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Sir Paul Beresford: As I am trying to say, it is a mixture. I shall write to explain to the hon. Gentleman, if he has not picked it up. The hon. Gentleman must recognise that many of the sources of the gas date from the middle of last century, and there is the additional difficulty of predictability.
The Health and Safety Commission recently issued a consultative document in respect of minimum requirements for health and safety of drilling operatives. Account needs to be taken, where appropriate, of mine gas emissions in proposals for new development and changes of use.
Many of the general issues of which I have spoken apply to Northumberland. It would not be proper to comment on the sad event at Widdrington station, as the circumstances are still--
It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, pursuant to Order [19 December].
Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich): I am grateful for your indulgence and that of the House in this matter, Madam Speaker. I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 20, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,
"the impending deportation of an Ivorian refugee, Sita Kamara." It is one of the strengths of the House that, while there may appear to be many greater issues on the agenda, we can find time to discuss the rights of, and threats to, an individual. My immediate concern is for the safety and well-being of an 18-year-old woman who has been in detention for seven months. My second concern is the general issue of the treatment of people fleeing oppression, and my third concern is the position of asylum seekers from the Ivory Coast.
Sita Kamara sought refuge in this country from the Ivory Coast and was refused, along with 320 other applicants--all from the Ivory Coast--refused last year. At the age of 17, she was detained by the Home Secretary at the Group 4 detention centre at Campsfield. Last week, I visited Campsfield, where she had been on hunger strike for some weeks. I found her in a weak and emotionally stressed state, terrified of returning home and alleging ill treatment and sexual abuse on the part of the Ivorian authorities.
I raised questions with the Home Office Minister, who said that he intended to remove Sita. I raised my concerns about her physical and mental well- being and was assured by the Minister that she was fit to travel. The deportation did not take place the following day because of medical advice that, although she was fit to travel, she was fit to do so only with a medical escort, which could not be provided. Sita was not deported the following day either. It was alleged that there was an attempt at suicide. The Minister disputes that it was attempted suicide, but whether it was suicide or parasuicide, that young 18-year-old attempted deliberate self- harm and I cannot believe that a young woman in her position would have done so had she not been in real fear for what would happen if she returned to the Ivory Coast.
None of the refugees from the Ivory Coast whose applications were considered last year has been granted asylum, despite reports by Amnesty International and the American State Department on abuses of human rights in that country.
I hope that the House will find time to debate the rights of Sita Kamara and the wider implications for others. I hope that we will have time to discover the depths to which this country appears to have sunk, as we are not prepared to grant shelter to a vulnerable young woman in such a position.
Madam Speaker: I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said. I must give my decision without stating my reason for so doing. I am afraid that I do not consider that the matter that he raised is appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 20 and I cannot, therefore, submit his application to the House.
Mr. Secretary Heseltine, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Rifkind, Mr. Secretary Gummer, Mr. Secretary Lang, Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew and Mr. Tim Eggar, presented a Bill to make provision for the transfer of property, rights and liabilities of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority to other persons; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. [Bill 61.]
Mr. Secretary Heseltine, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Gummer, Mr. Secretary Lang, Mr. Secretary Portillo, Mr. Secretary Redwood and Mr. Tim Eggar, presented a Bill to amend Parts I and III of the Gas Act 1986; to make provision for requiring the owners of certain gas processing facilities to make them available to other persons; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. [Bill 60.]
Mr. Barry Jones, supported by Mr. Paul Flynn, Mr. Martyn Jones, Mr. Rhodri Morgan, Mr. Win Griffiths, Mr. Roy Hughes, Mr. Ray Powell, Dr. John Marek, Mr. Gareth Wardell, Mr. Alan W. Williams, Mr. Donald Anderson and Mr. David Hanson, presented a Bill to make it unlawful in Wales to discriminate against disabled persons in respect of employment and in other circumstances, and to establish a Disability Rights Commission for Wales; to make provision for access to polling stations and voting by disabled persons in Wales; to place certain duties on local authorities, education authorities and other bodies in Wales in relation to disabled persons; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 17 March, and to be printed. [Bill 62.]
