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House of Commons

Tuesday 31 October 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

European Union Constitutional Treaty

1. Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): If she will make a statement on the future of the European Union constitutional treaty. [98347]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): There is no current consensus on the way forward for the constitutional treaty. The June European Council agreed that the German presidency will present a report to the European Council in 2007, based on extensive consultations with the member states. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe will make a statement shortly on the broad principles underpinning our approach.

Mr. Goodwill: The EU is often critical of other countries that act in an undemocratic way. Given that the constitutional treaty is dead in the water after being torpedoed by France and Holland, what is the justification for the Commission pressing on regardless with the external action service—the EU’s diplomatic service, which also has its own embassies—and the External Borders Agency? What is the legal basis for those budget lines?

Margaret Beckett: I understand the desire among Conservative Members to see this issue dead and buried, but a number of member states have ratified the treaty. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that two member states have rejected it after referendums, and that is a difficulty. All member states are considering the way forward.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Yesterday, hon. Members across the Chamber welcomed the Stern report, one of whose conclusions was that action at European level was needed to tackle climate change. Does that not emphasise the need for the sort of reform and streamlining of European procedures and institutions that will allow us to meet that urgent task?
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Margaret Beckett: The two legitimate and equally good points that my hon. Friend makes are not necessarily related. Like him, I welcome yesterday’s report and discussions but the EU has played a leading role in matters to do with climate change without changing its structures or how it operates. I am confident that the EU, whatever its structures, will continue to play a positive role in a matter in which, as a group of member states, it has a deserved reputation.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) has just said that the European constitution was dead in the water, so does the Foreign Secretary agree that any European court that refers to the charter of fundamental rights would be acting ultra vires—beyond its legal powers?

Margaret Beckett: I am not a lawyer, so I am always cautious about a phrase like “refers to”. Although the hon. Gentleman is right that the charter does not have force, the question whether anyone would be allowed to refer to it is quite another matter.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I want to raise another technical point with my right hon. Friend. As I understand it, under the existing treaties, the present Commission has to be reduced to 15 after 2009. [Interruption.] The lights are going out in England. [Hon. Members: “Next!”] I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, I shall try and switch myself off. After 2009, in addition to losing the services of Mr. Peter Mandelson, which I know that the whole House will regret, we may find that we are not able to nominate a Commissioner from the UK. In other words, we will have no representation on the Commission. This is a technical, juridical point, so I realise that my right hon. Friend may not be able to answer today, but will she write to me and place a copy of the letter in the Library? This is a very important matter, as we may need a new treaty.

Margaret Beckett: I always prefer to write to hon. Members about technical and juridical matters, but I think that my right hon. Friend is leaping several steps ahead. Existing treaties do require us to take another look at the Commission’s size after Bulgaria and Romania join the EU, but I am sure that he will find that all member states will take a keen interest in how many Commissioners there will be after then, and what their responsibilities will be.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): The Foreign Secretary says that there is no consensus about the future of the constitution, but two weeks ago she told EU Foreign Ministers that it was a grandiose project that had failed. If she was prepared to say that to them, why will she not repeat it in this House? Will she tell us what she believes, and make it clear whether the Government intend to proceed with ratifying the treaty?

Margaret Beckett: There is no intention to proceed with that at the moment because, as I said, there is no consensus. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is drawing on press reports, but he is not entirely correct, as I made those remarks to the media and not to EU
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Foreign Ministers. [ Interruption.] I am about to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. I was being asked whether the UK believed that the treaty was completely dead, and so on—the sort of questions that are raised continually in this House. I said that one of the EU’s perceived weaknesses, across a range of matters, was that people involved in it sometimes had grandiose projects, and that those projects fail when they become too elaborate. However, I was not speaking specifically about the constitutional treaty.


2. Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): If she will make a statement on the political situation in northern Uganda. [98348]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): The political situation in northern Uganda remains fragile. We welcome the progress made so far at the Juba talks. The Lord’s Resistance Army—the LRA—and the Government of Uganda must now maintain their commitment, show restraint, and implement agreements reached to date. Only then will there be a solution that brings long overdue peace and justice to the people of northern Uganda.

Kerry McCarthy: I thank my hon. Friend for that response. What is the Government’s view on the representation of the Acholi people in those talks? Are the Government prepared to fund technical assistance, or give other support, to ensure that community voices are heard during those discussions?

