Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of State reiterating his commitment to the new deal. About three weeks ago in Aberdeen, I helped to launch a new deal called progress to work, which is for recovering and recovered drug addicts. It is crucial that those young people get that specialist and specific help, because without it there is no way that they would ever enter the employment market. I am concerned that those people are the very ones who could be threatened should the Conservative party ever come to power and scrap the programme of new deals.

One of the main routes out of unemployment or off benefit for hard-to-place groups is self-employment. I notice that the Secretary of State said that the Government are thinking of providing extra help for those on benefits to enter self-employment. Can he give an indication of what that extra help might be?

Mr. Smith: My hon. Friend is right. As well as the general benefit of the new deal, there are those specialist elements of the programme, such as the progress to work initiatives to help drug abusers to manage their condition and to get to a position from which they can move into work. It would be an utter tragedy if the Conservative party were able to scrap them.

10 Dec 2003 : Column 1099

As we examine the future of the new deals and our wider array of employment programmes, as well as wanting to simplify what has become, due to its incremental development, a complex structure in terms of eligibility and programme operation, I think that there will be scope—not least through the incentivised employment zone approach—to make more resources available where people with a particularly challenging history or condition are being helped. As a condition of that, however, there must be a rigorous focus on the outcome of those programmes to enable us to have sufficient flexibility in the system, so as better to reward the ones that genuinely help the hardest to help and successfully get them towards the labour market.

It has been a feature of the existing new deal programmes that self-employment is an option. That has already helped many people successfully to start their own business. We want to develop that further with the quality of advice and support that is available. Of course, it will also be helped by the measures for skills, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in his statement.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I must move on to the main business.

10 Dec 2003 : Column 1100

European Affairs

[Relevant document: Minutes of Evidence taken before the European Scrutiny Committee (HC 1078-ii).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Margaret Moran.]

2.48 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): The Italian presidency of the European Union will chair the European Council in Brussels this Friday and Saturday, 12 and 13 December. Today, the House has its customary opportunity to debate the Government's priorities. I also look forward to discussing them with members of the Foreign Affairs Committee when I give evidence to them tomorrow.

The main business of the Council will be negotiations in the intergovernmental conference—the IGC—for a constitutional treaty for the EU. The Italian presidency hopes to conclude those negotiations at this European Council. The Government support that aim. Equally, the Government's fundamental concerns, like those of other member states, will have to be dealt with in any final package that we can agree.

The concerns of the Government were well spelled out in the White Paper, which I published in September and which was debated in the House on 9 September. They include retaining unanimity for treaty change and other matters of vital national interest such as tax, social security, defence and foreign policy, key areas of criminal procedural law, satisfaction in regard to energy, and issues that have emerged as further priorities during our consultations.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend knows, I have pressed him, the Minister for Europe and indeed the Prime Minister on the energy chapter—later to become the energy articles—because of the uncertainty that it has created in the United Kingdom offshore oil and gas industry. The revised wording that my right hon. Friend has secured through negotiation meets not only my concerns—the concerns, that is, of one who represents an oil and gas constituency—but the concerns of the industry. I can confirm that, having just left an industry event organised by the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association, where industry representatives announced that they were very satisfied with the new wording.

Mr. Straw: I thank my hon. Friend for all his work on behalf of the industry. I am glad to hear its opinions. The result that we have achieved is a consequence of the way in which the two Houses have been involved in the negotiations. Without my hon. Friend's prompting and support, and without the involvement of members of all parties in the House of Commons, I should not have been able to deploy as much weight in the IGC and to secure what I consider a satisfactory result.

It is worth putting on record the amended proposal that arrived from the Italian presidency late yesterday evening, which amends article III-157 with an additional sub-clause stating:

10 Dec 2003 : Column 1101

That article also protects a nation state's use of its own resources.

We must be eagle-eyed to ensure that that text finds its way into any final treaty that we sign, and I promise the House that that will happen. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) for what he has been able to achieve—with, perhaps, a little help from me.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): The proposal obviously came from the Italian Government, but what matters is getting investment into the North sea, reducing the uncertainty and protecting jobs in our constituencies. As the Chancellor recognised in his statement earlier, when pointing out how vital this industry is, it is important for the words to appear in the final text, not just in the draft.

