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The Prime Minister : We seek, in this and in other matters, to influence what happens in the European Community in the direction that we think is right. We have done that very successfully with the enlargement procedure ; we have done it very successfully with the reduction of legislation ; we have done it very successfully with the subsidiarity provisions ; and we have done it very successfully in other areas as well. As a number of my hon. Friends have said, that requires us from time to time to dissent from what happens to be the prevailing majority view in the European Union.
There is nothing anti-European about doing that. It is also the case that other nations--the French, the Germans, the Spanish, whoever it may be-- dissent from time to time from aspects of European Union legislation. It is right that they should do so, because only through arguments and discussions of that sort can a proper consensus be reached.
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) : Just to dispel any residual doubts, will my right hon. Friend spell out unequivocally those points of principle on which, in the national interest, Her Majesty's Government are prepared to stand, courageously and consistently, in our relations with the European Community ?
The Prime Minister : We have made perfectly clear, over a long period, the areas that are of particular principle to us. The fact that we were not prepared to accept the social charter, for no other reason than that it would make it more difficult for companies in this country to sell their goods and maintain jobs, is a matter of principle for us ; similarly, the maintenance of the national veto is a matter of principle for us. We also seek to make changes to the system of qualified majority voting. Some we have obtained on this occasion ; for others we have laid down a marker in 1996. Those and other areas are matters of great importance to us.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood) : Does the Prime Minister believe that we have more friends and allies in Europe as a result of this diplomatic disaster ? Does he think that we shall have more friends and allies in 1996 as a result of what has happened ? Has the Prime Minister learnt at least one thing from this debacle--that any attempt to found British European policy on the internal interests of the Conservative party will end badly, and will deserve to ?
The Prime Minister : I will tell the hon. Gentleman one thing that we have certainly learnt. We have learnt that we have obtained concessions in this negotiation that we would not have obtained if we had followed the Labour party's advice and just lamely said yes to 27.
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge) : Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to remind the country that the fight that he has put up for its interests is in complete contrast to that of the Opposition party ? That party would have not only watered down the whole concept of QMV, but abandoned our national veto. Is that not the dividing line between the parties on Europe, and will it not be the issue that the country will need to see as part of the European elections ?
The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend is entirely right about that-- except that, with his characteristic generosity, he neglected to mention that the Liberal party has precisely the same policies as the Labour party.
Column 809Several hon. Members rose
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to allow local authorities to permanently identify a stray dog before returning it to its owner ; and for connected purposes.
The Bill addresses one of the most common problems in Britain's cities--the problem of stray dogs--and seeks to give local authorities assistance in dealing with it.
The House is well aware that Britain is a nation of dog lovers. Over one in four households have a dog. As The Times revealed last week, there are 7.3 million dogs in Britain, which represents an increase of almost 2 million in 12 years. For most people the dog is a treasured member of the family. They care for it, give it exercise and do not allow it to stray or be a nuisance to others. Most dog owners recognise that the freedom to own a dog involves responsibility to that dog and to their neighbours.
Unfortunately, there are those who do not accept their responsibilities, and who allow their dog to stray and become a nuisance to others. We all know that a stray dog may cause road accidents, may foul indiscriminately and, with other dogs, may become a menace to other people, causing fear and alarm.
The experience of my local authority, Bristol city council, is that the majority of stray dogs are what could be described as "latch-key" strays-- dogs that are let out of the house to wander and return home later. In response, Bristol city council has an excellent dog warden scheme, dealing efficiently with strays. The wardens are dedicated to the welfare of the dogs and work closely with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to find homes for dogs whose owners do not wish to have them back.
Unfortunately, some of the dogs cannot be found new homes, and inevitably have to be destroyed. Many of the owners who adopt this casual attitude to their dog will no doubt acquire a new dog, which may well suffer the same fate.
