[Relevant documents: The Tenth Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, European Union Bill and Parliamentary Sovereignty, HC 633 I and II, and the uncorrected transcripts of oral evidence taken before the Committee on 22 and 25 November and 6 December HC 633-i, ii and iii.]
I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the European Union Bill, has consented to place her prerogative, so far as it is affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
In the past 25 years, the EU has changed many times, each change marked by a new treaty: the Single European Act, the Maastricht treaty, the Amsterdam and Nice treaties, the failed EU constitution and its modified successor, the Lisbon treaty. As a result, the EU now has a greatly enlarged place in our national life, policy and politics. At the same time, we have seen a growing disconnection between the people who put us here in Parliament—the British people, the voters—and the EU’s institutions. There is a growing sense, shown by falling turnout in European elections and a variety of surveys, that the EU’s democratic legitimacy in this country has been weakened.
It can be said in mitigation that all but one of those treaties had its place in the manifesto of the party that won the general election, the exception—a rather important exception—being the last such treaty, the Lisbon treaty. It cannot be denied, however, that there is a problem—a severe one—that will only grow worse unless we take steps to address it, and the European Union Bill is part of the coalition Government’s answer to that problem. Indeed, the crowning argument for the Bill was the behaviour of the last Government, who opposed a referendum on the EU constitution, then promised one, then refused to hold one on its substantially similar reincarnation as the Lisbon treaty. The Bill will prevent Governments from being so deceptive and double-dealing when it comes to giving voters a say.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on introducing this important Bill, which will ensure that parties do not make a proposal on one side of an election only to conduct a U-turn on the other. Has he had any discussions with the Labour party on its position on the Bill, or will it be walking into the next election supporting a case in which the British electorate will again be denied the opportunity to conduct affairs on Europe?
That is something for the Opposition to consider and they will have some time to do so before the next election. The position set out in their amendment appears to be at best uncertain in that they agree with the principle of doing such a thing but not with doing it in practice. That is rather like the position they often occupied in government of being in favour of referendums but never actually holding one on any European matter for which they were responsible.
I am not here to answer for the party policies of other members of the coalition but for the coalition Government as a whole. The hon. Lady can rest assured that both parties in the coalition join strongly in their support for the Bill. It is sponsored by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister, and it is therefore easy for people in a third party to join us in supporting it, as the hon. Lady will no doubt want to consider doing.
Given that we stood united as a party in opposing the Lisbon treaty and supporting a referendum, and given that we voted for that, will my right hon. Friend explain why we have done a U-turn on that within the coalition Government? Will he also explain why he was not prepared to come to my European Scrutiny Committee to explain the circumstances behind the Bill?
On the first point, I do not think the coalition Government have done a U-turn, as the Bill implements part of the coalition agreement that was set out in the few days after the general election. It is true that the Conservative party, when the Lisbon treaty was ratified last year, said that in those circumstances we could no longer hold a referendum on the treaty. That, of course, was made clear before the general election. My hon. Friend is being a little unfair to both parties in the coalition.
On the second point, I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe gave a splendid exposition of the Government’s position to the European Scrutiny Committee. As the Minister who was most involved in drafting the Bill, he was best equipped to go before the Committee. I look forward to discussing these issues with my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) on many occasions. Let there be no fear about that.
In our manifesto we promised to amend the European Communities Act 1972, and the coalition agreement states:
“We will amend the 1972 European Communities Act so that any proposed future treaty that transferred areas of power, or competences, would be subject to a referendum on that treaty—a ‘referendum lock’.”
But the Bill does not amend that Act.
My hon. Friend may have worked out that the Bill has exactly the same effect as amending the Act and that it therefore absolutely honours the commitment in the coalition agreement. We additionally agreed, in the coalition agreement, that we would not agree to any transfer of powers from Westminster to Brussels for the duration of this Parliament. In addition, if Parliament approves the Bill, any future treaty change that transfers powers from Britain to the EU could be agreed only subject to the consent of the British people. That will provide a referendum lock to which the British people hold the key. The Bill makes a very important and radical change to how decisions on the EU are made in this country. It is the most important change since we joined what was then called the European Economic Community. It marks a fundamental shift in power from Ministers of the Crown to Parliament and the voters themselves on the most important decisions of all: who gets to decide what.
It has been said that because the Bill will place a high democratic test before any Government can agree to participation in deeper political integration in the EU, it will marginalise Britain, but I believe that that argument is dangerously mistaken in its assumption of what progress in the EU means. The yardstick for progress in the European Union is not the depth of political integration. The lost opportunities of the past decade of institutional navel-gazing have made that plain. Progress for the European Union means its institutions’ ability and willingness to help its member states meet the challenges of today, and for us today that means our international economic competitiveness, sustainable low-carbon growth and the use of our collective weight in the world to advance our shared values and interests.
That is why, from their first day, the Government have been active and activist in European policy. That is why we have played a strong and positive role in the EU which in six months has delivered significant results—agreement on EU sanctions against the Iranian Government that are already having a material effect, and agreement on measures that will substantially aid Pakistan’s economic recovery in the aftermath of the floods. We have pushed hard at EU level on measures to further free trade, in particular with Pakistan and South Korea, thus far with success.
The UK has not taken part in every aspect of the EU’s development. The euro was created, and the decision to retain our own currency has, for example, been vindicated. Staying out of the euro and maintaining our own border controls has not weakened our influence, either. The previous Government’s successful championing of enlargement to the east, to which I pay tribute, is proof of that. In the single market—for example, on patent reform—the UK should be ready to move forward in the national interest with other like-minded partners.
As in all matters, the Government’s policy on European issues should be based on the pursuit of our enlightened national interest. Our ability to advance our goals by working with European partners is crucial to that. Ensuring that our role is based on democratic consent is equally necessary, and that is what the Bill is about.
Will the Foreign Secretary explain why, when the Government are giving away powers to regulate the City, powers over criminal justice, powers in two regulations and a directive that will affect our economic governance, and big new powers for an expanded External Action Service, none of those qualifies for a referendum under the Bill? People want a referendum now on the powers that the current Government are giving away.
That is simply because we are not giving away those powers. The European External Action Service was agreed, established and given its role by the Lisbon treaty. My right hon. Friend may regret that, and I may regret that, but it was given by the Lisbon treaty. On the City, the European Union has long had the power to legislate in this area, which has equally long been subject to qualified majority voting and co-decision with the European Parliament. On economic governance, it is clear—for instance, in the Van Rompuy report on economic governance—that the proposed sanctions do not apply to the United Kingdom and that the proposed changes will not affect the United Kingdom. I reject my right hon. Friend’s basic thesis.
Is not the argument between my right hon. Friends precisely the problem? Surely Parliament must be sovereign because the people must be sovereign. What will happen in future if there is some row about whether a referendum should take place or not once the Bill becomes law? Will not our affairs then become justiciable? Is that not an attack on the sovereignty of Parliament, which we must believe in?
I shall come to that point. It requires clarity in the Bill, as far as possible, on the circumstances in which a referendum would or would not be held. That is the safeguard against what my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) is complaining about in relation to rights that have been given away in the past. It would have been good to have a referendum on those. The Bill is about the future—let us be clear about that—and we have to make it as clear as possible.
The Secretary of State has mentioned the Lisbon treaty a number of times, saying that because of it we cannot do certain things. Surely the public will think that no Government should be committed to previous Governments’ decisions, and that it would be perfectly possible—there would be huge support for it—for the coalition Government to say, “Now we are in government, we want a referendum on the Lisbon treaty.” That would sort out the whole situation, because clearly the public would vote against it.
As the hon. Lady knows, since the Lisbon treaty was ratified it has been built into the treaties of the EU. It does not have a separate existence once it is ratified. A referendum on that would be the same as a referendum on taking part in all the EU’s institutions—in other words, being in the EU at all.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) mentioned criminal justice powers, and the last Conservative manifesto saw fit to promise to work to bring back key powers over legal rights and criminal justice. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government have not just not sought to repatriate these powers, but have actually given additional powers to the European Union, as they did just last Friday when they chose to opt in to a criminal justice directive over which there was an opt-out, not only without a referendum but without even a vote in this House of Commons? Will he give serious consideration to requiring a vote of the House of Commons and the House of Lords before there are any further opt-ins to significant pieces of criminal justice legislation from the EU that will give the European Court of Justice jurisdiction over our courts?
My hon. Friend raises a very important subject—a rather large subject, unfortunately, for those watching the length of speeches today, because I want to answer his question properly. Let us be clear that in the context of the Bill, it is any proposal to give up our freedom not to participate in justice and home affairs decisions that would be subject to a referendum. That would be from where we are starting—the extension of the power of the EU. But it is also important to be clear that the justice and home affairs ratchet clauses, as I call them, covered in the Bill amend the treaties by allowing for an expansion of what can be done within existing areas of EU competence. They are clearly passerelle clauses. We said in the coalition programme for government—that is our reference document here—that the use of any passerelle clause would require primary legislation, so that is also the case.
The opt-ins, which are a different category, are a very important subject, but they are not for this Bill. Given that there are strict time limits applying to the UK’s decision to exercise an opt-in, which is within three months of the receipt of a proposal—
I am answering my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), so I had better complete the answer before I give way again.
The fact that there are also 30 to 40 proposals per annum means that it is not possible to place a primary legislative lock or parliamentary resolution requirement on the exercise of the opt-in. Therefore, it is important to be clear about the distinction of these different categories of decisions on justice and home affairs.
I had better make some progress, because I will return to all those subjects in the course of my speech.
The nature of how our society relates to its politics, and the expectation of the British people’s involvement in decisions that affect them, has changed. In the years since 1997, we have had referendums in Scotland, Wales, Greater London and the north-east of England on proposals for devolution of power; in Northern Ireland we have had a referendum on the Belfast agreement; and legislation is before Parliament now to hold a referendum on a change to the parliamentary voting system. Changes that affect the powers exercised on behalf of the people by Parliament have been considered to be important enough to require the endorsement of the people in a referendum.
At the same time, there is a widespread perception that the really important decisions about the EU have been taken without real consideration for the wishes of the people, and much of that is reflected in my hon. Friends’ comments. Many in the House, including me, think that the ratification of the Lisbon treaty, without the promised referendum, was wrong, and it did a great deal of damage. That perception reinforces public alienation from the EU and decisions taken on the EU by Governments, and that is what we now have to put right. Therefore, we in the coalition Government have resolved that we need to rebuild trust and reconnect people and enhance parliamentary control over EU decisions, so, as with our proposals for elected police commissioners, our plans to enable parent groups to establish free schools in their communities and our proposals to hold a referendum on the voting system, we are giving more power from the centre to the citizens of this country.
The Foreign Secretary speaks of public alienation, but does he recall saying:
“If you believe in an independent Britain, then come with me, and I will give you back your country”?
Does he understand the disappointment felt by so many Members on the Government Benches and in the country about the European journey he has since taken?
I remember well saying that. It was a very good speech, and it is recommended reading for all those who have trouble sleeping. It is even in a book somewhere, so I am grateful to my hon. Friend for quoting it. He can rest assured that I would have held a referendum on many things that have happened since then, including on the Lisbon treaty. Indeed, I asked for a referendum on other European treaties that were introduced during that time. However, it is our misfortune when we start in government, whenever we start, to start from where we are, and we start from here—in a coalition Government, meeting the commitments in our coalition agreement. That is what we now have to take on.
As hon. Members who were present for the Lisbon treaty debates might remember, there are now essentially two ways in which treaty change can be agreed by the Governments of member states: the ordinary revision procedure, under which any amendment to the treaties must be agreed unanimously by member states, and, following the Lisbon treaty, the simplified revision procedure, under which the European Council can decide to amend those parts of EU treaties devoted to internal policies, such as the single market and justice and home affairs.
Under our current law, any change under the simplified procedure, defined in this Bill as an “Article 48(6) decision”, would require only a Minister of the Crown to move a motion in both Houses and for both Houses to vote positively to approve the change. It is easy now, and it was easy in 2008 when that provision was debated, to see how that level of parliamentary control for a formal treaty change is grossly inadequate. The Bill therefore ensures that any future amendment to the treaty on the European Union or to the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, under either revision procedure that I have just outlined, will require parliamentary approval by Act of Parliament before the United Kingdom is able to ratify the change.
That is a significant addition to the powers of Parliament to hold Ministers to account for the decisions they take in Brussels. It was an addition that I championed in opposition and one that this Government will now put into statute to ensure that parliamentary control is enhanced further. That is the first thing that the Bill achieves.
That is a wider debate, and there is a legitimate argument for that. I hope that the Bill becomes part of the accepted constitutional framework of this country, for which, over time, it will have to receive widespread public support and the acceptance of parties from all parts of the House. The Opposition, as we have said, will have some time to think about it. Indeed, they might have a very long time before they return to government—I certainly hope so. I hope that the Bill becomes part of our permanent constitutional framework, but the argument for a written constitution ranges much wider than the scope of the Bill.
The right hon. Gentleman knows well that I have long opposed referendums on almost everything. I am not a fan of referendums; I believe in parliamentary democracy, but that is a different debate from today’s.
The hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) makes a good point—that the Bill does not really introduce a referendum lock. It closes the door for a while, until such time as a Government of any colour, whether Conservative, Liberal Democrat—well, that is fairly unlikely—or Labour, choose, if they want to, to derogate from the Bill in any provisions that they introduce. Is that not the danger—that the Bill might just seem like no more than political posturing?
As I go through the description of what the Bill entails, the hon. Gentleman will understand that it is a lot more than that. It means a great deal for what happens in this Parliament. It means that not only do we have our commitment not to transfer more powers from this country to the European Union, but that in a vast range of circumstances we would have to hold a referendum if we contemplated doing so.
It will be very difficult for future Governments to go back on those commitments, but we will see; that is something for the Labour party to contemplate. In future elections, it can choose whether to say that it will weaken democratic accountability in this country or whether to accept the changes for the long term. That is a choice it will have to face, and there is no sign in its reasoned amendment today that it is yet making that choice. However, it will have to make that choice, and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) will have to make it.
I shall try to space out the interventions, but I will come to my hon. Friend.
Clause 4 sets out the criteria that the Government of the day would have to apply to determine whether a transfer of competence or power would occur under a future treaty change. The Act of Parliament seeking parliamentary approval for the treaty change would also make provision for the holding of the referendum, if a referendum were required. Following the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty, the different types of EU competence—a European legal term that really means the power to act in an area of policy—and the extent of each type of competence has been set out explicitly in the treaties. Under this legislation, any extension of competence would trigger a referendum. That would also include any extension or creation of a new objective for the European Union. That is all clear in the Bill.
Power, on the other hand, is not so clearly defined, so I want to establish here what we mean by a transfer of power as set out in clause 4. First, it means the giving up of a UK veto in a significant area of policy because that would mean that the UK would lose the ability to block a future measure made under that treaty article. There is a large number of vetoes in the treaties, and many of them are in areas that hon. Members on both sides of the House consider important and sensitive—for example, foreign policy, tax, justice and home affairs. It is right that any treaty change that would transfer from unanimity to qualified majority voting the way in which decisions were taken over those key areas of policy should require the consent of the British people before a Government agree to such a change.
We do not propose to hold a referendum over the giving up of the veto over more minor or technical measures such as any future agreement to change the numbers of Advocates-General in the Court of Justice of the European Union. In my view, giving up such a veto would be a mistake and should require primary legislation in the House, but I do not think that the British public would understand it if such a narrow and relatively minor measure were to require a national referendum.
We need a clear framework for referendums because Governments such as the right hon. Gentleman’s promised the people a referendum and then reneged on that commitment, and because the level of public trust has dramatically declined. This is a new framework of law for this country and I believe that it will enjoy growing support over the years. It already enjoys the strong support of two political parties in this country. That in itself is an enormous advance on where we were starting from in the last Parliament, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the central point of the Bill is that if a future Government came along and attempted to cheat the British people out of a referendum, as the previous Government did—as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) well knows—they would not be able to do it without explicitly repealing and amending the Act? They could not hide behind word games and semantics.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, the Labour party will be asked before future general elections what its approach would be. It will be asked to give the commitment to maintain the referendum lock; otherwise people will know that it would propose in office to do exactly what it has done before—give away the rights and powers of the British people without the consent of the British people. If the Labour party wants to go into a general election on that basis, let it do so, but it would be wiser for it to adopt this framework for the future.
