[2nd Allocated Day]
[Relevant document: The Fifteenth Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, The EU Bill: Restrictions on Treaties and Decisions relating to the EU, HC 682.]
Further considered in Committee
[Mr Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]
Interpretation of Part 1
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 86, in clause 2, page 2, line 10, leave out
‘a statement relating to the treaty was’
‘the treaty and a statement relating to it were’.
Amendment 1, page 2, line 13, leave out ‘or the exemption condition’.
Amendment 92, page 2, line 16, leave out from ‘until’ to end of line 22 and insert
‘the referendum procedure set out in subsection (2A) below has been completed.
‘(2A) The referendum procedure is completed if—
(a) a decision has been taken by either or both Houses of Parliament not to hold a referendum, whether by agreeing with a recommendation from the Committee that a referendum is not required or by disagreeing to a recommendation from the Committee that a referendum is required; or
(b) a referendum has been held throughout the United Kingdom, or where the treaty affects Gibraltar, throughout the United Kingdom and Gibraltar, and a majority of those voting in the referendum are in favour of ratification of the treaty.’.
Amendment 2, page 2, line 23, leave out subsection (3).
Amendment 87, in clause 3, page 2, line 29, leave out
‘a statement relating to the decision was’
‘the decision and a statement relating to it were’.
Amendment 67, page 2, line 32, leave out paragraph (c).
Amendment 3, page 2, line 32, leave out
‘the exemption condition or the significance condition’.
Amendment 68, page 2, line 34, leave out subsections (2), (3) and (4).
Amendment 93, page 2, line 36, leave out from ‘until’ to end of line 42 and insert
‘the referendum procedure set out in subsection (2A) below has been completed.
‘(2A) The referendum procedure is completed if—
(a) a decision has been taken by either or both Houses of Parliament not to hold a referendum, whether by agreeing with a recommendation from the Committee that a referendum is not required or by disagreeing to a recommendation from the Committee that a referendum is required; or
(b) a referendum has been held throughout the United Kingdom, or where the treaty affects Gibraltar, throughout the United Kingdom and Gibraltar, and a majority of those voting in the referendum are in favour of approval of the decision.’.
Amendment 4, page 2, line 43, leave out subsection (3).
Amendment 5, page 3, line 1, leave out subsection (4).
Amendment 64, page 3, line 3, leave out from ‘4’ to ‘and’ in line 4.
Amendment 65, page 3, line 4, leave out ‘(1)(i) or (j)’ and insert
‘(1)(a), (d), (e), (f), (g), (h) (i), (j), (k), (l) or (m)’.
Amendment 66, page 3, line 4, after ‘(1)’, insert ‘(g), (h)’.
Amendment 88, in clause 4, page 3, line 8, before ‘(1)’ insert—
‘(A1) A treaty or Article 48(6) decision which falls within this section shall be subject to the procedure of determination by the Committee and both Houses of Parliament as to whether a referendum is required’.
Amendment 89, in clause 5, page 4, line 10, leave out
‘the required statement before Parliament’
‘the treaty and the required statement before the Committee and before Parliament’.
Amendment 90, page 4, line 14, leave out
‘the required statement before Parliament’
‘the decision and the required statement before the Committee and before Parliament’.
Amendment 7, page 4, line 17, leave out subsections (3) to (5) and insert—
‘(3) The required statement is a statement that there will be a referendum on that treaty.’.
Amendment 91, page 4, line 19, leave out subsections (4) and (5).
Amendment 11, page 4, line 24, at end add—
‘(6) If the Minister’s opinion is that the effect of that provision in relation to the United Kingdom is not significant the Minister must seek Parliamentary approval for his opinion.
(7) Parliamentary approval is given if—
(a) in each House of Parliament a Minister of the Crown moves a motion that the House approves of the Minister’s opinion; and
(b) each House agrees to the motion without amendment.
(8) If the Minister fails to obtain Parliamentary approval for his opinion the significance condition is not met.’.
