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7.43 pm

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): These debates are important because they provide the House with an opportunity not just to discuss the forthcoming European Council meeting in Seville, but to express our views on a wide range of issues.

I am very disappointed that, uncharacteristically in such debates, we have not been graced by the presence of the hon. Members for Stone (Mr. Cash), for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who always make interesting contributions. Of course they have now been promoted to the Front Bench. That is perhaps one reason why we have not heard from them this evening,

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but this has been a good debate because it has allowed us for the first time not just to discuss what will happen at the European Council meeting, but to assess what has been going on in the EU during the past six months.

I was fascinated by the accounts of the convention given by the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart). The convention has been fashioned in a unique way. Members of national Parliaments will be allowed the opportunity not only to take part in a very important decision-making process, but to return to the House to give us the opportunity to question them and to hear what they have to say. That is extremely necessary.

Frankly, someone who met the right hon. Member for Wells and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston separately would not think that they had much in common, but I am very pleased that they are working together, perhaps from different perspectives. They will go to Edinburgh, Cardiff and, this week, Belfast to discuss with the law makers in different parts of the United Kingdom how we can improve the way in which the EU operates.

My plea to the Minister for Europe is to continue the work that he and the Foreign Secretary have been doing on the reform agenda. They have both worked extremely hard to ensure that, although the EU's agenda is necessarily busy, the reform agenda remains very much a British initiative. We need to recognise the work that Neil Kinnock, one of the two European Commissioners from Britain, is doing on reforming the operation of the Commission's personnel, but we should applaud and commend what Britain is doing—what the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Europe are doing—in constantly pushing forward the reform agenda.

The hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) says that he wants television cameras to be present because he wants to check on what Ministers are doing and whether they are defending Britain's interests. Well, I can assure him that this Government, like the previous Government, defend Britain's interests to the hilt. The right hon. Member for Wells was a Minister in the last Conservative Government. He did not attend those meetings to allow the French, the Germans or anyone else to try to pursue their agenda without offering any resistance. Ministers are able to attend and fight Britain's corner, and they do so very effectively because they have tremendous support from our civil servants.

I pay tribute to Sir Nigel Sheinwald and his team in Brussels for the way in which they help British Ministers to press what we believe to be in the best interests of Britain and, indeed, the EU.

The hon. Member for North Dorset should have no fears about what happens. He and other hon. Members should not criticise the work that is being done throughout the country in trying to reconnect the British people to the EU. Clearly, that work has to be done. There was criticism that money was spent on publishing pamphlets and other activities because it was felt that that was not necessary, but I believe that it was vital. It is the best way to communicate with our people about the effectiveness of

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what we can achieve in the EU. If we say nothing and leave such things to a very Eurosceptic media, we will simply not get our message across.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: No one objects to information, but as the pamphlet clearly shows, the spending is biased in favour of those giving an integrationist, pro-European slant, and it is done with taxpayers' money. That is contrary to any guidelines that apply to the British Government over their expenditure. Why should we tolerate that from the EU; it is all taxpayers' money?

Mr. Vaz: I will study the pamphlet. I have not received a copy myself—perhaps those involved know that I am convinced of the argument, so they have not sent me one—but I will study it. However, I am trying to make the point that it is important that Ministers and others should go out to the country to talk to people about the benefits of being in the EU, and we should continue that process. If we were to fail to do that, we would simply not give the British people value for money. I hope that people will be told about those benefits.

I also want to ensure that the reform agenda is implemented now. We simply do not have to wait for treaty changes to do many of the things that we would like. In my intervention on the Foreign Secretary, I referred to the letter that the Prime Minister and Chancellor Schroder wrote to José Mariá Aznar, the Spanish Prime Minister. That letter contained 20 or so principles and suggestions to improve the way in which the EU manages its business, from how the presidency operates right down to how the agendas are formed. Is it necessary for Heads of Government—busy people—to sit around the European summit table and to have to read out their positions in turn? That may be possible now, but when the new applicants enter in 2004, it will simply not be possible to finish meetings; they will go on for ever.

That was one of the problems at Nice—a crucial conference, designed to ensure that we prepared the EU for enlargement, where we were negotiating about how many votes each country would receive in the Council of Ministers. It went on for days and, quite rightly, not just our Prime Minister, but leaders of other European countries were very concerned about the length of time that it took.

