Kevin Brennan: Just to be clear, I was not talking about Welsh speakers elsewhere in the UK, because the Welsh Language Act 1993 would not apply there and

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the question would therefore be in English only. However, where the Welsh language has equal legal status, surely the question should be considered in both languages before it is decided on.

Mr Thomas: My hon. Friend makes an accurate point. My point was simply that all Welsh speakers, wherever they reside, would want to ensure that the translation of the question into Welsh in Wales was properly thought through and consulted on—a point he makes extremely well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South has done the House a service in tabling the other amendments in this group.

Mike Gapes: I did not intend to intervene, but given that my name was taken, I feel I have to—[Interruption.] No, not in vain—and not in Welsh, either. What my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas)mentioned was the purpose of my amendments, which relate not just to Wales, but to the Gaelic language with regard to Scotland and to the need for consultation. If I have the opportunity, I will introduce my amendments later today or perhaps next week.

Mr Thomas: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have more knowledge and a higher comfort level when it comes to speaking about the concerns of Welsh speakers than of those who speak Gaelic, but I recognise that my hon. Friend, in drawing the House’s attention to the issue of Gaelic translation, is making an extremely important point. Both my hon. Friends, the Members for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) and for Ilford South who have intervened thus far have, through their specific points—including one I have raised a number of times—essentially made the broader point that there has been a huge consultation deficit with this Bill. That is most unlike the way in which referendums usually take place. It is sad, if I may put it this way, that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South has had to seek to address particular aspects of that consultation deficit by forcing the Minister for Europe and, indeed, the Bill’s sponsor, to consider the issue of Welsh translation and of Gaelic translation, too.

Let me come back to the broader point I was making about the need for proper consultation with the Electoral Commission and the need for sufficient time to allow that commission to do the thoughtful work that all who have an interest in this referendum want it to do. My concern is that the further work that the Electoral Commission has said in its statement is necessary would not be available to the House of Commons to discuss.

It is true that the further work of the Electoral Commission might be available for the deliberations in the other place. It is possible that the other place might amend the Bill, in which case it could come back to this place, but there is absolutely no guarantee that the other place would pass an amendment to this particular part of the Bill, allowing this House, the primary Chamber, to consider the Electoral Commission’s further work. It would be some irony, would it not, if the other place were left to make the key decisions on a Bill that is being presented as the chance to win back powers for the House of Commons?

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We know how important it is to get potential referendum questions right. There was protracted and lengthy debate in Scotland about the wording of the question for the referendum that is due to take place next year. After proper consultation had taken place there, the First Minister was forced to back a new form of words. Hon. Members will also recall the debate surrounding the wording of the most recent referendum to take place across the whole of the UK—the alternative vote referendum, which asked the electorate whether they preferred the alternative vote system over the traditional first-past-the-post electoral system.

I suspect that some of us will find it less comfortable than others to recall the result of that referendum. However, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) noted in Committee, referendums are sometimes nothing like as clear-cut as the EU referendum was and can instead be decided by “minute percentages”. The referendum on whether Quebec should stay part of Canada, for example, was decided by less than 1% back in 1995. It is absolutely vital to consider carefully the wording of the question. It is also vital to ensure that we have a fair process to determine what the question should be and that we think through the psychological impact that a particular form of words might have on the question.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend makes an important point about the situation in Quebec. Does he also recognise that a significant degree of debate and concern was expressed before, during and after that referendum about the very wording of the question, which resulted in the Canadian House of Commons having to pass a clarity Bill about referendum questions and how they should be considered by Parliament?

Mr Thomas: My hon. Friend has studied his Canadian history, and the House is better informed as a result. I suspect that we need some form of clarity Act to try to encourage the Minister for Europe—or, indeed, the Foreign Secretary—to set out what powers and competences they want the Prime Minister to repatriate back to the UK after the treaty change that they say is coming. We are in the dark because neither the Minister for Europe nor the Foreign Secretary will tell the House—nor will the Prime Minister. Hopefully, a clarity Act is not needed in the context of the referendum question, but I hope that my hon. Friend’s point about the Canadian clarity Act might finally jog the Minister for Europe into some action and clarity about the broader issues before us.

The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 set out a number of important changes to how we do politics in our country—in particular, the regulation of referendums. Under the 2000 Act, the Electoral Commission, that much respected independent body responsible for supervising and implementing the regulatory framework of our electoral system, has a statutory responsibility to report on the intelligibility of a question included in a referendum Bill. [Interruption.] I see that the Minister for Europe is getting advice from the Whips in the form of the former Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister. One hopes that the Minister is being passed information about the Prime Minister’s intentions on powers and competences.

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Wayne David: I wouldn’t count on it.

Mr Thomas: I suspect that my hon. Friend is right.

The Electoral Commission has a statutory responsibility to report on the intelligibility—

Mr Kevan Jones: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I ask for your guidance? Is it in order for a Government Whip to be standing up having a long, detailed conversation with the Minister while my hon. Friend is moving his amendment?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is not a point of order. I expect that the hon. Gentleman in question meant to be sitting and will do so from now on.

Mr Thomas: For the avoidance of doubt, I should say that I took no offence. Anything that can be done to enlighten the Minister for Europe about what the Prime Minister’s question might be on the crucial issue of the powers and competences that he wants to repatriate to the UK can only be helpful.

I was focusing on the work of the Electoral Commission, which was established by the 2000 Act. It has the crucial statutory responsibility to report on the intelligibility of a question included in a referendum Bill, as soon as is practicable, once it has been laid before Parliament. What we are discussing is the Electoral Commission’s ninth such referendum question assessment report; it has done sterling work on a series of other referendums. It is worth our reflecting on those.

The Electoral Commission was asked to assess the intelligibility of questions for the 2011 referendum on the powers of the National Assembly for Wales; for the 2011 UK-wide referendum on the parliamentary voting system, on which I would rather not dwell; for a range of local government referendums that have been held in England since 2008; and, of course, for the forthcoming referendum on independence for Scotland. This is the first time the Electoral Commission has undertaken an assessment exercise for a question included in a private Member’s Bill. However, there can be no doubting the experience of the commission in judging accurately what the referendum question should be, given its extensive previous involvement in eight other referendums.

The provisions for the holding of a referendum to be included in a private Member’s Bill are extremely unusual.

The Electoral Commission is probably not the only organisation looking on in confusion at the strange road down which the Prime Minister and the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) have decided to travel.

12.30 pm

The task facing the Electoral Commission began as soon as the Bill received its Second Reading on 5 July. It had to decide whether the question was intelligible, so it considered at length whether it was easy to understand and to the point and whether it could be construed in any way as ambiguous. Importantly, the commission also looked at whether the question was neutral, ensuring that it would not encourage voters to consider one response more favourably than another or mislead voters in any way.

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The Electoral Commission’s report sets out in detail the standard question assessment process that it undertook. It has followed such a process eight times before. Part of the process included evidence gathering from the general public—focus groups, interviews and so on—on the intelligibility of the proposed referendum question. The market research company, GfK National Opinion Polls, was commissioned to carry out some of the research. On the whole, the report, of which the House should be rightly appreciative, found that the question passed muster on some critical tests, but not on others. The question was deemed to be sufficiently brief, straightforward and easy to understand. None the less, there are two key issues that my amendment addresses which are not addressed in the wording as it stands.

Amendment 35, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South, responds to the concerns of the Electoral Commission about the Bill’s question:

“Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”

It suggests removing the opening phrase “Do you think”. That would result in the question beginning with “Should”, and the remainder of the words being reordered appropriately.

The Electoral Commission’s research found that some people felt the phrase, “Do you think” was too informal for a referendum question. Others felt that the phrase sounded less concrete, and suggested, without prompting from the interviewers or being given the alternative option, that the question should be changed to begin with the word “Should” , as my hon. Friend has proposed. Some of the interviewees felt that a change to the wording would make the question on the referendum ballot paper shorter, more direct and, importantly, to the point.

Mr Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend also agree that there is some concern about the amendment, because the question would read:

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”?

We tabled an amendment last week to include Gibraltar. Does he think that there should be some reference to Gibraltar on the Gibraltar ballot paper?

Wayne David rose—

Mr Thomas: I will give way in a second.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) makes a good point. Although I will listen with particular care to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South about amendment 35, I suggest that my amendment is more appropriate. We should not be second-guessing the Electoral Commission. We should ask it to complete its work and give us a clear sense of what the question could be. The Electoral Commission found that changing the wording in the way suggested could also reinforce the importance and significance of the referendum as a formal mechanism for seeking consent from the electorate. Apparently, the Electoral Commission felt that there was a risk that some people would not understand that the referendum was a formal exercise taken seriously by the Government. Quite why so many members of the public should feel that the Prime Minister’s referendum proposal is not a

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matter to be taken seriously is beyond me. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) wants to share some information on that.

Wayne David: Going back to the definition of “country”, if, God forbid, Scotland decided to break away from the Union, would the reference to the United Kingdom still be valid?

Mr Thomas: I hope that that scenario is not presented to us, but we would clearly need to ensure that the appropriate consultation took place about any necessary changes to the referendum proposal. We know from the comments from the Minister for Europe, provoked by the hon. Member for Cheltenham, that he is not wedded to the 2017 date and can imagine situations in which the legislation might have to be scrapped or amended. Perhaps the scene that my hon. Friend has just painted is a further example that the Minister for Europe had in mind.

Perhaps those questioned by the commission could sense the more than slight disparity in the views of Government Members and the less than steadfast commitment to a referendum from the Government parties’ Minister for Europe. The Electoral Commission’s research shows that some people felt that “Do you think” sounded more like an opinion poll than a binding vote. It is for others to say whether it was with opinion polls in mind that this whole exercise was initiated by the hon. Member for Stockton South, Lynton Crosby and the Prime Minister.

The Electoral Commission recommended that the opening phrase “Do you think” should be replaced with the word “Should”. The commission has considerable expertise in this area, as I have already set out. Indeed, the commission has a range of other duties on referendums under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, including registering organisations or individuals that want to campaign in a referendum, monitoring spending on referendum campaigning in line with referendum spending limits, and acting as the chief counting officer for the referendum. As it has such duties, the commission is clearly the go-to organisation for all things referendum. The Opposition take its guidance extremely seriously. When the Minister responds to the debate, I would be interested to hear whether he is likewise prepared to stand up to the chairman of the Conservative party and take the considered views of the Electoral Commission on board.

The other key amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South deals with another problem identified by the Electoral Commission, concerning making the question clearer and improving understanding. The Electoral Commission’s research found

“low levels of contextual understanding of the European Union, with some participants having no knowledge of the European Union, or the status of UK membership of the EU, at all.”

Importantly, the issue about which we should be concerned is the fact that many participants in the Electoral Commission’s research felt that the question

“was misleading because it does not make clear that the United Kingdom is currently a member of the European Union.”