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to introduce a programme for the development of secure electronic information systems within Government, to reduce reliance on paperwork and hard copy files, and to ensure easier public access to certain information.
I am grateful to the House for the considerable interest that it is showing in the Internet and the information super-highway. My Bill would increase the accessibility of central and local government; increase the openness of Government, in which great strides have already been made; improve and develop necessary security systems within Government; help people in terms of education, training and employment; reduce paperwork within Government; improve the efficiency of Government; and maintain the United Kingdom Parliament as the leading Parliament in Europe and the world.
My Bill is timely because technology has advanced during the past 10 years in a way that enables people to have on-line access to worldwide information in their homes. Some 3.3 million households in the United Kingdom have home computers but only a small proportion are on line. The current growth in the number of people with access to on-line information is 1 million a year.
Last weekend, a G7 conference took place in Brussels on the information super-highway. It was attended by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Technology, who admirably put the United Kingdom's position and, as a result, obtained for us an important role in developing a Government on- line system. We are now responsible for the worldwide development of Government on-line systems.
Last October, the UK Government also went on line with a World Wide Web server known as http:\\www.open.gov.uk. In the past four months, some half a million people have gained access to that server, which is under the responsibility of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science. The Public Record Office is the most recent Government Department to provide information and has gone on line this week to join some 30 Departments and agencies of Government which are currently on line.
Three local government councils are on line, the most impressive being Conservative Brent council, which has published the Audit Commission information on its performance. One can find out how quickly Brent will reply to letters now that it is on line. The National Audit Office report published today also makes my Bill timely because it deals with information technology security in Government Departments. Public awareness of that matter is growing. The Internet is a worldwide network of telecommunications and communications access. It enables people, by direct or telephone access, to get on-line information. Many people around the world--some 30 million to 40 million--have access to it.
The World Wide Web, through which people can gain access to databases through the Internet, is a British invention. It was developed by British people at the CERN nuclear physics laboratory in Geneva. It has
Column 1050enabled easy access to on-line databases. The only skill required by users is the ability to read a page and press a button on the computer.
One of the main reasons why I believe that my Bill is necessary is that it will result in the Government helping to create new opportunities for Britain and British business. The White house went on line recently, and started receiving 40,000 electronic mail letters a month. The President and his staff could not cope with American systems, so they employed a British company to develop British software to deal with the mail that the White house receives.
That British company, known as Kinesis, is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs). My hon. Friend is giving full support to that company in obtaining international contracts. It is a successful British entrepreneurial company, marketing world wide and showing the White house in America how British business works and how to make the White house work better. I believe that there are other opportunities for British business as a result of the information super- highway. Software companies in Britain lead the world in many fields. Hardware companies and systems design opportunities offer tremendous opportunities for British business.
I shall now briefly outline the clauses of my Bill.
There will be an accountability clause, which will require all Ministers' offices to be capable of receiving and replying to letters from Members of Parliament by electronic mail within 12 months. All Government Departments will publish their annual reports and accounts on the Internet within 12 months. All Government Departments should set up systems to receive and reply to electronic mail from the public within two years. Local councils will be required to make their accounts, their Audit Commission information and the telephone numbers of their major staff available on the Internet, so that our constituents can speak to real human beings at the other end of the telephone.
The security of Government systems will be required to be improved, so that there cannot be unauthorised hacking and so that data protection can be ensured. One hopes that British companies will bid for new contracts, in which computer fire walls will be properly set up and methods to prevent external hacking will be implemented. The Public Record Office should be responsible for taking and securing historic back-ups of data, and Government Departments should be required to implement other back-ups.
Education, training and employment are covered in a separate clause. We have Super-JANET, a world-beating computer network, developed in Britain by our universities as a result of the Government's support. I propose that schools training information should go on line, and my Bill will ensure that access to Super-JANET and university computer systems is available to United Kingdom primary and secondary school pupils. I also believe that training and skills opportunities might be developed as a result of the Internet and access to the Internet.
