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Sovereignty of Parliament

Volume 503: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2010

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

The fundamental issue that lies at the heart of this debate is the democratic freedom of choice at the ballot box—the free choice of the voters of the United Kingdom to decide the laws under which they are to be governed and to deal with the question of who governs Britain. This is a vital matter of national interest as we approach the general election, which will probably take place in May. It is therefore also a vital element of the political manifestos.

The issue of parliamentary sovereignty is essentially a practical one that affects every voter and every man, woman and child in the country on a daily basis in a very direct way. It invades every nook and cranny and, according to any reasonable estimate, affects at least 70 per cent. of the vast array of laws that stream out of the European Union like a tsunami, as I witnessed again today in the European Scrutiny Committee, on subjects including criminal law, state aid, financial regulation, relations with Russia and internal security.

In practice, it is not only the individual laws that are affected but whole spheres and even the running of our Parliament, not to mention public and local authorities. This influence is everywhere, and most of the provisions do not work. There are burdens on business, and overregulation, as well as rules governing the dreadful state of our public finances, debt levels and questions of public expenditure through the absurdly named stability and growth pact, which does not provide stability, growth or a pact. The whole of our justice and criminal law system is affected, as are the regulation of the City of London and the role of the Bank of England and financial services. Family law is affected, and so are the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy, the rebate, regional policy making, energy policy—which we have just debated—and the consequences of immigration.

The European Union costs the United Kingdom £2,000 for each man, woman and child, according to the Taxpayers’ Alliance, and the new, unacceptable proposals for enlargement involve countries that are sometimes neither appropriate allies nor intrinsically democratic.

The European Union also affects foreign policy and defence. Only a few months ago one of the world’s leading strategists, George Friedman of the STRATFOR foundation, described in a book the unsustainable assertions of success of the European Union that the European elite and their fellow travellers claim as being “in benign chaos”. He describes the European Union as a “schizophrenic entity”, just as I have often done. He said, as I often have, that “Germany’s position is unpredictable” and that it

“will be engaged in traditional power politics”

with an ambivalent relationship with Russia. Russia is also important to us as a nation because of our problems with energy security and its grip on gas supplies, as we discussed in the European Scrutiny Committee today and debated on the Floor of the House this afternoon.

The instability in Europe as a whole affects our sovereignty. We are so bound into European integration that a breakdown, with the intrinsic instabilities in the eurozone that were identified by Ralph Atkins in an 11-point article in the Financial Times a few days ago and with unemployment rising by between 10 and 20 per cent. in many member states, buttressed by the issue of flimsy paper money, is liable to affect our sovereignty.

I predicted in the early 1990s that, because of the lack of a sufficient safety valve, in the other European Union countries and in this country a time of economic stress would encourage the rise of the far right and rioting in the streets to fill the vacuum. There is no safety valve. The safety valve of democracy is essential for us to be able to ensure that we can maintain stability in our own country.

Those issues are now becoming increasingly prevalent in Greece, Italy and many parts of the eurozone, with new members of the EU effectively bankrupt and reliant on state aids amounting to £254 billion and financial aid of a further £193 billion, as we heard today in the European Scrutiny Committee. All that is unmatched by any reasonable prospect of growth and enterprise in Europe under the Lisbon agenda, all of which puts intense pressure on our own parliamentary democracy. In the last year, the European Commission approved no less than £3,000 billion in aid. That speaks for itself.

We should remind ourselves of the debates that took place at the time of the creation of the constitution of the United States and the insistence by Thomas Jefferson on the importance of states’ rights and sovereignty, without going down the route of a federal system in Europe. We need to remember what John Taylor, Jefferson’s great ally and amanuensis, stated in his work on the constitution of the United States:

“sovereignty is the highest degree of political power, and the establishment of a form of government, the highest proof which can be given of its existence”.

To ignore that proposition, or to bypass it, would be like discussing human biology or the genome while ignoring the arterial blood system, the supply of oxygen or the functions of the heart.

I doubt whether the BBC will even refer to this debate or my proposals, which is as the establishment would wish it: “Keep it under wraps! Don’t tell the people and it will go away.”

