Previous Section Index Home Page

That is an interesting constitutional concept, and it would be helpful if the British Government made it absolutely clear that we are not prepared to be bounced into a European constitution by a vote taken elsewhere.
14 Jun 2006 : Column 860
Mr. SchÃ1/4ssel added that he was convinced that something new had to be added to the document and that this could be a new name or method for adoption of the document. The idea that renaming the constitution makes it more acceptable fundamentally misses the point, as does the suggestion that, because we are having difficulties with the present procedure for ratification, we need to find a new way of adopting the document. That does not recognise that perhaps the document itself is part of the problem.

There is a similar proposal from the Belgian Liberal Premier, Mr. Verhofstadt, who said:

Basically, he was saying that that was a good idea and the way in which the matter should be progressed. That also indicates that ratification of the constitution is still sought by much of Europe and that the difficulty is seen to be with those peoples who have not yet chosen to ratify the constitution. There is a wonderful comment from Giscard d’Estaing, who said:

There is no limit there or the suggestion that there should only be a single vote. They should keep on voting, presumably on the basis of re-sits that they continue to take, until they come up with the right answer.

The constitution is dead, but many people will not admit it. I remember the enthusiasm in this Chamber shown by the Liberal party when the Luxemburgers voted in a referendum to support the constitution. I was reminded of the way in which the Albanians used to say, “We and the Chinese are 7 billion strong.” The Liberals were able to say that, with the Luxemburgers, they could fill a reasonably large charabanc with supporters of the European constitution.

The drive, however, to a united European and ever-closer union has not gone away. Those who focus on the constitution as the main issue and who see its stalling as a great success and as some sort of political victory misunderstand what is happening elsewhere. The drive to a superstate continues and the flow continues towards ever-closer union. I had wanted to say something about the drive to a European defence agency, about ever-closer union on asylum issues, justice and home affairs and about the power being taken by the Commission under the guidance of the European Court of Justice to establish lists of crimes for which punishments have to be established by Europe. I also wanted to refer to the space agency and the work that has been done to establish a diplomatic service even though its establishment was clearly in the constitution and should not have proceeded. However, a consular service is being set up with embassies abroad, which is a clear example of a proposal in the constitution being proceeded with anyway. The work of the European Court of Justice is also greatly increasing the drive towards centralisation.

I had also hoped to touch on issues relating to health and tax in which the ECJ continues to take powers from the United Kingdom. The Commission intends to publish a communication on alcohol and health in September despite having no competency for health
14 Jun 2006 : Column 861
matters. Again, that is a completely new area of work that the EU hopes to expand. The ECJ has recently taken the decision that it, rather than an outside body, should preside over disputes between member states. Again, that is the expansion of power into new areas in which the EU did not previously see itself as having a role, but which it now explicitly states that it wishes to take on. The question is what we do about all that.

I have come to the conclusion that reform of the budget is impossible without some sort of car crash. I believe that we should vote to reject the European budget when we have the opportunity to do so in order to concentrate minds. It seems clear that even the voice of the people in France and Holland is being ignored. Unless the situation is brought to a crisis, the elites of Europe will pay no attention. I regret the fact that we are in that position, but if those in power above us have no intention of listening to the will of the people on these issues, we have little choice.

Finally, I would like to offer the Minister a suggestion about how he could make himself even more popular —[Interruption]—if that were possible. My suggestion would also give the European Union a good name. EU beef has in the past been distributed to pensioners in my constituency from the enormous surplus stocks, as has EU butter and cheese. I am aware that there are enormous stocks of surplus EU wine, so I propose that the Minister take the initiative and seek agreement with his colleagues to give some wine from the EU wine lake to pensioners in my constituency— [Interruption.] Yes, to others, too, but pensioners first. I suggest that this be called the Hoon allocation, which would ensure that his name was remembered throughout the country for a long time to come.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s invitation, but I am slightly surprised that he makes it at this point, because in my previous ministerial positions I regularly offered to help him out at election time, but somehow or other, he seemed to find it difficult to accept my offer.

Mr. Davidson: I secured a Labour gain when I was first elected in 1992 and my majority has climbed ever since to become the second largest in Scotland. I do not believe, however, that there is any necessary connection between that and the fact that the Minister has never been to my constituency. I would like to make it clear that it would not be necessary for him to hand-deliver the wine himself, only to ensure that it is done. I will arrange the distribution, and I am willing to name it after him. The Hoon allocation, or something similar, would make sure that he is remembered for more than he has been up to now. After all, his predecessor will be remembered for the destruction of the European constitution in France and Holland during his period of office, so perhaps the Minister for Europe will be prepared to help lubricate political discussion on the EU constitution during his time.

