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Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): I shall vote for the treaty, which I think is a perfectly sensible and balanced response to enlargement. But if there is one person who could make me change my mind, it is the Prime Minister with his clumsy, ill-judged and surly performance in Lisbon towards the European Union
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as a whole. Does he not realise that a Prime Minister who cannot even decide which gallery he is playing to merely incurs the enmity of the Eurosceptics, the contempt of the pro-Europeans and the bafflement of almost everybody else?

The Prime Minister: It is the British Government who led the way to the globalisation declaration that happened on Friday; it is we who are pushing the global agenda on Europe; it is we who are saying that we must forward that agenda because it is in the interests of all the countries of Europe to have a more global perspective; and, of course on the environment, we are pushing ahead with other countries in Europe. We are playing our full part in Europe and will continue to do so.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Was there any discussion last week of EU relations with Russia? It seems clear that the recent elections to the Duma were wholly unfair and far from free; there is systematic use of torture throughout the criminal justice system in Russia; every single independent television network has been closed down; and now the British Council offices outside Moscow in Russia will be closed as well. Is it not time that Europe spoke clearly and with one voice to make sure that Russia does not again become a totalitarian state?

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend about what has happened to the British Council offices. It is completely unacceptable, and in our view the treatment meted out to people doing a good job both in Russia and to promote global understanding is illegal. We believe that it is not only unjustifiable, but should cease. I hope that there will be a statement from the presidency of the European Union on these matters, because the voice of 27 members of the EU against what is happening is better than the voice of simply one. I believe that all members of the EU are appalled by the behaviour of Russia in this regard.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): The Prime Minister mentioned competitiveness, and he will be aware that the British labour market is under threat from measures opposed by the Government on temporary workers and changes to the working time directive. However, is he aware that the new so-called reform treaty mandates new and additional measures in harmonising employment practices across Europe? Is he aware of those articles and can he tell the House whether he read all 257 pages of the treaty before he signed it?

The Prime Minister: If the right hon. Gentleman is referring to the charter, it does not affect employment law. I see nothing in the treaty that justifies the assertions that he is putting forward. I have to remind him that he was the deputy Chief Whip when the Maastricht Bill was going through the House of Commons under a Conservative Government.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Can the Prime Minister confirm that the treaty of Maastricht—the biggest sharing of power with our European partners—was signed by the most junior Foreign Office Minister on
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the Tory payroll at the time? So all this froth is just that. May I say how much I disagreed with the Prime Minister when he said in his reply to the Leader of the Opposition that he hoped that the Conservative party would start to become sensible and engaged on Europe? I want the Conservatives to stay exactly where they are, because then they will never be elected to power. In his statement, he said, that now

That is the European Union—utterly opposed to the isolationism of the Conservative party.

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Conservative party refused to answer the single most important question that it has to address: is it in favour of a referendum after ratification or not? Some 47 Conservative Members of Parliament have signed a motion calling for it. Two shadow Ministers have called for it. The shadow Foreign Secretary wants it. What is the position of the Conservative party? Unless the Conservatives can tell us, everything else is froth and has no substance at all.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): I welcome the eventual UK signature on the draft treaty, however clumsily we got there, but does the Prime Minister acknowledge that, as we move into ratification scrutiny here, it is not just going to be a matter of winning votes in Parliament? Those of us who support the treaty and Britain’s future in Europe are going to have to start winning the argument in the country. Towards that end, may I make the following plea to him, and through him, to all his Ministers? They are not going to persuade the British public about the long-term merits of Europe by using Eurosceptical language to justify the treaty they have just signed. The Prime Minister was at it again this afternoon, saying, “We have safeguarded this,” “We have defended that,” and, “We have seen off the following.” Why does he not say, “The status quo that we have today, and what we have just put our names to as a country on your behalf, is an improvement”? That is what he believes—is it not?

The Prime Minister: It is what I said: the co-operation across Europe on the environment, security and the economy, and what we decided at the Council, are to the benefit of not just this country but the whole world, and we should push forward with them. But it is also right for me to point out the inaccuracies in the statements that have been made from the Opposition Benches about what the amending treaty tries to achieve. As far as the charter of rights is concerned, it is not justiciable in British law. As far as foreign policy is concerned, it is still intergovernmental. As far as justice and home affairs are concerned, we have an opt-in and, in certain circumstances, an opt-out. As far as national security is concerned, it is not considered in the amending treaty. On social security, we have an emergency brake. It is right that we point out, against those who allege the opposite, what is happening. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there should be a campaign in the country to show people the benefits of the amending treaty and membership of the European Union, and we will work together on that.

