reason for introducing the Bill is that those women who are the victims of domestic violence, who are driven to despair and provoked into killing their spouses, may find that the defence of provocation is useless when it is used in a court of law. This is a grave injustice to those women. [Interruption.] The clearest example is that of the case of Mrs. Sara Thornton--a woman who suffered a great deal of brutality. [Interruption.]

Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt, but my right hon. Friend is talking about a subject--domestic violence--that is vital to the women of this country and, rather than listening, hon. Members are having conversations.

Mr. Speaker : I am listening.

Mr. Ashley : If some hon. Members wish to play the chauvinistic role, I do not mind. I assure them that I have had letters from many of their constituents asking for support. If they want to chat and talk among themselves, and disregard this, fine--I will just go on talking.

The issue is of profound importance both to women and to men, but especially to women. Sara Thornton suffered great brutality and then she killed her husband, but in a court of law it was found that she was not provoked. Sara Thornton took a knife, sharpened it and stabbed her husband. When he died, she was arrested and taken to court. The court found that she was not provoked, because the law says that she had no provocation for killing her husband. The years of brutality were brushed aside.

How did this work out? To understand what happened, we have to recognise that the defence of provocation could not help her, because some time had elapsed between the provocation and the killing. To understand that, we have to go back to 1949, when Mr. Justice Devlin, as he was then known, made a significant ruling : that, to be successful in a court of law, provocation has to cause a sudden and temporary loss of self-control--a sudden loss of self-control. He said that, if there were a time gap, there was time for reason to be restored. If reason is restored, then the act is deliberate, and is murder.

The view adumbrated by Mr. Justice Devlin, that reason could quickly be restored after great brutality, was acceptable once. It was acceptable in the 1914-18 war,

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when we shot shell-shocked young men. It may have been acceptable in 1949, when we did not really appreciate the effect of violence upon the human mind. However, it bears no relation to what we know in 1991 about the effects of violence.

The fallacy at the heart of Mr. Justice Devlin's dictum is that it failed to appreciate that many people cannot regain normal self-control soon after brutality. We recognised that with the American troops in Vietnam. They were given full consideration. We recognised that with the British troops when they fought in the Gulf. We recognised that with the hostages in the middle east--we recognised the effect of brutality and captivity on their minds, whose balance could not quickly be restored. There is no reason why we cannot have the same consideration for battered and brutalised women that we have for soldiers and captives. The same consideration should apply. However, case law states that loss of control in women must be sudden.

My Bill would simply remove the word "sudden". It includes the requirement that cumulative violence be taken into account. I am well aware some lawyers oppose the Bill on the grounds that it would allow revenge killing, would make killing easier and would induce women to kill. Those are preposterous suggestions, which I hope will not sway the House. Surely we are far too sensible to accept revenge killing ; it is not possible. Those women who kill are oblivious to the law. They are desperate and they have been driven by brutality to kill. They are not aware of the fine points of the law.

A similar Bill was enacted in New South Wales in 1982, but there has been no increase in killings by women. The claim that there would be increased killings has not been supported by the facts. I have spoken long enough, and I simply put a plea to the House. The Home Secretary has promised to consider my plea for a change in the law. He has every right to disregard it and instead to pay attention to the pedantic meddling of the lawyers. If the Home Secretary were to take on the Bill, which is launched in all modesty, he would take a massive step forward in giving the victims of domestic violence a far better deal and a much fairer trial in British courts of law.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jack Ashley, Mr. Merlyn Rees, Ms. Jo Richardson, Mr. Nicholas Winterton, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. Neil Thorne, Mr. Bruce Grocott, Mr. Barry Field, Mrs. Teresa Gorman and Mr. Archy Kirkwood.

Homicide (Amendment) Bill

Mr. Jack Ashley accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Homicide Act 1957 in respect of the defence of provocation : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon 17 January 1992, and to be printed. [Bill 46.]

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Orders of the Day


Mr. Speaker : I must announce to the House thatI have selected the amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and his hon. Friends--

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) rose--

Mr. Speaker : Order. Sit down, please.

