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17 May 2006 : Column 316WH—continued

It is also important for our relations with Poland to understand where it now sits in the EU. After all, Poland will potentially be a great asset when Europe comes to determine what happens next for the European countries beyond Poland’s borders. Of course, Poland has unique issues in terms of its borders, because it not only borders several other countries that joined the EU in 2004 but has a long border with Belarus, which is, to put it kindly, one of the most enigmatic countries in eastern Europe. It also borders Ukraine. In addition, there is also the border with Kaliningrad, which will continue to give rise to complicated relationships and arrangements, and there is the question of how that will work its way through relationships with the EU. As an EU border state,
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therefore, Poland faces several significant issues, and it is important that we support Poland strongly in that role and understand those issues so that we can clarify them together. At the same time, the relationships that Poland can form with countries immediately outside the EU will be of great benefit to the EU and to us in particular.

As has been mentioned, Poland is the UK’s sixth largest investment market. The emergence of British shops and companies in Poland is not only significant, but has been greatly welcomed by Polish citizens. Poland is also this country’s largest trading partner in central Europe. There are therefore real and serious issues in terms of trade and mutually beneficial bilateral arrangements.

As has also been mentioned, many Poles have come to the UK to work, following Poland’s accession to the EU. Many of them have come to my constituency, although there has always been a large Polish community in the Southampton and Eastleigh area, and it continues to be of great benefit and assistance to the area. The community that is now emerging in my constituency and the wider Southampton area is industrious and, despite having been here only a short time, it is becoming increasingly coherent and is determined to make a positive contribution to the UK’s economy. Although there are concerns about housing and services in the Southampton area—the same applies elsewhere—the contribution that the Polish community can make to the economy of our city and to the life of Southampton is overwhelmingly positive, and we should view it in that light.

My final thought is to welcome the further influxof Poles to Southampton through the doors of Southampton football club. Our club manager has recruited Bartosz Bialkowski and Grzegorz Rasiak as leading players, and he recently saw what I believe was a scintillating encounter between Wisla Krakow and a team whose name I cannot pronounce, so I anticipate that further players will come forward. The contribution of Poles to the UK economy, and the drive of Southampton football club to retain its premiership status next season—[Interruption.] Next season. It will be there for all to see. I remain firmly committed to ensuring that relations between Poland and the UK, warm as they are, continue to grow. I will strive to ensure that that relationship continues to be as good and positive in the future as it has been in the past.

Janet Anderson (in the Chair): We are very shortof time, so we must move on to the Front-Bench responses.

3.36 pm

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I start, as is obligatory, but in this case highly appropriate, by congratulating the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on having secured the debate. I have heard the main town in his constituency pronounced at least two different ways, and his surname many more ways than that, and I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer as to what it is. Perhaps he can put me right afterwards.

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As has been said in previous contributions, the most evident sign of Anglo-Polish relations is the large influx of people from Poland who live and work in the United Kingdom; that is a testimony to the success of EU enlargement. There is a lot of opportunity in this House to make speeches and other interventions that are critical of the European Union, and I agree with some, but certainly not all, of those criticisms. However, many regard the enlargement from 15 to 25 member states as having been, in most regards, a considerable success. It was enlightened of our country to embrace it in the spirit in which it was intended. Large sectors of our economy—one thinks of things such as fruit-picking and packaging—would collapse without the influx of labour that we enjoy, particularly that from eastern Europe In my constituency—

Mr. Hands It is not only fruit-picking and packaging. Some 6 per cent. of my constituents come from Poland, and their contribution is vital for the economy of London, particularly that of west London.

Mr. Browne: I strongly concur, and I was going to make precisely that point. It is not just the lower-skilled seasonal industries that are affected. In my constituency, Poles work in everything from slaughterhouses to dentistry—some people might think that those are not that far apart, but my intention was to convey a range of businesses—and perform tasks that would otherwise not be done, or not done to the same standard. I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s assessment of the success of the experiment. Hundreds of thousands of Poles have come to live here. What can we learn from that in relation to Bulgarian and Romanian accession in the years ahead?

Poland’s economy is growing. It is not growing as much as those of other countries in that part of Europe, so we should not regard it as an unqualified success. None the less, it is growing, albeit with an unsustainably high level of unemployment, which in part explains why so many Poles have come to live here. There are still considerable problems with its infrastructure and the heavy degree of bureaucracy of its public sector. I hope that those issues will be addressed by the Government of Poland in co-operation with other countries in the European Union, including Britain.

I should also be interested to hear what the Minister’s thoughts are on the supply of energy to and through Poland, a particular topical subject, which is obviously relevant to the people of that country but also concerns people here and elsewhere.

I concur with some of the comments made earlier about the opportunity for alliances with Poland and other countries in eastern Europe. Britain has displayed a progressive and enlightened approach to the new member states of the European Union. I hope and believe that that will serve us well, not only because it was the right thing to do but because the people from that part of Europe will see Britain as a potential ally, as those countries emerge and grow more confident in their democracies and their economies.

