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House of Commons

Tuesday 1 May 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

European Constitution

1. Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): What recent discussions she has had with the German EU presidency on reviving the European Constitution. [134731]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I have had regular discussions with my German colleagues during their presidency about many issues, including EU institutional reform—so, too, has my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who met Chancellor Merkel most recently on 24 April. At present, there remains no consensus among EU partners on this issue, but we will discuss it at the European Council in June.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that she has received a letter from the German presidency and Mrs. Merkel, suggesting how to revive the European constitution by using

and preserving part 1 of the constitution

Is not this a deceitful way to proceed? Why are these negotiations taking place in secret? Will the Foreign Secretary make an urgent statement to the House about the Government’s intentions?

Margaret Beckett: There is nothing to make an urgent statement about at the moment. I do not recall the letter that the right hon. Gentleman referred to, unless he is referring to some kind of questionnaire that came round a little time ago—[Hon. Members: “Questionnaire?”] Yes. I presume that Conservative Members know what a questionnaire is: people ask us questions and we fill in the answers, so that they can get a picture of the general range of views— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members must let the Foreign Secretary answer in her own way.

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Margaret Beckett: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

As I was saying, that might be what the right hon. Gentleman was referring to. It is clear that the German Government would prefer to keep as much as possible of the constitutional treaty. As the presidency, however, the German Government will have to determine where the consensus lies among colleagues in the European Union, and do their best to give effect to that. As I have said, there is at present no such consensus.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary refers to the process of finding where consensus lies. In this House, we have found it extremely difficult to find out what the British Government’s position is, never mind determining where consensus lies. Will she at least acknowledge that one of the biggest difficulties for the British Government is that there is a huge division between the needs of the countries in the eurozone, which will require greater political integration from such a document, and the needs of those that are outside it?

Margaret Beckett: I believe that we have been quite clear about this. The Minister for Europe has set out on a number of occasions the principles on which we base our approach to the issue. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Dutch Prime Minister recently made it clear that we would certainly be looking not for a constitutional treaty but for an amending treaty that did not contain the characteristics of a constitution, but which might tidy up the rules of the European Union to make it operate more effectively. With regard to whether there is a difference of approach for those countries that are members of the eurozone, I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) takes a great interest in these matters, but, for my own part, I would be reluctant to say anything that encouraged the idea that there should be some kind of two-speed Europe.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): Are not the mooted proposals for treaty change either so obviously in the interests of democracy and transparency, such as an increased role for national Parliaments, or so obviously in the national interest, such as reducing the numbers in the Commission while we keep a permanent seat, or reducing the current bias against us in the qualified majority voting system, that it is difficult to see how anyone could rationally want to oppose them? Furthermore, how could we possibly conceive of having a referendum on what are essentially procedural and administrative matters, or even on matters relating to personnel management and job description? If we are going to have a referendum on that kind of thing, surely we should simply put all the amendments in the Finance Bill this afternoon— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Margaret Beckett: Without agreeing with every syllable that the hon. Gentleman has uttered, I have to say that I find myself much in sympathy with his point of view. I would be unwise, however, to enter into what is clearly a degree of internecine warfare.

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Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab): Following on from the interesting, predictable and common-sense view expressed by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important in the public debate to draw the distinction between the management of the European Union—especially in the Commission—and the powers of its respective bodies? Would not we make a lot more progress towards reaching consensus in this House and in the Council of Ministers if that distinction were to become more clear-cut?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an entirely sensible point. As the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) has identified, it is hard to see how a sensible person could disagree to a number of the propositions, especially the notion of an enhanced role for national parliaments. Members on both sides of the House have long called for a proper degree of greater subsidiarity. At the moment, however, it appears that not everyone wishes to draw the kind of sensible distinction that my hon. Friend is making. I suspect that we may get closer to that as people get closer to having to try to draw conclusions.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) is out of step with the overwhelming majority of the people of the United Kingdom. Does she accept that the people of the United Kingdom do not trust the European Union and will not accept any further handover of powers to it without a referendum? I expect the Government to honour their commitment to the people of this country.

Margaret Beckett: I am slightly shocked to hear the hon. Gentleman say that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford is out of step with opinion, even in his own party, let alone the country, since, as he pointed out, much of what he said was simple common sense. I certainly accept that many people would be concerned if they felt that massive transfers of powers to the European Union were taking place—

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Not some—any.

