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Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) rose--

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) rose--

Mr. Maude: No, I will not give way at this stage. I will give way later. The debate started late and many hon. Members wish to contribute.

That is not some scare story by The Sun, but a comment by the President of the Court of Auditors. Only under pressure, did the Commission release a document on its humanitarian projects--and, even then, it was so "heavily censored" as "to render it illegible". They are also the words of the President.

It seems that there is only one thing these days with which the Commission is economical: the truth. That is why we are pressing to introduce a new and fully independent anti-fraud office in Brussels. That is a positive commitment that contrasts with the Government's studied evasion of the issue. We are not alone in that call. There was widespread support among Members of European Parliament for

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James Elles's proposals for the reform of the Commission--except from one quarter, the European parliamentary Labour party. It did not want that. The Conservatives in the European Parliament raised the possibility of an independent fraud office early on, but, as usual, Labour came late to that debate.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) rose--

Mr. Maude: I will not give way as I must make some progress.

The Chancellor eventually got around to proposing something at the January ECOFIN meeting, but his proposals showed that he had not been paying attention. The Conservatives had campaigned for an independent fraud office precisely because Commission interference in corruption investigations had come to light. Labour just did not get it. Its so-called head of fraud investigations could not have fought his way out of a wet paper bag. He would work in a fraud office that was staffed by Commission officials and based inside the Commission, yet, according to the Prime Minister, he would be somehow independent. We all know the Prime Minister's definition of independence: about as independent as a Labour Back Bencher.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) rose--

Mr. Maude: The hon. Gentleman is getting very excited, so I will give way to him.

Mr. Gapes: The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned repeatedly an independent fraud office. Is he aware that the Commission and the member states under the German presidency have already agreed to establish such a body? It is not a Conservative proposal: it is already in the system.

Mr. Maude: That intervention illustrates vividly the hon. Gentleman's concept of independence. The proposed fraud office would be based inside the Commissionand staffed by Commission officials. It would not be independent, as anyone outside the parliamentary Labour party would understand.

Mr. Geraint Davies rose--

Mr. Maude: No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman.

The fact is that Labour's cosy back-scratching relationship with the European Commission means that it will never take on the Commission. Our demands for an independent fraud office, which would have dealt with the problem, were therefore bypassed in favour of a pseudo-proposal, which would have done nothing to change the status quo.

In January, the Chancellor proclaimed proudly--he is not, of course, here to defend his remarks--

Quickly? We have seen quicker snails. It is not as though the Government did not know about that fraud.

Mr. Love: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maude: No. Paul Van Buitenen, enraged by the complacent inertia around him, blew the whistle early

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in January, explaining why he was speaking out. On 6 January, he said that he was

    "disappointed about the attitude of the Socialist faction, and notably Mrs. Green . . . because she seems to support the Commission."

He continued:

    "Perhaps they have a higher agenda in the Euro."

That is right. The socialists are going with the flow in Europe and they do not want to upset the Commission; it is mutual back-scratching.

The subsequent treatment of Mr. Van Buitenen differed considerably from that of the Commissioners, whose downfall his revelations precipitated. That is funny. He was smeared as a religious fanatic. I suppose that the definition of a religious fanatic is one who is able to tell right from wrong. He was suspended on half pay, whereas the Commissioners who were found wanting by the independent experts were left on full pay, full rations and a first-class return ticket on the gravy train.

Mr. Van Buitenen was not the only person to notice that Pauline Green was slow to get on the case. The budget spokesman for the Party of European Socialists resigned in protest at Pauline Green's dilatory stance on fraud. She was not the only one to find Mrs. Green's argument tortuously contrived. First, Mrs. Green tabled a censure motion on the Commission after a majority in the European Parliament agreed with the conclusions of the Elles report. She then declared that the Party of European Socialists would oppose the motion in a vote, since the only way to register confidence in the Commission was to call for censure and then vote against it. Only a trusty double negative would do for that stout upholder of Britain's interests.

How delightfully intimate it all was: the thumbs up; the celebrations, and Commissioner Kinnock gratefully kissing Mrs. Green's hand. It was not, therefore, too surprising that Mr. Santer announced proudly that the Commission's escape from censure amounted to a vote of confidence. Cover-ups, back-scratching and cosy dealsto avoid the frightful embarrassment of being held accountable are the story of Labour's brave battle against fraud.

Let us consider the legendary Mrs. Cresson and her cosy menage, including her live-in dentist, who is employed as an adviser. What did Labour do about that? It supported her. According to Mrs. Green, that was a principled stance--I suppose that, by her standards, it might have been--which helped

Well, the earth did not exactly move under Mrs. Cresson that day. What a cop-out that was. Most of Labour's MEPs had not voted for the very report that described the problem of fraud in the first place. They did not vote for the motion withdrawing support from Mrs. Cresson two weeks after she and other Commissioners had resigned and after the independent experts had found her guilty of favouritism.

There has not been much evidence of Mrs. Green campaigning for a new Commission to be appointed, because that would mean the removal of the very people whom she hoped to protect. Her credentials on clean financial management took another tumble when it was revealed that, three years ago, she had--no doubt, coincidentally--arranged a conference outside the EU,

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in Cyprus, for a number of MEPs and their advisers in the same week in which her adviser was getting married on the island. We are utterly confident that the taxpayer was absolutely delighted to be helping with those travel expenses.

How sensible Mrs. Green was to send her driver out to Cyprus three days before the conference began. He said:

He went three days early--that is some traffic jam, particularly as he flew there. [Laughter.] That's right, he flew there, and the taxpayer paid.

We do not even need to dwell on the complex affairs of Mr. Glyn Ford, which bring a new dimension to the phrase "money laundering". We assume that Labour has instituted an urgent inquiry into the extraordinary allegations made in today's edition of the Daily Express. No doubt the Chief Secretary will comment on that when he responds. We assume also that, pending that inquiry, Mr. Ford will be removed from his position at the head of Labour's list of candidates for the south-west region. After all, those at Millbank tower parachuted him in there. If they mean business, they will airlift him out.

Mr. Geraint Davies: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maude: No, I will not.

Labour Members' claim to be tough on fraud is pretty thin, and now they have admitted it. The Economic Secretary said

She said that not once, but a further five times in all. We were all agog to know what the "everything" of which she boasted would amount to. Sadly, not very much, which the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin), was forced to admit only two weeks later. Days before the Commission resigned, she made the shameful admission that

    "the Council has not formally discussed the way in which the Commissioners have performed their duties".

What did the Government do? What was the "everything" of which the Economic Secretary bragged? We know that there were no formal discussions, because that admission has been dragged out of the Government. Were there informal discussions--perhaps a little light conversation over lunch? What was said and what was done, or is the truth that, despite all their protestations, they did nothing and said nothing on this crucial matter? The only thing that they agreed was a cut in the anti-fraud expenditure of 16 per cent. in the 1999 draft budget when fighting fraud was meant to be at the top of their presidency wish list only a year ago.

In the European Parliament, Labour denies that a problem ever existed. In the Council of Ministers, Labour sits on its hands and stays stumm. Is that what Labour Members call leading in Europe? Unlike Labour, Conservatives mean what they say--

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