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9.8 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): The wording of the Liberal Democrat motion accuses the Chancellor and the Government of being an absentee Government. I thought that the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) was rather unkind to the Chancellor in suggesting that he was absent for the euro's launch, on 1 January, because he was preoccupied with internal Labour party matters. I do not agree with that.

I thought that the low profile with which the Government approached the euro's launch was quite deliberate, and that it was indicative of something

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described very accurately by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory)--the fact that the Government now have a policy of deceiving the British people on the euro.

If the Liberal Democrats were in a position to influence anything, surely it would be when they sat around the Cabinet table with their Cabinet partners discussing constitutional matters. I do not think that there is any disagreement in the House that a single currency is a constitutional matter.

The Liberal Democrat motion is a cry of frustration that the Government are not enthusiastic enough about giving up the pound--that they are not going about it fast enough. It is clear from what we have heard tonight that the Government intend to take the UK into the single currency and give up the pound. They are already printing the notes and striking the coins, so I have no doubt that they would like to do that. Regardless of what the Chief Secretary said, they are slow-pedalling for one simple reason: they have committed themselves to a referendum of the British people on the issue. Poll after poll tells the Government that a single currency would not find favour with the British people.

My local newspaper, the Western Morning News, reported on Friday 4 December the results of a readers' poll. It was conducted by postal ballot, so there was no chance of the result being rigged by people repeatedly dialling the same number, as we know that the Liberal Democrats tend to do in the west country--they have a good track record. Some 6,255 people said that they did not want to join the single currency--that was the question--and only 281 said that they did. With polls giving such results--a 96 per cent. no vote in that case--it is clear why the Government are slow-pedalling. They are not in a position to secure a yes vote, so they are back-tracking.

The paper says of the poll:

That is an acknowledgement from one of the Liberal Democrats' most senior spokesmen that the British people are not likely to support a single currency.

That is the Government's dilemma. They are committed and the clock is ticking. They have to attend meetings in Europe. They have to make sure when they are over there that they say the right things to their European partners so that they do not think that we will not come on board. However, back home, they do not know what to say--or, as we heard from the Chief Secretary, they select narrow elements of the subject because they are terrified of the British people hearing the truth and having a full debate. It is clear that the Government will not achieve the result that they want from a referendum.

The Liberal Democrats have an opportunity to discuss the issue when they sit down with the Government. I am a little mystified as to why they have brought it to the House. If influence means anything, a Cabinet table seat--of which they have four--is the place to exercise it. That shows their lack of real influence. Why do they

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continue to sit round the Cabinet table--I accept that they are nothing if not decorative--when they have been so let down by their Labour partners that they have to bring a constitutional matter to the House? I hope that they will press the Government on that next time they are round the Cabinet table. They should be more generous and understanding about the Government's dilemma.

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight): Does the hon. Lady accept that the Liberal Democrats at least believe in open, political debate, and that sitting around a table--no matter where it might be--is no substitute for debate in this Chamber?

Mrs. Browning: Of course this is the place for open debate. The very substance of what I am saying is that the Government do not want open debate on the single currency because the more that the British people hear about the realities of what is at stake, the more we will get results such as we had in the west country last month.

I am normally quite critical of the Liberal Democrats, but they are lovable and consistent.

Mr. Edward Davey: And principled.

Mrs. Browning: I would not say that. The hon. Gentleman pushes me a little too far. They are consistent, however, and they would give up the pound tomorrow--as we have heard--and would rush us into union, which would create a country called Europe. They have some allies in the debate. Some big businesses--particularly the chief spokesmen of multinational companies--are also enthusiastic about giving up the pound.

Dr. Brand: What about the National Farmers Union?

Mrs. Browning: I will resist that temptation. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to give way, perhaps he might observe the customs of the House.

Dr. Brand: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Browning: I will in a moment, but I have been more than generous.

Big business is very enthusiastic about supporting the rush to join the euro. I can understand some of the frustrations in terms of forward planning that big business is now experiencing because of the Government's attitude. Some companies--particularly multinationals--are keen also on the harmonisation of business taxes and on allowing unelected bankers to set our interest rates.

We all understand that the euro is now operational and--like any of the 80 currencies in which we trade as a nation--there is no reason why we should not trade in it. I am not unrealistic about that. However, some big businesses will now be trying to persuade their smaller suppliers to invoice them in euros. Many small companies in this country who do not export and who did not think that they would need to trade in euros will find that there is enormous pressure on them from their larger purchasers--in the same way as large companies put pressure on small companies in terms of their slowness of payment of debt. That same pressure will be exerted by large companies in a trickle-down effect on subcontractors and suppliers.

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That development is part of the strategy on which the Government are relying--one of euro-creep. We havehad Euro-speak, and we now have euro-creep. The Government are relying on the belief that, given sufficient time--and as long as they keep their head down and do not address the key important points--there will be sufficient acceptance, familiarity and inevitability about the existence of the euro among many people who had not thought that it would affect them. The Government are relying on the British people deciding in a referendum on the basis not of informed debate and information, but of acquiescence over a period. That is what my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells was referring to when he described this as a policy of deceit.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South): Will the hon. Lady accept three points? If one is trading nationally and internationally, one wants to trade in the same currency--because that is sensible. If one's supplier companies are trading and pricing in the same currency, that is sensible--and, as we move into the European context, that becomes doubly sensible. Would not the hon. Lady, if she were an industrialist, like to pay 10 per cent. corporation tax, as in Eire, and a bank rate of 3 per cent. when she wanted to invest?

Mrs. Browning: I understand the need for individual companies to be able to choose the currency in which they want to trade. Is the hon. Gentleman telling us, from below the Gangway, that corporation tax is to be set at 10 per cent. under harmonisation? We would have preferred to hear that from a Minister at the Dispatch Box this evening. The Minister was reluctant to go into detail when pressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells so that we could have a substantive debate on the Government's policy for harmonised taxation.

The Government are in a state of denial about harmonised business taxes. Every time the subject is mentioned, they run for cover and try to change the language. If corporation tax is to be set at 10 per cent., let us have a debate on that on the Floor of the House. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is privy to information from Ministers. We pressed the Chief Secretary on the matter, but he was reluctant to discuss it.

As many hon. Members remarked in the debate, there is a price tag for what the Minister called the British economic interest in the context of a single currency. Again, that is a legitimate subject for debate. The Government deny that there is any constitutional price to pay for a single currency, but that constitutional price is beginning to frighten the British people. As the Minister said, there is a serious debate going on in Europe about the single currency, and constitutional as well as economic issues are under discussion.

The Government must consider carefully whether, in taking Britain into the single currency, as they clearly intend to do, they can persuade the British people by stealth or sleight of hand that there is no constitutional price to pay and that their everyday lives will not be affected. If the Government take Britain into the single currency under those circumstances, the backlash from the British people will have a devastating effect on the unity of the European Union of which the Government want to be part, and will tear this country asunder.

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