Margaret Beckett: I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s concern, as I know the point of view that he has long expressed. I wonder, however, how he managed to contain himself during the passage of the Single European Act and the many steps taken by the Conservative party in government that did indeed hand over powers to the European Union.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that what we need now is not the waving of letters by Angela Merkel, as the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) has done, but a sensible and practical discussion with our European colleagues? Given that the constitution has been defeated in the referendums so far, such a discussion will allow us to proceed with the reform agenda so that a Europe of 27 can be governed in an efficient and effective way.

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Margaret Beckett: My right hon. Friend is entirely right. He will recall, as will many Members of the House, that we are committed by existing treaties to, for example, reconsider the numbers in the European Commission now that Romania and Bulgaria have joined the European Union. People are bound to consider whether sensible improvements can be made to the way in which Europe works, of a kind that have been made on several occasions in the past without a referendum having been held.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): It is obvious that two years in the deep freeze has done nothing to alter the flavour of this debate, in this place and elsewhere. Does the Foreign Secretary at least accept that we must have a proper public debate about the issues? Any significant changes, other than overdue institutional alterations, cannot be introduced by stealth. Will she publish the answers to the questionnaire that she has received? Will she set out clearly what parts of the existing constitutional treaty would have to be removed for the Government to believe that we had gone below the threshold at which a referendum would be required?

Margaret Beckett: As the hon. Gentleman and the House will appreciate, I am not intending to do so, as I have pointed out already that the opinion of member states has moved little hitherto. I am certainly not going to conduct, in public, negotiations that have yet to commence seriously. We have made it clear that there should not be anything that has the characteristics of a constitution. There would be merit, however, in having an amending treaty, which could tidy up some of the ways in which the European Union works— [Interruption.] Well, for example, we must consider the issue of the number of members of the Commission. There is also merit in considering whether the practical working and efficiency of the European Union can be improved in the interests of this country. We certainly have not the slightest intention of consenting to decisions that would not be in the interests of this country.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): If my memory is correct, it is 33 years since an incoming Labour Prime Minister received an electoral boost from announcing that there would be a referendum on the United Kingdom’s future in Europe. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that there is an historical parallel that might be beneficial to us? Would she urge such a course on the Chancellor, on my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), or on my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher)—whichever of them will lead our party in years to come?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right in saying that that was the only time when we had such a referendum. A Labour Government did indeed invite the British people to make that basic decision—which was not done by the previous Government, in breach of every undertaking that had been given. Nor did the Conservative party in office ever hold a referendum on any of the changes made to the European Union. That includes the introduction of qualified majority voting in the Single European Act and its extension to
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12 areas, and its extension to—I speak from memory—some 30 areas in the Maastricht treaty. The Conservative party did not believe in referendums then, and to be perfectly frank I do not believe that it really believes in them now.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): I think that the Foreign Secretary acknowledged receipt of a questionnaire from the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, which set out 12 propositions on how to proceed with the EU constitution by making presentational changes such as replacing the full text of the charter of fundamental rights with a short cross-reference having the same legal value. Will the right hon. Lady now publish the Government’s response, following cross-party support for that step? Does she understand that people will view these cosmetic changes as spin and deception while the EU constitution is introduced through the back door? Will she now match our unequivocal pledge that we would give the British people a referendum on any treaty that transferred powers from Britain to the EU, whether it was called a constitution or not?

Margaret Beckett: All I can say is that the British people would be very ill-advised to take the hon. Gentleman’s assurance any more seriously than they took the assurances that were given and broken in 1972.

No, I will not publish any response that we may make to the document that has been circulated, which I presume to be the document to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It was intended to give the German presidency an overall picture of the views of member states. The hon. Gentleman is leaping to a conclusion on what will be the outcome of the discussions in a way that is wholly unjustified by the facts.


2. Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): What her estimate is of the number of (a) people who have left Iraq since the invasion and (b) Iraqis who are internally displaced; and if she will make a statement. [134732]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I am sure that the House will join me in expressing condolences to the family of Rifleman Paul Donnachie of 2nd Battalion The Rifles, who was tragically killed in Iraq last Sunday. Rifleman Donnachie was killed by small arms fire during a routine patrol in Basra city while he and other members of his patrol were escorting a police training team.

United Nations agencies estimate that there are some 1.9 million Iraqis displaced internally, and up to 2 million refugees in neighbouring states. Many of those now in neighbouring states left Iraq before 2003, and there are no accurate figures on how many have joined them since then. However, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that currently 10,000 people are leaving their homes every week, many of them crossing into neighbouring countries.

