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Europe has a remorseless power to drag us in. It is rather like the conversation between Brer Rabbit and the tar baby-punch it, and we are stuck. The drive to ever-closer union drags us in, because Ministers never want to rock the boat or be disruptive. They do not
want to stand and fight on any particular issue. Even the courageous and esteemed Yorkshireman who holds the position of Foreign Secretary is now beginning to say nicer things about Europe in the dulcet tones of his Yorkshire accent. That is a symptom of the way in which this Government are being drawn in. Instead of making a stand on the increase in the budget by 2.9%-it will go up because there are in-built drivers that will make it rise-they accepted the remorseless rise in contributions. The cost of implementing all the regulations must now cost the country about £40 billion a year, which is as big as the cuts that the Government are trying to make.
Each party gets drawn in. Ministers do not like confrontation, so we go down the path remorselessly. I do not know who said, "Talk tough and carry a big stick", but Ministers talk tough and carry a feather duster. They come back from Europe waving the feather duster saying, "I didn't get exactly what the House of Commons or the people wanted. I had to make compromises, of course, so I went along with this. Believe me, it is only a small increase in the power of Europe. We can trust them. This will cause no problems and will be acceptable." Disastrous consequences follow. That is how Europe progresses. In this country, we always discover the extent of the disaster and the damaging consequences of the concessions long after the event. The classic example is the common fisheries policy, which was sold as an accommodation to Europe that would not be difficult or cause many problems.
Kwasi Kwarteng: I am very grateful for the hon. Gentleman giving way, notwithstanding my not representing a fishing port. I want to know the position taken by the hon. Gentleman and his party on the idea of the referendum lock. In all his eloquent words, I have not worked out his position on that question.
Austin Mitchell: When the hon. Gentleman has been here longer, he will appreciate that my position is not exactly the same as that of my party's Front Benchers. My position is sensible, austere and Eurosceptic, and I am anxious for the consultation of the people in any matters that involve the sacrifice of power to Europe. We should have had a referendum on the Lisbon treaty-I concede that point. I and other hon. Members argued for it strenuously at the time, but we were overruled. That was a retrograde step that made the treaty and its provisions less acceptable to this country, because the people felt that they were being imposed on them. I am in favour of referendums, and I do not think that the Bill is strong enough in that respect.
"would introduce a watertight referendum lock on future EU treaties"-
"I doubt whether the Lady herself could have done much better in the circumstances"?
I was giving the example of the CFP, which was sold to us as harmless. We were told that it would lead to effective conservation because everybody would be involved, everybody had access to our waters and everybody would make decisions collectively. However, it led to the decimation of our fish stocks and the looting, frankly, of about £3 billion-worth of fish and jobs. There is nothing that we can do about that, because it happened under Ted Heath, who used to come down to the House in every fishing debate and justify his mistake. It is all in the past, and we discovered the problem only later. That is what happens.
My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) argued that people are not interested in the details, which is certainly true. We in Grimsby are perhaps more interested than people in Wales in all matters European, particularly to do with fishing boats, but people are not interested in details. The consequences of what happens are interesting, however, because they cause the loss of jobs and employment.
There was a provision in the Lisbon treaty-was it article 121?-stating that aid could be invoked by majority vote in the event of threats to the euro from natural disasters. It has now been invoked for aid to Ireland, which will drag us into making huge contributions not only to Ireland-the Chancellor of the Exchequer projected that as a one-off-but to the other states that follow in the domino-like collapse that will happen. The consequences of concessions that are said to be of no damage, of no great moment and unimportant become clear only later. The Bill provided an opportunity to resist that process, but disappointingly, it is not strong enough.
When we consider the amendments, we should view the European situation with a certain amount of scepticism. The committee referred to in new clause 9 would be controlled by the Whips and by Government, whatever we are told about the intentions behind it. I am suspicious of proposals to modify European powers that come from Euro-enthusiasts such as my party's Front Benchers. What is in it for them? They want Europe to have its way, and the new clause is a way of allowing that while appearing to protect us.
I support amendment 11 and shall certainly vote for it if there is a vote-I hope there is, because I want to support it. However, we cannot be sure that, if the House were faced with a choice of whether to reverse a Minister's decision that an issue was not worth a referendum, it would take the decision independently. Debates such as today's give a clue as to what would happen. We happy band of Eurosceptics, including most of the Members present, have argued consistently, been right all along and warned of the consequences of what has happened. Those disastrous consequences have emerged, but nobody has said, "Oh, my God, we should have listened to the Eurosceptics on this matter." People have constantly abused us for rocking the boat and as dissenters and just a nuisance, but we are right, and we are right to fight.
However, we cannot be sure that we will win the fight. Should a matter be referred to the House under amendment 11, the House would be whipped as always
and Members would see their careers relying on voting with the Government. They would think, "I shall get a powerful position even more quickly, as a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister for Bathing Pools, or I shall be given a junior ministerial job in charge of seeing that library books are returned promptly"-if any libraries are left open under the Government's proposals. Ambition, love of the party and support for the party will always whip people into line. Amendment 11 would not put a roadblock in Ministers' way; it would erect another hurdle that they would be forced to jump. That would be salutary for them, because the more hurdles they jump, the more exhausted they will get and the greater the chance that we will eventually prevail.
Members have mentioned the number of people who come into their constituency surgeries to talk about Europe. I am not overwhelmed with European issues in my surgery, but I do hear a lot of concern about Europe when I go to businesses and large organisations in my constituency. They are getting concerned about regulation, excessive interference and so on, and they think-and are sometimes right to think-that it all emanates from the European Union. It is therefore important that we give due consideration to the need to allow the electorate as a whole to speak about Europe. That is why the Bill is so important. It will, once and for all, stop the disgraceful situation of a Government promising to have a referendum on a significant change-the treaty of Lisbon-and then failing to do so. The Bill will prevent that, and quite right too.
The Bill will do a few other things as well. It will encourage a better understanding of Europe, because we will discuss it more often and engage the electorate with the issue more comprehensively. They, in turn, will learn more about Europe and our relationship with it. That will be good not just because it will deal with the incorrect assumption that the electorate will not be able to understand a referendum question, but because it will ensure that they become much more interested in what we are doing about Europe.
The same applies to the situation in Parliament. The Bill means that we will pass a lot more Acts of Parliament if and when changes are made to our relationship with Europe. Those processes, taken together, will make us less reactive to what happens in Europe and much more proactive in ensuring that Britain's interests are properly discussed, represented and promoted. The Bill will be really important for that reason.
New clause 9, tabled by the Labour Front Benchers, is a blatant attempt to look good without being good. They are attempting to suggest to everybody that they want referendums, but they are actually suggesting a deliberate mechanism to ensure that they would not necessarily need to have them. That is what it is, that is what it would do, and that is why we must not accept it.
Let us consider the discussions that we had about the treaty of Lisbon versus the Giscard d'Estaing constitution. The Labour Front Benchers attempted to say at the time, and repeated earlier today, that the treaty of Lisbon was not anything like the Giscard d'Estaing constitution. Absolute piffle-that was just not the
case. The treaty was a fundamental change, and it required a proper referendum. If Labour cannot get that right, how would the committee that it suggests make any progress? How could it resolve the problems? That answer is that it could not and would not, because it would be subject to the pressures of Government, the whipping system, which my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) mentioned, and so on. The committee would not have enough teeth, or be cohesive enough, to enforce the approach that we need when it comes to deciding whether we should have a referendum.
To make matters worse, we would be asking Parliament to decide what was substantive and what was not. That is also the problem with amendment 11, which would lead us into trouble and is also unnecessary. As I have said, Parliament will have to pass Acts if there are substantive changes, or any changes at all that affect our relationship with the European Union. New clause 9 is slightly misleading. The Opposition want to look as though they wanted referendums, but the new clause would make it possible not to have them at all, which is wrong.
Martin Horwood: There has been some discussion about the risk of votes being whipped. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a greater risk of a vote in Committee being whipped under the system that Labour Members propose, because the Executive can handpick the membership, than there is for a vote on the Floor of the House?
Neil Carmichael: Yes. My hon. Friend the Member for Dover went through the possible Members who could serve on the proposed committee, obviously with a slant towards those who are participating in the debate and are interested in the European Union. The point is much the same-the committee's membership would matter. The shadow Minister has not explained how it would be formed, managed and so on. However, we can assume that whipping would take place. That is not helpful.
I am also concerned about the role that new clause 9 would give the House of Lords, given the events of the past few weeks. We need to put that down as a marker when considering how the Bill would unfold if new clause 9 were accepted.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) is concerned about timing. He is absolutely right. He is a lawyer, and lawyers love time. [Interruption.] I have watched the clocks tick by myself. New clause 9 does not deal with that.
I tabled an amendment to get clarification on what constitutes a decision in the context of the outcome of a European Council meeting. That is important, and I hope that the Minister, when winding up, will explain what sort of decisions we should consider following a European Council or a meeting of the Council of Ministers, and when a decision is actually a decision.
We must acknowledge that the Bill will be seismically important to our relationship with Europe. It will also make a dramatic difference to the way in which the House and the Government deal with Europe in connection with the electorate. Far too often, people have found out about decisions some time afterwards. They have
not felt included in that decision making, and consequently and because of their concerns, they have felt angry about the decision.
I am convinced that we will shape a much better relationship with Europe if we have the courage to explain more and to engage people more effectively. The Bill will do that without new clause 9 and other amendments that would stop us from ensuring that Parliament is the first port of call for the necessary key decisions, and that the people are always consulted when those decisions are pivotal.
Kelvin Hopkins: I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak and I apologise to hon. Members for being unable to be present throughout the debate. I was delayed elsewhere in the House on European business.
I want strongly to support amendment 11, which the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) tabled and to which I was pleased to add my name. He made a powerful speech, which I want to echo and support.
It has been suggested that we might be governed by committees and that big decisions should be taken by a committee. I do not want a committee to make decisions about what is significant and what is not. Parliament should make those decisions, particularly this House. I am a unicameralist and therefore not so concerned about the other place. I believe that we should make the decisions in this House and be accountable to our voters because they clearly and rightly have strong feelings about the European Union.
I do not wish to be governed by judges, either. I worry about the constant reference to matters going to judicial review. I want the House, not judges, to make the decisions. As judges in the Supreme Court in America die, they are replaced by judges appointed by the President. If several judges die or retire at the same time, and a President of a particular persuasion appoints people in his own image, one has, for a generation or two, a Supreme Court that takes a particular view. Let us suppose that Tony Blair had had such a power. He would not have appointed lawyers with my views, but Euro-enthusiasts to a Supreme Court. For a generation, we would have been bogged down by a Supreme Court dominated by people who took a particular view of Europe.
Lawyers are supposed to be independent and to make balanced judgments, but one lawyer commented to me about the European arrest warrant, "Oh well, it's part of the European project, so we just say yes." We should not act in that way. We should consider matters individually, not say, "The euro's part of the European project, let's say yes to it", or, "The CAP's part of the European project, let's just nod it through." We do not do that. Britain has taken a strong position on many things that relate to the European Union, and we should continue in that way.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) on 90% of politics, but not on Europe. Portraying Britain as the naughty boy or surly youth of Europe, who is always being difficult, is wrong. I think that we are right and they are wrong. We have taken stands on subjects such as the euro, which is now in serious trouble. We are not being anti-Europe. We take
a particular view about how economies should be run. I believe that separate currencies are necessary shock absorbers for running economies.
