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Broadband

23. Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the impact of broadband access on the Government's delivery of its e-Government strategy. [166191]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The UK currently has the third most competitive and extensive broadband network in the G7. Broadband can drive higher take-up of e-government services, as broadband users are around twice as likely to transact online than their narrowband counterparts. Broadband also offers the potential to deliver new and more sophisticated public services, which is why we as a Government are investing more than £1 billion in the period from 2003 to 2006.

Mr. Connarty rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The noise level in the Chamber is far too high, and that is unfair.

Mr. Connarty: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Broadband access is an important topic. If everyone is to have access to the Government's e-agenda, everyone needs to be on broadband, because that is the future of the technology. I note that the Chancellor said that there were rules against state aid, which prevent the development of the market. Is it not time that the Government considered a commitment to 100 per cent. access to broadband in all parts of the UK, and challenged the European Union if it tries to prevent appropriate state aid being made available to bring that about?

Mr. Alexander: I know of my hon. Friend's concern about the matter and his tireless work on behalf of his constituents. It is worth pointing out for the sake of perspective that there are 40,000 new connections to broadband taking place each week. At the end of February 2004, research revealed that the UK had reached an estimated 3,523,350 broadband customers.
 
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That is tremendous progress. I shall bear my hon. Friend's comments in mind and pass them on to the Chancellor in due course.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Broadband access in rural areas is essential. It is a lifesaver for hard-smitten rural economies, and the Government are not moving fast enough in that regard. For example, can the Minister explain why, when it comes to the delivery of e-local government services, there are no grants available for parish councils and town councils?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman is no doubt aware that there is the £30 million UK broadband fund, which is taking forward that work. I find it intriguing, to say the least, that a party that seems to support a reduction in the funding for the Department of Trade and Industry is simultaneously pleading for more money for broadband in its members' constituencies.

Departmental Procurement

24. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What the Cabinet Office policy is on buying British goods. [166192]
 
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The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Douglas Alexander): In line with Government policy, my Department bases all procurement decisions on value for money. Information on nationality of companies is recorded only for contracts subject to EU advertising procedures. During 1999–2002 eight such contracts were advertised, of which seven were awarded to British suppliers.

Andrew Selous rose—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Once again, the Chamber must be quiet to allow the question to continue.

Andrew Selous : There are unemployed motor workers in my constituency following the closure of the Vauxhall plant. Will the Minister explain why 80 per cent. of ministerial cars are not made in Britain?

Mr. Alexander: The United Kingdom produces more cars than ever before. Procurement laws apply not only to this Government but to all previous Governments, which explains our decisions.


 
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Europe

12.30 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the forthcoming negotiation over the new European treaty. In parallel, the Foreign Secretary is today publishing a White Paper on Europe.

On 1 May, the European Union will enlarge from 15 to 25 members, which will be the biggest increase in Europe's size and will reunify Europe after the travails of Communist dictatorship in eastern and central Europe. It is an historic event that this British Government, and the previous Government, have championed. Whatever problems it poses—we see them in the anxiety over prospective immigration—let us be in no doubt that the prospect of EU membership, together with the courage of the Governments concerned, is the primary reason why those countries have been able to reform their economies and politics so radically and so beneficially, and such change is in the interests of all of Europe. I say unhesitatingly that enlargement is right for Europe and for Britain, and that this country should support it.

In addition, Bulgaria and Romania are set for membership in future years, taking the numbers to 27. Turkey is now taking extraordinary strides on democracy, human rights, economic change and the resolution of the conflict in Cyprus, which would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, under the impulsion of future EU membership. Within the space of a few years, Europe will be transformed, and it will be easily the strongest political union and greatest economic market in the world. Britain should be at the heart of it. That is its right and its destiny.

Because of enlargement, Europe is sensibly seeking to change the way it works. In a Europe of 25, 27 or 28, a rotating six-month presidency makes no sense. The use of the veto should be confined to the areas in which it is truly necessary; otherwise, decision making becomes paralysed. In certain areas—terrorism, security, economic reform and the environment—Europe must do more and do it better.

The new constitutional treaty is designed both to answer the challenge of enlargement and to bring together in one treaty what is currently found in two separate treaties. Indeed, a significant part of the new treaty is the repetition of articles that are already in force. I want to make it clear that Britain will co-operate fully in helping Europe to work better, but to work better as a Europe of sovereign nation states. Maintenance of control of our affairs is essential in certain areas of policy. The national veto must remain in areas such as taxation, foreign policy, defence, social security, how the essentials of our common law and criminal justice system work, and treaty change, and we will insist on the necessary amendments to the current draft treaty to ensure beyond doubt that it does. On that basis, the treaty does not and will not alter the fundamental nature of the relationship between member states and the European Union.
 
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After ratification by all member states, the new treaty will probably take effect in 2007, with certain key provisions taking effect in 2009. Until then, the key provisions of the Nice treaty will remain in place. If the new treaty contains those essentials, we believe that it is in Britain's interest to sign it. It will replace the six-month rotating presidency with a full-time chairman of the Council—a vital step away from federalism—enabling the Council, which is, of course, the repository of individual European Governments, to become the body that sets Europe's agenda. For the first time, the new treaty will allow national Parliaments the right to object to Commission proposals for legislation, which is a big advance in subsidiarity. It adds a greater ability to co-operate on areas such as terrorism and cross-border crime which are crucial for the world in which we live, and it gives a bigger role for enhanced co-operation between some of the member states, where not all of them wish to participate in certain areas.

That is what the treaty, if amended in the way that we seek, will actually do. Ever since its inception, however, the myths propagated about it have multiplied in those quarters, political and media, which we know to be hostile not just to this treaty, but to the whole notion of Britain playing a central role in Europe. For example, that the EU will be renamed the "United States of Europe". No, it will not. It is to remain the European Union. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Her Majesty's Opposition wanted this statement to be made. It does no good to shout down the Prime Minister. I will not tolerate it.


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