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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: There was a time when I argued very clearly against referendums. I did so because I believed in the supremacy of Parliament. I believed that we were a parliamentary democracy and that Parliament could be trusted to ensure that it did not give away its powers but would uphold our constitution under all circumstances.
That was what I believed, and I argued it from public platforms and in the House of Commons. Clearly, however, the situation has now changed because Parliament has given away to other institutions and other countries the power of supremacyof sovereignty. The Prime Minister said that sovereignty can be pooled, but I do not believe that it can be. One either has sovereignty or one does
We have arrived at the situation in which our constitution has so altered that the basis on which laws are made and on which the Crown is advised no longer persists. As I understand it, the constitutional arrangement has always been that Her Majesty acts on the advice of her Ministers. Now, she can no longer do that because under QMV her Ministers can be outvoted by Ministers from other countries. Our constitution has been undermined even to the extent that Ministers do not give advice off their own bat; that advice has to be qualified by decisions that are taken outside our Parliament and this country.
I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that there has to be some check on what Parliament does in relation to its powers. Since we do not have a proper second chamber with the power to stop the first chamber from handing over powers, the only check is the referendum. That is why the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, who argued his case extremely well and cogently, should be supported tonight if he presses his amendment to a vote.
As has already been said, we should have had a referendum before we joined the common market. The Prime Minister, the government and Parliament of the day had no mandate; the mandate that was asked for by Mr Heath was to negotiateno more and no less. He had no mandate to take us into the Common Market or to sign the Treaty of Rome, from which all other treaties have come. That is when we should have had a referendum. My guess is that if we had done so then, the British people would not have agreed to go into the Common Market.
We should also have had a referendum on the Single European Act and on the Maastricht Treaty, which translated that Act into tablets of stone. Those of us in this House who were interested in the matter at that time gave this House an opportunity to vote on whether to have a referendumthe other House did not have such an opportunity. Those noble Lords who were around at that time will recall that the two Front Benches had agreed to dispose of the Maastricht Treaty in about three or four days but that the Maastricht Study Groupof which I was the chairman and the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, was deputy chairmanensured that this House discussed the treaty in 11 days rather than three or four days. I believe that noble Lords received some education during that debate. Unfortunately, the opportunity that was given to the House to have a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty was rejected.
The Nice Treaty has not produced vast popular excitement and debate. As my noble friends have pointed out, no one appears to be very informative about the treaty's implications. Some say that it is vastly important but Ministers say the oppositethey say that it is small but useful. It could be called the unknown treatyit is an unexplored, unknown and unrevealed piece of treaty-making. Tucked away inside it are many important changes which will affect to a remarkable degree everyone's daily lives and the way in which law is made in this country.
Although we are passing a strong illuminating beam over the Bill, it may be too late to urge that a referendum should be included on this occasion. However, we are moving towards constitutional changes: I refer to the Laeken Council, the convention, in which no one will have much of a say, and the meeting of 2004. All of uscertainly the Governmentshould be prepared to consider a referendum in future.
It is a sad fact that Xreferendum" has become a dirty word in Europe-building circles. The chattering classes of Europe, if I may call them that, are terrified of referendathey saw what went wrong in Denmark and Ireland. I heard it said in the august portals of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office only last week that, if there was a referendum today in Poland on whether that country should continue its membership of the EU, it would be lost. We are moving into an extraordinary stage in which the legitimacy of the EU and of new treaties is so weak that the people who want unity do not dare to have a referendum for fear that they will lose it. That is not a healthy position and it should be an enormous cause for concern for the Government.
We have yet to debate some very important issues. Although my noble friends have a very good case, I should not necessarily recommend that they push the amendment further; that, of course, is entirely up to them. However, the basic argument is that we have moved into an age in which such steps cannot be taken by governments without referenda or proper democratic involvement in the relevant constitutional implications; the age of not doing that has passed. The age of democracy is coming, and the Government had better prepare for it; otherwise, they will get a nasty shock.
The noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, told us that Nice makes so many changes of such major constitutional significance that we have to hold a referendum on whether or not to ratify it. He was supported by the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, my noble friend Lord Stoddart and the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, except that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, wanted to have a vote on whether or not we should stay in the EU in the first place. To a certain extent the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, was supported by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, but not to the extent of pressing for a vote.
I was interested to see that the amendment was not tabled in the name of the Opposition Front Bench as was a similar amendment in another place. However, I regret that some Members on the Opposition Benches are still pushing heavily on this argument, particularly in the light of their own party's record on this matter. European Union treaties such, as the Treaty of Nice, are ratified by each member state in accordance with their own constitutional requirements. As the noble Lord, Lord Watson, stated, in Ireland it is not only normal practice but a constitutional requirement to hold a referendum on EU treaties before ratification. In some countries, such as Denmark, new treaties require a referendum only if they involve a transfer of sovereignty. It is significant to note that in the case of Nice, Denmark did not hold a referendum. The Danish authorities were clear that Nice did not represent a transfer of authority. That is a point on which the party opposite did not comment.
In the majority of member states the traditional constitutional process for ratifying EU treaties is by parliamentary procedure, as, indeed, it is in Britain. As has been said, Sir Edward Heath and the Conservative Party did not hold a referendum on whether or not Britain should join the European Community. We joined in 1973 when Parliament, after long and careful debate, voted in favour and passed the necessary legislation. Nor did we depart from the accepted constitutional procedures when we ratified the Treaty of Amsterdam. I remember standing for many hours in your Lordships' Houseindeed, I believe we had over 50 hours in Committeeon that particular treaty to debate the issues. Many of your Lordships were present at that time.
Furthermore, when the party opposite negotiated the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty, both of which introduced far more fundamental treaties than does the Nice Treaty, the then Government saw no need to trouble the British people with a referendum on whether or not those treaties should be ratified. It is worth reflecting on the far-reaching implications of the Maastricht Treaty. As some noble Lords have made clear, it established the European Union and citizenship of the Union. It set up a pillar structure and extended QMV to nearly 30 new articles. It substantially extended the powers of the European Parliament and established arrangements for economic and monetary union and the euro. Not only is that a lengthy list; it is a weighty list which the present Government support. My point
There are times when a referendum is appropriate; when there is important constitutional change such as there has been recently in Wales and Scotland. However, there is an obvious example of a major constitutional issue which is of such importance that the people of Britain should be given a chance to decide; that is, Britain's membership of the euro. That is an odd position for some Members of the Benches opposite to put themselves in. They oppose a referendum on an important constitutional issue such as the euro but then advocate a break with established constitutional procedure by pressing for one on this treaty.
The noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, saidwe go back to the pointthat the treaty is not necessary for enlargement. The Government contend that it is necessary for successful enlargement. Nice is not a legal pre-requisite for enlargement. That was a point I made both in opening and closing the Second Reading debate. Of course it is possible to proceed with enlargement, but only in theory. We need a treaty for successful enlargement. The noble Lord then went on to quote me on the charter of rights. He said that I said that it had no legal standing. I did not say that. I said that the charter of rights was not legally binding. The noble Lord is welcome to quote me but it behoves him to quote me correctly.
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