On the point about the establishment, would it not be best to give back to the people the choice of whether sovereignty should be taken away from this place, by having a referendum on whether we should stay in the EU on the same day as a general election?

I have made my position clear repeatedly—probably about 10 times in debates on various Bills over the past 15 or 20 years. I believe that there should be a referendum, as I indicated in the debate on the Maastricht referendum all those years ago. Indeed, when my Bill on parliamentary sovereignty is published tomorrow, Members will see in it references to a referendum on parliamentary sovereignty, because parliamentary sovereignty involves the notion of an Act of Parliament to authorise a referendum.

I might not share all the hon. Gentleman’s analysis, but I certainly share the belief that our parliamentary sovereignty is being completely undermined by the EU. There might not be a referendum at the time of the general election, but the Government are committing themselves to a referendum on electoral reform. Might that be an opportunity for a further referendum?

I would be delighted if the Bill proposing the referendum on electoral reform included a long title so vague as to enable us to get a referendum in on the other matters too. In constitutional terms, it is ludicrous for us to have a series of referendums on matters such as those just referred to, but not on the central question lying at the heart of these issues, which is who governs us and how.

It is all too boring or exacting for the establishment and others, including some parts of the media, to examine the question of what lies at the heart of parliamentary sovereignty, particularly when we can watch Ant or Dec or “The X Factor” although our democracy is on the line. Parliamentary sovereignty is the elephant in the room, but not even the room can be mentioned if it has the word “Europe” on its portal. Ignoring parliamentary sovereignty, the freedom of choice and the democracy that it represents is like discussing religion without reference to the Bible or the Koran.

No one has the right to ignore this issue, because it affects every person in this country. It is not settled policy and it cannot be laid to rest. It affects the voter in every way. It affects the rule of law, the role of the judiciary and that of the civil service, and only in Parliament can it be resolved. The Government’s position, in contrast to that of the Conservative party, is one of the abandonment of the fundamental truths of that statement. The Government have duped the British people into dangerous waters, and that betrayal is represented by the signing and enactment of the Lisbon treaty. Indeed, a few years ago I and the then Foreign Secretary, now the Justice Secretary, exchanged questions for more than six months about whether Parliament and an Act of Parliament could prevail over the prerogative. Eventually he had to climb down.

I remind the House that, for the first time in recent memory, the Conservative party has been, to all intents and purposes, united in supporting parliamentary democracy and sovereignty, rejecting not only the constitutional treaty but its terrible twin, the Lisbon treaty. Furthermore, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has reaffirmed my continuous call, made for more than a decade, for an association of nation states, which would be founded on the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. He has proposed a sovereignty Bill in that framework, because he recognises the danger that we are in. I have addressed the exact framework of a Bill for that purpose in my United Kingdom Parliamentary Sovereignty Bill, to be published tomorrow, which will be on the Order Paper and among the papers delivered to all hon. Members. My Bill has been considered and vetted by pre-eminent constitutional authorities and its text is encompassed on but one sheet of a parliamentary page, in a mere five short clauses.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is being very generous in giving way. Is not tonight an example of the Conservative party speaking with one voice on Europe, with my hon. Friend rowing behind the Leader of the Opposition by bringing forward a proposal similar to what will be brought forward by the Conservative party in the next Government?

I am delighted to confirm that I believe and hope that that will be case. I should mention, however, that as long ago as 1986, I proposed a supremacy of Parliament amendment to the Single European Act, which included the words:

“Nothing in this Act shall derogate from the Sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament.”

Had that amendment been accepted by the then Speaker and voted through, when we had a substantial majority in the House, it would have retained for this country a veto over the working time directive, as well as over many other examples of damaging legislation under that Act, including recent legislation relating to the undermining of the City of London. That issue will become ever more apparent when the full implications of the European Commission’s proposals for the financial regulation of the banks and financial services within the jurisdiction of the European Court become entrenched. Those proposals will effectively be unamendable without the kind of proposals that I am putting forward for the defence of the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament.