Mr Jenkin: The Maastricht treaty was pushed through the House on the basis of our having an opt-out from the euro, and therefore that it would not affect us. Yet, even though we are not in the euro, we are deeply affected by the disaster that that treaty is inflicting on our continent.
Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman is right, and I apologise for momentarily forgetting the name of his constituency-Harwich and North Essex-earlier. I agree with him. We have been right so often. When I argue about the European Union, I do not do that in nationalist or theological terms. I ask people to consider the effects on the European economy, which has grown more slowly than it would have done without the euro.
Mr Cash: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those who take our position-the Euro-realists-are the pro-Europeans because the people who promote the extraordinarily damaging policies create the massive unemployment, riots and protests that are happening?
Kelvin Hopkins: Indeed. The hon. Gentleman is right again. Many of those who protested most strongly against matters in the European Union are people of the left-trade unions, working-class people, the unemployed, minorities and so on. We should not portray a right-left divide; the debate is about democracy and what works.
Martin Horwood: Is not the lowest unemployment in the European Union in Germany? Last time I looked, it was in the eurozone. Are not the countries that are particularly vulnerable those with large structural deficits? The problem is not particularly to do with their membership of the euro.
Kelvin Hopkins: That is interesting. We could have a long debate about the strength of the German economy relative to other countries in Europe. One thing that Germany wanted from the European Union was to get rid of barriers to its exports, particularly to France. Germany focused its efforts over generations, from Erhard onwards, on wisely ensuring that it had a massive and strong manufacturing base. We have not done that. If we had shown more of an Erhard approach to our policies-and Erhard was no socialist, but a Christian Democrat-we might have had a stronger economy.
As part of the post-war settlement, it was important for the west that West Germany-like Japan-succeeded, so it was allowed for a long time to have an undervalued Deutschmark, which gave it a competitive edge, behind which it built massively strong industries. That is the history. If one looks at the documentation-I used to write and read a lot about such things-one will see that the German surplus was a problem even in the 1970s. It has managed to sustain that for all that time, which was wise. Had we been a bit wiser, we might not have been in quite the weak position that we are in now. Every second car driving along the road is made in Germany, but where has our motor industry gone? We still have some of it, but it is nothing like Germany's. Germany has been very clever, and I cannot blame it at all.
Anyway, we are not debating that tonight. My concern this evening is to ensure that this Committee decides what is significant when it comes to deciding whether to hold a referendum. Ministers are parts of Governments, which are always under pressure. Many Ministers are fine people, but in the end, they must go along with what the core of the Government decides. Ever since I was a student more than 40 years ago, the two things that I have criticised are secrecy and the excessive centralisation of power, particularly in the Prime Minister. I read a book when I was a student called, "The Elected Monarch", which is about the position of the British Prime Minister. We must rebalance the power of the legislature relative to the Executive, which is why the House of Commons should vote on whether a matter is significant enough for a referendum. That should not be decided by a Minister, a Committee or a series of judges.
Kwasi Kwarteng: What does the hon. Gentleman say to the idea that even if amendment 11 were made, it would not bolster parliamentary sovereignty, because Government Whips will just whip through decisions about what is significant?
Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that everybody does what the Whips tell them, but that is not the case. If he looks at the history of the 13 years of Labour Government, he will find that there were rebellions-significant differences of view between certain Back Benchers and the Whips-on many serious votes, the most important of which was perhaps the Iraq war, when 139 Members, including me, voted against the Government, despite the Whips.
Kelvin Hopkins: The decision in favour of going to war was made with Conservative support. In the end, we are accountable not to the Whips. Clearly, we have a party system, and we are elected as party politicians, which I understand. By and large, on most things, we are guided by the Whips, but on some matters of fundamental principle, such as giving further powers to the EU or going to war, we must say, "What I believe and what I believe my electorate want is more important even than what the Whips advise." I hesitate to say that while my Front-Bench colleagues are listening, but in the end, we must occasionally take a stand.
Kelvin Hopkins: We must take all those things into account when we make our decisions, but we make those decisions and stand by them, which I like to think I have done. I have regretted one or two things, but the hon. Gentleman is right. In defence of two-party Government-or our party system-I do not believe that we are elected as individual anarchists. We are here to represent a philosophy and interests in society. I am not by nature an anarchist; I am a collective democrat. That is where I stand.
The most important aspect of amendment 11, which is in the name of the hon. Member for Hertsmere, is that it would have an impact on the EU, which the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) mentioned. If the EU wants to push something through that it suspects will be unpopular in this Parliament, it might not proceed if the provision in the amendment were in force, whereas if it thinks it must win over only the Minister, the Prime Minister or the Executive, it might think it will get away with it. If it knows that its proposals are likely to go to a referendum and that their significance will be voted on by the House, it will be a little more careful.
That impact on the EU is more significant than giving decisions to ourselves because we like to make decisions. The EU will be much more careful about its proposals if it thinks that they might be subject to a referendum in Britain, because it knows very well that the justifiably strong degree of Euroscepticism will come to the fore, that there could be a problem, and that it might not win. If the EU thinks that there is a chance of not winning a referendum, it will not risk it. A referendum is much more likely to be risked if a decision is made in this House rather than by the Minister. That is the way of things.
Finally, I want to draw a parallel. I mentioned the excessive centralisation of power in British politics, particular in No. 10 Downing street, the Prime Minister and his little entourage, but the other thing that is wrong is secrecy. I was a strong supporter of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. When it was going through Parliament, the Government proposed an amendment to the effect that we could have freedom of information except when the Minister says no. My good friend Tony Wright, the former Member for Cannock Chase and Chair of the Select Committee on Public Administration, led a rebellion. We did not win, but we made our point. He was very much a politician of the moderate left who would go along, by and large, with the leadership-he was not as critical as I was. He was an architect of that Act, and quite strongly in favour of it, but he was quite shocked when that qualification was proposed. Ministers are fine people who do a great job, but in the end, this House must make serious decisions about things, not just Ministers. I very much hope that the hon. Member for Hertsmere presses amendment 11 to a Division, and I certainly wish to vote for it.
Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): I should like to share with hon. Members why I think the Bill is the most significant thing that the Government will do in this Parliament. The House knows that I am a strong, enthusiastic supporter of the Government. I cheerfully look forward to voting for the Localism Bill, the education Bill, the Health and Social Care Bill, and many others that we will debate in next few years, but I do not exaggerate it when I say that this is most significant thing that we will do, because it is the "Thus far and no further" Bill.
Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have said that this Bill will start a debate on Europe in the country, but they are wrong. The country has had its debate on Europe. It made up its mind a very long time ago, and said, "Thus far and no further." Unfortunately, Parliament and previous Governments did not listen to the country and did not understand that that is the country's decision. They tried to continue to try to evade the will of the people by ratifying treaties of which the people wanted nothing.
The Bill is the Bill that says, "We have finally listened. We finally understand, and we will not put through any treaty, or any change or shift in sovereignty and power, that you, the people, do not want." That is why I believe -only somewhat mischievously-that the Bill should be viewed as a tribute to the indefatigable efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who sadly is no longer in his place. Although he and I disagree on many things-I will go on to say why I disagree with his amendments-it is clear that his achievement in the Bill is greater than the achievement of almost any Back Bencher I can remember, and probably greater than almost any Minister any of us can remember. For nearly 30 years, he has led the campaign to say, "Thus far and no further!" Tonight and on future nights when we debate the Bill, he will get his way, and he will have given to the British people what they want and what he has always wanted to give them-the right to say, "Thus far and no further!" Were he not quite so hale and hearty and not quite so obviously going to survive and outlive me-he will still be here long after I leave this place-I would even go so far as to suggest that the Bill be called the William Cash memorial Bill.
Having made that case, I want to say why I believe that the Opposition amendments are damaging in so many ways. Their amendment 85 is a poison pill-a poison pill coated in the sweet chocolate of parliamentary sovereignty and power, but a poison pill nevertheless. By moving the amendment, they are trying to seduce the great defenders of parliamentary sovereignty on the Government Benches into creating the possibility for them in the future to undo and reverse the effects of the Bill. They know that if they refer a decision to this committee of theirs, there is a chance-they cannot absolutely be certain who will be on it or how it will vote-that they can control it, whereas they know for a fact that there is no chance of controlling the British people. That is why their amendment is pernicious and insidious. That shows the view the Labour party has of the views of the British people on this great issue. It is that approach that informed its entirely insincere promise of a referendum on the European constitution-happily just before an election-and the attitude that led it to scuttle around, to persuade its European partners to take out a couple of things, to rename it a "treaty" and then to declare that there would be no referendum after all.
Government Members, as well as Opposition Members such as the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), who is so brave and forthright on this issue, should not be fooled by the amendment. I know that we are not allowed to call amendments "wrecking" amendments, but this amendment surely is designed to undermine the entire purpose of the Bill.
James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is exactly this sort of parliamentary fancy footwork that has undermined the public's trust in this place to deal with European matters?
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. Indeed, one of the most important things about the Bill-this has been eloquently addressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) and
others-is that it is an important step in rebuilding the trust of the people in Parliament to do, broadly speaking, what the people want, especially on great questions of independence and the constitution. It is vital that we do this. That is why it is so important that the Bill sets out in such painstaking detail exactly which changes will lead to a referendum. Frankly, we cannot ask people to trust us on this anymore. We, as a class-not just a party-cannot ask people to take our word for it when we say that there will be a referendum on anything. If they are to believe us, we need to put it into law, take it through both Houses of Parliament and make it very difficult to go back on.
That leads me neatly to the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone. He believes that they would make yet firmer the protection of the people's right to a referendum on European changes. I fear that in his enthusiasm for this cause of his, which has lasted so long, and in his commitment to the fight for our country's independence, he is in danger of not being able to take yes for an answer. Finally, he has the Bill that he wanted so much, but he is suspicious of every little compromise and every little attempt to make it workable. I fear that his amendments will actually make the Bill much, much weaker and much less likely to survive. By suggesting that there be no exemptions to the requirement for a referendum, he is suggesting that we end up paralysing the European Union for all its members.
I can understand the appeal of that to some of us-some of us might want to get our own back on this project for all the iniquities that it has inflicted on us-but would that not produce a diplomatic crisis that would lead to monumental pressure on future Governments, including perhaps a Labour Government, to amend, or even repeal, the Bill? A number of Members have talked about seeking to bind the hands of our successors-but we all seek to bind the hands of our successors. Every Act of Parliament seeks to bind the hands of our successors; it is just that, fortunately, we cannot insist on it. We try to do it by making legislation part of the settlement, the culture and habit of this place and our country. We are trying, therefore, to bind the hands of our successors with the Bill, but if we manacle ourselves to something unreasonable, we will make it easier for a plausible future leader of the Labour party to stand up and say, "This Bill is ruining our relations and undermining our trade with Europe, and it has to go." We must not give them that opportunity.
That is why I hope very much that my colleagues, who like me are rejoicing in the fact that we are finally listening to the British people, will reject the amendments tabled by the Opposition Front-Bench team and my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, and vote for this magnificent Bill.