I pay tribute to schools in my constituency which are helping their students to go on line, and the Kent training and enterprise council, which is supporting that.
Column 1051There will be clauses in my Bill to cover paperwork reduction, openness and efficiency of Government. Paper is slow and inefficient, and it requires large numbers of typists in Whitehall. It is time that we had type-your-own civil servants.
There are about 6 million files in Whitehall on paper. Whitehall is awash with millions of pieces of paper. We could speed up the processes of Government if Whitehall went electronic. I propose that many files should go electronic, and that more information in those files should be made available to the public.
Finally I propose that Parliament should go on line, that Members of Parliament should go on line, that we should all have electronic mail addresses within 12 months, that Hansard should be on line within 12 months, and that anyone in the world should be capable of reading what we say. Information about this Parliament, the mother of Parliaments, should be accessible to our constituents and to anyone in the world.
Yesterday evening I was able to dial into the House of Representatives from my home in London to see what Congressmen were saying. I believe that Parliament should be on line. Ours is the leading Parliament in the world, and we should maintain our lead by going on line. My Bill proposes just that.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Shaw, Sir Wyn Roberts, Mr. John Butcher, Mr. Michael Fabricant, Mr. Alan Haselhurst, Mr. Nigel Waterson and Mr. Nick Hawkins.
Mr. David Shaw accordingly presented a Bill to introduce a programme for the development of secure electronic information systems within Government, to reduce reliance on paperwork and hard copy files, and to ensure easier public access to certain information: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 21 April, and to be printed. [Bill 63.]
Madam Speaker: I have two short announcements to make before we begin the debate. First, I have selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister. Secondly, so many Members want to participate in today's debate that I have put on a 10-minute limit from 7 o'clock; but I would hope that Members fortunate enough to be called before then will voluntarily limit their speeches. I want to hear as many voices as possible in this debate.
That this House does not support Her Majesty's Government's policy towards the European Union and does not believe it promotes the interests of the British people.
The case that we make today is that it is in Britain's interests to be fully at the heart of Europe. So far from pandering to Conservative Members who may take a different view, let me say at the outset that I intend to try to deal with their arguments head on. Let me also tell our Ulster colleagues that I support the Government's position on Northern Ireland and that that support will not change. The crux of this debate, therefore, is not the parliamentary arithmetic but the policy towards Europe.
At each stage I shall set out the Labour party's position, and I shall then ask the Prime Minister to clarify the Government's. Let us dismiss straight away, however, the bogey of some federal united states of Europe. The choice is not between a federal and a non-federal Europe. The true choice is whether Britain's interests are best served by remaining at the heart of Europe, engaging constructively with further European co-operation; or by retreating to a different relationship altogether with the European Union. Both are logical and sustainable positions, but they imply quite different visions of Britain's future.
At one time the position of the Government was clear. It was the Prime Minister himself who said, just a short time ago:
"It is absurd to believe that Great Britain would voluntarily separate itself from the mainstream of European development . . . Great Britain stands at the centre of Europe and will remain as such."
Indeed, at an earlier stage he even said:
"There is no more important issue facing the European Community than the path we choose towards economic and monetary union. We are all committed to this goal. That is no longer news."
Of course the right hon. Gentleman was right to want to be at the centre of Europe. Europe and NATO have given Britain and Europe peace. The single market, now combined with a proper social dimension, offers huge opportunities to British business. British businesses such as ICI, British Steel and British Telecom can only gain if competition rules are enforced across Europe. The European Union acts as a powerful magnet to inward investment. And British people--we support this--have been given rights: decent health and safety, equality for women, fair treatment for part-time workers. In our view at least they would gain more were we to join other Governments, Labour and Conservative, in the European social chapter.
Column 1053Britain has enhanced its voice in the world through Europe, especially in trade. It offers, therefore, a range of chances across a range of areas, from research to the environment to technology and infrastructure, to act and co-operate where the nation state is insufficient.
The question is: do the Government still believe that we should be at the centre of Europe in future co-operation, or has their position changed? That is the question in the debate.
Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton): Will the Leader of the Opposition clarify one point? In recent years, the party that he leads has changed its mind five or six times on its attitude to Europe, and in his time in the House he has himself changed his attitude to Europe several times. How can Europe or Britain take the Labour party seriously on the matter of Europe?
Mr. Blair: For those who do not know it, this is all set out in the Conservative research department brief. [Hon. Members:-- "Answer the question."] I will answer it. I would prefer to be leading a party that was anti-European and is now pro-European than leading a party that was pro -European and is becoming anti-European.
Mr. Norman Lamont (Kingston upon Thames): Will the right hon. Gentleman comment not just on his party's position but on his own position and the views that he put forward in his election address in 1982 and 1983, when he actually stated that the EEC removed Britain's freedom to pursue its own economic policies? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether that reflected his own view and, if it did not, why could he not have pursued the course taken by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), who made no mention of the European Community in his election address?
Mr. Blair: I can think of no one worse to level the charge of inconsistency than the right hon. Gentleman, who took Britain into the exchange rate mechanism and the Maastricht treaty. With all due respect, he is the one who has to explain the changes--
I was asking whether-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Blair: I was asking whether it was the case that the Government's position of being at the centre of European co-operation has effectively changed. I think that it has and, with gathering force, the centre of gravity in the Conservative party is shifting and shifting fast.
Just consider it. The nine Whipless Tory Euro-rebels publish a separate manifesto calling, in effect, for withdrawal from the European Union. What was remarkable was not that document but the reaction to it. Almost immediately the Chief Secretary took to the airwaves to say that there was much common ground between the rebels and the Government. Not one single Minister condemned it. Indeed, at times over the past few weeks, the Euro- rebels have appeared to be almost like some alternative Cabinet. Perhaps in time they will be. Perhaps the fate that awaits the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) is to become the Foreign Secretary in a future Portillo Government, or the hon.
Column 1054Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) is to become the Chancellor in a future Government. At least, I suppose, that would mean that the top two economic spokesmen in the Government agreed.
The former Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that we should contemplate withdrawal from the European Union. A former vice-chairman of the Tory party says that he wishes that we had never joined. Daily, there are fresh converts to that cause, most noticeably recently the right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson). On Monday, another sceptic document was published. It was rewarded with a Prime Ministerial foreword no less, praising it as a lively contribution to the debate. The only people, apparently, who cannot debate Europe, are the Cabinet who have responsibility for it.
Lord Tebbit, Baroness Thatcher: their views are well known. I thought it most interesting that, at the Tory youth conference a couple of weeks ago, when the row was at its very height, not a single Minister was called to defend the pro-Europe position--not one. The Home Secretary went. What did he do? He pandered to them. There was no defence of the Union, no explanation of its benefits. One can tell a lot about a party from the buttons that the politicians press for applause.
There remains, of course, a group of pro-Europeans, but they are increasingly beleaguered. Indeed, Lord Tebbit, when asked whether the nine Tory rebels were not damaging the party, said, "There are nine MPs damaging the party, but unfortunately they are all in the Cabinet." [Interruption.] They may wear the badge with pride, let us say.
The result of all that, at best, is immobility in policy, and, at worst, retreat. That is most clear over the single currency, to which I shall now come.
Sir Patrick Cormack: Is the right hon. Gentleman really seeking to persuade the House that he, surrounded by the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), and by the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), leads a united party on Europe?
Mr. Blair: In my speech I shall deal specifically with the issues of division in both parties. But let me tell the hon. Gentleman what the difference is: my position is clear. Is the Prime Minister's? That is most clear over the issue of the single currency. Let us remind ourselves: at the beginning of February, the Chancellor was calling for an open, sensible debate about the single currency and its merits. Is that not right? Within two weeks, such was the disarray that the entire Cabinet was asked to undertake some Trappist vow of silence. We are therefore in the extraordinary position that Ministers, including the chief economic spokesman of the Government of Britain, cannot speak on a vital issue of national importance.