New clause 9—European Union Referendum Committee
‘(1) There shall be a Committee, to be known as the European Union Referendum Committee, to examine—
(a) any amendment of the Treaty on the European Union or the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, whether by simplified or ordinary revision procedure;
(b) any decision already provided for in those treaties, as set out in Schedule 1 to this Act;
(c) any treaty or Article 48(6) decision as defined in section 4 of this Act; and
(d) any decision as set out in section 6(2) or 6(4) of this Act.
(2) The Committee shall report to Parliament in respect of each such treaty amendment or decision as to—
(a) whether it involves a significant transfer of power or competence, and if so
(b) whether it requires a referendum to be held.
(3) When the Committee has reported its view as to whether or not a referendum is required, a Motion shall be moved in each House of Parliament to give effect to that recommendation.
(4) If both Houses agree to recommend a referendum, a referendum shall be held accordingly.
(5) The Committee shall consist of no more than 19 Members, drawn from both Houses of Parliament, none of whom shall be Ministers of the Crown.
(6) The members of the Committee shall be nominated by the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords respectively, in accordance with the Standing Orders or Resolutions of their respective Houses, and subject to the approval of their respective Houses.
(7) Members of each House shall be members of the Committee until discharged by their House or if they cease to be a Member of that House or if they become a Minister of the Crown.
(8) The Committee shall elect a Chair from among those of its members who sit in the House of Commons.
(9) The Committee may determine its own procedure, which shall be broadly in line with that followed by Joint Committees of the two Houses.’.
The week before last, the Committee enjoyed an excellent debate on the sovereignty clause of the Bill. Perhaps surprisingly, there was a high degree of consensus on the need to ensure that Parliament remains central to our democracy. Indeed, it must be said that even the Government appeared to acknowledge that there was at least a genuine debate on whether Parliament owed its sovereignty to common law or whether sovereignty was a fundamental right. Consequently, we look forward to seeing how the Government rewrite the Bill’s explanatory notes to acknowledge that debate.
That makes it all the more surprising that part 1 of the Bill so profoundly departs from the consensus established in the House that Parliament is central to this country’s democratic process. The Government do that by proposing that most extensions of EU competence or power, even relatively small ones, should be subject to a referendum if the change has a material impact on the UK’s relationship with the EU.
The Government set out in the Bill in mind-numbing detail umpteen scenarios when a referendum might be triggered. The Opposition believe that there is a case for referendums to be held on important constitutional issues. For example, in government, we introduced referendums on devolution in Scotland and Wales, and indeed, there will be a further referendum in Wales on 3 March.
With all due respect to my hon. Friend, it was not she who wrote the treaty or the constitution; she made a contribution, as did many people.
We support a referendum on the alternative vote system, and we believe that a referendum should be held if ever there is a European constitution or if any Government favoured Britain’s joining the single currency. I remind the Committee that Baroness Thatcher declined to hold a referendum on the Single European Act, and that the Foreign Secretary voted against a referendum on the Maastricht treaty when he was in opposition.
I will stick to the point. It is really important that Members recognise that there is a fundamental difference between the constitution and the treaty of Lisbon. I am more than happy to explain those differences, with your permission, Mr Hoyle, but I know that you want us to pursue the issue under discussion.
I do not think that is the case at all. There are certain principles at issue that it is important we consider. One of the things that has marred the debate about Europe is the fact that too much expediency has been demonstrated. We need to talk about principles, and I would argue that an important one is at stake here. We have to make it clear that we are talking about political consistency, of which there is little among Government Members. Only in January last year, an hon. Gentleman said:
“The Conservatives want a referendum on the bulk purchasing of paper clips. That is nonsense. It does not stand up to any serious scrutiny, and I do not believe that if they were in government, they would put forward this proposal.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2010; Vol. 504, c. 238.]
I am tempted to have a competition to see whether anyone knows who might have said that, but I will just tell the Committee instead: yes, it was a Liberal Democrat, and yes it was the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey)—so much for consistency; so much for principles.
One of our main concerns about the Bill is the proposal that referendums could be held on highly technical issues that are not of constitutional significance. I am not suggesting that a future Labour Government would want to change the European treaty, but are the Government seriously suggesting that we should have a referendum on changing the voting system in the Council of Ministers on the environment from the special legislative procedure to the ordinary legislative procedure ?