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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): The Prime Minister mentioned that there had been discussions about relations with Turkey during the Council meeting. What concerns were expressed about the rights of Kurdish people in south-east Turkey, the growing militarisation of that part of the country and the incursions by Turkish forces into Iraq at present? What meetings are being sought with the Turkish Government to try to reduce tensions and bring about peace and cultural respect in that area?

The Prime Minister: While Turkey was not discussed in detail at the Council, it was the subject of discussion at previous Councils. I can assure my hon. Friend that it is a modern, reforming Turkey that we wish to be part of the discussions to join the European Union, and I hope that he would support me in that.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I wonder whether the Prime Minister can assist me. Where do I find the basis for his claimed mandate not only to sign the European treaty last Thursday, but to seek ratification from this Parliament without the consent of the British people? I revisited his manifesto from the last election and I cannot find any trace of such a mandate being sought. Have I missed something?

The Prime Minister: I should remind the Opposition that, in the case of the old treaty, which was rejected, nine countries proposed to have a referendum. Only one now proposes to have a referendum: Ireland. The reason why the Dutch, the Danish, the French and others have rejected a referendum is that the constitutional concept was abandoned.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Do not the gathering storm in Kosovo and its possible implications for our stretched armed services mean that there is an even more urgent reason to re-examine not our general commitment in Afghanistan, but the particular commitment in Helmand province, which is failing to meet all its original objectives, at a grievous cost in human lives?

The Prime Minister: I do not accept what my hon. Friend says. Last week, I made it absolutely clear that the process in which we are involved in Afghanistan is one of moving towards greater Afghan control of security by building up Afghanistan’s military and policing forces, and having a programme of economic, social and political development that can benefit the Afghan people. I believe that there is wide support for that among the coalition. Yes, it is true that the purpose of being in Afghanistan was to remove the Taliban and to prevent al-Qaeda from getting control. However, it is also true that now that Afghanistan is a democracy, we must bolster it and help its economic, social and political development.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): In relation to the European treaty, the Prime Minister referred to legally binding protocols. Given that there is a growing political view in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales that the people of those parts of the UK should be able to express a view on the treaty through a referendum, will he ensure that all the people of all the United Kingdom can cast their vote on this issue in a referendum?

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The Prime Minister: The United Kingdom Government sign treaties on behalf of the United Kingdom and I believe that that is the right course of action. I have answered the point about a referendum. The constitutional concept was abandoned, and no country except Ireland is having a referendum. Having won in the negotiations the red lines that we suggested were necessary, there is no reason why we need a referendum, because there is no fundamental constitutional change.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): May I welcome the decisions of the Council, as expressed in paragraph 27 of the conclusions, concerning police and judicial co-operation? Is the Prime Minister content with the timetable for the full establishment of Europol, which will be in June 2008? What steps does he propose to take with our EU partners to ensure that we work with them in the fight against terrorism?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend, as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, will agree that when there is crime and a need for judicial co-operation across borders, that is the right thing to do—it is what the treaty is about. In these areas we have opt-ins and, in some cases, opt-outs.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): If the Prime Minister, not having offered the House a vote on the treaty before he signed it, finds that either the Lords or Commons votes to amend any part of the implementing legislation, what will he do?

The Prime Minister: I remember that the right hon. Gentleman expressed exactly the same fears when he said that the Amsterdam treaty would abolish Britain. Britain is still here.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Although I disagree with the Prime Minister’s decision not to give the people a referendum, I congratulate him on his principled stand of staying away from the summit with Africa. In his discussions with European leaders at the margins of the Council, did any of them profess, even secretly, that they felt that their judgment in allowing Mugabe to be there was wrong? Did he get any movement on his desire to have an EU envoy sent to Zimbabwe?

The Prime Minister: The important thing is that a message is sent to Mugabe and his supporters that the whole European Union is against the abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe and the damage that is being inflicted on that country, when there are 4 million refugees in South Africa, when 80 per cent. of the population is in poverty, when inflation is running into thousands of per cent., and when there is real suffering. I believe that there is a common view across Europe that we should support the people of Zimbabwe. If there is a move towards human and democratic rights in that country and a change of Government there, I believe that the whole European Union will join us in helping the reconstruction activities of the people of Zimbabwe.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): As the Prime Minister has once again promised full debate on the treaty in Parliament, will he promise the House that there will be no timetable, and that if Parliament amends the treaty, he will listen?

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The Prime Minister: That is a matter for the usual channels in the House. Many days will be allocated to the debate on this important amending treaty.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Is the Prime Minister in favour of a common defence? If not, is it advisable to sign up to a process leading to it?

The Prime Minister: The role of NATO, and the importance that we attach to NATO, is safeguarded in the decisions that were made in discussions on the amending treaty. Whatever co-operation takes place within Europe is in the context of the important role of NATO.