In 1991-92, Bristol handled more than 1,800 stray dogs. It costs Bristol over £9 per day to kennel each of the dogs, which, by law, have to be kept for at least seven days. An unclaimed dog costs the council tax payers of Bristol up to £70 in kennelling costs, and a further £10 if the dog has to be destroyed. In 1991-92, more than 450 dogs were not claimed by their owners, costing Bristol council tax payers an estimated £31,500. Some authorities are destroying more than 1,000 dogs each year.
As anyone can see, dealing with strays is a costly business, and most authorities are not given the power to tackle the problem more effectively. Bristol city council encourages owners to have their dogs permanently identified. It is a sort of vaccination against loss, and is as painless as any other injection a dog will receive. It places a small microchip under the skin at the back of the dog's neck. The chip can be read by a hand-held reader carried by a dog warden, an RSPCA inspector and some police officers. The individual number given to each dog can be used to trace, by a simple telephone call, the name and address of the owner.
Bristol city council microchippped more than 800 dogs in the past year alone. It has increased the number of dogs that can be returned to their owners within hours, and sometimes within minutes, of being found. A dog returned
Column 811to its owner on the day it is found saves dog wardens precious time, and the council and the council tax payer considerable sums of money. Furthermore, a council that finds a dog whose owner does not want it back will get the owner to sign over ownership of the dog to the council, allowing it to be rehoused without having to be kept in kennels for seven days.
The Bill merely allows authorities such as Bristol, which handles large numbers of stray dogs each year, permanently to identify a stray dog before it is returned to its owner. Although the law requires dogs to wear a collar and tag when in a public place, in reality most strays do not have a collar and tag. Unlike a collar and tag, a microchip cannot get lost.
The Bill is not a dog registration Bill. It does not require compulsory registration for all dog owners. But it does give the authority the option of targeting the offending owners and ensuring that their dog, which has been allowed to stray, carries permanent identification.
Furthermore, many of Britain's councils will not have a significant stray dog problem, and will not require to take such steps ; but I believe that local authorities throughout Britain will increasingly use this simple procedure to reduce the stray dog population and save precious public money. Already, between 1992 and 1993--just one year--Bristol has seen a decline in its strays of more than 400, which represents a fall of 20 per cent. This has been achieved by persuading owners to have their dogs permanently identified. The number of stray dogs being kennelled will fall even further if the Government allow the Bill to become law.
Finally, the Bill does not affect the responsible dog owner. It will not add to the burden of local authorities or the taxpayer in general ; nor will the Bill place an extra duty on any local authority. It will merely add a valuable option for local councils to tackle a problem that is visible daily on our streets and in our neighbourhoods. The Bill is better for the welfare of the dog, better for people, better for children in parks and playgrounds, better for our urban environment, and much better for the taxpayer. I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms Jean Corston, Ms Dawn Primarolo, Mr. Elliot Morley, Mr. Peter Bottomley, Mr. Tony Banks, Mrs. Ann Winterton, Mr. Alan Meale, Mr. Terry Lewis, Mr. Bill Etherington, Mr. Roger Berry and Mrs. Bridget Prentice.
Ms Jean Corston accordingly presented a Bill to allow local authorities to permanently identify a stray dog before returning it to its owner ; and for connected purposes : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 13 May, and to be printed. [Bill 82.]
Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. At 12.30 pm today, the Secretary of State for Transport announced a major U-turn in the Government's policy with regard to funding for London Transport. Knowing how you deprecate such statements being made outside this House, and in the knowledge that the Minister for Public Transport is sitting on the Front Bench, would it perhaps be in order for me to ask the Minister a question about why this statement came when it did and precisely what is being promised in this announcement ?
Madam Speaker : I am afraid that I cannot allow the hon. Lady to do that--it has to be a point of order to me and not to a Minister. However, obviously those on the Treasury Bench have heard what the hon. Lady has had to say. I have had no notification that a statement is to be made about that matter.