I will give way, but I want to make some more progress and get through my speech, as well as taking interventions.
The second way in which power will be transferred from Britain to Brussels, as defined for the purposes of the Bill, will be by granting an EU institution or body, through treaty change, a new ability to impose further obligations or sanctions on the United Kingdom or on individuals and organisations within the United Kingdom.
That point has been the subject of some debate, although some of that has been based on scant acquaintance with the content of the Bill. It has wrongly been claimed that Ministers will be able to use a significance test on any future treaty change. That is not true. The Bill places an absolute and unqualified referendum requirement on the transfer of competence, the creation of new competence, or the removal of limits to existing competences and upon a whole raft of vetoes. The Bill also provides that the consent of the British people will be required if the Government wish to agree to certain other specific decisions—for example, joining the euro, joining a common European army, or joining the group of countries that have shared border controls.
If the only reason for a proposed treaty amendment being caught by the referendum lock is that it would, while not transferring or extending competence, confer upon the EU the ability to impose new obligations or sanctions on this country, we need to be able to distinguish between important and minor changes. We are providing a workable, sustainable solution to prevent referendums being held on matters that we could not justify to the public as having the significance to merit a referendum.
The right hon. Gentleman is making it plain in his remarks that the Bill is not aimed at the current Government; it is aimed at a possible future Labour Government. He says that he would not trust a future Labour Government, but does he trust his current partners? He has described the Liberal Democrats as wanting to go all the way towards a united states of Europe, so what is his position? Does he trust them, or does he trust us?
The Bill is aimed at all Governments, including our own, any future Governments and any combinations of Government. Yes, we have new partners in government and, on the basis of the past seven months, I trust them a great deal more than I would trust the Government we had before the election. Let the hon. Gentleman be absolutely clear about that.
On how the Bill works and ministerial accountability for decisions on whether to hold a referendum, a Minister of the Crown will be required to make a statement within two months of a treaty change being agreed by member state Governments. That ministerial statement will have to give reasons why the treaty change does or does not require a referendum, and those reasons will have to refer to the criteria set out in clause 4.
I will in a moment, yes. Like any ministerial decision, it will be open to any member of the public—yes, any member of the public—who is entitled to vote in a referendum to challenge the Minister’s judgment through judicial review. The reasoned statement set out in clause 5 makes any such ministerial decision as amenable to judicial review as is possible. That provides a powerful reason for Ministers to stick to both the letter and spirit of the law, and not to seek to sidestep the requirement for a referendum. We have ensured that we are as precise as possible about what would require a referendum.
I will give way again in a moment, but I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) next.
We have also provided further clarity on the scope of the referendum lock by setting out certain categories of treaty change that would not require a referendum: first, the accession of a new country to the EU—the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston looks surprised—would not require a referendum, although each accession treaty would still require approval by an Act of Parliament; secondly, a treaty change that, while it would have to be agreed and ratified by all member states, would not apply to this country; and, thirdly, a treaty change that merely sought to codify EU practice in relation to the previous exercise of an existing competence. The Bill does not cover any use of the EU’s existing competences as defined in the treaties, because those competences have already been transferred and the extent of the competences is set out in European law.
The Foreign Secretary has spoken of a referendum lock. Given that this Parliament cannot bind the next, that a future referendum would rest on a ministerial decision in the way that he describes, and that a new law would be required for such a referendum to be held, in what sense is it a referendum lock? It is a piece of legislative PR, perhaps, but not really a lock.
My hon. Friend, perhaps deliberately, understates its importance by overstating the scope for ministerial decision and the significance test. The Bill is very clear that, on 44 specific treaty articles, the removal of the veto requires a referendum, and that the substantive use of 12 treaty articles requires a referendum. There is no scope for Ministers to decide that those things do not require a referendum. There is no scope for Ministers to decide that a decision to join the euro, to subscribe to a European army, to give up our veto on the financial framework, to give up our veto on foreign policy or to give up control of our borders does not require a referendum. Let us be absolutely clear about that.
My hon. Friend said that we cannot bind our successors in this respect, but of course that could be said about so many of the laws that we propose, and are proposed under future Governments, which we intend to have long-term effect. If we took that attitude on everything, there would be no point in doing anything or ever getting up in the morning to come to Parliament at all. We are trying to create a long-term and enduring framework, and I believe that we have a very good chance of doing so.
When the right hon. Gentleman was in opposition, I enjoyed his speeches on Europe: they were magnificent; leonine. I voted with him on the Lisbon treaty—not just on the basis of his speech, but because it was in our manifesto to vote for the Lisbon treaty. However, I wish that he was using now the arguments that he used then. The public are not interested in the details in this Bill—they think that too much money is spent on the European Union and that it has too much power. Are not the Conservative party and the Foreign Secretary going to give the people of this country an opportunity to have their say on that?
The public are right, and my arguments are the same as they were on the Lisbon treaty—[Interruption.] They may not sound like it; I have to explain an 18-clause Bill, so they may not sound quite as dramatic. The hon. Gentleman may be right that the public are not interested in the details of the Bill, but Parliament needs to go through those details. My argument is exactly the same as the one that I made on the Lisbon treaty—that where a Government propose to hand over the powers of this country, there should be a referendum. There should have been a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. If there is any future treaty change of the kind that I have described, there should be a referendum. It is exactly the same argument. I am grateful to him for voting with me then, and I trust that on the same basis he will be voting with me today.
I will now give way to someone else—
I, too, very much enjoyed the right hon. Gentleman’s speeches when he spoke for the Opposition, and it is nice to be able to ask him some questions now.
Schedule 1 of the Bill is entitled,
“Treaty provisions where amendment removing a need for unanimity, consensus or common accord would attract referendum”,
and it lists things such as the appointment of judges and advocates-general of the European Court of Justice. Is the right hon. Gentleman really saying that we are going to have a referendum in this country if his Government, or any future Government, decide that they want to transfer competence on that issue?
We welcome the right hon. Gentleman back to the House. It is traditional in these circumstances to sit on the Front Bench below the Gangway in a menacing posture towards his own party, and we notice that he has gone to sit in that particular position. There is some political significance in that.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for stressing the detail into which the Bill goes and the extent to which we are insisting that a referendum should be held, because that should be of enormous reassurance to some of my hon. Friends. On the specific subject of the advocates-general, one of the matters that I said would not be subject to a referendum is the loss of our veto on the number of advocates-general.
I am extremely grateful again to my right hon. Friend. Does he recall that in the evidence that was given to my Committee and in the conclusions of the report that it produced last night, there was an assertion and a conclusion that the Bill invites litigation in the courts? He has just confirmed, with regard to the circumstances of a referendum, that he too would invite litigation. Does he not think that the time has come when this House, as the ultimate authority of the law of this land, should decide such matters, and not just buck them over to the courts?
The Bill is about many matters being decided in this place or by the people. The hon. Gentleman’s point is distinct from the one that was raised in the European Scrutiny Committee report about clause 18. I made the point that an executive ministerial decision is subject to judicial review, which is always the case. The decision of the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) on the Lisbon treaty was taken to judicial review by Mr Stuart Wheeler, albeit unsuccessfully. Ministerial decisions are subject to judicial review and that is not changed by the Bill.
The right hon. Member for South Shields is still looking puzzled about the position of the advocates-general. The loss of the veto in the appointment of advocates-general and European Commissioners would be a significant loss of national—
Accession treaties are exempt from the referendum requirement. Will the Foreign Secretary explain how the accession of Turkey, which by that stage would probably have a larger population than Germany, would not amount to a considerable loss of influence for the United Kingdom, given the system of qualified majority voting? Why is it therefore exempt from a referendum? I just do not get it.
That is a different argument about referendums on accession treaties. Such treaties do not extend the powers and competences of the European Union, and so are not within the terms of the Bill. If the hon. Lady wants to advocate a referendum on the accession of Turkey, there will, sadly, be time for her to do so because the process will take a while. However, that is a separate argument from the extension of powers and competences.
No, I must make a bit of progress.
The Bill will give Parliament more control over whether the Government can agree to a number of other important EU decisions, sometimes referred to as the self-amending provisions of the Lisbon treaty. Those decisions, which are known as passerelles or ratchet clauses, contain built-in mechanisms that allow modifications to EU treaties or the exercise of one-way options, without recourse to either of the formal methods of treaty change.
The Government have identified three types of ratchet clause, although I hesitate to go into detail after the comments of the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer). However, it is important to be clear on this matter. There are clauses that allow for a change of legislative procedure, clauses that allow for changes in voting procedure and clauses that allow for the expansion of the scope of an article allowing the European Union to act.
Given the lack of a universal definition and the Government’s aim of ensuring that our proposals are as clear as possible to Parliament and the public, we have set out explicitly which treaty articles require additional levels of control. As with future treaty changes, passerelles or ratchet clauses that entail a transfer of power or competence will require the consent of the British people in a referendum. There will be a referendum requirement on any methods in the treaties for giving up vetoes that we have deemed to be significant. Clause 6 covers the simplified revision procedure and six provisions in the treaties that allow for vetoes to be given up without formal treaty change.
Clauses 8 and 9 provide for parliamentary controls over two types of decision: the use of article 352 of the treaty on the functioning of the EU—the so-called broad enabling clause—and the use of three ratchet clauses in the field of justice and home affairs. Some additional proposals that require a vote in both Houses, rather than a Bill, are listed in clause 10. They are mostly articles that modify the composition, rules of procedure or statutes of existing EU institutions or bodies.
The coalition stated in its programme for government that it would examine the case for a United Kingdom sovereignty Bill. I announced in October that, following that examination, we had decided to include a provision in this Bill to place on a statutory footing the existing common law principle of parliamentary sovereignty. The doctrine that EU law has effect here for one reason only, namely that authority has been conferred upon it by Acts of Parliament and subsists only for as long as Parliament so decides, has been upheld consistently by the courts. However, we can see considerable merit in placing that position beyond speculation on a statutory footing. That will guard against any risk that in future, common law jurisprudence might drift towards accepting a different argument. In other words, we have included a clause that underlines the fact that what a sovereign Parliament can do, a sovereign Parliament can undo.
I wish to put on record the fact that, in the conclusions to the European Scrutiny Committee’s report issued last night, we unequivocally rejected the notion of a common law principle, because it would offer the courts a gateway to take over jurisdiction in areas that we regard as unacceptable in UK constitutional law.
Yes, I have read the report, of course, and I note the concerns about the references to the common law in the explanatory notes. However, those references are meant simply as a contradistinction to statute, given that the principle of parliamentary sovereignty is defined nowhere in statute. They are not meant to be determinative of the origin of the principle, which is an issue that goes far beyond the scope of the Bill.
As I set out a few moments ago, under current law any proposal to amend the EU treaties using the ordinary revision procedure can be ratified by the United Kingdom only once parliamentary approval has been obtained by Act of Parliament. We have therefore made provision in the Bill for Parliament’s approval of the transitional protocol on MEPs. That will allow 18 MEPs from 12 member states, including one from the UK, to take up their seats without having to wait until the next scheduled elections in 2014. As that protocol does not transfer any power or competence from the UK to the EU, a referendum is clearly not required. As it is a treaty change, however, all member states are required to ratify it. The Bill also makes the necessary provisions to elect our new MEP, who will, based on the recommendation made by the Electoral Commission in its report last month, represent the West Midlands.
I am satisfied that it does not affect the rights or powers of the United Kingdom and therefore does not require a referendum in this country.
The Bill will give the British people and Parliament powers that they have not previously enjoyed in decisions about engagement with the European Union. Some have criticised the Government’s proposals, saying that they will necessarily stymie further progress or put the UK in the slow lane of Europe. The Government do not subscribe to that argument, for three reasons.
First, it is wrong to accept continuous political integration as a definition of progress. Secondly, although other European nations have different constitutional frameworks, a number of countries require a referendum of their people to be held if a treaty change proposes a further shift of powers to Brussels. Some, most notably Germany, also have provisions in place to ensure effective parliamentary control over specific key decisions taken by their Governments. There is a growing trend across Europe to give citizens and Parliaments more control over the decisions taken by their Governments on EU matters, and it is right that we should be not just part of that trend but leading it from the front.
Thirdly, if a future Government can demonstrate a compelling case as to why a further transfer of power is in the national interest, they should be able to persuade the British people of its merits. If a future Government were to take a different view from ours, they would have to convince the British people. Whatever the outcome of such an argument, our democracy would be all the healthier for the decision lying in the hands of the British people as a whole. That fulfils an important part of the Conservative manifesto, but it also draws on a line of thinking that has found its place in recent Liberal Democrat manifestos. I hope that Opposition Front Benchers will in time support it too, because when the voters cast a party out of government, it must understand why. The previous Government’s high-handedness on EU matters is one reason why Labour is no longer in government, and it should now learn from that.
The Bill can receive support from those who like the EU just as it is, those who want it to do less, and those who want it to have more power but who are prepared to argue for that. The Bill does not determine the shape of our future place in the EU, but it ensures that our position will command the voters’ consent. It will give the British people the assurance, which they are entitled to expect, that the sovereignty of Parliament and the ultimate right of the people themselves to decide which powers are the subject of collective decisions within Europe are both properly safeguarded. Those safeguards will put our participation in the EU on a sturdier and more democratic footing. That is why we present the Bill to the House.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add:
“this House declines to give a second reading to the European Union Bill on the grounds that, while the principle of referendums on significant constitutional and monetary changes is appropriate, the Bill is a flawed measure which would confuse the important issues at stake and make vital constitutional issues justiciable by the courts rather than resolved under the sovereignty of Parliament.”
The Foreign Secretary has been on a long and tortuous journey to get here today. The man who voted for the Maastricht treaty without a referendum and the former party leader who put Euroscepticism at the heart of his unsuccessful election campaign now finds himself in government with what he has described as
“the most fanatically federalist party in Britain.”
The Foreign Secretary’s diary engagement from last night rather sums things up for him, and I am sorry that he chose not to share it with the House. Last night, he went back to Smith square, to the old Conservative central office. From the windows where once Margaret Thatcher waved on election night now waves a blue flag with yellow stars. Where once sat Tory party researchers working on the Bruges speech, there are now French, German and Italian officials. He was invited for the opening and renaming of central office as Europe House. It cannot be easy for him. He is caught between the realities and the responsibilities of government and the rhetoric of Eurosceptic opposition. He is caught, as they say, between a rock and the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash).
The record should also show that the room where I spoke last night was named the Churchill room by common agreement, and that I took the opportunity to remind all who were there of the need for EU institutions to bring down their budgetary aspirations just as the Government have had to do in this country.
If only the Foreign Secretary’s willingness to open EU buildings extended to opening a proper debate on European issues in the House. Clause 10 purports to increase Parliament’s role before ministerial decisions are made, yet the truth is that the Government do the opposite. We have had no discussion of the European economy prior to the discussion between European Finance Ministers today, no discussion of practical measures to cut the European budget, such as reform of the common agricultural policy, and no discussion of working with Europe on human trafficking or the directive that the Government continue to opt out of.
This very morning, European Finance Ministers met to discuss the Irish support package and the European economy. In 10 days’ time, decisions will be made on the crisis resolution measures that will affect the entire European economy—not just the eurozone—for many years to come. National leaders will discuss a treaty change to introduce that package, yet when is the debate in the British Parliament? We have no idea what British Government Ministers are proposing or asking for.
We should hold pre-Council debates in this Chamber. The economic and political pressures that Europe faces are serious. European growth is slowing, unemployment has increased and markets are putting pressure on several eurozone countries, all of which matters immensely to Britain, yet we have had no pre-Council debates. At the end of this year, there will have been four European Councils, but no debate.
The right hon. Lady is raising crucial issues. Does her party support the idea of Britain being part of more EU economic governance powers to help euroland, and does she think we ought to offer more financial assistance to other euroland countries in crisis?
