Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether there is provision in the Commission work programme to deal with the new relationship for the United Kingdom that I believe the Prime Minister will be sketching in his forthcoming speech.
Mr Lidington: I appreciate that my right hon. Friend finds it hard to contain his excitement at the prospect of the Prime Minister’s speech. He will, however, understand if I decline to be drawn into speculating about the contents of that speech today. I am very confident indeed that when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister makes his promised speech on European policy, it will address the important issues facing both the United Kingdom and Europe as a whole, and will chart a way forward that is in the interests of the people of this country in particular and the peoples of Europe more broadly.
Mr Redwood: Has not the EU been legislating all my lifetime? It has far more regulation than anyone could conceivably want. Why does it not have a year off? How can the Minister possibly say that it is going our way when all we see is more and more needless, time-consuming and costly regulation?
Mr Lidington: To be fair, that is a charge my right hon. Friend has levied not only at the European Union but at successive Governments in this country. I certainly agree that too often the European Commission’s first instinct—to be fair, too often it is the first instinct of Departments of State in this country—is to measure its activity and political success by the number of new legislative measures it invents and takes through the legislative process. Often—I certainly believe this is true at European level—more could be achieved more effectively and significantly more cheaply through a sensible exchange of best practice, by looking at what works in one member state but perhaps does not work in another and seeing whether it is possible to encourage the dissemination of best practice rather than always looking at legislative measures as the first step.
I do not want to exaggerate the extent to which the Government have been able to shift a deeply ingrained culture that looks to legislation, but I think that it is important that the House appreciates that we have managed to secure some changes that none of our predecessors, of either party, managed to secure. Last year we got agreement to a measure under which businesses with fewer than 10 employees should be exempt altogether from any new EU legislative proposals unless there was a good reason for their inclusion. This is the first time in the EU’s history that the default position has been that there should be an exemption from regulations rather than the inclusion of all companies within them. Agreement was reached, too, that lighter regimes should be developed for those occasions when such businesses needed to be included. For example, in March last year agreement was reached that exempted up to 1.5 million UK small businesses from certain European Union accounting rules.
Mr Redwood: The Leader of the Opposition recently made a very interesting speech, in which he said that Labour had probably been a little too lax on migrants coming into this country during its period in office and that there was going to be a new policy. What would the hon. Lady like to see in the Commission’s work programme to ensure that we can have proper controls on our borders?
Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): That would be an innovative use of the Commission’s work programme, given that that is not an element of it. The Leader of the Opposition did say in a recent speech that we got it wrong in government and that we should not have had an open-door policy in 2004. I think that we should have been more in line with our European partners. We were one of the small handful of countries that had an open-door policy right from the start. Germany and other countries had transition periods, and we are certainly committed to them in the future.
Developing modern and efficient infrastructure, both digital and physical, is central to ensuring that the single market adapts to a rapidly changing world. It would be impossible for member states of the EU to meet the challenges of tomorrow using the tools of yesterday. We therefore welcome many of the proposals in the “Connect to Compete” section of the programme, particularly those to tackle obstacles to electronic payments across borders.
In the “Growth for jobs” section of the work programme, the Commission is right to express the concern that“high unemployment, increased poverty and social exclusion risk becoming structural”in Europe if no action is taken.
It is an absolute tragedy that one in every two young people in Greece and Spain are out of work. Here in the UK, youth unemployment is too high and long-term unemployment is a real problem. Last year, including over Christmas, more people than ever before had to use food banks for their families’ basic needs. The Government seem to have few answers or solutions to those problems. The Opposition believe it is incredibly important that effective policies are formulated and implemented both here in the UK and across the EU to reduce unemployment drastically and to reduce poverty.