That, at this day's sitting, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business), the Speaker shall (1) put the Question necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Mr. Secretary Gummer relating to Rating and Valuation not later than one and a half hours after their commencement ; and
(2) put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Sir Fergus Montgomery relating to Northern Ireland Affairs not later than one and a half hours after their commencement ; such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments to the said Motion which she may have selected and which may then be moved ; notwithstanding the practice of the House the said Motion shall be regarded as a single Motion :
and the above proceedings may be entered upon and proceeded with, though opposed, after Ten o'clock.
The purpose of the motion is, I think, clear and can be stated briefly. The first half of the motion provides for the motion on rating and valuation in the name of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to be debated for up to one and a half hours, in the same way as if it were being discussed after 10 o'clock, and for the Question then to be put.
The second half of the motion similarly provides for up to one and a half hours' debate on the motion in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery), Chairman of the Committee of Selection, to determine the membership of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee--together, of course, with any amendments that may be selected. The Question would then be put on any amendments that are moved and then on the motion, or the amended motion, as a whole.
In other words, Madam Speaker, these are simple, sensible and straightforward proposals to enable the House to discuss and decide these matters in a way which I judge will be for the general convenience of hon. Members, and I commend the motion to the House.
Column 8134.23 pm
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North) : I do not agree in any way with the Leader of the House in his summation of the motion. As we shall be dealing later with matters concerning democracy in Northern Ireland, I am sure that the House will join me in sending our good wishes to Councillor John Fee of Crossmaglen, who suffered an appalling beating at the hands of republicans. He is the spokesman for democracy in Crossmaglen and the people of Crossmaglen have shown their support for him by putting him at the head of the poll on every occasion. He is their representative, not the people who so seriously battered him. We wish him well for a speedy recovery.
The Government's decision to allow only an hour and a half on each of these two important matters is a purely political manoeuvre which in no way reflects the seriousness of the issues to be debated. It is part of a general policy that has been followed by the Government to force through legislation without any debate or critical assessment of the Government's policies. The Government are therefore maintaining the same cavalier attitude towards the parliamentary process as they showed during the passage of the Non-Domestic Rating Act 1994, which they guillotined to prevent proper debate. The decision to limit debate on the Railways (Rateable Values) (Amendment) Order is yet another example of that policy.
The order is an emergency provision which will come into operation on 1 April without any proper discussion. There has been no time to consult the interested parties, despite the long-term significance of the order. The increased rateable costs which the order will introduce will inevitably be passed on to the consumer, or the passenger on the train, thus adding to the increased costs of transport which will inevitably follow the Government's ill-fated and badly designed proposals for the future of British Rail.
The establishment of a Northern Ireland Select Committee is not simply a procedural parliamentary decision--it has major political ramifications. Therefore, discussion of the composition of such a Committee needs more time than has been allotted. Further detailed discussion on the proposed composition of the Committee is vital and we object strongly to the severely limited time allotted to the matter.
Mr. Newton : As I said, had the Railways (Rateable Values) (Amendment) Order been debated at the more usual time for such orders-- quite late at night--it would have been debated for only an hour and a half. Also, it would have been debated at night rather than at this more sensible hour. The hon. Gentleman does not appear to acknowledge that if the Committee of Selection motion had been dealt with at the usual time-- after 10 pm--it would have been debated for only one hour. I am, therefore, allocating more time.
Mr. McNamara : We must ask why is the Government's business so thin today that they are allocating more time ? This almost Pauline conversion and generosity in allowing an entire half hour to the Opposition is without precedent. Nevertheless, whether we have an hour or an hour and a half, neither is sufficient to discuss the important ramifications of the proposed appointments to this important new Select Committee.
In the debate on the establishment of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, the Leader of the House asserted
Column 814that, in the past, when considering their attitude towards the creation of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, the Government had taken account
"of all the relevant political considerations in Northern Ireland."--[ Official Report , 9 March 1994 ; Vol. 239, c. 340.] When we examine the appointments to that Committee, we need further debate to discover the relevant political considerations behind the Government's decision to support the creation of the Northern Ireland Select Committee and to propose a composition that is patently unrepresentative.