I think that the Government were right to provide support for Ireland, because the prospects for growth in Ireland will have a huge impact on our economy. That is also why it is important that the House debates the precise measures proposed as part of a permanent crisis resolution mechanism. The House does not know what those proposals are or what the Government are arguing for.
Will the right hon. Lady provide some clarification, because her amendment does not make it clear where the Labour party stands on this issue? It supports referendums in principle, but it does not say when they would be held. When would a referendum be used on Europe? Will she also clarify whether it is still Labour’s long-term ambition to introduce the euro and an EU defence force?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have set out our belief that there should be referendums in cases of major constitutional change or currency issues, and I hope that he supported our decision not to let Britain enter the euro for the very good economic reasons that have proved to be right in practice.
The economic issues are very serious. Markets are still putting pressure on several eurozone countries. This matters immensely for Britain, because the Government are relying on an increase in British exports of £100 billion over the next few years to keep our economy growing, and we will not get that if our largest export market has gone into reverse. The EU does not have a serious strategy for growth and jobs, just as the British Government do not. The eurozone does not yet have a strong enough response to the pressure from financial markets, and a strategy of nothing but co-ordinated fiscal austerity in every country in Europe will not deliver growth, will not ultimately satisfy the financial markets and will be bad news for Britain. That is what we should be discussing now; that is what Ministers should be debating in Europe; that is what we should be discussing as part of a pre-European Council debate in the House. It makes a complete mockery of the Bill not to have those discussions in the House, and exposes the sham of the Secretary of State’s approach to Europe.
The hon. Gentleman needs to recognise that Britain will not grow without sufficient growth in our exports, especially given the sheer scale of the cuts that his Government are introducing. Without a sufficient increase in domestic demand, we are reliant on increasing our exports. Where does he want those exports to go, if he also wants us to turn our backs on Europe and allow the Irish economy to face serious problems? That would put a drag on our own economy and prospects as well.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the use of article 352 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union will not require an Act of Parliament, and that the current bail-out of Ireland, which is a pretty significant activity to which we are contributing as part of our EU obligations, is being done under that article?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It raises some of the unresolved questions coming out of the Bill and the interaction between the Bill and some of the crisis resolution mechanisms and proposed treaty changes. The Government simply have not answered those questions.
I am astonished that the Foreign Secretary of all people has thrown away this pre-European Council debate. I made my maiden speech in such a debate before people such as Ted Heath and Peter Shore. They are very important debates for our House of Commons, but the Government have thrown them in the dustbin because they cannot face the discussions needed. My right hon. Friend is right to keep emphasising this point, so will she commit us, when we form the next Government, to allowing a debate in Government time on Europe?
My right hon. Friend is right: those debates are important. We could have had a pre-European Council discussion today, at the same time as European Finance Ministers are meeting and well in advance of national leaders meeting to discuss exactly these issues. Instead of talking about vital issues for the European economy, what are we doing? According to the Foreign Secretary, we are talking about referendums that he says we will not need and sovereignty that he says we already have—that is, referendums for powers that he says he will not even transfer, and sovereignty that he says will not change at all as a result of this Bill. Unnerving as I find it to be in agreement with the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell), I am afraid to say that he is right. This Bill is just smoke and mirrors to distract us from the fact that the Government have no strategy for Europe and no way of handling their own Eurosceptics.
Instead of having a serious debate about the future of Europe, the Foreign Secretary is pandering to the Eurosceptics, and it is the worst pandering of all, because it will not even work. All that it is doing is winding them up. This Bill is a complete dog’s dinner and he knows it, yet the Eurosceptics are salivating nevertheless. The Bill tries to constrain parliamentary sovereignty on the one hand and protect parliamentary sovereignty on the other, using a referendum lock that does one thing and a sovereignty clause that does the opposite—a referendum lock that tries to bind future Parliaments and a sovereignty clause that makes it clear that the Government can do no such thing. It is all in the same Bill, which faces both ways at the same time.
The Government’s press release on the sovereignty clause says:
“The common law is already clear on this. Parliament is sovereign. EU law has effect in the UK because—and solely because—Parliament wills that it should. Parliament chose to pass the European Communities Act 1972. That was the act of a sovereign Parliament.”
There is not much room for misunderstanding there. The statement then proclaims that
“to put the matter beyond speculation,”
the Government will introduce the sovereignty clause, but whose speculation are we talking about? It is not the speculation of the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), because his European Scrutiny Committee has said:
“The evidence we received suggests that the legislative supremacy of Parliament is not currently under threat from EU law.”
The Committee continued:
“Clause 18 is not a sovereignty clause in the manner claimed by the Government, and the whole premise on which it has been included in the Bill is, in our view, exaggerated.”
The only source of speculation that I could find was one speech by a barrister on behalf of a client in 2002 and a speech by the Prime Minister in 2009. The truth is that the Foreign Secretary has set up a straw man in order to shoot it down, because he will not give his party what it really wants, which is a referendum on withdrawing from the EU altogether.
The right hon. Lady really does not know what she is talking about. Let me refer her to the Law Lords’ judgment in the case of Jackson v. Attorney-General, in which Lord Steyn said:
“The judges created this principle”—
that is, the principle of parliamentary sovereignty.
“If that is so, it is not unthinkable that circumstances could arise where the courts may have to qualify a principle established on a different hypothesis of constitutionalism.”
Lord Hope said:
“Parliamentary sovereignty is no longer, if it ever was, absolute…Step by step, gradually but surely, the English principle of the absolute legislative sovereignty of Parliament which Dicey derived from Coke and Blackstone is being qualified.”
There are therefore two Law Lords speculating about the future of parliamentary sovereignty. The right hon. Lady had better do some homework.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is not picking a fight with me; he is picking a fight with his Government, whom I quoted, and the European Scrutiny Committee, which I quoted. His disagreement is with them, but I hope that he agrees that clause 18 does nothing at all to change sovereignty. In fact, the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), who asked about a written constitution, got further than anybody else in raising the key question about sovereignty that the hon. Gentleman’s Government are pretending to solve while, in fact, doing nothing of the sort.
I simply make the point that our Committee report is utterly clear on that subject. What the right hon. Lady quoted is correct. However, her Government were as responsible as any for giving more and more judicial authority—ultimate authority—to the courts. Their main policy over many years could be characterised as handing over more and more powers to the judges at the expense of this House.
Is not one of the problems with the Bill the fact that it makes the decision on whether to hold a referendum justiciable, and therefore a matter to be decided by the courts, when it is surely a political decision for which elected Members of Parliament ought to take the rap at the ballot box if they get it wrong?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Bill will create a lawyers’ paradise because it is so confused and complex. Important issues will have to be decided by the courts as they try to interpret what the Government and Parliament meant, which could lead to decisions that override Parliament and delays to decisions that Parliament might want to make while those legal wrangles are taking place.
Speaking as a former lawyer, I find the Bill plain and obvious. If a future Government or bunch of politicians get together to cheat people out of a referendum, a little guy could come along and put a stop to that through the court system. That has to be right, in order to keep politicians to their promises.
That little guy would have some serious questions about which cases could be taken to court, how long they would take to be dealt with, and what judgment the court would make.
The pledges on referendums are very confused. We agree that Europe should not be pursuing new treaties, major treaty changes or major transfers of power or competence, and we have long said that it is time for Europe to stop its institutional navel-gazing, but navel-gazing is exactly what the Bill proposes. It tries to pin down in legislation the detail of a whole series of changes that would, or would not, trigger a referendum, but it creates complete confusion as a result. It does not define the powers or competences that it wants to protect, and it does not explain what constitutes a significant change and what does not. It allows Ministers to make decisions in certain areas, but admits that that will be subject to judicial review.
As far as I could understand him, the Foreign Secretary said today that the extension of any competence—even a supporting one, and even in a very small or insignificant way—will require a referendum. However, new powers to impose requirements, obligations or sanctions on the UK, even if they would have far more impact on Britain than a small change to the competences, would not require a referendum if Ministers determined that the proposed changes failed their own significance test.
I am also completely baffled by the debate about the advocates-general, because schedule 1 clearly states that the matter would attract a referendum, but the Foreign Secretary said that it would not pass the significance test. As far as I could work out, as I fitted together what he was saying, we would not have a referendum on how many advocates-general there were to be, but we would have to have one on whom we were going to appoint.
This is a dog’s dinner of a Bill. It is completely confused. Frankly, it makes the Maastricht treaty look like light reading. The Minister for Europe has said that he does not believe a referendum should be triggered for a treaty change on the allocation of carbon credits. He says that that is not significant, and he has a point. That matter should not merit a referendum, but how can he be sure that the courts will take the same view when interpreting this legislation? What about the treaty change that is due to be proposed at the European Council next week? That change would make it possible for Europe to create permanent bail-out mechanisms to deal with future financial crises in the eurozone. We have said that we have some concerns about the overall policy approach that Europe is taking. Nevertheless, the Government have said that they support these changes, and we recognise the need to look at a treaty change in order to ensure that a permanent long-term response is in place. The Foreign Secretary seems to be hoping that this treaty change will not be covered by the Bill, but how can he be sure that the courts will take the same view? He is asking for trouble because the Bill is so contrived and complex. Lawyers will have a field day. He is contriving his Bill to avoid a treaty change that he has not yet negotiated, and contriving his treaty negotiations to avoid clashing with a Bill that he has not yet tested in Parliament or in the courts.
Furthermore, despite all the Foreign Secretary’s contortions, he will not keep his Eurosceptic party happy anyway, as we have heard in interventions today. His Government have signed up to the EU investigation order. They were right to do so, and we welcomed the move, but his Back Benchers wanted a referendum on the matter. His Government supported the Van Rompuy taskforce on economic information, but many of his Back Benchers wanted a referendum on it. They want referendums on crime, on justice co-operation on the European arrest warrant, and on pulling out altogether. He cannot keep his Eurosceptics happy, so he is desperately trying to distract them with this Bill. He promised them red meat, but he is now offering them an omelette instead.
This is a Government of chaos and confusion, with the Eurosceptics on one side and, on the other, the president of the European Movement and the Energy Secretary, who has said about Europe that the
“Tories have jumped into bed with the wackos and the weirdos”.
On this evidence, one could say the same of the Liberal Democrats. The Government can have unity without clarity, or clarity without unity, but they are clearly incapable of both. At a time when they should be working hard in Europe on the issues that matter—jobs, growth, trade, cross-border crime—they are collapsing back into navel-gazing and confusion and turning their backs on the opportunities and benefits that working in partnership can bring. This Bill is a mess, and they should go back to the drawing board and start again.
This Bill is born of a very serious mood in our country. A majority of people in Britain feel that a great amount of power has already passed to the European Union over the past 20 years, and they feel that powers are still drifting away under this new Government. They would like to see that progress arrested, and they would like to see powers brought back in certain crucial areas. They would like to feel that more of their lives were under democratic, accountable government here in Westminster than under the less accountable, less democratic government of the European Union. The Government would be wise to heed the seriousness of that view among many in this Parliament, representing many outside it.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s noble aim. He says that the aim of his legislation and policy is to give us all a greater sense of empowerment when it comes to matters of European governance and action. I would urge him to look again at his Bill, however. It is certainly cleverly contrived, and it is certainly contrived in a great deal of detail, but it is, in practice, the not-the-referendum Bill. On every area of competence and power that we see drifting away or being transferred from us as we have this debate, we are told, “That would not qualify for a referendum under this legislation.”
I believe that the Foreign Secretary has taken legal advice, and he wants to have a referendum on the transfer of competences rather than on the transfer of powers. I would suggest that that is a tad too clever. We all know that most of the competences have already gone. That was what Lisbon was all about. That was why he and I fought tooth and nail, together, against that treaty and in favour of a referendum on the treaty. Most of the things that the Government now wish to do are a shared competence with the European Union. What matters is not a further transfer of competence, but a further grab or transfer of power by the European authorities.
When the Conservatives were in office, we made it very clear that we wanted trading relationships and friendships, and a certain amount of common legislating in single market and related areas, but not a common Government or political union. To reflect that, the architecture that we persuaded the partners to accept had the third pillar areas of foreign affairs and home affairs, which were matters for independent sovereign states to decide, and we always preserved the veto on any common action. That has now been eroded. So, as we meet to debate the so-called referendum lock, we see powers on home affairs being surrendered, issue by issue, by this Government—as they were by the previous Government—which will result in a much more common criminal jurisdiction from the European level. The British people need a voice on that matter; they need to be asked about it. Some of them might even agree with it, but they want to be treated seriously, as grown-ups, and asked if that is how they want their country to be run in the future.
On foreign affairs, we are being told as we meet that we still have a veto on the big issues and that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary can play his part in shaping a common European action and diplomatic strategy. At the very same time as we have to cut severely the growth rate of our public spending and make some deep cuts in certain areas, which we do not like, we see the European budget going up rapidly, partly to finance a big expansion in the European diplomatic service. This is not being done in order to have holidays in the sun, as some national newspapers seem to suggest, but because the EU wishes to exercise power and authority on our behalf and on behalf of other member states.
I do not think that the Foreign Office has fully understood the consequences of encouraging this to go ahead, which is what it did. I am afraid that a great many of us voted for it in this House. The European External Action Service is ordering much more expensive cars, is to have grander embassies and is to pay much higher salaries than our own diplomatic service. That will be to the detriment of our diplomatic service because it will attract the talent away from our service and towards the European External Action Service.
It means that when a British Foreign Secretary makes foreign visits, he or she will be kept waiting while the EU ambassador is received and considered, because the latter will speak with more authority on behalf of more people and more states.
It is the third area that we have always reserved for national veto and national competence—central economic policy making—to which I shall address the remainder of my brief remarks in this truncated debate. Literally as we meet here this afternoon, crucial and massive issues are being hammered out in secret around the Council table in Brussels. Quite likely to be on the agenda is the issue of European sovereign bonds and the effective creation of a European sovereign in financial matters that issues debt and guarantees debt on behalf of member states. Do we want that? Are we in it? Is it not a transfer of power if we go along with it? Is it not an issue on which we should be invited to express our views?
Another item on the agenda may be the future membership of the euro. The Council could be considering in secret whether all member states are able to stay in the euro and whether the strong or the weak members should leave. If they are to keep the euro area together, what will be the arrangements for the large transfer payments that need to be made if the single currency is to have some hope of a decent life in the future, as all successful single currency areas have much bigger transfers of tax revenues, subsidies and money around them than the euro area currently has?
My right hon. Friend portrays so accurately the realities that lie behind this Bill, which is about the economic crisis in Europe as well as many other matters. Does he agree that one serious current problem is the financial stability mechanisms and that if we do not assert our rights in this House and make certain that the courts cannot get their hands on an interpretation that would go the other way, we could end up paying for other countries beyond Ireland—Portugal, Spain and others?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, which is why the transfer of power, if not of competence, is such a crucial issue and why we need to engage in a public debate at this very moment about how far this should go.
I hasten to stress to the House—particularly to my critics, who like to misconstrue what I say—that I wish our partners every success and prosperity with their single currency. I know that if that is the way they choose to run their economies, it is in our interests for it to work. We want them to be happier and more prosperous, and we like to benefit from trading with them, just as they like selling us a lot of their products. My worry is that in the process of our enthusiasm for that, we will draw in Britain—with her rather stretched budgets, even after the changes that the Government have rightly and wisely made—at a time when we do not have the financial strength to go to the aid of all these other euroland countries that are in some difficulty under the euro scheme.
I am a critic of the Irish loan. Of course I do not want to see the Irish economy go down, but I do not happen to think that lending the country lots of money at that juncture, as a result of a crisis deliberately created by the European Central Bank, was a terribly good way to behave. I do not believe that if Britain had declined to make some money available, the Irish loan would not have been negotiated. It would have been negotiated quite successfully by the architects of it—the powers behind the European Central Bank, who literally decided to withdraw funds from the Irish banks at a difficult time and made that decision public, thereby precipitating the crisis. We were engaged in a refinancing package for the European Central Bank. I think we should be told the truth; we should be told why it was a good idea for a country that rightly stayed out of the euro because it did not want the financial risk and hassle, to be drawn into helping finance the consequences of an ill-judged currency without a political union.