I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, which is that there is a lot of complexity and a precise attempt to define the conditions under which referendums would be held, but surely it is better to ask the British people to make up their minds than to wriggle out of one fundamental promise on the whole constitutional question of whether we should be signed up to the Lisbon treaty. My constituents would far rather have the opportunity to vote on these things than have 13 years of broken promises.
With all due respect to the hon. Lady, it was her party that reneged on the commitment to have a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. Government Members could have had a referendum had the Government kept their promise, but it was they who decided not to have one despite their commitment to do so.
The hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but my recollection of the history is that the treaty was ratified and then it became impossible to have a referendum on it. Would new clause 9 not enable a Government to make a promise at election time to hold a referendum and then wriggle out of it under the cover of some committee, as the previous Labour Government did?
This party does not make promises which it breaks. [Laughter.] I would point out to Government Members that, as I recall, there was a clear commitment on the Lisbon treaty. The hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) cannot get out of that by saying, “Well, it was already endorsed. It was ratified. We couldn’t do anything about it,” because they could have done. If the Conservatives had wanted a referendum on a treaty change, they could have had one. It is political will that this Government lacked.
Although I am not suggesting that a future Labour Government would want to change the Lisbon treaty, are this Government serious about introducing some of the changes that they claim they want to introduce? Are they seriously suggesting that we should have a referendum on the voting system for introducing a European patent, for example? Are they seriously suggesting that we would have a referendum on how judges are appointed to the European Court? [Hon. Members: “Yes.”] It seems that some Members are quite happy to have referendums, even on the proverbial paper clips. But seriously, the place to make a decision on the merits of any potential changes that are not of constitutional significance is in Parliament.
Is it not in fact remarkably important to have a detailed Bill that sets out all the conditions? The habit of Europe has been to accrete power by stealth; therefore, when added together, things that seem to be minor turn out to be creating a European Government, about which the British people should have the choice.
There are two problems with that intervention. The first concerns the issue of detail. We have already seen the Government getting themselves into a right knot, bringing forward new amendments to plug some of the gaps that they have left. My guess is that, even at the end of the day, if this Bill goes through, there will still be gaps. The other issue concerns constitutional creep, and I will come to that point later, because there are exceptions in the Bill, which I will touch on.
The role of Parliament should be absolutely central to the issue of Europe—and, indeed, to all our deliberations. It is Parliament that should formally and properly consider such issues; it is Parliament that should devote the time to focused debates and deliberations on the pros and cons of any change; and it is Parliament that is accountable to the people. Hopefully, before too long there will be a House of Lords that is wholly or partly elected, and then both Houses will be answerable to the people for their actions. That is surely the essence of representative democracy. Indeed, in recent times the most authoritative inquiry into the role of referendums has come from the Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, whose report was published last year. After hearing from many witnesses, the Committee concluded:
“The balance of the evidence that we have heard leads us to the conclusion that there are significant drawbacks to the use of referendums.”
“Notwithstanding our view that there are significant drawbacks to the use of referendums, we acknowledge arguments that, if referendums are to be used, they are most appropriately used in relation to fundamental constitutional issues.”
That report is important and should be acknowledged. However, it is not just the opinion that that House expressed that is significant; the evidence that was submitted is also important. In an important appendix to the report, it was pointed out that the distinguished commentators David Butler and Austin Ranney had noted that
“while the vast majority of democracies”
throughout the world
“have held referendums, only a few have institutionalised them, and used them in anything other than an ad hoc fashion. The vast majority of referendums are held at founding moments: decisions about joining a state or federation, accepting or rejecting new constitutions, or making constitutional revisions.”
If the Bill reaches the statute book in its present form, not only will it be at odds with common sense; it will also be out of step with most of the world’s democratic states. And before any Members think that the Lords Constitution Committee was packed with Labour Peers, I would simply point out that they were in a minority on the Committee.
