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: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise to my hon. Friend for intervening, but what I have to say is relevant to what he is talking about and I would appreciate your guidance and assistance. One of the most important papers that we are debating today is "Building our common Future", document 6232/04. The financial framework and requirement for an
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increase in resources claimed by the Commission is supposed to be set out in a table that should appear on page 30. On page 29 it states:
"The following table provides an illustration of the framework described above."
On page 30, however, there is a blank page with the words "Insert table" at the top. I do not know whether the table is available somewhere else in the documentation and I have been unable to find it, or whether it is simply missing. In that case, could you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, gently suggest to those on the Treasury Front Bench that the necessary information should be provided before the end of the debate?
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that that is not a matter for which the Chair is directly responsible. I am sure, however, that everyone in the Chamber will have heard his points and that those responsible for providing the documents will seek to make the omission good as quickly as they possibly can.
The problem that I was alluding to was the fact that the Commission, despite asking for all the additional money and a change in the budgetary requirements, has failed to manage its existing budget properly. The fact that the European Court of Auditors has not approved its most recent budget highlights a serious lack of basic financial management. Yet this is not the first time that that has happened. Indeed, the Commission's budget has not been approved by its auditors for nine years. Frankly, that is a shameful record, redolent of Enron's accounting standardsa mix of rampant fraud and inadequate financial management.
In response to this year's budgetary woes, the Financial Secretary said that the EU budget shouldthe Paymaster General rightly repeated these wordsensure "sound financial management" and "budgetary discipline". We agree. The problem, however, is that the Government have been saying that throughout their entire seven years in office. When are they going to do something about it? When will they try to make the Commission accept its financial responsibilities? After all, if the accounts cannot be trusted, the Commission's financial legitimacy is undermined. How can we know, for example, if the new financial perspective is being achieved? How can we be sure that the Commission's priorities are getting the money that they require? Most important of all, how can taxpayers have any confidence that their hard-earned money is not simply being lost in fraud and waste?
I ask the Minister for Industry and the Regions, the right hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), to set out in her reply the representations that the Government have made on this issue. Will she also set out what the Government plan to do if the Commission fails to respond? As far as we are concerned, until confidence in the accounts has been restored, Conservative MEPs will refuse to sign off the Commission's accountsand so will the future Conservative Government.
Turning to the total expenditure plan, we strongly oppose any increase in the Commission's budget beyond 1 per cent. The Government have correctly identified the need for restraint to act as a discipline to achieve value
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for money for the taxpayer. I only wish that the Treasury would do the same in Whitehallthough I know that it is trying. In Brussels, the Government's pleas for financial restraint have sadly fallen on deaf ears. Indeed, the Commission seems to hold a fundamentally different view.
The 15th report of the European Scrutiny Committee rightly highlights the problem in a series of rather worrying quotes from the Commission. Apparently, the Commission believes that budgetary discipline does not deliver any value for money. Financial management is simply "matching resources to needs". The Commission is also quoted as saying:
"To saddle the Union with a set of goals and then deny it the resources required would be to condemn it to the justified criticism of citizens denied their legitimate expectations."
How the Treasury must blanch at those words! That is the language of an unreformed spendthriftthe desperate cry of a shopaholic asked to hand over credit cards. It denies financial accountability and, worryingly, it shows the wide gulf that exists even between Whitehall and Brussels, let alone between Brussels and the poor, self-selected taxpayers who have to foot the bill. When the Minister for Industry and the Regions replies to the debate, will she say what plans the Government have to achieve any meaningful financial discipline in Brussels?
The Commission suggests three new financial priorities for the forthcoming period, as part of its regional and cohesion policy. They are: assistance for regions with per capita gross domestic product below 75 per cent. of the EU average; promotion of regional competitiveness and employment; and support for inter-regional, cross-border and transnational co-operation. I do not know what that last phrase means, but I love the language.
The Government have argued instead that the focus should be on the poorer member states, notably the new ones. The Opposition agree: equally, we feel that many of the proposed schemes are too remote from the practical assistance that those countries want. A European police college, a disaster recovery capacity and a new European border agencynone of those begins to address the basic wishes of the people of the new member states. What they want is to get their basic infrastructure sorted out. That is more important than a disaster recovery capacity.
The impact of the structural funds is important, and that is true for much of the UK, as we have heard in the debate. The funds are important for parts of Cornwall, the north-west, Scotland and Wales, among other areas. Last Thursday, in answer to a question from the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore), the Minister for Industry and the Regions spoke about the Government's plans. She said:
"If our recommendations are accepted, we will ensure that we increase the resources necessary in the regions and the devolved Administrations to continue the focus on productivity and skills and make the necessary investment to ensure that they are successful."[Official Report, 10 June 2004; Vol. 422, c. 393.]
However, as questioners this afternoon have emphasised, the important point is what happens if the Government's recommendations are not acceptedan outcome that is quite likely. When she replies, will the
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Minister say whether she can still make that statement? The Paymaster General made a valiant effort to answer that, but hon. Members of all parties would appreciate a clear and unequivocal statement on that point.
Mr. David: The Dutch take over the EU presidency for the second half of this year. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Dutch Government indicated recently that they strongly support the British Government's proposals? Does he accept that that represents a gathering of momentum behind what the Government are arguing?
Mr. Prisk: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for adding that information to the debate. My concern is the lack of clarity in the Government's position, which was illustrated by the questions from Labour Members earlier. I hope that the Minister will provide that clarity when she winds up the debate.
Mr. David Stewart: Earlier, the hon. Gentleman remarked on the effectiveness of EU spending. Does he accept that spending in UK objective 1 areas has a very good effect? In my area, in the highlands and islands, 90 per cent. of the projects have a high effectiveness rating in terms of the efficiency of the spending. That has led to the creation of 1,800 jobs.
Mr. Prisk: I certainly accept that that can happen. My work in the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs has made that clear, but it has also shown that there can be problems. It is dangerous to tar the entire programme with one brush, one way or the other; the important point is that we must ensure that taxpayers' money is well spent. That is what we want to hear from the Minister.
Mr. Moore: The hon. Gentleman is equivocating slightly. I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart) about the effectiveness of money spent on programmes in Scotland. From Eyemouth and Hawick to Galashiels, Selkirk and Peebles, one will find very good projects that are both efficient and effective. What evidence does the hon. Gentleman have that wipes that out and proves that spending that money is a bad thing?
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