Skip to main content

Lisbon Treaty (Referendum) Bill

Volume 506: debated on Friday 26 February 2010

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second Time.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this important issue. Trust was mentioned in the previous debate—in the context of trust in Parliament—and trust, once lost, is a hard thing to regain. As we meet here today, we know that distrust of politicians of all hues and distrust of this House are, tragically, at historically high levels. For that reason, the House should support this referendum Bill on the Lisbon treaty. There are a number of constitutional arguments and imperatives, but restoring the public’s trust in politicians and this House must be foremost in our minds.

The way in which the ratification of the European constitution and its identical twin, the Lisbon treaty, have been handled is symptomatic of a culture that breeds distrust and encourages cynicism among the people of the United Kingdom. Distrust and cynicism are impossible to counter when most people know that the refusal to allow a referendum on our relationship with the European Union is driven by fear. Too many of our political class believe that the people cannot be trusted to vote for a particular outcome, and so those people are denied any say at all. If the political class as a whole does not display a trust in the people, how can we expect the people to trust us?

Distrust and cynicism are impossible to counter when a referendum was once promised by all three main parties in this House. Support for a referendum on the European constitution was once a matter of British political consensus. I thank and acknowledge the support of hon. Members from various parties—Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, Labour Members and others—who have agreed to sponsor my Bill.

The principle of a referendum had been commonly accepted. It was a position endorsed by the people in the 2005 general election. Yet what do people see now? They see that a cosy consensus has emerged among all the main political parties in this House to deny the people their say through a referendum on the new fundamental changes that are being made through the Lisbon treaty to implement the provisions of the original European constitution.

The Government broke the original consensus, arguing—incorrectly in my view, in that of the vast majority of the people of this country and, indeed, in that of august organs of this House—that the Lisbon treaty and the European constitution were two fundamentally different documents. Of course, that does not make the decision of others to follow suit the right choice. Some might think that I exaggerate, but the reversal by Her Majesty’s Opposition on the subject of Lisbon was marked by a drop in support for them and in confidence in their leadership, neither of which they have since managed to restore. I believe that that shows that, beyond the merits of this issue, it is fundamentally an issue of trust as far as the public are concerned.

During the debate on Second Reading of the European Union (Amendment) Bill on 21 January 2008, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), made the issue for a referendum, saying that it rested

“above all on the need for the House and the Government to honour commitments solemnly given.”

He referred to the fact that he goes around

“schools and colleges saying to young people that they should take an interest in politics, that their vote makes a difference, and that what is said at election time really counts”.

Then he posed a salient and important question:

“What are we to say to them in future—that the fact that they elected an entire House of Commons committed to a referendum was of no account, that the Government regarded that commitment as a technicality to be escaped from rather than a promise to be kept, and that the promises made at election time do not really matter at all?—[Official Report, 21 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 1256.]

That question can be applied with great force today, in the light of the decision of the right hon. Gentleman and all the main parties in the House to set aside their solemn commitments made at the time of the 2005 general election to allow the people to vote on these fundamental changes in the relationship with the European Union.

Distrust and cynicism are impossible to counter when people see power and influence slip further away from them. There is clearly a disconnect between the people and the institution of Parliament that must be repaired as quickly as possible—hopefully, during the next parliamentary term. However, that gulf between the voters and the House pales in comparison with the chasm between the people and the institutions of the European Union—the Commission and the Parliament.

The message of power in the hands of the people appeals, and it is used time and again, and will no doubt be a repeated theme during the coming general election, yet time and again Governments of every hue propose handing more powers over to the European Union. If they say that power will be restored to the people, yet send it in the opposite direction, how can we expect people to trust political parties or politicians?

Supporting the Bill fulfils the promise made by politicians and political parties in the House to the British people. The Government said in the Labour party’s 2005 manifesto:

“We will put it to the British people in a referendum and campaign whole-heartedly for a ‘Yes’ vote”.

That was in relation to the outcome of negotiations on the European constitution. The Prime Minister said just before taking office that he would regard honouring that manifesto as a matter of trust with the British people—that word “trust” again. That is what is at the centre of the denial of the people’s right to have their say.

The Government have now resorted to saying that things are different. The red lines have been drawn, despite the fact that these are almost exactly the same as they were in 2005, when we were promised a referendum. That matter was examined in great detail by the European Scrutiny Committee. Its Chairman, the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), said that the proposed safeguards would “leak like a sieve”. It has been made clear that the red lines make no real difference to the terms of the original European constitution.