In the second excellent report produced by the European Scrutiny Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), one of the key witnesses, Professor Simon Hix, lucidly made the case for the limited, rather than widespread, use of referendums. I would not agree with everything that Professor Hix argued, but he was absolutely right when he said:
“Referendums are a legitimate tool, but often they are not regarded as legitimate unless they are on major constitutional questions. In a democracy we believe that ultimately sovereignty resides with the people, so it is legitimate that referendums should be used for major constitutional changes.”
Professor Hix was correct in his argument about major constitutional issues. He was also correct to question the wisdom and legitimacy of referendums on much smaller, technical issues.
I understand the logic of my hon. Friend’s argument, but, given the profound changes since 1975 in the prospectus set out by members of all three parties in the House, is there not now a thirst among the public for a referendum, either on whether we should be in or out of the European Union or on some of the other issues of major constitutional significance—from the Single European Act to the Lisbon treaty—on which they have not been consulted?
I have to say that I have not had one constituent come into any of my surgeries since the last election—or, indeed, during the last Parliament—to raise this issue with me. People are concerned about their jobs, their livelihoods, and, under this Government, their falling standards of living. Those are the issues that we should be focusing on. Nevertheless, we are addressing the issue before us today, the European Union Bill.
On the subject of what we were sent here to do, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the people of Mid Norfolk sent me here to speak up against their powers being given away without their consent. He quoted the evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee. In written evidence, Professor Philip Allott, professor emeritus of international public law at Cambridge, said:
“The Bill has a whiff of revolution about it. It is a Boston Tea Party gesture against creeping integration…So far as I know, no other member state has anything remotely approaching the degree of parliamentary involvement which the Bill would create”.
The Bill might not be perfect, and it might not be the ideal mechanism, but does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the Government are trying to ensure that the creeping integration that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) referred to earlier is prevented in future?
I have read all the evidence submitted to the Committee, and the significant point about that particular quote was the use of the word “gesture”. The Bill is a gesture, and I will say more about that later. It is a gesture to placate hostility to the European Union among Government Back Benchers, but it is not a serious, considered piece of legislation.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to Professor Hix’s evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee. Will he note that the professor also said that previous EU amending treaties—Maastricht under a Conservative Government and Amsterdam and Nice under a Labour Government, as well as the Lisbon treaty—should all have been subjected to referendums? If the conditions of the Maastricht referendum campaign, which I founded and which had about 750,000 signatures, had been implemented by the Government at the time—let alone those for Amsterdam and Nice—is it not right to say that we would not be sitting here today discussing this nonsense?
I am aware of all Professor Hix’s comments, and I was careful to say earlier that I did not agree with all his remarks. The point remains, however, that he is fundamentally opposed to the idea of having a multiplicity of referendums, for the reasons that he outlined to the Committee.
The hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that Professor Hix also went on to say:
“I think there should have been a referendum on Maastricht, on Amsterdam, on Nice…on the Lisbon treaty”.
That is surely significant. The Bill is all about ensuring that, having been cheated of referendums on those treaties in the past, we can now have referendums on other matters, enabling the House to give greater consideration to them before passing away powers to Europe. The committee proposed in the hon. Gentleman’s new clause 9 would not achieve that.
With all due respect, I must point out that the hon. Gentleman has made exactly the same point that the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) has just made. I therefore give him the same answer: I was careful to say earlier that I did not agree with all of Professor Hix’s comments, but the central thesis that he presented to the European Scrutiny Committee was that there should be referendums on major constitutional issues, not on the minutiae of legislation as is proposed in the Bill, and this Bill is what we are now debating.
It is important for us to recognise that having a proper national debate on technical issues presents a real problem. If this were to happen, it might mean that debates focused on other issues and voters might not vote on the question on the ballot paper. That is perhaps a fundamental problem with all referendums, but it is certainly the case with referendums on issues that are highly technical and very specific. A second problem is that such referendums might attract only very low turnouts. For many people, a shift from unanimity to qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers on the issue of permanent structural co-operation might not be a huge motivator to come out and vote.
