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8.26 pm

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) on his maiden speech. It was a thoughtful speech; generous toward his predecessor and combative in relation to the issues before the House. I am sure that it will not be the last such contribution that we hear from the hon. Gentleman and I wish him well in his enjoyment of many years on the Opposition Benches.

I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary on announcing, well in advance of the summit this weekend, that they will be going to Amsterdam in order to set a new agenda for Europe. I am especially pleased that they have already spelt out that that agenda must be based on at least two of the four big issues that must be addressed: first, that in future the attention of Europe must be focused on jobs; and, second, that we cannot fiddle our way to a stable or secure future for Europe. Hon. Members may know that in the past I have got into certain difficulties for having voiced such suggestions, so I hope that I shall be allowed to enjoy this moment--long may it last.

I also want to savour the moment surrounding another event. For the past nine months, I have been privileged to be the president of the United Kingdom marches against unemployment, job insecurity and social exclusion in Europe and I want to put on record the words of credit and praise that are due to the marchers. Two legs of the marches took place in Britain--two of 18 legs that are taking place across the whole of Europe, involving marchers from 30 different countries. For me, it was the first pro-European, pan-European expression of an agenda for the future--an agenda in which the rights of ordinary working people are central.

I may well be the only non-ministerial Member of the House who will be in Amsterdam next week. I shall attend the alternative summit, and it is worth noting the issues that it will seek to address.

The agenda, worked out by workers in different parts of Europe, has not been constrained by the narrowness of divides based on nationality, religion, age, gender or geography. It has been based on a desire for a European future in which jobs in one country are not stolen from the workers of another. I hope that the leaders of our countries at the European summit will hear and heed the words that are being expressed in those European marches.

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The marchers have rightly drawn our attention to the sense that we are fiddling our way towards a European future. Several hon. Members have already drawn attention to events in France and Germany. It is worth placing on the record some of the amazing contortions that Europe has been going through to try to squeeze within the convergence criteria demanded by the Maastricht treaty. It is not only that Germany has sought to revalue its gold and foreign currency reserves. I believe that it was right for the Bundesbank to challenge that, but it is unfair to single out Germany, because Belgium has done the same. In fact, Belgium did it first and then sold the reserves, on the principle, "If we are to pool our common reserves of gold and foreign currencies, it is best to spend ours first and then share everyone else's."

Italy has come up with by far the most imaginative scam. Italians know that their debt is twice the limit demanded by the treaty of Maastricht, so they have come up with the idea of a European solidarity tax--a 10 per cent. tax increase for next year. Knowing that it would cause contention among their people, politicians reassured them by saying, "But the year after, you can have it all back, because we need to meet the debt qualification for one year only, so we shall levy the tax this year and give it back to you the year after."

If the Italians are really clever, they will not bother to collect the tax in the first place; it will be a paper transaction. At the end of the first year, they will say, "We shall levy the tax at 10 per cent. and give it back next year. It will be bureaucratic to collect and hand back, so why not call it quits?" It is a marvellous scam, but it does not address their underlying economic weaknesses.

France did it differently. The Government of the day decided to take a hefty £4.6 billion scoop out of the pension fund for France Telecom. It is a nice little scoop for a Government in difficulty, but not much fun for a worker in France Telecom who is looking forward to the protection and security that that pension fund should give.

Such fiddles are going on across the European landscape, and it is dishonest to suggest that they are an expression of pro-European sentiment. It is an Arthur Daley Europeanism. We are being invited to try to turn the clock back on the mileage of our debt, to put retreads on the level of the deficit on our tyres or to try to superglue the leaking exhaust of failed and divisive monetarist policies which the Maastricht treaty demands of us.

There is a better agenda to be found in a European future, but not by pursuing the Maastricht convergence criteria, which can and will only divide us all from one another. To go down that path is unworthy of the present and unroadworthy for the future.

There is a new convergence. I hope that, when our leaders go to Amsterdam, they will have the sense to understand that the European convergence worth grasping is the convergence of people--the human convergence on Amsterdam, which will be the first pan-European expression of hope about the shape of a people's Europe; a Europe in which we can all find a place.

That convergence, however, needs clarity on public expectations about the shape of a people's Europe. When we use the words "a flexible labour force for the future",

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we should remember that flexibility can come in many forms. It can come in terms of being multi-skilled, or in terms of a common desire to hold ourselves to greater account to the public we serve or to the environment we work in; but a flexible future is not the same as a future in which workers are disposable.

