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Main Committee

44. Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston): What progress has been made with plans for the creation of a Main Committee. [77414]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): The Modernisation Committee agreed a report on Wednesday, and I expect it to be published on Tuesday 13 April. I hope that the House will have an early opportunity to debate it.

Ms Stuart: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will she elaborate on whether she expects that the creation of a Main Committee will allow greater scrutiny and debate than the current Select Committee structure?

Mrs. Beckett: The motivation behind examining and making such a proposal is to allow more time for ordinary Members to raise matters on which they would want debates, and to provide extra time for some of the excellent business for which, sadly, it is difficult to find time on the Floor of the House, such as debates on Select Committee reports.

Millennium Compliance

45. Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): What assessment she has made of the preparedness of (a) Government Departments and (b) the wider public sector in dealing with millennium compliance problems. [77416]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle).

Mr. White: Given that programmes dealing with the financing of 2000 will be running by Wednesday night, will my hon. Friend assure the House that the monthly

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reports that are due out very shortly will begin to include contingency plans that are built on the excellent work that the Government have already done?

Mr. Tipping: I assure my hon. Friend, who has taken a very close personal interest in this matter, that the Government are engaged actively on this issue. Contingency plans are being made. As he knows, monthly statements to the House will begin to be made in the very near future.

Procedure Reform

46. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): If she will make a statement on recent Government proposals for reforming the procedures of the House. [77418]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): The Modernisation Committee has

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considered a number of proposals based on evidence from the Government and elsewhere. The Committee's most recent report recommends an experiment with a parallel forum sitting in the Grand Committee Room off Westminster Hall.

Mr. Bercow: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer. What does he regard as the principal outstanding problem relating to the procedures of the House, and how and when does he propose to address it?

Mr. Tipping: The problem is that 659 hon. Members, including the hon. Gentleman, want to raise issues on the Floor of the House and have their say. The Government welcome that and seek new opportunities to give Back-Bench Members the chance to raise issues.

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Berlin European Council and Kosovo

3.30 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement about the European Council in Berlin, which I attended with my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

This European Council had two principal tasks: to reach agreement on the Agenda 2000 package of negotiations for enlargement of the European Union, including changes to agriculture spending and to the structural and cohesion funds; and to prepare for the appointment of a new European Commission. I pay tribute to the immense skill shown by Chancellor Schroder in bringing the negotiations to a successful conclusion. The conclusions of the Council have been placed in the Library of the House.

The European Council was, however, overshadowed by events in Kosovo, which were constantly in the minds of European Council members during the meeting, and I shall begin with that matter.

European Heads of State and Government were unanimous in condemning Milosevic's barbarity and intransigence and in supporting NATO action. Air strikes are continuing and intensifying in the wake of the renewed repression in Kosovo. Thirteen additional Royal Air Force planes are being committed to the NATO operation this week. I know that right hon. and hon. Members will join me in giving their continued full support to the British forces engaged. Thirteen countries have aircraft committed to that operation.

Even as we speak, there are continuing atrocities perpetrated by Milosevic against defenceless Kosovar civilians, but one thing should be made very clear: the idea that this barbarity and renewed ethnic cleansing started last Wednesday when NATO began its campaign is simply absurd.

The massacres that we are witnessing now were planned by Milosevic in the past two months when he built up an army and special police presence in the Kosovo region totalling 40,000 troops and 300 tanks--a deployment far greater than at the height of last year's fighting and savage repression. In the two days prior to the NATO campaign, 20,000 people were driven from their homes, and in the past month, 65,000 were driven from their homes. That is in addition to the 300,000 people who were driven away last summer. It is now clear that Serb participation in the Paris peace talks was a cover for Milosevic's offensive preparations. We now know that on 20 March, the day after the talks were suspended, armed Serbs started summary executions and ethnic cleansing. They have continued ever since.

In our view, our response to those appalling acts, far from halting or slowing down the allied action, must be to intensify it and see it through to a successful conclusion. For every act of barbarity and every slaughter of the innocent, Milosevic should be made to pay a higher and higher price. I hope that no one who has seen the utter, callous brutality with which the Kosovar Albanian people have been treated is under any remaining illusions about the nature of the Serb regime. The proper answer to that is not weakness but strength.

We are also addressing the growing refugee problem created by Milosevic's brutality. I have today set up a cross-departmental group to respond rapidly to that crisis.

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A joint military and civilian team will visit Macedonia and Albania later this week. The Department for International Development has allocated an extra£10 million as our initial contribution to the international effort, in addition to the help that we had already committed.

