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7.30 pm

The hon. Gentleman’s amendment was interesting in that it suggested at various points that a statement on the negotiating mandate should be laid before Parliament. There have been genuinely interesting exchanges on the merits or otherwise of that proposal. Like the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, when I first read the amendment I was very much of the view that if we were negotiating a position, the last thing that we would want to do would be to lay out all our negotiating points in public on the internet so that others in the European decision-making process could see exactly where our lines were. There are such potential problems with the amendment, although I have to say that I like the concept of the democratic link; it is important to try to ensure that there is proper scrutiny in the House and that decisions are therefore closer to our constituents.

There was a suggestion that, although having the negotiating statements in public would be problematic, some other House procedure—perhaps having the discussion in a private sitting of the European Scrutiny Committee—might be a way around that issue. However, I did not detect a great deal of enthusiasm for the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) to be receiving telephone calls from the Prime Minister at 3 am as various aspects of EU policy were negotiated. Perhaps that is not the best way forward. I am sure that, given the brains in the House and their knowledge of different parliamentary procedures, there is some way of finding an opportunity for greater scrutiny without laying all our cards on the table so that our EU partners know exactly what we are going to do.

Initially, when I read amendment No. 47, I thought that the change in wording from


was an issue of slight semantics and that the two wordings essentially meant the same thing. Obviously, the issue is whether an abstention would allow something through. I confess that I am no lawyer, but to my mind if abstaining led to something being implemented into law, would that not be conceived as “otherwise supporting”? However, even if that is the case—as I say, I am no lawyer—the amendment at least makes the issue crystal clear and so is perhaps worthy of support. Furthermore, let us face it—if the amendment listed areas that the Government already recognise should be proceeded with only under parliamentary approval, I would be intrigued to know the Government’s objections.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I was listening carefully to the hon. Lady. Do I take it from her remarks that if amendment No. 47 were pressed to a Division, she and her colleagues would be minded to support it?

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Jo Swinson: That is certainly my state of mind at the moment. The Minister has not yet spoken or given us a wonderful reason why making the issue clearer is not a good idea. I look forward to hearing him and seeing whether he can convince me; he will certainly have to work hard.

Amendment No. 18, which was tabled by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), does not seem so sensible. According to my reading, to leave out the option of parliamentary approval for all the areas listed would effectively ban any future moves to qualified majority voting, any use of the passerelle and any move to ordinary legislative procedure—at all, in any circumstances, ever. That does not seem sensible; it is symptomatic of the blinkered and isolationist view on Europe that today’s Conservative party seems to take. It is unable to conceive of any future circumstances in which any of those things might be in the UK’s interests. Let us bear in mind that we cannot predict the future. Clause 6(1)(f) is about measures on the environment; if, at some future point—to help tackle climate change and after approval by this House—it was in our interests to ease the possibilities for moves in Europe to protect the environment, doing so would be a good idea. Amendment No. 18 cannot be taken seriously.

I have sympathy with amendments Nos. 42 to 46, which, again, would increase parliamentary scrutiny on a variety of issues—moves to qualified majority voting on criminal procedures and on the list of crimes covered. The current list of crimes in the Lisbon treaty seems pretty comprehensive: terrorism; trafficking in human beings and sexual exploitation of women and children; illegal drug trafficking; illicit arms trafficking; money laundering; corruption; counterfeiting of means of payment; computer crime; and organised crime. It is not easy to predict what we might want to add to that. However, 20 years ago we probably could not have predicted cybercrime; it would make sense for the House to have the final say if in future we wanted to add a crime to the list.

Like the other parties, the Liberal Democrats are not in favour of a European public prosecutor. However, again, having the safeguard of the House deciding whether the situation would change in future seems eminently sensible. Amendment No. 46 relates to common EU defence; it brought to mind the fact that we have not had the opportunity to debate that subject properly, which is very much to be regretted. If we were to move to QMV on that issue, it would be a sufficiently big decision to require parliamentary approval. I would certainly be minded to support any of amendments Nos. 42 to 46 if they were pressed to a Division.

I was tempted by amendment No. 49, which would require parliamentary approval for various aspects of the opt-in to justice and home affairs. My issue is about the practicalities, given the short window of six weeks that we might have for opting into some of the provisions. It might be difficult to include such approval in parliamentary timetabling, so I am less convinced by the amendment, although I welcome its spirit.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Such issues are crucial. It seems to me that we need, if necessary, to make the parliamentary timetable fit the European one to allow for proper scrutiny. We should not just dismiss the idea of giving parliamentary approval.

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Jo Swinson: Indeed. There may be ways of ensuring parliamentary scrutiny through the timetabling of the House and other scrutiny methods; the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee has made regular contributions, so it may not be beyond us to manage that.