To understand the political considerations, it is necessary to examine thoroughly the context in which the Select Committee was proposed. It would not be in order for me to do so in full, nor do I have the time, but it would be correct to examine the salient points that have governed the decision to appoint the Select Committee and which also govern its composition.
The creation of a Northern Ireland Select Committee has a significant symbolic importance that has been acknowledged by all parties represented in the House. The Ulster Unionist party is particularly aware of the symbolic value of such a Committee. In its press briefings, the Ulster Unionist party argued that, although the Committee will bring administrative benefits,
"the symbolic effects will be more immediate. This will be the first positively unionist move by the British Government since our parliamentary representation was increased in 1979."
That is the Committee's significance and it is why its composition is so important. It has very little to do with the need for proper scrutiny and more to do with the restoration of Stormont.
The Ulster Unionists identify the Northern Ireland Select Committee with the failed Stormont regime of the past. Their briefing states :
"The Northern Ireland Select Committee will probably want to sit regularly in Belfast. When we see a group of familiar
parliamentarians again in Stormont with their doings reported in the local media, then Ulster folk will see something useful and purposeful in local politics . . . And this useful and purposeful achievement has been the result of Unionist pressure."
That is why we should have been given more time to consider the composition of the Committee.
A question remains over exactly what pressure was put on the Government to concede to a Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, despite the objections of representatives of the minority community in Northern Ireland, and to concede to a Select Committee whose composition is wholly unacceptable to the Labour party and to the SDLP. That is why we need more time to consider the terms of appointment of the membership of that Committee.
In the past, the Government have accepted that a Northern Ireland Select Committee should be established only on the basis of broad cross-community support because of its symbolic significance. The Government recommended against the establishment of a Northern Ireland Select Committee in 1990, leaving the House to conclude that, due to the sensitivity of the talks process, there should be no alteration to the status quo. Having tabled the motion to establish the Committee, the Government are now prepared to go into the Lobby
Mr. Peter Robinson : I follow the hon. Gentleman's argument to the extent that it appears to him that some deal has resulted in the formation of a Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. What I cannot understand is how that would reflect his view of what the composition of a House of Commons Select Committee should be.
Mr. McNamara : That is my exact point. We objected to the Committee as such, we were defeated on that and the House came to a decision. We are now looking to the way in which the composition of the Committee will be decided. That will be decided by a subsequent motion, for which we have only an hour and a half's debate. What I am arguing is that we must consider the political reasons that have led to those particular people being appointed to the Committee. Hence, it is our argument that we should have longer than an hour and a half and that we should oppose the Government's imposition of that time limit, despite their unbounded and unprecedented generosity of giving us an extra half hour.
The Government have not been prepared to explain their own radical change in policy. They are now prepared to ignore the forcefully expressed wishes of one section of the community. That unscrupulous betrayal of an often- pronounced principle has helped to undermine trust felt towards the Government in Ireland and underpin the continuing distrust which is gradually being felt by both communities. That sense of betrayal is only heightened by the knowledge that the Government chose to override their principled stance for the sake of the squalid deal that they have made. The deal has nothing to do with securing peace in Northern Ireland and everything to do with the Government's narrow and unstable majority in the House. That is also why they have decided to gerrymander the composition of the Committee and why we should have more time to discuss it.
The Government have allowed their actions to be dictated not by a long-term strategy to secure political settlement in Northern Ireland, but by the need to maintain their so-called understanding with the Ulster Unionist party. The Government are allowing short-term political expediency to take precedence over the peace process ; we should examine the nature of the proposals that they are making for the membership of the Select Committee and have more time so to do. The Government are casting doubt over their assertion that Britain has no long-term strategic or economic interest in Ireland. They are calling into question the whole basis of their policy because they now have a selfish political interest in Northern Ireland-- being able to maintain their majority.
