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There are undoubtedly other parliamentarians who would, were they free agents, support my wish to leave the EU and, it has to be said, millions of our fellow countrymen would applaud such a move, so surely the time has come to strike a balance--to ascertain as nearly as is humanly possible exactly where the balance of advantage lies. That is the purpose of the Bill. It would establish a committee of inquiry that would impartially investigate the pros and cons of our membership of the EU and report back to the House its findings so that we might be in a position to consider the full implications and ramifications of withdrawal.
Just over 12 months ago, I embarrassed my shadow Cabinet colleagues by asking them individually to let me know what they perceived to be the benefits of Britain's membership of the EU. They decided that my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), then shadow Foreign Secretary, should be deputed to respond. I have his letter of 18 November 1999 in front of me.
In responding to me on behalf of all his shadow Cabinet colleagues, my hon. Friend relied heavily on assertion, and one should not be surprised by that. The whole debate thus far has been conducted on the basis of unsubstantiated assertion. It has indeed been a fact-free zone. The advocates of European integration have consistently advanced their cause by making a series of unproven assertions and, what is more, they have learned to make those assertions in forums where, as often as not, they cannot be challenged.
However, if there is a party represented in Parliament that should understand better than any other the hazard of making major political decisions based on assertions rather than fact, it is the Conservative party. In October 1990, based on the glib but unquantifiable assertions that interest rates would be lower, unemployment would be reduced and economic growth rates would improve, the Conservative Government took Britain into the exchange rate mechanism. The result, as hon. Members will recall, was that the United Kingdom was forced to abandon the ERM 23 months later because interest rates had risen to record levels--15 per cent. on the afternoon of Black Wednesday--unemployment had soared from 1.67 million in 1990 to 2.85 million in 1992 and, far from experiencing economic growth, thousands lost their businesses and even more had their homes repossessed.
For the Conservative party, it has been downhill in the opinion polls ever since, all because we accepted at face value the bogus assertions that continue to dominate the debate. On 17 April 2000, at column 733 in Hansard, I challenged my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who is a staunch advocate of economic and monetary union and a former Chancellor of the Exchequer. He clearly did not know that, behind the assertion that EU membership is "vital for Britain's trade" lay the fact that our trade with Europe represents less than 11 per cent. of gross domestic product. I have the figures to prove it, and as I come from a business background, I stress that it is advisable and customary to carry out a cost benefit analysis before embarking on any project. However, successive Governments have failed to do precisely that. Indeed, when requested to do so, they have refused point blank.
The purpose of the Bill is to remedy that position and seek the approval of Parliament for the establishment of a committee of inquiry, which would be charged with presenting a properly considered and costed report that dealt exclusively with the implications of withdrawal from the EU.
Let me make it clear that the committee of inquiry would be charged with considering not only the economic but also the constitutional and practical implications of withdrawal. One accepts that it is difficult to put a price upon the value of self-governance, but clearly it is an important part of the overall consideration.
The committee of inquiry might do worse than seek the opinions of those in any one of the 50 or more dominions, colonies and overseas possessions of the former British empire, to which Parliament has, in the past 70 years, granted full independence. It seems probable that, regardless of size and notwithstanding the poverty of some countries, and the political trials and tribulations of others, there would be little or no demand for a return to rule by London. The committee might also consider the experience of those parts of the former empire where federal Governments were established and the reasons for their fairly peremptory demise.
Hon. Members will be aware of the many calls in recent years for a proper debate about our future relationship with the EU. The Bill would enable that debate to be conducted on the basis of fact rather than assertion. Making available factual information, free from political bias and Government spin, would be inestimably valuable to the general public. They have every right to demand the facts, not least because, in the final analysis, they will pay the price, not only literally through their taxes, but with their historic right to live in a self-governing nation under laws made by people whom they elect to their British Parliament here in Westminster.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Christopher Gill, Sir Richard Body, Mr. Christopher Chope, Mrs. Teresa Gorman, Mr. Austin Mitchell, Mr. Laurence Robertson, Mr. William Ross, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Sir Teddy Taylor, Mr. William Thompson, Mr. John Townend, and Mr. Charles Wardle.
Mr. Christopher Gill accordingly presented a Bill to establish a Committee of Inquiry into the implications of a withdrawal by the United Kingdom from the European Union: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 27 April, and to be printed [Bill 75].
The Bill marks a further step in our drive to tackle fraud and error as part of our wider reforms of the welfare state. As the House will know, we inherited a social security system in which spending had doubled between 1979 and 1997, but at the same time, child poverty had trebled and the number of households with children with no one in work was the highest in Europe. Spending had doubled because of economic failure. It is now under control for the first time in three decades. That is because we are getting more people into work but also as a result of tighter gateways to the benefit system.
We also inherited a benefit system that was losing more in fraud and error than it cost to run the entire Department of Social Security. That is the legacy of 18 years of Conservative Government. They did not even attempt to measure fraud for the first 15 years and they did precious little to stop it for their entire 18 years in office. No business would put up with that, and neither should we.
Stopping fraud and error is essential. For example, we have already saved £1 billion during this Parliament by halving the number of income support claims paid out with insufficient evidence. We are prosecuting and sanctioning more people than ever before. Last year, the figure was 22,000, which is 60 per cent. up on the previous year. Those sanctions cost people 100 per cent. of the benefit that they wrongly take plus an additional 30 per cent. That's the price that they pay for doing so.
Fraud not only takes money away from where it is needed most--money that would be far better spent on schools and hospitals or invested in transport--but, crucially, the presence of fraud in the system undermines public support for the social security system. If people see others cheating and getting away with it, they lose confidence in the system. That is one of the reasons for our determination to put a stop to benefit fraud and bear down on error in the system. The Bill is a further step towards doing just that.