We know that that is an issue of great concern to the Conservative party. An article in The Mail on Sunday during the summer told us that frantic negotiations occurred behind closed doors as the Prime Minister

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bowed to Eurosceptic pressure—again, one might say—and revised the question so that voters would be asked whether the UK should “be” in the EU rather than “remain”, as in the original wording. Apparently, Conservative Eurosceptics, desperate to give their position on the referendum an edge, wanted the question to be less clear—an extraordinary ambition. I have absolutely no idea whether the piece in

The Mail on Sunday

is accurate, although the journalist who wrote it is not known for being wrong too often. I gently suggest to Government Members that the

Mail

’s piece underlines the fact that if they want to present this proposition as less of a stunt in future they must take seriously independent advice about how the question should be drafted. The 1922 committee or Lynton Crosby’s office are not the places to be doing such drafting.

While the Prime Minister may be getting bullied again by his noisy and impatient Back Benchers, Labour Members believe that we should listen to the Electoral Commission’s recommendation that the final question on the ballot paper should clearly reflect the UK’s current position within the European Union. If we are to have a referendum, the question should make it clear that the UK is already a member. We see no benefit of shrouding the issue or being purposefully unclear to the electorate. The Electoral Commission identifies a risk of there being ambiguity in the question, with the consequence that it might be misleading to some voters. Labour Members take that considerable concern seriously.

A question to the electorate that would be less ambiguous would be whether the UK should “remain” a member of the EU. The Electoral Commission found that many people felt that the question was asking them whether the United Kingdom should become a member, rather than remain a member, and thought that they were being asked to vote on the UK joining the European Union. Importantly, even those who were aware of the UK’s status as a member of the European Union agreed that the question in the Bill might be misleading. We have already had a referendum on whether the UK should join the European Union. It was proposed not in the manifesto of the Conservative party, nor in that of the Liberal Democrats, but in a Labour manifesto. The referendum was set out in a Labour White Paper and put to the electorate by a Labour Government. By tabling amendment 35, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South is trying to avoid causing some voters to think that they are back in the 1970s. He wants to ensure that the question in any referendum that we might have is not misleading in any way.

Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend makes an important point about amendment 35, but does he agree that amendment 36 would not pass the ambiguity test? Amendment 36 proposes the question:

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”,

but it is almost impossible to answer that on a ballot paper in a referendum.

Mr Thomas: I am sympathetic to my hon. Friend’s point.

Chris Williamson: To pick up on the intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), the Electoral Commission said that if

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Parliament decided to go with a proposal that was not a yes-or-no question, the most neutral question would be the one that he thinks is misleading:

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

Does my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) have a view about that?

Mr Thomas: My view is reflected in amendment 72. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand if I do not dwell on his point, because I want to accelerate through the remaining points in my speech.

Through amendment 36, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South proposes a question that gives an accurate position of the UK’s status in the EU and allows voters clearly to see the options open to them. It reflects the recommendation of the Electoral Commission, should Parliament wish to look beyond a yes-or-no question. The commission’s research highlighted the view that that question would provide equal weighting to the words “remain” and “leave”, which was thought to improve the neutrality of the question. Indeed, the commission found that question to be the “most balanced and neutral” of the options it tested, so we should take that clear recommendation on board. Its report said of the question:

“All participants understood what they were being asked and were able to answer it in the way they had intended.”

One might wonder whether that is not precisely what we want to achieve.

Given the limited time the Electoral Commission had to compile its report, there is a need for further consultation on and testing of the wording of the referendum question. The commission noted that

“it was not possible in the time available to fully explore and user test the impact of any variations to the wording”.

It would like further time for research and, especially, to consult potential referendum campaigners. Amendment 72 would build on the provisions of the 2000 Act, which led to this first useful report from the commission, by allowing further consultation to uncover any further problems in the wording of possible questions and to suggest what the wording should be.

Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend has made the point that the Electoral Commission has said that the wording in amendment 36 provides that balance. However, does he agree that, using the approach that was tried in the Welsh referendum on devolution in 1997, the problem could be overcome by means of wording such as, “I agree that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union” or “I do not agree that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union”? The questions would be clearly set out and voters could tick a box, whereas it would be difficult to tick a box to answer the question as stated in the amendment.

12.45 pm

Mr Thomas: I hear the concerns of my hon. Friend. I do not have a particularly strong view at this stage on the point that he makes. My argument is that there needs to be further consultation by the experts, the

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Electoral Commission. That is the most sensible way forward. That seems to us on the Opposition Front Bench the minimum that should be required to get the question right. We should hear further from the Electoral Commission, and I would welcome the Minister’s views on that.

Let me underline our view that it should be a matter of concern to the whole House that there might not be time for the House of Commons to consider further the consultation work that the Electoral Commission plans to undertake. Again, I have a high regard for the other place, but it is this Chamber which is subject to the will of the people, and it is this Chamber which might be excluded from debating the Electoral Commission’s further conclusions. We should have more consultation.

Lastly, amendment 71, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East, would force a referendum to be confirmed by all Members of the House instead of that decision being delegated to a Committee. That is surely a sensible suggestion. It would be useful to hear the Minister’s views on it. All Members should take responsibility for a decision of such magnitude. It is a decision about the living standards of the British people, after all.

Unless the Minister for Europe performs oratorical feats that he is not yet known for on European matters, I intend to press amendment 72 to a Division, but before that I look forward to the contributions of other hon. Members and of the Minister.

Chris Williamson: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In relation to the Electoral Commission’s advice to Parliament, can you clarify whether the Bill’s sponsors have made any late attempt to amend the question contained in the Bill, in view of the clear recommendation from the commission that they should do so?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): They have not, but I am sure the promoter of the Bill will have heard the point made by the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), and he will have plenty of time to deal with it in the usual course of the debate.


Mr Lidington: The amendments in the second group fall into four broad categories. First, there is the amendment that would provide for an additional consultation process on the referendum question, going beyond what is set out and what has already been undertaken. The key point that I want to make is that it has been normal practice under successive Governments for a referendum question to be spelled out very clearly on the face of the Bill that authorises that referendum, and the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) therefore follows that established practice.

Secondly, amendment 71 in the name of the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) seeks to add to the requirements for when the power to set the date of the referendum is used. The amendment specifies that the Secretary of State could appoint only the day for the referendum that was specified in a resolution of each House. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that under clause 1(6) the Bill already requires the order to be approved in draft by a resolution of each House, and that draft would include the date of the referendum.

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The third category of amendments deals with the languages in which the question should be posed. We have amendments before us dealing with both the Welsh language and Scots Gaelic. Amendment 37, which seeks to substitute the phrase “Welsh translation” for the phrase “Welsh version”, would have no substantive legal effect. It would not serve any particular purpose. It would not change anything. I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) to the fact that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, which authorised the referendum on the alternative vote system for the House of Commons, used the term “Welsh version” rather than “Welsh translation”. Again, we are going by established precedent.

Mike Gapes: I will speak to the amendment if I am called later, but the Minister makes an interesting point. When I tabled the amendment, I was not sure whether Mr Speaker would select it for debate. In fact he has done so on the basis that it is a serious amendment, so I assume that there is a substantive question that needs to be explored, which is why it is on the amendment paper.

Mr Lidington: I am sure that every amendment tabled to any Bill by the hon. Gentleman is serious in intent, but Mr Speaker judges not the quality of the content of an amendment, but whether it is in order. If it is in order—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): It is orderly. I am sure that no one will want to challenge Mr Speaker’s decision. I am correct on that I take it, Mr Gapes.

Mike Gapes indicated assent.

Mr Lidington: I was not challenging Mr Speaker’s judgment on this matter, but the hon. Gentleman was perhaps over-interpreting the reasons why his amendment had been selected for debate.

With regard to the amendments on the Welsh language, we have already had legislation on referendums that uses the terminology set out in this Bill.

Stephen Doughty: What consultations have the Minister and the Bill’s promoter had with the Welsh Language Commissioner, a new office set up in the past year to provide advice on issues such as whether there is a important difference between “version” and “translation”, and all the permutations of that?

Mr Lidington: I will leave that to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South, if he wishes to respond as the promoter of the Bill. We have a clear example within the past two years of a referendum that has been conducted in the UK, including within Wales. I do not recall any instance in that context when people in Wales protested that the wording in the Welsh language was in any way misleading. That question was based on the use of the term “Welsh version” in the parent legislation.

With regard to Scots Gaelic, we are dealing here with a UK-wide referendum. We have, under specific legislation, provision for UK elections and UK referendums to include a Welsh language version of the questions or party names on the relevant ballot papers. There is no equivalent in UK legislation for Scots Gaelic, Irish Gaelic or any other language to be used in that way,

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so, again, the provisions in the Bill are completely in line with normal precedent as regards UK practice in legislation.

Finally, there is the important category of amendments on the wording of the question, which draw upon the Electoral Commission’s recent report. It is important to bear in mind how the commission went about its work and the tone with which it presented its report. It carried out 103 interviews with individuals and received representations from 19 individuals and organisations. On the basis of those consultations and its own analysis, it concluded that the Bill met most of the tests that it would normally expect any referendum question to meet. It did not put forward an alternative wording but, rather usually, suggested—I use the term deliberately—two possible alternative wordings. There was no suggestion anywhere in its findings that the question drafted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South was misleading or in any way designed to be unfair, but it suggested that Parliament might like to consider some alternative forms of words.

Mr Thomas: With all due respect to the Minister, the Electoral Commission’s view is crystal clear. It stated:

“We recommend that the wording of the proposed referendum question included in the European Union (Referendum) Bill should be amended to make it more direct and to the point, and to improve clarity and understanding.”

Surely he read that sentence.

Mr Lidington: If the hon. Gentleman goes back to the report, he will see that the commission stated very clearly that it believed that the question drafted by my hon. Friend met pretty much all the tests it would expect. There was a debate on the degree of clarity, and the commission drew attention to the fact that there were different views among the people they consulted and from whom they received representations about both my hon. Friend’s wording and the various options that the commission invited Parliament to consider.

Martin Horwood: Surely the whole point of having an Electoral Commission is that we do not settle for referendum questions that are just about satisfactory and that we certainly go for those that it decides are the best and clearest. On a matter of such critical importance, surely the Minister should accept that.

Mr Lidington: An interesting feature of the report is that the commission did not come up with a firm alternative recommendation. Rather, it posed a number of questions and stated that it thought it should be for Parliament to consider whether those recommendations would meet the desire, which I think everyone shares, for maximum clarity and fairness.

Mike Gapes: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Lidington: I am going to make some progress. [Hon. Members: “Give way.”] The commission first proposed—[Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. In fairness to the Minister, he has given way a couple of times and does not want to do so again. Having three

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Members shouting “Give way” when he has no intention of doing so is not good for me or for Members, because I cannot hear anything.