During Northern Ireland questions on 17 March the Secretary of State claimed that there was "no question of decoupling" strand 1 from strands 2 and 3 of the talks process that had taken place. Yet that is precisely what the Government have done by unilaterally establishing a Northern Ireland Select Committee with such an unbalanced representation. We shall discuss that matter later, and that is another reason why we need extra time.
Under the framework for the inter-party talks agreed in 1991, strand 1 covers measures affecting the institutional
Column 816arrangements governing Northern Ireland. The establishment of a Northern Ireland Select Committee clearly came under strand 1, so its composition, too, would come under strand 1. By withdrawing the arrangements for a Northern Ireland Select Committee from the ambit of inter-party talks, the Government themselves are unravelling the strands agreed by the British and Irish Governments and by all the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland. Therefore, we need extra time to discuss the principles behind the appointments.
The Government have also undermined the principle on which the talks were based--"nothing is agreed until everything is agreed." During Northern Ireland questions the Secretary of State said : "Whether the parties in the resumed talks wish to maintain that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed is a matter for them. That is not a matter on which I can lay down a rule."--[ Official Report , 17 March 1994 ; Vol. 239, c. 998.]
That is a strange position for the British Government to adopt, given that they were a party to the original framework agreed in 1991, and given that we assume that they will still be a party to any future inter-party talks.
If that matter is to be left purely to the parties, it means that the Government are acquiescing in an unravelling of the situation. Apparently, the British Government are relinquishing all responsibility for the future structure of the talks. That would affect the composition of the Committee, because it would be within its ambit to examine those proposals. Therefore, we need more time to discuss its membership. The Government's attitude is irresponsible, because it has the potential to hinder progress towards an agreed political settlement.
The Government appear to wish to surround themselves in a fog of uncertainty. As I said during the debate on the motion to establish a Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, the Government have two agendas--one to secure their majority in the House of Commons by keeping their right wing and the Ulster Unionists on board, and the other to keep alive the peace process based on the Downing street declaration.
Obviously, that matter will come within the ambit of the discussions in the Select Committee. The membership of the Committee must be of importance when such a fundamental matter is to be discussed, so we should have more time to discuss that membership later today.
The establishment of a Northern Ireland Select Committee is part of the agenda for maintaining Ulster Unionist backing. However, the Government's second agenda, for the peace process, is causing some conflict with the Unionist party. There appears to be some disagreement between the Secretary of State and the followers of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, over the current status of bilateral talks taking place between that party and the Minister of State. Doubtless that would be reflected in the attitude that might be taken by the members of a new Select Committee, were it to be appointed and were we to have more time to discuss its composition. We hear the Secretary of State saying that the tripartite talks, with the three strands, are still taking place, but the Ulster Unionist party says that it is not part of that set of talks. It considers the present talks to be bilateral only, between the Secretary of State and the different parties, including itself. Others say that because
Column 817the Minister of State is advising the Government of the Republic of what is taking place in the bilateral talks, the three strands still exist.
The questions arise : are the Ulster Unionists in the three strands or are they not, and is what the Secretary of State says accurate ? That fog cannot help in the search for a solution and we may find it replicated or even made thicker by the representation of hon. Members who will apparently be on the Select Committee. Therefore, we should have more time to discuss that representation.
The Secretary of State stands accused, in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph , of misrepresenting the position of the Ulster Unionist party. The Secretary of State is reported to have caused offence because of his claim that, since the talks with the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram)--the Minister of State--are continuing on the same basis as before, the Ulster Unionist party is still discussing the three strands. That would be a positive development. The Labour party maintains its support for the inter-party talks. If we had more representatives on the Select Committee--a matter which we shall be discussing later--and if we had more time, we should argue that the talks should continue. However, the development would also be a surprising one given that the leader of the Ulster Unionist party has condemned the
"circus format of the previous talks process".
The right hon. Gentleman's reference to "the previous talks process" suggests that he regards the talks as being over. There is, therefore, an urgent need for Government clarification. The clarification should come in today's debate on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, as, presumably, the position of the Ulster Unionist party was one of the political considerations that Government took into account when they decided to table a motion to establish a Northern Ireland Select Committee and to support the inclusion of the hon. Members whose names appear on today's Order Paper. By opposing this motion, we are asking for more discussion of the membership.