Dr. Howells: Yes. Up to 2 million Acholi people are still in dreadful displaced people’s camps because they will not go home until the Lord’s Resistance Army stops killing them and abducting their children. Uganda has a plan for such a moment, but it has not been tested yet. We shall certainly do everything that we can to assist in that peace process.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I welcome the Minister’s comments that the British Government will do all that they can to assist the peace process. However, does he acknowledge that, if we manage to secure peace in northern Uganda, aid will still be required to redevelop and re-establish the land, so we need to ensure that the international community, which is currently putting in $200 million a year in aid, redirects that money for development, and that it goes to northern Uganda and is not diverted elsewhere?

Dr. Howells: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis. The situation in northern Uganda is so desperate that, even though there are very worthy potential recipients of any aid in southern and eastern Uganda, all the money that is set aside must end up going on trying to reconcile the situation in the north, and on redeveloping and rebuilding the infrastructure, because it is badly in need of that.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Government’s response to what are truly dreadful circumstances in northern Uganda. In view of the belief of some commentators that the threat of International Criminal Court action is delaying the
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peace process, what does my hon. Friend envisage in terms of reconciliation and those people who have perpetrated what are probably some of the worst acts of this century? Does he see a role for that in attempting to bring the two sides together in the near future?

Dr. Howells: I certainly agree that the way forward is reconciliation. There will not be a military solution. We must try to bring all sides together. However, we as a Government cannot resile from the position that we have taken, which is that there must be no impunity for the war criminals. That is absolutely vital; the crimes that they have committed are horrendous. I also do not believe for one minute that we would have seen any progress if there had not been the threat that international action would be taken in the ICC against the leading individuals in the Lord’s Resistance Army.

North Korea

3. Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): What recent discussions she has had with the US Secretary of State on North Korea. [98350]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I have spoken to the US Secretary of State on a number of occasions over the past few months on the handling of North Korea, including in the wake of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s claimed nuclear test. We agreed that the test was a clear threat to international peace and security, and that there must be—as there has been—a robust response from the United Nations Security Council. I am delighted to be able to tell the House that it has just been announced that the DPRK will return to the six-party talks.

Robert Neill: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response, but given that there is a long and well-documented history of North Korea illicitly obtaining nuclear material and exporting weapons systems that it has developed, can she give us further information on what will be done to enforce the embargo requirements of the United Nations resolution if North Korea does not come up to scratch at the talks? In particular, what will be the United Kingdom’s role? Will any Royal Navy assets be involved, for example?

Margaret Beckett: We are not at present in a position to answer that—and especially the last part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, as he will appreciate. Obviously, everyone will now have to assess what the new position is, but I think that the whole House will take some comfort and reassurance from the fact that North Korea has decided to return to the six-party talks.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): When the Foreign Secretary next meets the US Secretary of State, will she ask what contribution it is thought is made to peace and stability by the flotilla of US nuclear-armed warships in the waters around Korea? Does she agree that a non-nuclear and reunified
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Korea is in the interests of all the people of that part of the world, and should not the US and other Governments withdraw troops and weapons at a very early date from the Korean peninsula?

Margaret Beckett: It is the wish of the international community to see de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Although I understand the legitimate concern that lies behind my hon. Friend’s question, we should recognise that it was pressure from the whole international community on North Korea that brought about this result.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): I am sure that the Foreign Secretary was very pleased to hear the news from North Korea, and that the whole House hopes that it proves to be the case. But given that North Korea signed an armistice at the end of the Korean war with the United Nations, not the Republic of Korea, and that Great Britain holds the deputy command of the UN forces in South Korea, can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that, following her discussions with the US Secretary of State, there will be no withdrawal of Britain’s commitment to UN forces in South Korea as part of that role, which some in the Ministry of Defence would like to see happen?

Margaret Beckett: If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman raises a rather different issue, but in the aftermath of the decision that has just been announced, everyone will be reassessing their involvement and addressing the question—properly raised by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill)—of where we go from here. But let us take at least a brief moment to say thank goodness that the six-party talks are on again.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that, despite China’s public lack of enthusiasm for sanctions, it has privately refused to sell a single tonne of crude oil to North Korea in the month of September and sold all its available crude oil to the United States? As that may have had a very impressive impact on Kim Jong Il, will she encourage China to continue that policy not just until North Korea returns to the talks, but until it abandons its nuclear aspirations?