When we use the word "competitiveness," we need to be clear in our minds that the competition that will unite Europe is competition to raise the quality of life for us all, not one that reduces the quantity of pay for the poor. All sorts of societies have set out to raise common standards, to raise the entitlements of pensioners and to improve the infrastructure of public transport services. That is a form of competition from which we all stand to benefit; it is not competition that drives people to the bottom of the barrel.

This is the shape of a people's Europe. I am pleased that the leaders of the Labour party and of the Labour Government are saying that we must establish an agenda for a people's Europe and perhaps think the unthinkable. My right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) said that we were all being encouraged to think the unthinkable; I hope that we are, because perhaps we should now address the hitherto unthinkable question of what we would do if we were to find that the unthinkable meant abandoning the unworkable.

If the single currency is to be deflationary and divisive, what shape would a pro-European agenda to succeed it take? It must be based on two remaining core principles in which I believe that we can find work and welfare for all. We should reshape European policies around two simple propositions. First, our economic policies for the next century must inevitably be shaped around the priorities of sustainability--not exploitation of the present at the cost of the future, but the sustainability of life cycles, life styles and the environment in which we live. Second, we must be willing to decide that protection of that environment takes precedence over the dogmatic, obsessive belief in the free market.

If we are to grasp the opportunities that exist within those two towering principles, it is important that we listen to the voices giving expression to them, of every one of the workers who come from different parts of Europe--each describing the destruction of their life style, community and landscape by a free market obsessed simply with consuming the present and discarding those surplus to its requirements.

As the leaders gather in Amsterdam next weekend, I hope that each one will take time, when they are talking about a people's Europe, to come out and listen to the people who have walked hundreds--in some cases, thousands--of miles to that summit to tell them what shape society should take and what place the people of Europe want in it.

8.37 pm

Mr. John Swinney (North Tayside): I am very grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech in this Parliament.

The hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) said that his constituency was the most beautiful in the country. I must ask him, politely, to amend the official record to make reference, possibly, to England; I shall go on to make my remarks about my constituency.

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North Tayside was established by the boundary commission in 1983 and is, without word of a lie, the most beautiful seat in Scotland, from the ruggedness of the Rannoch moor to the agricultural abundance of Strathmore.

If the House will excuse the crude terminology, we produce the three Bs in North Tayside: beef, berries and booze--beef from the prime Aberdeen Angus herds, berries from the traditional berry areas around Blairgowrie and east Perthshire, and booze from several distilleries, including the smallest in the world at Edradour near Pitlochry. It is a privilege to represent the area, and I warmly thank the electorate for providing me with the opportunity to do so.

At different times, most of my constituency has been represented by colleagues from the Scottish National party. Mr. Douglas Crawford represented Perth and East Perthshire in the 1970s, and my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Mr. Welsh) has represented the eastern parts of my constituency. I am, however, the first SNP Member to represent highland Perthshire, previously represented by the late Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home. In the political history of the area, many of the Members of Parliament were leaders of the feudal structure, including the late Duchess of Atholl and, of course, Sir Alec.

Circumstances have changed, however, and at the election on 1 May the people really spoke. My immediate predecessor, Mr. Bill Walker, spoke in the House on many issues, not least the development of Europe, the subject of tonight's debate. Although we differ on that and many other issues, I pay tribute to his years of public service and wish him well.

The debate is welcome as it provides an opportunity for the House, after an important change of Government, to debate our relationship with the European Union and the issues connected with the future of the Union. Over the past 25 years, our relationship with Europe has changed from a passing interest to a position where many of the key policy areas, such as agriculture, which is vital to my constituency, are influenced more by the conduct of debate in the European institutions than they are by debate in this institution. While that process may be lamented by some, it should be recalled that it arose by voluntary agreement and collaboration among a number of member states. The common interest has been driven by a desire to move from the politics of hostility to the politics of dialogue and agreement.

It is fair to say that the approach has commanded public, although not unanimous, consent. The people recognise the advantages of collaboration in their shared interests with other people's interests. It is essential, however, that public consent to the development of the European Union is maintained, and there are grave concerns about that.