Indeed, in 1986 I was even refused the right to move my amendment. On three more recent occasions, however, not only have the House authorities, with advice, facilitated the moving of my supremacy of Parliament amendments—in relation to the then Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill in 2006 and, shortly afterwards, the Constitutional Reform Bill and other constitutional matters—but on those occasions my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney gave instructions to the Whips for my amendments to be endorsed by the party as a whole following the debate, overriding the Government’s implementation of respective European legislation, and asked me whether our Whips could put forward Tellers to support my proposals.

On every occasion, the Government have opposed those amendments, including by specifically voting against my sovereignty of Parliament amendments in respect of the Lisbon treaty, which is a policy that is nothing short of appeasement. I therefore applaud the proposals made by my right hon. Friend for a sovereignty Bill, as does the whole Conservative party. However, the question remains how far such a sovereignty Bill would extend. The proposals and issues that I will now address will certainly need to be encompassed by any such proposals of my own which I know will have the backing of a substantial majority of the Conservative party in Parliament and elsewhere, and, to judge from recent opinion polls, well over 70 per cent. of the electorate.

I am putting forward a proposal based on the rejection of European government, albeit with co-operation on European trade, and on endorsing global trade and political co-operation and democracy in our national interest, with a reversion to an association of nation states in Europe, which is what I believe the people of this country really want. Indeed, the original White Paper that led to the European Communities Act 1972 clearly stated that we had to retain the veto as part of our parliamentary sovereignty, in order to sustain the vital national interests of the voters of the United Kingdom, and not only for our sake, but

“to preserve the very fabric of the European Community itself.”

Why so? Simply because there is no greater vital interest than freedom of choice at the ballot box in every part of the European Community—now the European Union. That has been severely undermined by successive treaties and by this Government’s betrayal in signing and enacting the consolidating Lisbon Treaty, which encompasses all the treaties. Now is the time, in our manifesto, to reassert and reaffirm the full measure of parliamentary sovereignty of the United Kingdom in line with our constitutional law and practice. We want not theology but practicality; we want not EU bureaucracy but UK democracy. It is not anti-European to be in favour of democracy.

What are the constitutional issues that we have to address? In particular, they are the assertion of European Union institutions, including the European Commission and the European Court, that they have ultimate jurisdiction over our law-making, our laws and, specifically and dangerously, our constitution and our Parliament. Other countries, too, are concerned about those assertions, but we in the mother of Parliaments have a leadership role to play in defending the rights of our voters to continue their freedom to make their choice at the ballot box without let or hindrance. That must be the case irrespective of majority voting, irrespective of the lethal power of the former so-called co-decision procedure in the European Parliament—now ominously described as the “ordinary legislative procedure”—and irrespective of the assertions of the European Court of Justice. That is no less of an issue than when we had to resist invasions of another kind that threatened to undermine our sovereignty and our nationhood in the dark days of the 1930s and 1940s.

Until 1972 we were moving towards greater democracy, but we have been moving away from it since then, and we must redress the balance in terms of our parliamentary sovereignty now, in the coming general election. Our constitutional case law is crystal clear. The judgments of Lord Denning in MacCarthys v. Smith, Lord Diplock in Garland v. British Rail and Lord Laws in the Metric Martyrs cases all correctly assert the tradition and history of this country for centuries—certainly since the Reform Acts of the mid-19th century, when modern democracy was born—that the latest Westminster enactment, clearly and expressly stated, prevails against any past enactments inconsistent with it or overriding it, including those that are derived from the implementation of the European Communities Act 1972. That is specifically the case when the words

“notwithstanding the European Communities Act 1972”

are placed in the inner bailey of a Westminster enactment.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney has made it clear that he regards the repatriation of economic competitiveness as an imperative requirement, just as Jefferson rightly insisted on states’ rights. My right hon. Friend stated only this week that his watchword is “responsibility”. That approach has lain at the heart of my efforts of the past 25 years to insist upon parliamentary sovereignty as the fulcrum of our representative government.

