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My second point concerns the upcoming European Council meeting on 21 and 22 June. Sadly, it will be the farewell European summit meeting of our Prime Minister. He has taken the lead on a number of key European issues, especially enlargement. I hope that the final summit will provide an opportunity for us to talk about the reform agenda now that the EU constitution has been defeated in a number of referendums. I know that the German Chancellor,
Angela Merkel, is keen on pushing the idea of a new constitution. The Government have rightly said that now is not the time to discuss that because the issue has been dealt with. That leaves the issue of reform. We cannot proceed with a Europe of 27 countrieswhich we now haveand with the possibility of constructive negotiations with Balkan countries about getting them into the European Union if we do not reform how the EU operates. I hope that at the Berlin summit we will have a short statement of aims and values, as well as a practical assessment of how we might continue reforming the EU.
Last night I had the pleasure of meeting again the Prime Minister of Belgium, Mr. Verhofstadt, whom I first met when I was Minister for Europe. I recall his pivotal role at the Nice summit in 2000, when he spent some of the time locked in a kitchen adjacent to the summit room, trying to negotiate how many votes Belgium should have in the new treaty that was to be entered into as a result of the arrival of all the eastern European countries. His view of the constitution was different from ours. He thinksand he said this to me yesterdaythat we should return to a longer document. That is certainly the view in other parts of the EU, but the position he set out is the right one. The constitution is dead, let us move on and continue with the reform agenda, because that is what will drive the EU forward.
My final pointit is appropriate to comment today as the report has just been publishedis about the way in which Channel 4 dealt with the Big Brother programme. I raised the issue in business questions and, as usual, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was spot on in dealing with that question. What I most admire about my right hon. Friend is the way in which he responds so eloquently and quickly to the key issues in the public domain. In particular, no member of the Cabinet is better at championing and expressing the concerns of the ethnic communities than he is. He was right to suggest to the Channel 4 board that it should consider the contents of the report very carefully.
I remind the House that 46,000 citizens complained about the programme. At the time that the complaints were made, the chief executive of Channel 4, Andy Duncan, appeared at the Oxford media conference and ducked the issue. He refused to apologise for the hurt that had been caused by the comments that had been made to Shilpa Shetty. Worse, he did not take the opportunity to condemn racism on television. The arrogant, complacent attitude from Channel 4 was rightly condemned today in the Ofcom report, which found that there had been serious breaches of the code. Ofcom has decided that Channel 4 is to make an unprecedented apology before the next series of Big Brother starts next week.
What concerns me is the reaction of Channel 4 to that serious and important adjudication by the regulator. First, it has made no apology to the victim, Shilpa Shetty. Secondly, there have been no resignations by anyone associated with the programme or the company, even though someone clearly should resign, whether it be Mr. Duncan or the editor who knew what was being broadcast. One simply cannot pursue the matter as they have and assume that nothing went wrong.
The third issue that Channel 4 has not addressed is the need to bring forward the untransmitted feed from the house that it originally said could not be found. The regulator subsequently discovered that it was indeed in the possession of Endemol, but it was not shown to the regulator. Nobody here has seen that untransmitted material, but if it were looked at by the broadcasters it would give an impression of what they saw at the time.
The report has important implications, not only for the way in which we discuss such issues, but for the way in which reality television should be broadcast in the future. Channel 4 has said that it is a good thing to discuss racism on television, and I wholeheartedly agree, but the debate has to be equal: I, for example, must have an opportunity to put my views across and those who disagree with me must also have that opportunity. In that programme, one minority view was displayed to millions of people in this country and throughout the world, and no alternative view was put forward. I hope that lessons will be learned, although judging from Channel 4s reaction, I do not think that they will be. However, Channel 4s board has to consider the matter, and I hope that it does so very carefully. It will make a great difference to how we conduct ourselves in future.
Channel 4 knew about the matter and continued to broadcast. It pushed up its ratings and made considerable profits out of the programmeprobably 10 per cent. of Channel 4s entire revenue comes from that programme. It is important that even greater consideration is taken of these issues, and we should be told what happened to all those profits.
Mr. Evans: I know that the right hon. Gentleman has campaigned vigorously on this issue and I hear what he says about Channel 4s failure fully to apologise for what went on in the programme. I am not a fan of the programmeI know that the right hon. Gentleman isbut the one thing that we can all applaud is the fact that its sponsor looked at the public reaction and decided to withdraw immediately, so Channel 4 has at least been hit in the pocket for allowing the programme to be transmitted. Is there not a lesson for all broadcasters that the public are so opposed to racism in any shape or form that they will not tolerate its being broadcast, even in the likes of reality television?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to pinpoint the role of the sponsors, The Carphone Warehouse and PepsiCo. One withdrew advertising, and the other sponsorship, so there was responsibility on their part. He is right, too, to highlight the fact that broadcasters have a serious responsibility. We do not all have our own television stationsI am sorry that we do not. Broadcasters therefore have great power. This issue damaged our relations with other countries. What was good about it, however, was the reaction of the public, and not just the 46,000 people who complained, who have now been vindicated by what Ofcom has said. Hats off to Ofcom for the excellent and speedy way in which it conducted its inquiry before the next Big Brother begins next week. Hats off, too, to Shilpa Shetty, for the very dignified way in which she has
conducted herself, although she has been a victim throughout these proceedings.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): It is always good to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). I intervened on him on one issue so I will not return to that. However, he also mentioned the EU treaty, and I want to pick up on that.