Mr Lidington: The commission first suggested that Parliament should reflect on whether to use the word “remain” in place of the phrase “be a member of”. As it acknowledged in its report, the judgment about that wording boiled down to an assessment of whether one believed that either form of wording would tilt the electorate unfairly towards supporting one or other camp in the referendum campaign. The problem with trying to make that assessment is that it requires making an assumption about how other members of the electorate will be affected by the wording. My own view is that if we look not just at the theory of how people might react but at the practical context of a referendum campaign, the outcome of which will certainly be a subject of very vigorous public political debate, it is hard to see how the form of words proposed by my hon. Friend is likely to tilt the playing field one way or the other.

1 pm

Mark Hendrick: Will the Minister give way?

Chris Williamson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Lidington: No.

The second alternative put forward by the Electoral Commission is that we should abandon the traditional distinction we have made in referendums in this country between a yes and no choice and instead offer the public the alternatives, “remain a member of the European Union”, or, “leave the European Union”. While the commission was careful not to express a definite preference for one or other of the alternatives it proposed, implicit within its report, certainly as I read it, was a tendency towards looking to the second option, which it felt would more closely meet the optimum standards of transparency, clarity and fairness. However, the commission acknowledged in its report that to move away from the traditional choice between yes and no would be a major step and an important decision for Parliament to take. My preference is to retain the clarity of that choice between yes and no.

Looking at what is likely to happen in the context of a referendum campaign on our membership of the European Union, we have to recognise that such a campaign would, first, follow a general election campaign in which the public would be invited to make a choice, among other things, between prospective Governments who were offering the British people a clear choice on whether to remain a member of the EU, and prospective Governments who were not prepared to offer such a choice. Secondly, people would know that a process of reform and renegotiation was taking place, which would itself be subject to questions and statements in this House and in the media. Thirdly, during the campaign itself we would have a vigorous debate led by the umbrella organisations designated by the Electoral Commission. There could therefore be no doubt about the decision that people were being asked to take. The words proposed by my hon. Friend meet the demands of the House and of the Electoral Commission entirely properly and fairly.

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Mike Gapes: It is a pleasure to be able to speak to amendments in this group, which is the most important of the three groups, because the question used in the referendum is a fundamental issue. My amendments relate principally to the question, and there are subsidiary amendments that relate to the Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish situations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) eloquently explained why amendments 35 and 36 have been tabled. The original wording of the question in the draft Bill published on 14 May was:

“Do you think the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?”

That original proposal was subsequently changed, according to the Daily Mail, as a result of lobbying by Eurosceptics. The newspaper said that

“anti-Brussels MPs privately protested that the word ‘remain’ would prompt voters to stay in”

and so

“the wording has been changed”.

The question has therefore been changed at the behest of Eurosceptics, contrary to the original intention and to the very strong advice of the Electoral Commission.

We face a dilemma. We could go for the alternative suggested by amendment 36, which puts both sides of the case. Presumably, the ballot paper could have two boxes and people could tick one to remain in or another to leave. In my opinion, however, the wording of the original proposal in the original draft Bill is preferable and I would like the House to have the opportunity to vote on it, because I think it is consistent with the original intention and clear. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West has said, it would deal with the small number of people—the polling evidence clearly shows that there are some—who are not even aware that this country is in the European Union.

Stephen Doughty: Does my hon. Friend agree that this situation underlines why we need the Electoral Commission to provide guidance and expert advice to the public and to arbitrate the process neutrally, and why the comments made by the chairman of the Conservative party were so disappointing and quite sinister?

Mike Gapes: I agree that Michael Green’s remarks were wrong. It is important to remember, as a helpful House of Commons Library note makes clear, that

“the Electoral Commission has a duty to assess the intelligibility of the question”,

that it has published guidance on that, and that it uses

“focus groups and similar techniques to ensure that the electorate understand the question.”

That may not be convenient for those people quoted by the Daily Mail as having lobbied for a particular outcome in the drafting of the question, but the fact is that the Electoral Commission is the expert. It has carried out thorough research and its report is critical of the question proposed and suggests that we at least go back to the original question, as set out in my amendment 35. Incidentally, that was also the subject of an amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), which, although it was not selected for debate, I think shows that there is cross-party concern about this matter.

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It is important that we have clarity, because a referendum on leaving the European Union will have enormous economic and political consequences for our country and its international relationships and for British citizens, including the 1.4 million living in other EU countries, a large number of whom will, according to the Government, be deprived of being able to vote in the referendum. It will also have implications for new Europeans and for British people who have married citizens of new EU countries. Those new Europeans may be living and working in this country and they may have children at school here. They are contributing to our country, but they might not be able to have a say in the referendum. The question must be clear and not leave any room for ambiguity or doubt about the outcome. People should not be able to say afterwards that the referendum was rigged and unfair and that the result should therefore not be accepted.

Huw Irranca-Davies: This is a pertinent and material amendment, because there is a world of difference between the words “be” and “remain”. I would like to be in the Wales versus Tonga rugby match tonight, but that is an aspiration. The word “remain” would allow me to make an argument to my constituents on the basis of the historical facts of the benefits that Wales gets from being a member of the EU. I would not be saying that we may be a member at some time in the future; I would be saying, “We are a member and here’s what we have gained.”

Mike Gapes: I absolutely agree. I do not want to comment on Welsh rugby, on which I am not an expert. [Interruption.] I will certainly not talk about English cricket either, or even the fortunes of my football team, West Ham United, although I hope we do better against Chelsea on Saturday.

We are in an important part of the debate, because we must get the question absolutely right.

Mark Hendrick: My hon. Friend is perfectly correct that we must get the question absolutely right. One thing that over the years has struck me, and I am sure many other hon. Members, is that when I knock on people’s doors, I find that they are confused about whether we are in Europe, the European Union or the euro. Several years ago, there was a big debate about whether we would join the single currency. Any doubt people might have about our being in the European Union would be put right if the question was whether we should “remain” in the European Union, rather than “be a member” of it. Many people need to be reminded of the fact that we are already a member of the European Union, and that retaining that status is not the end of the world.

Mike Gapes: I agree. Some people get very confused about judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, believing that that is something to do with the European Union, rather than the Council of Europe. Indeed, even some Members of the House have made that error, even recently.

We have to recognise that the question is fundamental. If there is a dispute about the question and there is narrow result in the referendum, the issue will not be resolved, as the Government intend, and there will be

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no cathartic moment. That would simply cause a wound that people will pick at and pick at for years and perhaps decades to come. If we have a referendum, the consequences and the interpretation of the outcome of the vote have to be absolutely clear and certain. There are also other issues relating to thresholds and turnout, but they are not relevant to this debate.

I believe that the choice before us is clear: do we go for the Government’s politically influenced fudge and ambiguity? Sorry, I do not mean the Government, but the Conservative part of the Government. I apologise to the hon. Member for Cheltenham. It is difficult, seeing the Minister in his place, to remember that we are dealing with a private Member’s Bill, but it is important that we do so.

Mr Spellar: That matter was cleared up by Mr Speaker two weeks ago. There were allegations that the Minister was speaking on behalf of the Conservative party, and Mr Speaker made it very clear that whoever speaks from the Treasury Bench at the Dispatch Box is speaking for the Government.

Mike Gapes: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his helpful intervention and clarification.

Martin Horwood: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I think that Mr Speaker stated that if someone speaks from the Treasury Bench as a Minister they are speaking as a Minister, but that does not necessarily mean that they are representing Government policy, and the Minister is certainly not doing so on this occasion.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): The hon. Gentleman has certainly made his point as well, so we can return to Mr Gapes.

Mike Gapes: Clearly, a novel interpretation of ministerial responsibility applies in this debate.

To return to the amendments, amendment 37 concerns having a “version” or a “translation” of the question, about which I intervened on the Minister earlier. There are important implications, because a version is not the same as a translation. A translation would be much closer to the meaning of the words in the original question, whereas a version might be looser and more roundabout or “good enough”. But that is not good enough, because the question has legal and constitutional implications.

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the people of Wales vote differently from the people of the rest of the United Kingdom and there is a narrow result that is influenced by the Welsh speakers. Would we not face potential legal challenges to the outcome if the people of Wales said, “We wish to remain in the European Union, even though the rest of the UK has left”? That could happen if the votes of Welsh speakers swing the result.

1.15 pm

Stephen Doughty: My hon. Friend is making extremely important points. Does he recall that the Government wasted £350,000 on printing English-only versions of the ballot papers for the police and crime commissioner

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elections? Their record on bilingual ballot papers is not good and they should give the matter much more serious consideration.

Mike Gapes: I agree absolutely. I hope that the Government will give the matter further consideration and realise that amendment 37 is not a frivolous amendment, but a serious one that relates to important issues of concern. It needs to be considered on that basis.

Amendment 38 states that there should be consultation with the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government. That consultation would be helpful in ensuring that the question in the Welsh language was correct and accurate, and that it was not simply a version, but a translation of the wording being voted on in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Mr Spellar: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. If he had not, I would have raised this matter on a point of order. Further to my previous point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker—

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that Mr Gapes gave way to an intervention, rather than to a point of order.

Mr Spellar: In that case, further to my previous intervention on my hon. Friend, at 10.30 am on 8 November, at column 548 of Hansard, I asked:

“Is it not the case that anyone speaking from the Dispatch Box on the Government side of the Chamber is speaking on behalf of the Government?”

Mr Speaker replied:

“The right hon. Gentleman is correct. That is the situation—a Minister who speaks from the Treasury Bench is speaking for the Government.”

Interestingly, the hon. Member for Cheltenham then said:

“That raises an interesting issue that perhaps the Government—both sides of the coalition—should reflect on. I stand corrected for the second time in the space of an hour”.—[Official Report, 8 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 548.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: The point has been aired. I am sure that Mike Gapes will get back on track and speak to the amendments.

Mike Gapes: Of course, Mr Deputy Speaker; I would never wish to be off track when discussing these matters.

Amendment 38 requires consultation with the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government on these matters. Amendment 39 relates to Scotland, where there will be similar issues. It would require a consultation with the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government. It is important to remember that the United Kingdom has a devolution settlement, so we cannot simply magic up the wording of questions for political convenience and to suit those who lobby the Daily Mail. We have to consult the different parts of our United Kingdom.

I have experience of that because I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) when he was Minister for

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Political Development in the Northern Ireland Office between 1997 and 1999. I took part in the negotiations in Castle buildings that resulted in the Good Friday agreement. I understand well from that experience the importance of language and identity in Irish politics and within the two communities and faith traditions in Northern Ireland.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Does my hon. Friend agree that amendments 38, 39 and 40, when taken in conjunction with the discussion on amendment 35 on whether the word “be” or “remain” should be used, are vital because we do not know whether the Northern Ireland Executive, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government have expressed their views on the expert opinion of the Electoral Commission on the correct wording? Because I was unable to intervene on the Minister earlier, I do not know whether the Government have had those discussions.

Mike Gapes: I am sorry, I cannot answer that question either. Perhaps the Minister can, or the Liberal Democrats when they speak on behalf of the Government. I simply do not know the answer.