I must also tell the House that I have received no fewer than 75 applications to speak in this debate today, and about the same number for tomorrow. It will not help the Chair if hon. Members come to find out whether they are going to be called today--indeed, it will be counter- productive. I hope that it may be of some comfort to those who were not called in the debate in November to know that I shall give precedence to them today. I shall put a limit of 10 minutes on speeches between 7 and 9 pm, and I hope that every Member called before that time and up to 2 am will bear it in mind--including Privy Councillors.

Mr. Skinner : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On previous occasions you have deplored the fact that written questions concerning other Members' constituencies have been tabled--

Mr. Speaker : Order. I think that we ought to move on to the debate.

Mr. Skinner : Let me finish.

Mr. Speaker : Raise it with me tomorrow ; I shall deal with it then.

Mr. Skinner : This is about a question on today's Order Paper, Mr. Speaker.

Question 129 is in the name of the hon. Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay), who has never raised the matter of dioxines in Bolsover during the past six months--yet he has a written question about that on today's Order Paper. It was deliberately planted to offset the Minister's answer to my question tomorrow. If you deplore this sort of activity when Labour Members do it, it is about time you deplored it when Conservative Members do it.

Mr. Speaker : I have no knowledge of allegedly planted questions, nor have I seen the relevant question, but I do know--the whole House knows --that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter many times. We move on now to the European Community debate. I call the Prime Minister.

3.41 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major) : I beg to move,

That this House congratulates the Prime Minister on achieving all the negotiating objectives set out in the motion that was supported by the House on 21st November ; and warmly endorses the agreement secured by the Government at Maastricht.

In no other country of the Community have the issues that were decided at Maastricht been as hotly debated as they have been in this country. I have found in discussions with fellow Heads of Government that they have been frankly astonished by the amount of coverage in our media

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and by the intensity of the debate that we have had in this country over many months. I think that that coverage is not just a reflection of the measure of controversy ; it reflects also the Government's determination to ensure that the fullest information was available to the House and the country before the European Council. It is perhaps also a reflection of a national characteristic--it is by no means a new one.

After meeting Macmillan in Bermuda in 1957, Eisenhower wrote : "Any conference with the British requires the most detailed discussion. They do not like to sign any generalisations in a hurry, no matter how plausible or attractive they may be, but once their signature is appended to a document, complete confidence can be placed in their performance."

He went on, rather unkindly the House may think, to say : "French negotiators sometimes seem to prefer to sign first and then to begin discussion."

In this country, every detail of the negotiations has been pored over both by hon. Members and by the press, and not only by them. I have had letters in recent weeks from the public--from schoolchildren, very well informed-- on the pros and cons of a single currency, but I suspect that in a number of other Community countries the real debate is only just beginning.

Last month, I set out the issues that would be argued over at Maastricht. No one here or elsewhere in Europe could have been unaware of what we were arguing for. I explicitly said that we would not change our position at the very end of the negotiations. We did not, but we did achieve our objectives.

A full text of the treaty on European union is in the Library of the House. Jurists and linguists will ensure that the text is ready for signature at the beginning of February, but the treaty will enter into force only once all 12 member states have ratified it. The Luxembourg European Council last June agreed that this process should take place during 1992 so that the treaty can enter into force on 1 January 1993.

Before we shall be able to ratify the treaty, it will need to be incorporated into United Kingdom law by amending the European Communities Act 1972. As I assured the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) last week, it would not be right to carry through that legislation in the remainder of this Parliament. It will properly be a matter for the next Parliament.

This afternoon, I should like to set out what the agreement means and how I see the future development of the European Community. The misleading and controversial word "federal" has now been removed from the text of the treaty. Our partners agreed to return to the words of the original treaty of Rome--

"ever closer union among the peoples of Europe".

That has a different connotation. It means that the interests of the Community's citizens must come first and foremost.

That has always been the Government's approach. That is why Britain drove the creation of a single European market to the top of the Community agenda. It is why we have argued for reform of the common agricultural policy, and it is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) fought for and won a fair budget settlement for this country.

I believe that the Community--

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Will the Prime Minister give way?

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The Prime Minister : Later.