I was slightly disappointed that the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) was not here to move his amendment No. 283, the sentiment of which I welcome. If the Government are to argue strongly within Europe for measures to reduce carbon emissions, we should make sure that those measures are sufficiently stringent to keep, if possible, to a 2° rise in temperature and to include the impact of aviation and shipping. That seems sensible. Much as I welcome the sentiment behind the amendment, however, I am not convinced that it is the best way to address the issue. Nevertheless, I urge the right hon. Gentleman to press on his ministerial colleagues the fact that a strong Government line on this matter in Europe is incredibly desirable.

Amendments Nos. 66 and 284 have given hon. Members the opportunity to raise concerns about the free market, but I am not convinced that those concerns are best addressed through those amendments.

In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will look favourably on amendments Nos. 42 to 47; perhaps he will be able to reassure the House about them, or even—stranger things have happened—accept some of them.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The hon. Lady has proceeded pretty quickly and it has been difficult to follow her. Will she be clear? What, specifically, is she looking for, and what amendments in this group are the Liberal Democrats likely to vote for?

Jo Swinson: I am happy to repeat myself for the right hon. Gentleman: I feel very much minded to vote for amendments Nos. 42 to 47 inclusive. However, there was a slight caveat on amendment No. 47, on which we have not yet heard the Minister speak. I cannot conceive of any argument that he could make to suggest that the change was not purely for the sake of clarification. However, I shall reserve my judgment until I have listened to what he says; sometimes it is useful to do that in debates. I have set out clearly what I am minded to do and I look forward to the other contributions.

Kate Hoey: I would like to say a few words on amendments Nos. 286 and 284, with particular reference to the latter. I support a number of amendments in this group, and I hope that we will get a chance to vote on amendment No. 284.

Many of the amendments that we are debating go to the heart of the debate on Europe, because they deal with how the EU affects everyday life in the UK in relation to public services, housing, transport and postal services. The European Union has a hugely powerful influence on everything that happens to us in our daily lives, but the reality is that as a result of the way in which EU legislation operates, it is often not clear to many people, including many in this House and in the media, when a particular decision or policy has originated in the EU.

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Looking through a list of things that have originated in the EU—it does not matter whether one is for or against them—I find it amazing how many things in our everyday life have come from Europe. It is a diverse range of things, which shows how many people do not understand just how much has come from Europe, such as children under 12 having to sit in car booster seats—I am not saying whether that is right or wrong—fortnightly bin collections, home information packs and the disappearance of the crown sign on pints. Everyday things have changed because of law originating in Europe. The basic premise we should consider is that if we are changing legislation in this country, Parliament has to have a say, and it should have the final say.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) outlined eloquently the reasons why he did not agree with the liberalisation of postal services. That process has been a disaster. The wonderful Royal Mail, which for more than 150 years has provided a universal postal service that was the envy of the world, with low uniform stamp prices and six-day deliveries, gave people the ability to post a letter anywhere in the country for the same price. I am not against some liberalisation of some services in the EU, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) said, certain things go beyond the simple idea of liberalising. For me, the postal service is one of those things.

Jon Trickett: I do not know whether my hon. Friend has noticed, but the European Property Federation is in conversation with the Commission about what is described as illegal state aid given by municipalities that provide social housing. Does she agree that if council housing were to be liberalised—an idea that I would be totally opposed to—the matter should be a decision for this House and not the Commission, the Council or the European Court of Justice?

Kate Hoey: I agree. Those are the sorts of issues that our constituents care about. They are frustrated when they see things happen about which they feel they have had no say, and on which, when they look to this place, they feel we have not had any say either. I do not want to get into this subject now, because I hope that I will be able to speak about it tomorrow, but it is one of the crucial reasons why we need a referendum. We have abandoned any idea of doing what we said we would do, and people feel that they cannot believe us or trust us.

I am concerned about the way in which liberalisation is destroying our postal service. The wording of amendment No. 284 would not change what has already happened, but it sends a signal that we do not want the process to continue without approval being given in Parliament. I sometimes wonder how on earth my Government could have gone ahead with the process so quickly. Why did we need to forge ahead and be ahead of everybody else? I do not accept the idea that they did not realise that private firms were going to cherry-pick the most profitable routes. That is clearly what they were going to do, leaving the Royal Mail to support many of the isolated rural communities and other unfashionable areas. That has gradually led to the idea that the Royal Mail is a second-class service, rather than the world class service it was and still could be with the right support. Without the revenue from
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the most profitable routes, the Royal Mail would also suffer financially, which is why taking away profitable business from Royal Mail has directly led to the closure of our post offices and to rationalisation.