The issues of consultation and identity are important. Given that the referendum could have different outcomes in different places, it is possible, for example, that England might vote to leave but Northern Ireland might vote to stay in. Given the economic, personal and family links north and south of the border, Northern Ireland might prefer co-operation to leaving. If that were the case, there would clearly be implications if the question were disputed.

We should ensure that we see the potential difficulties coming over the horizon and remove them in advance rather than come across them because of a badly worded question, a lack of proper consultation, or a lack of translated versions or translations, whichever we decide on. If we remove those difficulties, it will make political or legal challenges and difficulties at a later stage less likely. As the democratic Chamber, this House has a responsibility to do that, although I suspect that if we do not, the other place will examine the issue in some detail.

I hope that the Scottish Government and Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and Welsh Assembly Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive will make clear representations on those matters. They have a right to be heard on behalf of the people of those nations and regions of the United Kingdom.

I will end my remarks there because I know that many other Members wish to contribute. The amendments cover vital issues that need proper consideration, and I think we need to vote on the wording of the question.


Martin Horwood: There are a number of interesting amendments in this group, although mercifully, rather fewer than in the last group.

Amendment 72, tabled by the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), is interesting and highlights one of the extraordinary omissions from the Bill. It is extraordinary that there is no reference to Gibraltar, to the only referendum Bill that the coalition has passed—the European Union Act 2011—or to the Electoral Commission and

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the Political Parties and Referendums Act 2000. In a small way, the amendment is an antidote to the last of those omissions.

However, it seems to me that the amendment makes rather a meal of the problem by asking for a six-month consultation. I am not convinced that it is necessary to specify in the Bill a broad consultation, let alone for six months, simply about what the question should be. The crucial omission from the Bill, which we need to remedy, is any reference to the Electoral Commission and its role, as properly set out in the 2000 Act, as the body that should advise Parliament on the wording of referendums.

I am not sure that anyone will be under any illusion about what is really at stake in a referendum, should one come to pass. There certainly seems already to be a great deal of public interest in the matter. Not long ago, 1,000 people packed an event at the Cheltenham literature festival at which I took the platform opposite—I would not say alongside—Nigel Farage of the UK Independence party. I was pleased that, after a heated debate, the majority of the people at that event, as far as I could see, voted for Britain to remain in the European Union.

I do not think we need a six-month consultation on the question for the CBI and other opinion-formers to make clear what they think is at stake in a referendum campaign. After all, the CBI has just produced a report that makes its position clear—it understands what is at stake. It says that, after the second world war,

“it seemed clear that the main opportunities for UK trade and growth were with our nearest neighbours”

but that the

“current circumstances have thrown that conclusion into doubt to the point that some in the UK are questioning the value of our membership of the EU, and some are even advocating withdrawal…For British business, large and small, the response to this is unequivocal: we should remain in”.

Without dwelling on the precise nature of the question, which is addressed in the amendments, it reinforced that point, stating:

“The European Union supports UK business in realising its global ambitions by providing significant influence over the rules, policies and priorities that allow British based firms to seize opportunities across the globe. It anchors UK trade around the world through the signing of high-quality, ambitious Free Trade Agreements and the creation of globally recognised standards that open markets. And in a world of competing ideas and ideals – where international action is increasingly the avenue for addressing problems across the globe – UK membership of the EU amplifies Britain’s voice internationally.”

The CBI is not alone. Environmental organisations increasingly understand what is at stake. While being suitably tactful as a registered charity in not coming down on a political side in the debate, the World Wide Fund for Nature has described the importance of the EU to the environment. A recent WWF leaflet, “What has Europe ever done for the environment?”, states:

“EU environmental legislation and policies have raised the bar in Europe and beyond to improve management and protection of landscapes, natural habitats and wildlife…EU legislation includes the world’s most comprehensive set of environmental measures. It accounts for more than 80% of environmental law in Europe…But it hasn’t been a one-way street, with ‘diktats’ from Europe that must be obeyed. The UK has played a leading role in shaping the EU standards that protect the environment”.

It did not need a six-month consultation to reach that conclusion. Thirteen former police chiefs and a former head of MI5 did not need such a consultation to write

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to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister emphasising the importance of European Union measures on justice and home affairs, including the European arrest warrant and Europol. Whatever the precise wording of the question, more opinion formers are clear on what will be at stake in that referendum. What is at stake is Europe’s and Britain’s ability to fight crime and protect the environment. Above all, British jobs, jobs and more jobs will be at stake. I am not sure whether we need the device of a six-month consultation on the question for people to understand what is at stake.

Having said that, the hon. Member for Harrow West made important points on the role of the Electoral Commission. As I said in an intervention on the Minister, the whole point of the commission is that we have not only an adequate question or one that meets most of the requirements of a referendum question, but the best possible and clearest question. Even if we do not have the six-month consultation imagined in amendment 72, there is a good argument for amending the Bill to allow the Electoral Commission’s preferred question to be the one that is put to the British people.

The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) has tabled two amendments—amendments 35 and 36—that address the two possible phraseologies of the question from the commission’s initial report. The possible answers to the first question—

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”—

are yes and no. My reading of the report is that the commission’s clear preference is for another question—

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”—

to which the possible answers would be “remain in the EU” or “leave the EU”. Although the Minister has said that the commission had not reached a firm conclusion on whether that was the best possible question, it was clear in the report that it is a better option than the one in the Bill. For exactly the reasons set out in detail by the hon. Member for Harrow West, which I will not repeat, the commission gave a clear direction on that front.

Of course, the commission could not reach an absolutely firm conclusion because it believed that it had not had time fully to consider it, and that there was room to take more evidence and further refine and improve the question.

Mark Hendrick: I am following the flow of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but does he think that a yes/no referendum would be better than an either/or referendum, purely and simply because there is clear polarity between the arguments?

1.30 pm

Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point that I think was raised in evidence to the Electoral Commission by the Plain English Campaign. It pointed out that in response to a yes/no question, as is traditional, there would be a yes campaign and a no campaign. In response to what appears to be the Electoral Commission’s preferred question, we would have to have a remain campaign, and a leave campaign—I do not particularly fancy carrying placards stating, “Remain”. There are some problems with the preferred wording in the commission’s report, and the hon. Gentleman makes

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a perfectly good point that underlines the fact that the issue requires more consideration. I would like that consideration to be led by the Electoral Commission and to inform the wording of the Bill. If the Minister is unhappy with the wording from the Electoral Commission, and thinks we are being rushed into a decision on that—just as the Bill appears to be rushing us towards even less adequate wording—the solution is in his hands and those of the Conservative party and the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton). They could pause the Bill and wait for the Electoral Commission to consider the question more fully, and satisfy itself that it has the best possible question to put to the British people.

Mr Kevan Jones: The hon. Gentleman is making a good point. Would it not help the House and the debate if the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) made a contribution to the debate or was in the Chamber to hear it?

Martin Horwood: It is rather extraordinary that only one Conservative Back-Bencher and one Liberal Democrat are in the Chamber at the moment. Perhaps Members are following the Prime Minister’s injunction not to bang on about Europe—at least at the moment, if not generally.

Amendment 37, tabled by the hon. Member for Ilford South, would replace a Welsh “version” with a “translation”. I think that is a little superfluous; I am not really sure of the precise difference between a version and a translation, and even after listening to the hon. Gentleman I did not quite pick up the nuanced difference. I think the Minister made a reasonable response to the amendment, which is that we are following precedent by using “version”.

There is more of a problem with amendments 39 and 40 which mention Gaelic translations, and a bit of a linguistic pickle is going on. As I understand it, Gaelic covers a family of languages that include Manx and Irish, and not just Scottish Gaelic, which is the normal term used to describe the Celtic language in Scotland. The Scottish Government are promoting the status of Scottish Gaelic on the basis that it should have equal respect with English, and that there should be language rights for its tens of thousands of native speakers, but not that it is based on a perceived lack of understanding of English. No one is really expected not to understand a question in English—for instance, there is no requirement to have a Scottish Gaelic version of the independence question in the independence referendum, and that appears to be the intention of both the Scottish and UK Governments. Amendment 39 is a wee bit superfluous.

The hon. Member for Ilford South gets into even more of a linguistic pickle with amendment 40. It mentions Gaelic, although I think the accepted terminology in Ireland is Irish, not Gaelic. This is becoming a bit of an attempt to find various things to talk about, which obviously I am not sure we in this place would entertain.

Amendment 38 has slightly more weight because the hon. Gentleman is clearly trying to include in the Bill the requirement to consult

“with the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government.”

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There is much more precedent for using the Welsh language, but then the Welsh language is already mentioned in the Bill, and I am not sure whether we need that sensible requirement for consultation in the Bill too. Such a consultation is something that the Government would seem to be perfectly capable of doing, and if the Electoral Commission is looking at the wording of the question, it should be the body that leads on our Welsh version of the question, as well as the English language version.

That leaves amendment 71, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain). His amendment is an attempt to tackle a fundamental problem with the Bill, namely its curious approach to the timing and the curiously delayed nature of the referendum question that it would put to the British people. Amendment 71 provides a small antidote to that by emphasising that we are not binding our successors. [Interruption.]

Mr Kevan Jones: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Last week we had the Government advisers in the Box communicating via Back Benchers and even with the Bill’s promoter. Today I notice that another Back Bencher is doing the same thing. Is this really in order?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): People are allowed to come and speak. I think everything is in order. If it was not, we would have stopped it.


Martin Horwood: As I was saying, in amendment 71 the hon. Member for Glasgow North East is attempting to remedy the strange issue with the timing and the attempt by this Parliament to bind its successor through this referendum Bill. Of course, we pass legislation all the time that carries forward into future Parliaments, but when it comes to referendums, we normally want to take the decision at the time that we want to hold a referendum. That was the debate we had about the Lisbon treaty—whether it was a proposed constitution and whether we should have at that stage a referendum on the treaty or a referendum on membership, which is what Liberals Democrats supported at that time. We were quite happy to hold a referendum on the question of membership—not in four or five years’ time, but right then and there—because of the clear statement about what the Lisbon treaty contained and what our relationship with Europe would be. We are not in that situation now. The future relationship between the UK and Europe and the rest of the European Union is now less clear because of the economic crisis, the need to restructure the eurozone and the potential treaty changes that are in the offing because of that crisis. It is therefore odd to be discussing a Bill that talks about a referendum four years in advance. Amendment 71, which would provide for an order to be made under the affirmative resolution procedure in a future Parliament, is perhaps one way of tackling that issue.

That is certainly preferable to what I see as the Prime Minister’s position on the referendum, which is what I would describe as an Augustinian position. St Augustine famously said:

“Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

Of course, the Prime Minister has an interest in creating paper unity in the Conservative party on the matter of a referendum, but it would be a political disaster for the

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Conservatives if they got the referendum, because they would be split absolutely down the middle. The Prime Minister made some impressively pro-European statements in his Bloomberg speech. I do not have them at my fingertips, but he talked about the European Union delivering peace in Europe and about it being essential for prosperity and jobs. Indeed, he made a speech of which, in some respects, any Liberal Democrat would be proud, with its explanation of the value of the European Union to both Europe and the UK. However, it is clear from today’s debate and the debate a few weeks ago that many Members from his own party would be campaigning on the opposite side in that referendum.

