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My hon. Friend will have to forgive me if I say that the kind of questions that he asks are precisely those that the Government will wish to consider in the exercise that I have just described-when they
come to a view as to whether we should introduce primary legislation to reinforce the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. So far, as he knows, the British courts have upheld the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. We want to ensure that such a principle is unassailable and ongoing.
Chris Bryant: Before the Minister's speech, we were told by the Government that a committee will be set up to do such work. Now, however, he seems to be saying that there will not be a committee, but just a general process of cogitation, regurgitation and general thinking. Does he describe that as the backburner or the long grass?
Mr Lidington: It is certainly not the long grass. The work has already started, but it requires proper consideration. I understand the hon. Gentleman's impatience and eagerness for an outcome to this exercise, but given that we are only a month into the new Administration, he will have to bear with us a little longer before we come to a conclusion. I can assure him that as soon as a decision is taken, we will make a statement to Parliament, so that he and other hon. Members can question and challenge us on the outcome of that debate within Government.
The Government have been clear about what we intend to propose in legislation at the earliest opportunity. We have agreed that there should be no further transfer of sovereignty or powers from the United Kingdom to the EU over the course of this Parliament, and that commitment is written into the coalition programme. The Government are also committed to increasing democratic and parliamentary control, scrutiny and accountability in relation to EU decision-making. We will introduce a Bill to ensure that the British Parliament and the British people have more of a say, and that will increase the democratic accountability of the European Union. The Bill that was listed in the Gracious Speech has two main elements: a referendum lock and greater parliamentary control over the use of the so-called passerelle or ratchet clauses in the Lisbon treaty.
Let me describe briefly what we propose in terms of a referendum lock, although my hon. Friend the Member for Stone and the House will appreciate that very detailed work is now going on to determine the precise language of the Bill. Any proposed future treaty that transferred competences or areas of power from the UK to the EU would be subject to a referendum. No Government would be able to pass more powers to the EU unless the British people had agreed that they should be able to do so and no Government would be able to join the euro unless the British people had agreed that they should do so.
My hon. Friend said that there might be an attempt to bring about treaty change to create some form of economic governance in light of the current financial crisis. I can say to him that there is no consensus so far even in the euro area that there should be a further treaty. Any EU treaty, even one that applied only to the euro area, would need the unanimous agreement of all 27 member states, including the UK. Each of those 27 member states would have a veto. Even in the case of a hypothetical treaty that the British Government were prepared to endorse, the fact remains that any treaty that proposed to transfer powers from the UK to the
institutions of the EU would require a referendum for ratification, under the terms of the programme for Government that the coalition has set out.
We also plan to change the law so that any Government would be required to pass primary legislation before they could give final agreement to any of the so-called ratchet clauses. There is a variety of those clauses; there is no easy definition of a ratchet clause. Some provide for modification of the treaties without using the ordinary revision procedure and some are one-way options that are already in the treaties, whereby EU member states can decide together to exercise those options, and which allow existing EU powers to expand. There are options, for example, in the common foreign and security policy, in justice and home affairs, and in environment policy. Besides the provisions on primary legislation, in our Bill we will also ensure that the use of any major ratchet clause that amounts to the transfer of an area of power from the UK to the EU would be subject to a referendum.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone and the hon. Members for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) spoke about the inadequacy of our current system of parliamentary scrutiny of European legislation. The Government plan to improve the scrutiny of EU decision making, and getting the scrutiny system right is a very high priority for us. I am currently examining ways of strengthening the existing system of parliamentary scrutiny and I am keen to discuss proposals with the new Scrutiny Committees of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, once they are formed. I hope that they will be formed in the very near future.
Kelvin Hopkins: There has been an honest division of view about how parliamentary scrutiny should be reformed. The hon. Member for Stone talked about having all the debates on scrutiny open. I took the other view, because we receive very valuable advice from Officers of this House-honest and frank advice, which I may say is often sympathetic to my view as well-and the Officers would not be able to provide such advice if the debates on scrutiny were carried out in public.
Mr Lidington: The hon. Gentleman makes a clear point that we in Government and the House as a whole will want to bear in mind when it comes to taking decisions about the scrutiny process. It is also important that we look at the practice of scrutiny in other EU member states. I had a meeting last week with the chairman of the Swedish scrutiny committee, and we are exploring the models of scrutiny that are in use elsewhere in the EU, to see whether there are any aspects of those processes that we might usefully adapt for our own purposes here.
Chris Bryant: The Minister is being very generous in giving way. I sensitively suggest to him that most other member states conduct scrutiny remarkably worse than we do, which is quite a thing to be able to say.
In addition, all I would say to the Minister is that we still do not have the European Scrutiny Committee set up. For the life of me, I cannot see why the chairmanship of that Committee was not established when the other Select Committees that we have already elected were established. Also, I hope that a new scrutiny reserve resolution will be tabled fairly soon. I urge the hon.
Gentleman to try and make this issue as much a matter for the House as for the Foreign Office, because it should be a matter for the whole of the House to decide on.
