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Mr. Straw: I am aware of the petition, though I also know of some reservations about its detailed wording. The exercise is an excellent one and I fully support it. It is one of the democratic improvements that appears in the constitutional treaty.
Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) (SNP):
The Foreign Secretary will be aware that many people in Scotland are
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generally favourable to the European Union, but find it absolutely impossible to support the constitution, not least because fishing is included as an exclusive competence under article I-12. Will the Foreign Secretary make any attempts to change the treaty prior to its being put to a referendum?
Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman knows that one votes either for or against a treaty. He should recallI certainly dothe European parliamentary elections last June, in which his party majored on the issue of the common fisheries policy and got a bloody nose as a result.
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend referred in his statement to economic issues, but did not mention the most serious economic problem in Europe. I mean the weakness of the eurozone, which exhibits continuing low growth and high unemployment. It is evidence of serious mistakes in macro-economic policy and problems can only be exacerbated by the recent strengthening of the euro in relation to the dollar. That underlines, I believe, Britain's wisdom in staying out of the eurozone, but does my right hon. Friend agree that if something is not done to improve the performance of the eurozone, it could cause long-term damage to Europe and, indeed, over time, to the British economy?
Mr. Straw: The generalisation about the alleged weakness of the eurozone disguises very significant variation within different member states, ranging from countries that are doing very well to those that are not doing well at all. It is important that my hon. Friend bears that in mind. It is true that some countries in the eurozone have serious structural problems connected with the inflexibility of their labour markets, which is holding back growth. Other countries, however, have seized the opportunities provided by greater transparency of the euro and are doing very well indeed. The generalisations are dangerous. My hon. Friend will also know that in Germany, the largest single economy in Europe, Chancellor Schröder and Vice-Chancellor Fischer have courageously embarked on a major programme of economic and social reform. That is causing some pain for the moment, but I am confident that it will lead to precisely the same benefits of greater flexibility that we have seen in this country.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): How will the European defence agency achieve the fine-sounding objectives that the Foreign Secretary set out, when the reality is that our European partners continue to cut their defence expenditure and commitments? Is not it all just posturing?
Some do, some do not. One of the exercises that we are involved in is to push European countries to increase their defence spending. We are more likely to achieve that, by the way, through being engaged with them than by carping from the sidelines. In any event, the European defence agency will help to improve efficiencies and interoperability, not least because it has an excellent British official at its head.
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Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): It has been suggested that, in putting growth and competitiveness at the top of its agenda, the new Commission is putting on the sidelines the EU's commitment to tackling climate change. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must not allow that to happen, given the evidence that is produced almost daily about the effects of climate change? Does he agree that tackling climate change must be at the heart of EU policy, along with the growth and competitiveness agenda, and that the issue should be a priority for the UKnot just for the six-month presidency period later in the year, but during the next few months in the run-up to it, too?
Mr. Straw: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of climate change, but I see no evidence whatever that the Commission is back-pedalling on it. Europe is in the lead on climate change. When Russia signed up to Kyoto, it meant that Kyoto would come into force, and one main factor that influenced Russia was the strong representation made by several countries, including France and Germany, to encourage the country to do so. One of the arguments used was that controlling climate change does not lead to lower growth, but helps to sustain our economic prospects in the medium and long term.
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): What is the Government's reaction to the strange comments made yesterday by Mr. Barroso, the President of the Commission? In the middle of an otherwise very helpful set of comments on services liberalisation, he endorsed the concept of social dumping, which has been imported from the most reactionary and protectionist elements in France to justify restrictions on trade with low-income countries with necessarily lower wages and working conditions. How do the British Government react to that?
Mr. Straw: Happily, I was not aware of that remark by President Barroso, so I have no need to comment on it in too much detail. I will look into the matter and write to the hon. Gentleman, but I have to say that President Barroso and his Commission have made a brilliant start and will continue as they have begun.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): On two key areas of international policythe middle east peace process and Iranthe UK has played an important role in ensuring that Europe's position does not contradict that of the US but complements it. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that he will be able to do the same with respect to China?
