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17 Mar 2008 : Column 624

The right hon. Gentleman is right about energy liberalisation and the importance that we attach to it in the EU. That is one of the reasons why qualified majority voting in energy matters will be beneficial, opening up markets and the creating of jobs, although it was opposed by the Conservative party.

I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman about Britain’s record in relation to other countries. I repeat that we are one of the few countries in the world that is meeting its Kyoto targets, and we will continue to do so.

On the economy, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that Europe is leading the way on calling for a proper international response. We had a meeting with Chancellor Merkel, President Sarkozy, Mr. Prodi and the President of the European Commission a few weeks ago. We have now put forward proposals in detail. The Chancellor is writing to all members of the IMF, the G7 and the Financial Stability Forum to push these forward. Our proposals are in harmony with those that have just been put forward by the US Treasury Secretary. To ensure confidence in financial markets, we believe that it is important that those proposals are adopted.

Finally, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman when he says that action to express our views on Tibet is important. People around the world are expressing concern. We have made our views known, and there will be an EU statement later today. There is a demand for restraint on the part of the Chinese authorities. These are the most important matters now. We will make other announcements and decisions in due course.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): The Prime Minister has stressed the importance of ensuring stability beyond the borders of Europe. Were there any discussions about Burma because, obviously, the UN envoy, Mr. Gambari, has failed in his mission to bring about stability and progress there? If the Prime Minister had no opportunity for discussions on this occasion, will he use the meeting with Mr. Sarkozy later in the week to discuss that matter?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend is right that Burma is an issue on which we have common cause with many people in the rest of Europe and, indeed, in the rest of the world. Mr. Gambari has just finished his visits to Burma. It is important that we recognise that the Burmese regime’s proposals for a referendum and elections that would exclude Aung San Suu Kyi are totally unacceptable. She should be released from house arrest immediately. Democratic elections should happen, and there should be reconciliation to bring the forces in the country together. I will continue to press that cause with my European colleagues.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Why did the Prime Minister not answer the question about the future of Peter Mandelson as our European Commissioner? Surely he should be putting his right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) out of her misery.

The Prime Minister: Because it was not discussed at the European Council.

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Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that it was important that he achieved success on getting the Council to consider a reduction in VAT on insulation materials? Will he go further and press the Heads of Government in Europe not only to achieve the target of a 60 per cent. reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, but to go beyond that towards 80 per cent.?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the whole of Europe should consider whether a more ambitious target than a 60 per cent. reduction by 2050 is not only necessary, but desirable and something that we should work for as part of the Bali negotiations that will be held in Copenhagen a year from now. I agree that it is important that we look at that, which is why we are asking our own Committee on Climate Change to report on it. I believe that other countries are ready to follow suit and that a common European policy is possible on this, as on other matters. May I say that it is no good for Conservative Members to call for environmental co-operation in Europe if they are about to renegotiate the whole of the treaty in Europe?

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): While we are on the subject of European co-operation, did the Prime Minister ask the other 26 Heads of Government at the European Council why none of them is prepared to send fighting troops to support our Army in the Helmand province of Afghanistan?

The Prime Minister: There are 43 countries involved in Afghanistan. Different countries are making different contributions in different ways. This will be a matter for discussion at the NATO summit in Bucharest, where other countries will be asked to share the burden in Afghanistan in terms of both equipment and troops. The specific location of troops will be a matter for discussion among the different partners in the coalition and we will reach agreement in due course. People ought to remember that, contrary to what was said at the time, 40 countries and more have joined the coalition on Afghanistan because they know that Afghanistan is the front line against the Taliban.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement and refer him to paragraph 5 of the conclusions, in which member states are invited to strengthen the involvement of stakeholders in the Lisbon process. Will he tell the House how he intends to make sure that that happens, and that we will stick to the benchmarks that were originally suggested by the Lisbon process?

The Prime Minister: A range of discussions is taking place with all the social partners on all the issues related to Lisbon, and I know that industrialists and business groups have been called in to consider what the next stage of the Lisbon process might involve. I believe that we should now also consider the post-Lisbon process, so that we can think about how universities and skills can be part of the agenda for the future. A better competition policy may be part of the agenda as well. On all those matters, we will consult and work with not only all 26 of our colleagues in Europe but the various stakeholders who are concerned about the way in which the European economy develops.

