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EU Constitution

Volume 461: debated on Tuesday 5 June 2007

Following an extended period of reflection, EU institutional reform will be discussed at the forthcoming European Council. As part of the continuing negotiations in the run-up to that meeting, we have made it clear to our partners that the EU should agree an amending treaty that makes the European Union more effective and better able to deliver practical benefits for EU citizens. Such an approach would be consistent with the way in which treaty change has been agreed in the past.

Will the Minister undertake not to bring back any items from the constitutional treaty without a referendum, including any tinkering with the criminal justice system? Does he understand that that is a matter of trust for the British people, and that the public perception of the Government’s trustworthiness is as crucial as it is fragile?

I have made clear and I have repeated on a number of occasions from the Dispatch Box the fact that if the constitutional treaty returns in its present form, there would be a referendum. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made that clear. However, if the hon. Gentleman is suggesting a referendum if any dot or comma reappears in any subsequent treaty, that is a matter for discussion and negotiation, and ultimately a matter for decision by the House.

May I try to help the Minister to clear up the confusion over a referendum? On 20 March, he told the House that there would be a referendum if there was a new treaty. The Foreign Secretary, replying to a question earlier this afternoon, said that it depended what was on the table. Can the right hon. Gentleman give me some indication of what on the table might lead to a referendum, or are we to be kept completely in the dark for ever more?

I have made clear on a number of occasions the position of the Government. If the constitutional treaty returns in its present form, there would be a referendum. On any other question, it depends on what is agreed at the European Council. I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman has raised the issue, because it allows me to remind the House that in the course of his distinguished service as a Whip on the Government Benches between 1992 and 1997, he whipped Conservative Members of Parliament against a referendum on the Maastricht treaty.

But my right hon. Friend will be aware that not everyone is as violently in love with the constant imposition of unworkable systems from the EU as some Opposition Members. It might be helpful if we were clear that at present, even in matters such as transport, there are constant impositions that are costing the United Kingdom not only vast amounts of money, but vast amounts of efficiency in very difficult areas. Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that nothing will be brought in, even by the back door, that will lumber this country with even more rubbishy and unworkable legislation?

I made it clear in my answer a few moments ago that it is important that we recognise the practical benefits that the European Union can deliver in transport and in a range of other matters, where international co-operation through the mechanisms of the European Union provides real benefits for EU citizens and for citizens in the United Kingdom. That is a perfectly proper test of the way in which we should approach the negotiations.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Having heard that question, I wish her the best of luck in the forthcoming reshuffle. If the Minister will not answer questions from the respected Labour Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, will he perhaps do me the courtesy of answering one from me instead? Is it the policy of the Government that criminal justice matters within the EU should remain subject to national veto, or are the Government countenancing downgrading that critical issue to qualified majority voting?

I begin by welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities. I note that his predecessor, the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), is sitting a few rows behind him. In giving him advice about the conduct of his new responsibilities, I am sure that his hon. Friend will encourage him to keep in step not only with the grass roots of the Conservative party but with the hokey cokey of the leadership too. I hope that he is able to do that while maintaining his vigorously anti-European sentiments.

On the question about the Home Affairs Committee, may I make clear to the House that I was not invited by that Committee to give evidence? Had it invited me, I would have been delighted to respond positively, as I did to the Foreign Affairs Committee when it invited me to give evidence. For the sake of historical accuracy, may I remind the House again that it was a Conservative Government who introduced the European competence in respect of home affairs and justice? Indeed, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) voted against a referendum on that issue. Obviously, the matter will have to be negotiated at the European Council.

BILL PRESENTED

Child Maintenance and Other Payments

Mr. Secretary Hutton, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary John Reid, Mr. Secretary Hain, Secretary Alan Johnson and Mr. Secretary Alexander, presented a Bill to establish the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission; to amend the law relating to child support; to make provision about lump sum payments to or in respect of persons with diffuse mesothelioma; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed. [Bill 118].