Irrespective of what is now being discussed behind closed doorswe know what the French and Dutch said about the original EU constitutionthe fact is that the British people were offered a referendum on the issue. We do not know what will come about. We know that Angela Merkel wants to push on with the constitution, and we know that Nicolas Sarkozy, whom we congratulate on his presidency, agrees with her and wants some form of constitutional treaty. What is in a name? A number of the issues included in the original EU constitution will be introduced in the constitutional treaty through the back door.
Our current Prime MinisterPrime Minister A, as I refer to himhas said that the British people are to be denied a referendum. I hope that Prime Minister B, when he takes over, will not listen to him. Prime Minister B ought to be negotiating the constitutional treaty, because he is the one who will have to pick up the tab. He ought to let Prime Minister A know that if he, Prime Minister B, is not happy with what is suggested, he will not accept it as a fait accompli but will allow the British people that referendum. There is a health warning for the current Prime Minister.
Keith Vaz: We disagree on some issues, but I think that we agree that, after the referendums in France and other countries, the constitution has gone. Surely, however, the hon. Gentleman agrees that the EU still has to reform. We simply cannot have a situation in which 27 Heads of Government sit down together at a summit and each wants to make statement. There must be reform of the decision-making process, which does not necessarily mean that we need a treaty change.
I think that we are talking about fundamental changes as far as the constitution is concerned. I agree that change is needed, as we have made dramatic progress since the days when there were 12 or 15 countries. There are now 27 countries, and Croatia is waiting in the wings, along with other Balkan states, as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. There is even the possibility of Turkey acceding to the European Union, so it is a different animal from what it was a few years ago. Of course, procedural changes must be made to the way in which the organisation works, but finally it comes down to the sovereignty not just of Parliament but of the British people, who should decide whether they are happy with those changes. It is not something that should be cobbled together behind doors. If they are common-sense measures, the common-sense population in this country will endorse them. However, if things are being pushed through the back door in an underhand waybehind the smokescreen of trying to make
things better, huge chunks of sovereignty are being transferred from sovereign Parliaments to the EUthe British people should decide if that is the way they wish to go.
I shall talk briefly about three other issues. The first is related to my last point, as it concerns efforts to preserve our way of life in rural villages and communities. The issue of post offices is relevant, but the subject that I want to address does not relate to the recent announcement of 2,500 post office closures, because my views on that and the huge impact it will have on the rural way of life are well known. BT has announced that it wishes to give discounts to people with direct debits, whereas people who pay by cash or cheque at the post office will be penalised. That is a fact of life. People will receive a lower bill or money off as long as they set up a direct debit. That does nothing to help to preserve the fabric or network of post offices, so I hope that BT and all the other utilities will look at their responsibility to do more to help the one shop left in villages and small towns have a future. On some utility bills people have to look very hard to discover that they can pay in the post office. One has to be Inspector Clouseau to find any mention at all of the post office on those bills, so I hope that the utilities will not only stop charging people who use the post office some sort of fine, but make it plain that they support the network of British rural and urban post offices by making it far clearer that people can pay their utility bills in post offices.
Secondly, I must declare an interest as the owner of a small retail store in Swansea before addressing the amount of shoplifting that goes on. The British Retail Consortium has lobbied strongly for the retention of custodial sentences for repeat offenders. It says:
Ninety per cent. of shoplifting offences are carried out by repeat offenders...Crime costs shops more than £2 billion each year and the number of shoplifting offences has risen by 70 per cent. since 2000.
Taking a soft line against people who repeatedly go into retail outlets and shoplift must not be tolerated. The crime has cost retailers more than £13 billion since 2000as I said, the number of offences has risen by 70 per cent.and, importantly, the BRC says:
Sixty per cent. of violent incidents that happen in stores occur when staff attempt to detain criminals or protect property from theft.
As Members may remember, when I was working at the convenience store on Christmas eve several years ago, I detained someone trying to shoplift a crate of beer and he turned violent on me. The vast majority of workers in retail outlets tend to be female these days, and the last thing they want is to confront violence from someone high on drugs or inebriated. I hope the Government will accept that there can be no soft line on retail crime.
Finally, I want to speak about agriculture, which is vital to my constituency, as it is to others, including that of my neighbour, the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). Farming is like any other business and if farmers produce a product that does not make money, and costs more to produce than to sell, their business will not last long.
In Ribble Valley last Friday, I chaired a debate on the future of British farming on behalf of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Many issues were raised, but
one that was raised time and again by farmers and others was food security. It is amazing how little regard is paid to food security. Most people are used to a plentiful supply of food. Under the old EU, there were food mountains and everybody was disgruntled at the huge costs of maintaining them. Nowadays, however, when we go to supermarkets we are disgruntled not only about the extra packaging but about the origins of some of the produce.