George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con):
I have been a long-standing supporter of referendums and the role that they can play in strengthening our democracy. My first role in politics was campaigning for the Referendum party, way back in 1997, in favour of a referendum on the euro. The reason why I think that referendums really can work is that they bring some brutal common sense from the British public to
complicated debates. They are also cross-party campaigns. I remember campaigning against the euro-it is great to see the hon. Members for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) and for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) in their places-and that was a cross-party campaign. That can be incredibly important for our democracy. It is good for the public to see politicians from different parties working together on issues where they have a shared conviction, rather than simply campaigning across party lines. For that reason, referendums can be incredibly important.
It is also important to note that referendums are about issues rather than personalities. We hear a lot of people complain these days about personality politics and the presidential nature of certain elections where it is all about the tie or the suit that the politician is wearing, rather than the issues that they stand for. Referendums cut right through that. They are about the issue, and people focus on that issue rather than on politicians. For all those reasons, I think that referendums have an incredibly important role to play in strengthening our democracy, and I welcome this step forward.
I listened intently to Opposition Members' contributions about their new clause 9. I was struck by the comment from the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) that there was referendum fatigue. Well, the last referendum we had on Europe was in 1975, when I was about four years old, so there is hardly fatigue with European referendums. In fact, the situation is completely the reverse. The opinion polls were clear: the public wanted to have their say on the Lisbon treaty, the euro, the constitution and all the major treaties that went through, but they were denied that say.
I take issue with the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David), who claimed that the EU is well down people's list of priorities and that we should therefore not have a referendum on EU issues, because what really motivates people are issues such as education and the economy. He is absolutely right that the EU is very low down the list of things influencing people's voting intentions in a general election: polls show that it is around 12th or 14th in people's lists of priorities. However, that is exactly why we must have referendums on such constitutionally important issues. People do not hold Governments to account on such issues at the ballot box, because there are bigger issues at the forefront of their minds. However, as the hon. Member for Luton North made clear, that does not mean that such issues are unimportant. They are vital constitutional issues that have a knock-on effect on a range of policies. The only way to get public discussion and engagement with European issues is through a referendum. We would then get a discussion that simply would not happen in a general election.
A lot has been said about the problem of binding future Parliaments, and about how having such referendums would be unconstitutional. However, that misses a crucial point. The fact is that ever since the European Communities Act 1972, Parliaments have indeed been bound. There has been an open door for encroachment by the EU into the UK's legal system. That is why we need to rebalance the position. We need a bulwark against the 1972 Act and those Acts that followed it. We need something that will act as a break. I do not think that what is proposed would weaken Parliament; rather, it would strengthen it, bringing it much closer to the people whom Parliament should represent and dealing with the problem caused by the 1972 Act.
I also disagree with those who say that people do not understand or that the public are too ignorant to deal with such issues. There is no evidence of that. If we had a referendum on such issues, both campaigns would need to distil the arguments down into a clear set of messages, but sometimes that is what is needed.
Claire Perry: Like my hon. Friend, I listened to the opening speeches from both sides of the Committee. Was he struck, like I was, by the fact that Labour is not only the party of deficit denial, but the party of referendum refuseniks?
Mr Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con): I was there, and I recall campaigning for a no vote and voting accordingly in the referendum. Although the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) is quite right that the then Labour Government offered us a referendum, they then campaigned against. No Bill is perfect, but the reality is this: whichever treaties we may have signed up to, each and every one would have been caught by the provisions of this Bill, thereby generating a referendum. That is a powerful procedure to put in place for the future.
George Eustice: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue, and I completely agree with him. I know that some on the Government Benches are concerned that the Bill does not go far enough and that there may be ways for future Governments to circumvent its provisions. However, as someone who has been a staunch Eurosceptic for 13 years, I have to say that we have waited a long time for such legislation. I believe that the Bill offers an incredibly strong lock, which will apply to any transfers of power. Indeed, clause 4 gives a list of no less than 13 circumstances in which a referendum would automatically be triggered. It is important that people recognise that and, on this side of the Committee, realise that the glass is not half-empty; rather, in my view, it is almost full to the brim. Of course there are areas where one might say the Bill could be improved, but it is fundamentally an incredibly good Bill that we should be getting behind.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I think that the Bill is a load of hogwash, but be that as it may, does the hon. Gentleman think that if Turkey is to accede to the European Union-in which case there would have to be an accession treaty, which would have to go through its processes in the UK-there should be a referendum in Britain?
No, I personally do not agree with that, and there is a good reason why. What the Bill should aim to do is prevent the handing over of power from this country to the European Union. I want
sovereignty for this Parliament; I do not want this Parliament to interfere in the decisions of other countries. However, once we start saying that we should have a veto on the accession of countries such as Turkey, we start to get into that territory.
George Eustice: Because rather than allowing such countries to join-and we have already expanded the number of countries in the European Union-we would then be saying that every country should have a veto on future accessions. I do not think that that is right. Let me also just say that Turkey is a moderate, Muslim country, and a great example of a successful secular democracy, which we should be supporting and encouraging, rather than sending signals that suggest that we are against accession.
As I have said, I have campaigned for referendums for a long time. In my time campaigning against European integration, it is fair to say that I have seen a lot of referendums promised and then subsequently taken away.
Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): I am interested that the hon. Gentleman would not agree to a referendum on Turkey, which is a simple proposition for the British public. Would he have agreed with a referendum on, for example, the establishment of the European Systemic Risk Board or the European Securities and Markets Authority, or on authorities affecting occupational pensions and so on? Those changes have created pervasive powers across Europe over our financial systems, so they are important. Is he saying that he would have referendums on those authorities, which are quite complicated to understand, but not on whether Turkey is in or out?
Coming back to the areas where those now on the Opposition Benches have promised referendums, we have to look at what drives first the promise of a referendum and then the withdrawal of that promise. Back in 1997, the only reason this country was promised a referendum on the euro was that the Referendum party stood for election, posing a threat to the then Conservative Government and the Labour party. For that reason, both parties promised a referendum. As it turned out, that promise was the only thing that kept this country out of the euro. What did we have after 1997, in the first few years of the Labour Government? We had years and years of speculation about whether there would be a referendum. I can remember working on the anti-euro campaign and looking at what the media were saying. There were dozens and dozens of stories-we added them up-that opened with the line, "In the strongest signal yet that Britain is going to join the euro, Tony Blair has signalled that a referendum is just round the corner." Let us remember all the acres of coverage and the huge sum of money that was spent analysing those five so-called tests, when all along they were simply a political fig leaf.
Then we had the European constitution. A referendum on it was promised, but for no other reason than the political interests of the Labour party. Labour was concerned about the threat to its position in the 2004 Euro-elections, and for that reason-that is, simply for tactical, self-interested reasons-promised a referendum out of the blue. Having got those elections out of the way and having won in 2005, Labour then withdrew the offer of a referendum on the EU constitution and the Lisbon treaty. We were then subjected to a further couple of years of endless talk about Tony Blair's red lines and what the Government were doing to protect the national interest, with endless speeches trying to explain why the Lisbon treaty was not the same as the EU constitution, when to all intents and purposes it was. Throughout all that, the decision on whether to hold a referendum on those issues was dictated by political interest and calculation, and we need to move on from that.
Countries such as Ireland have done this much better than we have. How sad it is that, all too often, we have had to rely on the people of the Irish Republic to stand up for the interests of European people. Why have we not been able to hold referendums as automatically as they have been held in Ireland?
Mr David: I would like to put a pretty fundamental question to the hon. Gentleman. If a Government were to say, "There will not be a referendum during this Parliament, because we will not introduce any measures that would trigger one," what would be the point of this legislation?
George Eustice: I am not sure that I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. If any major transfer of power from the UK Parliament to the EU were proposed, a referendum would automatically be triggered.
Mr Swayne: I certainly understand the thrust of the argument. Is it not the case that any future treaty revision will be constrained by the understanding that there would be a referendum in the United Kingdom that it would be impossible to win? Would not that, in itself, exert a powerful discipline on the development of the European Union, in that it would need to either curtail its ambition or, more importantly, make an accommodation with the British people and the British Government that was more in line with what we thought we had joined in 1975?
I want to talk about the concerns that have been expressed about the "significance" clause. I recognise the argument of those who suspect that it might give Governments a way out, so that they could backslide away from a promise to hold a referendum in certain circumstances. I do not buy into that idea, however. I agree with what Martin Howe, QC, a distinguished Eurosceptic, has said on this. He has spent years studying these issues. If we want to make this legislation durable, and if we want it to last more than five years and to become an established convention, we need to ensure
that there are no excuses that a future Government of a different party might be able to use to repeal it. There is a presumption that holding lots of referendums on very small, insignificant issues would give our opponents an excuse to repeal it, and we really cannot accept that.
Geraint Davies: Does the hon. Gentleman think that there should be a limit on the number of referendums held over a particular period, given that they could result in a certain weariness among the electorate, as well as incurring a certain cost? Does he also think that referendums should be binding if they do not achieve a certain turnout of the electorate?
George Eustice: If there were fatigue because we were holding too many referendums, that would mean that we had been attempting to pass too much power to the European Union. I hope that the requirement to gain public consent for handing any such powers to the European Union will dissuade Governments from recklessly throwing away the power of this House.
There is a lot to commend amendment 11, and I have listened with great interest to the debates on it today. It is far superior to new clause 9, in that it does not attempt to water down the pledge; it provides it with an extra belt and braces. It would apply only when a Minister judged that a change was not significant. When such a judgment was made, Members of Parliament would have to support it. That proposal has a lot going for it. It would strengthen the presumption in favour of holding referendums. For all those reasons, I am quite attracted to the amendment.
I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) said earlier about the fact that the proposal might make it less easy to have a judicial review. He suggested that a motion in the House might undermine the chances of a judicial review. That was a valid point. I was not convinced, however, by the argument that a better way to deliver this would be to table an amendment to the Act of Parliament that would be required in relation to the referendum. We all know what happens to the majority of amendments that are tabled in the House. We have only to look at the amendments tabled to this Bill to understand that. The immediacy of the proposed motion, linked to a statement by a Minister, has a lot going for it. Having said that, I also understand the counter-arguments regarding judicial review.
The Bill does exactly what Eurosceptics have wanted for a very long time, and we should stand behind it all the way. I completely reject new clause 9, because it is an almost weasely way of getting round the purpose of the Bill. It would significantly water it down, taking power away from the voters and giving it to politicians. The idea that some committee of 19 people should be the arbiter of these matters rather than having an automatic trigger for a referendum is absolutely crazy. I completely reject the new clause, but I believe that amendment 11 has a lot going for it.
I welcome the Bill. I embrace it with open arms; I actually cherish it. It goes further than any other piece of legislation to check the further encroachment of European power and hegemony into the United Kingdom. It ought therefore to be embraced as the landmark Bill that it actually is. Many people in Britain feel disconnected from how the European Union has
developed and the decisions that have been taken in their name over the past few decades. Someone would now have to be in their 50s to have had the opportunity to vote on a European Union issue in the United Kingdom. It is time that a check was made on the ever-increasing and ever-encroaching power of the European Union, and this Bill does that in a way that has never been done before by any Government of any hue in this country.
