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4.14 pm

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): It gives me no pleasure to speak against the Bill, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) brings it to the House with the noblest of motives. I should declare an interest in that I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on cycling, which now has a record membership. I cover about 200 miles a week by bike, both in my Exeter constituency and in London.

Although the Bill is well intentioned, I speak against it because I do not think that forcing people to fix bells to bikes is the most effective way either to improve pedestrian safety or to reduce accidents. My hon. Friend has already mentioned that the number of accidents between pedestrians and cyclists is remarkably low; in fact, bicycles are involved in only 0.07 of accidents in which pedestrians are injured. That is seven in 10,000.

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My other objection to the Bill is that anyone who knows about bicycle bells knows that they are extremely unreliable and rather quiet. Indeed, my hon. Friend pointed out that it is often much more effective to shout. In my experience, on occasions when a bell might be useful--for example, when one is cycling along a road and a pedestrian is about to step off the pavement without looking, or when a pedestrian is meandering across a cycle path where he or she should not be--in fact it is worse than useless, especially in urban areas. Pedestrians cannot hear a bell. I find it far more effective to give a loud shout or a scream as a warning. The pedestrian can hear that. In the unfortunate case involving my hon. Friend's constituent and her guide dog, I am not sure how the guide dog's movements would have been affected by the rather quiet tinkling of a bicycle bell.

I do not believe that the Bill will improve the atrocious behaviour of a small, but regrettable, number of idiotic cyclists, who will disregard it--as they already disregard far too many of our traffic laws. To burden responsible cyclists and the parents who are trying to encourage their children to use bikes with even more requirements and legislation will be a deterrent. Cycle use is extremely low and the Government are committed to doubling and redoubling cycle use in this country by 2012. The Bill would be yet another impediment to achieving their admirable aim.

Our aim should be to improve the behaviour of all road users. The most effective way of protecting pedestrians is to concentrate on the proper separation of pedestrians and cyclists. In recent years, there has been a regrettable move to encourage pedestrians and cyclists to share the same pavement space. That is not the way forward and I am glad that the Government are not practising that system.

In conclusion, I regret opposing the Bill; it is well intentioned, but it will not help pedestrians and it might deter cyclists.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Nick Palmer, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. Andrew Dismore,Mr. Kelvin Hopkins, Ms Margaret Moran and Mr. Alan Simpson.

Bells on Pedal Cycles

Dr. Nick Palmer accordingly presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to make regulations on the fitting, maintenance and use of bells on pedal cycles: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 July, and to be printed[Bill 105].

19 May 1999 : Column 1079

Opposition Day

[13th Allotted Day]

European Union Fraud

Madam Speaker: We now come to the main business of the day. I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.18 pm

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham): I beg to move,

The debate falls only five months after the Chancellor unveiled his plan for a head of fraud investigations. At the time, the Government said that the proposal was well received. That may have been the case, but the proposal was speedily buried. Each year, according to the Court of Auditors, 5.5 per cent. of the European Union budget mysteriously disappears. That is about £3 billion this year; by coincidence, it is equivalent to the United Kingdom's annual net contribution. It is about £53 for every person in this country.

It is now absolutely clear that there have been cases of mismanagement, wastage and outright fraud, which increase each year as the budget grows. That scandal will not solve itself. For the fourth year running, the Court of Auditors has refused to clear the EU's accounts. It describes the incidence of substantive errors affecting payments as "unacceptable".

Fraud against the EU budget is daily defacing the European Union, which is why it must be a major issue in the European Parliament elections. It is significant that today it is we, the Conservatives, and not the Government who have decided to focus on fraud. The debate gives us a chance to scrutinise the Government's record, because Labour's posturing on fraud in the EU is a matter that, to be frank, it would prefer not to expose to closer scrutiny.

Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton): If the Conservatives intend to make fraud an issue in the European elections, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us with what record on stopping fraud the Tories can go to the electorate?