6.18 pm

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): It is a great honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow,
14 Jun 2006 : Column 862
South-West (Mr. Davidson) and I congratulate him wholeheartedly on coming second in last week’s swimming competition between the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Who won?

Chris Bryant: I seem to recall that I beat him by a narrow margin. I should point out that the Minister for Europe has never visited my constituency either, and I have the largest majority in Wales and the fifth largest in the land.

Mr. Davidson: Since my hon. Friend has mentioned the swimming competition, it is only fair to draw to other Members’ attention the fact that—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Time is limited and other Members wish to speak. I do not think that the swimming competition took place in Europe.

Chris Bryant: I hate to remind you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but Britain is in Europe and the competition took place in London.

To move on to more serious matters, I have taken to heart the injunction of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) earlier this afternoon when he said that 95 per cent. of our debates on these issues repeat points that have already been made before. I hope not to say anything that I have said here before, but it means that my speech is split into three rather odd parts. The first is about the television without frontiers directive, an important measure being considered at the moment. The second is about mobile telephony charges and the third is about the EU and its relations with Iran.

On the first, many Members will not think of the television without frontiers directive as the single most important issue on the stocks at the moment. In 1989, it allowed originally for the system of listed events, which means that we are able to watch the World cup on free-to-air television as well as the Olympics and other events. The Commission is proposing some changes, some of which are to be welcomed and some are sincerely not to be welcomed.

The first that should not be welcomed is the proposal to extend the directive to all audio-visual media services, because that creates the danger of the European Commission bringing forward policy that should properly be the regard of individual member states. The Commission is also in danger of doing that in suggesting that there should be a specific rule governing all audio-visual services in Europe with regard to incitement of hatred on various levels. That commitment would go considerably further than UK law. Freedom of speech, as it plays out in each member state, should be for that member state to determine and not for the EU to determine.

The television without frontiers directive also suggests that there should be changes to the protection of minors. For the most part, articles 3d and 3g(f) are sensible measures. All of us would like audio-visual services across Europe to protect minors, and I would
14 Jun 2006 : Column 863
argue that more stringent controls on the broadcasting of advertisements to children that promote eating and drinking wholly inappropriate food and drink, which in turn does not lead to a healthy lifestyle, would be only right and proper.

Ofcom has suggested rather tentative measures that fail to address the fact that the vast majority of children watch not children’s programmes but adult programmes. For instance, the most watched television programme among nine to 14-year-olds is “Coronation Street”, which is sponsored by and advertises Cadbury. We need to address a real problem: our youngsters face a crisis of obesity and if we do not tackle that robustly, we will make a big mistake.

The directive also moves forward on the issue of product placement. Members who have watched a Bond movie will have noticed that product placement is an important part of the way in which most American-funded films are made. It is not that I want to interfere with that, but there should be honesty about the way that products are placed in television programmes, particularly those paid for by the licence fee. I note that the BBC no longer insists on people saying sticky-backed plastic instead of Sellotape, and I do not have a problem with that, but I would not want to go down the US route, where programmes are sponsored by Coca-Cola and there are large Coca-Cola cups in front of jurors for “The X Factor” or “Pop Idol” and so on. Audiences want to know when they are being sold something and we should support that important part of the directive.

One issue that, as far as I know, has never been mentioned in this House but has been debated at some length in Europe is the cost of mobile telephony when roaming around other countries in Europe. I thought that we were meant to have a single market, yet the difference in cost between a Latvian phoning home when in Malta and a British person phoning from Germany is dramatic. Mobile telephone companies have been grossly overcharging around Europe for many years. It is only because of the Commission’s intervention in the past few months that, at the very last minute, some mobile phone companies have decided to cut their fees for roaming calls. I am glad that they are doing so, but it is only sometimes thanks to the international efforts of the European Commission—for which it rarely gets any praise, although I note that it managed to get a whole laudatory front page out of the Daily Mail on one occasion—that some businesses are prepared to take action.

I end by talking about an area to which the Foreign Secretary referred: EU-Iran relations. I know that many hon. Members and many members of the public feel that the most important issue to be addressed at the moment is that of Iran’s intentions when it comes to enrichment of plutonium. I share that concern and I believe that Britain has played an important role, working with our French and German colleagues, to make sure that we have a robust policy. That has paid dividends by bringing not only the Russians and Chinese, but the Americans to a sane and sensible position. I hope that the Iranians will, in the very near future, respond positively to the proposal for talks. The EU representative, Javier Solana, has also played an important role in ensuring that the negotiations
14 Jun 2006 : Column 864
between the EU3 have been successful and that the Iranian Government fully understand the EU position.

