HC Deb 10 December 1998 vol 322 cc467-9
4. Mr. Hugh Bayley (City of York)

What initiatives the Treasury is taking to help United Kingdom businesses prepare for the possibility that the United Kingdom joins the euro. [61748]

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Ms Patricia Hewitt)

The Government will be publishing an outline national changeover plan early next year as a first step in setting out the practical steps that would need to be followed if the United Kingdom decided to join the single currency.

Mr. Bayley

Does my hon. Friend recall that Conservative European policy more than doubled VAT from 8 to 17.5 per cent., extended the scope of VAT to include gas and electricity, and agreed to the abolition of duty-free, all in the name of European Union tax harmonisation? Does she agree that it is important that UK businesses prepare to use the euro, regardless of whether we join, and that the introduction of the euro has no bearing whatever on our resisting further EU tax harmonization?

Ms Hewitt

I entirely agree with all my hon. Friend's points. I am sure that he will agree with me when I say how extraordinary it is that the Conservative party is no longer waiting and seeing, but has decided to be the anti-European party—it has turned its back on Europe and on the British national interest.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

As part of the process of preparing business for the possibility of our

entering European monetary union, will someone explain that our entry would mean massive new taxation, partly to compensate poor countries for the misery that they will suffer as a result of joining the euro?

Ms Hewitt

We hear again the authentic voice of the Conservative party—it is opposed to Europe and to Britain's continuing membership of the European Union. As more than half our trade is with the rest of the European Union, it is essential for British business that we assist it to prepare for the introduction of the euro next year.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Does my hon. Friend share my excitement about the coverage of European economic affairs in The Sunday Times, The Times and The Sun? Has she seen the marvellous articles that they have published showing how clothes, cars, computers and food are much cheaper in Europe than in Britain after 20 years of Tory rule? As the rate of VAT in Germany is 16 per cent., does she agree that British consumers would welcome the harmonisation of our VAT down to red Oskar levels?

Ms Hewitt

I am not sure that I share my hon. Friend's excitement, but he makes an extremely important point about the extent to which British consumers in many product markets are paying higher prices than consumers do in other parts of the European Union and, indeed, in the United States of America. In striking contrast to the previous Government, this Government are determined to strengthen our competition laws in the interests of the British consumer. As my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary and my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary set out last night, we have a clear position on taxation in the European Union, unlike the Conservative party, which has ceased defending the British national interest in the EU.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells)

Will the hon. Lady assure the House that no public money, either from the European Union budget or from the Treasury, will be used to fund propaganda for the euro? In particular, will she confirm that the new parliamentary Liaison Committee, which is chaired by a Labour Back Bencher, will be used only to help businesses to prepare for a new foreign currency on 1 January and not to soften them up and persuade them that the United Kingdom should join the euro?

Ms Hewitt

If the right hon. Gentleman is referring to our recent campaign to raise the awareness of small and medium businesses about the introduction of the euro, I hope that that is something that he will support. As for the cross-party Committee to which he refers, he will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, in his letters of 10 November, said that the group will be designed to act as a channel for the exchange of information and to develop cross-party awareness of the continuing preparations for the Euro. I hope that, despite the anti-European stance of his party, he will agree that it is in the interests of British business and British citizens to be aware of the continuing preparations for the euro.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the initiatives taken by my colleagues in the Dudley metropolitan borough—which includes my constituency—regarding the introduction of European measures. Will she also welcome the good work being done by the Dudley training and enterprise council and Dudley business link in helping businesses on all European issues? Will she allay the fears that any small businesses in my constituency may have, and state that we will support them?

Ms Hewitt

I am happy to welcome the work of Dudley council in helping local businesses to prepare for the introduction of the euro. It is extremely important that small and medium businesses which are trading with suppliers and buyers within the euro-zone are aware of the implications for them of the introduction of the euro on 1 January. I congratulate the council on the work that it is doing in assisting local businesses, and small businesses in her constituency and across the country can rely upon the Treasury to assist them in practical terms in taking advantage of the opportunities that the introduction of the euro will provide.

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