The Bill gives people more control over the decisions that Governments have tended to make. It also provides for a referendum lock over future powers. People in this country are tired of the European Union telling us that we must have straight bananas or not use imperial measurements. Ironically, it is the European Union that has been imperious in its outlook for some considerable time. I recognise the Bill as a measure that will, at last, provide a check to that ever-encroaching power, and I welcome it with open arms.
The Bill requires the consent of the British people, through a referendum, for any proposed treaty change. It goes further, however. It is not just about treaty changes in the big sense. So-called mini-treaty changes would also require the people's consent, and even bridging clauses would activate the referendum requirement. It is a substantial and sizeable measure, and I agree with the point made earlier that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) can claim considerable credit over many years for standing up for the British parliamentary sovereignty that we cherish so much. I congratulate him on that.
Geraint Davies: The hon. Gentleman mentioned parliamentary sovereignty, but does he agree that the Bill is tantamount to an abdication of parliamentary sovereignty? Instead of taking the decision here to veto a change in Europe, we are simply passing the ball to the general public, who might find some of the complexities-the hon. Gentleman mentioned the sort of nuanced changes that can be made to treaties-difficult. To be fair, people come to this House with a knowledge and focus on these issues and what we are doing is throwing away that sovereignty. An Irish referendum might end up being decided on the issues surrounding abortion, for example, which had nothing to do with the case in point. It is absurd.
Michael Ellis: It is extraordinary-although not surprising from Labour Members-to hear that the general public should not be consulted on these matters. This Parliament derives its authority from the public, which Labour Members would do well to mention.
Michael Ellis: This Bill is about checking the European Union in its encroachment of sovereign powers. It is not a routine measure, such as the ones the hon. Gentleman mentions. It is not an abrogation of the rights of this Parliament to give the people a referendum to prevent further encroachment of sovereign powers.
My hon. Friend is making the point-the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) seems not to have absorbed it-that on the issue of
European politics, the House of Commons, our Parliament, is simply not trusted. Time and again, as my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) pointed out, we promised referendums, but failed to deliver them. In this specific case, it is quite right to have a referendum lock on any further treaties. This is not an argument for having referendums in general, but a specific point about our relations with Europe and the capacity of this country's people to make their views felt. I think that the public generally feel that the House and the political class as a whole have been bad at listening to them. The idea that we are abrogating responsibility through this referendum is foolish. What we are trying to do is to re-engage with the public.
Michael Ellis: My hon. Friend is quite correct: this is not an abrogation, but a reaffirmation of people power. In enacting the Bill, this Parliament, which represents the people, will give the public the rights for which they have been screaming for so long over further EU encroachment.
Claire Perry: Does my hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), in representing 50% of the Labour Back-Bench Members who have bothered to show up for this debate, perhaps demonstrates the disdain with which the Labour party regards the Bill and Parliament, proving once again that Labour Members do not believe in listening to the people on such crucial matters as our constitution? I would prefer to see referendums on many more issues, including abortion, which was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. We should not be scared of the voice of the people in the way that the Labour party so clearly is.
Geraint Davies: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for generously giving way again, but I must correct the record here. I am completely in favour, for example, of the March referendum in Wales on the extension of legislative powers to the Welsh Assembly, and I am in favour of having referendums on other devolution issues. I am not against referendums in themselves; what I am against is having endless referendums on every little change in Europe. People in Parliament are more empowered and more informed to be able to take those decisions. That is why I view it as an abdication of sovereignty.
Michael Ellis: The hon. Gentleman should read the Bill; it is not about every little change, but "significant" changes. The reality is, as hon. Members demonstrated earlier, that the general public have, sadly, lost faith and confidence in this institution on the issue of Europe. They had been led to believe-by no less than the Labour Government in respect of the Lisbon treaty-that they would be given a say prior to the Bill, but they were not given the referendum they were promised. In fact, it is clear that the promise made was insincere. That has gone some way towards alienating the general public from the legislative assembly of this country. Now we need to satisfy the general public that they will have a say in any further encroachment of EU power.
Mr David: The hon. Gentleman said earlier that the Bill was about giving this country's people a voice on significant changes. I have already tried to ask the Front-Bench team, but the Minister would not respond, so let me try again to ask about the Government's rationale for deliberately excluding one of the most important changes that will affect the European Union and Britain-the accession to and possible membership of the EU by Turkey. Why is that excluded?
Michael Ellis: With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, a new country-whether it be Turkey or any other-joining the EU does not mean that more decisions will be shifted to the EU. Nor does a new country joining the EU mean the giving up of vetoes. That is the difference. Conservative Members have always supported the widening of the EU, and a wider EU has changed it for the better by bringing in free-market allies such as the Czech Republic. I hope and expect Turkey to join, and I would encourage it to do so.
Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that in the event of Turkey joining the EU, we-unlike Labour Members-can exercise the transitional arrangements. If there are concerns about a great deal of people coming into this country, we can put limits in place, as indeed our colleagues have done in other European countries. That is something that Labour Members abysmally failed to do when they were in government.
Michael Ellis: That is absolutely right. Conservative Members have learned lessons from previous enlargements and we will not allow full free movement of workers from all new members, carte blanche, as soon as they join. We should require, it seems to me, complete fulfilment of all the membership criteria, particularly on criminal justice enforcement, for example. Labour messed up on that previously and this country suffered.
I respectfully submit that there has previously been a fundamental lack of understanding of sovereignty issues in this country. One example I would venture to provide is Labour's creation of the Supreme Court. The very name is a misnomer, I submit, because in this country the law is not as it is in the United States where the American Supreme Court in Washington DC is empowered to say that the Government's legislation is unlawful and to strike it down. The US Supreme Court can overrule Congress, but in this country Parliament is sovereign. Labour thus showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the British constitution when it called the institution that took over from the House of Lords judicial committee "the Supreme Court". The law in this country is not supreme; Parliament is supreme and Parliament gives the law its authority, not vice-versa, unlike under the American system.
The Labour amendments to the Bill are nonsensical. They seek to take away power from the people, and even from the House. They seek to empower a committee, and it was Winston Churchill, I think, who said that wars are not won by committee, and nor would this type of legislation be won over by committee. With great respect to the Whips, such a proposal would involve them having greater sway, over how a committee might be constituted and what might result from it. The public need to be satisfied, and a referendum will at last satisfy them that they will have a say. Labour's suggestion of involving a committee is erroneous and on the wrong track entirely.
I am also anxious that other amendments do not weaken the Bill. Amendments tabled by my hon. Friends might have the opposite effect from that which is intended. By creating too strong a test as to what is substantial, and requiring a referendum on almost any issue, we might bring European Union institutions to a standstill-[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] That might be the wish of hon. Members, and I respect that, but I do not agree with it, as it is not the way forward. Subsequent Governments-not Her Majesty's Government as currently constituted, who would never buckle under such pressure-might be put under disproportionate pressure from other member states of the European Union to alter and interfere with the Bill once it is on the statute book. With respect to hon. Friends who take such a view, that might indirectly have an effect of weakening the Bill and leading to diplomatic crises.
On the significance test, Labour seeks to have a significance test on everything, which would not work. I was fascinated by one Labour amendment suggestion to give greater power to the other place. I venture to suggest that it is 100 years since the House of Lords has had greater authority than the House of Commons, yet the Labour party proposal of a veto on a referendum is tantamount to giving the unelected House of Lords, illustrious and greatly respected though it is, a right over and above that of the House of Commons. That would be an entirely unhealthy position. The Labour party does not dare oppose the principle of the Bill, as it knows it will have the support of the vast majority of members of the public, but nor does it want to accept it, as it wants to oppose for the sake of opposition.
The Bill sets out 44 vetoes, 12 decisions and eight different ways of increasing the European Union's competences, and there will not be a significance test on any of those. One would hope that that would have the effect of placating those on the Government side of the House who are concerned about the significance test.
"Imperfect though it may be, the bill is a dramatic punctuation mark in the history of Britain's relationship with the European Union."
Opposition Members ought to accept that. They ought to acknowledge that the Bill is a ground-breaking, landmark piece of legislation which will do that which has not been done in this country for decades, and give the general public the rights that they so obviously desire in relation to the European Union and further expansion of its powers.
Let me begin by saying, as a Liberal Democrat, that my perspective on Europe is subtly different from that of some of my Conservative colleagues. However, I am at one with them in believing that the debate is crucially important, and that it goes to the heart of our democracy at both United Kingdom and European Union level. I think it important for these issues to be debated.
It is a matter of some pride to me that most of the robust intellectual debate seems to have taken place on the coalition Benches, although there have been some quality interjections from Opposition Members, most of whom are not present now. Partly for that reason, I think that amendment 11 is unnecessary. Every treaty change suggested in the Bill will be subject to debate and vote in the House. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who is no longer in the Chamber, an Act of Parliament is the ultimate constitutional lock. It is unlikely that the Whips could somehow force through such proposals, especially given what has been said today. One of the healthy features of the coalition-I say this with the most deferential respect to my very good and right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael)-is that the Whips do not seem to have quite such a stranglehold on debates and votes as they did in the last Parliament, of which I was a Member-
Mr Cash: Leaving that aside, let me suggest that, according to the sequence of events provided for by the excellent amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), the question of the Minister's motion and its approval by Parliament will arise before Third Reading, and almost certainly before Report. For practical purposes, therefore, the House of Commons will have decided the question. Surely the hon. Gentleman is not honestly suggesting that, its approval having been required, Parliament would vote against the proposal on Third Reading. Surely that would not make sense.
Martin Horwood: I do not quite follow the hon. Gentleman's argument. I suspect that the Minister's decision would almost certainly precede even First Reading. Following the introduction of a Bill and after the Minister had decided whether the proposed change was significant, it would be up to Parliament to amend the Bill and call a referendum if by any chance it considered that necessary. As has already been pointed out, this Parliament cannot bind its successors.
In view of the time, I intend to concentrate on the amendments tabled in my name, but I also want to say a little about the Labour amendments. The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) said, rather harshly in my view, that the coalition was displaying-I think that I am quoting him correctly-weak-kneed, ill-thought-out populism. May I indulge in a gentle return of serve? The Labour party seems to have tried to find some reasons to oppose a Bill that it obviously wishes it had thought of first, come up with a number of reasons that appear to be mutually contradictory, and settled on the grand solution of a committee that it cannot explain.
I think that if anyone is guilty of ill-thought-out populism, it may be Labour Members. As has been eloquently pointed out by the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and many others, Labour's proposed committee would make things less transparent and less democratic. A real habit of the previous Labour Government was removing powers from primary legislation and handing them to committees, to commissions and even to Ministers. These things were not coming back to this place to be voted on; they were often disappearing altogether.
Geraint Davies: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if the number of referendums available in this Bill were available to every country in the EU, the EU would grind to a standstill-the situation would be completely ridiculous? How can he be an honourable Liberal Democrat and support that?
Amendments 67 and 68 may look drastic to some of our Conservative colleagues, because they seem to remove a swathe of the referendum provisions from the Bill. However, they seek to tease out the rationale for the referendum lock in the case of amendments to the treaty on the functioning of the European Union using the simplified revision procedure. The amendments do not relate to referendums on changes to the treaty on European Union or even to referendums on changes to the treaty on the functioning of the European Union that do not use the SRP. So the amendments do not seek to remove referendums altogether from this Bill; they ask whether referendums on treaty changes under article 48(6) of the treaty on European Union-the simplified revision procedure-which, after all, was created for relatively uncontentious and insignificant changes in the functioning of the European Union, are really justified.