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Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): I agree with the Prime Minister that it makes absolute sense for this country to be fully involved with Europe on environmental policy, and for Europe to be the most important mediator in the presentation of a greener agenda. The EU can achieve much more than any nation state can achieve on its own. Will the Prime Minister emphasise that such an approach would be gravely undermined if this country were to adopt the sheer folly of a process leading to a policy of effective disengagement at European level?

May I draw attention particularly to the Prime Minister’s comment about the strengthening of energy security through a policy that takes a collective approach to third-country producers, notably Russia? Will he flesh out the discussions that took place a few days ago on that specific issue, which is a cause of growing concern throughout Europe?

The Prime Minister: There was a discussion about energy security and relationships with Russia, which is indeed a serious matter. Although it should not prevent us from trying to secure a partnership agreement with Russia, we should be absolutely clear about where our strategic interests lie, and there is merit in Europe coming together to present a united front in this regard.

The right hon. Gentleman is also right to say that we would be in danger of not being able to make progress on the environment or on other issues if we were again to become isolated in Europe. I repeat that not one other country proposes a referendum on the European Union treaty—[Hon. Members: “Ireland!”]—apart from Ireland, and not one Government of the 27 opposes the treaty, while this Conservative party in this House opposes it. I understand that the only parties that support the Conservative position on the referendum are the Dutch Party for the Animals, the French Hunting, Fishing, Nature, Tradition party, Sinn Fein, and a variety of Trotskyists. Moreover, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic—I repeat, the Czech Republic—made it absolutely clear not only that he would be isolated in Europe if he opposed the treaty, but that he was totally against the Conservative position on a referendum. In other words, the Conservatives have no allies in Europe.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The Prime Minister rightly referred to the need to co-ordinate energy security across Europe, but, if the climate change scientists are right, it seems likely that in the next few years lack of access to drinking water in north Africa will lead to dramatic changes in patterns of migration into Europe. In the past, that danger has tended to interest only the Mediterranean members of the European Union. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is now vital that the whole European Union take it seriously?

The Prime Minister: It is true that problems in Africa, whether they involve water shortages, lack of economic development, poverty, disease or migration, can directly affect the whole of Europe. That is why it is important that we have strong relationships with the African Union, and why the proposed union of the Mediterranean—which will involve 27 countries in Europe as well as Mediterranean countries bordering
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Europe—is such an important development. One of the issues that will be discussed is what help we can give African countries to develop not just their water supply but their infrastructure, so that they can trade with the rest of Europe.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): The whole House will welcome the target of a 20 per cent. reduction in emissions by 2020, but which figure will the Prime Minister use in referring to the United Kingdom’s contribution? Will he use the figure that is often quoted to the United Nations, or the figure in the report published today by the National Audit Office, which is some 12 per cent. higher?

The Prime Minister: It is predicted that greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 will be 23.6 per cent. lower than they were in 1990. The goal is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 20 per cent. below 1990 levels as well, and that is obviously part of the Government’s objective. We are now considering the targets for 2020 and 2050.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): One of the great advantages of our membership of the European Union is the opportunity it provides to young people to work, study and travel freely across the EU. In the context of the post-Lisbon agenda, the review of human capital and skills and the role of universities, will my right hon. Friend look particularly carefully at the difficulties that we have in encouraging our young people to take advantage of the financial assistance schemes that are available to enable them to study abroad? British young people seem more reluctant to study abroad than young people in similar EU countries. Will he look at that carefully?

The Prime Minister: The Minister for Europe is here, and he draws my attention to the Erasmus scheme and other schemes that make it possible for people to study in the rest of Europe. We will certainly look at that matter. Co-operation between universities—and, indeed, between all institutions of education—will be very important. We must do everything in our power to deepen those collaborations.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): When he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Prime Minister was critical of EU structural funding and the waste of that funding and of industrial expenditure. He said that

If that is still his view, what progress has he made in persuading other member states of that?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that matter, because we have made reforms in European Union expenditure. That means that more of the resources are going to the poorest countries, which was the objective of the proposals that I put forward. I wanted more resources to go to the poorest countries in the rest of Europe and I wanted member states such as us to be able to carry out our own regional policy. That is why we have
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advocated changes in the state aid rules, and why, for example, on venture capital, we have made progress exactly in that area.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I welcome the decisions in the European Council about financial market transparency and today’s boost to the liquidity of financial institutions by the Bank of England, but given that irresponsible lending by those institutions has created real risks for home owners, will the Prime Minister initiate discussions about how to keep people on the home ownership ladder? We have many excellent schemes to get people on the first rung, but existing home owners are at risk of losing their homes because of bad lending. What can he do to help them?

