Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab):
I thank the Home Secretary for coming to the House so soon to give us her statement, and I, like the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), other local MPs and the right hon. Lady, acknowledge how vital it is to establish the facts before we rush to judgment. However, while the police investigation is ongoing, will she look at one particular aspect of the matter, which may be unrelated to the circumstances but is related to firearms-the
recommendation by the Home Affairs Committee in the previous Parliament on minimum sentences for those who possess firearms? I am sure that she will look at all the legislation and review everything, but in the meantime can she assure us that when we have the full facts she will return to the House with a full statement?
Mrs May: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and I do intend to keep the House informed as further information becomes available and we have the full facts. As part of the coalition agreement, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice will undertake a review of sentencing policy, and I am sure that in that review the Committee's report will be brought to his attention.
Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, should lessons need to be learned from this terrible tragedy about the adequate response times of armed rapid-reaction forces, they will be learned and implemented forthwith, not only in Cumbria but throughout the country?
Mrs May: I assure my right hon. Friend that when we have had an opportunity to look at the full facts of this case, we intend to learn any lessons that come out of it. On the issue to which he alludes, I have spoken to the chief constable about the reaction times that were available. My right hon. Friend, and others, will be aware that there are particular circumstances in Cumbria involving its geography, and the knowledge of the local area of the individual concerned in this incident, Derrick Bird. Of course operational matters are for the police, but I assure my right hon. Friend that if there are any lessons to be learned, they will be.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I thank the Home Secretary for her very measured statement. I do not think that words can really describe the horror of what happened yesterday. Does she agree that we already have the most stringent gun control laws in Europe, and that before making any changes, or doing anything that she thinks may be done, we should consider this in the widest and most measured way possible so that we do not stop people who legitimately use weapons for sport and in other legitimate ways, and do not have an automatic knee-jerk response? I very much welcome the fact that she wants to see all the facts before we make any decisions or even start to discuss this.
Mrs May: The hon. Lady is right that we have among the most stringent gun regulations in Europe. We must not respond immediately by taking a decision as to what is necessary, but wait until we know the full facts and then take the opportunity to look at the results of the police investigation, to consider what has happened in this incident and to ask ourselves whether there are lessons to be learned and whether we need to take further action. I am very clear that we must not have a knee-jerk reaction to this incident, but it is right to look at it properly in due course and take any decisions that are necessary. As I say, it would be my intention, subject to others, to provide an opportunity for Members of this House to debate these issues before the summer recess.
Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): Does the Home Secretary accept that the vast majority of those in this country who enjoy shooting will share her dismay at the events in Cumbria and will want to send their condolences, too? I very much welcome her statement that she will resist calls for a knee-jerk response to these incidents and will bear in mind the interests of the many thoroughly responsible shooters who wish to continue to enjoy their sport.
Mrs May: I do indeed accept that, as my hon. Friend says, there are many responsible shooters in the UK who will have been as appalled by these events in Cumbria yesterday as everybody else was. As I indicated in my previous answer, it is right that we should have an opportunity to consider these issues, but we should do so only when we have the full facts-when the police have been able to investigate and we know as much as we can about the events that took place in Cumbria. We must not leap to conclusions before we have those facts.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): The Home Secretary is absolutely right to say that today is a day for remembering the innocent victims. May I, on behalf of my party colleagues, extend our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of those who have been murdered, and to the wider community in Cumbria as well? May I support the remarks of the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham), and other local Members, about the need for continuing help for the area to assist the police, statutory agencies and charities as they continue with their important work in helping the communities through this awful time?
Mrs May: Indeed. I think we all recognise in this House that there are two jobs to be done: one is the police investigation, but the other is the need to provide support to the local communities in Cumbria so that they can recover from the terrible tragedy that has occurred. It is right that we recognise that there is a role for central Government and for local government in that, but there is also a role for others, including charities, many of which will be best positioned and best able to offer the sort of support, counselling, advice and practical help that people will need.
Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): Notwithstanding the strong legislation surrounding firearms at the moment, will the Home Secretary give an undertaking that she will not rule out the possibility of the complete prohibition of the private ownership of firearms as the best way of preventing such atrocities in future?
Mrs May: The hon. Gentleman is inviting me to do precisely what I have said that I will not do, and leap to conclusions. As I said, we will aim to give the House an opportunity to debate these issues, and I am sure that when that time comes the hon. Gentleman will want to make his views known to the House in rather fuller detail. At the moment, however, it is right, before we jump to conclusions, to wait until we know the full facts and can learn from what has happened.