We must reform the agenda. We must make sure that the decisions are communicated effectively to people. The right hon. Member for Wells picked up something that looked like a very large telephone directory and referred to it as volume 45. If it is volume 45, I do not know what volumes 1 to 45 would look like, or whether there are more than 45 volumes. Clearly, it is necessary, in the interests of the environment at least, to cut down on the amount of paper that flows from Brussels. We can only do that if we reform the way in which the Commission operates, and if we try to make sure that people are alerted at a very early stage to what is happening in terms of the decision-making process. We can achieve that without the need for treaties.

The letter of 25 February 2002 went to the Spanish Prime Minister, as Spain has the presidency until after the Seville European summit. Javier Solana, the Secretary General, then produced his own paper preparing the Council for enlargement. That was presented at Barcelona, and several sensible proposals were put

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forward that, again, did not require a treaty change. I hope that the Minister for Europe will make sure that we press on with the reform agenda. We must find out what happened to the Prime Minister's letter, how many of the points sensibly raised by the Prime Minister and Chancellor Schroder have been dealt with, how many of those points remain, and how we can make sure that we focus the minds of the European Commission and Mr. Solana, who works with us on these issues, to ensure that these other points are completed. Those are my comments on reform.

The debate began with a discussion of immigration and asylum policy. Every time I come into the Chamber, there seems to be a debate on immigration and asylum. For two days last week, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was talking about immigration and asylum. Today, obviously, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary began by talking about immigration and asylum, and goodness knows when it will be raised next—perhaps in a debate on economic policy. We need to make the point clearly that it is right that we should discuss these issues. We should also use the opportunity of Seville, however, to make sure that the other European countries put their good words into action. That means ensuring that common agreed policies are implemented and that problems are tackled at source.

I am not sure that I am entirely convinced that the way to deal with the issue is to sanction or penalise third-world countries into behaving differently. I do not think that that can be done. I understand why the Government have made the suggestion, and it merits discussion and attention, but I am not surprised that countries such as Sweden and others have said that it is not practical, as I do not think that it is. We need to consider an alternative method.

I shall give the House two examples of people who have come to my surgery in the last few weeks. One was a Dutch Somalian woman who had the right of residence in Holland and who has decided to come to live in Leicester in the United Kingdom. I am very happy that she has chosen to come to Leicester, which is a multicultural city. We welcome people from all parts of the world if they wish to be part of the Leicester experience. I asked her, not as an inquisition but for information, why she chose to come to live in Leicester. To use Daily Mail speak, I asked her whether she came because the benefits were higher in Leicester, or whether it was because we provided council housing more quickly—[Interruption.] It is kind of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe to suggest that she chose Leicester because of me, but I do not think that that was the reason. I asked her whether she was better off here. She said that she was not. She said that she received higher benefits in Holland and was provided with accommodation immediately there. She wanted to come to Britain, England and Leicester in particular because she felt safer in Leicester than in Holland. There are mosques for her to attend there and a fairly large Somalian community, as there is in Birmingham.

Last week, a woman who had come from Ethiopia via Stockholm with her three children visited my surgery to complain about the accommodation that she had been given. She had been given damp accommodation, and I wrote to the council on her behalf. I asked her, "Why did you choose to come from Stockholm to here? Was it

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because the housing was not particularly good?" She said that she had a wonderful flat overlooking the wonderful city of Stockholm but she preferred to come to the wonderful city of Leicester. I asked her again why she came to Leicester. She said that she felt safer in Leicester than in Sweden and that her family were settled here.

In our discussions and debates with our European allies, we must remind them of the need to value ethic minority communities, which have made such an important contribution to the life of our nation. The message coming from people who have rights of residence—they are not asylum seekers or illegally here but people who choose to come here with rights of residence from EU countries—is that they choose to come to Britain because they feel that they are valued and treated better here. We must tell our allies that they should do more to ensure that their ethnic minority communities feel as valued and as safe as they do when they come here.

