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5.36 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): I have participated in these debates for some years and have always been rather dismayed by the way in which they

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seem to be dominated by the zealots on each side to whom media attention is directed. Those people seem to believe that, despite our long membership, everything about the European Union is absolutely wicked. In this debate, we have not yet heard a speech in that vein, but I was at a Yorkshire business conference on Friday and was horrified by the speech by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) on this subject.

Over the years, I have become a convert. I listened to the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and remembered the long-distant days of the referendum on the common market when I was on his side. I have spent some years in the House and some years pondering the question, and I have thought again about Britain's interest in Europe and the world and what we want out of Europe. As a result, I have had a significant and radical change of mind. In that respect, I am like other hon. Members. There is nothing shameful about learning and admitting, after mature reflection, that one was wrong. When I was younger, I was wrong about Europe and it is a great pleasure to follow the speech by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup(Sir E. Heath), the Father of the House, who has been right on Europe for a long time.

I wish that we could take a little of the passion out of the debate and look at the central issue--that of getting back to basics and asking what is in it for our constituents. We are sent here to represent them, and I know that mine want to see a world in which there is peace and prosperity. I am something of an historian, although not a very good one, and I realise that as the great conflagrations of war recede, people become complacent about what establishes and preserves peace. There has been peace in Europe for more than 55 years, but, in the lifetime of many hon. Members, a European nation was strafing and bombing this Parliament, and European countries were strafing and bombing each other. We should be humble and think about what we have achieved over those 55 years of a peaceful Europe. The EU has played a significant part in keeping the peace in Europe and we should never underrate that. We have also had a relatively prosperous Europe and our constituents want that prosperity to be ensured for the future and for their children.

We live in a changing world. Those of us who take seriously the globalisation of the economy and of competition realise that we cannot maintain our competitive edge and provide the employment and the living standards that our constituents require if we are outside a powerful grouping in Europe. There can be no doubt about that when we look at the competition. Everyone talks about south-east Asia and the emerging Chinese economy, but I still look at the vigorous economy of the United States. One does not have to relax for long to allow a successful American business to take away one's market. All over the world, there are regional groupings that are extremely powerful and enormously competitive. We must be part of a European grouping that can identify the ways in which we can beat off outside competition and the values that we must pursue in order to modernise our economy and remain competitive. We have learnt many of those lessons from our European partners.

Like the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, I have spoken to many business people who compete in the international environment. They have a fairly uniform view. They do not have a uniform view on the common

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currency, but they are predominantly in favour of economic and monetary union. The strongest view that emerges is that, if we are to compete successfully, we must do nothing to destroy the European Union and everything to strengthen it. Our greatest problem is that we can get that wrong.

I am a pragmatist and one of the things I liked about the introductory speech by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was that it smacked of what I admire about today's Labour party and the spirit with which it was imbued during the election campaign. It is a spirit that I have come to admire in my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister--a spirit of radical pragmatism. Radicalism goes back to basics and asks, what is the problem? Why do we have a taxation system? Why do we have a welfare state? It does not say that we have always had certain policies--one way of dealing with the economy, the welfare state or taxation--but asks instead, what do we want to achieve?

It is refreshing when a Government can be honest enough to say that what we want out of a taxation system is the prosperity of our nation--the successful wealth creation on which we all depend. What we want is to achieve a welfare state that delivers to the disabled, the sick and the elderly what they need and should be able to expect in a civilised society. We do not want any welfare state in Europe to be one that pays a pittance--a measly welfare payment--to people who hate the Government who give the payment and hate themselves for taking it.

What I admire most about the new approach on the Government Benches is that we turn that same radical pragmatism to Europe and ask, what do we want out of it? Of course, we want peace and prosperity, but we also want more--to be sure that we establish a democratic framework for Europe.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield spoke about losing democracy, but democracy is not like that--it is a far more finely balanced animal. I worry about the framework of Europe, as would any intelligent person, and I want to change much of it, but that is not to say that it is wrong. As a good democrat, I believe that Europe is too Executive-driven--there is far too much power in the hands of the Council of Ministers that is not publicly scrutinised and far too much in the hands of the Commission. There is far too little power in the hands of Members of the European Parliament. We must ensure that that increases. I hope that in Amsterdam positive strides are made towards giving the European Parliament codetermination and enabling organic growth in its power. That must happen.