That this House has considered the matter of European affairs.
It is a great pleasure to have the honour of opening the first European affairs debate of this new Parliament. These debates not only provide the House with the opportunity to consider developments in the European Union in general but, more immediately, allow the House to give its thoughts on the forthcoming meeting of the European Council. In the past these debates have been held so shortly before the European Council meeting-sometimes only hours before, or the day before, or two days before-that the House has had no real chance to ensure that its thinking is in any way absorbed by the Government in their approach. We believe, in the new Government, that we can do better than that. This debate is taking place two weeks ahead of the European Council meeting, and before the Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Luxembourg on 14 June.
The new Government will bring a fresh approach to Britain's involvement in the EU. I said in opposition-to some scepticism on the Labour Benches, it has to be said-that we would be active and activist, positive and energetic, from day one. We have been exactly that. The Prime Minister's first visits to foreign capitals were to Paris and Berlin, where he had highly successful meetings with President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel. My ministerial team has been extremely busy. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), attended the EU-Latin American and Caribbean meeting a fortnight ago in Madrid, and the EU-Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Madrid. I was able to meet many of my European counterparts at the Latin American meeting. I was in Sarajevo yesterday for the EU-western Balkans meeting, which I shall come to later. In the next seven days I intend to visit my counterparts in Paris, Berlin, Warsaw and Rome. The Minister for Europe attended the informal ministerial meeting on the eastern partnership in Poland last week, and has met in Brussels Members of the European Parliament and the European Commission. We said that we would be active from day one, and we have indeed been so.
This Government strongly believe that the European Union has a crucial role in enabling the countries of Europe to work together to face the vast challenges of this century: the maintenance of our global competitiveness, the problem of climate change, the grim facts of global poverty, and the need for the nations of Europe to use their collective weight in the world to deal with foreign policy issues. All are better dealt with if the nations of Europe can bring together common solutions-and above all, the right solutions.
We will, where necessary, be more robust in defending Britain's national interests than the previous Government were. We will not repeat their wretched handling of the negotiations on the current financial perspective, which saw them accept a cut of £7 billion in our rebate while obtaining nothing of substance in return.
Mr Hague: I do congratulate the previous Prime Minister. I am not in the habit of doing that, but on this subject I am very happy to do so. What a good job it was that the former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, ensured that we had an opt-out so that the most recent Prime Minister could keep us out of the eurozone.
Keith Vaz: I am most grateful to the Foreign Secretary; I am actually going to be very nice to him. I congratulate him on his appointment and remind him that I gave him his first job in the Commons, as secretary of the all-party footwear and leather industries group. I am glad that he is going to be active; we would expect nothing less from him. On enlargement, will he continue the previous Government's policy of ensuring that countries that are capable of joining will be allowed to join? Leaving aside transitional arrangements such as whether people will be able to work, particularly in relation to the Croatia file, which must be on his desk, will he confirm that we believe in a Europe that is wider and stronger?
Mr Hague: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The role that we played together on the leather and footwear industries all-party group 20 years ago will for ever be somewhere in the recesses of my mind. I am very grateful for that reminder; the memory has just been retrieved from somewhere. He is absolutely right: there is a strong cross-party commitment on EU enlargement, to which I want to turn later in my speech. I want to talk specifically about Croatia later. He used an important phrase about countries joining when they have met the conditions. It is important that they meet the conditions for membership, rather than the conditions being changed to suit a particular country. I very much agree with what he said.
It is also our intention to approach European issues in a more coherent way across Whitehall than has sometimes been the case. In the three weeks for which I have held the office of Foreign Secretary, it has been apparent to my colleagues and me that under the previous Government, Departments could have worked together better, particularly more strategically. That point might also be relevant to previous Governments, and we intend to put it right. We are establishing a new Cabinet Committee on European affairs that I will chair, with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change as the deputy chair. [ Interruption. ] It is another example of a good coalition in practice.
That Committee will allow the new Government to take a more holistic approach to EU issues than was sometimes the case in the past, and I hope it will achieve better results for Britain. We must ensure that we are always ahead of the game in Brussels, unlike the previous Government, of whom that could not always be said; the position in which they left us in relation to the hedge funds directive is a particular example. In doing so, we will be aided by achieving a more collegiate feeling in a two-party Cabinet than in the previous Cabinet of one party.
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab):
I welcome the Foreign Secretary to his post and remind him that I still owe him the proceeds of a wager, when I
said that his party would not leave the European conservative grouping, which, of course, it did. I have proved to be wrong on occasions. Returning to his point about greater co-ordination, will he say how he will arrive at a view about whether the Government agree with the proposals for a new European single credit agency operator? Will he explain how that will work?