My third point is in relation to the justice and home affairs agenda. Tampere was extremely important. Like my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, I was present at the Tampere summit, and it was good to see co-operation between countries on this important area. I want us to do more, however, on the issue of child abduction in the European Union. I have written to the Prime Minister about this, and I hope that the Minister for Europe will remind him that a letter was sent last week concerning the case of Catherine Meyer, a British citizen whose two sons were abducted by her German husband, and who has been treated appallingly by the German courts. I am very pleased that the issue has all-party support—I do not agree with the hon. Member for Stone on many European issues, but we agree on this. It is vital that we consider the case in the context of the appalling behaviour of the German courts. When an EU nation is a close ally of the United Kingdom, we should make sure that its courts dispense justice and that they do not merely act in the national interest. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will raise the case with Chancellor Schroder in the same way as it was raised by President Clinton and by President Chirac. I hope that we will achieve results in that regard.

I have two final points. One is on the issue of enlargement, which has been mentioned by all Members who have contributed. The shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who has returned to the Chamber from his other meetings in the House is rewriting history. He tells us that the Conservative party is in favour of enlargement. I know that it is not his fault—he did not fashion the policy as he was not the shadow Foreign Secretary at the time; it was the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), who was the co-signatory to the Maastricht treaty. He came to the Chamber on many occasions and said that he and his party would oppose Nice, and that the effect of opposing Nice would be that the enlargement process would be blocked. Of course, in practice, that would have been exactly the consequence of what he proposed to do. I am glad that the right hon. Member for Devizes has been converted and that he has changed the policy of the Conservative party.

We must have enlargement. We must welcome applicant countries into the European Union. Not only will that create the largest single market anywhere in the world, with 500 million consumers, and benefit our economy by about £1.75 billion a year, but it is important,

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politically and historically, that we unite Europe. If we look at the road map for enlargement, the 30 chapters have been opened in respect of all 12 countries with candidate status except Turkey. I have been surprised by the progress made under the Swedish and Spanish presidencies to the extent that the lead country, Cyprus, has closed 28 chapters, and even the applicant country that is right down the list, Malta, has closed 22. I was astonished that Bulgaria, which we thought would not join in the near future, had already closed 20 chapters, and by Commissioner Verheugen's statement in Brussels that 80 per cent. of the chapters would be closed by the end of June. That is astonishing progress and a credit to Commissioner Verheugen and the United Kingdom, as we have been the champion of enlargement. That process was begun by a speech in Warsaw by the Prime Minister and pursued by the Leader of the House—when he was Foreign Secretary—and by the current Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe.

Enlargement is crucial for the success of the European experience, so will my right hon. Friend the Minister tell us whether he is convinced that all 10 applicant countries, other than Bulgaria and Romania, will join the EU by 2004? I know that Ministers are reluctant to put figures on that but, in the past, we talked about waves of entry. Will we have just one big bang in 2004 before the European elections?

The shadow Foreign Secretary was a Minister in the previous Conservative Government and he spoke about agricultural reform. For 18 years the Conservative party in government did nothing about reforming the common agricultural policy. It is all very well to come to the House now to say that he wants reforms, but we have been arguing for them. [Interruption.] The shadow Foreign Secretary knows how many vested interests are involved in the CAP, and even five years is not long enough to overcome the vested interests, especially those of the French, in the CAP.

We want to ensure that the CAP is reformed, and we cannot use reform of the CAP as a means of stopping the enlargement process. Reform must wait until after enlargement, but the Government are committed to it and we will do it, unlike the shadow Foreign Secretary and his colleagues who say that they want reform but will not bring it about.

My final point is about the euro. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) will speak about this issue, but I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) has gone. He made a very thoughtful speech. Government policy has remained the same for the past five years; it has not changed. There is no question of a referendum now. The Government have made it clear over five years that the economic tests will be assessed. Only after they are assessed and only when it is in the national interest will the Cabinet, Parliament and then the British people decide on whether we join the euro. It will be not this House or one person to decide as happened under the Conservative Administration—and as expressed in the Conservatives' election manifesto—when the Conservative party's former leader and the shadow Cabinet were left to decide. The people will decide, and that remains the right course of action.

I wish my right hon. Friend the Minister well in Seville. I know that he, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister will bat very hard for Britain as they always do.

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I know that the policy of positive engagement that started five years ago will continue in Seville and that we will get an agenda that suits Britain and Europe.

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