A successful currency needs a sovereign to love it and support it. That is why the sovereign’s face traditionally appears on the coinage and why there has to be a symbol to show that the whole weight of legal and economic authority stands behind a currency. If Europe is to have a successful euro, she needs a sovereign. I do not want my country to be part of the euro, and I think that around 80% of the British people agree with me. I think that even Opposition Members temporarily agree with me on this issue; they are not rushing to say that now is a good time to join the euro. We should be open and honest with the British people and say, “We wish the euro well.” We are doing it a great favour by not trying to join it—we would have been an over-mighty subject in it, which might even had led to its toppling earlier—and we are not currently in a financial position to make all the transfer payments available that are necessary for full members of a single currency area.
The House needs to understand that while we are debating some abstruse language and pledging this and future Governments to hold a referendum on treaties unknown about competences unspecified, a potentially massive transfer of power is under way yet again from the member states to the centre. There has to be; the thing cannot work without more central power behind the banks and the economic institutions.
The British Government say that they will accept a treaty extending the centralising powers in the economic sphere because the penalties on these will not apply to the UK Government. Well, I am delighted that the penalties will not apply, but I see no reason why the requirements should apply either, because we are not part of the euro. We should offer our support for a strengthening of economic governance for the euro area alone and make it clear that all the regulations and the directives apply only to that area. I think that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary got it wrong when he said that none of those applies to Britain; several of them do, although without the ultimate penalties. There could be other penalties, incidentally, which might apply to Britain.
When we surrender our veto and allow this treaty to go through on that condition—that it applies only to euroland—we should say that we want something back. We should seek to establish that we believe the European Union already has too much power and that we want something back. Do we want our fisheries back; do we want control over our borders back; do we want control over elements of taxation that have already gone to Europe through common taxation and a series of court judgments?
Power is seeping away as we meet. A massive debate is under way. Will the Government please take this Parliament and the British people into their confidence? Will they take us seriously? Will they give us an adult debate on the reality rather than this show Bill?
I have to say that there is little in the speech of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) with which I would disagree. That immediately places me, of course, very much in a minority in my own party. I do not think that either of us is in a minority in the country, however. Many people watching our debate today will be wondering how on earth we ever got here. They will wonder why we are trying to introduce a Bill that is literally tinkering around with the real and fundamental problems of our membership of the European Union.
It is with great regret that I have to say that my party betrayed the promise it had made on the Lisbon treaty. If it had granted the referendum on that treaty, we would not be here discussing this Bill. One reason why my party and others did not want that referendum is that they knew the result would have been a defeat. In other words, we would not have signed up to the Lisbon treaty; it would not have happened.
I was new into Parliament shortly before the Maastricht treaty and I lost my position as the shadow spokesperson on the citizen’s charter and women because I voted against that treaty. I am therefore well aware of the issues. I was obviously in a minority then in my party, even though prior to that we had been quite sceptical on Europe.
I give the coalition Government some credit, because I know that they are facing great difficulties. The Conservatives said fine words before the election about how they were going to get more powers back and not allow any more powers to go. Unfortunately, perhaps because of the coalition, but also because of other pressures, most of that has not been complied with. The Government have therefore come up with this Bill, which seeks to show the country that there is still support within the coalition for getting some powers back. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) has said, the Bill is unfortunately a minefield that lawyers will absolutely love.
The Bill misses the whole point. Some people continue to say that we should not even discuss whether we should leave the European Union, whether we should have that debate in the country and whether we should have a referendum. They have yet to prove to me—I have studied this very carefully—just how having that debate, having that referendum and voting to leave the European Union would be a disaster for this country. No cost-benefit analysis has ever been carried out on that. No Government have undertaken a proper cost-benefit analysis of the benefits to this country of being in the European Union. Although other countries, such as Switzerland, have carried out such analysis, every time it has been suggested here, it has been brushed away by the elite in Europe and in this country, who say that the net gains of membership are so obvious that there is no need even to think of quantifying them. That is increasingly becoming not true and the public are beginning not to believe it.
I am not a reader of the Daily Express, but its campaign, which has shown huge support for a discussion and debate on the European Union, is very much to be welcomed. Recent developments have made all of us who have doubts about this country’s involvement in the European Union queasy, because the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU is incredibly expensive for us and the benefits are becoming increasingly difficult to see. We do not need, again, to go into the cost of our net budget contribution, the increase that is going to take place and how it will be spent. Nobody wants to let the public know just how our money is spent. They are not told about the huge costs of the European External Action Service. From now on, our ambassadors will become less important than this European Union ambassador and it is shocking that we have allowed that to go ahead. I cannot understand why the new Government have done so, apart from the fact that they are a coalition.
However, I still wonder whether a Conservative Government with a proper majority would really have done all the things that they said they would. Once someone goes to Europe and gets involved in it, they somehow start almost to be part of it. They start to make up the discussions and the arguments, and somehow their attitudes change. The Minister for Europe used to say some brilliant things about Europe that I agreed with, but now that he is on the Front Bench, his words have changed slightly and become slightly nuanced. We get the feeling that once people have been going to Brussels over and over again, they change their attitude.
I am concerned that the Bill does not go far enough. I am not going to vote for the Labour amendment, which is a cop-out and a nothing amendment—it does not say anything. It does not bring to people’s attention all the opportunities that we missed when we were in government. I still have not decided whether I will abstain or vote for a Bill that we might be able to amend. I want this Bill to be used as the opportunity for people in the country to start being listened to. I want them to start having the opportunity to engage in the debate about why they feel so strongly that our membership is not giving us anything that is worth the money that we pay in.
Although many of us, myself included, would like to head into reverse and one day have that wider question determined, does the hon. Lady not accept that it is a positive move that this Bill provides a brake to stop us hurtling further forward without having a say?
I would accept that, except that even since the new coalition Government took office, this country has given away some more powers and given up things. We are already going to support directives that we should not possibly be supporting. It is the drip-drip-drip nature of the European Union that really gets me.
That is my point, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will never get the issue that is big enough for a Minister to say, “We are going to have a referendum on this.” Ministers will find some excuse not to do so, which is why the only honest thing is to work towards having a debate in the country and a referendum on whether we want to stay in the European Union. We hear all those Members, Ministers and shadow Ministers continually saying, “Ah, but it would be desperate. We could not possibly leave. We couldn’t even think about it.” They should put their arguments to the people. Let the people decide. Let them say what they really think and let us see what that decision would be.
There is one little book that every Member in this House should buy. If the Foreign Secretary, the shadow Foreign Secretary and the shadow Ministers have not read it, I will give them a copy. It is called “Ten Years On: Britain Without The European Union”. I wish it had said “the United Kingdom”, rather than “Britain”, as that would not have left out Northern Ireland. This brilliant book actually says, “If we were to leave the European Union, this is what this country would look like 10 years on.” Let us have the confidence to say to the people that it is time that we have that real debate. Let those people who are confident that the European Union is the right thing for this country put it to the people and give them the say.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), not only because they made excellent contributions, but because they give me the opportunity to be a loyalist by contrast.
This welcome and important Bill follows last week’s award to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister from European Voice for their joint work in advancing a more progressive and European-style of Government—I know that all on the Government Benches will be celebrating that. The Bill is a fine example of a coalition product: it is a sensible compromise. For too long, the UK has allowed domestic political posturing over the European project to dominate its thinking on the EU. Such an approach has fundamentally undermined our ability to play the positive agenda-setting role on the European stage that we can and should do. It would be great to be in the driving seat of Europe, okay to be in the passenger seat and passable to be in the back seat, but for the past 20 years or so Britain has, in effect, locked itself in the boot, kicking and whingeing as if it were somebody else’s fault.
That is an honest position at least, which my hon. Friend sets out from a sedentary position. It is vital that we assert our sovereignty in Europe, but it is also vital to understand that one of the reasons why we have seen our sovereignty wane is our pig-headed failure to embrace the EU and take a positive role in shaping its future. It is high time that we moved on from dismal EU constitutional wrangling and focused instead on the issues that really matter.
Every act of legislation creates a possibility of further litigation. That is the nature of what we do. The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, and if this Bill becomes an Act it will deal with many of the uncertainties and genuine concerns raised by my hon. Friends from a different party about our position in the European Union and the legitimacy of the decisions that are taken. The power should ultimately rest in this place and—even more ultimately—with the British people.
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. The reality is that for 13 years we had a Government who said they were pro-Europe but never went on the front foot and defended that position. There are all sorts of reasons to defend our position in the European Union and say that this country’s interests are best placed if we are inside the EU. However, because of the national mood and if we were to have a referendum today on in or out, there is a very good chance that—
I do not think I am permitted to take more than two interventions.
There is such Eurosceptic hostility to the European Union that the last Government took the view that to attach themselves to the EU would mean seeing their popularity sink. They should have gone on the front foot; perhaps we would be in a different position if they had.
The UK and other member states face many major challenges, such as delivering economic growth, completing the single market, delivering new free trade agreements, cracking down on cross-border crime, combating climate change and fighting global poverty. The Bill should finally place to rest the concerns about the lack of democratic safeguards over big EU decisions. It will ensure that future big decisions about Britain’s place in Europe are taken out of the hands of the governing elite of the day and placed firmly in the hands of the British public and, on their behalf, this Parliament.
The Bill is a fine example of what coalition politics produces—a document delivered by two parties, working together despite their differing traditional outlooks on the EU.
I will not. I am permitted to take only two interventions without losing time and I want to ensure that I give people a chance to speak.
Despite our differing traditional outlooks on the EU, the coalition has come together, found common ground and drawn a line—obviously—under the European constitutional question once and for all, we hope, by ensuring that the public and Parliament have the final say on the big questions that will determine how UK and EU relations evolve. The Bill should also give the British public a new sense of ownership, enshrined in law, over the future evolution of UK relations with the European Union.
The Liberal Democrats are unashamedly a pro-European party. We fundamentally believe that British national interests are best served by playing an active and leading role in the European Union. We are also fundamentally a democratic party and one that believes in devolving power to the lowest level possible and in reconnecting the public to politics through democratic reform. We recognise that the experience of rapid EU integration over the past two decades, although it has been necessary and ultimately beneficial to the UK, has left many members of the British people feeling sceptical about and disconnected from the decisions made in their name at an EU level, most recently with the Lisbon treaty.
This is why the Bill is so important. Its main purpose is to reconnect the British public with EU-level decisions and to reassert parliamentary controls over those key decisions. The Bill should help to give the British public a new sense of ownership over the UK’s relationship with the EU in the future and it provides the British public with the legal guarantees that they, not the Government or Parliament, will have the ultimate say in future decisions about the UK’s level of involvement in the EU.
Now is the time for the EU to focus on delivering solutions to the huge challenges that face all member states rather than looking inward. The Bill is in keeping with a number of innovations in the Lisbon treaty that seek to provide national Parliaments and European citizens with a greater say over EU decisions and the direction of the European project. I say that as a member of my party who voted with my now coalition colleagues in favour of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. If we had had a referendum, I would have argued in favour of that treaty.
The UK is not alone in recognising that the pace of EU integration has left a dangerous lack of understanding about the connection between the EU institutions, national Parliaments and their citizens. In fact, that was recognised by all EU member states in the Council, by members of the Commission and by Members of the European Parliament long before the Bill was conceived. Indeed, that concern was translated into concrete measures in the Lisbon treaty. The treaty has gone a long way towards creating new connections and controls between the public and national Parliaments in the EU, which I warmly welcome. It is too early to see how they will work but the direction in which the EU—and now the UK—is moving is clear.
Let me give some examples of Lisbon treaty democratic and parliamentary control innovations. The European citizens’ initiative enables a petition of more than 1 million European citizens from across the member states to trigger a legislative proposal from the Commission and is a unique and groundbreaking innovation expressly designed to develop connections between European citizens and the often seemingly alien EU institutions. The new yellow and orange card system enables one third of national Parliaments, via the scrutiny Committees in the UK, to object to an EU proposal if they feel that it breaches the principle of subsidiarity, requiring the Commission either to reconsider the proposal or to force the Council and the European Parliament to come to a decision whether to scrap the proposal or to amend it. Also, the new emergency brake clauses in the treaty enable any single national Parliament to block a proposal if it considers the proposal in question to breach or contravene a fundamental component of the legal framework, such as criminal justice.
The Bill can in part be seen as a logical extension of the work of the Lisbon treaty in reconnecting the public and Parliament to EU decisions and its institutions, but our sincere hope and intention in supporting the Bill is that it will finally help to restore some sanity and pragmatism to the debate in UK politics about the EU and EU proposals. There is an extremely poor level of debate in the UK about the EU and the Bill should help to improve that. With a more transparent approach to our membership of the EU, some of the clouds of Eurosceptic mythology might begin to lift. For instance, the use of passerelle clauses will trigger Acts of Parliament and that will mean a rare and welcome opportunity to have an informed domestic debate about substantive EU proposals, giving Members of both Houses the chance to discuss the respective pros and cons of a particular EU measure for the UK.
For example, should the Bill become law, one passerelle that would trigger primary legislation would be that on establishing an efficient and fully functioning EU patent system. A proper patent system has been at the top of UK businesses’, innovators’ and scientists’ wish lists for decades and we believe that it is fundamentally in the interests of the UK. We look forward to discussing that groundbreaking proposal in more detail if and when primary legislation is introduced in the near future as a result of the Bill. Such issues will be discussed more often in this House and the voices of reason in this place will be forced to go on the front foot and to sell the benefits of EU membership and integration to the British public.
The Government have chosen to engage positively with Europe and to tackle the largest single block that leads to discontent about the EU among the British public, which is the sense that decisions taken at EU level are remote, unaccountable and beyond our control. Liberal Democrats believe that the UK’s national interests have been and will continue to be served best by our membership of the European Union. The major challenges that face us cannot be solved by UK action alone. They often require international action through the European Union. Our relationship with the EU, however, from the point of view of the media and much of the public, is pretty poisonous. For a sane Government who seek to advance Britain’s best interests, this is a hugely challenging position. Surely the challenge is too big for legislation alone to fix it.
There is a growing fear that unless something radical is done, the views of the British public and the politicians on the EU will continue slowly to drift on a tide of Eurosceptic media stories to a point at which this country will ultimately leave the EU altogether. I know that many of my colleagues on the Government Benches would favour that, but in my view it would be an absolute disaster for the United Kingdom. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what other plans the Government have beyond our Bill, in line with their commitment to play a strong, positive and active role in the EU, to start a new dialogue with the British public calmly and rationally to explain and sell the benefits of EU membership.
There are many questions to answer, but the Bill’s crucial task is to democratise and make transparent and trustworthy all our dealings with the European Union and to do so in a way that is pragmatic and positive for our immensely valuable relationships with our EU partners. For what it is worth, I think the coalition has succeeded in meeting those challenges and I look forward to continuing this formalised outbreak of accountability and reason towards our membership of the European Union.
It is a great delight to follow the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who is a man of great integrity. I am sure that his integrity will see him through all the way to Thursday afternoon. He is absolutely right to say it is essential to British interests that we play a key role in the European Union, but the Bill will do nothing to assuage Euroscepticism; if anything, it is intended to enhance and inflame it. He said that the Bill is a coalition product as though that places some kind of trade mark on it. I look forward to the trade mark being planted on all coalition products, as it would automatically bring them into disrepute with most Conservative Members.
The hon. Gentleman referred to our having locked ourselves in the boot of a car with regard to Europe in recent years. It is very difficult to lock oneself in the boot of a car, but I think the Liberal Democrats feel a little as though they have managed to do that at the moment—or at least that they are being locked in the boot by the Deputy Prime Minister in relation to other Government measures.
I shall let the House into a very small secret: I am slightly pro-European. Indeed, I am almost ludicrously pro-European for the very strong reason that in my lifetime Europe has embraced countries that have lived under dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, Greece and across the whole eastern bloc. In those countries, there was no right to freedom of association or freedom of speech, the death penalty was used ubiquitously and there was political repression. In future, we will all recognise that one of the European Union’s greatest successes is the fact that in all those countries there has been an aspiration for political freedom largely because of the EU’s success.
