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8.32 pm

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): Linoleum was invented by a Dundonian. Although I do not find inspiration in the granite architecture of Dundee, linoleum has always assumed a symbolic significance for me as a Member of Parliament. The inventor of linoleum got the idea from watching paint dry. He saw the thick skin form on the top of the paint and realised that it could be put to a useful purpose. I trust that hon. Members from all parties who are following the debate will take heart from that bijou of Scottish industrial history.

How can a measure that enables the United Kingdom to effect revised technical procedures for financial contributions to the European Community budget and leaves the contribution unchanged be greeted with the hyperbole that we have heard from Opposition Members? The Bill was everything from codswallop in the speech of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) to a profound disappointment in the contribution of the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison).

The Bill has 12 lines. They enable us to change the notional rate of VAT that is levied on our proportionate assessment contribution to the Community budget from 1 per cent. today to 0.75 per cent. in 2002–03 and to 0.50 per cent. in the following years. That means that we

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will reduce our VAT-based contributions. However—I accept that no silver lining is without its cloud—there will be a corresponding rise in the contributions based on our share of gross national product. However, that rate is simply a balancing figure. The net contribution will, as we have said, be unchanged because it will have been balanced by the GNP-based contribution.

What is it in the Bill that has prompted the vitriol that we have heard from Opposition Members? Although they expressed such vitriol, they could not even be bothered to table an amendment to the blinking thing. If we are going to debate the Bill for this many hours, we should enter the realms of reality.

What did the Berlin summit achieve? Will it make a difference to this country and to the European Community? I recall sitting in the House three weeks before the summit took place, when Opposition Members jibed consistently about what was going to happen: Britain was going to be sold down the river; the abatement was going to be relinquished; and the Government were going to come back with at least croissant crumbs, if not egg, all over their chin.

The most notable thing about the week following the Berlin summit was that the Prime Minister came back and was not challenged at Prime Minister's Question Time. None of the disastrous things predicted by the Opposition happened, and they maintained a stony silence on the subject thereafter. However, that does not mean that nothing happened at the Berlin summit. What happened was that we managed to secure an agreement whereby the spending of the European Union would be brought under control.

Let me contrast that with previous agreements on EU spending negotiated by the Governments of 1988 and 1994. Those agreements allowed increases in the European Union budget of 17 per cent. and 22 per cent. respectively—yet here we are today, debating a technical measure that will put into effect the agreement reached at Berlin that European Union spending will not increase at all. Our spending in Europe is not going to increase. Why, therefore, have Opposition Members attacked this extremely small and modest Bill?

Mr. Hendrick: Does my hon. Friend believe, as I do, that the Conservatives' opposition to the Bill has nothing to do with its content, but is caused by the use of the word "European" on the front page?

Mr. Gardiner: My hon. Friend has got it in one. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East admitted in his speech, following an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale), that he believes that we should withdraw altogether from the European Union. Somewhat confusingly, he also said that he thought that it was impossible to do so. I am not sure how he can propose our withdrawal while thinking it impossible to achieve. There is a gut antipathy to all things European among Conservative Members, although not in any great numbers—there are two Conservative Members present, and earlier there was only a sole person on the Opposition Front Bench. I suspect that other Opposition Members do not want to devote time to this matter, because they do not see the importance of putting the Bill through Parliament.

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This is an important Bill, as are all Bills in one way or another. It is a modest Bill that will enable a technical amendment relating to our financial contributions to the European Union to take effect. We should put the legislation into perspective.

The Berlin deal maintained the United Kingdom's abatement. We can be proud of that achievement, because we were told that it would not happen. The Bill looks forward to the enlargement of the European Union. We have heard eloquent speeches from my hon. Friends about the need for that. I do not want to go over the arguments that they have adduced. Enlargement is politically important, and we must be clear about that. It is politically important for a generation who saw the events of 1989. Before that, Europe was divided, and we want to move to a Europe that has an inclusivity that has eluded us for 50 years.

