Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Plaskitt: I want to give the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to clarify something important in the Liberal Democrat motion. Is it his party's position that the reforms to achieve the openness, accountability, democracy and decentralisation mentioned in the motion are a necessary condition for sterling's entry to the European currency zone?

Mr. Heath: The reforms are a necessary condition for a healthy European Union based on the principles of openness, accountability and democracy. I had hoped that Labour Members would share those with us as our objectives in politics. There is no difference between our objectives in Europe and in the United Kingdom. We are committed to the same principles of accountability, democracy and devolution of power to the lowest possible level. That is why we are so convinced that we must set a new agenda for Europe. We must find and persuade allies--they are there--who also want basic reform of the European Union to make it a reality.

I ask the Minister to show that the rhetoric, which I know is sincere in her case and in that of many of her colleagues, will be backed by action to make proper accountability in Europe a reality. We want assurances

13 Jan 1999 : Column 407

that the rhetoric on preparing Britain for entry to the euro, and on the essential question that must soon be asked of the British people, will be backed by the actions needed to make it a reality.

It was said earlier that the economic cycle makes entry impossible, so we cannot even make the effort. The Liberal Democrats know that we cannot enter tomorrow. Which of us suggested it? However, we see the need to take action today so that the question can be asked tomorrow and we have the capacity to enter the day after. That must be the objective, both of this Government and of the Liberal Democrats. I ask the Minister to demonstrate that the leadership is in place to secure the necessary coalitions to make that a reality in Europe. I am sure that she will provide those reassurances.

9.44 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Ms Joyce Quin): As in any debate on European issues, many questions have been posed and topics referred to, including the single currency; fraud; EU aid policy--which was raised in a thoughtful contributionby my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Ms Kingham)--democratic structures in the EU; Agenda 2000; tax issues, and, of course, through all those contributions, how Members on both sides of the House viewed the Government's record since taking office.

I was disappointed that, in introducing the debate, the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) did not give the Government credit for their active and co-operative role in the EU from the outset. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) redressed the balance by talking of the many achievements in the European sphere that the Government have to their credit.

The Government's constructive approach was evident from the start in the way in which we approached and concluded the Amsterdam treaty. It is almost impossible to believe that a Conservative Government would have been able to conclude the Amsterdam treaty and agree to the improvements that we agreed with our partners, particularly with regard to social and employment policy, the environment, where we achieved a great deal, and continued and good co-operation on justice and home affairs issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Riverside mentioned regional policy. The Government have also been active in promoting the cause of openness and democratic debate in the EU, which is why I found so unconvincing the various allegations about the Government smuggling or trying to hide information--euro-creep, as I think it was referred to by one Opposition Member. We have had a good record on openness.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Given what the right hon. Lady has just said about her commitment to openness, will she now publish the British tax measures that are under investigation by the EU committee chaired by the Paymaster General? Will she give the House, either this evening or by letter tomorrow, a full list of the measures that are under scrutiny by the EU?

Ms Quin: I understand that much of that information is already available. I see hon. Members agreeing. Certainly,

13 Jan 1999 : Column 408

there have been accounts of the various measures that are under consideration. I commend the work done by my hon. Friend in leading the work of that group.

Furthermore, in considering openness, I want to underline what I said a few minutes ago. Having been present at the first-ever open debate conducted in the Justice and Home Affairs Council, which was at our initiative, I know how committed we have been to making more information available to the public than was previously available.

I also commend to hon. Members the work that we have done recently on the scrutiny of European business in both Houses of Parliament. In the paper that we have produced, we have outlined various ways in which parliamentary scrutiny of European business will be improved in the future, and how scrutiny will be extended to the second and third pillars in a way that did not exist in the past. I hope that hon. Members will welcome what the Government have done in that area and concede that we have been willing to share information not only in Parliament, but more widely.

The British presidency, too, had many successes to its credit, and was a period when it became clear how engaged British Ministers were with their EU partners, and how successful that partnership was turning out to be. During our presidency, we were pleased to preside over the start of the enlargement negotiations. After the presidency, we were also pleased that we got the beef ban lifted--again, something that the previous Government signally failed to do.

Hon. Members will see that, in the past few weeks, the Government have taken a great many initiatives with our European partners. The defence initiative resulted in the joint declaration with the French Government at the British-French summit at St. Malo. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Swedish Prime Minister recently issued a joint statement about specific ways of tackling social exclusion and raising that issue on the European agenda.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his Spanish counterpart put out a joint statement on various aspects of employment and competitiveness, which was welcomed by our European partners. Last month, a joint statement was issued by the Prime Minister and Chancellor Schroder on taxation, which gave the lie to many of the unjustified scare stories on taxation in the British press in November and December.

Much of the debate, particularly the opening contribution, focused on the euro. I was disappointed that credit was not given to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and his colleagues in the Treasury for their work with business on preparations for the euro and, in particular, for dealing with the euro now that it is coming into force in such a large part of our internal market. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that we have a strong interest in the success of the euro because it operates in our internal market. We recognise the efforts that countries made towards ensuring not only that they met the criteria but that they were able to launch the euro at the beginning of January.

My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary described fully the tests that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has rightly said are important if we are to be able to be part of the euro in future. I was surprised that the hon. Member for Gordon seemed to feel that those

13 Jan 1999 : Column 409

tests were not relevant; they deal with issues such as employment, investment and sustainable convergency which are crucial to our economy and our country. We are actively working with industry in preparing for the euro. As I said, we have a strong interest in its success.

The Conservative position on the euro seemed to shift during the debate. That is significant, but perhaps not surprising given the contributions of Conservative Members, who were saying that the fundamental threats posed by the euro to sovereignty and political and constitutional considerations logically rule out euro membership for ever. I see that the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) is nodding. The Front-Bench spokesman, the right hon. Member for Wells(Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), conceded that. He said that he was in favour of that position, and perhaps even announced a change in Conservative policy on the euro. It is no longer a question of postponing for 10 years any consideration of joining; in his view, euro entry is ruled out for ever on constitutional grounds.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The right hon. Lady must address what we said, not what she hopes that we said. Nothing my hon. Friends or I said can be interpreted as she is trying to do. We said that there are constitutional implications to the change that are deceitfully denied by the Government. Will the right hon. Lady take this opportunity to confirm that there are important constitutional implications involved in giving up sterling which ought to be considered in the decision to join the euro, because that is not stated in the amendment that she tabled?

Ms Quin: My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer certainly acknowledged that there are political and constitutional implications, but, in his statement last October, he also said that they were not of a magnitude to provide a constitutional bar to membership. That position was also reaffirmed by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary in his contribution this evening. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) has just joined us. He clearly signalled that the constitutional and political implications of the euro were such that he could not contemplate joining it. He nods his head vigorously; so he does not support the policy that the Opposition spokesman has now grudgingly said that he supports, even though the right hon. Gentleman gave us the opposite impression in the debate.

Next Section

IndexHome Page