I believe that the Community has made a unique contribution to the development of post-war Europe. Our future is as a European power, albeit as one with continuing responsibilities in many parts of the world. The balance of national interests lies clearly in making a success of our membership of the Community, so we must work with the Community to make sure that the Community works for the whole of Europe, and especially in the interests of the people of Britain. The Community can fulfil its role properly only if it responds to the needs of its European citizens. It must respect national identity and national traditions. It must not, in the name of some wider European ambition, override the democratic wishes of the people of any one of its member states.

That is why the treaties now agreed at Maastricht were so hard-fought. Real British national interests were at stake in those discussions. The Government's job was to safeguard and to advance those interests. It was not to sign up, without critical examination, to anything that was presented to us with a European label. I set out to the House a month ago exactly what our goals would be and what we could and could not accept. The outcome matches up to those goals and commitments in every respect. The most significant agreement of the Maastricht treaties is the agreement to co-operate in a legally binding but intergovernmental framework in the three key areas of law and order, foreign policy, and defence policy. Many of our partners would have preferred to conduct that co-operation through the institutions of the Community. That was not acceptable to us ; nor, in my judgment, would it have worked. We have been able to draw a crucial distinction between those areas, such as the single market, where the Community institutions are the best tools for the job, and other areas, such as foreign policy and the fight against crime, where direct co- operation between national capitals is likely to produce the best result.

However, despite that satisfactory outcome, no one in the House should assume that that argument has been settled for all time. Some Community member states will go on pressing for a united states of Europe, with all co-operation within one institutional framework. We shall continue to argue forcefully against that proposition, and I believe that we will win the argument in the future as we have thus far.

The treaty on political union was a challenge as well as an opportunity. The challenge was to ensure that we checked the encroachment of the Community's institutions. The opportunity was to make the Community work better. In the event, a large number of the agreements that were reached stemmed specifically from proposals that were put forward by the United Kingdom. It is worth stating the extent of those proposals. Our proposals were for stronger European security and defence co-operation, making the Western European Union the defence pillar of the European union, while preserving the primacy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. For us, the prime importance of NATO was a vital national interest, and that has been secured.

Our proposals were also for a common foreign and security policy going beyond the Single European Act, but remaining outside the treaty of Rome and beyond the reach of the European Court. They were for co-operation

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on interior and justice matters, but also for co-operation outside the treaty of Rome and the jurisdiction of the European Court. They were also for co-operation for greater financial accountability, for a treaty article on subsidiarity--an article that specifically enshrines the crucial concept that the Community should undertake only those measures that could not be achieved at a national level--and for the right of the European Court of Justice to impose fines on those member states that fail to comply with its judgments, or with Community law, having previously signed up to it. We won agreement to all those proposals, and it was vital to the interests of this country that we did.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : Will the Prime Minister help with this paradox concerning the future of Europe? The west is moving towards union ; the east is moving towards a looser association--a commonwealth idea. Is it not possible that the harmonisation of the interests of individual member states along commonwealth lines rather than by means of a union would offer a more durable future, given that the break-up in the east came about because centralisation occurred without the consent of the peoples of the countries involved?

The Prime Minister : I have much sympathy with what the right hon. Gentleman has said. It is for that reason that I regard the innovation of the pillared structure operating on a co-operative basis outside the Community institutions as a very desirable development in the negotiations at Maastricht. I believe that it opens up new opportunities in the future for a European co-operation, which I believe is in all our interests--but outside the centralising institutions of the Commission, and outside the influence of the European Court of Justice. It is because of the extent of my sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman--although I would not, I believe, go as far as he would in that regard--that I believe that the agreement at Maastricht is so important.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : I am grateful to the Prime Minister for allowing me to intervene on the subject of centralised institutions. He mentioned subsidiarity, and article 3b of the treaty of union. Does he not agree that that unclear principle, on which it is very difficult to adjudicate, is totally limited by a phrase in the article? It applies to the Community only when the Community does not have matters "within its exclusive jurisdiction".

Given that, by virtue of its powers of regulation, the Community has a very wide area of exclusive jurisdiction, does not that limit subsidiarity, whatever it be, to a very narrow range of topics?

