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Mr. Derek Twigg: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maude: I am coming to the end of my speech, because this is a brief debate.

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Unlike Labour, Conservatives mean what they say about fraud. People have a clear choice in the European Parliament elections. The Conservative party is determined to be in Europe, but not run by it; the Labour party is so committed to going with the flow in Europe that it is incapable of taking any real steps to combat the fraud that defaces the European Union. It is a simple choice. I commend the motion to the House.

4.37 pm

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Alan Milburn): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I always welcome the opportunity to debate Europe with Conservative Members and, before I come to the substance of my speech, I thank them for the contribution that they made to our general election victory by debating the issue in the campaign.

Today's debate is not only about the level of fraud in Europe or the fact that fraud is wrong and must be stopped--we can all agree with that. It is about how best we can go about tackling fraud. That takes us to the fundamental issue underpinning the debate: if we are to tackle fraud in Europe successfully, we must do so as part of a wider process of reform in Europe. That requires strong leadership and constructive engagement in Europe, and, unlike the previous Government, that is precisely what we are providing.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): On the subject of criminality, what is Government policy on corpus juris?

Mr. Milburn: I do not know the answer to that question, I am afraid.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I think the Chief Secretary used the expression "strong leadership in Europe". Is he aware that the leader of the Labour party in Strasbourg, Pauline Green, tabled a motion to sack the Commission in December 1998, which she withdrew in January 1999? Did Millbank ask her to do so? She then voted against the motion tabled by the centre-right parties. Does he agree that that is hardly strong leadership in Europe?

Mr. Milburn: If the hon. Lady will bear with me, I will come precisely to the sequence of events that led to the appointment of the committee of experts--the

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so-called committee of wise men--and to the subsequent resignation of the Commission and the President. The shadow Chancellor alluded to that in his contribution, and it is right and proper that I should respond.

If we are successfully to tackle fraud in Europe, we require strong leadership and constructive engagement. That is precisely what we, unlike the previous Government, are providing. That approach is delivering the goods for Britain: the lifting of the beef ban; the successful retention of the United Kingdom's abatement; an excellent deal for the regions of our country thanks to the Agenda 2000 negotiations; real progress on reform of the common agricultural policy, and the commitment in principle to join the single currency if it is in the British economic interest to do so. Those developments show that this Government, unlike the last, are a player rather than a spectator in Europe.

Those developments also show that the leadership that we are giving in Europe to tackle fraud and deal with other issues, and to drive forward the modernisation of European institutions, brings direct benefits to our country and our people.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): The Minister may be paying a high price for some of his alleged achievements. May I return him to the question that he was asked a moment ago, and offer him a second opportunity to answer it? Does he agree that introducing corpus juris into our own system, alien as it is to habeas corpus, is far too high a price to pay for dealing with fraud in the European Union?

Mr. Milburn: According to my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary, who, as hon. Members can see, is whispering in my ear, some Conservative MEPs voted against what the hon. Gentleman is advocating. I shall develop that theme in a moment. What the Conservative party says in the Westminster Parliament is very different from what it says in the European Parliament. With the European elections coming up, it is important that we show unity and clarity on European issues.

The approach advocated by the Conservative party would jeopardise all the benefits that the Government have won for Britain in Europe. Weakness, division and isolationism are no way to get the best for Britain from Europe, and they are no way to win the war against fraud in Europe.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) rose--

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford) rose--

Mr. Milburn: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and then I shall make some progress.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The right hon. Gentleman proudly lists the Government's achievements in Europe, but three of them have not yet been accomplished: they are the lifting of the beef ban, joining the single European currency and the final negotiations on the common agricultural policy, which will run into trouble with the World Trade Organisation. I hope that the Chief Secretary will tell the House what the Government have done--particularly when they held the presidency of the

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European Union--to control fraud in the European Commission, as exposed by Van Buitenen, the whistleblower, given that the committee of experts will be abolished in October.

Mr. Milburn: I shall first deal with the common agricultural policy, and then I shall set out our record on winning the battle against fraud. I shall give a long list of achievements in that regard.

The negotiations in Europe on reform of the CAP produced the most radical reform in the policy's entire history. We wanted to go further, and we shall continue to press for that. I hope that Conservative Members will support the Government in that aim. We all know that the CAP is rotten and does not give a good deal for British taxpayers and consumers. The hon. Gentleman should not negate the achievements that we have managed to win, which have resulted in massive improvements in the CAP and a £65 gain for every consumer in this country. I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes that.

Let me make it perfectly clear that the UK Government take the issue of fraud extremely seriously. The current level of fraud is unacceptable. There should be zero tolerance of fraud wherever it occurs, whether it be in the European Union's budget or elsewhere. Taxpayers should be protected from fraud, and from those who perpetrate it. People who help expose it, such as Mr. Van Buitenen, deserve our congratulations.

That is all self-evident, or should be. The Government know that real actions rather than tough words are needed if we are successfully to prevent fraud. That is why we are taking a leading role in Europe in the establishment of a fraud prevention office, which will be strong and effective in fighting fraud.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): Will the Chief Secretary give way?

Mr. Milburn: I must deal with this point first. It consumed much of the shadow Chancellor's speech, and I want to reply in detail.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out the key requirements for a fraud prevention office at January's ECOFIN meeting. His proposals were warmly welcomed by fellow member states. As a result of the initiative that this Government took--that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor took--the next ECOFIN meeting, at the end of this month, will, I hope, agree to the establishment of an office with a strong independent director, with statutory protection from dismissal, and appointed only after consultation with both the Council and the Parliament.

The director will be debarred from taking or seeking instruction from any Government or Community institution. The office will be able to open investigations on its own initiative. It will have access to buildings and documents, and it will be able to draw up reports, including recommendations for follow-up. The director will report regularly to the Council and the Parliament, and so will be able to alert those bodies if the office's reports are not being acted on. There will also be a supervisory committee, whose members will be appointed by common accord between the Commission, the Council

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and the Parliament, and which will give the director advice and support. If that is not independent, I do not know what is.

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