Previous Section Index Home Page

The Foreign Secretary had clearly not read the excellent briefing note prepared by BOND—British Overseas NGOs for Development—on the treaty. In precise and measured terms, it sets out both the things that the NGO community supports in the treaty and those that it opposes. Such disingenuous manoeuvres by the Government do not reflect well on them. Indeed, a representative of a leading NGO called my office the day after the Foreign Secretary made his misleading claim to clarify the fact that that NGO did not have a position on whether the treaty as a whole should be ratified or whether there should be a referendum. Today, a group of NGOs, including Oxfam and Christian Aid, have written an open letter, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said, distancing themselves from the Government’s claims that the NGOs back the treaty.

Mr. Douglas Alexander: In the interests of clarity, and in the light of the observation by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) that we are, indeed, a collective Government, may I draw the attention of the House to the letter that was sent to my colleague, the Minister for Europe, on 18 November 2007, signed by Charlotte Imbert, the general secretary of BOND, which stated:

25 Feb 2008 : Column 785

I am not sure whether that clarifies the views of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell).

Mr. Mitchell: It certainly does not. The right hon. Gentleman is quoting selectively from a document. If he looked at the early-day motions, and followed what I said carefully, he would know that the suggestion was that the Foreign Secretary misrepresented the views of BOND and others. That is absolutely clear from the early-day motions.

Hugh Bayley: The hon. Gentleman mentioned parts of a BOND paper with which he agreed. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman, who speaks for the Conservative party, mentioned the more sceptical parts with which he agreed. Does he agree with the parts of the paper that the Secretary of State has just quoted, or is he picking selectively from that BOND paper?

Mr. Mitchell: The hon. Gentleman has just undermined the Secretary of State’s statement, by accepting that the BOND paper was a carefully nuanced examination of the treaty—both good and bad points. The point that I am making is that the Foreign Secretary said clearly—I quoted him directly—that BOND and the NGOs were in favour of the treaty. That is not the case, as is apparent if one reads the whole letter.

Hugh Bayley: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he agrees with everything that BOND states, or does he agree only with parts of the paper?

Mr. Mitchell: There is much in the letter that BOND issued, as I said, and much more with which I agree, but I will not give a careful dialectic for every word in the document.

The Foreign Secretary’s misrepresentation of the NGOs’ position is worrying for two reasons. First—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I get a little uneasy when words such as “misrepresentation” and “mislead” are brought into debate. I know that there is probably the inaudible qualification “inadvertent”, “mistaken” and so on, but we are starting to get into difficult territory when those words are used. I urge caution on the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Mitchell: Thank you for keeping me on the straight and narrow, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

First, the representations of the NGOs’ position by the Foreign Secretary show that he has not examined closely the many concerns that they have raised about the treaty with regard to international development. I am sure that Ministers are aware of those concerns, and I hope that they will urgently meet the Foreign Secretary to raise them. Secondly, they show yet again
25 Feb 2008 : Column 786
that the Government are willing to indulge in deceitful arguments to promote the treaty. This comes as no surprise—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It is unacceptable to pursue that when I have given a ruling. There is no direct accusation against a person. That is one thing, but the very fact that such words are used creates a sense of unease. Our debate should be above that level.

Mr. Mitchell: The Government’s approach comes as no surprise, given their determination to force through the treaty, which brings about major constitutional changes, without adequate scrutiny and without letting the British people have their say.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, my Birmingham colleague. I will not ask him to go as far as my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) did when he asked whether the hon. Gentleman agreed with every word from BOND. However, does he agree with this aspect of what BOND said:

Does he agree with BOND at least on that point?

Mr. Mitchell: The implementation of the treaty could be an opportunity, but it is not the only opportunity, as I shall explain.

The hon. Gentleman’s intervention gives me the opportunity to say that I have been truly shocked by the menacing bullying tactics used by the Government Whips Office to cajole and intimidate their Back Benchers into the pro-Government Lobby. Some particularly appalling reports have been carried in the excellent newspaper, The Birmingham Post, which this week celebrates its 150th anniversary as Birmingham’s leading newspaper.

Mr. Douglas Alexander: For clarity, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he was a Whip in the Conservative Government during the passage of the Maastricht Bill?

Mr. Mitchell: I certainly give the Secretary of State that confirmation.

Mr. Cash: May I assure my hon. Friend—this is meant to be helpful—that nothing that he or any of the other Whips said made the slightest difference, unlike in the present case, to anything that we thought, said or did. It was done for the best of reasons, and as the speech that he is developing demonstrates, we did what we did, and others have subsequently found that that was the right thing to do.

Mr. Mitchell: There have been numerous reports of Labour Members returning from their constituencies after a weekend of having their backbone stiffened by constituents understandably trying to persuade them to honour their election manifesto promises, on which they were elected, to hold a referendum, only to have
25 Feb 2008 : Column 787
those early sparks of integrity and independence snuffed out by the brute force of the Government Whips Office. Indeed, such is the terror induced by the Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), that it is said that younger members of the Labour party fear to walk past the door to his office, in much the same way as Russian citizens during the Stalinist era would avoid walking past the doorway to the KGB prison and torture chamber on Lubyanka street in Moscow.

Mr. Alexander: Does the hon. Gentleman think it reasonable or appropriate to consider KGB torture chambers with the conduct of Members of this House? I respectfully ask him to consider his remarks carefully; hopefully, he will have the wisdom to withdraw them.

Mr. Mitchell: I will certainly not withdraw them.

It is therefore particularly embarrassing for the Government that many of the substantial points of the Lisbon treaty which we are discussing today were opposed by the British Government while they were being negotiated.