I do not think Margaret Thatcher had anything to do with the advance of freedom in Spain, Portugal or Greece. Mrs Thatcher achieved many things—in the Rhondda we are certainly aware of, and resent, many of them—but the hon. Gentleman cannot claim that the advance of freedom was because of her, except that she was pro-European; in that regard, she did do something in the interests of the whole of Europe.
My problem with the Bill is that it does not do what it says on the tin. It is not an effective referendum lock, which was the promise. Two or three hon. Members have already made the point, in questioning the Foreign Secretary, that the House has perfect freedom to amend these measures in future, so if a Minister wanted to advance legislation implementing some change in the relationship between the United Kingdom and the EU, and if they thought it would offend against the measures in this Bill, they would have only to add a clause saying that the measures in this Bill did not apply. Of course they would have to take that change through both Houses, so there is an element of a brake, but the Bill is in no sense a substantial referendum lock.
It is true that every piece of legislation can be repealed or sidestepped, and there may be a political cost in doing so. In a few weeks’ time, when a number of extra peers have been added, the Government will have a majority not only in this House but, uniquely since the second world war, in the other House as well, so there will be a further slowing down. The Bill provides not a lock but a brake—that is all. It does not do what hon. Members want, which is to draw a line regarding all further innovations in the relationship between the UK and the EU.
The Bill will not deal with the real problem. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) and my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) are right that my views on the EU are those of a minority. I know that partly because my father sends me an e-mail every Sunday to remind me of that fact and also to remind me that he moved to Alderney primarily so that he does not have to abide by any EU laws. He also regurgitates vast quantities of things that I hear regularly from hon. Members. I think it is a great embarrassment to him that I was not only the Minister for Europe but the Labour Minister for Europe.
The problem in Europe with those whom others have referred to as the elite and with ordinary members of the public is that there are real difficulties in advancing the European cause because there is no single European demos or political opinion. The waves of views crash upon the electoral shores in different parts of the EU at different times and it is very rare for two meetings in a row of the General Affairs and External Relations Council to include the same set of Ministers. Consequently, it is a phenomenal triumph to achieve any European co-ordination.
Some of the EU’s founding principles—indeed, the economic ones—are very powerful, such as the right to freedom of movement and to work anywhere in the EU. In the UK, Labour brought in civil partnerships—I have benefited from those changes this year—and other EU countries have introduced other ways of recognising same-sex unions. Many of us believe there ought to be a system for recognising those unions in every other country in Europe; otherwise there will clearly be discrimination against people whose partnership cannot be recognised for the purposes of taxation, benefits and the right to freedom of movement around the EU. I do not want Europe to decide the law on marriage in any European country, but I do want it to be able to enforce the basic principle of freedom of movement, and that will require a shift so that civil partnerships in this country, or same-sex marriages in Spain, can be recognised in every other country. Otherwise, married same-sex Spanish couples who move to France will have to divorce and form a new civil partnership there. The seeds that have been sown in the underlying principles of the EU will not go away. The British people who live in Spain and demand that Europe should act on property rights in Spain are arguing for an extension of the EU’s powers although many of them are profoundly Eurosceptic.
I am not a fan of referendums, because I believe in representative democracy. I believe that we are elected to come here and that the sovereignty of Parliament is the important principle on which we should act.
I have not been in favour of referendums at all and I have made this argument for many years. I was opposed to the suggestion that there should be one on the constitutional treaty and I said so in the House, for which The Sun and various other newspapers condemned me extensively. On the whole, I am not in favour of referendums, but there are times when the political class decides to navigate around Parliament and find some other means of implementing things. I think we were right to insist, after the second world war when we effectively rewrote the German constitution, that Germany should not be able to hold plebiscites because unfortunate circumstances can sometimes arise.
I am not a fan of referendums. Particularly in relation to treaty-making, they are unfortunate because they make it far more difficult for a Government to have the freedom to negotiate that they need. Of course there must be proper parliamentary scrutiny of that process. Notwithstanding the splendid work of the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), I think the House still does European scrutiny very poorly because far too few Members want to take an active, engaged role in that process, much of which comes not from the Foreign Office but from every other Department of Government. It does not give a Government a strong hand to insist that there will regularly be referendums.
I believe the Government want to be able to repatriate some powers from the European Union to the United Kingdom. The process outlined in the Bill makes it almost impossible for them to be able to do so in the next five years. Other Governments will say, “You’ve already said you’re not going to have any treaties because you reckon that you won’t get a yes vote for any referendum.” That is why the Bill binds the hands of the Government.
On clause 18, the sovereignty clause, the European Scrutiny Committee has done a good job. It is right that, as the Committee points out, the clause adds nothing to the present situation. Lord Justice Laws, in the Thoburn case in 2002, was right when he said that
“there is nothing in the ECA”—
the European Communities Act—
“which allows the Court of Justice, or any other institutions of the EU, to touch or qualify the conditions of Parliament’s legislative supremacy in the United Kingdom. Not because the legislature chose not to allow it; because by our law it could not allow it. That being so, the legislative and judicial institutions of the EU cannot intrude upon those conditions. The British Parliament has not the authority to authorise any such thing. Being sovereign, it cannot abandon its sovereignty.”
Lord Justice Laws was absolutely right. That is why the clause is dangerous. It applies only to European law, but large numbers of the elements that affect our relationship with the EU are laws that come from other parts of Government. That is why in his evidence Professor Tomkins was right to urge the House of Commons not to proceed in this way in the Bill.
The whole Bill is, in the words of Shakespeare, “zed”, an “unnecessary letter”. It misses the need that exists out there to engage positively with Europe.
People have fought and died over many centuries over the need to affirm parliamentary sovereignty—in the civil war and at the time of the defeat of the Stuarts in the 17th century, when the Stuarts’ absolute sovereignty was literally killed off. Since the advent of modern democracy in 1867, people have fought and died in two world wars to preserve the right to govern themselves through their own Parliament by freedom of choice in the ballot box.
The European Union claims sovereignty over our democratic Parliament, and this mouse of a Bill does little to preserve it. Given the present European crisis with the euro, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) so accurately pointed out, and given the failure of economic governance in which we are absorbed and the coalition Government’s continuing acquiescence in European integration and their refusal to repatriate powers, the Bill does little or nothing to improve the situation.
The European Scrutiny Committee reported last night, to an eerie silence from the BBC, and as we clearly indicated, the Committee’s report is essential reading for those who really want to know what is going on. There are grave objections to the principle, the methodology, the distorting and misleading explanatory notes that accompany the Bill, and clause 18 itself. Clause 18 is a judicial Trojan horse leaping out of Pandora’s box. It is not, as the Foreign Secretary claimed, an enlightened act of national self-interest.
Parliamentary sovereignty is not built on a common law principle, as the Government claim. It is built on the sturdy foundations of the freedom of choice of the voters of this country, and not the whimsy or the Euro-integrationism of some Supreme Court judges. They increasingly claim that they are upholding the rule of law, but I have to ask which rule and whose law.
Shortly before he died last year, Lord Bingham, the late Lord Chief Justice, in his book “The Rule of Law” took on three fellow members of the Supreme Court who had previously adjudicated on the Jackson case with him in the House of Lords a few years ago as to their views on parliamentary sovereignty, as set out in our report. This is an extremely unusual situation and was greatly merited. I do not impugn their motives, but I criticise their judgment.
Only a couple of months ago, Professor Drewry of London university stated in a lecture that
“one can perhaps detect in the recent pattern of House of Lords and Supreme Court decisions, an appetite on the part of the Justices—encouraged by some continuing developments in EU and human rights law—to begin to get to grips with constitutional issues that previous generations of judges would have regarded as completely off limits.”
In this context, judicial activism is on the march. It has been there for a long time and it is increasing its tempo. The judges are not toying with all this, as was suggested by one witness. I suggest that Members read not only our report, but the articles, many of them written by these judges, and the speeches, for example, of Lord Steyn and Lord Hope, and many others that are quoted in our report.
The Bill, as Professor Adam Tomkins said in evidence, and as I mentioned in an intervention on the Foreign Secretary, is an invitation to litigation and, I would say, deliberately so. It has been left in a dead letter box in the precincts of the Supreme Court across Parliament square.
Clause 18 is not a proper sovereignty clause, when it could have been what was promised in our manifesto. Last night the Minister for Europe said that the Bill
“delivers on what was in the coalition programme simply as an agreement to consider the case for a sovereignty Bill”,
and that the Bill—that is, a sovereignty Bill—
“is being introduced by the means of clause 18”.
I am bound to say that it is not that at all. It is even dangerous.
As the hon. Gentleman says, this is a mouse of a Bill. Does he agree that what we need is genuine reform of the European Union so that it delivers what it should be concentrating on, and that sovereignty should remain in Parliament and not be passed across to shyster lawyers arguing the case in the Supreme Court?
I strongly agree with that sentiment. Indeed, I go further and say that I have always argued for an association of nation states based primarily on trading and political co-operation. Above all else, we must ensure that we make those decisions in the House on behalf of the electorate. Where we find it impossible to make those decisions, it is increasingly argued that it should be done by referendum, when we abdicate the power in the House to the people as a whole.
Clause 18 defies the sovereignty clauses on which the shadow Cabinet, the Whips and Back Benchers voted on several occasions before the general election, using my “notwithstanding” formula. Our report, based on clear evidence from constitutional experts, upholds both the principle and the wording of the “notwithstanding” formula, which I proposed in amendments to the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill when we were in opposition. The Whips even asked me to put in their own tellers. As I said to the Minister for Europe last night, he too voted for those provisions. Why not now, therefore, and in the Bill?
We have no hope of resolving the effect and implications of the European crisis on our country, or of reducing by deregulation the impact of European laws on our businesses, including our small businesses, and our deficit, if we do not remove the overall burden of the 50% of economic regulation now on our own statute book, according the House of Commons Library on 13 October.
Is not the real question, which those on the Government Front Bench must answer, why they will not put a declaratory clause, notwithstanding the European Communities Act, into the Bill. Are they saying that that itself would put us in breach of the European treaties? I submit that it would not. Should not they accept that by putting a “notwithstanding” clause into clause 18, they would, notwithstanding the European Communities Act, be reaffirming the supremacy of the House, which is long overdue?
I agree, and the evidence that we received indicates that the courts would have to accept that..
We are a parliamentary democracy, not a judicial autocracy. The common law principle, wrongly asserted as the basis for parliamentary sovereignty by the Government in their explanatory notes, gives the courts the interpretative means to walk through the gateway of our constitutional law into their application of EU law, including even the assertions of the European Court of Justice over our own Parliament and our own constitution, as well as our own laws.
Our report repudiates the means whereby the courts could gain, and some of them want to be the ultimate authority in the land. We were against Lisbon and for a referendum as a party. We can veto any treaty in future if we wish to do so, so why not do so? The Bill makes no provision for our current predicament, and provides only relative safeguards for the future, subject to the baleful influence of a Minister’s decision as to whether a referendum would be required or not. One issue has been described by our witnesses as both dangerous and unnecessary, namely clause 18 in the context of the Bill as a whole.
This debate is about trust—the trust that the British people for centuries have granted to their elected representatives to do what is right by them and uphold the democracy for which people fought and died. The Bill betrays that trust by doing nothing to unwind the effects of failed European integration and its impact on us, and does little or nothing to provide security for the future as Europe flounders around in ever-decreasing circles and chaos.
The Bill is an opportunity missed to stop the acquiescence in the failed European integration at every turn, as I put it to the Prime Minister a few days ago. It is also a missed opportunity to reaffirm our parliamentary sovereignty with a proper sovereignty clause. The Bill is a missed opportunity and I shall not vote for it.
The hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) referred to clause 18 as a judicial Trojan horse. I would like to refer to the Bill as a whole as a pantomime horse. It is clear from what the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said that there must have been some very interesting discussions within the coalition about exactly what would be put into the Bill and quite how it would be justified. I do not know what discussions went into the explanatory notes, but it would have been interesting to have been a fly on the wall, particularly looking through the references to the justifications for the list of items in schedule 1. The notes state:
“provides that any proposal to remove the UK’s veto over the use of any of the Treaty Articles listed in Schedule 1 would require a referendum.”
The reality is that many of the issues that are being proposed as requiring a referendum are not massively significant. As the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) pointed out, the real issue for many Back Benchers—mostly on the Conservative Benches, although I accept that there are one or two on the Labour Benches too, but not—me is a referendum on the issue of in or out of the European Union.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), I have also been very much an opponent of the idea of referendums. I would agree with former Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher, when she quoted the former Deputy Prime Minister and then Prime Minister Clement Attlee as saying that referendums were the devices of demagogues and dictators. There is a large element of truth in that. We must be careful if we start to move away from parliamentary sovereignty and democracy towards a referendum-based society. If we are not careful, we could end up like Italy, and the way in which Italian politics have developed over recent decades is not a model that we should follow.
I want to say clearly that there is a range of reasons why the Bill should be opposed, but one of the most important is that it does not address the real issues that face the European Union. We should be having a debate about the rise of Asia; about how the EU is effective globally; about how the External Action Service can get the resources and the competent people to be able to play a role in avoiding conflicts and tensions and building peace around the world, as well as its diplomatic role. But we are not doing that.
We will not have, as has been pointed out from the Front Bench, the pre-European Council debate that we have always had on the Floor of the House, because the Government, for their own internal reasons, have deemed it something that they do not wish to have, and today becomes a very poor substitute.
May I remind the hon. Gentleman that since the adoption of the proposals in the Wright report, responsibility for arranging those debates on the European Union has passed from the Government to the Backbench Business Committee? It is for that Committee to make that provision from the 31 days available to it.
The Government are hiding behind the words in the Wright Committee’s report. The reality is that if the Government wished to, and they thought that it was sufficiently important, we could have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House, as we have always done, on the matters to be discussed in 10 days’ time at the European Council meeting, which comes at a crucial time for the future of this country and the EU. The issues range from the crises in Greece and Ireland, to climate change and the Cancun meeting, and what is happening with regard to China and its role in the world. Not least is what will happen over the coming decades with regard to migration policy and the impact that global changes will have on the people of north Africa and elsewhere who might wish to migrate to the EU. Those are the issues that we should be discussing.
We have had a lot of comments recently about Russia, although I will not depart from the subject of debate today. Frankly, the relationship between the EU and Russia is a complete shambles. There is no agreed approach on energy policy or on how we deal with human rights abuses and the suppression of democratic opposition in Russia. Why do we not have a debate about the role of the EU there? These are the vital questions, but instead of discussing them we are hiding behind the minutiae of a proposal, which if it is implemented will, as the hon. Member for Stone pointed out, put power not in the hands of a sovereign Parliament and Members of Parliament—elected representatives—but more and more in the hands of the judges and the judicial authorities, who will increasingly interfere in a political way. They will make the decisions about what matters are to be decided, not the elected people who represent the people of this country.
That is a fundamental matter, yet the Government are slipping this measure through, so that, with all the proposals in schedule 1, clause 18 and elsewhere, we will end up with the judicial system, not the political system, determining how this country is run. That is a fundamental decision—a fundamental matter—yet it has been slipped into the Bill as though it were a safeguard against the European Union taking away sovereignty. Actually, the proposal gives more power to the judges and to the legal system to take away parliamentary sovereignty. That is nothing to do with the European Union; Ministers themselves have determined those matters.
Listening to the debate so far, I think that we might need a referendum to decide whether we need a referendum. As we are looking at the role of the judiciary and its capacity to make decisions, however, does that not underline the sovereignty of this country? Our judiciary makes those decisions.
I am not so sure that I want our judges making political decisions. Political decisions should be made by elected politicians, because after all we can be removed and our electors can throw us out. The judges cannot be elected, unless the hon. Gentleman wants us to adopt—God help us—the American system, and we should not do that.
The Minister, in his recent written statement, said:
“The common law is already clear…Parliament is sovereign.”—[Official Report, 11 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 4WS.]