I vividly remember in a previous life, before entering the House, working in Germany with colleagues and clients. A German colleague spoke to me passionately about how his grandfather had lost everything in world war one, how his father had lost everything in world war two, and how he had built up his company. He did not want ever again to see Europe divided.

We should be under no illusion. Of course there is a political element to Europe and to the enlargement process—it is not just about markets and finance; it is, importantly, about unification. We should see ourselves as part of Europe, united and working with colleagues on the continent.

I welcome the provisions in the Bill and what they will do to change the way in which contributions are made. I welcome the fact that enlargement will break down the barriers to trade and business that our companies continue to face. I welcome the fact that our generation will see a transformation in the business environment across eastern Europe, and that the world's largest single market will expand to include countries that, not 20 years ago, could never have dreamed that they would be able to do business with us and be part of that single market.

I cannot claim to have an agriculturally based constituency in Brent, North. Were I to stand here this evening and talk of the reforms of the common agricultural policy that took place at Berlin, some of my constituents might wonder whether I was moonlighting in other constituencies at weekends. I assure the House that I do not intend to go into the details as did my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who revealed his comprehensive knowledge of the treaties and the way in which they affected agriculture in this country. What I know is that the reforms—of which the Bill is a small part—of the way in which contributions will be made will enable the average family to pay £70 a year less in food bills.

That is what affects my constituents. I cannot talk about milk quotas or set-aside schemes; what I can say is that I know that my constituents will welcome the lower food prices in our local supermarkets that will result from the process on which we are embarked. I support the Bill.

8.46 pm

John Mann (Bassetlaw): It is with some trepidation that I, a new Member, follow such experts as my hon. Friends the Members for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) and for Harlow (Mr. Rammell)—and, albeit from a different

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perspective, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor). They have had an opportunity to discuss these issues and study them in detail for the past four years. I would like to say that the good people of Bassetlaw have also been discussing European Union finance in great detail, but if they have it has failed to catch my attention sufficiently on the doorsteps.

I feel, however, that I am able and qualified to comment on the issue of good negotiation—for this, after all, was a negotiation. In my previous incarnation, I taught industrial relations and negotiating skills—in this country and across Europe—to trade unions, but also at Cranfield school of management. The accepted wisdom of those in that rather small profession is that in negotiation one should set an objective and a bargaining range—and, within the bargaining range, a bargaining point beyond which one should not expect one's fellow negotiators to move. The skill of the negotiator, who may have been given the objective, lies in identifying accurately the bargaining range and the bargaining point.

According to my analysis of this negotiation, the bargaining range has been identified and, unusually, the bargaining point is at the extremity of the bargaining range. I note that, following the negotiation, there is no increase in United Kingdom contributions. I also note significant moves to bring European Union spending under control, and I note that issues of fraud and financial management have been properly addressed. I congratulate those involved on achieving what we in my former profession would describe as a win-win negotiation: we win, and Europe wins.

I mentioned the speeches of my hon. Friends and I also commend that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale). I would juxtapose his position with that of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East, who sadly is not in the Chamber at present, but who made an excellent speech. They are at opposite ends of a pole—one is at one end of the see-saw and one at the other.

In 1971, at the age of 11, I made my first political speech. In those days, I would have placed my much lesser bulk on the side of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East. That speech was on reform of the common agricultural policy and what I saw as the scandal of the European Community and the way in which it was bleeding this country dry because of that policy. I note that the parliamentary choir has been active. I can assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I will not attempt a solo or a duet, but at that time there was a song called, "The Beef and Butter Mountains." Perhaps in the future, in more convivial circumstances, I will exchange the words of that song for another with the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East as I think that he would welcome them. However, those words and that song are dated.

I changed my views on the European Community and then the European Union. I was adamantly and vehemently opposed to having anything to do with it. I used to express the same sentiments that I heard expressed from the Conservative Benches earlier. I changed my view because of the growth of multinational companies. The question that I could never answer was how this small island alone could in any way affect the behaviour of multinational companies that were ever greater in size and influence.