Mr. Straw: We will ensure that they do. I have no reason to think that they will not. They emanated from the Italian presidency because it is running the IGC, but it took a great deal of discussion in the room and privately with our friends in the presidency. We also worked closely with the Government of the Netherlands. I signed a letter to the presidency, jointly with my then counterpart, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who is about to take over as Secretary-General of NATO, emphasising that this was the shared concern of two of the largest oil and gas producers in the European Union.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Members of the European Scrutiny Committee were provided with the text of the United Kingdom amendment, including the fourth part, which we have been asked not to release because it could damage the UK's negotiating position. I do not want to press the Foreign Secretary on the exact wording, but having looked at the Italian presidency's proposal—which some Members have said they wholeheartedly support—I am slightly worried about the lack of any mention of fiscal safeguards. Can he reassure us that other sections of the draft constitution will deal with that?

Mr. Straw: As the letter from the Dutch Foreign Minister and me made clear, what overwhelmingly concerned us was what had been in the original energy articles, and the possibility that the Commission would use qualified majority voting to take control of oil and gas energy policy issues that are properly a matter for the House of Commons or for unanimity in the Council. Any fiscal regime is a separate issue. At present we are broadly reassured, but as the hon. Gentleman knows we will continue to try to nail down any remaining ambiguities.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con) rose—

Mr. Straw: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, as I always do.

Mr. Cash: The Foreign Secretary announced the other day that there is to be a declaration about the primacy of Union law in the new arrangements, which no doubt he hopes will be settled this weekend. Even if he exercises a tentative veto, it could turn out to be a pyrrhic victory. Does he accept—here I refer to an

10 Dec 2003 : Column 1102

answer given to me by the Minister for Europe on 8 December—that, when it comes to interpreting the constitution in the context of Union law, the issue should be decided in accordance with European Court of Justice rules rather than the rules of UK courts? Would he be good enough to explain which of the two should prevail in terms of the question of the constitution in principle?

Mr. Straw: I think that I can take that as a compliment to us on managing to secure something that the hon. Gentleman sought. I know that he may feel counter-suggestible about Ministers saying yes to some of his proposals.

Annexe 3 of the presidency's latest proposals includes a declaration for incorporation in the final Act concerning article I-5a. It states:

I shall give the hon. Gentleman the short version of my seminar on the primacy of European law as part of a treaty that we have signed. As he will recall from the detailed wording of section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972, we are—and have been for 31 years—subject to European law as it is in treaties, directives and regulations, as interpreted by the Court of Justice. That has been the case ever since we joined the European Union. As the annexe 3 proposal from the presidency makes clear, it will continue to be the case if we have a new treaty.

If the treaty cannot be agreed at this European Council, we will continue to talk for as long as is necessary for us to obtain the right result. As the Italian Prime Minister and Council President, Silvio Berlusconi, said last weekend,

Of course we want an agreement as soon as possible. Those of us who have spent not just many happy hours but many happy days, weeks and weekends in the IGC—much as I admire those around the table—would be delighted to see its conclusion. The overriding question, however, is whether it is in Britain's national interest. That comes before everything else.

Let me reinforce a point that I made a moment ago in responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney. Parliament has never before been involved so fully in the negotiations for an EU treaty. Thanks to the work of our Government and parliamentary representatives in the Convention, Parliament was fully briefed on proceedings there. Since May, towards the end of the Convention process, there have been seven debates or statements on the IGC or the Convention in the House. In September, we published the White Paper. I have twice given evidence since then to the European Scrutiny Committee—the first time, I am told, that a Foreign Secretary has ever done so—and twice attended the IGC Standing Committee, most recently on 1 December. My hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has attended the IGC Standing Committee three times. There have been two reports on the Convention or the IGC by our European Scrutiny Committee, and 13 by

10 Dec 2003 : Column 1103

the House of Lords European Union Committee. All that parliamentary debate has been extremely helpful to the Government in the IGC negotiations, and as I have explained, it has helped to strengthen our negotiating position.

Next Section

IndexHome Page