Various peoples of Europe in various countries were asked to have their say. In May 2005 the French people had their say and rejected the constitution. In June 2005 Dutch voters swiftly followed suit. For once, the standard European tactic of calling a second referendum to get the right result was not chosen. Our referendum was postponed, not cancelled. In the aftermath the pro-constitution leaders and bureaucrats regrouped so that they could plan not how they would abide by the express will of the people of those countries and the clear view being expressed throughout Europe, but how they could develop a strategy to get around it—the Lisbon treaty strategy, a strategy to produce a new document that made the same changes as before, but essentially hid them.

Why do I claim that there is no substantive difference between the constitution as originally set out and the Lisbon treaty? I do so because Prime Ministers and Presidents across Europe queued up to tell us that the treaty and the constitution were the same in substance—from Angela Merkel, who said:

“The substance of the constitution is preserved. That is a fact”,

to the then Danish Prime Minister, now the Secretary-General of NATO, who told us that

“all the symbolic elements have gone, and that which really matters—the core—is left.”

We heard it from others as well.

The European Scrutiny Committee Chairman informed the House that

“every provision of the constitutional treaty, apart from the flags, mottos and anthems, is to be found in the reform treaty. We think that they are fundamentally the same”. —[Official Report, 11 December 2007; Vol. 469, c. 211.]

The Foreign Affairs Committee said:

“There is no material difference between the provisions on foreign policy in the Constitutional Treaty which the Government made subject to approval in a referendum and those in the Lisbon treaty on which a referendum is being denied.”

However, disguising the true meaning was not enough; it was necessary to avoid a referendum. State after state that had planned a constitutional referendum participated in a willing charade that the Lisbon proposals were somehow not as substantive as the constitution and need not be put to a vote. Frankly, it is a national disgrace that we in the United Kingdom were not only associated with but full participants in such a process, joining in with a near total democratic shut-out of people throughout Europe.

For decades it has been left to the political elite—if one can call them that—in SW1 and professional diplomats to decide our relationship with Europe. We need to give the people a say. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to go even further and allow the people of the United Kingdom a vote on the UK’s entire membership of the EU?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and thank him for his support. Others in the House would advocate a referendum on our whole membership—whether we should be in the European Union or not. My Bill, however, is about people fulfilling their 2005 general election promise, which was a specific commitment to a referendum on the new European constitution, and about trying to ensure that all the main parties honour that commitment. I have focused on that issue because it is a matter of restoring trust in politicians and this House. That specific issue must be addressed, and no doubt hon. Members will wish to say why—if this is still their position—they want to deny the people their say on the constitutional changes, and do not want to fulfil their manifesto commitments.

Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that one of the biggest travesties is that during the most recent general election people did not engage in a debate about Europe because they thought they would have one in a referendum? Cynically, the Government then denied the people a referendum, so does he share my hope that Europe will feature prominently in the forthcoming general election campaign?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right. I well remember the 2005 election campaign, when the Government told the people that there was no need to concentrate on such a debate during that period because the subject would be debated in a referendum. That was clearly a means of getting the subject off the agenda, and I suspect that the same thing is happening in respect of the coming general election, because the Government do not want it to be a matter of public debate, and, sadly, neither does the leadership of the Opposition.

We have examined the Government’s position, but let us examine that of Her Majesty’s Opposition. In 2007, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) made it absolutely explicit in his personal promise of a referendum, come what may, that there was no wriggle room. He offered a “cast-iron guarantee” that he would put any treaty in front of the voters and said that

“if I become prime minister a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations” —

meaning negotiations on the Lisbon treaty.

Significantly, the right hon. Gentleman also focused on trust. In an article in The Sun newspaper, he said:

“The final reason we must have a vote is trust. Gordon Brown talks about ‘new’ politics. But there’s nothing ‘new’ about breaking your promises to the British public. It’s classic Labour… Small wonder that so many people don’t believe a word politicians ever say if they break their promises so casually.”

We need to recall that a reference to the promise of a referendum was made again as late as May 2009, during the European election campaign. Yet in November 2009, the promise was dropped.

I could go on to deal with why a referendum is a perfectly acceptable means and device for dealing with this issue. Some argue that in a parliamentary democracy such as ours, we should not revert to the concept of a referendum, which is foreign to our tradition. However, a referendum can be entirely reconciled with the principle of parliamentary sovereignty: we have had one national referendum on membership of the Common Market, as it then was. The tradition has been well established in other areas of the United Kingdom, where polls have taken place and people have been asked their views when constitutional change has been brought about or considered.

The real reason, however, why we need a referendum is not only so that the people of the United Kingdom could be sure the issue was being taken seriously, but that it is the only way of ensuring that those with whom we have to negotiate in Europe, and the EU Commission, will take us seriously.