As a small aside, may I ask the Minister to explain why "transfer" of power or competence "to" the EU is used in the explanatory notes and in some of the language associated with the Bill, rather than "pooling" or "sharing" powers and competences "with" the European Union, which has been the established language until now? To those of us who are fairly relaxed about pooling sovereignty and powers with the European
Union when it is right to do so, "transfer" sounds a slightly more pejorative term and its use an example of linguistic drift.
Martin Horwood: That stretches credibility somewhat. The hon. Gentleman has heard in many eloquent speeches from Members on the Government Benches how important the Bill is to our relationship with the European Union and how it offers the possibility of reconnecting the British public with the decision-making processes in the European Union. It is beyond doubt that the Bill will be a significant piece of legislation.
Mr Jenkin: The hon. Gentleman asked the Minister why the Bill's language is about the "transfer" of competences, rather than the "pooling" or "sharing" of competences, which has been the language used previously. I put it him-the Minister might not put it this way-that the notion of "pooling" or "sharing" competences does not fully explain what has been happening over the years and that those are weasel words. A competence "shared" is, in fact, a competence transferred and a competence fully transferred is not even shared. The correct word to use is "transferred" and I give the Minister credit for doing that.
Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful response on behalf of the Minister, but I would say that "transfer" implies a total handing over, not just a partial one, of some UK sovereign powers, as if the European Union were some kind of imperial entity of which this country is a humble subject. That may be what some Conservative Members fear but, as I hope the Minister will confirm, the reality is that the vast majority of powers and competences in the European Union are not exclusive EU competences, but competences shared with member states or merely competences to support inter-state co-operation. We have only to consider an issue such as the environment and climate change to realise that we cannot really transfer competence over that to the European Union alone, because such an arrangement simply would not work.
Mr Jenkin: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman referred to "exclusive" competences. Surely if the EU has gained an exclusive competence, a transfer certainly has taken place. A competence shared with the European Union usually results in European Union legislation. Once the European Union has legislated, it has occupied that policy-that part of the field of legal competence-and the doctrine of the European Court is that the EU cannot give that back; the policy can only then be delegated back to the member state. So "transferred" is a good word to have in the Bill.
Martin Horwood: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's perspective. He speaks as if the European Union were somewhere else, but we are part of the European Union. Even the hon. Gentleman is a member of the European Union.
Martin Horwood: Whether the hon. Gentleman likes it or not, as regards formal influence we are one of the four largest member states in the Council and in the European Parliament. In informal terms, we have done remarkably well in supplying civil servants, not least in the new External Action Service, and we have hundreds if not thousands of British citizens working in one way or another within the European Union structures. We do not hand over powers or competences and then have no say on them. On the contrary, as one of the largest member states we have a leading role in the EU. It includes us-and that includes the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and all his hon. Friends. It is not an alien or a foreign body invading our body politic, but a union of all the peoples and nations of Europe.
You will be able to tell, Mr Brady, that I am less convinced of the need for onerous checks and balances than some of my colleagues, but I would like to say that I am cautiously supportive of the overall direction of the Bill. There is little secret that Liberal Democrats alone would probably not have thought it absolutely necessary, but we recognise its importance to Conservative colleagues. Without doubt there is a disconnect between the British public and the decisions made in their name regarding the part that Britain plays in the European Union.
Mr Cash: Does what the hon. Gentleman just said bear out what we heard from Lord Mandelson, which is that even at the last minute, after the coalition had been to all intents and purposes stitched up, the hon. Gentleman's leader, the Deputy Prime Minister, was still on the phone to the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) to ask whether he could achieve any further manoeuvring in relation to the European Union?
There is no doubt that there is a real disconnect between the British public and the decisions made at a European level and an even bigger disconnect between British parliamentary and political life and the workings of the European Union. I am a long-standing pro-European and I have been supportive of many of the important and necessary treaty changes that we have seen in the post-war era. Even as a pro-European, however, I must reflect on the fact that that process has left something of a rift-a democratic deficit-between the British public and the European Union. I hope that many of the provisions for new democratic safeguards and checks on the power of the Executive over major decisions on future UK/EU relations in this Bill will go some way towards filling that void.
It is also worth reflecting on the fact that the Bill's direction is complementary to many of the innovations in the Lisbon treaty. That is important as regards amendments 67 and 68. The UK is not alone in the Union in recognising that the pace of EU integration has left a dangerous lack of understanding and a disconnection between EU institutions, national Parliaments and European citizens. In fact, I think that was recognised by all EU member states in the Council, by members of the Commission and by Members of the European
Parliament long before the Bill was conceived. That concern was translated into quite concrete measures in the Lisbon treaty.
I welcomed those changes in the Lisbon treaty and I guess it is too early to tell how well they will work, but the direction in which the Union is moving is clear. That might render unnecessary the calling of a referendum in all the cases envisaged by the Bill, hence amendments 67 and 68. The Lisbon treaty innovations, which were obscured in the haze of media and Europhobic hysteria about the treaty, should be seen as the foundations on which this Bill is being built. Let me remind the House about some of those innovations, which dovetail closely with the provisions in the Bill and necessitate a certain restraint in calling a referendum on everything that moves-a restraint that we have tried to articulate in amendments 67 and 68.
Mr Cash: Is the hon. Gentleman aware-I am sure that he is, and perhaps on reflection he might like to retract those remarks in light of the fact that he is sitting in such close proximity to the Minister for Europe-that the same Europhobic utterances to which he is referring were reflected by the entire Conservative party, in unity, opposing every aspect of the Lisbon treaty and insisting on a referendum? I know that his hon. Friends were not doing so; this so-called temporary alliance looks as though it has quite a few splits in it.
Martin Horwood: What we have is not a temporary alliance with splits in it, but a business arrangement between two parties with very different traditions and very different views on Europe. The refreshing thing about the coalition, in contrast to Labour when it was in government and there were accusations of psychological disturbance and all sorts of things going on behind the scenes, is that we at least can be open and honest about our different traditions and perspectives. It is to the credit of the coalition and of the Minister that we have managed to create a Bill that largely satisfies both sides.
Claire Perry: Will my hon. Friend therefore take his argument one step further and recognise that although we may have political differences within the coalition, and there are certainly differences across the Floor, the point of a referendum is that it is not for us to have a conversation endlessly into the night about what we care about? It is about trusting the people and listening to the voices of the people, which is a tradition that both Conservatives and Liberals share.
I remind the Committee again of some of the provisions of the Lisbon treaty that dovetail with the Bill, and which should give us pause for thought about whether referendums are necessary in all the cases set out in the Bill. Do we need such a hair trigger for referendums when there is the forthcoming European citizens initiative provided for in the Lisbon treaty, which will allow a petition of 1 million European citizens from across the member states to trigger a legislative proposal from the Commission? That is a unique, ground-breaking innovation expressly designed to develop connections between European citizens and the apparently remote EU institutions.
Do we need a referendum at the drop of a hat, or even of a beret, when the Lisbon treaty has created the new yellow and orange card system, which enables one third of national Parliaments-in Britain, this would be done through the scrutiny Committees-to object to an EU proposal if they feel it breaches the principle of subsidiarity? That will require the Commission to reconsider the proposal or force the Council and European Parliament to come to a decision on whether to scrap the proposal or amend it. Do we need to provide for so many referendums, when the new emergency break clauses in the treaties provide national Parliaments and member states with far greater powers than ever before to block a proposal if they consider it to breach or contravene a fundamental component of their domestic legal framework?
Because it is so pertinent to the amendments, I should be interested to know the Minister's view of how well that new yellow and orange card system is being applied by our own Parliament's scrutiny Committees. Such innovations could reassure people and remove the need for a referendum on the slightest technical change. Is the Minister aware of any efforts by those Committees to create their own connections with parallel committees or bodies in other European states, or any system of co-ordination with the national Parliaments in the other 27 member states with regard to the orange and yellow card system? That would start to give effect to the proposals in the Lisbon treaty.
Although I welcome the complementary nature of the Bill to the Lisbon treaty changes that seek to reconnect the public and Parliament, perhaps we can go further. That does not have to be in the form of endless referendums. Let me make a few concrete suggestions. Why not hold an extended annual debate on the Floor of the House on the Commission's work programme, as we do on our own Queen's Speech? That would seem to be an obvious and welcome opportunity for Parliament to debate the relative pros and cons of forthcoming proposals, and to offer suggestions to the Government of measures that the UK should seek to add to the Commission's agenda or even delete from it.
Why not ask Ministers who are going to attend European Council meetings to give oral evidence in advance to their respective Select Committees? That would seem a logical way to engage both MPs and Ministers with the major issues under discussion at EU level in their respective portfolio areas. Is not that a better way to deal with the many issues that will inevitably arise, some of them highly technical, rather than prompting a succession of referendums?
Finally, what about establishing portfolio-specific EU sub-Committees, such as those in the House of Lords, which we could do by adapting the remit of existing Select Committees? Will the Minister take those ideas into account and perhaps provide an initial response on their appropriateness in improving parliamentary scrutiny of, and engagement with, European matters?
As Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, I know that it is universally accepted on both sides of the House, as has already been expressed by the Minister and the shadow Minister, that the quality of analysis
that we have given to clause 18 and those proposals has been excellent, and that view has been endorsed by many outside Parliament. I mention that simply because the hon. Gentleman is perhaps moving into territory that he might later regret.
Martin Horwood: I do not always agree with the hon. Gentleman, particularly on matters European, but I pay due credit to his Committee and its work. The level of scrutiny that Parliament now gives European matters is certainly on the increase, which is a healthy trend. I give due respect to him for that.
Amendments 67 and 68 would remove the requirement to hold a referendum on any treaty change under the simplified revision procedure that would pool or transfer power or competence from the UK level to the European level. They would not remove the new requirement for Parliament to ratify every treaty change through an Act of Parliament, so Parliament would have the opportunity to put back the requirement for a referendum if that was felt to be absolutely necessary.
The new procedure that the amendments would create for the UK to support and ratify a treaty change made under the SRP that had already been voted for in unanimity at European Council level would simply be for the Minister to lay a statement setting out what the treaty change was and for the Government then to bring forward primary legislation, which would have to be passed by Parliament. That would not touch the requirement for a referendum to ratify any major new treaty under the ordinary revision procedure.
As I have said, even the Act of Parliament under the SRP could ultimately include a referendum in a particular case. In tabling the amendments, the issue we are raising is whether it is advisable to use referendums on any-I stress "any"-transfer or sharing of power or competence with the EU. The provisions for a referendum lock set out in clauses 3 and 4 seem to cover more or less any future change by the SRP, regardless of its size, content, purpose, necessity, or indeed whether it is in the UK's national interest.
I appreciate that the obvious counter to that train of thought is that if there is a good case to be made for a future treaty change, the Government and Parliament of the day should be able to make that to the British public, and I accept that there is a strong case for that on major questions. That case is perhaps made more strongly by Conservative Members than by Liberal Democrats, but I recognise that it is an important one. It might even include some issues such as EU membership for countries such as Turkey. My concern is whether referendums are the best way to approach any future change, even if it is only technical and insignificant.