The problem is now acute, because, although the European Court of Justice has asserted its claims for more than 40 years in the cases of Handelsgesellschaft, Van Gend en Loos and Costa v. ENEL, those were but puny assertions until the enactment of the Lisbon treaty, which the Government have treacherously driven through. That treaty includes declaration 19, which gives guidance to our courts and others and which asserts and affirms the case law of the European Court. That case law involves the Court asserting its jurisdiction over not only our laws and law-making, but our constitution, which belongs to the British people, the voters at the ballot boxes and no one else.

It would be irresponsible to ignore this issue, and it would be equally irresponsible to allow the current state of affairs and the assertions of the European Court and the Lisbon treaty to be embedded by the effluxion of time. We should recall that other seminal constitutional change, in the beneficial direction of greater democracy, became embedded as this Parliament evolved through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries as we moved towards greater democracy. It is unforgivable to allow the current undermining of our parliamentary sovereignty, away from our hard-won democracy, not to mention the necessity for serial radical reform of the procedures of the House. The gutting and guillotining of Bills and the Government’s refusal to devote proper time for Bills to be debated undermines our parliamentary sovereignty. I regret to have to say that I had to describe our Parliament in my evidence to the Wright Committee as “a sham” for that reason. I would add to those issues the way in which we have been invaded by these assertions from the European institutions.

We need to restore our democracy, and reasserting parliamentary sovereignty is essential in that cause. To prevent discussion in the media or the BBC would be, and is, an outrage, and it would be irresponsible merely to endorse the principle of sovereignty without dealing with the problem in its entirety. For if we were merely to fill half the cup of sovereignty by enacting an inadequate sovereignty Bill in our response to the European integration process, the Lisbon treaty and the assertions of the European Court, we would be handing an opportunity to our own courts, including the Supreme Court, in the interpretation of any present or future legislation, to endorse the assertions of the European Court over our constitution and law-making in the light of the declaration of the primacy of European law set out in declaration 19 in an annexe to the Lisbon treaty.

We must explicitly and expressly restrain our judiciary from having any opportunity of so interpreting European legislation and applying the constitutional assertions of the European Court, precisely so that we may explicitly preserve our own parliamentary sovereignty and with it the rights of the British people, who have fought and died over many generations, with blood and treasure. This is their Parliament, not our Parliament, and we not only have no right to take away their heritage, but we have a duty to preserve it.

We need, in the words of John of Gaunt, “a moat defensive” to the invasion of this House. As John of Gaunt clearly stated—

As Shakespeare said, using the words of John of Gaunt, we must defend

“This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,

Dear for her reputation through the world”,

which, as he put it, “is now leased out”—and, I say, with this latest treaty in mind,

“is now bound in with shame,

With inky blots, and rotten parchment bonds”.

As he continued:

“That England, that was wont to conquer others,

Hath made a shameful conquest of itself”—

with the betrayal of our people by this Government over the Lisbon treaty. That is why we must reaffirm and reassert our parliamentary sovereignty and successfully defend ourselves yet again, as we have so often over centuries past.

It is always a great delight to hear the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). I heard him referred to the other day as a pillar of the community and a pillar of Parliament, but I am afraid that his speech this evening has shown that he is rather more an ornamental than a load-bearing pillar. As to his lengthy reference to John of Gaunt, the hon. Gentleman seemed to think that these were the words of John of Gaunt himself, but they were written by William Shakespeare in “Richard II”. Richard II, of course, was removed by Parliament on the instruction of Henry Bolingbroke; and Richard II paid for the refurbishing of Westminster Hall so that the hammer-beam ceiling could be inserted.

Notwithstanding all that, the hon. Gentleman has advanced his argument many times, and I find that trying to grasp his argument is rather like trying to grasp hold of a lizard, as all we end up with is a little bit of the lizard’s tail. The hon. Gentleman has nevertheless done us—certainly the Government—a very great favour today because he has shown us how distrustful he is of his own Front-Bench team. He has shown us precisely that he does not trust a word that the “smokescreen master general” who leads his party has said about a sovereignty Bill. He does not believe that the parliamentary sovereignty Bill his leader has suggested should be brought forward will meet what the hon. Gentleman believes is the problem. [Interruption.] I see that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) agrees with the hon. Gentleman, so he does not trust the leader of the Conservative party either.