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Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Does the Minister agree that the almost 2 million refugees who have fled Iraq since the war are, to a large extent, members of the professional and business classes in Iraq—the very people who are required if Iraq is ever to enjoy proper civil reconstruction? Given that nearly 2 million have fled as refugees, that a further 2 million are internally displaced and that hundreds of thousands have been either killed or injured—including, sadly, further British soldiers—does the Minister still argue that the British Government’s policy has contributed to progress and stability in the region? Has not Iraq in fact been transformed from a rogue state under Saddam Hussein to a failed state, with appalling consequences for its own people and for the region as a whole?

Dr. Howells: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes some very good points, but I remind him that, before the invasion, Iraq was run by a fascist dictator who tortured people readily and murdered hundreds of thousands of people, not just Kurds but fellow Arabs, and that many people had already left the country. This is not a comment on the right hon. and learned Gentleman or his question, but it seems to me that the silence that existed before the invasion of Iraq about the behaviour of Saddam Hussein is in stark contrast to the sudden interest and the protests about Iraq now.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): It is two years since the Iraqi Government seized the assets of the Iraqi trade unions, three months since three raids were carried out on the offices of the trade unions by US troops and a month since the leader of the mechanics union in Iraq was assassinated after being tortured. Will the Minister agree to meet me and representatives of the trade unions in Iraq to try to find a way forward, because at the moment our policy towards the trade unions in Iraq is not working?

Dr. Howells: I disagree with my hon. Friend. Our policy towards trade unions has been very supportive because they are a key part of civil society and are building the new society in Iraq. We must ensure that the sectarians who are killing trade unionists and those who for their own reasons are opposing democratic trade unionism in Iraq, are opposed. They are opposed regularly by the British Government and by our diplomats in Iraq.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Does the Minister agree that there has been excellent progress socially, economically and politically in the other Iraq—Iraqi Kurdistan? Does he also agree that, in order to maintain that progress and to guarantee the stability of populations and the return of internally displaced persons, the Kirkuk referendum must go forward later this year, without any interference, either internal or external, or delay?

Dr. Howells: The British Government certainly have no intention of interfering in any way in the referendum on the future of Kirkuk. I know that the hon. Gentleman is very interested in the Kurdish-administered part of Iraq and that he wants the referendum to go ahead. So do the British Government, but we want to ensure that that
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referendum is carried out properly and in a clear fashion, and that it is as inclusive as possible. As he knows, many allegations have been made about gerrymandering and the rest of it, so the referendum has to be seen to be as clean as possible. This is potentially a volatile area and we have already seen some jihadists and insurrectionists moving out of Baghdad to Kirkuk and murdering people with their suicide bombers. It is an important issue. We will do all that we can to ensure that the referendum is properly conducted and benefits the people of the Kurdish north and the people of Iraq in general.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the information that has been sought by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) is exactly the propaganda information that the insurgents in Iraq are seeking? Will my hon. Friend confirm that those killed or displaced in Iraq are not being killed or displaced by allied forces?

Dr. Howells: That is an important point. Sometimes it seems as if we are killing those tens of thousands of people. They are being killed by sectarians: there are Sunni on Shi’a murders, and Shi’a on Sunni murders. Sometimes the murders are committed in Basra by criminal gangs, who are making millions out of smuggling petroleum products. My hon. Friend is right to highlight that. The British armed forces in Iraq are trying their best to make that country a much more stable and prosperous place than it is now. I believe that they will succeed when the Iraqis themselves have the will to take on that fight to provide the security that their people need. That is why we are helping, in very difficult circumstances, to train Iraqi policemen and soldiers.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Following on from what has been said about the tens of thousands of people who are now leaving Iraq and the internal conflict there, what prospect does the Minister think there is of the Iraqi Government hanging together in the near future given the enormous strains that are now on both Sunni and Shi’a members of that Government? What pressure can the British Government bring to bear on the Iraqi Government to take this matter forward? If it is not taken forward, there will be a complete collapse of political credibility in Iraq.

Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman is right: this is about political credibility and national reconciliation, and about how that Government can become more inclusive—how they can represent not only Shi’as but Sunnis, and also Assyrian Christians, Kurds and everyone else who makes up that huge nation. I believe that that can be done. In the constitutional review that is under way in Iraq there will have to be imaginative thinking about, perhaps, forms of devolution and about trying to understand how it might be possible to reconcile the different pressures that there are in Iraq at present. That can be done, and in recent weeks Prime Minister Maliki has expressed a desire to do just that—to make the Iraqi Government a more inclusive Government who reach out to encompass all parts of society.

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