Stephen Gilbert: One area of competence that the EU currently acts in but does not have defined is combating climate change. Does my hon. Friend agree that saying that we need a referendum when that activity becomes defined is a stretch too far?
That is a good example of how a completely uncontroversial and essentially technical change might nevertheless, if we are not careful, trigger a referendum. Like the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), I am an enthusiast for referendums in general
and voted for one on the Lisbon treaty and for an in/out referendum at the same time, but those are undoubtedly significant changes.
The House of Lords Constitution Committee has noted more recently that there are some risks and costs associated with referendums. We have held just nine referendums since 1973, although only one has been UK-wide. The Committee conducted an in-depth inquiry on referendums in the UK last year, concluding:
"The balance of the evidence that we have heard leads us to the conclusion that there are significant drawbacks to the use of referendums".
Some of the drawbacks cited in the Committee's report include, first, that referendums can undermine representative democracy-not a point that I necessarily agree with, but one that some Opposition Members have made; secondly, that referendums are costly-unarguably an important point in the current austere environment; thirdly, that voters show little desire to participate in them; fourthly, that referendums tend not to be about the issue in question-very likely with some of the technical issues in this case; fifthly, that referendums fail to deal with complex issues; sixthly, that referendums never "settle" the issue-despite expectations; and seventhly, that referendums are a "conservative device" or a block on progress. As a result, the Lords Committee concludes that referendums should be used on questions only of "fundamental constitutional change". Some examples given are, rather alarmingly, referendums to abolish the monarchy, to change the electoral system for the House of Commons and to change the UK's system of currency.
I have to ask the Minister whether including all SRP changes under the referendum lock in the Bill is in keeping with the Lords Committee's detailed findings on the use of referendums. Given the current "treaty fatigue" throughout the European Union, SRP is highly likely to be the most common form of treaty change for the foreseeable future. It is highly likely also that future treaty changes will be relatively small and targeted affairs designed to tweak existing treaties rather than to rewrite them substantially. Is it not therefore highly likely that the referendum lock in clause 3 will capture highly specific, arguably complex, limited and uncontroversial treaty changes?
Such changes might, nevertheless, be urgent. For example, in 2007 my constituency was badly flooded, as was much of Gloucestershire, and we benefited significantly from European emergency funds. If, during any future emergency in a part of Europe which technically fell outside the fund's scope, a treaty amendment were technically required, it would surely be uncontroversial and, in fact, very urgent, so would we seriously say to whichever stricken part of Europe was affected, "Fine, we'll send aid from the European emergency funds, but we'll just have to hold a referendum on it first"? That would be inconceivable. My example may be hypothetical, but it is not impossible to conceive of equally uncontroversial and desirable things that the referendum proposal might block completely.
Given the conclusions of the Lords Committee's report on referendums, can the Minister reassure me that the provisions in clauses 3 and 4 will not produce a plethora of complex and costly referendums that exasperate
the public, frustrate proper decision-making at European level and are highly vulnerable to hijack by questions that are completely different from those on the ballot paper? Does he agree that the most appropriate democratic check on the use of article 48(6) is primary legislation, as it would give Parliament alone, as the representative of the people, the power to ratify those limited, specific and complex treaty changes that are likely to come under the use of that article?
On the complexity of the referendums that the Bill could produce, can the Minister provide the House with some examples of referendum questions that the referendum lock on SRP treaty changes might create? It is quite difficult to conceive of one so significant that it would justify the use of a national referendum. Can the Minister provide the House with an estimate either of the number of referendums that the Bill is likely to produce in the foreseeable future, or, if that means looking too far into the crystal ball, of the number of SRP changes that are currently in discussion at the European Council or expected to be in the near future? Most significantly in these austere times, can he indicate the expected cost of each referendum on current projections?
The Minister will be aware that the purpose of creating the SRP under the Lisbon treaty was to avoid the need for long drawn-out intergovernmental conferences and painful ratification processes in instances where EU member states wished to undertake targeted and limited treaty changes, particularly uncontentious improvements or enhancements to the workings of the EU for the benefit of all member states. I therefore have concerns over the inflexibility of the referendum lock, and what it will mean in practice. Will the Minister reassure me that the threat or fear of losing a referendum on a treaty change will not prevent future Governments from supporting even uncontroversial and popular changes, and changes that are in the UK's national interest?
I point out to the Committee that on many occasions in the history of the UK's membership of the European Union, it has been deemed in the UK's interest to further pool powers and competence in the European Union. The most obvious example, which should be close to Conservative hearts, is the Single European Act, which was a massive shift away from unanimity voting and towards dropping national vetoes. The European Union was able to dramatically accelerate integration across the internal market-the basic economic rationale that I thought was shared across the coalition Benches. The forward-thinking move to pool and share powers and competence has been of huge economic benefit to the UK and the European Union as a whole. Can the Minister not think of potential instances in the future when further pooling of powers and sovereignty would be dramatically to the UK's benefit?
In the light of the time and the desire for other Members to take part, I will cut short my planned remarks. In asking the Minister to consider amendments 67 and 68, I suggest that there is a risk of the Bill triggering, on a hair trigger, referendums on every conceivable issue. Liberal Democrat Members, who perhaps do not share some of the fears of those on the Conservative Benches, need considerable reassurance on that issue.
We are discussing the trigger for a referendum in the Bill. It is worth pointing out the undercurrent in this debate: some people are speaking because they do not think that there have been enough referendums and others are speaking because they do not want referendums. The official Opposition have got into a bit of trouble with their amendment. My right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr Dorrell) had some fun at their expense, because they tried to present a set of amendments as pro-referendum when their record on referendums is rather lamentable-perhaps as lamentable as ours when we have been in government.
Mr Jenkin: I will not give way, because my point was not designed to provoke the Opposition and I want to press on. The Opposition's inability to answer the question of how the proposals would help to get a referendum meant that they fell into the trap that was set for them by my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood.
Mr Dorrell: Did not the Opposition spokesman's responses give the game away that Labour is unwilling and resistant to the idea of promoting referendums in the context of the Bill? The purpose of both coalition parties is to open the door to consulting the people on the decisions envisaged in the Bill.
Mr Jenkin: I agree totally, but perhaps my right hon. Friend was a little unwise to draw more attention to himself. Perhaps he will speak later and give way generously, as the Opposition spokesman did to him. I have a few points to put to him about how enthusiastic he is about a referendum, given that he voted against the referendum on the Maastricht treaty and at that stage even opposed the principle of a referendum on the single currency. Who would take that position today?
Mr Dorrell: Given that it is unlikely that I shall have the opportunity to address the Committee and respond to all my hon. Friend's questions, perhaps we shall have to defer that pleasure for another day. However, I invite him to consider the benefits of a sinner who repents.
Mr Jenkin: I am all for that. I remember my noble Friend, the former Member for North Shropshire, Lord Biffen-he who had whipped through and proposed the guillotine on the Single European Act-starting his speech in a debate on the Maastricht treaty by exclaiming that we all have blood on our hands. The important theme to draw from this debate is that there is unanimity about the democratic deficit at the heart of the whole process of European integration. The people have not been involved or consulted enough.
My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) extolled the virtues of the Bill as the "Thus far and no further" Bill and the great victory for my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who has campaigned on the matter for so many years-the Bill Cash memorial Bill. My hon. Friend seemed to be saying that the Bill would succeed in stopping the process of European integration in its tracks, even though the much-quoted Martin Howe, QC, has said that although the Bill might fix our place on the escalator, it does not stop the escalator going up.
My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford extolled the Bill's virtues not because there would be referendums, but because it would prevent European integration because nobody would want a referendum. My hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), however, did so because he thought it would cause referendums, and he lamented the fact that there had not been one since 1975. We all know why the Bill is in being-it is because there ain't been a referendum, and every time a major decision is discussed in Europe, the public cannot understand why they have not been consulted about the dramatic changes that are taking place.
We are continuing to feed the expectation that something in the Bill will trigger a referendum, but I do not believe that the Government have any intention of allowing a referendum to be triggered. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Minister has said that he has no intention of there being a referendum in this Parliament. The Bill will go on to the statute book and then a future Administration-perhaps a Conservative one, perhaps another coalition one or perhaps a Labour one-will not be bound by it.
This I will grant my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth: the Bill creates more of an expectation that somehow the situation will change. However, we are in danger of over-selling the Bill if we think it will create a lock. It will not. Let us listen to the words of Lord Leach of Fairford, who is the chairman of Open Europe, no less, which champions the issue and for which my hon. Friend worked. He has said that
"as it stands the EU Bill has some loopholes which urgently need to be plugged if it is to withstand the steady mission creep of new EU laws and accretion of powers."
Mr Jenkin: I will deal briefly with my hon. Friend's amendments, which deserve consideration and which I will support if there is a vote. The original pledge was that any new treaty would get a referendum-that was what we were told at the Conservative party conference in 2009. That was going to be the real referendum lock. It seems that the proximity of office blunts the senses, and "any treaty" is now only "certain treaties".
We are now faced with a treaty of enormous significance in the EU-the treaty for fiscal union that Monsieur Fillon came over to propose to the Prime Minister last week. We will be told that it will not affect us, because there is no transfer of competence, no change in voting rights, no imposition of obligations and all the rest, and that it is not significant, so there is no need for a referendum. I remember being told that we could ratify the Maastricht treaty because it did not really affect us as we would have an opt-out from monetary union, but look how it is affecting us. There is no such thing as "Does not affect us". Of course, if we were not in the European Union and it went ahead with fiscal union, it would affect us, so it will be argued that we cannot object as long as we have proper opt-outs.
The problem is that we are in the EU and under the European Court of Justice. We are in the decision-making institutions and in the legal jurisdiction of what will become a fiscal union. It is impossible for anyone to argue that the development of the European Union can go ahead to such an extent without affecting legal decisions in this country. Yet the Bill excludes any possibility of a referendum on an extremely significant treaty. That provision should have been in the Maastricht treaty-we all argued that for that when monetary union was first discussed. We all pointed out that the no-bail-out clause was worth nothing-article 104c is emblazoned on my heart. We all argued that there could not be monetary union without fiscal union. We warned of the consequences of monetary union without fiscal union, and stressed that our opt-out was meaningless and would not protect us from the consequences of the Maastricht treaty. Now we are warning again that we should not allow the treaty to go ahead unless we get sufficient opt-outs and exemptions from the existing acquis communautaire, yet the Bill does not provide for a referendum.
Mr Dorrell: My hon. Friend asserted once or twice from a sedentary position during the debate that it had strayed quite widely in the context of the amendments. It is not clear to me how the French Prime Minister's proposal for a treaty for fiscal union falls within the scope of the amendments that we are discussing.
Mr Jenkin: Amendment 1 would remove wriggle room for any Government by requiring a referendum on any new treaty. That was promised at the Conservative party conference, but it is not being delivered in the Bill.
I reiterate that if we want to protect ourselves from the consequences of the inclusion of fiscal union in the arrangements for the European Union, we need to separate ourselves considerably from all the other paraphernalia in which we are currently embroiled. Even the Liberal Democrats are beginning to talk about repatriation of powers on some labour market regulations, such as the working time directive. Incidentally, we were told that we had opted out of that, but it turned out that we had not-something else that we were right about when we debated the Maastricht treaty.