He went on to say that the Bill’s provisions do not alter the existing relationship of EU law and UK law. In which case, why do we need the Bill? If Parliament is sovereign, as he states, why have the Government come up with the proposals before us? The Bill is a fig leaf. It is a political tactic to give the impression that the Government are fulfilling the Conservatives’ obligation, in their manifesto commitment, to their Eurosceptics on a possible referendum—but not on the issue on which the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex wishes to have a referendum; it is to be on other issues.
The Bill is an absurdity. It is a bad Bill, which leaves open the potential for legal challenges and judicial reviews, takes away power from Parliament and gives it to the judiciary, and does not change the relationship, as the Minister says, between existing UK law and the European Union. Therefore, why do we need it? It is a disgrace, and it should be rejected.
I do not always agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), but when he describes this as a mouse of a Bill he is rather closer to the truth than the rhetoric of the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who slightly overstates the dangers that are attached to it.
I speak in support of the Bill. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), I am a pro-European, although, when I listen to the enthusiasts make the case for our membership of the European Union, I quite often conclude that the case is made in rather more apocalyptic terms than those that I would choose. We heard a good example of that from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who seemed to claim credit for the European Union in the collapse of the Soviet bloc and in the outbreak of democracy in Spain, Portugal and Greece. No doubt he would attribute to it the green revolution in Ukraine—
Orange. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right. We regard all those developments as steps in the right direction, but, although there is a chain of causality back to the European Union, it is a relatively modest one.
I shall try to make the case for the Bill, which should be supported, in considerably more modest—one might even say, more sceptical—terms, because people who claim for themselves the title of sceptic in the European debate often desert the basic principle of scepticism, which is to stand back from the argument and seek to assess it more coolly than sometimes is the case.
I have drawn attention to the argument from the hon. Member for Rhondda in support of the EU and our membership of it, but those who argue the case against it, and increasingly explicitly argue that we should leave it, tend to express the argument in terms of irreversible shifts of power and use the word “permanent”.
I again am a sceptic, however, because history teaches us that no human institution is permanent and there are no irreversible shifts of power. There is only a tide of human events, and the case for the European Union, which I am happy and, indeed, keen to make, is the pragmatic case whereby, in the world of 2010, the European Union, which is a dramatically different institution from that set up by the treaty of Rome in 1958, should be supported not because it is perfect, when it plainly is not, but because it serves a purpose. Imperfect as the EU is, it is part of the arrangements for the governance of Europe, and on balance it contributes more good than it inflicts harm. In human affairs, that seems to me justification enough for the institution to continue to exist.
It is often said of the European Union that there is no European demos. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary used to make that case when he argued for a more sceptical approach to the development of European institutions. It has become increasingly obvious that there is no such thing as a European demos, but the EU, as it has evolved since 1958 and partly because it now has so many more members, is increasingly obviously an intergovernmental organisation, which most people in the House and, indeed, among our constituents accept as a fact of life, not something that should be particularly resisted.
They may have ambitions, and people within those organisations plainly do have ambitions, but that is exactly what the Bill seeks to address. It introduces not an irreversible, immovable, permanent safeguard that can never be overcome, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) said, a further inhibition on the development of competence within the European Union, which I would have thought my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) welcomed. Again, it is a modest step. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone dismissed it as a mouse of a Bill, but even if it is a mouse it can be a mouse on the right side of the scales, and that seems to be the case for it.
The Bill is right in principle and in practice. It is right in principle, because I do not agree with the arguments against referendums in principle when the question at stake is how the country is run. I agree with one of the points that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) made, when he said that part of the problem in terms of public acceptance of the European case is the perception—indeed, the reality—that competence has passed to the EU without the scrutiny that our constituents want to see. That is a correct statement of historical fact, so, in order to rebalance the argument, it is a step in the right direction and a correct principle that any further accretion of power to the European institutions should be subject to a referendum block, the terms of which are set out in the Bill. The hon. Member for Ilford South argued that a Bill introduces the opportunity for judges to interpret it—well, yes; that is the nature of an Act of Parliament. If we pass an Act of Parliament, that creates a statute, which is interpreted in the courts. There are no Acts of Parliament of which that is not true.
Against the background of what has happened in the European argument over 40 years, the Bill introduces the correct principle that further accretion of competence to the European institutions should be subject to a referendum. That is right in principle. I also think that it is right in practice, for the important reason that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out in his speech and which was impliedly accepted in the speeches made by both the shadow Foreign Secretary and, ironically, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham. What matters in the European argument now is the use of these competences and how this increasingly intergovernmental organisation reacts to the pressures of events.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham pressed the point that there are some fundamental threats to our economic development, tied up in particular in the current pressures on the euro. I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend about the dangers that arise as a result of those developments. The case that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was making for the Bill is that it is a modest step to disarm the constitutional argument about how we are run, in order to focus the debate on where it properly needs to be—on how those competences are used by the European institutions and how that impacts on our way of life.
My right hon. Friend is making an eloquent speech. May I take him to the question of intergovernmentalism? Is that not precisely what we were told was happening at the time of the Maastricht treaty, with the construction of the pillars, which were supposed to reserve certain competences and areas of responsibility for the intergovernmental method? Since then, has not the European Union deliberately knocked down the pillars and brought those areas of intergovernmentalism into the main European treaty, which relates to the functioning of the European Union, and that in no way can be described as an intergovernmental body?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. Like him, I would have much preferred it if the Lisbon treaty had not been introduced, so that the pillars of intergovernmentalism in the Maastricht treaty were protected. But that does not alter the fact that if we attend a Council of Ministers meeting in Europe to exercise the competences of the European Union, the process of discussion about how the power is used by the Council of Ministers, particularly in a world of 27 member states, has the feel of a negotiation between member states of an organisation. It is a negotiation between member states.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex is right to say that there is a strong power of initiative in the European institutions. Like him, I do not want any further competence to be passed to them. My case for the Bill is that it reduces the risk of that process happening again; it does not make it impossible, but it reduces the risk. I hope that it will make a modest step towards rebuilding public trust in the framework of the European argument and therefore refocus that argument on where it properly needs to be—on how those competences are used, rather than on yet more discussion about the further extension of “the European project”.
We have had a menagerie-type debate: Pandora’s boxes have been opening, Trojan horses have been jumping out of them and there have been mice of different sizes to contemplate. But there is a broad division—between Labour Members, along with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), and most of the speakers on the Government Benches. They have a rather Hobbesian view of Europe, in which there is an undeclared war of all against all.
I take the view that Immanuel Kant—or, as it should be pronounced properly in German, “Immanuel Kunt”—put forward in his perpetual peace argument. He argued that Europe needs a construct of rule of law, a Lockean Europe, in which we can live together in perpetual peace, as he thought. It has taken perhaps 200 years to get that far, but that is my version of Europe rather than the permanently negative one where it is Britain contra mundum, about which we hear so much from the Government Benches.
Perhaps I shall leave the reply to my old friend, Jim Naughtie.
We have also seen again today what surely must be an iron law of British politics—people can campaign in opposition as Eurosceptics, but they have to govern as Euro-realists. The outbreak of Euro-realism in the coalition Government was not brought about simply by the presence of the Liberal Democrats; it has happened because no Government of Britain could remotely sustain themselves in a relationship—not just to their European partners, but to partners around the world—on the basis of the hyped-up rhetoric that we heard from the Foreign Secretary when he was shadow Foreign Secretary. From that most powerful and amusing orator of the current Commons, we heard a very workaday speech. My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary made a powerful and witty speech that reminded me of the late John Smith. But there we are—I have described what happens when people become Foreign Secretary. Realism has to break in.
I do not want to enter into a duologue with my hon. Friend about the euro, although I expect that it will be around a little longer than its gravediggers may imagine or hope. If we are to revert to that Hobbesian world in which every currency fights against every other, devaluing and insisting that products be traded on a different basis every month or every week, there will be no swifter invitation to the setting up of protectionist barriers such as existed before the Common Market, the European Community and the European Union.
We have only a short time. My hon. Friend will have time to make his own speech.
The Foreign Secretary’s speech was to please the party faithful, as will be the one we hear during the wind-ups. The fact that it so singularly failed to do so was reflected in the speeches made by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) and the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash); perhaps we will hear that from other speakers, too, if they catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. One cannot please the Daily Mail and represent Britain faithfully and effectively.
I read through the Bill fairly carefully, as I hope we all have. It is not so much a mouse, as a mouse without definition. The key adjective—and I am nervous of legislation that is built around an adjective rather than a substantive—appears in clause 5, under which a Minister has to come to the House and say, “I think there should be a referendum because in my judgment there is a ‘significant’ transfer of powers.” But “significant” is not defined; it will be in the eye of the beholder.
I am not sure whether that will lead to references to the courts. I hope not. I see before my eyes the gradual atrophying of Parliament, as judges decide bitterly fought election campaigns. Libellous and defamatory remarks have certainly been made about me in election campaigns that I would not dream for one second of taking to the judges, who can now set aside the sovereignty of the British people and say that an election is null and void. More generally, judges want to have a much greater say in our parliamentary democracy. I will not use the Pandora’s box metaphor, but the Bill opens the door to a lot more of that.
The extraordinary shopping list in the Bill also worries me. The Library document refers to 57 items that must trigger a referendum, but I think that the list contains 56 items. Schedule 1 states that any change that involves an
“approximation of national laws affecting internal market”
must trigger a referendum. As Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher did nothing of greater service to this nation than to bring in the Single European Act, which led to the greatest approximation of national laws affecting a market of many different nation states in the history of humankind. I utterly welcome that. We need more approximation and more open markets.
It would be good to have a single patent system, but if 26 other European countries followed our route, any approximation of the internal market, such as a single patent system, could involve a referendum in Estonia, Poland or Hungary, which would begin to roll back that single market. What is sauce for the British gander will be sauce for 26 other member states’ geese. Those member states will take the message from the Government and from this House of Commons today—sorry, I am about to use the animal metaphors that I decried at the beginning of my speech—that because this wretched little dormouse or shrew of a Bill will be passed tonight, Britain is turning its back on them.
Oddly enough, the Government are not completely doing that. I was always told the adage that money is power and power is money. We are blithely giving away £7 billion of taxpayers’ money to help Ireland out of its hole without having any serious debate or discussion. This is a profoundly important point. It is not good enough for the Leader of the House on Thursday mornings or the Minister for Europe, the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), whom I like and respect, to say it is up to the Backbench Business Committee to decide whether to have a debate on Europe. It is of profound importance to the House of Commons that we have a thorough debate on Europe twice a year.
Tomorrow, there will be an EU-Russia summit. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) has raised profound points about Khodorkovsky, human rights, Sergei Magnitsky and other appalling cases of the treatment of people inside Russia. In addition, we have huge worries about relations with Turkey. I am a supporter of Turkish accession. What a preposterous notion it is that the accession of Turkey, which is comprised of 80 million people from completely different backgrounds, should not be submitted to a referendum, but the question of whether there will be an extra advocate-general or judge-advocate should be submitted to one. This is absolutely ridiculous and the British people—and I am afraid the people who hate democracy, such as those in the British National party and the UK Independence party—will mock us because of the issue of Turkish accession. Yes, the Foreign Secretary may say that it is some way off, but it will dismay a great number of people that we are legislating for eternal referendums on minor issues, but not on Turkish accession.
I will put my cards on the table. The Foreign Secretary said wrongly that Germany has similar provisions in its law. It does not. The German constitution was devised not by us but by the German people and it expressly forbids plebiscites for good, clear, historic reasons. Yes, there is a German constitutional court, but that is because it has a written constitution. Perhaps that is a road we need to walk down.
I hope that the Bill is opposed, because it weakens Parliament and Europe. It sends a message that, under this Government, the commitment, concern and leadership that Europe is so desperately lacking will not come from the present crop of Ministers. That is a shame. Europe needs leadership because it is going through a crisis, and the absence of that leadership from this Government is to be deplored.
How interesting that the poor old mouse has taken such a lot of stick tonight. Several hon. Members have used the expression “mouse of a Bill.” It is a mouse that the EU cat will play with, mutilate and consume. I have heard the words, “judicial reviews,” “written constitution,” “competences,” “vetoes,” “referendums,” “advocate-generals,” and “ratchets.” That is the language of the bureaucrat. The bureaucrat loves this. Such legislation employs the bureaucrat and gives them lots of money on the gravy train in Europe.
We want our country back. That is what we want. We do not want to say goodbye to Europe; we want to trade with Europe. I like Europe. I like the French, the Germans, the Italians; they have so much to offer us. However, we should not be ruled and regulated by Europe, particularly by the unelected Commission. If we want to be more committed to Europe in the sense that Labour Members wish—to be in Europe, to trade with Europe—it needs to become more democratically accountable. That is why, at first glance, the Bill ticks all the boxes. What could be more democratic than to ask our nation to vote on new EU initiatives? As my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) pointed out—his expression has been used twice tonight—the problem is that the legislation is all smoke and mirrors.
As we have heard, we are being asked to approve a Bill that includes a referendum lock and that sets out to ensure that no future transfer of power to Brussels will take place without the approval of people in this country. That is an admirable aim that we promised in our manifesto, when we undertook to repatriate powers from the EU. The Bill does not do that. Labour—most of you—betrayed this country. You promised us a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. You promised us—
I apologise. I am happy to retract that statement.
To our Government’s credit, they have attempted to prevent the ratchet clauses with the referendum lock. That is a seemingly elegant solution that, as I said, will give power back to the people. However, if we look at the Bill more closely, we will see that there is plenty of wriggle room. I, for one—there are obviously many others—am unhappy with that. The lock is entirely bogus. A referendum will be triggered only if Ministers believe what their civil servants tell them and agree that the subject is significant. If they do not consider it to be significant, there will be no referendum and the matter will become law.
In areas where primary legislation is required but that are not considered significant enough to put to the people, we are asked to take the matter on trust. We are asked to trust that our masters will ensure that no further powers are transferred away from the UK during the next Parliament. This would be easier to swallow had we not already allowed the EU to roll us on our backs on five occasions in the past six months. We have had the European External Action Service. What action—to take our money? We have had the European arrest warrant. I have a constituent, Michael Turner, who has been in jail in Hungary for 115 days with no charge. His crime, allegedly, is that he left creditors owing about £18,000 when his business closed in 2002. There has been an endless pursuit by the Hungarian authorities to find an offence with which to charge him and a colleague. The investigation was dropped because they could not find enough evidence to get him, and now they are mounting another one—but there is still no charge. Then we had EU regulation over the City, EU oversight over our national budgets agreed to, and finally, our contribution to the EU budget increased despite our objections. May I ask what happens when we really do roll over?
The truth is that not a single one of those transfers of power would have been halted as a result of the referendum lock proposed today. Nor are the accession agreements affected, so new countries joining can do so, as the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) said, without the EU asking our citizens. I can see why they would not be asked. We already have 27 countries in the EU and hundreds of thousands of people are able to move freely within it. That was practicable when the EU was a smaller organisation, but it is not practicable any more.
There are constitutional questions hanging over this legislation that have tested far greater legal minds than mine. Suffice it to say that one five-line passage—clause 18—does not enshrine our sovereignty adequately. Professor Adam Tomkins has said that the Bill
“goes out of its way to invite litigation”.
His main concern is that it does not establish which of the two competing legal systems now operating in this country has supremacy: English law or EU law. He says that taken to its conclusion, ministerial decisions could be challenged in the courts. We have seen enough of that already, with our courts and judges overruled by European judges.
Our independence was hard-won over hundreds of years, yet we are seeing it trickle away as we are increasingly subjugated by unaccountable, unelected bureaucrats. A torrent of legislation threatens to submerge our identity. No fewer than 3,000 new laws passed in this Parliament last year were related in some way to the EU, and you can bet that none of them would have triggered a referendum. We have been giving away our right to govern ourselves, and we must take it back. Toothless legislation that gives the impression of protecting our sovereignty while doing nothing of the sort will simply hide the rot a little longer.
When I was elected, many of my constituents made it clear that the power-grabbing EU was one of their primary concerns. I would be serving them badly if I were to pretend that this Bill would do anything concrete to protect the country they love. I will not be supporting the Bill.