I turn to five of those points. The first involves the new articles that set up qualified majority voting on urgent macro-financial and humanitarian aid. Although that ostensibly seems a benign change and is cited by the Government as an uncontroversial example of a move to QMV, it could raise important questions. To take a real example from the recent past, it might have been used to decide whether the European Union should continue to fund the Palestinian Authority after the 2006 elections, which returned Hamas to power. The UK and some other member states disagreed about that; the UK was keen to fund only non-governmental organisations, not the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. Far from being uncontroversial, the point was rightly opposed by the Government in negotiations. The right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) argued that

and that moving to QMV was therefore unnecessary. The Government are now fighting for a treaty that they themselves believe to contain elements that are damaging to the interests of some of the poorest people in the world. I hope that they will support the amendments that we have tabled to address the issue.

The second point is the treaty’s provision for the creation of a European voluntary humanitarian aid corps. That is a deeply questionable idea. The Secretary of State will know that, in general, my party is enthusiastic about the role that volunteers from developed and developing countries can play in international development; they help make a valuable contribution in poor countries, and—equally importantly—learn about the issues and become advocates for change.

Many Members will be aware of the work done by Voluntary Service Overseas, an outstanding British charity with which my party worked closely last year in Rwanda. Volunteering can be a positive experience. However, when it comes to urgent humanitarian assistance, we must recognise that there is a limit to
25 Feb 2008 : Column 788
what volunteers, however enthusiastic and well intentioned, can do. The Government agree with me; in negotiations on the constitution on that point, the right hon. Member for Neath said:

His wise judgment has been backed up by NGOs and BOND, which say:

They go on to argue:

They warn that a voluntary aid corps might not be guided by the highly important principles and commitments of professional aid workers.

A few years ago, that sentiment was echoed by Poul Nielson, then European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid. On 7 November 2003, he said:

He added that

The Secretary of State will note that we have tabled an amendment on that point. I hope that he will feel able to support it; we are merely reflecting the views of the Government during the negotiations.

Ms Keeble: As a former journalist on The Birmingham Post, may I say that even that august newspaper is prone to journalistic embroidery, like all other newspapers? I speak from experience.

The hon. Gentleman should not underestimate the importance of international volunteering; it was indeed what was behind his party’s important initiative in going to Rwanda, and I know that that was transformative for many of his colleagues. That was an example of the role that international volunteering can play. The hon. Gentleman should not criticise the type of provision that he has mentioned.

Mr. Mitchell: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. I understand her point, but I hope that I was making it absolutely clear that the business of humanitarian aid predominantly involves a greater degree of professionalism than can, inevitably, be provided by such a corps.

The third area that I want to discuss is poverty eradication. Conservative Members welcome the fact that the treaty will hard-wire the eradication of poverty as an objective of the European Union; that is surely good news. We applaud the EU’s support for the UK’s drive to scale up aid among member states, as did the Secretary of State when he cited the example of Gleneagles. However, judging by the disappointing record of many EU countries on delivering on their promises, there is still a long way to go. An influential
25 Feb 2008 : Column 789
report last year by the think-tank, Data, rightly named and shamed certain member states for not living up to their promises. It found that France, Germany, Italy and a number of other European Union countries are failing to live up to the solemn pledges on increased aid that they made at Gleneagles in 2005. That is, after all, why the then Prime Minister arranged for those pledges to be signed in front of the cameras of the world’s media.

Mr. Cash: I strongly endorse what my hon. Friend is saying. Many of us present are extremely keen to ensure that poverty is eradicated and have individually and collectively done as much as possible to try to make that case. However, the legal frameworks that are created for the common commercial policy, for example, and its connection to the External Action Service and all the rest that goes with it, create a dynamic that can positively prevent the very objectives that the Government have set themselves in relation to the millennium goals, because the European Union probably will not be able to achieve them.

Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend makes a good point, which I hope he will develop if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

From 2004 to 2006, Germany increased its overseas development assistance by a mere 2 per cent. In order to live up to its promises it needs, by contrast, to increase its aid by $869 million per year each year from 2007 to 2010. Italy, whose overseas development assistance fell by 30 per cent. from 2004 to 2006, now needs to give an additional $1.2 billion each year until 2010 if it is to maintain its side of the deal. France needs an additional $1.5 billion for the same period. Those countries, and others, are showing little or no sign of fulfilling the promises that they made to the developing world.

David Wright: Could the hon. Gentleman tell us how, by withdrawing from the treaty, he would secure an increase in those budgets from those member states? What alternative proposal does he have to ensure that they increase their budgets, and when will he deliver it?

Mr. Mitchell: Those countries do not need a treaty in order to fulfil what they promised to poor countries in front of the world’s media.

We are concerned that the Lisbon treaty removes the reference to “the most disadvantaged” developing countries as a focus of the EU development co-operation policy. It is right that the EU should, to some extent, play to its comparative advantage of assistance to near-Europe countries. They are, after all, the most proximate markets for the European Union, and we have a strong interest in their growth and development. However, we must ensure that the focus is on reducing poverty. The Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), will know that I am a keen student of his speeches. One of my personal favourites is his speech entitled “Multilateral aid and the European Union’s contribution to meeting the Millennium Development Goals”, which he will remember he delivered on 24 February 2005, and in which he said:

25 Feb 2008 : Column 790

That is a well-made point with which Conservative Members have much sympathy. The OECD is in agreement, saying that

I hope that the Minister will continue to fight to ensure that the European Union focuses its aid on the people who really need it. I know from his words that he will want to support our amendment, as it seeks to retain the reference to “the most disadvantaged” as a target for European aid.

A fourth key concern about the treaty is that development may be relegated to second-tier status within the EU’s external action framework—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury. I know that that is a concern echoed by many officials in DFID. DFID’s multilateral development effectiveness summary of 2007 noted:

Next Section Index Home Page