If we allow fiscal union to go ahead, it is inconceivable that it will not have an impact on taxation throughout the European Union. Taxation is already a shared competence. It is not difficult for the European Court of Justice to argue that, as tax union takes place in the euro area, in order to maintain a single marketplace and a level playing field-and all the jargon that is regularly used-it will enlarge the EU's competences over taxation. That is inevitable. I am fed up of warning about what will happen and being proved right. It is time that the House acted on the warnings that it has been given for many years.
I want to consider amendment 11 and the test for significance. The amendment is in keeping with the spirit of the Bill. Its scope is narrow. Clause 2 covers "Treaties amending or replacing" the existing treaties. Clause 3 deals with amending the treaty on the functioning of the European Union. Each relies on clause 4, which provides for a whole lot of tests, including subsection (1)(i) and (j), which are subject to the significance test.
The problem with the significance test was best described by the European Scrutiny Committee. I appreciate that many of my colleagues say, "Oh well, that's chaired by the hon. Member for Stone. What do you expect? It's been completely hijacked by the ultra Eurosceptic extremists." However, I invite hon. Members to consider the membership of that Committee. Its members are a pretty reasonable bunch of people. I happen to believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone is a reasonable person, too. Although some of the report was contested, paragraph 98 was supported unanimously by Labour and Liberal Democrat as well as Conservative members of the Committee. Paragraph 98 states, in bold:
"We think the possibility for successful judicial review of a ministerial decision whether a transfer of power under clause 4(1)(i) and (j) is significant will, in practice, be limited."
"The expressions 'if the Minister is of the opinion' and 'in the Minister's opinion' in clause 4(4) underline the subjectivity of the process and the difficulty of judicial review."
My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) said that somehow Mr and Mrs Citizen from Dover can toddle into the administrative court to bring an action that threatens the whole Government's policy when the Minister has opined to the House of Commons that something is not significant enough to attract a referendum. That is absolutely bonkers. My noble Friend Lord Rees-Mogg and Mr Stuart Wheeler are hardly two typical citizens-perhaps they are my hon. Friend's constituents-but they have both failed to attract the attention of the courts or to engage them in such fundamentally political decisions. The phrase
"in the Minister's opinion"
clearly makes the decision political. It is a political problem. The skill of amendment 11, which stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), is that it brings decisions home to the House of Commons, where political decisions should be made.
The main argument against amendment 11 is that judicial review is superior to the Government's obtaining the consent of the House of Commons. We do not like rule by judges or judicial supremacy. We prefer democracy, which commends the proposal. The second argument against amendment 11 is even more bizarre.
Martin Horwood: Surely the hon. Gentleman will concede that under the Bill, every treaty change will be subject to a vote in Parliament, because an Act of Parliament will be required for every single treaty change, whether there is a referendum or not.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, because it is the only other argument against amendment 11. He is saying, "You don't need to bring a decision to the House of Commons, because you can't get a treaty change without an Act of Parliament and the whole issue can be dealt with then." However, that is an argument against clauses 2, 3 and 4. What is the point of the Bill? The point of the Bill is to bring matters to Parliament or to the people for decision before we legislate to enact a new treaty change. If the Government and the Committee do not accept amendment 11, which would transfer a decision from the courts to the House
of Commons, why are we bothering with the Bill at all? The hon. Gentleman makes an argument against the Bill.
Mr Swayne: My hon. Friend will recall that we did not get a referendum on the Lisbon treaty because the House decided that we would not have one. I am entirely with him, and I much prefer in principle for decisions to be made by the House of Commons rather than the courts, but frankly, in that previous case, I have no doubt that the courts would have granted us a referendum when the House denied us one.
Mr Jenkin: I should point out that the only reason why we are not having a referendum on the Lisbon treaty is that the Government decided to persuade their supporters not to have one. My hon. Friend is exactly right that the House of Commons decided not to have a referendum. In the next Parliament, however, the House could decide to repeal the Bill when it is an Act of Parliament. It could decide to overturn a Minister's decision, or it could accept a Minister's decision, introduce a Bill to ratify a new part of the treaty, give all sorts of reasons why there should not be a referendum and put that into the Bill. The Bill is no guarantee of a referendum. It creates an expectation that there should be referendums, but that is all it does-it generates a political expectation.
Claire Perry: I feel like I am putting a toe into a pool full of big fish who have been debating these issues for years, so I hope that my hon. Friend will be gentle with me in his reply. Does the Bill go any way towards making him feel better about the future of the Eurosceptic majority in this country? Is he 10% more comfortable? Is he 20% more comfortable? I believe that this is a very big step in the right direction within the constraints of the coalition and the legal situation that we have inherited. Is it 20%? Is it 50%? Surely he is sleeping a little bit easier at night as a result of the Bill being brought to the House.
Mr Jenkin: Of course. I stood on the same platform as my hon. Friend at the last election of wanting a referendum lock and a sovereignty Bill, but I fear that the way the Bill is being enacted will disappoint our constituents.
Mr Jenkin: I agree that it is better, if only because it generates an expectation and a moment that will come in our history when people say, "Up with this we will not put! We are having a referendum." To that extent, it is useful background noise, but I do not put it better than that. It is not fulfilling what we promised before the last general election.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept that the real problem is the European Union as it now is. We are not having a referendum on any aspect of the mess that Europe is in. Everybody in the Committee has to accept that the riots, the protests and the collapse of the euro-all these things-are the consequence of the
failure of European economic governance that has been predicted from Maastricht onwards. The Bill will do nothing to change that because it does not provide for a referendum on the circumstances that we are now in.
I hear the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), but I believe that there is a constant danger of us succumbing to wishful thinking. The problem is that this is not the "thus far and no further" Bill; it is the "locking the stable door after the horse has bolted" Bill. What is more, whatever other horses there may be in the stable, there are sufficient holes in the door for those horses to squeeze through, if it is convenient for the Executive to allow it to happen. That is what we will see with the treaty coming down the track for EU fiscal union. The Bill will not increase the happiness of the British people about our present terms of EU membership. The Bill fails to address those terms, but they will have to be addressed at some stage in the future.
I refuse to sign a referendum pledge, as I was recently asked to do, saying, "Let's have an in-or-out referendum". That is not the way to conduct this debate; the way to conduct it is for the Government to lay down their national interests and negotiate robustly for them in the European Union, rather than to continue appeasing the system to avoid a row. I even accept that we may need to do that for a period, while we are in such a difficult fiscal position, but the moment that the EU is asking for treaty changes for which it needs our consent is the moment we should be asking for concessions in return. We certainly should not carry on transferring competencies to the EU without a referendum, as is provided for in the Bill.
Mr Lidington: We have had a robust debate, and I want to start by thanking all right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the Committee who have taken part, whether through speeches or the numerous interventions.
I want to start with a point on which there was agreement, certainly on the Government Benches. Wherever people stand within the coalition or the spectrum of opinion on Europe in the Conservative party alone, there is agreement that the European Union has developed with too little democratic control and without adequate consent being given by the British people. Indeed, the Lisbon treaty was the first time that the United Kingdom agreed to, and then ratified, a European Union treaty that was not even included in the general election manifesto of the winning party at the previous election.
My hon. Friends the Members for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) and for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) said that we needed to change what the history of the British political world's handling of European business had done, which is to undermine support for our membership of the European Union and the idea that what British Ministers do in European Union institutions on behalf of the United Kingdom carries democratic consent. We need to restore a sense of confidence among the public in how British Ministers take decisions on Europe on their behalf, and that is what the Bill seeks to do. We want to ensure that the British people are never again denied their say over the transfer of new competences and powers from this country to the institutions of the European Union.
I should say in parenthesis to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) that although the word "transfer" in the explanatory notes is a reasonable use of layman's language, I am sure that he will have noted that in the Bill itself we use the term "confer". We talk about exclusive, shared, co-ordinating and supplementing competences, which are precisely the terms used in the European treaties.
However, my hon. Friend was right to say that this Bill should not be our only means of addressing the democratic deficit in the way that European decisions are made. He was right to talk about the importance of strengthening our systems of parliamentary scrutiny. I am looking forward to seeing how the scrutiny Committees in the House of Commons and the House of Lords use the opportunities presented by the new yellow and orange-card system. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) has been in regular contact with his counterpart committees in a number of other EU capitals. It is important that that network of contacts between the European Union scrutiny committees in each of the 27 member states continues to develop.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham will also have seen the written ministerial statement that I made to the House last Thursday. Although it dealt primarily with issues concerning justice and home affairs measures, it also stated that the Government now wanted to explore-together with Parliament, and therefore with the two scrutiny Committees in particular-ways in which, right across the piece, we can strengthen scrutiny and accountability to the Houses of Parliament for what we as a Government do in Europe on behalf of this country.
Mr Cash: I very much acknowledge the sentiment that my right hon. Friend is expressing, but I am sure that he will understand when I say that listening is not the same as actually agreeing, and that there are circumstances where I would have expected him to be a little more acquiescent in relation to some of the arguments that we have put forward.
Mr Lidington: In those conversations about parliamentary scrutiny, which I intend should begin as soon as possible, I hope that I can find complete agreement with my hon. Friend. However, he will know that if we are talking about arrangements that will govern how both Houses of Parliament deal with European business and the process of scrutiny, we ought to be striving towards a measure that can command broad support in both Houses, and across all the political parties represented therein.
The Bill is a radical piece of legislation to improve how we handle European business. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne) pointed out, in a characteristically vigorous intervention, had the legislation been in force at the time, the treaties of Lisbon, Amsterdam, Nice and Maastricht would all have required a referendum before they could have been finally ratified.
The powers in the Bill include a referendum lock on treaty changes or decisions that transfer powers from the United Kingdom to the European Union. That is the case even if the measures used to transfer those competences or powers are the extensive self-amending provisions introduced by the treaty of Lisbon. The
powers include requiring that important decisions-even if they do not transfer power or competence-are still in every case approved by an Act of Parliament. I want to put this beyond any doubt: the Bill will mean that any treaty change at all, whether using the ordinary procedure for amending a treaty or the simplified revision procedure, will have to be approved by primary legislation.
This is a vitally needed improvement. Under the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008, Parliament's control over the simplified revision procedure and other key ratchets is limited to a vote on a Government motion. That is the case even if the simplified treaty changes or ratchet clauses are proposed to abolish something as important as a national veto over foreign policy.
Ms Gisela Stuart: There is something that I genuinely do not understand after reading through the notes. When the Government list all the things that will be covered by the ratchet clauses, is that an exhaustive list? What is the logic behind the list?
Mr Lidington: We shall have a debate on the ratchet clauses later this week when we deal with amendments to those parts of the Bill. I will be happy to go into more detail then, and I hope the hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not answer her question now.
We are giving Parliament and the public the opportunity to hold Ministers to account by spelling out the criteria needed to make a decision on whether the power or competence is transferred, and requiring Ministers to make a statement giving the reasons for their decision. Parliament can challenge this, and, if it so wishes during the legislative process, add further conditions of its own. If the public are dissatisfied with the Minister's judgment-I stress it will be the Minister's judgment, not Parliament's-they will be able to use judicial review to check it further.
