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Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): It feels like only yesterday that I was standing here making my maiden speech, and in parliamentary terms it was, as it was only eight years ago. However, like other hon. Members who have spoken today, I am grateful for the opportunity to make my final speech, as I am also planning my escape at the next election. I have the fake passport printed and the tunnel dug; I am just waiting for the balloon to go up.

I would like to pay a slightly warmer tribute to my Conservative predecessor than I did in my maiden speech, as I have got to know him better since then. That has happened because he is a prominent member of the local synagogue in Sheffield, which has a good civic service every year at which it raises funds for the hospital. As he was a prominent member, I kept away for the first few years, thinking that that was polite, until it was made clear to me that my absence had been noted and I would be very welcome.

I did not expect that, the first time that I turned up, I would be sat next to Sir Irvine Patnick. He leant over to me and explained that the organisers had thought that, as the current and previous MP, we would have lots in common and would like to chat to each other, ignoring the fact that we had had a fairly intense election campaign and that there were party differences between us. He was brilliant about it, and we have met each other every year since. I pay tribute to the work that he did in his decade as MP for Sheffield, Hallam.

I want to raise a couple of issues that have remained on my agenda, and that I want to leave on the Government's agenda, as I would feel guilty for not doing so if I do not get another opportunity. They are quite different issues.

The first relates to the comments made by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) about the difficulties of dealing with European Union legislation. Members might be aware that I have spent a lot of time in the House dealing with information technology issues. The plain fact is that most of the issues with which we deal in relation to information technology are proposals and directives emanating from the European Commission. That is entirely sensible—very few issues relating to telecommunications or the internet can be dealt with sensibly at a national level, and they are properly dealt with at European Union level. Indeed, if there is any complaint to be made, it is that we cannot involve countries such as the United States, Russia and China in a common decision-making framework.
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Our ability to deal with European Union legislation, however, has been almost inversely proportionate to its importance and significance. We deal with it in funny little Committees, of which most people are not aware, in obscure parts of the Palace of Westminster. It rarely comes to us for consideration at a time when we can influence it; it comes to us when the directive has been signed, sealed and delivered and we are simply translating it into UK law.

My political direction might be different from that of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East and some of his colleagues, in that I think that the European Union method of decision making is appropriate for many of the matters with which I have been dealing. There is a big gap in scrutiny, however, and I would be unhesitating in my criticism of a failure to scrutinise and the potential negative impact that that has on the democratic system in the United Kingdom.

The Government could deal with this issue: it relates essentially to the balance of power between the Executive and Parliament. The Executive goes to European Councils, and in the form of the Minister, signs up to all the directives at the point at which they can be influenced. In the UK parliamentary system, however, the Executive chooses not to come to Parliament and debate openly the choices that it will make when it goes to the Council. It chooses to keep that in its own private domain. Plenty of other European countries, particularly Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, choose not to do that, and Ministers who are going to the European Council to sign up to important measures engage with their Parliaments at a time when the directives are still potentially changeable.

On the current agenda, there is an important technical directive on computer-implemented inventions, on which Members on both sides of the House will have been lobbied under the banner headline of software patents. That directive is very significant for a very large number of people in the IT industry. It is a contentious matter of great interest to many people, and yet there have been attempts to deal with the Commission's proposals through the Council of Agriculture Ministers and all sorts of other inappropriate parts of the European Commission machinery. I hope that the Minister will be able to examine now and in the future how such a directive—on which hundreds of thousands of letters will have been written from across the United Kingdom to both MPs and MEPs—can be dealt with in the House with the kind of prominence that it deserves, rather than being in the Executive's private domain.

We have had a good tour around England today, with the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) describing the Government's "League of Gentlemen" style of policy for roads in the west country, where local roads are only for local people. In relation to the second issue that I want to raise, I want to follow the example of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) and take us further afield: in particular, to the republic of Colombia in Latin America, a country in which I have taken an interest as a Member of Parliament.

I sought a debate on Colombia, unsuccessfully, in recent months, following a visit there in September last year. I want to put on record my thanks to the staff of
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the embassy in Bogota, particularly Susan Le Jeune, and the ambassador, Tom Duggin, to whom reference has been made, who organised an excellent visit for me. I was given the opportunity of sitting in on one of the meetings that the President of Colombia holds every Saturday, in locations around the country. He sits in a village hall or equivalent for seven hours, answering questions from the ordinary public about the drains, the state of the local roads and so on. He drags half his Cabinet out with him every Saturday—I witnessed the 70th such meeting in two years.

It was a busman's holiday for a Lib Dem to go off and watch a kind of town hall meeting, but it might be a good idea for the UK Government to emulate that, with the leader of the country in the chair listening to the concerns of ordinary people in that way. We have our surgeries, of course, but the Colombian President has taken access for ordinary people to the nth degree.

I had a fantastic visit. It demonstrated the importance of the Colombians' problems, many of which are directly related to activities in other countries including our own. The Colombian Government claimed success recently in reducing the murder rate to just over 20,000 a year, and that is in a country smaller than the United Kingdom. There are hundreds of kidnappings every year, and significant human rights abuses are perpetrated by all sides. All the illegal armed activists in the conflict, paramilitaries and guerrillas, are responsible for serious abuses of that kind, fuelled by narco-trafficking. Drug money goes into Colombia from countries including our own. There are drug production industries which use precursor chemicals, again from European countries—from most countries that have chemicals industries. There is more that we could do about that.

I want to raise a couple of issues that will, I think, continue to be valid issues for the Foreign Office to raise. A number of individuals have recently been targeted. It is shocking, having visited a country and met people who are involved in human rights organisations, to hear a little later that other people have turned up at their door and told them that unless they cease their activities they will be killed. I want particularly to mention Yolanda Becerra of the organisation Feminina Popular in Barrancabermeja. I visited her. She does tremendous work in promoting the rights of women in particular, but has been subjected to paramilitary threats recently. I think that the UK Government have a role to play in making requests of other Governments, and that in this instance they should request the Colombian Government to ensure that people like Yolanda Becerra can operate with some security.

The other serious human rights crisis in Colombia recently was the murder of a group of leading activists in a peace community called San José de Apartado, which has been trying to stay out of the conflict. Armed people have gone in—there are suggestions that they are associated with the Colombian military—killed a number of leading activists and left the whole region in terror. That is another issue that the UK Government could raise with the Colombian authorities.

Other Members have spoken of the importance of ensuring that people, especially young people, remain engaged in politics. I agree. It is one of the major challenges for us, and I think that the key word is relevance. We must not let this place become a sort of
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magic circle using its own language and doing things in ways that people outside simply do not understand, because that creates a barrier. It may be comfortable for us, and make us feel somehow special or different, but it gives people out there a sense of difference that they do not experience in a positive way. Our connections with the outside world are all-important. There is, or should be, a revolving door between ordinary people and this place. We should always remember that we are representing people out there rather than the class of politicians as a whole.

I intend to use the revolving door on the way out. Others will come in. I hope that the House will be positive about the new skills and experience that others will bring here, and take advantage of them to continue the process of modernisation that has been mentioned today. There is always more that we can learn, and more that we can do to improve the workings of the House. In general terms, the opportunity that I have had is one that I have very much appreciated.

4.43 pm

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