7.45 pm

In London, we face a raft of closures, just as many of my colleagues throughout the country do in their areas. Three post offices are being closed in my constituency, and it is outrageous that one of them in particular should close, because it meets all the criteria: it is in an urban area, it is working its way up and all the little shops are dependent on it. People will have to travel a considerable distance to get to the next post office. I went there this morning. I did the necessary walk and stood in the post office that everyone will have to go to—

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. I hope that the hon. Lady is not going to stray too far. I understand her passion on the subject.

Kate Hoey: I will not, Mrs. Heal. I am sure that there will be another day for that. However, let us not hide the facts. It was our Government who decided to go ahead with the liberalisation, but that is the European Union agenda, and we have to fight wherever we can to ensure that it goes no further. None of my constituents has ever contacted me calling for this process of liberalisation in postal services, for the undermining of the universal service obligation or for further branch closures, but I believe that that is the agenda of the European Union, as promoted in this treaty and constitution. Giving away further powers to the EU in relation to this crucial public service is, to use a cliché, like making wolves protectors of lambs. I have not found many who want this change. Sub-postmasters and postmistresses do not want it, the Communication Workers Union does not want it, and I believe that the majority of MPs do not want it either.

The amendment would send a signal and put a brake on this process that is happening above our heads. It would establish the right of Members to have some say on the future of public services, which our constituents continue to need. I have one more thing to say about post offices and the EU; I will not go back to my walk to the post office, Mrs. Heal, in doing so. A lady said to me this morning that she would like to ask me a question, and it was a question that different people have raised in other ways. She asked why, if the Government can spend £110 billion—£3,500 for each of us—to keep a bank with 2 million customers afloat, they cannot pay £5 from each taxpayer to support a post office network with 11.4 million customers. We know that they will not do that because the European Union does not want us to do it. Other countries do it and get away with it, but we seem to sit back and allow all these things to flow over our heads. That is why it is so important that we have a long debate on the referendum tomorrow.

I hope that many of my colleagues who may not have wanted to vote for a referendum will decide that it is one way of showing that they mean to get power back and take control over what is happening to our public services.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): I am always delighted to follow the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), particularly on this occasion because she
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mentioned post offices. As a fellow London MP, she will be aware that we have real issues, which she spelled out, with regard to the possible closure of post offices. In my constituency, three are threatened with closure, which is a real worry. That state of affairs reflects an important point about one’s attitude to the European Union, which was well summed up by Douglas Hurd, who once said that one of the problems with the EU is that it too often gets into the “nooks and crannies” of British life. That is where my personal objection to European treaties of this kind always lies.

On the other hand, putting on my foreign policy hat as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I welcome many aspects of the treaty. I am glad that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) is in his place because he said that power was not a zero sum game and he is right: we lose, but we also gain. In the foreign policy world, we perceive powerful nations such China emerging, a regenerated Russia, the threat from the oil-producing Muslim countries and so on. We need a strong European Union to add to what Britain can bring to the table. I regard myself as a utilitarian in that I perceive the European Union as a tool that can bring benefits that the nation state alone cannot necessarily get. In that respect, I welcome the foreign policy aspects of the treaty.

None the less, even from that favourable point of view, I am worried about parliamentary control, which amendments Nos. 47 and 48 in particular deal with. The Minister knows about the passerelle clauses and the simplified procedure, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) mentioned, especially in relation to foreign affairs. They mean that what is currently determined by unanimity could be decided by qualified majority voting under specific procedures, especially if the high representative goes about matters in a particular manner. There are ways in which unanimity is not required in the Council before we can be presented with a change from unanimity to QMV here. It is therefore important to have some sort of parliamentary brake on the Council’s proposals.

The Foreign Affairs Committee report on the treaty concluded

We therefore welcomed the Government’s action and I pay tribute to them for it.

On the other hand, we pointed out:

As my hon. Friends pointed out, as the Bill stands one could move from unanimity to QMV and bypass Parliament. I therefore welcome the amendments that my Front Benchers tabled and also those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory).

The Minister may know that Lord Owen, who was, of course, a former Labour Foreign Secretary, presented evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee on a UK
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parliamentary brake on the treaty as enacted in the Bill. He pointed out that the European Assembly Elections Act 1978, for which he was responsible, did something similar. He said:

I emphasise “primary legislation”—

That was a suggestion for a fairly comprehensive UK parliamentary brake, which would prevent the incremental creep that would ensue from the treaty if it were enacted as currently proposed.

That would reassure people that we had reached a point of agreement—if it proves to be agreement—about where we are on European institutions. We can make them work properly without the constant fear, which has prevailed, that the legislation is live, and that we continually get, without the necessity of parliamentary approval, further accretions of power to Europe without our having much say on behalf of the people of the country. Lord Owen’s proposal, which the Committee viewed favourably, for a parliamentary brake is interesting.

My colleagues on the Front Bench may wish to take up Lord Owen’s additional suggestion. He said:

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