Mr Hague: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for reminding me of our wager. Without giving too much away, I should say that I am looking forward to drinking with her the proceeds that she owes me. The wager was made on the understanding that I would join her so that we could consume the proceeds together. I am looking forward to doing that. [ Interruption. ] No, it is not beer on this occasion; it is something that we will drink together.
She asked how we would arrive at the decision. Well, that is exactly what the new European Affairs Committee of the Cabinet is there to do, supported by officials from both the Foreign Office and the Cabinet Office. There will be greater Foreign Office involvement and co-ordination of European affairs than has been the case for a long time. That is part of the more central role in government for the Foreign Office that I have always envisaged and am trying to bring about. That Committee will examine such issues, including the one to which the hon. Lady referred.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I warmly welcome the Foreign Secretary to his new job, and I am encouraged by what he has said about the new European Affairs Cabinet Committee. Can he assure me that the Committee will pull together issues of climate change and climate crisis across the whole of Government, because those matters are relevant to the Ministry of Defence, for example, and clearly to business, too? If Britain can be seen to be leading the new green agenda in Europe, there is a real chance that we can influence the world. To put it bluntly, if Europe does not lead, the Americans, the Chinese and others are not likely to follow.
Mr Hague: I very much take that point. The hon. Gentleman can see how seriously we take the matter from the fact that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is the deputy chair of the Committee. I shall talk about climate change during my speech. It was noticeable in the final stages of the Copenhagen meeting that the European Union was not at the final table-in the final discussions-and we have to put that right for the future. That will be part of the approach that we are trying to put together in the European Affairs Cabinet Committee.
The main issue before the forthcoming European Council is, of course, the current economic situation. A number of member states face severe fiscal difficulties, and growth across Europe is anaemic. The priority for all of us is to rectify our budgetary problems and deal with the fundamental underlying problem of weak economic growth. The Government have made it clear that we will stay out of the euro, but at the same time, we must acknowledge that the EU is our single biggest trading partner. Problems in one member state affect us all, whether we are single currency members or not. Recent developments in the eurozone have exemplified
the need for fiscal consolidation, which is the No. 1 priority across Europe. We have made an urgent start on dealing with the deficit, and those actions will be crucial for the stability of our public finances, after those who are now on the Opposition Front Bench bequeathed the country the worst peacetime deficit in modern times.
The major issue dominating discussion of European affairs is the difficulty facing the eurozone. A strong and healthy eurozone is, of course, in this country's interests. That is a view held even by those of us who have always opposed Britain joining the euro. Much of our prosperity depends on our neighbours' prosperity: 49% of our exports go to the eurozone.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): My right hon. Friend is making an incredibly important point about the eurozone and our trade with it. We acknowledge that there is significant trade, but would he also accept that one of the reasons why the eurozone is imploding is the vast amount of social and employment legislation--the over-regulation and burdens on business not only in Europe but imposed on this country as a result of European directives and regulations? Will he therefore accept that the Prime Minister's commitment to repatriate those powers is essential not only for us but for negotiations in the European Union? If that does not happen we will not have jobs, growth or enterprise, nor will we be able to reduce the debt or pay for public services where necessary.
Mr Hague: There are several parts to my hon. Friend's question about the reasons for low economic growth in the European Union. One of those reasons is the extent of regulation, inflexibility and bureaucratic burdens. I think that is true in most, if not all, the countries of the EU, for a mixture of reasons. Some of that regulation is at EU level and some is at national level. I was going to deal with that issue.
Winning the argument for appropriate regulation is a very important part of the plans that we have put forward to revive economic growth in the EU, and sometimes that will mean having lighter regulation. That can be addressed partly through the European Union regulating more effectively and in a less burdensome way, and partly by nations doing so individually. The extent to which we can deal with the issue by changing the balance of competences between the EU and member states is something that we now have to examine as a coalition. My hon. Friend has a long-held view on the subject, and I have expressed views about it. We are a coalition Government, and he and I must accept that there is not necessarily a majority in the House of Commons for every single thing that we would have wanted to do. We must examine the issue as a coalition, and we are now doing so.
Kelvin Hopkins: The Foreign Secretary speaks warmly-as so many Europe Ministers and Foreign Secretaries have-about our trade with the European Union. Is not the reality that we have a massive trade deficit with the European Union, and we do much better with trade outside the European Union? We do not benefit from that trade; Europe benefits from us and our market.