The Prime Minister : Any action taken by the Community must not reach the level necessary to infringe the principle of subsidiarity. In essense, if it can better be done at national level, it ought not to be done at Community level. That is the principle that we have enshrined in the treaty. I shall return to that point in a few moments.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland) : Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister : I will make a little progress. I shall return to that point ; I ask the hon. Gentleman to be patient.

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Had it not been for Britain's arguments, we would have had last week a treaty which brought foreign policy and interior and justice matters within the treaty of Rome. We would have had a Community setting itself up as a rival defence organisation to NATO. We would have lost our independent right to decide foreign policy. The European Parliament would have had equal rights with the Governments of member states to decide on the policies and laws of the Community, and the Community's competence would have extended into virtually every area of our national life.

I do not believe that it would have been right to agree to all that. It would not have been acceptable to this House or this country, and it would have been a betrayal of our national interests. Let me turn to social issues, and set out in detail the reasons why we could not agree to the social chapter in the treaty. Let me first remove a misunderstanding. The issue with the Community is not the quality of social provision in the countries of the Community. In Britain, we have a national health service free at the point of use-- [Interruption.] It is free at the point of use, and it is the envy of Europe. Only one other European country is in a position to say that.

We have a benefits safety net that puts many European socialist Governments to shame, and the issue before us is whether social policy should be dictated by Brussels or determined in this country. We have long accepted that there should be a social dimension to the activities of the Community. It makes sense, for example, to ensure that common standards of health and safety at work are observed. There are already agreed Community measures in the social area covering freedom of movement, collective redundancy arrangements and equal treatment for men and women in pay and social security.

Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South) : Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

The Prime Minister : Not at the moment, if the hon. Lady will forgive me.

They all help to make a reality of people's freedom to seek a job anywhere in the Community, widening the opportunities open to all our citizens.

We have not only agreed those measures ; unlike some of our partners, we have implemented them. With Germany, we are the only member state that has implemented all the 18 directives so far adopted by the Community. We have made it clear that we will adopt and implement the majority of the proposals in the Community's existing social action programme. Nineteen of the 33 measures so far published have been agreed by the Council of Ministers, and the United Kingdom has not blocked a single one of them. We have played a full part in the social dimensions of the Community, and no one has gone further.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : Will the Prime Minister make clear to the House and, perhaps therefore, the country something that is not understood? How is it that countries such as Greece, Portugal and Spain could put their names to the social chapter but the United Kingdom could not? Does the Prime Minister really want to be the leader of the "little boys up chimneys" party?

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The Prime Minister : If the hon. Gentleman had been patient, I would have turned from the social dimension to the social chapter about which he is talking.

The social dimension exists under present Community competence. It is a matter in which we have been fully involved, and I have listed many of the areas of legislation that we have accepted, with a better record than anyone else in the Community.

Several Hon. Members rose --

The Prime Minister : The social chapter covers the point raised by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), and the point that others may have wished to raise. We have refused to accept that, in addition, the Community should intrude into aspects of social policy best decided nationally.

Ms. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) : Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

The Prime Minister : If the hon. Lady will let me finish my argument, she may not have to intervene.

The Government will not support proposals that would destroy jobs by imposing damaging costs on British industry. Companies know best how much they can afford in relation to their competitors, not the social affairs directorate in Brussels. That is why we are resisting the proposed working time directive, which would cost British employers up to £5 billion in the first year alone. There is also the part-time working directive, which would require up to 1.75 millon part-time workers to pay national insurance contributions. The effect of that directive would be to impose extra costs on those workers at modest levels of earnings whose contributions burden the House lightened as recently as 1989.

That single illustration gives the lie to the absurd notion that all proposals from Brussels are socially enlightened, and all resistance to them is from the dark ages. Who in this House wants higher national insurance contributions on low-paid workers? That is what the directive proposes. If the Opposition support that, let them say so. If they do not want to do so, let them support us in resisting its imposition.

Those are directives that the European Commission is endeavouring to make, even under its existing competence. That makes it abundantly clear why I was not prepared to accept a further massive extension of competence in this field.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) : The Prime Minister is telling the House that he totally misunderstands the social charter and the social chapter. Europeans regard the social dimension, the social chapter and the social charter as one and the same. Will the Prime Minister tell me and the House how he will feel when he signs the treaty, and the protocol that deals with the social charter? He will not sign, but will exclude Britain from the institutions of the Community, from all its mechanisms and from every aspect of this policy. How will he feel when he does not sign that page?

