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Mr. Hoon: We cannot win, can we? If there had been no Opposition days, the hon. Gentleman would have complained vociferously. However, because we are fulfilling our obligation to allow proper debate in the HouseI assume that the hon. Gentleman is fairly keen on thatby providing such days, we are told that the situation must therefore be relaxed. If he visited those in my office responsible for organising the legislative programme, he would discover that they are far from relaxed. Nevertheless, he raises an important point about the issue of licensing, which I have addressed before. The Government are keen to have licensing arrangements that allow village halls, parish halls and other very important parts of our rural communities to secure licences much more easily and speedily, and more generally, than in the past.
Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend speak personally to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and stress the desire in all parts of the House for an early debate on, and early action on, the tiny number of pension schemes wound up last year that fall between the financial assistance scheme and the Pension Protection Fund? South Hampshire-based APW's scheme has devastated the lives of many people approaching retirement, or who have retired in the past few months. Those pensioners will not go away and nor will the MPs who represent them. It would be good to have some early action on this issue.
Mr. Hoon: My right hon. Friend has been assiduous in raising this issue. As I said earlier, I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions looks carefully at the observations that have been made.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con):
I want to make it clear to the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) that I fully support his request for a debate on the importance of local authorities retaining responsibility for the provision of council housing. The
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hon. Gentleman is coming to my constituency to address a "tenants against transfer" meeting, at which I shall also be present. I want also to weigh in with my support for the call by the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), for a debate on Zimbabwe, in Government time, in this Chamber. Zimbabwe could affect Africa's entire future progress and prosperity, and it will feature in the G8. Until we can get a solution to the barbaric and brutal behaviour of the tyrant Robert Mugabe, we will be unable to make the progress on debt relief and poverty relief in Africa that we all want to see.
Mr. Hoon: On council housing, what is important about publicly funded accommodation is not necessarily who owns or administers it, but its quality and standard. The hon. Gentleman is a fair man, and he will accept that there has been a huge improvement since 1997 in the quality of available public accommodation. As I said earlier, some 1 million homes have been improved to an acceptable standard. I have made it clear how seriously my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretaryhe has arrived, on cueviews the situation in Zimbabwe, and how energetically the Government have been working to make appropriate representations. My right hon. Friend will have heard the hon. Gentleman's observations on the importance of a future statement or debate on this issue.
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): The House is due to rise on 21 July, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister could decide to make its statement on the future of the neighbourhood renewal fund before the beginning of the recess. In that case, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on urban regeneration? The future of the neighbourhood renewal fund is vital to those constituencies that contain wards with the severest levels of deprivation. It is of particular importance to local authorities such as mine, which were previously denied access to the fund but now, because of the latest data on deprivation, published in last year's index of multiple deprivation, have a much stronger case for eligibility. Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate this issue, and is it not so serious that we should have an annual debate on the future of our cities and urban regeneration?
Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend raises an important issue. It is of acute interest to my constituents, so I will be following it very carefully. But if he will allow me, it would seem appropriate to respond to his substantive point once the future of the neighbourhood renewal fund has been decided.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I wonder whether the Leader of the House can find time to debate the growing impact of quangos on our local communities. I draw his attention to early-day motions 340 and 423, in which English Heritage and the Arts Council of England are featured, along with the East of England Development Company.
[That this House places great importance on the protection of Sites of Scheduled Ancient Monuments; believes that sites so designated should not be built on; is alarmed that some developers and public bodies seek to circumvent the scheduling, including pressurising English
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Heritage to grant consents to enable developments to take place; calls on English Heritage to resist and to publicise every occasion when such pressure is attempted; urges the Government to publish an annual register giving details of every application made for consents to develop Sites of Scheduled Ancient Monuments, and the decision made in each case; and further urges the Government to introduce legislation so that in cases where there is objection to proposed development of a Site of Scheduled Ancient Monument there is a public inquiry.]
Such quangos are taking decisions that affect communities, and residents have no say and no way of challenging those decisions. The situation is made worse when quangos are in league with councils. They are in league with Tory-controlled Colchester borough council, which is manipulating the planning system by submitting planning applications on which it then decides. The community has been disenfranchised. Surely it is time that we had a debate on the role of quangos in local life today.
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman has the facility, which I have noticed in the past, of making what are perfectly harmless and innocuous organisationsthey are often staffed by volunteers and others, who give of their time freelydistinctly sinister. I can understand his concern when they are alleged to be in league with the Conservative-run councils, although I should perhaps reflect on that issue on a future occasion. It is vital that we recognise the enormously important work that such organisations do. Simply saying that they are quangos does not make them somehow sinister, or lacking in merit.
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Home Office to issue a statement of its consideration on the way in which the police issue fixed penalty fines? That would give the Home Office the opportunity to consider a case that occurred in my constituency recently where a young lady accused a young man, falsely and maliciously, of rape. After wasting a considerable amount of both police and medical experts' time, she admitted that her claim was malicious and false, yet her only penaltyhardly likely to deter others from making similarly obnoxious claimswas an £80 fixed penalty ticket imposed by Essex police.
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman has made his point effectively, but I do not think that it is appropriate for me to comment further on the details of a particular case.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the European Union. Earlier today, I published a White Paper on prospects for the European Union covering the next six months when the United Kingdom will hold the presidency. Copies are available in the Vote Office.