In a funny way, there is a sort of sub-Orwellian process going on in the Conservative party, in that the Conservatives would rather have a constant campaign for a referendum, which allows them to create some kind of unity, yet they would be rather shocked and disappointed if they got it—indeed, they would be in a bit of a crisis—because then they would be split down the middle. However, although many speakers from the Labour Benches today have answered the big question by arguing in favour of Britain’s continued membership of the European Union, the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) popped up briefly, and there are certainly Labour Members who are far from clear about what their answer to the big question in this debate would be.

This referendum Bill is, at heart, a device to dodge the big question. I suppose there are two parties that are absolutely clear on the answer to that big question of whether Britain should remain in or out of the European Union: UKIP is pretty clear that we should be outside the EU, while the Liberal Democrats are clear that we should be in it, because it enables us to fight cross-border crime more effectively, to protect the environment more effectively and, above all, to protect British jobs and support a sustainable economy in this country. There is confusion among the other two parties. The Conservative party is split down the middle, and the Labour party is, if not split right down the middle, at least split a little down the left-hand side. We need to move on from the minutiae of referendum questions and arcane debates about the precise wording of the question to the big issue of whether Britain should remain in or out. That is what many opinion formers, such as the CBI, are starting to do.

Amendment 71 makes a reasonable attempt to tackle the rather peculiar issue of timing in a quite imaginative way. I am not sure that it resolves the issue, but I would be happy to support it in the meantime.


Mr Bain: I am pleased to speak to amendment 71, which stands in my name, and to other amendments in the group.

An unusual aspect of this Bill is that it purports to hold a referendum on the question of whether to remain part of the European Union, without specifying the date on which such a referendum would be held. That is most unlike the practice that we have seen when this House has passed similar legislation to create the opportunity for referendums to take place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—and, indeed, for the referendum held two years ago on the alternative vote. It is also unlike what is happening in the process for a

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referendum in Scotland. The great danger that the Bill in its current form presents is that it gives the Executive too much power in the setting of the referendum date. The Bill gives the Government a blank cheque for the setting of that date, and who knows what sort of factors will be considered when the Government come to set it.

Mr Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend really think that is a surprise when the Bill is not about whether we should be in or out of Europe, but about papering over the internal cracks, seen in previous contributions, within the Tory party?

Mr Bain: Indeed; my hon. Friend makes a powerful point.

Given that this referendum is being pursued through a private Member’s Bill, it is perplexing why the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) seeks to give such discretion to the Executive. Amendment 71 would limit that discretion quite substantially. If we look at the wording of clause 1, we see that it is technically possible for this House and the other place to pass a resolution, setting a particular date for a referendum, and there could be general election in the interim. In the increasingly—by the day—unlikely event of this Government being returned to office at that election, they could come forward with an order in the next Parliament with a different date for the holding of the referendum.

The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that, if this Bill were passed, any date specified in a resolution passed by this House and the other place for the holding of a referendum would be the same as the date in the final order. In so doing, it would reassert the sovereignty of this House and the other place and restrict the ability of the Executive to play the sorts of games in respect of this referendum that, sadly, those of us who represent constituencies in Scotland know that the Scottish Government have been guilty of playing in respect of the Scottish referendum. I will be testing the House’s opinion on the amendment, which is important in providing safeguards, to the House and those we represent, against the Government’s playing fast and loose with any timetable for setting a date.

1.45 pm

Wayne David: There is also a fundamental constitutional point, in that one Parliament is unable to bind a future Parliament. The Bill puts a question mark over that well established constitutional rule.

Mr Bain: Given my hon. Friend’s expertise in this area, he is enormously well placed to make that point in such a powerful way. It is bizarre that many of those who support the Bill are the very same people who oppose the idea of Parliament being bound by its successors. One reason why they want to withdraw from the European Union, and would encourage people to vote no to staying in in any such referendum, is that they do not believe that sovereignty should be affected.

Mr Kevan Jones: My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Would it not be better if the promoter of the Bill, instead of taking a vow of silence that would be the

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envy of any monastery in the land, actually answered some of the questions about why he has put it forward in such a way?

Mr Bain: My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. Throughout the entire passage of the Bill, neither the hon. Member for Stockton South nor the Minister representing the Government or the Conservative party—hon. Members are not sure about his status—have been able to answer the important questions about the implications of a yes or a no vote. Neither has there been any indication of the precise date on which the Government propose to hold the referendum.

As I said, from my experience in Scotland, that issue is critical. It is not simply a matter of process; it will come into the heart of the entire debate. I do not believe that leaving the Bill in its current form, and letting it give the Executive the powers that it does, does this country or Parliament any service. It is important that we improve the Bill, putting in clearer safeguards for Parliament and the country.

On the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) and for Harrow East.

Mr Thomas: Harrow West.

Mr Bain: My apologies; it is important to be able to distinguish between east and west.

The wording of the question is critical. In the 1975 referendum, specific reference was made to the UK staying in the EEC, as it was. There was a further clarification by means of the insertion of the words “Common Market” after “the European Community” in the referendum question. The Electoral Commission has identified that the question under consideration, in its current form, could create an ambiguity in the minds of an important group of voters, who might believe that the European Union was completely different from Europe or from what we are engaged in at the moment. The Electoral Commission’s advice should be taken carefully by the hon. Member for Stockton South and the Government.

As has been mentioned, the wording of the question is critical. In the Quebec referendum of 1995, when the proposers of separatism argued that a question could be framed around the word “sovereignty”, that generated an outcome of less than 1% in favour of those who wished to remain part of Canada. In Scotland, we saw a politically motivated process with the question as drafted being corrected by the Electoral Commission and other political opinion, which held the Executive to account. If the hon. Gentleman is to make any kind of persuasive case for a referendum, he simply must engage with the arguments that the Electoral Commission has made. The commission has said that there is a danger that his question, which is endorsed by the Conservative part of the Government, is too ambiguous, and that needs to be resolved by this House and potentially by the other place in future proceedings on the Bill.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Does my hon. Friend agree that the rewording in amendment 35 not only abides by the Electoral Commission’s suggestion but states a fact, as we would “remain” within the EU? Does he also agree

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that, in concurrence with my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who has said that he is minded to press his amendment to a Division, the House should pass the amendment so that there is clarity for the voters of the UK should we have a referendum?

Mr Bain: My hon. Friend is entirely correct. The worst thing that this House and the other place could do is to put in place a referendum that leaves doubt in the minds of voters over what they are voting for. There is even doubt about the implications of a yes or a no vote in the minds of Members on the Government Benches. Quite simply, there should not be such doubt among the voters if a referendum were to take place. For that reason, it is essential that the strong arguments of the Electoral Commission are given due credence by the Bill’s promoter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South has tabled an interesting group of amendments. It is fair for him to raise the point in relation to Wales and Scotland. It would be appropriate to consult those devolved legislatures and to speak to the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government about the arrangements for translating the question into the appropriate language. The promoter should take such arguments on board.

I will seek to test the opinion of the House on amendment 71. I emphasise to both the Government and the Bill’s promoter that language is absolutely critical in referendums. As the question stands in this Bill, the hon. Member for Stockton South simply has not got it right.

Mark Hendrick: I rise to speak in support of amendment 35 and to oppose amendment 36. I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), hold strong views about amendment 35, and it is important that the House expresses its view on the amendment, too. The wording should make specific reference to our remaining in the European Union. It should not give the impression to the public when they come to make their decision that we are not already in the European Union.

The past has shown us that the wording of the referendum question is important in that it not only frames the debate but affects voter understanding. If the wording of the question for a referendum in 2017 is left solely to the Government, and the Government have not taken sufficient notice of an independent body such as the Electoral Commission, the question could be misleading, deliberately vague or confusing, or reflect a bias leaning one way or another. In short, the wording of the question in a particularly close referendum could affect whether voters choose to remain in the EU or to leave it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) pointed out, we need only cast our minds back to the 1995 independence referendum in Quebec. After a failed independence referendum in 1980, the Parti Québécois was brought back into power in 1994 and quickly called for a fresh referendum. It asked the people of Quebec:

“Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the Bill respecting the future of Quebec and the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?”

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That is a long referendum question, which caused a great deal of confusion, to the extent that the referendum was taken again. Led by Federal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien of the Liberal party, the no campaign complained that the yes campaign’s approach of offering sovereignty and association with Canada was not clear enough, and federalists said that the word “country”, as in “sovereign country”, had been left out intentionally to confuse voters. It also complained that the wording of the question, particularly the phrase

“the agreement signed on June 12, 1995”,

might imply that the new economic and political partnership had somehow already been secured, in the same way as the question proposed by the Government gives the impression that the UK might not already be a member of the EU by omitting to mention that we are.

Stephen Doughty: My hon. Friend again mentions Quebec, which is an important issue that the Government and the promoter of the Bill need to consider. Another issue was that the period of uncertainty lasted for many years afterwards. The Clarity Act was not passed until 1999, so the debate about whether the question was clear was wrangled over for four or five years. Many argued that the uncertainty created by the referendum and the question contributed to Canada’s poor economic performance in the 1990s. It had wider implications, not only legal and constitutional ones.

Mark Hendrick: I totally agree. Opinion research tended to bear out the federalists’ claim about the wording of the question. A poll conducted three weeks before the vote found that 28% of voters who had not yet made up their minds believed that a yes vote would simply mean negotiating a better deal within the federal system.

There were many other indications of the importance of the wording. Polls suggested that some 53% of those who supported sovereignty thought that it did not mean separating from the rest of Canada. Even more striking differences were shown: if the polling question was reversed and respondents were asked whether they wished to stay in Canada, 59% said yes; and a poll in 1994 suggested that 71% of sovereigntists wanted to remain part of the federation.

An in/out referendum is a huge issue as far as the UK’s membership of the EU is concerned. We need to make distinctions purely and simply by making it plain at the start that we are a member of the European Union and by asking the public whether they wish to remain as a member.

On the question of the alternative to EU membership, the Democracy Movement testified to Parliament:

“The danger of bias with ballot paper preambles not only relates to what is actually included in them but also to what is left out”.

I feel that any referendum on leaving Europe should allude to what being outside Europe would mean. The Government need to be clear on the choice offered. If it is a choice between being a member of the EU or a member of the European economic area or the European Free Trade Association, like Norway and Switzerland, that choice should be expressed if not in the question in the literature given out with the ballot paper or before the referendum takes place.

22 Nov 2013 : Column 1544

Signed in 1992 and operational from 1994, the EEA agreement extends the EU single market and free movement of goods, services, people and capital, together with laws in areas such as employment, consumer protection, environmental policy and competition. It includes Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, but not Switzerland. In practice, that means that the vast majority of the EU regulations that are identified as the most burdensome to business, including the working time directive, would still apply if the UK left the EU but remained a member of the European economic area. The UK would also be bound by future EU law in those areas, but would arguably have less influence over their content. Any question on European membership should therefore state clearly what the alternative to that membership should be.