I am enthusiastic about speaking on this Bill, because I would not want the views of Labour Members to be taken to be the extrusion of Euro-cant that has poured in from Rotherham and the Rhondda. The views of some Labour Members are much more in tune with what our voters think. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) has given us a clear indication of those views.
The problem is whether the Bill is worth supporting. It is a sad little Bill that should really be called the “Closing of the stable doors after every horse has bolted across the countryside” Bill. I am sure that the nation wants a referendum on this issue. It wants to be consulted and wants its say on Europe, but it has not been allowed it since 1975, when it was consulted on something totally different called the Common Market—a harmless, fun place that was going to make the weather better and make everybody happy. That is the last time that people were consulted, and they now want to be consulted on the shape of the current monster that is taking more and more powers.
This Bill does not provide for that consultation. The Conservatives told us in opposition, and I think in their manifesto too, although I do not have it here to check, that they were going to repatriate criminal justice and the laws on social and employment issues, but that has all gone. The stable is empty, for practical purposes, and I see the pathetic spectacle of the Foreign Secretary stood at the stable door after he has closed it singing “Will Ye No Come Back Again?” to the horses from Europe galloping all over the United Kingdom’s countryside.
The Liberal Democrats’ approach was even more comic. They promised us a referendum on the treaty and then suddenly became aware of the fact that it would be defeated if it were put to a referendum. They therefore changed what they were asking for from a referendum on the treaty, which they said was no longer a treaty, to a referendum on “in or out”, with which they thought they might stand a better chance. However, they knew that nobody would give them such a referendum; they were trying to get a referendum that was an impossibility.
I cannot be over-critical because my own party’s position was, at best, ambiguous. We said, “Yes, we shall have a referendum”, and then we said, “Well, this isn’t really a treaty—it’s something else.” Perhaps it was a German sausage or something; I am not quite sure what it was supposed to be. Anyway, we said, “It’s not a treaty worth having a referendum on; it’s something else, and therefore we won’t give you a referendum.”
This is a history of betrayal by all three parties, and we have to make good to the people, who want a referendum. There is a need for a referendum, but this Bill does not provide for it. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said, it will be a lawyer’s charter, and one that ignores much of what is going on in Europe. What is going on is the steady process of accretion of power, money and control over this country.
We should look at the increasing costs of Europe. The annual budget contribution is now £7 billion, and rising because of devaluation—it will rise to £10 billion fairly shortly. There is £2 billion for projects such as Galileo, which will build, at enormous expense, a satellite guidance system that the Americans already provide for free. There is £8 billion for the costs of the common agricultural policy, which comes from buying food on a dearer market when it is available more cheaply elsewhere. There is £2.8 billion for the costs of the common fisheries policy, with our fish being caught by foreign vessels and taken to Europe to provide jobs there. There is the cost of regulation, which has been calculated at £20 billion. Then we can add the cost of the monstrous machinery of the new foreign service, the European External Action Service, which will be more expensive than our own Foreign Office. All its ambassadors will have, at enormous cost that we are paying for, bullet-proof cars and bomb-proof embassies. If we add that lot together, we get to £40 billion—perhaps more. If we were not paying this Eurogeld every year, across the exchanges, we would not need the diet of cuts that the Chancellor and the Liberal Democrats are proposing for us.
My hon. Friend has omitted to mention—I know that he knows this to be true—that we have had slower growth in the European Union than we would have had had it not existed. We had faster growth when we had stable but separate currencies, and that led to the prosperity that we knew in the post-war era. Slower growth in the European Union, which has been compounded over many years, means that we are now less well-off than we would have been had there not been a European arrangement.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. We have suffered from slower growth, and now we have a 25% devaluation. We cannot generate the exports that we want because of the deflation in Europe that is necessary to heal the problems of the euro.
That brings me to the second problem that I want to deal with. Not only have the horses bolted from the stable, but it is on fire as the crisis of the euro continues. We warned Europe that it would not work and it has not worked. One exchange rate and one interest rate cannot cover the varied circumstances of Europe. A central Government is needed to redistribute to areas that suffer from the single currency and the single interest rate. Countries all have different rates of inflation. It is impossible for the weaker economies to get down to Germany’s low rate of inflation. The result is that their trade suffers, because they cannot get export prices down to a competitive level. Gaps have therefore emerged and those gaps have led to a crisis, and Europe’s way of dealing with that is to dole out more funds from a big bucket—a bucket to which we have contributed in the case of Ireland.
My hon. Friend is a critic of the European Union, and he is listing many differences that he would like to see in the European arrangements. Does he not think that changes that the British Government want and that are in the national interest might be harder to achieve if this legislation is passed here and is copied across the EU?
My argument is that the Bill does not help us to deal with, or give us a veto over, the problems of Europe as they are. Those problems are the real threat to this country. Let us say that we are doling out £100 billion to Greece and £100 billion to Ireland and if Spain is the next to collapse, the figure could be about £400 billion, so the whole fund of £750 billion could be gone in one fell swoop. Germany will not let that go on. At some point, the system must collapse.
The Bill has nothing to say on that process and the Government will not tell us what they are doing in the European negotiations. What is our point of view? Are we prepared to support that process and to commit money? The Bill will not give us a veto over any such commitments and the Government will not even tell us what those commitments are. That is a disastrous situation. There will have to be a big bail-out. This situation cannot be dealt with by Elastoplast, with a bit here and a bit there. It must be dealt with by a fundamental reorganisation of the euro. In my view, a default is the only way in which to save the situation.
The Bill does nothing about that issue and nothing about one of the other major issues facing Europe—the entry of Turkey. The Foreign Secretary said that that matter is excluded from the Bill, but it would be a fundamental change to Europe. We should think of the immigration problems—to say the least—that would occur if Turkey, which has a much bigger population than most existing member states, were allowed into the European Union.
That may be true, but the British Government want Turkey in. I am not unfavourable; I am just saying that its admission will be a fundamental change in Europe and that the Bill will not give the British people a say over any of these matters. [Interruption.] I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) is making a Gallic gesture or whether it is a sign for me to sit down and shut up.
On the contrary, I am completely in agreement with my hon. Friend, which is rare in a European debate. It is a preposterous Bill that does not include the question of Turkish accession. That is the fundamental change that will come about in the nature of the EU and in our relationship with it. I support Turkish accession, but not to put it in the Bill just shows what a—what is smaller than a shrew?—worm of a Bill we are debating tonight.
The mountains will labour and a ridiculous mouse has been born. That is certainly true. I am sorry that I mistook my right hon. Friend’s gesture—he is so European that I thought he was going, “Je m’en fous.” I gather that he was not.
I agree with my right hon. Friend’s point. The Bill does not give the British people a say; it gives them a tiny squeak, and on things in which they are not particularly interested. To give them a squeak is better than to give them nothing at all. I have to consider whether I shall support the Bill on that basis, which frankly I am loth to do. Is it worth the effort? I am certainly not enthusiastic about the Opposition amendment, which really says nothing at all. Faced with that dilemma and being somewhat jetlagged, the best solution that I can think of for tonight’s vote is to go home and read a little Keynes—I wish that the Chancellor had done the same.
I want to start simply by saying that I love Europe. I have countless brothers and sisters—I have lost track of how many—dotted throughout Europe, and probably many whom I have not yet met, for whom English is a second language. I therefore have to love Europe. There are even aspects of the European Union that in my view are very important. Without a doubt, some issues and problems are best addressed through co-operation, not least climate change and other environmental concerns, which ignore national borders. Addressing those problems has never required and does not require the creation of a pan-European superstate. There is no doubt that that is where we are heading. To take just one example, 80% of the business of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is now determined at EU level.
There are two key problems with that extraordinary shift. The first is that the EU has too many conflicting styles of government for it to work effectively. An exasperated former Environment Minister complained:
“In one Member State, everything is permitted unless it’s forbidden. In another Member State everything is forbidden unless it’s permitted. And in some Member States everything is permitted—especially if it’s forbidden”.
When I think of this country’s appalling habit of gold-plating even the most awkward and damaging regulations, I occasionally wish that we formed part of the latter group.
There is a much bigger problem. Of all the major changes that have occurred in Britain’s history, the EU project is surely among the most significant. We have seen major steps towards the formation of a single European Government, who now have more powers than our own. That has happened with virtually no consultation. I ask passionate supporters of the EU, those who are absolutely wedded to continued integration, what they will do if ever the EU moves in a direction that they no longer approve of. The answer is that because EU decision makers are, on the whole, thoroughly insulated from proper democratic pressure, there is very little that they will be able to do. That point is fundamental. The ability to rid ourselves of unpopular politicians and regimes is the single most important ingredient in any democracy. On that basis, the EU is simply not democratic. How many people in this country genuinely believe that the vote they cast in a European election will make the slightest bit of difference to how Europe is governed?
We have a brilliant new fisheries Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who is determined to reform the common fisheries policy. Like any normal person, he is appalled that nearly half the fish that we catch in the North sea are thrown back dead or dying as a result of nonsensical laws on quotas. How many hon. Members believe that he will be able to change those laws, even with the support of this House, when he negotiates them later this month?
It is no wonder that the percentage of British people who believe that our membership of the EU is a good thing has, according to recent surveys, fallen to just 31%. It is no wonder that we have seen the rejection of treaties by the French, the Dutch, the Danes and the Irish, all of whom were ignored disgracefully by their Governments and the European Union. It is no wonder that we have seen a continent-wide decline in turnout in the European parliamentary elections from 62% in 1979 to 43% last year.
It is not only time for a referendum lock on the further loss of sovereignty, but for a national debate about the repatriation of key powers to this country, followed by a referendum to legitimise those reforms. I believe that without radical reform of the European Union, that institution will not survive. Passionate supporters of the EU should embrace the need for reform, for without it, the institution that they support will not exist in the future. A referendum lock alone is not enough, and if we are honest, it is not even on the cards. The judgment as to whether a treaty or treaty change meets the criteria for triggering a referendum will rely on the subjective opinion of a Minister and it will be for the Government to adjudicate whether a change represents a transfer of power and a loss of sovereignty. Is that really an adequate safeguard?
Almost every successful candidate in the 2005 election was elected on a manifesto that promised a referendum on the EU constitution, but there never was such a referendum, as we have heard from a number of hon. Members. We were denied one because, when the constitution was re-edited, repackaged and re-presented following popular rejection, it was cynically declared by a Minister to be merely an anodyne tidying-up exercise. That was a ridiculous claim that was denied even by the authors of the constitution.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech, and I agree with an awful lot of what he has said. As a Member who was elected in 2005, it is that concept of anodyne tidying-up that worries the hell out of me in this Bill. It says that if something is only tidying-up, it does not need to come before Parliament. It was the tidying-up in the last treaty that the Conservative party objected to so much. I do not feel that I can support the Bill tonight. I hope that it will come back in a much better state on Third Reading, but I am not hopeful.
I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I wish to quote—excuse the pronunciation—Charles, Comte de Talleyrand, who once said of an unknown acquaintance:
“In order to avoid being called a flirt, she always yielded easily.”
By that logic no one can ever accuse Britain of being a flirt, because we have yielded at every single opportunity, as my hon. Friend has just reminded the House. I have just one question for the Minister. What guarantee—not assurance—can he provide that this Bill will prevent such a thing from ever happening again?
I have been quite dismayed by some of the contributions to the debate, from both Government Members and Opposition Members. It is well known that the Bill is supposed to be red meat for some of the Eurosceptics on the Conservative Benches, many of whom have wanted referendums in the past. I remember them asking for a referendum on the Nice treaty, then on the constitution and then on Lisbon.
Depends how much blood is on it, I think.
The modern Conservative party has become a surrogate for the old Referendum party. It is quite fortuitous that my speech was preceded by that of the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), the son of Sir James Goldsmith, who served with me in the European Parliament. I remember the damage that the Referendum party did to the Conservative party up and down the country, and it is interesting to see that Sir James’s son now sits on the Conservative Benches.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is very proud, and I am sure that Opposition Members are very proud to have him in their ranks, but unfortunately for them, the UK Independence party has taken the Referendum party’s place and is pushing the agenda even further to the right. It is even more vehemently anti-European than the Referendum party.
Why do my hon. Friend and other Members keep referring to Euro-realists and Eurosceptics who want to see a real debate and a referendum as somehow being on the right? Does he not accept that many members of the Labour party, many Labour MPs and many Labour-supporting people in the country think that what is going on in Europe is wrong?
I thank my hon. Friend, but in my opening remarks I referred to the opinions of some Members on my side of the House, and of course she is among them. I do not think that the mainstream of the Labour party is particularly against referendums. We offered a referendum on the euro should the five tests for entry into the single European currency have been met, and we offered a referendum on the European constitution, which, as Members know, was dropped because of the referendums in France and Holland. A new treaty came forward, for which we had committed to no referendum, which was why there was no referendum on the Lisbon treaty.
The Bill is not about democracy or a referendum. For many Conservative Members it is not about any future competences of the European Union; it is about getting out of the European Union altogether. I am sure that it was introduced to try to satisfy some of the Conservative Eurosceptics, but as we have seen from today’s debate, it goes nowhere near far enough to do that.
No, we failed to provide a referendum on the European constitution. As Members know, the constitution fell because of referendums in France and Holland. What came afterwards was a constitutional treaty, namely the Lisbon treaty, on which no referendum was ever promised.
No, I do not. The party view was that there should have been one had the constitution been put to the House, but it was not the constitution that came to the House; it was the Lisbon treaty. That is quite clear.
The referendums provided for in the Bill are not about voting on any specific competences that might go to the EU, they are cover for showing general dissatisfaction with the EU per se. They are the thin end of a very thick wedge, moving us towards withdrawal from the EU. The Bill is a sop to the Eurosceptics, in the same way as bringing the Conservatives out of the European People’s party in the European Parliament was a sop to them. The Government promised a Bill to protect sovereignty, but it does not do that. It does not change the position between this country and the EU at all.
Problems arise from the fact that this is a coalition Bill and the Liberal Democrats cannot be seen to have had no influence on it. It is noticeable that there are no Liberal Democrats in their places as I speak, whereas the Conservative and Labour Benches are quite well populated. They say that they are a more pro-European party, yet for some reason they are in with the Conservatives on this Bill and are looking more like a referendum party than a pro-European party. In Cheltenham last year, the Foreign Secretary talked about the Liberal Democrats being on a road to a united states of Europe, but it is clear from the Bill that they are on no such road.
The Conservatives do not want a sovereignty Bill, which is why the Bill has become a joke. Clause 18 does not protect sovereignty in the way that the Conservatives promised at the general election. All it does is protect the status quo, which I will discuss in more detail later. For what it is worth, the Bill is aimed at Ministers, although not Ministers of this Government, or presumably of a possible future Conservative Government. It is aimed at tying the hands of a future Government of some other political hue who may wish to accept that decisions made by an EU of at least 27 member states may be of benefit to the UK.
Irrespective of the merits of the changes to a treaty, a future Government would be forced to get legislation through both Houses of Parliament before putting it to the country as a whole in a referendum. The clear intention is that any further movement of powers to the EU is stamped on.
We already know that there are referendums to elect mayors, and that processes are being introduced for electing police commissioners. All that is happening while this country is undergoing an age of austerity and billions of pounds of cuts are to be introduced in the coming years. Incurring extra expenditure in the future on the useless referendums set out in the Bill would be ludicrous. A treaty change may make perfect sense even to a Conservative Government, but they would be forced to get legislation through both Houses and put the matter to the country.
In a fast-changing world, we need the EU to take coherent, decisive action, but the Bill will act as an impediment to, and create inertia in, decision making. The Bill should have been called the “EU Inertia Bill” or the “EU Foot-dragging Bill”—it is for Conservatives who have not forgiven the previous Conservative Government for the Maastricht treaty and those who still blame Ted Heath for Britain joining the European venture in the first place.
Before the election, the Prime Minister, who only last week described himself as the son of Thatcher, said:
“If I become PM a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations”,
but of the 1975 referendum on membership, Margaret Thatcher said that referendums
“sacrifice parliamentary sovereignty to political expediency”.