The Prime Minister : The protocol is not in the treaty ; it is adjacent to the treaty, but it is not in it. The protocol will not apply to us. It will not impose damaging costs on British industry and workers. I feel, as so many employers

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in this country and abroad feel, that it will give a competitive advantage to this country, not a competitive disadvantage.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West) : Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister : I have given way twice, so, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall now make progress.

The social chapter would have implied that laws could have been imposed on the United Kingdom, by a qualified majority vote of member states, on working conditions, rights of information and consultation--including that of unions to block essential business decisions--and any action related to the provision of jobs for unemployed people. These would have ceased to be a matter for decision by this House and by British employers and employees, according to the needs of this country.

The Community's ambitions would not have ended with those matters : social security and protection, union rights to representation of workers, union involvement in company management and the conditions of employment of non- resident workers from outside the Community would all have been explicit Community responsibilities. That, without a shred of doubt, would have been a recipe for a centralised Community social policy, which could not possibly have taken account of wide variations in traditional practice, culture and experience. It is clear that it would have enabled costly laws to be imposed, irrespective of the needs of our economy and our jobs, and I was not prepared to accept that.

Ms. Ruddock : Will the Prime Minister confirm that Britain has the lowest maternity pay of any country in the Community and, in the context of the remarks that he has just made, is he satisfied with that state of affairs?

The Prime Minister : Britain has the longest maternity leave, as the hon. Lady may know, of any country in Europe : this House decided that, and the hon. Lady has to recognise that point. It is for the House to determine that.

Let me turn to article 118b in the agreement of the 11, of which the Opposition are so fond. Let me explain to the House what the agreement that I rejected says about the role of collective agreements at Community level, rather than what some have led us to believe in recent days. It provides for such agreements between Community-level representatives of management and labour. That means, principally, the Union of Industrial and Employers Confederations of Europe and the European Trades Union Congress--a body whose combined membership is no more than one in four employees in the Community. It provides that such agreements shall be implemented in member states in one of two ways.

The first is to require such agreements to be implemented directly in member states according to their own procedures. Such agreements could cover any matter, including pay, the right to join a union and the right to strike. The only exclusions from those provisions are what Community-led employers and unions fail to agree on. The second way is to require the Council, at the request of these employers and unions, to implement these agreements through Community law, enforceable through the European Court. In this case all the matters within the

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huge range of Community competence that I have described could come within the scope of such agreements. Only pay, the right to join a union and the right to strike would be excluded.

The Opposition told us the exclusions, but they failed to mention the list of inclusions. The matters included run to union law as well as the laws affecting individuals--rights of recognition and negotiation, the right to block company decisions--and nowhere in the proposals tabled are collective rights excluded from action, and laws could be imposed on this country without the agreement not only of its Government but without the agreement of its Government, its employers and its employees. That is not acceptable.

The Opposition cannot credibly claim that such extraordinary provisions would not recreate precisely the kind of national bargaining--but now at a Community level--which created what was called the "British disease" of the 1960s and 1970s, so I rejected those proposals.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North) rose --

The Prime Minister : I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. I shall not turn back the clock to the failure of the corporatism of the 1960s and 1970s. I do not believe that the British people want to see Europe trying as national Governments tried in the 1960s and 1970s--

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield) : Will the Prime Minister confirm that, in relation to the first way that he mentioned, the declaration attached to article 118 states that none of the agreements can impose

"any obligation to amend national legislation in order to facilitate their implementation." ?

Will he also confirm that, in relation to the second way, they are all covered by article 118b, which specifically exempts the right to strike and union legislation ?

The Prime Minister : The hon Gentleman is wrong on his second point. There is the possibility, the probability and even the certainty of supranational agreements being imposed on this country as a result of these agreements. I am not prepared to accept that on behalf of this country. Neither--on the basis of the experience of what is happening under the existing social provisions--was I prepared to trust the Commission not to stretch the new definitions of the proposed social chapter. We have seen what the Commission is doing with the working time directive under the health and safety article-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. I ask the House to settle down.

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