Rather than have a referendum, it has been suggested that the way forward is to have a plan for the repatriation of powers from the European Union back to the United Kingdom. The suggestion could be put into a party manifesto that would be voted on in the general election. It is suggested that that would be an effective means of giving the necessary strength, power and authority to those who will negotiate on behalf of the Government with the other EU member states and the European Commission.

I leave aside the issue of why people should be expected to vote overwhelmingly on the basis of manifesto promises when previous clear-cut and “cast-iron” guarantees have already been set aside. The fact is that such a way forward would in no way give strength to the hands of negotiators as a clear referendum undoubtedly would. Without a referendum, it will be extremely difficult—impossible, I would say—for other EU states to agree unanimously, as they would have to, to accede to British wishes on the repatriation of powers.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the concept of the repatriation of powers is no more than hot air? In reality, many decent long-serving Conservatives are flooding off to other parties such as the UK Independence party because they have no trust in the Conservatives’ proposals to repatriate powers.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and his sponsorship of the Bill. People have a lot of distrust not only of the Conservative party but of the governing party and others. People see that instead of being given a clear say, as they were promised, they get vague notions about people going off to negotiate or hold the line. The Prime Minister said that there would be no further transfer of powers for two Parliaments. The Opposition said that they would go off, negotiate and introduce other measures. I shall come to those.

Compared with the clear-cut commitment to a referendum, all such notions make no impression on the British people. They want their say in a referendum, as they were promised. A referendum has the effect of ensuring that the political classes—the Government—carry out the wishes of the people. Frankly, it is a lot harder to fudge the outcome of negotiations that have been entered into following a massive referendum result, because the people would clearly hold the Government and their negotiations to account.

Some argue that as the Lisbon treaty has already been ratified, there is no point, value or efficacy in a referendum. If we take that view, then we might as well not have had the Irish referendum, and Harold Wilson’s holding the referendum in 1975—after the United Kingdom had entered the Common Market—was pointless and without validity. Of course a referendum is still valid, and it is only because of a lack of political will that parties are now withdrawing from it.

As has been mentioned, some argue that there are ways short of a referendum to ensure that the UK’s position is protected. It has been suggested that there should be a referendum on any future occasion when a transfer of powers from the UK to Brussels is proposed. I have no particular objection to that, but the great difficulty that most people will have with it is that it is about 25 years too late. Most of the building blocks for a European superstate are now in place, and the so-called self-amending or passerelle provisions in the Lisbon treaty could mean, if others have their way, that we will never again have a major debate or decision in this country on certain changes. So although the commitment to future referendums is fine, we still need one on the Lisbon treaty, because it consolidates the foundations of a European superstate.

It has also been suggested that legislation be introduced to enshrine the primacy of UK law over European Union law. One problem with that is that the Lisbon treaty confirms the primacy of EU law. Where there are disputes between EU and UK law, they are to be resolved by the European Court of Justice, which is of course obligated to promote European integration. There is not much comfort in that.

Even though some people do not accept the argument that the Lisbon treaty is virtually the same as the European constitution, no one who examines its contents and provisions can seriously argue that they are not of such fundamental importance to how this country is governed that they should be the subject of a referendum in their own right.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, when we debated the Lisbon treaty in the House we argued and voted for a referendum—it was our amendment. In fairness, he and many of his colleagues voted with us. We have now said that, given that Lisbon has been ratified, we should introduce a referendum lock so that any further treaty that transfers powers from Britain to the EU would have to be subject to a referendum. We would amend the European Communities Act 1972 to achieve that. I believe he has just indicated that he would support that if an incoming Conservative Government were to do it. Would he also support our parallel proposal for a similar referendum lock if anyone ever tried to force us into the euro, to which we are very much opposed?

Yes, we are on record as saying that there should certainly be a referendum on any proposal to take us into the eurozone, and we would campaign for a no vote. The hon. Gentleman is right about the stance that was taken when the Bill on the Lisbon treaty was being debated, but what has gravely disappointed many people is what has happened following the Government’s decision to abandon their clear manifesto pledge to have a referendum, which the Opposition rightly condemned as a breach of trust and a major reneging on pledges to the British people. Sadly, the Conservative Front Benchers have decided to go down the same route. I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, but I hope he accepts that it is not too late to have a referendum on the constitutional treaty. Such a referendum is essential not only in its own terms, but—I hope he agrees—in helping to restore trust between the British people, and politicians, political parties and the institution of Parliament.

The Deputy Speaker interrupted the business (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 5 March.