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Mr. Alan Clark: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Lady continually to pose questions to the Conservatives and refuse any attempt by those of us who are present to elucidate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: It is entirely in order. How the hon. Lady makes her speech is a matter for her.

Jacqui Smith: I am not sure whether that intervention suggests that the right hon. Gentleman does not have confidence in his Front Benchers' response on the issue.

There has been speculation in The Daily Telegraph on whether the Leader of the Opposition is going to sack the former Chancellor and the former Deputy Prime Minister. Perhaps we shall hear some comments from the Front Bench. Is the Conservative policy to rule out membership

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for 10 years, for six or seven years, or for ever? Are they concerned about the economic interests of the country? We need to know. The Government's position has been made clear. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and I look forward to some elucidation from the Opposition Front Bench.

10.41 am

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford): I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on obtaining the debate. This is one of the most important issues--if not the most important issue--facing the country, although one would not think so from the sparse attendance on the Labour Benches. I welcome the fact that we are debating the issue, but we believe that a one-and-a-half hour Adjournment debate on a Wednesday morning is wholly inadequate for an issue of such importance. Several of my hon. Friends sought to question the Prime Minister on the issue last week and were unable to do so. My hon. Friends the Members for Poole (Mr. Syms) and for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) have sought to speak in the debate today, but there has not been time. I repeat the request made by my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House for a full debate in Government time as soon as possible.

It is not just in this place that there should be a full debate. There may well be a referendum on whether it is in the interests of this country to join a single currency. There is already considerable discussion about that. The Prime Minister has acknowledged that there are constitutional as well as economic issues at stake. It is important that they should be spelt out.

I draw the Minister's attention to early-day motion 185, which calls on the Government to publish a White Paper on the constitutional, economic and political implications of joining a single currency. That motion has been signed by more than 100 Members of Parliament, including Labour and Liberal Democrat Members. Does the Economic Secretary accept that the political and constitutional implications are as important as, if not more important than, the economic ones? Will she undertake to publish a White Paper setting them out?

Such arguments were noticeably absent from the Prime Minister's statement last week, which, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition pointed out, contained virtually no hard information. However, it confirmed the Government's wish to abolish the pound and join the single currency. The Prime Minister's much-vaunted love affair with the pound turns out to have been simply a marriage of convenience to get him past the general election. At the first opportunity, he has ditched sterling in favour of the euro. Of course, we are told that the final decision will be subject to a referendum, but it is clear beyond doubt that the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats are committed to taking us into a single currency. Only the Conservative party is opposed.

Mr. Gardiner: Will the hon. Gentleman elaborate on whether the Conservative party's fundamental objection is constitutional? If it is, does that rule out the economic considerations? If his party has decided that joining the single currency should not be countenanced on

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constitutional grounds, why does he refer to economic arguments, which must be spurious and surplus to requirements?

Mr. Whittingdale: We have repeatedly made it clear that there are constitutional and economic problems with joining a single currency. That is why our manifesto for the next election will state that the next Conservative Government will not go into a single currency during the next Parliament. We have spelt that out time and again.

We have discovered that the Government are preparing to spend taxpayers' money to promote the cause of joining the single currency before and during a referendum campaign. The recent report of Lord Neill's Committee on Standards in Public Life explicitly said that taxpayers' money should not be used to influence the outcome of any referendum on UK membership. One of the key recommendations was that the Government should remain neutral and should not distribute literature at public expense--even purportedly factual literature--that set out or otherwise promoted their case. Yet already the Treasury officer of accounts has written to Departments saying that it is reasonable to spend money that is considered necessary to enable the general public to make an informed decision when they vote in a referendum. Will the Minister assure us that the Government will accept the recommendation of Lord Neill's committee and that taxpayers' money will not be used to produce literature promoting the Government's view?

The issue does not stop there. A recent health service circular advises NHS bodies that they should not enter into contracts with a supplier who has no plans to introduce euro-compliance into their software. The health service is to be forced to place orders not with the most cost-effective supplier, but with those who are euro-compliant. That will result in better value contracts being rejected and money that the health service desperately needs being wasted to satisfy the Government's obsession with joining the euro.

Last week's statement purported to set out details of the national changeover plan, but many fundamental questions remain unanswered. One of the most basic questions, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton), is how much it will cost. The Government appear incapable of answering. The Prime Minister glibly referred in his statement to tens of millions of pounds having to be spent to make departmental computer systems euro-compatible, but there appear to be no detailed estimates. How much will the Government spend over the next three years on making the public sector euro-compliant? It is not good enough for the Prime Minister to say in a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) on Monday that it depends. We are talking about public money and Parliament has a right to know. It is clear that the cost to the economy as a whole of changing to the euro will run into billions of pounds.

Much has been made of possible savings in transaction costs, but they are likely to be wiped out for years to come by the cost of conversion. Again, there is hardly any mention of that in the Government's document. Instead, businesses are being urged to commit massive resources to preparing for the changeover, when it is highly possible that it may never occur.

The Government's document is also silent on another key requirement. Article 121 of the Amsterdam treaty states that it is a requirement of membership that the

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fluctuation margins provided for must be observed by the currency for at least two years before joining. That was one of the conditions for first-wave entrants. The European Commissioner has said that if and when the UK decides to join, we shall have to comply with the same conditions. The Prime Minister said last week that it was not his policy to shadow the euro. How does he intend to meet the condition so that we shall be in a position to join? The Economic Secretary understands such matters better than the Prime Minister does. Will she tell us whether the Government intend to instruct the Bank of England to seek to influence the exchange rate to shadow the euro, as the treaty requires? How does that square with the Bank's inflation remit, as the hon. Member for Twickenham asked?

Let me deal briefly with another key requirement for membership that the Government have set--economic convergence. We have already seen the fudging of the Maastricht criteria to ensure that all the first-wave applicants were successful. Will the Minister assure us that there will be no fudging of the Chancellor's five economic tests? If that is the case, how will she judge whether cyclical convergence has taken place? The Government's own document states that, over the past decade, the United Kingdom has become increasingly out of step with Germany, while the United States and United Kingdom cycles have been relatively synchronised. Has the Minister any evidence that is changing? Given the facts, how can the United Kingdom possibly be in a position to join in five years' time?

All those questions must be answered, but the Government have ducked them all. Instead of answering, they are trying to create the impression that entry is inevitable.

We have already observed the Government's skill at raising taxes by stealth; now they are trying to take us into a single currency by stealth. The truth is that a single currency would be against our economic interests, and against our national interest. That is not just our view. We now know that it is the view of the last Labour Chancellor; it is the view of the former leader of the Social Democratic party, which was allied with the party of the hon. Member for Twickenham, and--as every survey has shown--it is overwhelmingly the view of the British people.

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