The current Polish Government, however, give cause for concern to most people who are democrats. There are some extraordinary characters in the Polish Government, including people with narrow, nationalistic
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views and, in some cases, deeply illiberal viewson personal freedom. I do not wish to quoteThe Economist magazine as though it were the Bible, although most people regard it as a fairly authoritative journal. Of the Law and Justice party, which I understand is, overwhelmingly, the largest party in the Polish coalition Government, it says:

Stephen Pound: Many people have assumed that that stereotype is accurate, but many of us who met Prime Minister Marcinkiewicz at Chatham house last year put those very questions to him. I do not have time to refute every accusation, but I counsel the hon. Gentleman to look to the reality rather than the hysteria.

Mr. Browne: I hope that what the hon. Gentleman says is true, partly because that would be greatly to the benefit of Poland, but also because I am extremely concerned by the sort of allies that the Conservative party is seeking, as it trawls round newly entered member states looking for alliances to form an alternative to the European People’s party. I am making an entirely serious point about the opportunities for influence by the UK’s major Opposition party. If the Conservative party chooses to associate itself with political parties that hold such views, that would be regrettable for the British interest, as well as narrow party interest.

In summary, we must remember that Poland is an immature democracy. Countries do not come to fruition in economic or democratic terms overnight, but a huge amount of progress has been made. There is great cause for optimism, particularly among young people who have opportunities that did not exist 20 or 30 years ago. The House wishes them well and I hope that we shall make the most of an important opportunity to find new allies for Britain in Poland and elsewhere across eastern Europe.

3.43 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): This has been such a good debate that it is a shame to interrupt it with Front-Bench replies. It has been a genuine privilege to listen to the hon. Members who have contributed, many of whom have considerable knowledge of and deep personal connections to Poland. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) both on securing this debate and on an extraordinarily good opening speech, which set the scene in exactly the right way.

My hon. Friend drew attention to our relationships with what has historically been a close friend and should be one of our strongest allies in the European Union. He personifies the close ties between our countries; indeed, it might be said that he has taken them to new heights. He described Mr. Worrall Thompson as diminutive, which is not something that is usually said about me, but we might all be considered diminutive next to him. We are grateful to Poland for
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bringing us my hon. Friend and doing a great service to the House and our country.

Our friendship with Poland stretches back into history. Before the debate, I read the excellent note prepared by the Library, which reminds us that the relationship goes right back to the 16th century. The ties between Scotland and Poland go back to the family of Bonnie Prince Charlie, whose mother was Polish. So none of this is new. Today and throughout history, we have been inspired by stories of the heroism of the Poles in defence of their homeland. A number of hon. Members referred to that and the fact that many thousands of Poles fought with great distinction alongside British servicemen in the second world war.

For my generation—I am slightly older than my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham—Poland’s fight against Soviet oppression provided new inspiration. My hon. Friend spoke about the food collections at his school. I remember as a schoolboy in the early 1980s proudly sporting the red and white Solidarity badge on my school blazer.

Stephen Pound: That was compulsory in the union.

Mr. Brady: Well, it was not compulsory at Altrincham grammar school, but I was proud to wear the badge.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham pointed out, it was this country, under Conservative Governments and then a Labour Government, who rightly championed the cause of Polish freedom and then the cause of European Union enlargement and Poland’s accession to the EU. My hon. Friend raised important concurrent issues relating to the Baltic pipeline and the question whether the Katyn forest massacre investigation should be reopened. I hope that the Minister will take up those matters; perhaps he will deal with them in responding to the debate.

The enlargement of the European Union corrects a great historical injustice. Some Conservative Members and perhaps even some Labour Members will this evening be at a dinner that the 1922 committee is holding in tribute to Baroness Thatcher. We remember what Margaret Thatcher said in her famous Bruges speech:

It is important to set the debate in context. The closeness of the ties, and the friendship that we feel, unite both sides of the House of Commons. It has been apparent during the debate that we all wish that friendship to go from strength to strength.

I shall wind up my remarks quickly so that the Minister has a chance to do justice to the debate but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said at the outset, it is vital that we work closely with a country that shares so many of our views, in particular about the need to develop a more open and flexible European Union that is more fitted to addressing the future. My hon. Friend talked about the creation of a strategic Anglo-Polish axis. That is an exciting prospect. It would allow the United Kingdom
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to work ever more closely with Poland in helping to build the sort of European Union that we want and which would be in the interests of all members of the EU, especially the new member states.

3.49 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson. I am sure that you will not mind me congratulating the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing the debate. I am responding to it on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, who is serving this country valiantly at this very moment in Strasbourg. He has responsibility for Poland in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

I acknowledge the keen interest of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham in the land of at least some of his ancestors. He spoke with great authority and passion and, most important from my point of view, I enjoyed his speech immensely; it was very insightful. I welcome the opportunity to debate the United Kingdom’s relations with Poland. For most of our lifetime, as we have heard, Europe has been cruelly and unnaturally divided. Those divisions have ended, thanks not least to Poland’s determination, courage and fortitude. I remember well its fights. In 2004, Poland took a momentous step when it joined the European Union, and no Government were more delighted than ours to see the Poles take their place at the European table.