What I am saying is that if some of the questions implied by the Bill were put, no reasonable human being, including Members in this House, would understand what on earth the debate was all about. Nobody would. Debating how many angels can stand on the head of a pin might be okay for the middle ages, but it is unlikely to enthuse people in 21st century Britain.
I may well be more in sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s position than some of my colleagues on the Government side, but is he not aware—I appreciate, as he said, that he might have some difficulty understanding all of the Bill—of the “significance” provision in clause 3(4)(b)? Surely that is designed to guard precisely against the possibility of having referendums on minutiae.
It is interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman refer to the exceptional clause in that way. I will come on to the very interesting point that he has raised, which I am sure would not be shared by many Conservative Back Benchers.
Let me pursue my argument. These two factors—the lack of proper debate that having a referendum on a small technical issue would mean, and the low turnout—might lead to a questioning of any referendum result. For example, I cite Professor Hix again in his evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee, when he referred to the example of Texas. I heard a Government Member earlier making a sedentary comment about the USA, so let us look at this example from Texas. It has referendums in local communities on whether smoking or drinking should be banned. I am sure that everybody understands the questions, but they have a referendum on the same issue every year. Why? It is because people keep on questioning the validity of every year’s result because the turnout is so low.
The Bill implies that this Parliament can bind future Parliaments, but we all know that this cannot be done constitutionally. It is an interesting point, as the Government have made it clear that they do not intend to test the legislation. Perhaps one of their amendments might do so, but generally speaking, they do not intend to use this legislation—it is intended for something in the future. I would argue very strongly that there is a constitutional question mark over that.
I also believe that the Bill weakens the role of Parliament because it obliges Parliament to pass on much of its decision-making capacity. Yes, it is true that the Bill gives additional responsibilities to Parliament in some areas, which we will debate at a later stage. The Bill’s most important impact, however, will be to weaken the role of Parliament. I would even suggest that the Bill’s whole approach is crudely populist and fraught with practical problems and constitutional risks.
The hon. Gentleman’s comments seem to be a diatribe against all referendums anywhere and are not specific to the Bill. Of course a referendum is populist; it is the most direct form of gauging the popular will. The approach of his argument seems a complete waste of time.
That is completely untrue. My argument is that there is a clear distinction between important constitutional issues and detailed minutiae. We can argue about the constitutional issues, but there is a big difference between them and a referendum on a raft of detailed minutiae. That is the big difference, which the Bill fails to acknowledge. The Bill is about having referendums on not the big issues, but the small, relatively unimportant ones.
It might come as a great relief to my hon. Friend to learn that I totally agree with him on this occasion. The Bill would weaken Parliament. Does he not find it extraordinary that a Bill that is meant to strengthen Parliament has in clause 5 a provision whereby, if in doubt, the matter will be given to the courts, which we cannot even remove in the way we can a Government, so it is an abdication?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; she makes a good point. However, the matter might not be quite as she has said. I will address that point later in my contribution, if I may.
Amendment 85 seeks to reaffirm the role of Parliament by giving it the power to consider and decide whether a proposed European change is significant enough to hold a referendum on. A special committee of both Houses—we call it the referendum committee—would be established, and it would consider the fine detail of the Government’s proposal. A recommendation would then go to both Houses, and if both Houses agreed that the change was important enough to warrant a referendum, a referendum would be held.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell the Committee what would happen if one of the Houses of Parliament took the view that a referendum should take place, and the other took the view that it should not? Is that not an inherent contradiction in the Opposition amendments?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s purpose, but it is conceivable that the House of Commons would reach one view on whether a referendum is required, and the House of Lords would reach another view. How do the Opposition intend to settle that discrepancy?
Before too long, we hope, both Chambers would be elected. Therefore, we believe that it is important for Parliament to speak with one voice. Under our amendment, Parliament would be centre-stage in the whole process. Parliament, and Parliament alone, would decide whether a referendum ought to be held, which is far preferable to referendums being decided according to abstract criteria under this ill-conceived Bill. It is also far better than allowing the Government to make the decision.
