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UK Politics

Home Secretary sees off Euro-predator easily seen off 1/42 decky

The Government was spared another high-profile debate rubbing salt into its European wounds when a heavily-trailed rebellion in a Commons committee failed to materialise yesterday.

"Close this place down," growled a disappointed Sir Teddy Taylor as his Eurosceptic colleague Bernard Jenkin proved a paper tiger and fell into line following assurances on immigration policy from Michael Howard, the Home Secretary.

Thrust into the limelight for a morning, European Standing Committee B rejected by 7 votes to 6 a Labour move to force a debate on the floor of the House about EU frontier controls.

The committee has the specialist task of scrutinising legislation proposed by Brussels; relieving the Commons of a late-night duty regarded as tedious by all but a dozen or so sceptics and an even smaller number of Europhiles.

For the Government, the arrangement has the merit of taking potentially troublesome issues out of the chamber. Any MP can attend and speak in the committee proceedings but only members can vote.Mr Jenkin, MP for Colchester N, a member of the committee,had been looked to by the likes of Sir Teddy and other non-member sceptics, to rebel and vote with Labour for a full debate.

Yesterday's bloated attendance included Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor, Charles Wardle, who resigned as a Home Office minister earlier this year to oppose EU immigration policy, anda clutch of the whipless rebels - all of them overshadowed by a massive non-communautaire mural of Alfred resisting the landing of the Danes.

Mr Howard repeatedly underlined John Major's assurance that the Government would "take whatever steps are necessary to protect and maintain our frontier controls". Intervening, Tony Marlow, the rebel MP for Northampton N, asked if that action would exclude "the possibility of threatening to leave the EU"? But Mr Howard would not be drawn.

He said he did not believe the proposed External Frontiers Convention, governing the entry of non-EU citizens, would come within the competence of commission or be subject to the European Court of Justice. It was an intergovernmental arrangement.

Offering enough to secure Mr Jenkin's vote, he promised the Government would not ratify the convention before the legislation had been enacted by Parliament in the normal way. "I can agree to bring the final text of the convention back to Parliament before it is signed."

Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, focused a proposed common list of third countries whose nationals would require visas to enter the EU, and a "negative list" of individuals who if barred by one EU state could not enter any other.

"The writ of a policeman in Athens, Naples or Palermo who decides to put an individual on the list will run all through the EU, Mr Straw said.

Blacklisted by a policeman in Palermo after a minor offence, the only line of appeal would be to the same policeman in Palermo, he explained. "I find this an alarming idea."Mr Straw was equally scathing about the visa requirement - which will be a community matter. Not finalised, the list includes 28 Commonwealth countries. The regime would affect "the granny from South Africa or Zambia" visiting a relative but not a Colombian drug dealer, he said.

In the event, the vote was on straight party lines. Non-member Iain Duncan- Smith, Conservative MP for Chingford, complained afterwards that it was "another slippery slope". He was unpersuaded that Britain would not be brought before the European court for preserving border controls.

Labour Eurosceptic Nigel Spearing, MP for Newham S, was similarly unconvinced. Though not ratified, the convention could already have been agreed before the Government brought legislation to the House and then it would be whipped through. "Mr Howard's assurance isn't as good as it sounds," he said.

A Brussels proposal of an altogether wilder sort was scorned during Scottish Office questions when Under-Secretary Lord James Douglas-Hamilton said a European Community directive to return the wolf to the Highlands was "indefensible".

The last Scottish wolf was killed 250 years ago and the minister was rather overstating the power of the habit and species directive to get the creatures back. It simply allows member states to consider the desirability and feasibility of reintroducing species.

So far Scottish Natural Heritage, the government's agent, has reintroduced the red kite and the white-tailed sea eagle.

"At present there are no plans to reintroduce wolves in Scotland," said a Scottish Office spokesman. The "no plans" formula as used by ministers has in the past proved no long-term guarantee, but the spokesman added that "no reintroduction of predators would be considered with public consultation and ministerial approval".

Lord Howe of Aberavon, the former foreign secretary, who took Britain out of Unesco in 1985, urged the Government to mark the 50th anniversary of the United Nations by rejoining its educational, social and cultural arm. Taking part in a debate on the UN, Lord Howe told peers withdrawal from Unesco was never intended to be a permanent step.

The object was to secure essential changes in the management of the organisation, he said, disclosing that he had written to Mr Major in 1993 urging that Britain should rejoin within two years.

Replying, Baroness Chalker, Minister of Sate at the Foreign Office, said the question of Britain's return to Unesco was being kept under close review. "We must take into account the existing financial pressures of other priority demands for resources, as well as the progress which has been made on reform."