2 pm

Something other than a simple yes or no question was an option—it is not my preferred option—mentioned by the Electoral Commission that might achieve that. Such a question was used in referendums in New Zealand in 1992 and 1993 on electoral reform. We must acknowledge that a sizeable portion of the British public would prefer reform or a renegotiation, rather than simply continuing as we are or leaving the European Union.

The Government’s question—

“Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”—

clearly gives the impression that the United Kingdom might not be an EU member at present. As I said in an intervention, when we knock on doors and speak to people about Europe, they are not sure whether we are talking about being in Europe as a continent, as a member of the EU, as a signatory to the European convention on human rights, or as a member of the European single currency. There is therefore a great deal of confusion, but rephrasing the question and providing additional information could make things clearer. The Electoral Commission argues that its research shows that a few people do not know whether the UK is currently a member of the EU and that that presented the risk of misunderstanding. Professor Dunleavy argued in his testimony to Parliament that the question in the Bill

“is highly misleading in two dimensions. First, it implicitly suggests to voters…either that the UK is not already a member…or that our membership is up for renewal in some kind of routine, regular or unprompted way…Either way the question actively contributes to misinforming voters.”

The Electoral Commission tested six versions of a possible referendum question in its report. The first—the question in the Bill—was

“Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”

The second question, which is my preference—it is proposed in amendment 35—was:

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”

The third question—

“Should the United Kingdom continue to be a member of the European Union?”—

obviously leads the electorate in a specific direction. The fourth question was

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

22 Nov 2013 : Column 1545

That is the either/or option, with the voters choosing between the options of “Remain a member” and “Leave the European Union”. The fifth alternative was:

“The United Kingdom is a member of the European Union. Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”

The final question was:

“Should the United Kingdom leave the European Union?”

There were therefore various considerations of how the question could be posed, how each question might lead the electorate, and whether the electorate would understand their options. The commission’s research argued that a simple yes or no question might present

“difficulties with some element of perceived bias”,

but I think that such a question represents the best way forward.

If Scotland votes yes in 2014, will the words “United Kingdom” have to be amended within the question? Will the question refer to the “remainder of the United Kingdom”? I invite the Minister to tell us his preferred wording, should Scotland choose to leave. Would “rump UK” or “remainder of the UK” appear on a ballot paper?

The Government need to take account of the commission’s findings about the range of people’s knowledge and understanding of the EU. Some said that they had no knowledge, while others stated they had a moderate level of knowledge. However, regardless of participants’ knowledge of the EU as a form of political and economic union, the majority stated that their personal understanding of how the EU worked was particularly low. The report considered that many were under-informed about the EU as an institution, as well as about the arguments for and against the UK remaining a member.

The Foreign Affairs Committee report on the future UK relationship with Europe pointed out that Europe’s current institutional architecture means that any UK decision about whether the country should remain in the EU would to a significant extent be a decision about whether it should remain in the European single market. How many people in the UK recognise that fact? Do they realise that voting no to Britain remaining in the EU could seriously affect the economy, their job prospects and their likelihood of remaining in a job in the future? That is why the economic side of the argument is so important. Any referendum question on membership of the European Union should be closely associated with literature which refers to the single market, the likelihood of people still being in a job and of their local firm still trading with Europe, and related matters.

Some participants in the commission’s research expressed concern about the effect of including the word “leave” on the neutrality of the question. Leaving is not as straightforward as some might think. As Herman Van Rompuy pointed out in a speech on 28 February 2013,

“leaving the club altogether, as a few advocate, is legally possible—we have an ‘exit clause’—but it’s not a matter of just walking out. It would be legally and politically a most complicated and unpractical affair. Just think of a divorce after forty years of marriage… Leaving is an act of free will, and perfectly legitimate, but it doesn’t come for free”

and it would not be that easy.

Under article 50 the UK would have to negotiate its withdrawal with the rest of the European Union. The terms of such an agreement would have to be supported

22 Nov 2013 : Column 1546

through qualified majority voting in the European Council and would require the support of the European Parliament. If no agreement were reached, the UK’s exit would take effect two years after notice had been issued, unless the Council voted unanimously to extend this period.

Article 50 of the amended treaty on the European Union allows a member state unilaterally to leave the EU in accordance with its own constitutional requirements. It states:

“A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.”

Mr Thomas: My hon. Friend is making a very good speech, using all his European and referendum experience. Can he remember any other referendum situation in the UK where the Government proposed, as the Minister for Europe did in his speech, to ignore the Electoral Commission’s clear advice that the question needs amending?

Mark Hendrick: No. By the standards of the Conservative party, we have a moderate, reasonable Europe Minister in his place on the Front Bench, who has over the years given serious consideration to most people’s point of view on issues related to Europe. It surprises me that a man of his calibre is doing not only the work of being a very good Europe Minister, which he is, but the dirty work of the Conservative party, giving the impression that as a reasonable man he is disregarding the important qualifications set out by the Electoral Commission.

Finally, any question of leaving the European Union should point out that such an exit would have to be negotiated. Perhaps the question should be, “Should the UK negotiate its exit from the European Union under article 50 of the Lisbon treaty?” Any such question should make clear reference to the fact that we are already in the European Union, and the question should be whether or not we remain in the European Union.

James Wharton claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).

Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.

The House proceeded to a Division.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Will the Serjeant at Arms investigate the delay in the No Lobby? We seem to be suffering some type of blockage.

The House having divided:

Ayes 258, Noes 18.

Division No. 136]

[

2.09

AYES

Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Aldous, Peter

Amess, Mr David

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Bacon, Mr Richard

Baker, Steve

Baldry, Sir Tony

Baldwin, Harriett

Barclay, Stephen

Barker, rh Gregory

Baron, Mr John

Bebb, Guto

Benyon, Richard

Beresford, Sir Paul

Berry, Jake

Bingham, Andrew

Binley, Mr Brian

Blackman, Bob

Blackwood, Nicola

Blunt, Mr Crispin

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bray, Angie

Brazier, Mr Julian

Bridgen, Andrew

Brokenshire, James

Bruce, Fiona

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burley, Mr Aidan

Burns, Conor

Burns, rh Mr Simon

Burrowes, Mr David

Cairns, Alun

Cameron, rh Mr David

Carmichael, Neil

Carswell, Mr Douglas

Cash, Mr William

Chishti, Rehman

Clappison, Mr James

Clark, rh Greg

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Collins, Damian

Colvile, Oliver

Cox, Mr Geoffrey

Crabb, Stephen

Crouch, Tracey

Davies, David T. C.

(Monmouth)

Davies, Glyn

Davies, Philip

de Bois, Nick

Dinenage, Caroline

Dorries, Nadine

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Duddridge, James

Duncan, rh Mr Alan

Dunne, Mr Philip

Ellis, Michael

Ellison, Jane

Ellwood, Mr Tobias

Elphicke, Charlie

Eustice, George

Evans, Graham

Evans, Jonathan

Evans, Mr Nigel

Evennett, Mr David

Fabricant, Michael

Fallon, rh Michael

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freeman, George

Freer, Mike

Fullbrook, Lorraine

Fuller, Richard

Garnier, Sir Edward

Garnier, Mark

Gauke, Mr David

Gibb, Mr Nick

Gillan, rh Mrs Cheryl

Glen, John

Goldsmith, Zac

Gove, rh Michael

Graham, Richard

Grant, Mrs Helen

Gray, Mr James

Grayling, rh Chris

Green, rh Damian

Grieve, rh Mr Dominic

Griffiths, Andrew

Gummer, Ben

Gyimah, Mr Sam

Hague, rh Mr William

Halfon, Robert

Hammond, rh Mr Philip

Hammond, Stephen

Hancock, Matthew

Hands, Greg

Harper, Mr Mark

Harrington, Richard

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Hayes, rh Mr John

Heald, Oliver

Heaton-Harris, Chris

Henderson, Gordon

Hendry, Charles

Herbert, rh Nick

Hinds, Damian

Hoban, Mr Mark

Hollingbery, George

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Hopkins, Kris

Horwood, Martin

Howarth, Sir Gerald

Howell, John

Hunt, rh Mr Jeremy

Hurd, Mr Nick

Jackson, Mr Stewart

Javid, Sajid

Johnson, Gareth

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, rh Mr David

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kelly, Chris

Kirby, Simon

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Lancaster, Mark

Lansley, rh Mr Andrew

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Jessica

Lee, Dr Phillip

Lefroy, Jeremy

Leigh, Sir Edward

Leslie, Charlotte

Letwin, rh Mr Oliver

Lewis, Brandon

Lewis, Dr Julian

Lidington, rh Mr David

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lopresti, Jack

Lord, Jonathan

Loughton, Tim

Luff, Peter

Macleod, Mary

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Jason

McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick

McPartland, Stephen

McVey, Esther

Menzies, Mark

Metcalfe, Stephen

Miller, rh Maria

Mills, Nigel

Milton, Anne

Mordaunt, Penny

Morris, Anne Marie

Morris, David

Morris, James

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Mundell, rh David

Murray, Sheryll

Murrison, Dr Andrew

Neill, Robert

Newmark, Mr Brooks

Newton, Sarah

Nokes, Caroline

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

O'Brien, rh Mr Stephen

Offord, Dr Matthew

Ollerenshaw, Eric

Opperman, Guy

Osborne, rh Mr George

Ottaway, rh Richard

Paice, rh Sir James

Parish, Neil

Patel, Priti

Paterson, rh Mr Owen

Penning, Mike

Penrose, John

Percy, Andrew

Perry, Claire

Phillips, Stephen

Pickles, rh Mr Eric

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Prisk, Mr Mark

Pritchard, Mark

Raab, Mr Dominic

Randall, rh Sir John

Reckless, Mark

Redwood, rh Mr John

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reevell, Simon

Robathan, rh Mr Andrew

Robertson, rh Hugh

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Rosindell, Andrew

Rudd, Amber

Ruffley, Mr David

Rutley, David

Sandys, Laura

Scott, Mr Lee

Selous, Andrew

Shapps, rh Grant

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Simmonds, Mark

Simpson, Mr Keith

Skidmore, Chris

Smith, Chloe

Smith, Henry

Smith, Julian

Soames, rh Nicholas

Soubry, Anna

Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stephenson, Andrew

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Stride, Mel

Stuart, Mr Graham

Sturdy, Julian

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Swire, rh Mr Hugo

Syms, Mr Robert

Tapsell, rh Sir Peter

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Tredinnick, David

Truss, Elizabeth

Turner, Mr Andrew

Tyrie, Mr Andrew

Uppal, Paul

Vaizey, Mr Edward

Vara, Mr Shailesh

Vickers, Martin

Walker, Mr Charles

Walker, Mr Robin

Wallace, Mr Ben

Watkinson, Dame Angela

Weatherley, Mike

Wharton, James

Wheeler, Heather

Whittaker, Craig

Whittingdale, Mr John

Willetts, rh Mr David

Williamson, Gavin

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wright, Jeremy

Young, rh Sir George

Zahawi, Nadhim

Tellers for the Ayes:

Karen Bradley

and

Gavin Barwell

NOES

Alexander, rh Mr Douglas

Bain, Mr William

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Campbell, Mr Alan

David, Wayne

Doughty, Stephen

Efford, Clive

Hendrick, Mark

Hilling, Julie

Jones, Mr Kevan

Lucas, Ian

Malhotra, Seema

McCarthy, Kerry

Phillipson, Bridget

Smith, Nick

Tami, Mark

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Williamson, Chris

Tellers for the Noes:

Tom Blenkinsop

and

Heidi Alexander

Question accordingly agreed to.