Mr. Maude: We have a consistent record of putting forward coherent proposals, which began to make a difference--indeed, I did so myself. We secured some improvements in the Maastricht treaty, which my signature adorns, as Ministers are always keen to remind the House. I am glad to be able to assure the House that

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that treaty ensured the taking of some steps, albeit not enough, to improve scrutiny. One of the crucial elements, which is just beginning to bear fruit, is the elevation of the Court of Auditors to the status of a proper institution; that was a Conservative Government initiative.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): May I tell the right hon. Gentleman that one of the great speeches of my 20 years as a Member of the House of Commons is one made in 1985--nearly 15 years ago--by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), now Home Secretary, on the issue of fraud in the EU? Nothing happened as a result of that speech, and every year thereafter, for the next 10 years, we had conversations about how so little was happening. Only since the election of the Labour Government has the issue gone up the agenda.

Mr. Maude: It is not especially kind of the hon. Gentleman to draw attention to the lack of influence wielded by his right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who was not present to answer questions on the private notice question earlier today. It is also significant that, yet again, the Chancellor has failed to come to the House of Commons to answer for the conduct of his Department.

The issue is not only one of securing better management of the EU's finances.

inside the Commission--not my words, but those of the independent experts who were eventually given the task of investigating the allegations raised earlier this year by Mr. Van Buitenen.

Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maude: No. I want to make some progress. We were late in starting the debate and many of my right hon. and hon. Friends want to speak on this important issue.

We want to tackle fraud head on, by dealing with the vacuum of responsibility that originates in the fundamental lack of accountability within the Commission. That absence of responsibility was illustrated by the auditors' discovery that certain Commission officials working overseas had used the interest accrued on their budget funds in the PHARE programme--Poland and Hungary Aid for Reconstruction of the Economy--to buy themselves 26 new cars. It is that lack of responsibility which breeds arrogance and carelessness. Where else can one find Commissioners who, two months after having been dismissed, have yet to clear their desks and leave? Where else can one find a development operation that left behind 1.3 million ecu in the National Housing and Savings Bank of Liberia--a sum that, after nine years, has yet to be reclaimed; or a 600,000 ecu budget for buying flagpoles?

Instilling a sense of accountability is the first, crucial step, but it is not surprising that it has not yet been taken. Is not the problem the Commission's ambitions, which constantly outreach its capacity, its endless drive to

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arrogate more and more powers to itself, and its constant drive to do more but doing it worse? In its 1997 report, the Court of Auditors noted that

    "the Commission committed at least 330 million ecu for operations which lacked a legal basis"--

which were not even legal--and that it overspent on its legitimate activities by 750,000,000 ecu. As the Select Committee on International Development observed:

    "there are huge discrepancies between political priorities and administrative capacity"--

in other words, doing more and doing it worse.

No one has made that clearer than Mr. Prodi, the Prime Minister's personal choice for the new President of the Commission. He was brought in precisely to clean up the scandals and the fraud. What was Mr. Prodi's first great initiative? Was it a grand anti-fraud campaign, bringing in clean, new Commissioners or perhaps reinstating the man who blew the whistle and who was outrageously suspended on half pay while the sacked Commissioners kept their first-class seats? Did Mr. Prodi do any of those things? Forget it. His top priority was to expatiate on the absolute necessity of a European army. He is planning not how he can save our money but more ways in which to spend it. The Commission should be doing less, not more--and doing it better. It should not pursue a dogmatic, federalist agenda that taxpayers do not want, let alone want to pay for.

At every turn, there is evidence of an institution that is out of control and is over-reaching itself. For example, its Russian nuclear safety fund cannot account for £100 million of the nearly £600 million that it has spent since 1991. Its Mediterranean fund does not know where £40 million of its budget went in 1997. The European Community Humanitarian Office has already written off much of the £420 million it lent but failed to secure guarantees for. Not only is the Commission over-reaching itself, it is covering up its actions with impunity. Let us consider another example from ECHO, which is run by Commissioner Marin, who was also dismissed but is still there.

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