Yes, I do. We work extremely hard in co-operation with both the US and our EU partners. Sometimes we may have a difference of view with some of our EU partners, and that was very evident in respect of Iraq. On other occasionsbut far less frequently, in factthere are some issues over which there is a difference of emphasis with our partners in the US. However, by a process of discussion and co-operation, we can usually arrive at a consensus. When we do, we are much the stronger for it.
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Tuesday 8 FebruaryOpposition day [4th allotted day]. There will be a debate on climate change and the environment, followed by a debate on tackling the causes of crime. Both debates arise on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats. There will then be a motion to approve the third report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
Tuesday 22 FebruaryMotions relating to the draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2005 and the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2005, followed by remaining stages of the Drugs Bill.
Mr. Heald: I thank the Leader of the House for the business. He will obviously have in mind a date for a Northern Ireland elections Bill. It would be helpful if the Bill were to be published. It may be controversial, but what is the timetable for publication?
Given the deteriorating security situation in Northern Ireland following the recent IRA statement, does the Leader of the House know whether the Secretary Of State for Defence has the intention to reconsider the cuts that he made in the number of infantry battalions based there? Are we likely to have a statement on that in the coming week? He will know that, at the time that those cuts were made, Opposition Members, and indeed many hon. Members throughout the House, pointed out that they were premature and would place more pressure on the defence budget.
The Public Administration Committee report issued today suggests giving Parliament much more control over inquiries such as that into the former Home Secretary. Can we expect an early response? Clearly, Parliament needs to be treated with more respect than has been shown recently to our Select Committees.
Will the Leader of the House make a statement about parliamentary conventions? Two weeks ago, the Government wanted to change the convention that
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constitutional Bills are debated on the Floor of the House, but ultimately relented. The Deputy Prime Minister was given the Environmental Audit Committee report entitled "Housing: Building a Sustainable Future" early, and subject to a press embargo for Sunday. On Saturday, however, he showed total brass neck by ignoring the embargo in order to attack the report. As The Guardian put it:
The Labour Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee ignored the convention that the Chairman supports the status quo when he voted to reverse that Committee's request to sit in public. The tied vote then went in favour of those who oppose open government. The Leader of the House himself told us how much he welcomed the original request. He said:
Is it not time that the Leader of the House condemned those who wish to go back to the bad, old-fashioned secrecy that has cloaked European scrutiny here? Surely we can rely on him to support such a modest piece of modernisation?
[That this House expresses its deep concern at the plans to impose massive house building on Hertfordshire; notes that such plans are based on the Government's Sustainable Communities Plan launched by the Deputy Prime Minister; congratulates the Environmental Audit Committee on its report Housing: Building a Sustainable Future, which attacks the Government's plans as not adequately considering the environmental impacts of the proposed increase in house building, with the environment as principal loser, as establishing the principal role of planning as being simply to meet market demand without regard to democratic accountability, as not having an adequate evidence base, as not referring to environmental protection, as making efforts towards sustainability that are little more than window dressing and as likely to result in a dramatic increase in the number of properties flooded; calls on the Government to undertake the research recommended by the Committee to amend its plans to take account of the environmental impacts and not to take forward the current misconceived proposals, which would lead to overdevelopment in Hertfordshire and other parts of the South East and East, and to traffic congestion, train overcrowding and undue pressure on all local services; and condemns the Government for pressing ahead with this plan even though the East of England Regional Assembly has withdrawn its support.]?
The report attacks the Deputy Prime Minister's massive house building plans in the south-east for ignoring the environmental impacts of such building and ignoring democratic accountability. It states that it is likely to lead to a
That is what that Labour-dominated Committee found. Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that Hertfordshire, my own county, and other counties do not want to become a concrete wasteland to be known as "Prescottshire"?
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