I am intrigued to know whether the workings of the proposed committee would have come into force when the previous Government decided, without, I believe, a debate on the Floor of the House, that the Lisbon treaty was not the same thing as the EU constitutional treaty and therefore could be signed. At that point, would his committee have intervened, given the definitional question of whether it was an EU constitutional treaty, as Open Europe and most of the country believe that it was?
I have argued consistently that that was not the case, but the new Committee, drawn from both Houses, would consider all changes that occur inside the European Union and that have a direct impact on the United Kingdom. We can discuss what is significant and what is not, but my point is that the proposed Committee would come to a considered view on what was important and what should warrant a referendum.
I emphasise this point because we are concerned about the extent to which the Government will have discretion to decide what goes to a referendum. We are concerned because we fear that the Government’s rhetoric does not match the reality of their Bill. I am sure that the Minister is absolutely sincere in his intention to give the electorate the maximum ability to vote on a range of European minutiae, but let us just suppose that the Bill is smoke and mirrors. The nature of the proposals before us could turn out to be more apparent than real.
By common agreement, the Bill is one of the most complicated pieces of legislation to come before the House of Commons for many years. As we all know, in legislation the devil is always in the detail, and this Bill contains one heck of a lot of detail. Some Members, including those on the European Scrutiny Committee, have suggested that the Government may be looking for wriggle room. In particular, there has been reference to clause 3(4), the so-called “significance” subsection, which allows the Government to avoid a referendum if they believe that certain EU sanctions or obligations are insignificant. If I were a Government Member, I should consider that very ominous, as little detail is provided.
Given the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has just expressed, will he please explain why the Opposition amendments, and in particular new clause 9, would extend the significance test so that the Committee that he proposes would consider whether a decision to join the euro, or a decision to scrap British border controls, was significant enough to warrant a referendum at all?
Will the hon. Gentleman address the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Minister a bit more seriously? New clause 9(2) makes it clear that the Opposition are suggesting that there could be significant transfers of power that did not merit a referendum. Will the hon. Gentleman give us an example of a significant transfer of power that he thinks should not merit a referendum? The principle is there in his new clause.
There is a fundamental point here. We are not second-guessing Parliament’s view. These are essentially subjective statements. I think it wrong for the Government to pretend that there can be predetermined formulas that will suit any eventuality. They know in their heart of hearts that that is not possible in the real world, which is why they have come up with the “significance” subsection.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being very patient. However, he is not second-guessing the Government; he is proposing an amendment to the House of Commons. He is proposing that there should be a dual key before a referendum is held. First, a proposal should be significant; secondly, his committee should recommend a referendum. That implies the possibility of a significant transfer of power that would not require a referendum. It is his proposal; I am simply asking him to explain it to the Committee.
What I am saying is that it depends on how “significance” is defined. I propose that, rather than our accepting a formula stating what is and what is not significant—which, as the Government themselves recognise, would fall at the first hurdle—responsibility for deciding what is important should be in the hands of parliamentarians. That would mean a transfer of decision-making power from the Executive to Parliament, of which we are in favour.
No, I have made my decision.
I have referred to the significance provision but, as if that were not enough, the Bill also contains the exemption condition. If the significance provision is the smoke, the exemption condition is surely the mirrors. With a striking lack of clarity, clause 4(4) refers to “the codification of practice”—one hon. Member mentioned that earlier. That could lead to a significant extension of competences by European Union institutions, yet the Bill does not provide for a referendum on such matters.
Clause 4(4) then stipulates that changes that apply
“to member States other than the United Kingdom”
should not attract a referendum. That may appear reasonable but, given that this country is an integral part of a single European market, it is impossible to say with any degree of certainty that anything happening in the rest of the European Union would not have an important impact on this country.
In addition to all that is the most amazing exemption. In a Bill that claims to be about giving the electorate the ability to make decisions on important changes affecting this country, the
“accession of a new member State”
is expressly excluded in that regard; accession will not trigger a referendum. Where is the logic in saying that we can have a referendum on whether or not a voting system should be changed for the appointment of judges, but not on whether Turkey joins the European Union? Does the Minister seriously suggest that Turkey joining the European Union would be of no consequence? Does he seriously believe that the membership of Turkey, a country of more than 70 million people, will not affect the United Kingdom’s vote in the Council of Ministers? The Minister is a nice chap, but surely he cannot honestly believe that Turkey’s membership will not have a significant impact on Britain’s role in the European Union?