Column 1055Indeed, let me draw attention to the Secretary of State for Employment, who, the day after the injunction not to speak, attended a Rotary club lunch at the Marriott hotel. I read from The Times : "Mr. Portillo toned down his usual Euro-scepticism so much and refused to comment on so many points, that guests were forced into asking him questions about the food they were eating."
These issues do not demand to be suppressed. They demand to be answered and the principles governing them resolved.
Several hon. Members rose --
Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East): As the Leader of the Opposition rightly pointed out, there are divisions on both sides of the House, as we well know. He accepts that the issue is important. He must also accept that people have changed their minds. Is the right answer, when we are very near the edge, simply to seek the views of the people of Britain as to which way they want to go? In a democracy, is not that the right way to go ahead, instead of throwing things across from one party to another?
Mr. Blair: I am coming to the referendum issue. I have already said that, if progress is made towards the establishment of a single currency, it must be made with popular consent, whether that consent is established by a referendum or by other means. I must tell the hon. Gentleman, however, that a referendum will not ultimately absolve the person concerned of the need to decide what his position is. A referendum is a means of obtaining popular consent; it is not a substitute for government.
The single currency raises three sets of issues--economic, political and constitutional. Let us take them in turn. In the context of the economic conditions, it is correct to say that if there were monetary union without real economic convergence, a single currency would be bad. If economies were locked together when they differed widely in strength and performance, unemployment in the weaker ones might result. If there were real convergence, however, a single currency could have benefits. That is the Labour party's position--and, indeed, following his recent speech, it seems that it is effectively the Chancellor's position.
The political question concerns the issue of popular consent. Again, some agreement is possible in that regard.
The key question, however, is constitutional. Is a single currency, as a matter of principle, inconsistent with our identity as a nation state? Does it imply a federal Europe? Is there, therefore, a constitutional barrier? If there is, we should not join, even if the economic conditions are right.
On that issue, many Cabinet Ministers have expressed a concluded view. The Chancellor of the Exchequer says:
"It is quite possible to have monetary union without political union."
and again, in The Daily Telegraph , that a single currency is not
Column 1056"a threat to the nation state."
A few years ago, the President of the Board of Trade wrote: "No truly unified market can exist without a single currency. A close association of monetary policies will be needed if the single market itself is not to be put at risk."
Those two views are quite clear. So is the view of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who said a few weeks ago:
"I don't want to see a single currency, period, for as far as I can possibly foresee. I would hesitate for an eternity before I came out and said I would vote for a single currency."
When asked whether he wanted a single currency, the Secretary of State for Employment replied, "No." He said:
"A single currency is a long way towards political union. No British Government can give up the government of the UK. That is impossible."
That could not be plainer either. No one would dispute, surely, that those views are diametrically opposed.
Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington) rose --
Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham) rose --
Mr. Blair: I will give way in a moment. [Hon. Members:-- "What is your view?"] I am about to say what our views are. There is no sensible halfway house, because although the economic issues may vary, the constitutional issue is clear as a matter of principle. It does not alter over time. The question is, given that Cabinet Ministers have expressed concluded views on the constitutional issue--although they differ--which of the two opposing views is the Government's? That is what we need to know from the Prime Minister today.
I will put five questions to the Prime Minister. What is more, at the conclusion of each question I shall answer it and then ask the Prime Minister to answer it. I cannot put it more fairly than that. First, does the Prime Minister agree with his Chancellor that a single currency is not a threat to the nation state? I say that his Chancellor is right; I assume that he says the same. [Hon. Members:-- "Answer."] He cannot say.
Let me put this question to the Prime Minister. Does he agree with his Employment Secretary that having a single currency is a long way to political union, and would mean giving up the government of the United Kingdom? May we have an answer to that? I say that the Employment Secretary is wrong; what does the Prime Minister say? Thirdly--this is a question that he must surely be able to answer-- Mr. Lamont rose -- [Interruption.]
Madam Speaker: Order. The right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) appears not to be giving way; is that correct? In that case, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) must resume his seat.