Mr Lidington: I take very seriously the points that the hon. Gentleman has made. He also asked me about the new Cabinet Committee on European Affairs. That Committee is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, and the deputy chairman is the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. It has met; it met for the first time last week. However, I must disappoint the hon. Gentleman by saying that it does not meet, and does not intend to meet, in public. There is no difference in that regard to the system for any Cabinet Committee. Members of the devolved Administrations are not members of the Cabinet Committee on European Affairs but they continue to meet under the aegis of the Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe, to prepare for the European Councils each year.
Mr Lidington: The hon. Gentleman says that, but we want to make our relationships with the devolved Administrations work a lot better than they used to during his time in office; that is one of the differences that the new Government intend to make. We want to turn not only those formal meetings but our regular contacts with our colleagues in the devolved Administrations into something that informs the development of our approach to European affairs. Now, having said that, I must press on.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone asked questions about a number of detailed issues and I want to reply very quickly to those questions. So far, there are no proposals at all on the table that would require the UK or any other member state to submit its budget plans to the Commission in advance of informing Parliament, and my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor have all made it clear that we would be utterly opposed to any such proposal.
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of some of the current proposals on financial services, which are with the European institutions now. In particular, the de Larosière package on financial supervision is a matter of primary importance to the interests of this country. Yesterday, in both the formal proceedings of the General Affairs Council and in bilateral conversations with some of my counterparts from other countries, I said that we wanted to see the unanimous agreement that was reached on the proposal at ECOFIN in December 2009 maintained in any future drafts of that proposal.
The hon. Member for Luton North asked about agricultural policy reform. The Government remain committed to a policy of common agricultural policy reform that would see an end to the direct subsidy of production, a reduction in the external tariffs on foodstuffs, bringing them down to the same level of external tariffs that apply on other goods, and an end to the practice of dumping EU produce on the markets of developing countries, which undercuts those countries' own farmers.
A number of hon. Members spoke about excess EU regulation. I know that both the Cabinet Committee on European Affairs, which I am a member of, and the Regulatory Sub-Committee of the Cabinet Committee
on Economic Affairs will be keeping a very close eye on that issue. Excess EU regulation comes not only from Europe itself. Too often, there is gold-plating in Whitehall of European legislation, which is something that we are also determined to guard against.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone said one thing that I will quarrel with him about-in a good-humoured manner-and it was about EU enlargement. I disagree with him on this issue. I think that the enlargement of the EU has entrenched political stability, the rule of law and democratic institutions in Spain, Portugal, Greece and in central and eastern Europe. It is actually a tremendous achievement on the part of the EU. If one contrasts the picture today in those parts of our continent with what we saw in those same countries in the 1920s and 1930s, I think that the advantages and the strengths of the EU's approach are demonstrated.
My hon. Friend rightly said that many people in Europe are frightened, angry and disillusioned. That is why we need to push forward a positive British agenda, to get European people back to work, to free up markets, to enhance free trade with the rest of the world and to demonstrate an advance towards a cleaner and greener European economy. At the same time, we need to champion vigorously the interests of the UK within the EU, to increase accountability to the British people and to increase the democratic legitimacy of the decisions that Ministers take in Europe, ensuring that it is the people who can take the final decision on any future transfer of power from this country to European institutions.
Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate. I appreciate that the whole House had an opportunity to debate the situation in the middle east yesterday, but I am sure that hon. Members will be tolerant of our having a debate today that concentrates specifically on issues affecting Gaza, given that they have been of so much concern in the past few weeks.
The crisis in Gaza is central to the broader crisis between Israel and Palestine, and that conflict, in turn, is one of the most important in global political terms. It is crucial that British parliamentarians and the UK Government, along with the European Union, the United Nations and the Quartet partners, redouble our efforts to ensure that the blockade of Gaza is lifted. However, that is simply the most immediate step towards a lasting peace settlement, without which we are doomed to see repeats of the present situation. Not least because this point is often misrepresented, it is essential to restate that Israel has entirely legitimate security needs that must be met; but that can happen only if the Palestinian people have the right to a viable and secure state within sovereign borders.
As we are all aware, the latest crisis was triggered on 31 May, when Israeli forces boarded one of six vessels in the flotilla carrying aid to Gaza, killing nine Turkish nationals. Accounts of the event vary widely, of course, and have varied over time as different presentations of events have appeared in the media. From the footage that we have seen, there seems to be no doubt that Israeli soldiers were themselves subject to violent attack. However, Israel originally stated that its soldiers were fired on first-a claim for which no evidence has been provided-and that they were equipped with paintball guns, whereas the BBC's "Newsnight" on 1 June showed that Israeli solders had been carrying lethal weapons from the beginning. Although we can draw some conclusions from the footage made available to date, we cannot yet be certain of all that happened on that day.
It is crucial that the inquiry into those events wins the confidence of the international community. Whether that can be true of an internal inquiry with foreign observers, as opposed to the independent investigation requested by the UN, is open to doubt at the very least. It would be interesting to hear the Minister's view of the robustness of the internal inquiry promised by Israel.