At another level, we in the domestic Parliaments must start recognising that we are part of Europe and should participate in it. In the years that I have been a Member of Parliament, one of the things about this House that have depressed me most is the number of hon. Members who have never actually visited the institutions of Europe. They criticise, they become zealots about Europe and have great passions on the subject, but they never get involved in it or come to understand it. It is wrong to live in a modern Europe without trying to go to the institutions and talk to other European domestic parliamentarians. It is wrong not to try to do what politicians do best--plot, plan, gossip and organise.

That is the natural role of politicians, but we as domestic parliamentarians and legislators are prevented from fulfilling that role because we have no access.

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The Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), knows that we have had a long tussle over that issue. He does not believe that domestic parliamentarians should have access to colleagues across Europe; he does not think it important in a democracy and he often slapped me down from the Despatch Box when I suggested that we should have access. Indeed, I remember my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), now the Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage, saying that he felt a junket coming on when I said that we should at least have access to Brussels and Strasbourg.

A few days ago, I read a newspaper article that said that there were so many Labour Back Benchers that we should be given more opportunity to join the Royal Air Force, the Navy and the Army. I have nothing against such schemes and I know colleagues who have benefited greatly from learning how modern defence forces operate; but if we got our priorities right we would make sure that Members of Parliament, both new and not-so-new, learnt about Europe--its institutions and how they work, how the Commission operates, what happens in Strasbourg and so on.

Most colleagues do not even know how many European Union institutions there are or where they are based.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): They should all be in one place.

Mr. Sheerman: Indeed, there should be a physical concentration.

The truth is that in this House there is an appalling level of ignorance about Europe. Some of us on the Labour Benches ran a campaign for more physical access. New Members may not know that as Members of Parliament they can get one trip a year to a European institution. If one goes to Brussels, one cannot return there or go to Strasbourg or to any other European institution for another year. In a European democracy, that is appalling and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who will be replying to the debate, will agree that Members of Parliament should be given access to European institutions.

To those who say that they feel a junket coming on, I say that those Members of Parliament who do not take an active role in knowing what the Commission does and what is available from the huge range of European policies and budgets to help their constituents are neglecting their duty. The benefits will come to their constituents and to the regions and sub-regions only if they know the system and how to work within it. It is appalling that many colleagues on both sides of the House are not aware of that. It was deeply embarrassing that when, two or three times, I met the previous Leader of the House, Tony Newton, and said, "We badly need more access", the answer was, "I am sorry, but a vast percentage of colleagues do not use the one trip that they are given." That is another indictment of the House.

We need physical access to our colleagues in Europe, starting with proper access to Brussels and Strasbourg. Let us give strong leadership in Amsterdam, urging that a centre be established in Brussels for domestic parliamentarians. Most of the business that we are interested in goes on there, but perhaps we also need such a centre in Strasbourg.

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When domestic parliamentarians arrive in Brussels, they should not be forced to beg to use someone's telephone or try to gain access to the European Parliament; they should have a centre to go to. There they could be briefed; there could be meeting rooms and simultaneous translation facilities. If one wanted to hold a crucial meeting on energy policy, education policy or employment policy--on any of the subjects to which hon. Members have alluded--one could meet colleagues and do what comes naturally to parliamentarians--plot, plan and organise.

A greater flow of information is needed. In a technological age, an information age, surely we should have proper communication throughout Europe among the domestic politicians and parliamentarians of the Fifteen. I should have thought that it would be easily done on the net or the web. For less sophisticated Members, why not publish an old-fashioned newsletter, readily available fortnightly or monthly? It could improve communication among the 15 European states and give information about what was happening in the European Parliament.

Today's debate is important because I can feel and hear a different spirit about. Of course, we shall enter European debates, in the Council of Ministers and elsewhere, with our national interest at the forefront, but it makes one hell of a difference if, when our Prime Minister comes in, people look at him and say, "Here is a person who actually believes in the concept and vision of what Europe can achieve for our people in terms of employment and in terms of facing our increasingly competitive future."

I can feel and hear that difference in the attitude of colleagues throughout Europe. They have realised that, although Britain in the European Union is not a pushover--it will fight its corner for every bit of national interest--it starts from the basic principle that the European Union is the type of organisation that will best protect the people of Britain during the next 10, 50 or 100 years.

We must put behind us the days of the old, little nation state. Surely, in one of these debates on Europe, someone will draw attention to the fact that the nation state has not produced everything that we want in terms of the civilised life and, indeed, has given us much of the misery, poverty and unhappiness that we have experienced in the past 100 or 200 years.

I believe in a Government who are fully committed to, and who believe in, Europe. I hope that the Government and this Parliament will believe in full participation of all Members of the House in a positive Europe.

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