We have heard a great deal about hon. Members’ personal connections, and I shall tell the Chamber about some of mine because such connections are important. I grew up with a lot of kids who were the sons and daughters of Polish coal miners who came to my valley, the Cynon valley in Aberdare, at the end of the second world war and became an important part of our community. My father was an aircraftman in the second world war and fought alongside Polish pilots. He grew to feel warmly about them, but he always warned me that they were both the bravest and the craziest people that he had ever met. I rediscovered that fact in the 1960s when I began climbing in the Alps. In those days, there were standards routes to Alpine peaks, north face routes, north face directs and routes that we used to call “Polish routes” because they were suicidal. That said a great deal.

There was a lot of laughter earlier about how Poles expressed themselves at that time, when the dead hand of communism kept their country away from its orientation towards being a great European base of culture and creativity. I remember meeting Polish climbers for whom climbing was important as a way of escaping. They could look healthy, patriotic and Polish, and they were allowed to go to the Alps. They were mad, but it was wonderful. They were all crazy about jazz, which has always been the music of rebellion. They were great painters, poets and novelists. Polish novelists won Nobel prizes. The greatest thing about being in Poland now is that one can rediscover, as in the case of Czech and particularly Hungarian writers, a great heartland of European literature. People are once again free to move across frontiers, which is a wonderful achievement.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound), in his inimitable style, gave us details of the community relationships that are so important. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) also reminded us of them. While he was speaking I remembered being taken to a Polish club—I shall not tell the Chamber in which town it was—and being shown into a large room where there were groups of some elderly men, some not so elderly, but no women. I tried to move across from one group to another and was warned, “Don’t do that, they haven’t spoken to each other for 25 years.” It reminded me of Wales, actually. They are great people for sectarian fights.

I cannot give an answer to the point that the hon. Member for Wellingborough made. I know that in some areas people have gone out and recruited Polish dentists. I will ask about the matter—it is worth a try in this place—but I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will probably get a more informative answer from the Department of Health.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) congratulated his mother in law on her great longevity. Her life encapsulates the history of modern Poland, which is an amazing story. My hon. Friend reminded us that Poland’s influence within the EU is already equal to that of Spain, which reinforces what the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said. We must take our alliance with Poland very seriously. The balance of power is shifting and will continue to do so.

I have just returned from Bulgaria and Romania, and they have mighty problems. However, I remember the Poland of the 1970s, when my friends from Solidarity would come over and tell me what was going on. I did not believe them. I did not believe that helicopters were shooting on the street demonstrators who were trying to create democratic and trade union rights for themselves. We had no idea of the severity of that oppression. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned it, because the situation has changed dramatically, and we must take it seriously.

I am sure that everyone who has spoken and listened will pay tribute to the contributions that emphasised the great part that Polish people not only have played in this country’s history but are playing now for our economy. We were, along with Ireland and Sweden, the only countries that offered Polish workers free passage to move and work. Now, I notice that a great queue of European countries is trying to do the same, because if there is one thing that we have begun to understand, it is that if we are to compete in the world economy, we must have the skills to do so.

Mr. Hands: My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham and I have a long-standing invitation to visit POSK, the Polish cultural centre in King street. It is a fantastic institution that may offer some pointers towards integration, because it offers services not only about Polish culture but to Polish immigrants and migrant workers about England and Britain. Will the Minister join us in a visit some time in the coming months? It is not that far away; it is only20 minutes on the District line.

Daniel Kawczynski: And there is a delicious restaurant.

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Dr. Howells: It is a kind and generous offer. I may have to pass it on to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe. He is in Strasbourg, but I shall make him aware of it.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, and there is a great deal of discussion about integration. It was no easier to integrate in 1945-46 than it is or is not now. We should have these discussions, but we should not become obsessed with the integration of one ethnic group or one people. We should consider the best examples that we have, and the Polish workers have provided us with some of the very best examples.

Importantly, the hon. Member for Taunton(Mr. Browne) highlighted the fact that many workers are over here because unemployment is so high in Poland. It is at 18 per cent. It is scandalously high for young boys and girls at 40 per cent.—40 per cent. youth unemployment. It is no wonder that they are flocking to this country. The hon. Gentleman is right. We must help in whatever way we can to let the Poles know that alongside liberalising the economy and slimming the bureaucracy, the high levels of taxation and unemployment have got to go if Poland is to, as it will, flex its muscles as a great economic power. It should do so in that crucial geographical position in Europe.

We have not talked much about the following important subject, because we have not had a great deal of time. However, Poland is the EU’s eastern frontier. We must help the Poles with it, because it is leaky. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham did not get a chance to talk much about it, but we must understand that many of our problems, whether with organised crime, drug smuggling, people smuggling or arms smuggling, are caused because everybody wants to get into the EU from that eastern direction. The Poles live in a tough neighbourhood and they always have done. We have drugs liaison officers working on the frontier, and people trying to help with the border crossings to systemise the way in which vehicles are checked. It is an important subject, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised it.

I am rather grateful that I have no time to talk about the pipeline. It is really a matter for the Germans and Russians. If I were a German or Russian, I would probably build it along the Baltic sea floor myself.

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