I shall now turn to Agenda 2000. On agriculture, the European Council agreed to phased price cuts of 15 per cent. for milk and cereals, and 20 per cent. for beef. It also set limits on agricultural spending, bringing the common agricultural policy under tighter control than before. Agricultural spending by 2006 is planned to be less than 2 per cent. in real terms above its level next year, and falling. Of course, some of us wanted more, but it is worth contrasting this outcome with the increase of 9 per cent. agreed at the Edinburgh European Council in 1992--and UK consumers will, when these reforms have been implemented, benefit by about £1 billion a year, or £65 for a family of four.

On the structural and cohesion funds, the European Council agreed that spending in the existing Union should total 213 billion euros in the period 2000 to 2006, an 11 per cent. reduction in the Commission's proposal. Within that total, full and proper account will be taken of the interests of the UK.

Cornwall, west Wales and the valleys, and South Yorkshire will qualify for the first time for assistance under objective 1 of the structural funds. Merseyside will retain its objective 1 status. A safety net will safeguard the position of regions of the UK qualifying for assistance under objective 2 of the structural funds. This will cover 14 million British people. There will be a special package for Northern Ireland, assuring assistance at a level equivalent to objective 1 status. There will be a special transitional programme of assistance totalling 300 million euros for the highlands and islands of Scotland, which no longer qualify for objective 1 status. That sum is double the amount available for other areas losing objective 1 status, and is comparable to the amount that the highlands and islands would have received as an objective 1 area. That is a tremendous deal for Scotland.

The negotiation also covered the revenue side of the Union's finances. It was agreed that more revenue would be raised from contributions linked to gross national product and less from value added tax receipts and customs payments. There is also to be a change in the way in which payment for the UK abatement is divided among the other member states. But no change was made to the own resources ceiling, the limit on revenue available for the Community budget. That is significant and welcome.

In the past two major negotiations on European finance, in 1988 and 1992, the European Union, when it made changes, agreed an increase in the revenue ceiling: that is an increase in the share of the European Union's wealth which taxpayers can be required to contribute towards EU spending. For the first time there has been a major Community financial settlement without an increase in the potential burden on taxpayers. In 1988, the settlement envisaged spending rising by 17 per cent., and in 1992 it foresaw spending rising by 22 per cent. This time spending within the EU 15 will fall in real terms over the period covered by the agreement.

On the abatement, I am delighted to report that the presidency conclusions say in terms that the UK abatement will remain. In line with the 1988 and 1992

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European Council conclusions, the UK accepted that we should not make a windfall gain out of changes to the method of EU financing; that is the gain from a switch from VAT to GNP contributions and from an increase in the collection costs for traditional own resources. On the same principle, I agreed that the abatement will not apply, after enlargement, on an amount of expenditure in the new member states equal to the pre-accession aid in those member states which is itself now unabated. So any expenditure unabated now will remain unabated after enlargement. But the vast bulk of expenditure in the new members after enlargement will qualify for the abatement, because it is abated now. The result is that there willbe no reduction in the United Kingdom's rebate. Our objective was secured. I said that the Government would maintain the abatement. We have done so.

Heads of State and Government also agreed to invite Mr. Romano Prodi, former Prime Minister of Italy, to be the next President of the European Commission. I warmly welcome his appointment. Mr. Prodi has a strong record of economic and political reform.

The European Council's intention is that the new Commission should be appointed and start work as soon as possible after the European parliamentary elections, and remain in office for the remainder of this year and the five years starting from January 2000.

There was unanimous agreement among Heads of State and Government that the new Commission will need to give urgent priority to a programme of far-reaching modernisation and reform, in which Community funds, programmes and projects are properly managed, the Commission's services are correctly organised and the highest standards of management, integrity and efficiency are ensured.

The middle east peace process was also discussed at the European Council, and we urged that the transitional period established under the Oslo agreement be extended beyond 4 May 1999, with the aim of reaching agreement on final status issues within one year.

I am pleased to say that agreement was finally reached on the trade and development agreement with South Africa--an historic step in consolidating prosperity and democracy in South Africa and developing the European Union's relationship with that country.

To sum up, the outcome on Agenda 2000 is an agreement that makes significant reforms to the CAP; puts the Union's financial house in order in preparation for enlargement; brings spending under control and reduces Community spending as a proportion of Community GNP, even after allowing for the costs of enlargement; gives a fair deal to UK regions that receive support from the structural funds; and maintains the UK abatement.

That is a good result for Britain and has been achieved by a new Government who have rejected the sterile confrontations and isolationism of the recent past, and who engage constructively with Europe to get a better deal for Britain. I commend it to the House.

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