Equally important, however, is the issue of human rights in Iran. Iran’s human rights record is grisly. It has been so for many years, but in many ways it has become worse in the past 18 months. Last week in the other place, Lord Triesman reported that the number of executions in Iran had increased dramatically compared with this time last year. We know that the use of the death penalty in Iran is on the increase: Amnesty International reckons that there were at least 94 instances of its use last year in Iran, and the International Federation of Human Rights estimates a much higher number of cases—between 300 and 400.

I know that not all hon. Members believe that the death penalty is wrong. I believe that it is wrong in all instances, just as torture is wrong, but it is particularly wrong when it is imposed on minors—those aged under 18. Last year, at least nine people aged under 18 were executed in Iran. In 2004, a 16-year-old girl was hanged for fornication and a 14-year-old boy was whipped to death for eating during Ramadan. That is not a situation that people either in this country or across the European Union can countenance any longer.

Furthermore, the death penalty is regularly used in Iran for lavaat, or homosexuality. On 19 July 2005, Ayaz Marhuuni and Mahmoud Askari were executed in Mashhad. They were both 17, although the authorities tried to say that they were 19, and at the time of the alleged crimes, they were probably 15 or 16. Almost certainly, the charges presented against them, which changed from day to day, were trumped up. Not only were they hanged, but it was not a British-style hanging; instead, as is often the case when the death penalty is used for lavaat, they were executed by a slow hanging method whereby a thin cord is placed to the side of the neck so that the neck does not break and the person struggles on the cord, often for several minutes, before being asphyxiated. It is a deliberately brutal and cruel death, which we should not countenance.

At least 11 people were executed for lavaat between December 2004 and November 2005. Many more have been sentenced and no more has been heard of them, but we can be fairly certain that in many cases the execution has happened, not in public as used to happen, but in private. In addition to that, there are many honour killings in parts of Iran. One expert on the Ahwaz region said that homosexuals

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. In the limited time left, the hon. Gentleman should relate his remarks to the European Union.

Chris Bryant: I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was about to say that what the EU has tried to do, albeit perhaps not frequently enough, is raise such human rights issues in its discussions with the Iranian authorities. I believe that this week provides a real opportunity for the EU to make progress and, in
14 Jun 2006 : Column 865
particular, to make sure that no EU country repatriates anyone from Iran who seeks asylum by virtue of their homosexuality. Some people have been repatriated to Iran by other European countries and have subsequently been executed. There are, of course, countries in Europe that have a mixed record on those human rights issues, but I believe that the EU has a unique opportunity to move forward with a robust record on human rights.

6.29 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): After a long period away from the House, it is a pleasure to take part in one of our Euro bashes. We should have a website, “Euro debaters reunited”, because we debate the issue in the same fashion, and make the same arguments every six months, hands warmly clasped around one another’s throats.

Our debates, however, have become rather sad. Europe used to be a serious threat for some Members, but now it has all the savagery of a dead sheep. Some Members regard it as a bright vision to distract people from reality, but that vision has become remarkably tired. Europe has ceased to be relevant to our lives—it is no longer a front-line issue, as it has all the excitement and relevance of a debate on late library fines or the regular brushing of teeth. It has become a backwater, and it is of less concern to us, because it is of less concern to the people of Europe. They do not want more enlargement, and they certainly do not want Turkey to join. They do not want a constitution, even though regular séances are held in Brussels and the Government have participated in efforts to introduce it by the back door, and they do not want the hydra of a European foreign policy. As a result, Europe is treading water, and the question of what we get out of it and what it is for is more important, particularly as our contribution has risen to £6 billion a year. If we include our contribution to European institutions apart from the budget, it rises to £8 billion a year. If we add the cost of regulation, we pay 4 per cent. of our gross domestic product to belong to an economic union that has become the high-unemployment, low-growth blackspot of the western world.

Europe has opted for a system of bankers’ rule, resulting in high interest rates and a high exchange rate that will become even higher as the dollar comes down, thus strangling European economies, including the recently improved German economy. In the major European countries, unemployment is at 8 or 9 per cent. or even higher, but we cannot expand demand to deal with the problem. If we cannot provide economic satisfaction and run the economy for the benefit of our people by providing them with jobs, democracy is over, because they will riot and change the Government. The unions will go on strike, and nothing can be done because Europe is locked into deflation and a system of bankers’ rule. The French and Italians used regularly to devalue their currencies because they wanted to remain competitive against the Germans and keep their economies going, but they cannot do so any more. There is nothing that democracies can do to improve their economic position. The Minister for Europe wishes to make Europe fun and amusing, but he would
14 Jun 2006 : Column 866
be better employed telling people what it is for and what effect it has on their daily lives, apart from a depressing one.

Next Section Index Home Page