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I suspect that I am now one of the strongest advocates of enlargement of the EU in the House. Over the years, I traded with Europe. Although I claim no expertise, anyone who has had to handle value added tax returns on a cross-border transaction will understand the complexities that must be involved in any financial system. A layman would say, however, that the changes that have been made are coherent.

Last year, our business sent a lorry to Hungary. One can drive there, albeit that one starts with high diesel prices here—I have mentioned those in a previous speech in the House and I shall no doubt return to that theme—and one has to pay extravagant tolls to take a lorry across western Europe and, in Austria, one faces Sunday driving regulations that are different from ours. One can overcome those obstacles and cope with the costs to reach the border of Hungary, where one has to spend 24 hours on the way in and another 24 hours on the way out waiting for the bureaucracy of a non-EU country to allow us to trade with it. The case for enlargement becomes absolute in the face of those difficulties.

I was astonished by the sentiments and words of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East when he said that there should be no EU budget. No budget? In my constituency! I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) that my constituency is a rural one. Farmers in my constituency are no great lovers of this or the previous Labour Government or of the Conservative Governments before them, but in their criticisms of the EU there is one thing about which they are adamant—do not get rid of all the subsidies.

As an example, I use sugar levies, which were relevant to the negotiations as part of the reform of the common agricultural policy. The sugar beet industry is, and has long been, probably the most important in the agriculture sector in my constituency. Sufficient attention has perhaps not been paid to it during the current foot and mouth problems. Restrictions on the movement of livestock have damaged the sugar beet industry.

I am pleased about CAP reform. As that reform slowly takes place, we are seeing a roll-over of the present quota systems for five years. That will allow the financial moves towards enlargement to occur so as to give greater stability for the whole sugar beet industry. It will do far better from the negotiations than it could have anticipated a year or two ago.

The European Commission study into the impact of sugar levies on the sugar beet industry is crucial—not least in preparations for enlargement. Who knows whether the applicant countries can create sufficient development in their sugar beet industries to compete with us? I suspect that they will do so. People from the UK and other advanced economies will invest in those countries to make a profit—rightly so, in their view. The study is crucial to the sugar beet industry.

As we move forward when—as I hope—we pass the Bill, it is important that we carefully monitor the role of the large sugar cane barons so that they do not get hold of the industry worldwide and destroy British sugar production. In my constituency, that would be a disaster.

Many of my constituents fled eastern Europe to escape not only Nazi but communist persecution. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North mentioned 1989. I was in

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Poland in 1980, in the month when Solidarity was formed. In 1983 I was thrown out of Czechoslovakia, which is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia. I was in Hungary, meeting autonomous trade union organisations and what were then described as dissident groups. They were fighting for freedom against the oppression of communism. If there were more time in this debate, I should continue to talk about that. Given the opportunity, I shall certainly come back to the subject in future debates.

After the horrors inflicted on those people, especially young people, battling for freedom from communism, for us to reject moves that would allow the finances of the EU to assist their countries—now freer, now democratic—to join us in reuniting Europe is something of an insult. It is an insult to those of my constituents who fled both Nazi and communist persecution.

I was a Yorkshire lad and spent my holidays in Filey on the Yorkshire coast. My first experience of Europe was in May 1968 when a young lad from Rhodesia, a mining village in my constituency, scored the winning goal against Ferencvaros in the European fairs cup final. That was my first experience of things European. Would that the players of Ferencvaros in Hungary were part of the European Union.

My second experience was more politically telling. That was to see tanks rolling through Prague and wonder, as a boy of eight, what kind of society we lived in. I say, let us make those preparations for enlargement. Let us negotiate our position, and the UK's position, from a position of strength. Let us be hard but fair. That is what I would expect of any of our leaders, and I commend them for what they have done. I hope, in the same spirit, that they will continue to negotiate for British and for European interests in future years.

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