First Day

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 4:53 pm on 6th May 1992.

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Photo of Mr Patrick McNair-Wilson Mr Patrick McNair-Wilson , New Forest 4:53 pm, 6th May 1992

I, too, congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your elevation to high office. I hope that your burden will be lighter as a result of the private Bill reforms that were passed in the last Parliament.

I also have enormous pleasure in congratulating the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). His predecessor, Sir Patrick Duffy, and I entered the House together 28 years ago. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that all his colleagues felt great affection for him. The hon. Gentleman's speech has shown that his constituency of Attercliffe has chosen a worthy successor. Having listened to his remarks, I hope that we shall hear plenty more from him in the years ahead.

It is clear from the Gracious Speech that much of this Session will be devoted to matters relating to Europe. Indeed, Her Majesty said that not only will legislation be introduced but that she will visit many of the major European countries during the next year. Europe is now suffering grave political instability, partly because old regimes are coming under new pressures—I am thinking particularly of Germany—and partly because other countries, such as our French neighbours, have found that the operation of their socialist Administrations have caused great economic difficulties. The fact that the last Prime Minister of France, Mrs. Edith Cresson, lasted only 10 months is evidence of that. Belgium has a deep political problem, with the old difficulties between the Flemish and Walloons re-emerging once again, and Italy has just had another general election.

It is therefore extremely important that the House looks carefully at every step on the way to further European integration. It might not be unreasonable to suggest that, given the changes that have taken place in the past three years, the whole concept needs to go back to the drawing board. The Europe of today grew out of the concept of Mr. Monnet's idea of a balanced community—states of approximately the same political and economic weight. However, the re-emergence of a united Germany has clearly upset that balance. One day, Germany will not only be the largest member state, but will probably have the strongest economy and currency.

The Gracious Speech says: My Government will pursue, within the framework of the exchange rate mechanism, firm financial policies designed to achieve price stability and maintain the conditions necessary for sustained growth. I recognise that that will be an extremely difficult task. We are currently members of an exchange rate mechanism in which the bench-mark currency is that of one of the countries in the greatest difficulty. It could be argued that the concept of choosing the deutschmark as the bench-mark currency should be reviewed and that we should not always be left with the same single European currency.

Mr. Delors has chosen this time of imbalance to escalate the argument for creating within Europe a separate European Government. I believe that most hon. Members would reject that concept. I listened with great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Mr. Knox), because he is committed to the concept of a united Europe. Too many hon. Members, because they consider themselves "bien passant" with the concept of Europe—they have exchanges with friends in Europe and go there for their holidays—seem to believe that Europe is one country. It most certainly is not. As I explained in my speech on the Loyal Address last year, I have a home in Europe and many friends tell me of their worries and problems. Listening to their concerns, I realise that Europe is not one happy family but a group of countries, each with its own aspirations and determined to get the best possible deal for itself. Our future lies within that concept of what General de Gaulle described as "Europe des patries".

Later in the Gracious Speech I note a reference to the Maastricht treaty and I recognise how careful we must be in our approach to that legislation. Many people in Europe are nervous about the Maastricht treaty. People in France, Germany and elsewhere are far from satisfied that we should proceed in that way. After all, we talk about the convergence of economies. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in a brilliant speech earlier, spoke of his hopes for the widening of the Community and the new countries that might join by the turn of the century. But if we are to have that convergence of economies hinted at in the Maastricht treaty, we must be frank and admit that substantial amounts of money will have to be paid by the richer countries to the poorer countries in Europe to bring about that convergence.

The people of this country have still not fully understood what that real convergence could mean and the price that would have to be paid. Without that convergence, the concept of a single currency is meaningless. I do not believe that that convergence is possible and, therefore, I do not believe that the single currency will follow. The single currency would not be in the best interests of the people of Europe.

Of course, I understand the argument advanced that it would be convenient for business people to be able to move around within the Community without having to change their money from one currency to another. That is a matter of great importance, and I believe that the British Government's concept of the hard ecu is better than the notion of a single currency operated from a single, central bank somewhere in Europe, which removes this country's ability to manage its own affairs. People used to laugh at the words, "loss of sovereignty", but if we cannot issue our own money, we have no control over our destiny. I cannot believe that it is right to adopt that approach without seriously considering what we are doing.

I listened to the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and was as confused by him today as I was during our last debate on the Gracious Speech. He talked about joining the 2·5 per cent. band of the exchange rate mechanism in one breath and of reducing interest rates in the next. Does he not realise that the straitjacket of the 2·5 per cent. band would have made even the modest reduction in interest rates announced by the Chancellor yesterday almost impossible? We need the freedom of the 6 per cent. band if we are to be able to take the actions necessary to bring this country and others in the Community out of international recession. While we may be devoting much time to Europe in the next 16 to 18 months, there is no doubt that we need to proceed with great caution.

The Gracious Speech also stated: Legislation will be presented to facilitate the work of the Parliamentary Boundary Commissions. No one could be more anxious than me for a swift conclusion to the commissioners' suggestions based on commonsense solutions. But I shall mention a matter affecting my district. Part of my constituency includes the perambulation of the Crown lands of the New Forest. It is perhaps appropriate to mention that today, the day on which Her Majesty read her speech from the Throne.

Those Crown lands are what most people would call the New Forest. They have always been retained in one constituency, as that gives the Member of Parliament for that constituency—of whichever party—the opportunity to argue and negotiate with Ministers about the help required to protect that unique national heritage.

In 1983 the parliamentary commissioners reconsidered the demography of the district and, as a result, decided to make alterations to the constituency boundary affecting that perambulation. As a result of evidence that I gave to a local inquiry, the commissioners' report, Cmnd Paper 8797—1 of February 1983, concluded: The assistant Commissioner accepted that the whole of the historic area of the New Forest should be within one constituency. On 6 February 1992 the boundary commissioners published proposals for the parliamentary constituency boundaries in Berkshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. In those more recent proposals—to which the passage in the Gracious Speech refers—they go back on their word and divide the perambulation into two seats.

I have nothing against the concept of two constituencies in that part of Hampshire, based largely on population. However, it is ironic that the Isle of Wight, which has 101,000 electors, is not being touched—I shall put that matter to one side. But if we are to facilitate the boundary commissioners' actions, we must hope that the legislation contains a clause to ensure that the commissioners stick to the guidelines to which they agreed in 1983 and which were based on community interest, rather than divide a region of such national and international importance between two parts of the parliamentary system.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is coming to the New Forest on Monday to participate in the opening of a new committee designed to help protect the district—the New Forest committee—which will ultimately have statutory powers. Its headquarters will be in Lyndhurst which is regarded as the capital of the forest but, if the proposals are accepted, the rest of the Crown lands would come under another constituency.

The Gracious Speech has set out an exciting programme for this Session of Parliament. Many matters to which we shall return are part of the heritage that this Government have inherited from their predecessors. For the past 13 years we have mapped out a road for Britain—rolling back the frontiers of state monopoly and control, and giving freedom to our citizens. The result of the general election is clear in that it shows that the people of this country broadly suppport those objectives. I warmly welcome the Gracious Speech.