The food miles that accumulate on products are a cause for concern. Although imports help farmers who live many thousands of miles away, they do not help local farmers in areas such as Ribble Valley. Recently, there has been a reduction of food miles for organic products sold in supermarkets, but the rate is not as good as it could be. The Soil Associations latest figures, for 2006, show a marked improvement. Waitrose and Marks and Spencer source 89 per cent. of their organic products from the UK. Tesco has improved dramaticallythe rate has gone up to 78 per cent., while Asdas rate is 69 per cent. Although the improvements are welcome, why cannot all supermarkets at least do as well as Waitrose? If supermarkets source their foods locally, it gives a huge boost to farmers.
One of the speakers at the conference was Chris Dee, head of purchasing for Booths, one of our regional supermarkets, a community spirited, family-owned chain. He said that at least 75 per cent. of the fresh meat and 42 per cent. of the bread products in Booths stores are sourced from Cumbria, Lancashire, Cheshire or Yorkshire, which is where the stores are located. There is a proper link between the supermarkets and local growers, which is extremely important, but not all supermarkets appear to think in a similar vein.
I suspect that some consumers are quite happy that the price of some products has barely changed for 20 years, but that situation cannot continue in the long term. If their salaries had not improved in real terms for 20 years, those consumers would be very angry. They have received real increases in their salaries over the past 20 yearsfarmers have not; indeed, the incomes of some farmers, in particular dairy producers, have actually gone down. We shall not encourage new entrants to farming if they see no future in the industry and no income for their families. If we want new entrants, we have to ensure that they a have worthwhile job to do. Many people from towns and cities come into rural areas and marvel at how wonderful it all looks. That is only because there are working farms in those areas. It does not happen by accident.
in some cases dairy farmers are being paid between 16 and 17 pence per litre, a sum which is totally unsustainable if dairy farming is to have a future in this country.
Chorley neighbours my constituency as well, and the hon. Gentleman has many dairy farms in his constituency, as do I. Booths sources much of its milk locally and has got the producers to form a consortium, Bowland Milk. Booths has shown that as a result of proper marketing and brand recognition, people are prepared to pay a little more for that milk, in the knowledge that more is going to the farmer as well.
Not only has Booths share of liquid milk sales gone up by 10 per cent., but the premium to farmers has increased dramatically by 15 to 20 per cent. I hope that we can look again at how we can assist farmers.
In the Budget there was reference to 4x4 vehicles and the increase in the tax on them. I state again that although in Sloane square they are Chelsea tractors, they are working farming vehicles on the farms in and around the Ribble Valley, so I hope we can give some support to farmers who find it essential to have those vehicles on their farms.
As the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) said, these debates are always a good opportunity for us to range far and wide, and to speak on matters that have been pent up in us for many weeks, without the straitjacket of a formal debate on a specific subject. I always find these recess debates useful. I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you get a good weeks rest before we come back early in June to carry on in the last few weeks of the current Prime Ministers reign.
I would be interested if the Minister could say something about what we can expect over the next few weeks and after 27 June, and how much, if any, taxpayers money will be involved if the posts of Deputy Prime Minister and deputy leader of the Labour party are divided. As someone who wants good value for the British taxpayer, the Minister will no doubt want to ensure that if the two jobs are split not a penny goes to the deputy leader of the Labour party and we get better value from the new deputy Prime Minister.
I shall speak briefly and pick up one or two of the points made by my friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) in a thoughtful speech. He spoke about the reorganisation of the Home Office and the creation of the Ministry of Justice, and reminded us that he is a member of the Constitutional Affairs Committee and also a member of the Sub-Committee that has been set up to look at the courts [Interruption.]forgive me, Chair of the Sub-Committee that will keep an eye on things. He told us that there would be an inquiry into how the independence of the judiciary can be protected. That is what I jotted down.
I thank my friend for clarifying that. What a state of affairs, that the judiciary should be compelled to ask for such a thing after the creation of a new Ministry, the Ministry of Justice. The judges were not consulted at all. They were completely sidelined. It was a disgrace that the Lord Chief Justice found out about the proposals from the pages of The Sunday Telegraph. What on earth was going through the minds of the people who took that decision, that made them think they could split the Home Office, create a
Ministry of Justice, but not tell the judiciary? Being macho is not mucho. They should have talked to the judges.
My friend the Member for Leicester, East has talked about the fact that we do not have a written constitution. We are virtually the only Parliament among the so-called mature democracies that gives Ministers huge, untrammelled powers completely unstrained by a written constitution.
I speak as a loyal Labour Member of Parliament who always supports the Government when they are right but who can be a bit critical when they lose their way. When proposals that are cavalier, that have not been thought through and that are capricious are introduced, it is as well that Government Members speak out rather than leaving it to the Opposition. It was not only the current Lord Chief Justice who said that what happened wasthis is my word, not hisscandalous, but the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, who said that the proposals
raised concerns about our liberty.
We should work it out beforehand and not wait until we have created the change and then somehow or other try to scramble to get it into place.
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