Margaret Beckett: I am indeed aware of this issue and I have had a number of conversations with the Chinese Foreign Minister on exactly that. He has always assured me not only that China takes this issue just as seriously as the rest of us, but that it was doing everything that it could to put and maintain pressure on North Korea. We should all welcome China’s behaviour in this respect as a member of the international community—sharing and exerting its responsibilities.


4. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): When she next plans to meet the Foreign Ministers of Bulgaria and Romania to discuss EU enlargement. [98351]

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The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): Both my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and I have met the Bulgarian and Romanian Foreign Ministers on a number of occasions; indeed, I met the latter only yesterday. We expect next to meet them during normal EU business at Council meetings.

Keith Vaz: How much damage to Britain’s reputation as a champion of enlargement has been done by the Home Office’s decision to impose restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians when they join the European Union? I appreciate that both the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe are reported as being opposed to the proposals, which are unworkable, unmanageable and unnecessary. How long after 1 January 2007 will those proposals be reviewed?

Margaret Beckett: I discussed this issue at some length with the Romanian Foreign Minister yesterday. He told me that although there was naturally some concern, Britain’s reputation as a partner and friend of Romania is so strong—as a result of the efforts of successive Ministers in my Department over many years—that this issue is not enough to make a difference, and that it remains the case that Romania views Britain as one of its strongest allies and closest friends. It has been decided that the labour market will be opened gradually, and that the proposals announced by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary a day or so ago will be reviewed after a year. I cannot give my right hon. Friend a precise date now, but I can assure him that that review will be very careful and thorough, as the House would wish.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): I wonder whether the Foreign Secretary discussed with the Romanian Foreign Secretary the hideous activities of the criminal gangs that work in Romania and Bulgaria and traffic human beings out of those countries and into western Europe. What steps can she or the Government take to help Romania and Bulgaria to stop the waves of people coming over from Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, as well as Turkey, into this country? The trafficking of human beings is a major problem and I should like to hear what she has to say.

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is entirely right that it is a major problem, and we are giving a great deal of assistance, support and advice to both Romania and Bulgaria in tackling those issues; but as he knows, successive Governments have taken the view that one of the merits of enlargement is to raise standards in the applicant countries, and then as they become new-member countries, in a way that will begin to tackle some of the problems at source. I do not dispute the hon. Gentleman’s remarks; it is still a serious issue, but I can assure him that the authorities in Bulgaria and Romania are striving to tackle it and are doing so with help from us.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): Everyone’s Child—Romania is a charity based in my constituency that does wonderful work supporting 70 children with HIV/AIDS in that country. Will my right hon. Friend
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give the House a progress report on how Romania is reforming its child care services as a condition of joining the European Union?

Margaret Beckett: I cannot volunteer at this moment to give my right hon. Friend a great many details, but I can certainly assure him that we judge that Romania is indeed moving towards making progress on protecting the rights of children, and also with living conditions, and that it is now in line with UN texts. That work will continue and the improvement will, I believe, continue as Romania moves into full membership of the EU. I share my right hon. Friend’s view that that is extremely important.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary remind the Foreign Ministers of Bulgaria and Romania that under regulations passed by the House on 30 April all citizens of those countries will have unrestricted right of residence in this country from 1 January, so the only people who will be inconvenienced by the Government’s proposed worker registration scheme are those who want openly to register as employees and pay tax? So why are the Government creating maximum ill will in those two applicant countries to minimum effect?

Margaret Beckett: I do not accept that we are creating maximum ill will, as I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) a moment ago. Indeed, I can tell the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) that the Foreign Minister of Romania was clear yesterday that it is his opinion that there is not likely to be much flow of people into this country— [Interruption.] I can only tell the House that that is his opinion; he based it on people movement and labour movement flows over recent years. However, the position is one that we shall continue to monitor, which is the reason for the proposals made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary a few days ago.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Following the outrageous and intemperate attack on Government policy by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz)—uncharacteristically—will the Secretary of State make sure that the Bulgarian and Romania Governments recognise that the restrictions on labour market entry are due to the pressures on many of our communities caused by unrestrained immigration? Constituencies such as mine where unemployment has risen by 8 per cent. over the last year have to be given some time to adjust to the influx of eastern European labour.

Margaret Beckett: I can only say to my hon. Friend that I understand the concerns that he expresses on behalf of his constituents. It is not my understanding that there has been a substantial impact everywhere of the work force flows that we have seen hitherto, but certainly it is the case that the Government have taken a decision to observe and monitor this transition and to review the position next year.

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