Mr Lidington: My hon. Friend is tempting me to go way beyond the scope of the Bill. At the moment, any legal aid application would be subject to the normal rules that apply to legal aid, which are the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, and not of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The Bill comprehensively goes through the nuts and bolts of the treaties to identify how power and competence could be shifted from this country to the European Union. We have deliberately and determinedly taken steps to limit the wriggle room for any Government or Minister in this regard. We are committed to ensuring, as best we can, that the Bill is watertight, with no omissions or loopholes that would allow a future Government to avoid giving either Parliament or the people the control that they deserve.
Let me spell out in a little more detail how we plan to achieve this. Following the agreement of any future treaty change under the ordinary revision procedure-that is, the process involving an intergovernmental conference and, probably, since the Lisbon treaty, a convention of the European and national Parliaments as well as of national Governments-three conditions must be fulfilled before the United Kingdom could ratify such a treaty
change. First, the Minister must lay a statement before Parliament. That statement would give the Minister's decision as to whether the proposed treaty change would involve one or more of the criteria in clause 4 of the Bill, and therefore whether a referendum would be required or not. A change that would transfer power or competence from this country to the EU would be subject to a referendum of the British people.
If the proposal were considered by the Minister not to involve one or more of the criteria in clause 4, it would be considered to meet the exemption condition-in other words, it would not require a referendum to be held. The important point is this: the Minister cannot simply conjure his decision out of the air. He has to obey the law. He has to follow the criteria set out in the Bill, especially those in clause 4 and schedule 1. His statement will have to demonstrate how he has applied those criteria in coming to his decision. He will simply not have the scope in law to make some arbitrary decision in defiance of what is spelled out in the legislation.
Mr Lidington: The points are not vague. I invite the hon. Gentleman to have another look at clause 4 and schedule 1, both of which define in clear terms the various ways in which competences could, within the terms set out in the treaties, be enlarged, transferred or expanded, while schedule 1 sets out in detail a list of national vetoes, the removal of which would automatically trigger a referendum. I gently suggest that the hon. Gentleman studies the Bill a little bit harder.
The second condition is that Parliament's approval has to be gained for the treaty change in all cases, no matter how minor or uncontroversial, by Act of Parliament. That legislation would provide for the approval of the treaty change and, where a referendum is required, provide the necessary enabling measures to allow it to be held. The need for an Act of Parliament is central to our role in holding Ministers to account for the decisions they take on behalf of the UK in the EU. If Parliament were of the view that a referendum should be required for a future treaty change, despite that proposal coming in one of the exempt categories, it could amend the approval legislation to provide for a referendum if it so wished.
Mr Cash: Does the Minister not accept that it would be a monumental change if proposals relating to fiscal union, social union or employment union were to be incorporated in a treaty between the UK and other member states-excluding the UK, but none the less having a juggernaut impact upon us? In those circumstances, is that material not so important that we would expect to get a referendum-as would the British people?
My hon. Friend is jumping several bridges in assuming that what might be proposed in those hypothetical circumstances would be an amendment of the European Union treaties rather than a separate intergovernmental treaty involving the member countries
of the eurozone-and perhaps some others-who wished to participate in the sort of closer economic union that my hon. Friend described and fears.
I hope to say more about this later, but the Bill is based on a very clear principle agreed within the coalition -that the referendum lock should apply where there is a transfer of competence or of power from the United Kingdom to the institutions of the European Union. That is the defining criterion. The different categories of exemption apply where powers and competences are not being transferred from this country. That is the reason for the distinction set out in the Bill. It is not an arbitrary decision, but one based on a very clear principle.
Ms Stuart: I am still trying to understand what the Minister regards as significant. The monetary union is not a debt union at the moment, but it is about to be moved to become a debt union. We have an opt-out for monetary union. If the monetary union becomes a debt union, and thus far more significant, surely that is important to us-even though we have an opt-out.
Mr Lidington: If the measures in respect of greater economic union or perhaps fiscal union or shared responsibility for debts were to take the form of a European Union amendment treaty and involved the transfer of competences or powers from this country to the EU, the referendum lock would be triggered. If the eurozone countries choose to do their own thing and have their own intergovernmental treaty, which they can do quite distinct from any move to amend either the treaty on European Union or the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, we would not have a say-not if they chose to go down that route.
Mr Dorrell: Were my right hon. Friend a Minister in one of those European Union countries that might theoretically be considering a fiscal union, and were he offered the prospect of his decisions on behalf of his country being subject to a referendum in the United Kingdom-a country that would not be part of that union-which of the two routes does he think that he might take?
Mr Lidington: By implication, my right hon. Friend has answered his own question. There is a question about national sovereignty and democratic accountability. We would look askance were another EU member to say that some protocol that dealt with the United Kingdom alone should be subject to a referendum in their country. We should be pretty cautious before we set ourselves up and argue that we will insist that we hold a referendum here on a treaty proposal that does not have an impact on the governance of this country, that does not involve the transfer of new powers away from this country, and that leaves the powers of our Parliament and people completely as they are at present.
As the House knows, a new system for treaty change was introduced by Lisbon: the simplified revision procedure in articles 48(6) and (7) of the treaty on European
Union. That enables the European Council to amend those sections of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union that concern the single market, justice and home affairs and other internal policies. The Bill ensures that the method of treaty change, governed by the simplified revision procedure, is subject to exactly the same accountability and scrutiny as the ordinary revision procedure. The only difference is the significance test, which I will cover in detail later. In passing, I should say that article 48(7) decisions about moving from unanimity to qualified majority voting are caught by clause 6(4)(b) of the Bill and require both an Act and a referendum in accordance with schedule 1.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) was right when he said that article 48(6) says that the simplified revision procedure cannot be used to enlarge the competences of the European Union. Although that is indeed written in the treaty, we have drafted the Bill to require British Ministers to examine even an article 48(6) proposal, to see whether, despite that treaty language, we would judge it to involve an extension of competence. If the British Government's judgment was that it did, the referendum lock would apply in those circumstances.
Let me turn to the numerous amendments, many of which severely weaken the provisions of the Bill, either by watering them down so that they are toothless, or by extending them considerably beyond what the coalition programme for government promised. Amendments 67 and 68 would remove the referendum lock altogether, and require only an Act of Parliament to approve a transfer of power or competence from the United Kingdom to the European Union.
Mr Lidington: I was going to make the qualification that the amendment applies to measures within the simplified, not the ordinary, revision procedure. I think that that denies the public the chance to have their say on what are, ultimately, important decisions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham asked a couple of detailed questions. He asked, for example, whether a technical change to allow for emergency flood relief, agreed to by means of the simplified revision procedure, would be subject to a referendum. As he will know, the so-called enabling clause, article 352, would be available in the event of a need to take urgent action within the European Union's existing competences if that action were taken to attain the EU's objectives and if there were no explicit provision to authorise that in the EU treaties, and emergency relief and international development are indeed competences that the European Union shares with member states. Clause 8 of the Bill provides for enhanced parliamentary controls prior to any agreement on the use of article 352.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on some of what he termed technical changes. I firmly believe that a referendum should be held on any change that would transfer competence or substantive power from this country to the EU permanently.
The hon. Gentleman also asked how many article 48(6) changes were currently being considered. Only one is being considered at present, the one that was promoted
by the German Government and agreed at the December European Council. It affects only the eurozone, and as it does not transfer power or competence from this country to the European Union, there would be no need for a referendum.
Amendments 1 to 5 and amendment 7 would ensure that every treaty change required the consent of the British people in a referendum, even if it transferred no further competence or power from this country to Brussels. I suspect that this was not the authors' intention, but even a treaty change that would repatriate power from the European Union to the United Kingdom would require a referendum in this country before it could be accepted. A treaty change to remove the United Kingdom's veto over decisions to amend the number of advocates-general working in the European Court of Justice would require a referendum, as would a treaty change to allow Denmark to participate in justice and home affairs measures. The addition of 18 new MEPs before 2014-when they take their seats automatically anyway-for which the Bill provides would also require a referendum.
The issue is this: what is a suitable matter for a referendum? I believe that decisions that change who decides-decisions that move control over an area of policy from the United Kingdom to the EU-should require the consent of the British people; but not every treaty does that. Should a technical change such as the temporary alteration in the number of MEPs require a referendum? If Iceland decided to join the EU, should that require a national referendum? I think that that argument is very hard to justify, and might well discredit the principle of referendums from the point of view of voters. I also see no justification for referendums on treaty changes that do not apply to the United Kingdom. As I said earlier, in democratic terms, those are ultimately decisions for the countries to which the treaties apply, and not for us. No transfer of competence or of power from this country to the EU is associated with such changes.
Ms Stuart: The Minister is simply wrong. If Lisbon caps the total number of MEPs, if the number of MEPs is based on the population, if there is a minimum number of MEPs with "bookends", and if a country such as Turkey makes a change, the number of MEPs in this country will be significantly lower and our voice will be lower. That constitutes a change of power, and it is no good denying it.
Mr Lidington: If we followed the hon. Lady's logic, a referendum would be required in this country for any change whatsoever in the distribution of seats in either the European Parliament or the Council of Ministers.
By definition, a referendum in this country would also be required on any accession to the European Union, not just that of Turkey, because every time a new member state joined the European Union they would have a certain weighted share of votes in the Council of Ministers and a certain number of MEPs. I do not think that she is seriously arguing that.
The hon. Lady and other hon. Members honed in on the question of Turkey's accession, saying that the size of that country's population made it a different case. That is not as straightforward an argument as she and
others make out, because there have been occasions when a number of different accessions have taken place at the same time. A few years ago, 10 new member states joined the European Union at the same time. I believe that their combined population then was 73 million, which is slightly greater than Turkey's population is now. I do not believe that anybody in this country argued at that time that a British referendum on those accessions was right. The point of principle here is that a referendum should be required when new competences or powers are given from the United Kingdom to the European Union. If Parliament wants to impose the additional requirement for a referendum to be held on a treaty change, including an accession treaty, Parliament is perfectly entitled to do so when the ratification Bill comes along.
Mr Clappison: The Minister is making a persuasive argument in a courteous way, but I must take him up on this point about the accession treaty. I believe that eight members joined at the same time and what took place then was in many respects a shambles, which would have been avoided by better scrutiny and if the question of a referendum had been on the table.
Mr Lidington: I am going to stick to my figure of 10. It does not make much difference to the principle of the argument, but I believe my figure is accurate. My hon. Friend rightly made a point about problems after some of those accessions, but that makes the case for member states to insist on the rigorous application of the accession criteria before accession takes place, rather than allowing countries in before they are fully ready and equipped and then arguing about it afterwards.
Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): The Minister is absolutely right on this point and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) is wrong, because in the case in question the enlargement of the European Union passed the House unanimously. The only occasion when a matter such as enlargement should go to the British people is when the House decides that it should go to them.
I wish now to discuss the significance test. New clause 9 would submit all referendum criteria, all treaty changes and all uses of article 48(6) to a significance test, but even the narrow use of the significance test, as set out in the Bill, has been the subject of a great deal of concern, so I wish to be clear about what it means for the Bill as it stands and to explain why it is needed. The significance test can be used only in very specific circumstances. Clause 4 identifies 13 instances when a treaty change transferring competence or power to the EU would attract a referendum. The significance test applies not to 13, but to two of those instances. Moreover, it can be used only when a decision under article 48(6) is being taken. It cannot be used for treaty amendments adopted under the ordinary revision procedure.
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