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but surely the issue under discussion is the transfer of power to Europe and that transfer triggering a referendum. What powers does he think would be transferred from the British to the European level in the event of Turkey joining the European Union?
The ultimate decision-making body in the European Union is the Council of Ministers, where, broadly speaking, votes are exercised according to the size of a country relative to other countries. I am suggesting that if a large country such as Turkey joins the European Union, the influence of the United Kingdom will inevitably diminish—that is absolutely simple and straightforward. Given the logic of the Government’s argument for this Bill, I find it incredible that that circumstance is painfully excluded.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his wholehearted support for the amendment that I tabled on this issue, which, alas, we are not going to get to later this evening. Are we not assuming that Turkey would want to join the European Union? Given the direction in which its economy is going and given that it is already a member of the customs union, it would perhaps be very wise of Turkey to take a step back and have a look at where it is going. I was wondering whether this approach is a complete change in Labour party policy on this area, and it would be fascinating to know whether the party is for or against Turkish accession. Has the diminution of powers at the Council, whereby the previous Government gave away so many powers in different qualified majority voting circumstances that it sends shudders down the spine, led to Labour Members beginning to tighten up and see that we really should not have given away some of these powers?
Perhaps I should not have given way on that point. I want to go on to make it absolutely clear that the Opposition would like to see Turkey join the European Union. There are a host of positive reasons for that to happen. Our position on the European Union and Turkey’s membership has not changed, but I cannot understand how the Government can say on the one hand that they believe in holding referendums on EU changes that affect the UK and on the other that they are against holding a referendum on such a huge issue of great importance to this country. The Government cannot have their cake and eat it.
May I bring the hon. Gentleman back to the subject of his amendment? Does it follow from what he is now arguing that if the committee existed he would anticipate that a proposal that Turkey should join the European Union would constitute a significant transfer of power or competence? Does he think that in those circumstances, if the committee reached that conclusion, the decision would require a referendum to be held?
It is not for me or anyone else in the debate to say what the committee should or should not decide. I am saying that the Bill expressly excludes a referendum on Turkey’s accession, irrespective of whether it is considered important or not, as a matter of principle. The Bill says that there will not be a referendum on Turkey’s accession no matter how important it is. That is illogical.
The simple question that Government Members wish to ask the hon. Gentleman is whether, under his committee, the proposed referendum on Turkish membership would take place. It is incumbent on him to explain how the proposal that his party has made will work in practice. That is what we are trying to get to.
Who knows who will be on the committee? Who knows what opinions will be expressed? Who knows on what terms Turkey will join the EU, if it ever does join? The big difference is that we are suggesting that there should be proper, open-minded consideration. We are against a closed book on the issue, which is what this Bill suggests.
I am reminded of a constituent of mine going to a doctor who gave her some very powerful medicine. When she drank the medicine, she asked, “What will happen to me?” The doctor gave her a reason, but the hon. Gentleman’s answer reminds me of the doctor saying, “I don’t know what will happen to you if you drink this medicine. I do not know what condition you will be in after you have drunk the medicine. I cannot possibly tell you how it will work out.” That seems analogous to the hon. Gentleman’s position.
I do not think that it is.
Members have asked about our rationale in tabling the amendment. I believe that we have explained it logically and systematically, but I ask the Minister: what is the Government’s rationale in specifically excluding a referendum on accession? Will the Government respond to that? What is the rationale? This is a debate but there is silence from Government Front Benchers—I can only conclude that there is no rationale. There is not, is there?
The situation is quite simple. The Government want Turkey to join the European Union. They consider that to be of tremendous foreign policy importance and they will not allow a referendum to get in the way. That is the truth and they should accept it.
First, I apologise for saying that I was in sympathy with the drift of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. I am certainly not now. I am very puzzled. A minute ago, he was arguing that we should be wary of having too many referendums. He now seems to be arguing for another one. Does he want more or fewer referendums?