22 Nov 2013 : Column 1547

22 Nov 2013 : Column 1548

22 Nov 2013 : Column 1549

Question put accordingly, That the amendment be made.

The House divided:

Ayes 16, Noes 255.

Division No. 137]

[

2.24 pm

AYES

Alexander, rh Mr Douglas

Bain, Mr William

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Campbell, Mr Alan

David, Wayne

Doughty, Stephen

Efford, Clive

Hendrick, Mark

Hilling, Julie

Lucas, Ian

McCarthy, Kerry

Phillipson, Bridget

Smith, Nick

Tami, Mark

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Williamson, Chris

Tellers for the Ayes:

Tom Blenkinsop

and

Heidi Alexander

NOES

Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Aldous, Peter

Amess, Mr David

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Bacon, Mr Richard

Baker, Steve

Baldry, Sir Tony

Baldwin, Harriett

Barclay, Stephen

Barker, rh Gregory

Baron, Mr John

Bebb, Guto

Benyon, Richard

Beresford, Sir Paul

Berry, Jake

Bingham, Andrew

Binley, Mr Brian

Blackman, Bob

Blackwood, Nicola

Blunt, Mr Crispin

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradley, Karen

Bray, Angie

Brazier, Mr Julian

Bridgen, Andrew

Brokenshire, James

Bruce, Fiona

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burley, Mr Aidan

Burns, Conor

Burns, rh Mr Simon

Burrowes, Mr David

Cairns, Alun

Cameron, rh Mr David

Carmichael, Neil

Carswell, Mr Douglas

Cash, Mr William

Chishti, Rehman

Clappison, Mr James

Clark, rh Greg

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Collins, Damian

Colvile, Oliver

Cox, Mr Geoffrey

Crabb, Stephen

Crouch, Tracey

Davies, David T. C.

(Monmouth)

Davies, Glyn

Davies, Philip

de Bois, Nick

Dinenage, Caroline

Dorries, Nadine

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Duddridge, James

Duncan, rh Mr Alan

Dunne, Mr Philip

Ellis, Michael

Ellison, Jane

Ellwood, Mr Tobias

Elphicke, Charlie

Eustice, George

Evans, Graham

Evans, Jonathan

Evans, Mr Nigel

Evennett, Mr David

Fabricant, Michael

Fallon, rh Michael

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freeman, George

Freer, Mike

Fullbrook, Lorraine

Fuller, Richard

Garnier, Sir Edward

Garnier, Mark

Gauke, Mr David

Gibb, Mr Nick

Gillan, rh Mrs Cheryl

Glen, John

Goldsmith, Zac

Gove, rh Michael

Graham, Richard

Grant, Mrs Helen

Gray, Mr James

Grayling, rh Chris

Green, rh Damian

Grieve, rh Mr Dominic

Griffiths, Andrew

Gummer, Ben

Hague, rh Mr William

Halfon, Robert

Hammond, rh Mr Philip

Hammond, Stephen

Hands, Greg

Harper, Mr Mark

Harrington, Richard

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Hayes, rh Mr John

Heald, Oliver

Heaton-Harris, Chris

Henderson, Gordon

Hendry, Charles

Herbert, rh Nick

Hinds, Damian

Hoban, Mr Mark

Hollingbery, George

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Hopkins, Kris

Horwood, Martin

Howarth, Sir Gerald

Howell, John

Hunt, rh Mr Jeremy

Hurd, Mr Nick

Jackson, Mr Stewart

Javid, Sajid

Johnson, Gareth

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, rh Mr David

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kelly, Chris

Kirby, Simon

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Lancaster, Mark

Lansley, rh Mr Andrew

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Jessica

Lee, Dr Phillip

Lefroy, Jeremy

Leigh, Sir Edward

Leslie, Charlotte

Letwin, rh Mr Oliver

Lewis, Brandon

Lewis, Dr Julian

Lidington, rh Mr David

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lopresti, Jack

Lord, Jonathan

Loughton, Tim

Luff, Peter

Macleod, Mary

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Jason

McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick

McPartland, Stephen

McVey, Esther

Menzies, Mark

Miller, rh Maria

Mills, Nigel

Milton, Anne

Mordaunt, Penny

Morris, Anne Marie

Morris, David

Morris, James

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Mundell, rh David

Murray, Sheryll

Murrison, Dr Andrew

Neill, Robert

Newmark, Mr Brooks

Newton, Sarah

Nokes, Caroline

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

O'Brien, rh Mr Stephen

Offord, Dr Matthew

Ollerenshaw, Eric

Opperman, Guy

Osborne, rh Mr George

Ottaway, rh Richard

Paice, rh Sir James

Parish, Neil

Patel, Priti

Paterson, rh Mr Owen

Penning, Mike

Penrose, John

Percy, Andrew

Perry, Claire

Phillips, Stephen

Pickles, rh Mr Eric

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Prisk, Mr Mark

Pritchard, Mark

Raab, Mr Dominic

Randall, rh Sir John

Reckless, Mark

Redwood, rh Mr John

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reevell, Simon

Robathan, rh Mr Andrew

Robertson, rh Hugh

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Rosindell, Andrew

Rudd, Amber

Ruffley, Mr David

Rutley, David

Sandys, Laura

Scott, Mr Lee

Selous, Andrew

Shapps, rh Grant

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Simmonds, Mark

Simpson, Mr Keith

Skidmore, Chris

Smith, Chloe

Smith, Henry

Smith, Julian

Soames, rh Nicholas

Soubry, Anna

Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stephenson, Andrew

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Stride, Mel

Stuart, Mr Graham

Sturdy, Julian

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Swire, rh Mr Hugo

Syms, Mr Robert

Tapsell, rh Sir Peter

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Tredinnick, David

Truss, Elizabeth

Turner, Mr Andrew

Uppal, Paul

Vaizey, Mr Edward

Vara, Mr Shailesh

Vickers, Martin

Walker, Mr Charles

Walker, Mr Robin

Wallace, Mr Ben

Watkinson, Dame Angela

Weatherley, Mike

Wharton, James

Wheeler, Heather

Whittaker, Craig

Whittingdale, Mr John

Willetts, rh Mr David

Williamson, Gavin

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wright, Jeremy

Young, rh Sir George

Zahawi, Nadhim

Tellers for the Noes:

Gavin Barwell

and

Mr Sam Gyimah

Question accordingly negatived.

22 Nov 2013 : Column 1550

22 Nov 2013 : Column 1551

2.35 pm

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Bill to be further considered on Friday 29 November.

Business without Debate

Sentencing Escalator Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 6 December.

Leasehold Reform (Amendment) Bill

Bill read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).

Smoking (Private Members’ Clubs) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 13 December.

Child Maltreatment Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 January 2014.

22 Nov 2013 : Column 1552

Margaret Thatcher Day Bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (5 July), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 29 November.

EU Membership (Audit of Costs and Benefits) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 29 November.

Asylum (Time Limit) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 29 November.

Foreign Nationals (Access to Public Services) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 29 November.

House of Lords (MAXIMUM mEMBERSHIP) bILL

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 29 November.

22 Nov 2013 : Column 1553

Local Development Planning (Nuneaton)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Claire Perry.)

2.37 pm

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this matter in the House because it is important to thousands of my constituents. I thank the Minister for being here to respond to the concerns that I will raise.

We all know that new housing development is vital across our country. We are living longer and a higher proportion of people are choosing to live single lives than once was the case. The vast majority of my constituents are not anti-development and are not nimbys, but they have valid concerns about new developments and the impact that they might have on the settled community. They think that they deserve to be part of the decision-making process.

Nuneaton constituency is very urban, with the exception of the more rural wards of Hartshill, Arley and Whitacre. I will focus on the urban area of Nuneaton and the village of Hartshill, and on the potential impact on the communities of those areas of the local plans that are being formulated by the two planning authorities.

I turn first to Hartshill village and the concerns about the local plan of North Warwickshire borough council, which has gone to the Planning Inspectorate for consideration. Before going any further, I want to pay tribute to North Warwickshire borough council for formulating its plan reasonably quickly. That said, the lack of proper consultation by the council and the scale of development are causing great concern to my constituents.

On consultation, the proposal has been advertised in the council’s residents magazine North Talk, in libraries and on the council’s website. The response that I have received from residents suggests that very few of them knew anything about the plans until the Hartshill district residents group leafleted the area and knocked on doors. Furthermore, residents in the adjoining Camp Hill ward, which comes under the planning jurisdiction of Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council, were not afforded any consultation whatever. The consequence has been that the residents of Berrington road in Camp Hill, who overlook the site on which North Warwickshire borough council wants to build more than 400 houses, have been given no voice whatever and no opportunity to persuade the council against its proposals. Whether we agree or disagree with any such proposal, surely those affected deserve to be properly consulted.

I therefore ask the Minister what can be done, by looking at the 2004 guidance on consultation, as referred to in the national planning policy framework, with a view to ensuring that local people receive bespoke communication on such proposals. Furthermore, will he consider setting a clear protocol for adjoining authorities, to ensure that there is proper consultation for people potentially affected?

Before I move on from the Hartshill situation, I should like to make my second point which is about the scale of the proposed development. Hartshill village was built around mineral extraction and quarrying and is literally bounded by former quarry works. Realistically,

22 Nov 2013 : Column 1554

there is only one possible site, which is currently landlocked. The council expects more than 15% of the whole borough’s new development—more than 400 houses—to be built there. The road infrastructure in Hartshill is already inadequate, and it is virtually impossible to upgrade it on either side of the proposed development. I hope that that will be a fundamental consideration for the planning inspector when the core strategy examination starts on 7 January.

I turn now to the concerns of my constituents in Nuneaton about the local plan proposed by Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council. My constituents were extremely pleased when the Government first announced their intention to abolish, and then finally did abolish, the west midlands regional spatial strategy, which under the last Government had the potential to impose 13,800 houses on the borough.

James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this incredibly important debate. In Stockton, the Labour-led council is forcing through huge numbers of houses against the wishes of local residents because it does not understand what sustainable development is supposed to be and allows developments that are not sustainable because of their impact on traffic and local infrastructure. Given that the Labour party has indicated—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. The debate is about Nuneaton. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand the difficulty—the debate is on the tight subject of local development planning in Nuneaton, not outside Nuneaton.