All those factors behind the decision to back the establishment of a Northern Ireland Select Committee and the Committee's proposed composition should properly be debated and examined in today's debate. This is why the Opposition object to the Government's provision of only an hour and a half.
There is absolutely no agreement on the establishment of a Northern Ireland Select Committee and, as is shown by the Order Paper, there is certainly no agreement on the Committee's composition. Yet the Government are attempting to deny the House sufficient time even to debate the question of composition.
The proposed composition of the Northern Ireland Select Committee is still further proof of the Government's duplicity. While claiming to want equality, they have allotted representatives of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland just one seat on the Committee. This is an example of gerrymandering at its worst. They have allotted the Labour party only two seats--a gross distortion of parliamentary procedure, as there are 270 Labour Members of Parliament. The Labour party is demanding more time for today's debate because of the wide-ranging implications of the proposed composition of the Northern Ireland Select Committee.
In considering a matter as important as the composition of a Select Committee and the amount of time that should be provided, the Government have a responsibility to the
Column 818peoples of these islands to secure a just and lasting political settlement for Ireland--a settlement that has the agreement and support of the people of Ireland. The Government should not jeopardise such an important objective by establishing a Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee with a wholly biased composition, purely and simply at the whim of one of the parties to the talks, in a desperate effort to shore up an increasingly shaky Government with an increasingly shaky position on the Floor of the House. For those reasons, we oppose the motion.
It appears to have been suggested that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is being appointed contrary to the advice of the Procedure Committee. If that is the implication I must make it absolutely clear that the Procedure Committee, in its report of 1990, said quite clearly that it would not be possible to go on for ever refusing to appoint a Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. That, the Procedure Committee said, would have to come, but it would be up to the Government, having particular regard to the evidence from the Secretary of State of the day, to decide the proper time. When we reconsidered the matter we altered not one jot or tittle of the report. In other words, exactly the same recommendation stood in 1993.
With regard to numbers, the Procedure Committee made it clear that all the political parties in Northern Ireland should be represented. I understand that to be what is happening. Somewhat strangely, the Government are not demanding a majority on the Committee. The latter aspect is slightly unusual in respect of Select Committees of this nature.
Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh) : The right hon. Gentleman said that all the political parties in Northern Ireland will be represented. Will he, for the benefit of the House, enumerate the political parties from Northern Ireland that will be represented ?
In normal circumstances, there would have been no means of objecting procedurally to the length of debate. If the Government had tabled the matter for discussion after 10 o'clock the debate could have lasted only an hour, and the Opposition could not have objected. In fact, the 20-minute speech of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) is a gift of the Government, and the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will still have an extra 50 per cent. in the actual debate. Thus, the suggestion that this is a case of Government gerrymandering is an exaggeration and indicates a slight misunderstanding. I cannot see that there are any grounds for such an implication.
First, he said that it is an exception to the rule for the Government to relinquish their majority on a Select Committee and to provide representation for each Northern Ireland political party. I suggested to the Committee of Selection that the Government could keep their majority by
Column 819taking seven seats and giving two to the Labour party and one to each of the Northern Ireland political parties. However, as the Government had done a deal with the Ulster Unionists at the time of the debate on the Maastricht treaty, they were afraid to give them fewer than two seats.
Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman said that the Government are being very generous by allowing this debate. The Government's conscience must have pricked them, as they tabled the motion before the Select Committee's decision. It seems to me that they felt self-conscious and guilty because of their attempts to gerrymander the Committee. Incidentally, the recommendation of the Committee of Selection was adopted on the basis of a majority Conservative vote.
Sir Peter Emery : As the Deputy Chief Whip knows only too well, I do not know what goes on in the Committee of Selection ; nor can I be expected to. Indeed, I understand that such matters are normally confidential.