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HMRC Data Loss

4.24 pm

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Alistair Darling): With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the progress report by Kieran Poynter, chairman and senior partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers, on the loss of child benefit records at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Before I turn to that, I can confirm that the police investigation continues, and although the searches are drawing to a close, their inquiry is not yet complete. However, the police have reiterated that they have no information or intelligence that the data have fallen into the wrong hands. They will keep that under review. The banks, too, say that they have found no evidence of any activities suggesting fraud arising from the incident, but they continue to monitor closely the accounts concerned, so they can see immediately if there is any unusual or irregular activity. As I told the House previously, the majority of accounts into which child benefit is paid are with a small number of banks, and those banks have checked the accounts back to 18 October—the date on which the missing data were posted. There are no reports of any activities suggesting increased fraud attempts deriving from the incident.

I deliberately gave Mr. Poynter wide-ranging terms of reference because of the seriousness of the loss and my concern about previous losses of data, to which I referred in my statement on 20 November. Mr. Poynter started his review on 23 November, just three weeks ago, and as he says, his work is far from complete and his conclusions will develop as his work progresses. Inevitably, therefore, the report is short, but I said last month that I would return to the House when it became available. A copy has been placed in the Vote Office in the usual way.

Kieran Poynter sets out the work that he has put in hand. He says that he has given priority to the immediate steps that Revenue and Customs must take to protect data security. It has already put in place a number of measures. Mr. Poynter says that they are measures that he would have recommended, and they are set out in his report. Mr. Dave Hartnett, the acting head of Revenue and Customs, said to the Treasury Committee on 5 December that the measures include the imposition of a complete ban on the transfer of bulk data without adequate security protection, such as encryption, as well as measures to prevent the downloading of data without adequate security safeguards. In addition, Revenue and Customs disabled all the personal and laptop computers it uses to prevent the downloading of data on to removable media; they will be reactivated only with the approval of a senior manager, and for a specific business-critical purpose.

Mr. Poynter has also started his investigation into exactly what happened in relation to the loss, but he makes the point that there are more inquiries to be made and more interviews to be carried out, and there is to be greater examination of the evidence available. As he says, it would be wholly inappropriate for him to draw final conclusions until his work is completed.

Mr. Poynter also draws attention to the responsibilities and accountability in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs generally. Those issues are also referred to in the capability review of Revenue and Customs, carried out by an
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independent panel overseen by the Cabinet Secretary. The House will be aware that the review was commissioned as part of a general review of the strengths and weaknesses of all Government Departments, and was announced in July 2006. The review of Revenue and Customs is published today, along with the Treasury’s review, and updates for four Departments. I am also publishing Revenue and Customs’ autumn performance report.

The capability review identifies a number of important strengths of Revenue and Customs, including a proven ability to bring in money to fund public services while driving down its own costs and delivering greater efficiency. It refers to committed people with honesty and integrity, and with a clear desire to transform and improve. The review also highlights a number of areas where improvements are needed; it mentions the need to set up a simpler structure, the need for clearer accountability, and the need to improve confidence and strengthen management information. The acting chairman agrees, and is announcing proposals to put in place a simpler organisational structure with clearer accountabilities. As Mr. Poynter says, that will make it easier to implement recommendations on data security as his review progresses.

I said in my statement that the Prime Minister had asked the Cabinet Secretary to ensure that every Government Department checked its procedures for the storage and use of data, and to make recommendations on how to improve data handling procedures across government. His interim report is also published today, alongside a written ministerial statement by the Minister for the Cabinet Office. The Prime Minister has already announced that the Information Commissioner will have the power to conduct spot-checks on departments. There will also be new sanctions under the Data Protection Act 1998 for the most serious breaches of its principles. These will take account of the need not only to provide high levels of data security, but to ensure that sensible data-sharing practices can be conducted with legal certainty. We will consult early in the new year on how this can best be done. There is also a range of other measures, which are set out in the report.

Revenue and Customs, and before that the Inland Revenue and HM Customs and Excise, have served successive Governments well. Their staff are dedicated and hard-working. However, the loss of these data was extremely serious and should not have happened, and again, I apologise to everyone who has been affected. As I told the House in November, the loss of these data, together with losses in previous incidents, means that a wide-ranging review was necessary so that lessons could be learned, procedures tightened and security improved. Mr. Poynter tells me that he expects to conclude his work in the first half of next year, and I shall report back to the House when I have his final report. I commend this statement to the House.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): First, I want to reiterate to the Chancellor the sense of anger and betrayal felt by millions of people at the loss of their children’s data and their own data.

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