James Wharton: Absolutely, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I ask my hon. Friend whether the people of Nuneaton are as concerned as my constituents about the Labour party’s announced policy to build 1 million more homes if it wins the next election, and the impact that would have on the communities that he represents?

Mr Marcus Jones: I thank my hon. Friend. They are extremely concerned to hear that the Labour party wants to build a further 1 million homes across the country in a five-year period, and about the impact that that might have on Nuneaton.

To return to the regional spatial strategy, in July 2010 I wrote to the Labour leader of Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council to highlight the letter that the Secretary of State had sent about the intention to abolish the RSS and allow councils to set their own development targets. I received no answer to my letter, but, more important, the council then decided to delay the process for the production of the local plan. Many of my constituents believe that that was done purely for political reasons.

In autumn 2011, with the threat of a large-scale planning application on open countryside land in Weddington, the council’s cabinet hurriedly rushed through a target of 7,900 new houses without any public consultation whatever. That was despite serious concerns raised by residents’ groups such as SWORD—the Save Weddington: Oppose the Residential Development group—and CV11, and objections raised by local politicians including me about the speed of production of the local plan. Once more, the Labour-controlled council decided to ignore those concerns so that it could avoid consulting until

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this summer. Many local people believe that, again, that was done purely for political reasons—to avoid a consultation before the 2012 and 2013 local elections.

The delay in the process, combined with the lack of housing land supply, has already led to permission being granted for 300 houses at Weddington and nearly 200 on the Longshoot, on countryside land. As we speak, developers are queuing up for another 400 houses for Weddington, 250 for the Longshoot, on countryside land, and 675 at Attleborough, on the green belt. Residents in Arbury ward are also extremely concerned about the potential for the green belt to be breached before the plan is even settled. I would be grateful if the Minister could say what protection is afforded green-belt land under the national planning policy framework.

I can describe the local plan proposal only as completely flawed, in terms of both the process and evidence. On the process, the consultation has not been adequate in any sense. Only one option was put to the public, despite the fact that many sites in the borough were put forward for possible development. My constituents do not believe that a consultation to consider only one option that was cobbled together in a Labour councillors group meeting constitutes a proper basis for a public consultation. I put it to the Minister that there should be a test and that councils should be required to offer more than one option in that type of consultation process.

The local plan consultations should contain some sort of bespoke communication, because many constituents were not aware of the process until they heard by word of mouth. Not everyone always reads the local press or the council’s “In Touch” magazine, but they were the main form of communication on the proposals. The consultation response was initially derisory. However, after a lot of information was given out by politicians and concerned local residents groups, nearly 5,000 responses were received by the council, mainly from the wards of Arbury, Attleborough, St Nicolas, Weddington and Whitestone.

The Minister should be minded to consider how consultation documents are put together. In this case, wards were listed as not affected by development—the suggestion was that they would be completely unaffected. That could lead to residents failing to respond although they could in fact be materially affected. That was the case in Whitestone ward. It is not subject to proposed housing or commercial development, but buried in the local planning consultation was the idea of a major link road joining Golf drive, which is a minor estate road. The proposal would cause absolute havoc. If local Conservative councillors had not noticed the proposal, many of the 2,500 people who have signed a petition opposing it might not have had a voice.

On evidence, the Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council proposal is based on a previous consultation from 2009: the public were consulted on a series of options by the then Conservative council in response to the Labour Government’s RSS. The public’s preferred option at that time was to pursue developments of small urban extensions to existing wards. That public opinion has been completely ignored. Moreover, the evidence given by the council’s officers on where developments should be pursued has been totally ignored.

Also ignored were the views of highways officers at Warwickshire county council who explained misgivings

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about the sustainability of the road network, should a similar option to the proposal be pursued. Instead, we have learnt from a borough councillor who defected from the council’s Labour group that the decision on where to site new development was made in a Labour party group meeting. There is a strong hint that the wards most affected by the proposals are areas where Labour has not traditionally had councillors.

My constituents in Arbury, Attleborough, Weddington and St Nicolas wards face being forced to accept thousands of homes whether they like it or not. About 80% of all new development proposed in Nuneaton and Bedworth borough is to be massed on green fields and green belt around those existing and settled residential areas. In most of those areas, the sites in question are some of the only green fields left to the northern boundary of the constituency where it meets the A5 trunk road.

Time does not allow me to go into the detail that I would like, but the effect of planning development in that way could be catastrophic for our infrastructure. The capacity of the road network through Nuneaton town centre is already constrained. If the proposals to create large developments are accepted, massive strains will be placed on the system, which cannot be easily upgraded owing to the way the town has grown in the past 50 years. Several link roads are proposed in the plan, although their delivery is highly questionable—the planning authority did not consult the highways authority before putting the proposals forward for consultation.

Many of my constituents in the Weddington and St Nicolas wards also have great concerns about flooding, which has been a problem in the area for some time. The Environment Agency has little doubt that engineering solutions can be applied. It grades various mitigation solutions by effectiveness, but I find it strange that there is no statutory obligation for local councils to compel developers to use the flood mitigation measures considered most effective by the Environment Agency. Will the Minister look at what can be done to compel councils and developers to use the best mitigation possible to protect new properties—in particular the settled community—to best effect?

There are concerns across all the potentially affected areas about drainage and sewerage and the adequacy of those systems if they are asked to cope with an additional flow from thousands more properties. The same concerns could be raised about our education system and local health care provision, which are already running pretty much at capacity in those areas. To add to those concerns, many of my constituents are horrified by the shadow Chancellor’s plan to bring forward 1 million new homes between 2015 and 2020. I am sure they will be keen to ensure they do not have a Labour Government after the next general election so that they avoid what will probably be RSS 2 coming to their area.

In conclusion, for my constituents in Hartshill I hope that the independent planning inspector will note the concerns raised in this debate. I hope that the council listens to concerns about the local plan process in Nuneaton and Bedworth before committing the plan to the inspector, but if not, I hope the inspector will listen to the weight of evidence against that flawed plan. I also hope that the Minister will look seriously at how that process can be continually improved. There is no doubt that we need new development, but my constituents

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deserve a better say in how that happens. It is right for local planning policy to be undertaken locally, but surely it should be based on evidence, not driven by party political considerations. Within the process, all that can be done should be done to carry people along, generate informed community responses, and not leave local people disfranchised from the planning system, as they have become in Nuneaton.


2.51 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Nick Boles): It is a pleasure to respond to this debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) has secured on behalf of his constituents, at the end of a lively and interesting day’s debate in the Chamber.

My hon. Friend is right to assert the importance of proper processes being followed by local authorities when drawing up local plans. He will understand that I cannot comment on the particular details of the two plans that affect his constituents, but I hope I can respond to his concerns about the process, and highlight the requirements in the law and the national planning policy framework for how local authorities draw up plans.

A plan must start with evidence of need, and an assessment that is based on objective evidence about the development needs of a community over 15 years, and the next five years in particular. Consultation is the second most important part of the plan—one cannot have a plan without evidence or adequate consultation. When consulting, it is not enough simply to send people a questionnaire, collate the responses and say, “Right. That’s it; we’ve consulted.” Consultation needs to take place at different times through the process. There must be evidence of real efforts to ensure a representative response to the consultation, and of an attempt not only to have ticked a box, but to have understood what different communities, interests and organisations think of the evidence of need and draft plans put in place to meet that need.

My hon. Friend made a strong and persuasive argument about the need to consult people who may not live within the boundaries of the borough drawing up a plan, but who live just across that boundary and will be as affected—possibly more affected—by a proposed development as those who live in the borough drawing up the plan. I would be happy to talk to officials about whether the guidance on consultation makes it clear that it is not sufficient to consult only those who reside in the borough that is drawing up the plan. Under the duty to co-operate in the national planning policy framework, it is clear that boroughs must co-operate across boundaries to understand shared needs and shared concerns. My hon. Friend makes a strong argument for why his constituents should have been consulted, even if it was in relation to a development planned by a neighbouring authority.

My hon. Friend asked about green belt protections. I can reassure him that the protection of the green belt in the law has never been stronger than it is now, in the national planning policy framework. The policy sets out the great importance we accord to the green belt,

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the fundamental purpose of which is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. The green belt’s boundaries should be revised only in exceptional circumstances through the local plan process, and inappropriate development should be granted permission only in very special circumstances. I can reassure my hon. Friend that the test of “very special circumstances”, which would apply to any proposal for development on the green belt that had not been through a local plan process, is a high test in law. It is rare that the “very special circumstances” test is met, and I am sure it would be rare for it to be met in his constituency or, indeed, any other.

Mr Marcus Jones: Just to clarify that point, is my hon. Friend saying that until a local plan is set and the local authority has decided to use a piece of green-belt land, green belt cannot be developed until the very high test he mentions is met?

Nick Boles: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that such a thing could happen only in those very special circumstances and that otherwise, development on the green belt can happen only after a local plan process has been conducted, with all the consultation that we have discussed.

My hon. Friend talked about some appeals against developments that were taking place and some that had been allowed, specifically in relation to the absence of a five-year land supply. I should tell him that those authorities that have an adopted plan—I am glad that nearly 54% of authorities in the country now have one, with, therefore, an approved land supply—tend to find that their decisions stick. That is because the whole point of the national planning policy framework is to say to local authorities: “If you take responsibility, make provision for your needs and have a five-year land supply, your decisions will be respected and not overturned on appeal.” However, if an authority does not do that, it is exposing itself to the possibility—it is no more than a possibility: in two thirds of cases the Planning Inspectorate backs up local authorities’ decisions—of having its decisions overturned. That is what happens in one third of cases, often because the local authority does not have a five-year land supply in its local plan.

That means that it is therefore strongly in the interests of my hon. Friend’s constituents that his local authorities get a move on with plan preparation. He argued that one of the authorities had taken rather longer than was perhaps entirely necessary. It is certainly the case that many authorities have managed to get their plans in place. All I would say is that I would encourage him to continue using every forum, including this one, to put pressure on those local authorities to take responsibility, consult widely, propose plans based on evidence and get them adopted, so that they can start making the decisions and not be exposed to speculative development being allowed on appeal because of the lack of a five-year land supply.

My hon. Friend also talked about local infrastructure of a range of kinds and the capacity of the drainage, sewerage, health and education systems to cope with the level of development proposed. I want to reassure him that the very concept of “sustainable development”, which lies at the heart of the national planning policy

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framework, means development that can be sustained in every sense of the word, including in terms of infrastructure. Either the capacity in the infrastructure must already exist or there must be commensurate plans within the plan to upgrade and expand it to support any further development.

Mr Marcus Jones: One of the problems that many of constituents face is that developers are coming along who want to build developments that are quite small, to try to avoid the sustainability questions he mentions. However, more and more of these small developments, of 100 or so houses, are becoming aggregated. What can we do about that?