The hon. Member for Stone has just exemplified, yet again, from his naughty boy corner at the back of the Chamber, precisely what the situation would be like if there were a Conservative Government—a Conservative Government who were completely and utterly in hock to the ludicrous naughty boys at the back of the Chamber, who have been arguing for many years—

If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I shall not give way, because I have—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.]

And I am still not giving way, because I want to answer some of the hon. Gentleman’s points. He referred to his Bill, which he titles the United Kingdom Parliamentary Sovereignty Bill, but he fundamentally misunderstands the history of this House and our constitutional settlement. He is simply wrong: Parliament is sovereign; there is absolutely no need to assert its sovereignty. We agreed, when we voted through the European Communities Act in 1972, that we wanted to join the Community and, eventually, the European Union. If this House chose to do so, it could decide to repeal the 1972 Act; the hon. Gentleman is fully aware of that. For that matter, the Lisbon treaty allows member states to withdraw from the EU. We have absolute sovereignty. Indeed, the then Solicitor-General made it absolutely clear by saying:

“It would make a nonsense of the necessity for Community law to have the same effect in every member State if the United Kingdom, any more than any other member State, could choose by national law to override what it did not like. The principle of Community law having precedence throughout the Community is one that operates for the mutual benefit of all member States”.—[Official Report, 13 June 1972; Vol. 838, c. 1317.]

That is not a quotation from the Solicitor-General today; it is from the Solicitor-General of 1972, the Conservative Lord Howe of Aberavon, who made an extremely good point. The hon. Member for Stone says that he has to bring forward his own parliamentary sovereignty Bill, and I suggest that that is because he does not trust the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron).

May I just say, very quickly, that I have given three examples whereby my right hon. Friend has supported my supremacy or sovereignty of Parliament amendments? That is the proof of the pudding.

I think that the pudding has yet to be eaten—or, indeed, presented, because the truth is that the right hon. Gentleman said that he would

“introduce a new law, in the form of a United Kingdom Sovereignty Bill, to make it clear that ultimate authority stays in this country, in our Parliament.”

He went on to say that his idea

“is not about Westminster striking down individual items of EU legislation…It is about an assurance that the final word on our laws is here in Britain.”

But that is precisely the opposite of what the hon. Gentleman has called for this evening. He does want the UK to be able to strike down individual EU laws, does he not? [Interruption.] Yes, he does. Of course he does.

I want to make sure that the European Court of Justice and our Supreme Court do not, as in the Factortame case, strike down Acts that are passed by the democratic wish of the voters of this country.

And if the courts do not, he wants us to be able to strike down European laws. That is precisely my point. Consequently, the argument that he makes is completely fallacious, and, for that matter, so is the argument that his party leader makes. It is made not deliberately but inadvertently to mislead the country. It is a smokescreen, because it tries to pretend that, by some kind of assertion, there will be no danger to Britain. However, I should argue that if what the hon. Gentleman says—that he wants to be able to strike down European laws and prevent the European Court of Justice from determining whether we have stood by our treaty requirements—is true, he is effectively saying that it would be okay for the UK to step out of the European Union. That is the ineluctable direction in which he is pushing—[Interruption.] Yes, of course: now he does agree that that is what he is arguing for.

The hon. Gentleman has made it clear on many occasions that he would like a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, and that he would vote for us not to remain a member of the EU. Is that not the case?

It is perfectly clear that I believe that we should have a referendum. It is also perfectly true that, given the functions of the European Union as currently constructed, I would vote no to ensure that the British people got what they really required.

I am very grateful: the hon. Gentleman has made it absolutely clear that he would vote for us to leave the European Union.

The Minister is really confused; it is all over again. The plain fact is that a referendum would give the British people the opportunity to decide what kind of Europe they wanted to be a part of.

The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He either wants to be in the European Union or he does not. He seems to have made it absolutely clear: he wants a referendum so that he can vote for us to leave the European Union, unless he has some clever plan completely to change—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).