Let me first comment on the current situation in the EU, before coming to the priorities of our presidency. The EU's historic success is centred on three major achievements. It has cemented peace on a continent whose history has been one of rivalry and bloody conflict. It has helped to heal the divisions of the cold war and to entrench liberal democratic institutions in countries emerging from dictatorship. It has created the world's largest international single market of 450 million consumers. All that has brought greater prosperity to businesses and citizens across Europe, while safeguarding the strong attachment to social justice that is common to all Europe's differing economic models. The United Kingdom has benefited greatly from this unique collaboration between nations.
Yet the EU must adapt both to survive and to prosper in a world quite changed from when it was founded some 50 years ago. It needs, first, better to respond to the sense among European citizens that the EU is remote from the concerns of their daily lives. That was brought into sharp relief by the no votes on the EU constitution by two of its founder members. Compounding that sense of unease is the fact that Europe's economies face greatly increased global competition. Soon, 50 per cent. of all manufacturing exports will come from developing countries. China's overseas trade is doubling every three years and China and India between them are producing 4 million graduates a year, competing with European firms in the highest-skilled sectors.
The EU must deal with such competition by becoming more dynamic and by investing more in training and innovation. It has to tackle more effectively new threats to our security from terrorism, proliferation and international crime and to respond to the moral and political imperative of improving living standards and well-being in the world's poorest nations.
Europe's nations are now beginning an important debate on meeting those challenges. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in Brussels last week, the United Kingdom as presidency will seek to conduct that debate in an open and inclusive way, putting our own views strongly, but respectful of the views of others.
Alongside the wider questions of the EU's future direction and priorities, there is much specific business to be done during our presidency. Let me take four key areas of the agenda in turn. The first is future financing. As the House is well aware, the European Council could not reach agreement two weeks ago on the EU's next "Financial Perspective", its revenue-raising and spending plans for 20072013. For five member states, including the UK, the proposals then on the table were unacceptable and other member states also had difficulties with them.
Discussions on future financing will continue under the UK's presidency. Any new financial perspective must, at the very least, set out a process that leads to a
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more rational budget, shaping the second half of the perspective up to 2013. We recognise our responsibilities as EU presidency and we will work hard to reach agreement on future financing by the end of the year.
Secondly, there is economic reform. At issue here is not a choice between prosperity or social justice, but what combination of policies can best deliver prosperity and social justice in today's European Union. In that context, we will continue to work for more effective European regulation. The EU will launch in October a major new programme to reduce the volume and complexity of EU legislation in order to ease the burden on business. We will also be looking to improve the policy-making processes with better consultation and impact assessments.
Meanwhile, we will pursue discussions on the services directive. We will continue work on financial services and on resolving the difficulties over the working time directive in a way that preserves the freedom of individuals to work the hours they choose and that maintains the Government's ability to deliver high-quality health and public services. We will also pursue discussions on the review of the EU's sustainable development strategy.
Thirdly, there is external relations. Over the next six months, we will chair EU summits with India, China, Russia, Ukraine and Canada, and host a summit jointly with Spain to mark the 10th anniversary of the Euromed process. We will pursue EU work on key foreign policy issues such as the middle east peace process, Iran and EU support for Iraq. The UK will represent the EU at the United Nations millennium review summit in September and follow up Europe's welcome new commitments on increasing aid and on developing a stronger action plan for Africa. We will also be pursuing progress on climate change.
Mr. Speaker, freer and fairer world trade offers major benefits, not least to Africa. As presidency, and with the European Commission, we will be steering preparations within the EU for this December's meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Hong Kong. Linked to that objective, we will also aim to conclude the discussions on modernising the EU's sugar regimean important part of the continuing reform of the common agricultural policy.
The fourth key area of work for our presidency is pursuing the EU's commitments on enlargement. Bulgaria and Romania signed a joint accession treaty with the EU on 25 April this year and are scheduled to join in January 2007. Both still have much to do to implement the commitments that they have made and the European Commission will report on their readiness this autumn.
Last December, the EU agreed to open accession negotiations with Turkey on 3 October this yeara decision that was reconfirmed by the European Council two weeks ago. Turkish membership of the European Union is a controversial issue for public opinion in parts of Europe, but the British Government remain strongly committed to Turkey joining the EU and I believe that we can draw on the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House. The European Commission yesterday published a draft framework for Turkey's accession negotiations. The EU and Turkey alike stand to gain greatly from a democratic and prosperous
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Turkey anchored in Europe and from a demonstration that Islam is compatible with the values of liberal democracy, which form the bedrock of the European Union.
The EU also stands ready to open negotiations with Croatia, provided that it co-operates fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. We strongly support the membership aspirations of the other countries of the western Balkans, but they must, like all other EU applicants, meet the necessary requirements.
The White Paper sets out the responsibilities involved in holding the EU presidency and a calendar of the main meetings. Alongside the formal meetings, there will be at least 12 informal meetings of EU Ministers, and many other conferences, meetings and events will take place throughout the UK. Today's White Paper, like those before it, is aimed at providing information and material for public and parliamentary debate on the EU . The House will, as usual, have regular opportunities throughout our presidency to discuss the issues and the European Union as a whole.
The European Union remains central to the UK's prosperity and to its influence in the world. Throughout our presidency and beyond, the Government will maintain Britain's place as a leading European power, helping to shape the EU's future direction in our interests and in the interests of the European Union as a whole.
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