The Prime Minister: One of the announcements that I made during the statement was that the Government are creating a new group to look at mortgage markets, and that will cover some of the questions that my hon. Friend raises. I agree that it is important at these times that we do everything we can to help those who are finding it difficult to pay their mortgages. However, she will note that the rate of people losing their homes and the rate of people who are in arrears on their mortgages are substantially lower than they were in the last world downturn in the early 1990s, when we had more home repossessions than at any time in our history.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): As a director of the Great Britain-China Centre, a body partly funded by the Foreign Office, I was pleased to note in the Prime Minister's statement that he discussed a comprehensive strategy to strengthen the EU’s economic relations with China, but I found his response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) about the influence that the EU should have on China in relation to Tibet somewhat thin. Will the Prime Minister provide us with some practical examples of what his Government will do in the next few days in that regard?

The Prime Minister: We have made our views known. While there was a discussion among Foreign Ministers about Tibet, it was not at the full European Council. Information was very sketchy on Thursday and Friday about what was happening in Tibet. It is only recently that we have become more aware of the problems that have arisen there. We have made our views known to the Chinese authorities. The Foreign Secretary is in touch with the Foreign Minister of China. We are calling for restraint and we believe that the way forward is a dialogue between the different parties. The hon. and learned Gentleman may know that we have been part of a human rights dialogue with China whereby there were visits to Tibet recently to look at conditions there, so we keep everything in that area under review and we are calling for restraint, for an end to violence and for dialogue between the parties involved.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): May I ask the Prime Minister what was agreed at the Council to get better control of EU spending and budgets, so that we do not see a 14th successive failure to get the accounts signed off by the auditors because of major problems in each of the key spending areas?

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The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is right in that we have been pressing for better accountancy procedures in relation to that, but he should betray to us the true nature of his inquiry: he wants Britain out of the European Union altogether.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): The very first line of the presidency conclusions from the summit are:

As by 2005 the Prime Minister had been in charge of the economy for eight years, will he explain why in the ensuing period the United Kingdom made such a significant negative contribution to the wider EU position?

The Prime Minister: When we came to power, debt was 44 per cent. of GDP, but it is now 38 per cent.; it is billions of pounds less than it was. We should not take any lectures from the party that caused the recession of the early ’90s.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Will the Prime Minister meet the Dalai Lama? A simple yes or no will do.

The Prime Minister: As I have said, the priority at present is to deal with the issues in Tibet and to make our representations to the Chinese Government. We will make any further announcements later.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): While the Prime Minister was chatting—convivially, I am sure—with his fellow European leaders in Brussels, did any of them congratulate him on pushing the Lisbon treaty through this House, even though that did, of course, involve his breaking his solemn promise on a referendum, contrary to the wishes of the British people?

The Prime Minister: When it was a constitutional treaty, nine Governments in Europe said there should be a referendum. As it is no longer a constitutional treaty, only one Government—the Irish, who are legally obliged to do so—are having a referendum. This has been through constitutional courts in Denmark and Holland, which agreed that this is not a constitutional treaty. In fact, the first words of the Brussels declaration are that the constitutional concept has been abandoned. The Conservative party would do better to follow us in negotiating better living standards and better deals for the British people than to try to renegotiate past treaties, which is clearly what it will spend all its time doing.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): Does the Prime Minister recall that when the Lisbon agenda 2000 was first launched, it promised 3 per cent. annual growth in the European Union until 2010 and that red tape would be cut? The then Prime Minister said that it

However, the European Commission itself now accepts that even though the single market increases European GDP by €225 billion, the burden of European regulation
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is €600 billion. Is that why the Lisbon agenda has to be relaunched time and again with the words:

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