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. As she is moving on from the events involving the flotilla, may I take this opportunity to ask what her response is to the experience of one of my constituents, Theresa McDermott, who was on one of the other boats in the flotilla? Although live weapons were, fortunately, not involved, Theresa McDermott experienced what can only be described as brutality by Israeli forces, who fired sound grenades directly at people, tasered them and so on. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is another reason why an independent inquiry into what happened on the flotilla is needed, and that it would also be in Israel's own interests to clear up what happened?
Ms Buck: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. It is of course true that in discussing the flotilla, we have, perhaps understandably, concentrated on the terrible events that led to nine deaths, but there are certainly grave allegations about what happened on the other boats in the flotilla. It is in everyone's interests-including Israel's, in my view-that the inquiry is sufficiently independent to win confidence. That is so often the case with such inquiries.
I have visited Gaza twice in the past three years. I spent two days there in March as part of a parliamentary delegation. On both occasions, what I saw shocked and appalled me. As an important preamble, let me say that on my previous visit in late 2007-I was there with other hon. Friends here today-I was able to visit Sderot, one of the southern Israeli towns subjected to rocket attacks from within the Gaza strip. Although it should not be necessary, I restate that rocket attacks on the civilian population, such as those that rained down on Sderot, constitute war crimes. I have no doubt that everyone taking part in this and other debates condemns such attacks without reservation. Israeli civilians have a right to peace and security. It is right that reasonable steps should be taken to prevent the flow of weapons into Gaza and to expect that attacks on the civilian population should not take place from within Gaza.
Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate her on securing the debate. I am listening carefully to what she is saying. Does she agree that the key problem behind the current crisis is the fact that Hamas, which rules Gaza, refuses absolutely to recognise the existence of the state of Israel?
Ms Buck: I have not instituted this debate in order to act as an apologist for Hamas. There is absolutely no doubt that Hamas is a critical player in the crisis in the middle east, and neither I nor, I am sure, other parliamentarians are here to defend its role. The conflict is deep and intractable and Hamas must take responsibility for its share. However, with that important caveat, it seems to me that the issue underlying the wider crisis in Palestine and the situation in Gaza is the proportionality of the response and the collective punishment of the civilian population of Gaza.
Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Surely there can be no excuse whatever for the acts of terrorism against the people of Israel, and the best way to stop the blockade is by Hamas stopping its terrorism so that people can live together in peace and harmony?
Ms Buck: I am grateful for that intervention. I was not aware that I was in any way excusing acts of terrorism; I do not do that. However, although I do not want to be diverted into the chronology of recent events, it is also true that Hamas has instituted truces in the rocket attacks on any number of occasions, but that those truces have not led to the sort of response that would allow us to make progress. I am sure that colleagues seeking to participate in the debate will discuss that further. That is true in respect of both Gaza and settlement building in the west bank. The way forward to peace involves initiatives taken by both sides.
Mr Slaughter: The general tone of the interventions so far seems to suggest that Palestinians have brought this upon themselves by electing a Hamas Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever the political issues in the middle east, punishing the Palestinian people collectively for exercising their democratic right is entirely wrong?
Ms Buck: I agree totally and that is the main thrust of my contribution today. There are issues of proportionality and collective punishment. The 1.5 million citizens of Gaza should not be subjected to the impact of the siege because of the Government that they chose-or, in many cases, did not choose-to elect.
Israel has stated frequently that the occupation of Gaza ended in 2005 with the withdrawal of 8,000 settlers. However, as it has at any time since 1967, Israel has remained firmly in control of Gaza's sovereignty, controlling its borders, airspace and coastal waters and retaining the right to enter at will. Gaza is surrounded on three sides by a security fence, and a seam zone extending up to 1 km into the territory is enforced by snipers to prevent anyone from approaching the fence. Palestinian farmers entering the zone are liable to be shot at by border guards, while fishermen seeking to fish away from the highly polluted coastline are regularly fired on by the Israeli navy. Leaving aside the casualties of Operation Cast Lead in 2009, 31 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces and 116 injured since the beginning of 2010 alone. On 7 June, six Palestinians were killed off the coast of Gaza.
Since 2007, the control of Gaza's borders has tightened further, to the extent of its being an all-encompassing siege. The people of that grossly over-populated strip-measuring only 10 km from east to west-have been denied all freedom of movement, have extremely limited access to vital goods and services and, perhaps most crucial, have been denied access to construction materials needed to rebuild the many homes and facilities destroyed during Operation Cast Lead.
The agreement on movement and access stipulates that 15,500 trucks a month should be allowed to enter Gaza via the crossing points with Israel. Since June 2007, however, the actual volume has typically been about 20% of that number. Between May and June this year, only 400 trucks entered Gaza-one third of the pre-siege level. The trucks are supposed to contain everything that the 1.5 million people of Gaza need to survive, yet only 73 sanctioned items were permitted. Items that were blocked-there has been very recent movement on this-included pasta, powdered milk, jam, cooking oil, school books and textbooks and T-shirts.
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