Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I pay tribute to the Foreign Secretary for making himself so available on these crucial matters; we are very grateful for the opportunity for such debate. Has he reflected further on the point that I recently raised with him about tabling a proposal to ensure that the European Court of Justice and other European institutions cannot interfere in British tax policy? I know that the Government wish to have a red line, but as he will know, the European Union is already crawling all over corporate tax, even without the draft constitution being in place.
Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman will also be aware that other Governments share our concern in terms of pushing back the Commission's areas of activity in tax policy, and that will proceed. Separately, I can reassure him that ensuring that we get satisfaction in respect of tax being a matter for unanimity will be one of our overriding concerns this weekend, and for as long as the IGC takes.
It is in the nature of any negotiations that a consensus builds up from the relatively straightforward issues to the most difficult. That inevitably means that some of the issues that are key to the United Kingdom, including aspects of qualified majority voting or unanimity, cannot be settledat least until this weekendalong with similar first-order issues for other countries. For example, Commission size and voting weights is not a first-order issue for us, but it is certainly an issue of profound importance to many member states.
The six meetings of the IGC that I have so happily attended have made considerable progress on many issues, and they have narrowed, but not eliminated, those issues of serious contention. We have been well served by the Italian presidency, and the meetings have been both well chaired and well managed by my colleague and friend Franco Frattini, the Italian Foreign Minister.
The presidency has responded to the six sets of discussions with two packages of proposals, the latest of whichan omnibus versionwas tabled late yesterday afternoon in the French text. The English translation became available earlier today, a copy of which I have placed in the Library of the House. It includes the latest proposals, better language on the charter and on energywe have already dealt with thatand on the so-called passerelle clauses, which are concerned with giving this or any other national Parliament a lock on any future extension of qualified majority voting. But there is still a lot of hard negotiating to be done on tax, foreign policy and other fundamental issues.
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that I am not going to bend his ear again about the visa application of my constituent Rachel Ringham. Rather, I want to pay generous tribute to him for the way in which he and his colleagues have put themselves out to enable this place
Mr. Straw: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend. That part of the process, at least, I thoroughly enjoyed, and the House and the country are all the better for it. I very much hope that the matter of the visa, which he raised with me this morning, has been resolved or is well on the way to being so.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I do not want this debate to sound like a love-in, but I should like to endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) said: the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe have indeed put themselves before the scrutiny of the House on this issue. But can the Foreign Secretary explain the Government's current position on the charter of fundamental rights?
Mr. Straw: The current position is as we set it out in the White Paper, and my hon. Friend will recall exactly what we said. On page 39, we recited the important safeguards that had already been achieved in the course of the Convention discussionsthe so-called horizontal articles, such as article II-51, which states that the charter
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): In listing the issues to which the Government still had objections, the Foreign Secretary did not mention economic policy, even though the White Paper makes it clear that they oppose article 14, which insists on the compulsory co-ordination of economic employment policies throughout the member states. Is that still a red line issue? The latest draft from the presidency makes no changes whatsoever, so can the Foreign Secretary assure us that this is still a veto issue?
Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman should not be quite so suspicious in thinking that, just by elision and an attempt to be relatively brief, I was dismissing this issue. As I said, there is a lot of hard negotiating to be done on tax, foreign policy and other fundamental issues, and that includes articles I-11.3, I-14.3. We have been arguing that those should be brought into line with article III-70, in which economic competence is given to member states. That is an issue not only for us but for the Union. At the moment, in respect of the same dossier, in different parts of the draft treaty, either the Union or member states variously have responsibility for co-ordinating economic policy. However, I take the right hon. Gentleman's point.
Mr. Blizzard: Did my right hon. Friend notice that the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), who was a member of the Convention of the Future of Europe, did not mention fishing in his worthy intervention? Yet last night in this Chamber, Conservative Front Benchers made a major issue of fishing, and suggested that this Government should go to the barricades for the removal of the common fisheries policy from the draft treaty.
Mr. Straw: That is a separate issue, and there is no question but that we have been round this track on many occasions. The draft constitutional treaty provides for a shared competence in respect of the CFP in article 13. Except for the conservation of marine biological resources under the CFP, in article 12, that accurately reflects the existing arrangements of competences, and does not add to them.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. When one hon. Member mentions another hon. Member in a debate and clearly misrepresents his position, should not that hon. Member be given an opportunity to respond if he is in his place at the time?
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I am most grateful. Will the Foreign Secretary accept my assurance that, in the Convention on the Future of Europe, I moved an amendment to exclude fisheries from the relevant exclusive competence article? To my great regret, I did not receive the support of the Government representative on the Convention at the time. I was battling for the British fishing industry, which was abandoned by the Government representative.
Mr. Straw: It is no wonder that the right hon. Gentleman's proposal failed, because he was obviously not forensic enough. The fact of the matter is that the fisheries are a shared competence, not an exclusive competence, such as the conservation of marine biological stocks. There are good arguments for that, and they have not changed. I accept the veracity of what he says, but I do not give him many marks for his effort.