He is hardly the son of Thatcher, is he?
Let me get to the nub of the issue. Traditionally, the Conservative party is not just economically and socially conservative; it also seeks to conserve existing British institutions—the monarchy, the House of Lords, the rule of law, parliamentary sovereignty, MPs as representatives rather than delegates, and no written constitution. While in government, the party of Churchill, Thatcher, Macmillan and Baldwin has never offered the public a referendum. Given this Bill and the proposed alternative vote referendum, the Conservatives seem to offer referendums only on proposals that they want the public to reject.
Instead of simply stating general principles on offering referendums, the coalition has gone through the treaties line by line and set out a mish-mash of issues on which a referendum will be called, and gives a shorter list of issues on which one will not be called. That approach is not only unnecessarily complicated, but it gives the impression that the Government cannot be trusted to exercise their judgment on whether there should be a referendum on individual decisions and treaty changes.
Under the Bill, the extension of the ordinary procedure on environment policy will require a referendum, but as other hon. Members have said, the accession of Turkey to the EU will not. Which will have the greater impact on the UK? Angela Merkel’s proposals on the eurozone would not be subject to a referendum because the provisions do not apply to the UK. That assumes that because the UK is outside the eurozone, events within it do not affect the UK. We may not be signatories to the stability and growth pact, but the pact and the stability of the eurozone doubtless have an influence on the stability of the UK economy.
The Bill is bad law and dubious politics. It is an act of posturing by the coalition. The Government are trying to satisfy Eurosceptic Tory Back Benchers, but achieve neither of the objectives that they set out to achieve. The Lib Dems are a fig leaf to hide the Conservative’s embarrassment at Britain’s membership of the EU.
I disagree with most of what the hon. Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick) said. We have today heard a wide critique of the EU and of how we got to this situation, and I agree with most of it, including much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) said. I feel strongly that had we discussed referendums—or had we had passed such a Bill six, seven or eight years ago—we would not face the level of distrust in the country that we are facing because of the Lisbon treaty.
I very much support the Bill because it represents why I went to the people of South Thanet in May. I want to turn the tide away from rules and treaties being made on our behalf, and to ensure that the people have a say on what powers we concede to the EU. Like many Conservatives, I would have liked a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, but we were denied one. Many urged this Government to hold a referendum in any event, but that was impossible, because the deed had already been done with no reference to the British people.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his very kind words.
The Lisbon treaty was a real break in trust. Big constitutional changes need to go to the public. I used to be chairman of openDemocracy. I believe that we should trust the people and that we need to ensure that the people are part of the big, fundamental decisions. I disagree with many Opposition Members—
The distrust over the Lisbon treaty has created a total and utter determination to put the people and Parliament back in control of our sovereignty, and to ensure that the public and the various views in both Houses are listened to and considered.
The Bill sets three clear triggers that will create sovereignty locks that will introduce a clear mechanism for referendums, the need for legislation or parliamentary approval. My constituency has one of the largest UKIP votes in the country—2,500 voted to get out of Europe—so I am very conscious that we need to be robust on Europe and that any further transfer of powers needs to be questioned. The Bill convinces me of our control over transfers of power, which is important.
Let us consider what will happen under the Bill. If any Government decide to propose any further power or competency transfer to Brussels, they will have to hold a referendum. If a Government decide on a transfer of responsibility to Brussels, and if they state that that is not a transfer of power or competency, they will have to justify their decision to Parliament. They will need to show that there is no change in sovereignty, and that there is no diminishment of our domestic laws. If they prove that no power or competency is transferred, they will come up against the second lock—they will require an Act of Parliament. Many hon. Members have very strong views on the EU and sovereignty, but that lock gives all of us the opportunity to vote against the proposals or to amend them, including to put them to a referendum. We therefore have the ability to call Ministers to account, and to vote on or amend legislation.
That is crucial, but I am not sure that many hon. Members see the opportunities that the Bill gives us to question the judgment of the great Ministers of State. For me that is a significant statement that makes it clear how power will be used and our relationship with the EU forged. It is important in terms of both substance and message. Unlike some of my hon. Friends, I believe that the substance is that the people will be able to sanction the transfer of power. The message is that Brussels now knows that the brakes have been put on any further power grab.
I was unable to be in the Chamber for the first part of the debate because I was detained on House business elsewhere. I came in to listen to some fine speeches—and I have certainly heard some—but I did not plan to speak myself. However, I have been provoked once again into saying a few words.
As I have said time and again in the Chamber, the European Union is not Europe. They are two separate concepts, one of which is a continent of countries that I love very much. I would wish to go nowhere else. Europe is my home—it is where my history is and where my ancestors came from. We are a group of splendid nations with wonderful histories, and we have made great contributions to the world. In contrast, the EU is a recent invention, a political construct imposed on the peoples of Europe, and not always with their consent. In recent years, there has been a drift towards a majority opposing the EU—the regular Eurobarometer test shows sinking support for the EU. The EU is not Europe; it is a political construct with which I have always had strong disagreements.
The Labour party makes the point time and again that those who oppose or are critical of the EU are of the right, and those who support it are of the left. That is strange, because it was actually the Conservatives who led us into the EU and the majority of the Labour party who opposed it in the 1975 referendum. I was the agent for the no vote in Bedfordshire, and a Conservative Member for a Bedfordshire constituency was the agent for the yes vote. I reminded him of that when I met him recently—he has passed away now—and he was horribly embarrassed because he had changed his view. I have not changed mine.
The referendums held recently in European nations have been won by my standards—lost by the standards of the Euro-enthusiasts—by people of the left, including trade unionists and working class people who did not feel that this machine would be to their benefit. That was true in France despite the leadership of the French Socialist party balloting its membership to get a yes vote. In Holland, again, it was trade unionists and people of the left who voted no; it was people who thought that some of the rights they had achieved in the post-war democratic world might be taken away by the EU. In Sweden, too, there was a referendum on the euro, and again it was the left who opposed it, because they could see that being bolted to a single currency would remove the flexibility that all economies need from time to time to be able to adjust.
I am broadly in favour of stable currency regimes, although not a complete floating currency rate. We had one after the second world war, between 1945 and 1970-ish, and it worked: we had full employment, growth, rising prosperity and greater equality than we had ever seen, and welfare states developed all over Europe. Somehow, however, we gave it all away, and now we have gone for a neo-liberal, free market view of the world with which I completely disagree and which has brought us close to disaster in recent years. I think that the social democratic world of Europe after the second world war was a good world and one that worked. That is why I so strongly oppose most of what the EU is doing. It is trying consistently to take all that away and to create a world of competition and free markets with which I do not agree. It has brought us close to disaster.
My record on opposing the single currency goes back a long way. In 1979, I worked as a research officer for a then trade union called NALGO. I wrote a brief on the “snake”. Hon. Members with long memories will remember the “snake”—the European monetary system—and whether we should join it under Denis Healey. I wrote a brief to our general secretary saying, “This will be a disaster. It’s the first step on the way to a single currency and will do us no good.” Geoffrey Drain, our then general secretary, went to the TUC, taking my brief with him, and he argued strongly against joining the “snake”.
The TUC then went to Denis Healey and again argued strongly against joining the “snake”, and he agreed not to join it. I am not sure whether it was just down to me, but we all agreed anyway. Subsequently, however, we made the great mistake of joining the exchange rate mechanism, which did the Conservative party no good, I fear. Had it not joined it and had we not suffered the depression, the negative equity, the housing market collapse and the rise in interest rates in 1992, or had it not been ejected from or left the ERM, it might not have lost the 1997 general election. That was the cause of its loss, and many Conservatives rue the day they were persuaded to support joining the ERM.
I opposed the ERM before we joined. I wrote a paper saying what would happen, and I was proved right—I said that the money markets would speculate against it and that it would break. That proved to be correct. Since then, I have opposed a European single currency. I was a founder member, with several good comrades on the Labour Benches, of a group called first “Labour against the euro” and now “Labour for a European referendum”. They consisted of the same people, including my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), who made a fine speech today.
We now have the single currency, and the elephant in the room is the crisis in the eurozone. Members only have to read the Financial Times leader every day. I am not saying that the Financial Times is all-knowing and all-wise, but it is not yet convinced that the euro will survive. Indeed, sensible people are suggesting that we should be trying to find an orderly way to deconstruct the euro using these vast funds to do it in the most pain-free way possible. It might not be very pain-free, but at least it would be better than ploughing on into a massive crisis when things get out of control. Perhaps we need a controlled deconstruction of the euro for those countries that cannot sustain membership, and a new eurozone consisting of a smaller group of member states based around Germany, or indeed two or three different currencies for countries that can afford to work with each other.
Our former Prime Minister and Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), had the great wisdom to stay out of the euro in the late 1990s. I cheered him then because he was absolutely right, and has been proved to be right. Had we not been able to depreciate by 25% or so, we would now be in the same state as Ireland—but probably worse. Separate currencies are essential shock absorbers. They should not be used lightly. I do not agree with volatile exchange rates: we need stable ones, as we had after the war, with the possibility of depreciation from time to time, and indeed appreciation if a currency is undervalued. Germany’s currency, for example, was under-valued for a long time, which gave it a tremendous competitive advantage. The eurozone is the elephant in the room.
Sovereignty is important. I would like a stronger Bill than this one in which we can re-establish support for the democratic state and our own national sovereignty, not in a nationalistic way but because that is the basis of our democracy. I want the same degree of sovereignty for other nation states as well. I think that the nation state is the natural order of things, and trying to impose arrangements that bind nation states rigidly together will be fraught with problems and lead to disaster. I use this example time and again: Argentina effectively tried to join the dollar zone, and it almost destroyed its economy. In the end, it had to recreate the peso and devalue massively. Having been the strongest economy in south America, Argentina went through terrible times and still has not quite recovered. Single currencies imposed on different economies are always mistakes, and that is what has happened in the eurozone.
Edward Heath, when in opposition, sat near to where I now sit in the Chamber. He argued strongly against enlargement—I am not suggesting I agreed or disagreed with him—because he thought that countries that were too different would not be able co-operate within the EU.He wanted to stay in a smaller group of richer, western European nations. That is what Edward Heath was in favour of; he was not in favour of the much larger organisation that is now developing, involving countries with very different economies and, indeed, different traditions. He will perhaps be looking down with interest from wherever he is now and saying, “Well, I was right after all, wasn’t I?” It does not work if we try to impose things on very different economies.
Those are the points that ought to be borne in mind, and the major problem that the European Union has at the moment.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins). The sentiments that he expressed—a feeling of disconnection with the European Union, concerns about its lack of accountability, and even a feeling of crisis in the European Union—are ones that we have heard throughout this debate. That is not something that has been invented by parts of my party or got up by the press; it is a deep-seated feeling across parties and among voters of all parties.
To be fair to those of my party on the Front Bench, they tried to respond to that in the general election. It was no doubt with concern about Europe in mind that they made the following promise, which they were right to make, in the manifesto, on which I was proud to stand, just as every other Member of my party did:
“We will be positive members of the European Union but we are clear that there should be no further extension of the EU’s power over the UK without the British people’s consent…We will work to bring back key powers over legal rights, criminal justice and social and employment legislation to the UK.”
That was described in the Conservative manifesto as a liberal Conservative policy, and it is indeed in accordance with the tenets of classical liberalism. However, since then we have actually had a Liberal-Conservative policy.
I understand that, and I understand the reasons why it has come about. However, I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will understand when I say to them that although I appreciate the fact of the coalition and the way in which it is working, I still hold to what was said in the manifesto, which I supported, and that I wish to accomplish the ends of that manifesto, particularly in respect of not allowing the extension of any further power to the EU, as well as repatriating existing powers—I thought that that would be a tall order, but it was worth trying. It is certainly still in order to seek to prevent any further extension of EU power. However, I am afraid that the Bill as it stands does not fully accomplish that end, and my hon. Friends would be testing my credulity if they claimed that it did.
Indeed, clause 18 does not even seek to do that. This is a matter of academic debate, but clause 18 is a restatement of the existing position—there are different academic views on that—and it certainly does not set out to stop any further transfer of power to the European Union. Nor, I would suggest, do the other parts of the Bill fully accomplish the end of preventing a transfer of power to the European Union, however many referendum locks they contain, particularly in so far as they concern transfers of any further competences to the European Union. If one studies the list of competences that are already possessed by the European Union, as set out in the treaty of Lisbon, one can see that virtually every field of policy—indeed, every type of human activity—is covered by a competence of one type or another. Even where those competences do not give the European Union a law-making power—and in many cases they do—the European Union can still use the competences that it holds in other fields to make law and policy in those fields where it does not have a formal competence, and the European Commission, backed up by the European Court, has not been slow to do that.
The problem that we are faced with is that which the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) described earlier: the drip, drip, drip of power to the European Union, through European directives, European regulations, all the soft law that comes from the European Union, and the new objectives that are set for the European Union, which influence policy makers. All that goes on as before. As far as the European Union is concerned, it is just business as usual. Those are the problems that we need to address, and although it is difficult to take them on, I would urge Ministers to do so.
Already in the lifetime of this Government we have seen transfers of power to the European Union that—I think I am right in saying—would not have been captured by the Bill’s referendum provisions. Most people would understand a transfer of power in any ordinary sense to include giving the European Union power to set policy, or giving the European Commission the power to take initiatives or, most particularly, to make law. I am thinking in particular of the advent of the External Action Service, which has attracted so much bad publicity in this country. However, the External Action Service is bad for this country not just because it is extravagant—although it clearly is—but because it will act in such a way as to supplant British power and the exercise of independent British representations. I suspect that this is something that we will see more and more of in times to come.
We have also seen the Van Rompuy report on economic governance, which most people would see as a prospective transfer of power, in any ordinary sense of the word, to the European Union, framing, as it does, the criteria by which our economic policies are made and the guidelines that Governments must observe in their fiscal policies. The report also gives the European Union the power to impose sanctions on this country, in the form of placing it under certain procedures—not financial sanctions, but sanctions of other forms, which could be influential with policy makers. The report is certainly intended by the European Union to be an instrument of economic governance over this country, even though it is not a member of the eurozone.
We have also seen a significant transfer of power into the European so-called area of freedom, security and justice, caused by opting in to directives of the European Union in that area, even though this country had an opt-out from those policies—something that the previous Government said was the key difference between the constitutional treaty and the treaty of Lisbon. Now we are seeking to opt in. We have already opted in to six directives—two are very significant directives indeed—that give the European Union legislative authority over this country and, more importantly, give the European Court of Justice jurisdiction over our criminal procedure and criminal law. Those are all matters that are not covered by the Bill as it stands.
I am afraid that my hon. Friend is correct. We are deepening and extending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
What to do about all this? There is one improvement that can be made to the Bill—an improvement that I put to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. It would be a great improvement on the Bill, and would be in keeping with what we have been saying about parliamentary democracy, if we made the exercise of the opt-ins subject to a vote in this House—something that does not take place at the moment, however heroic and detailed our efforts at European scrutiny are, as we cannot cause this House of Commons to have a vote on something of that nature. That would be easy for Ministers to agree to, and I cannot think of a good reason against it. My right hon. Friend said, “Well, there might be too many of these things,” which rather bears out the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) just made about the extent of the penetration of the European Union’s jurisdiction. However, the fact that things might take up too much of the House’s time is not a sufficient reason not to have a vote—perish the thought!—on such matters. I remind my right hon. and hon. Friends that we specifically promised in our manifesto to allow Parliament more time to scrutinise legislation. My proposal would be in keeping with that, which would be a good thing.
It would also be appropriate for Ministers to consider amendments to the provisions dealing with the question of significance, because at the moment, whether we have a referendum under the circumstances detailed in the Bill depends on whether Ministers think they are significant enough. What a thing! Ministers are to decide whether something is significant enough, and the explanatory notes to the Bill then tell us that anyone who is aggrieved by such a decision should go off to the courts to seek a judicial review. What on earth is Parliament for? Are we not allowed to hold Ministers to account as well? Are we now going to have to subcontract that to the courts?