There are obviously diverging views in the United Kingdom on the importance of the European Union and how it should develop. I do not intend to devote the remainder of my speech to examining all the fault lines in Europe--I am sure that that will preoccupy members of the official Opposition over the next 24 hours and probably for some time beyond. Rather, I wish to concentrate on the fault line that has developed in the diverging interests of Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom over European policy.

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The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) referred specifically to agriculture and fishing. I wish to follow him closely on those issues. Much has been said about the beef crisis, the ineptitude of the announcements that were made and the failure to take swift action to arrest the problem. I wish to concentrate, however, on the previous Government's inability to secure a regional or zonal lifting of the European beef ban as a first step towards lifting the ban throughout the United Kingdom. That failure was recorded against a background of the European Union's willingness to consider such a move if only the British Government had requested it.

The root of the previous Government's failure lay in their unwillingness to confront the deficiencies of the English dairy herd, where there is a much greater incidence of BSE, and allow other herds, such as those from Scotland or Northern Ireland, to escape from the ban to a quality-assured environment.

Here we see the fault line of the policy. In the Government's European actions, Scotland's needs are being ignored. I hope that the new Government will warmly embrace the concept of a zonal lifting of the beef ban and deliver a solution to the crisis in the Scottish beef industry as an immediate priority. As an aside, I urge the Government to tread carefully before dishing out idle threats about beef wars and import bans. No one is more concerned than I am about low-quality beef imports into the UK, but last week the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food sounded remarkably like his predecessor in some of his dire threats--a record I am sure the current Minister would not wish to equal.

The previous Government also betrayed our fishing communities, repeatedly trading away the industry's interests in Europe in pursuit of other priorities. I scarcely need tell the House about the depth of the quota hopping crisis, which sees a quarter of UK tonnage under flags of convenience and more than 40 per cent. of certain quotas lost to Scotland and the UK.

The solution must come through a treaty amendment; tinkering at the edges with regulations will not be good enough. Yet the fishing industry is not even mentioned in the consolidated draft treaty. We need an assurance from the Government that they will insist on the accession of a suitable protocol, agreed with the industry, to ensure that we can bring to a halt the loss of quota and tonnage from the Scottish fleet. A Scottish Government would put that issue at the top of their agenda. Will the UK Government do the same?

The solution to those diverging interests is for Scotland to opt for the natural state of independence, with a direct voice for our country as a sovereign nation in Europe. That would give Scotland an equal and effective voice in European discussions, enabling us to assert our case and put our arguments on a par with every other state. Accountability for the articulation of Scotland's natural and national interests will be maintained by Scotland's democratic Parliament.

We need only look at small nations such as Ireland and Denmark, which, by using their influence in Europe wisely, are contributing positively to the development of Europe and the international community, and delivering economic prosperity and social progress to their people at home. The model of the small nation in Europe is positive for Scotland.

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The Government are advancing proposals to change the constitutional arrangements for Scotland and it would be churlish of me not to concede that their proposals will be considered by the House sooner than the House will consider a demand from Scotland to proceed to independence.

I urge the Government to use the opportunity to include within that legislation a direct voice for Scotland in Europe--not quiet observer status but real teeth to allow a Scottish Parliament to influence the decisions of Europe in the best interests of Scotland and her people. In his address to the Scottish Grand Committee on 13 January this year, the present Foreign Secretary admitted that representatives of a devolved Scottish Parliament would have only observer status. I urge the Government to strengthen that weak proposal.

May I conclude by setting out some of the key points on which the Government should reflect in preparation for the intergovernmental conference? As the European Union wrestles with the controversy and uncertainty of economic and monetary union, a partnership must be created between convergence and cohesion in pursuit of further voluntary and effective collaboration. The Maastricht treaty did not deliver that partnership. It set out an agenda for convergence, but paid no attention to the consequences of meeting the convergence criteria. If economic and monetary union is to take its course--it looks in a perilous condition at present--it must not be at the expense of employment, or public confidence in the project will continue to erode.

We must ensure that, in the next stage of the process of European collaboration, the issue of public consent is to the fore. Too many ill-informed contributions to the European debate have been made. They feed public anxiety, but do not satisfy the public's appetite for information.

If the Government and their European partners can learn any lessons from the past five years, they should conclude that the model of British relations with Europe or the British debate on the future of Europe is not a model to be followed. Instead, the Government and their European partners should concentrate on establishing a partnership between economic convergence and social cohesion, and rebuilding public confidence in the process of European development.

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