Once again, the hon. Gentleman is not following the debate very closely. What we are saying is that these issues should be considered—watch my lips—carefully by a special committee drawn of both Houses. What we are against is a predetermined conclusion that, irrespective of the circumstances, there should not be a referendum on Turkish accession. Although I challenged the Minister to explain the rationale, he declined to do so. I am sure the Committee will draw its own conclusion.
No. I will move on. It is important that we realise that as well as the significance provision, the exception provision and the specific exclusion of a referendum on accession of any kind, our good friend the explanatory notes make matters worse and add to the obfuscation of the Bill.
I shall quote from the explanatory notes. Although they are wholly inaccurate and unsatisfactory, they are of some significance. They state that the so-called list in clause 4(4) is “illustrative rather than exclusive,” and they continue:
“In other words, there may be other types of treaty change which do not transfer competence or power from the UK to the EU and therefore do not trigger a referendum.”
What are the other types of treaty change? Has anyone got any ideas? Has the Foreign Office been rubbing its crystal ball? It is not good enough. There should be a clear indication of what the other types of treaty change are.
The shadow Minister referred earlier to the meaning of the word “significance”, and he has just mentioned it again. Is he aware that the “Oxford Dictionary” defines “significance” as
“having a particular meaning; indicative of something”,
and goes on to give as an example,
“in times of stress her dreams seemed to her especially significant”.
Does he know something we don’t?
No, not yet.
When I first read the Bill, I was worried about this complicated piece of legislation, compounded by the lack of clarity about the meaning of “power” as opposed to “competence”. I was concerned that it was a potential paradise for lawyers. As I am not an enthusiast for judicial activism, that worried me. I was also worried by the comments of the Foreign Secretary in the Second Reading debate.
Then I delved deeply into the how and why of judicial reviews, and in particular the circumstances in which they are held and the criteria that they examine. The House of Commons Library, as always, provided excellent objective information, and with forensic precision the European Scrutiny Committee carefully examined whether, in the case of the Bill, judicial reviews are likely.
No, I will not give way.
I asked the House of Commons Library whether a judicial review was likely. The European Scrutiny Committee’s conclusion was that
“re-course to Judicial Reviews is a more illusory safeguard than the Explanatory Notes imply.”
That is important. Surely it would be sensible for the Government to set out clear criteria for reviewing the reasonableness of a Minister’s decisions. More importantly, the European Scrutiny Committee report tells us that the courts have already ruled that decisions by Government on whether to hold referendums are political decisions and that the courts have therefore been reluctant to get involved.
That was borne out by the Wheeler case in 2008, in which the divisional court was asked to review the previous Government’s decision not to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. It concluded that the issue lay
“so deep in the macro-political field that the Court should not enter the relevant area at all”.
If that was the case in the past, it is certain to be the case in the future.
Is not the distinction that the Bill envisages that, were a Minister to decide that something was not of significance, even though it was of significance, that could be reviewed by the courts in a judicial review? Surely the hon. Gentleman would agree that it is those provisions in the Bill that create the difference and distinguish the Wheeler case and that it is for that reason that the explanatory notes are to at least some extent correct.
Part of the problem, as was mentioned earlier, is that we are talking about a Government making subjective decisions, and the courts have ultimately said that such decisions are political. Given the lack of clarity and the level of obfuscation in the Bill, my contention is that the courts are likely to come to exactly the same conclusion in future.
I share my hon. Friend’s worry about judicial review and the interference of the courts in what should be the business of the House. Given that, does he intend to support amendment 11, tabled by some of our hon. Friends, because it would get over that point?
The Committee will have to wait to see how we will decide to vote.
I should like to finish the point about judicial reviews. Why do the explanatory notes refer to the so-called safeguard of judicial review on no fewer than four occasions? The reason is obvious: it is an attempt by the Government to give the wrong impression. It is yet another example of smoke and mirrors. The Minister has already promised to amend the woefully inadequate explanatory notes in one respect, but I urge him to rewrite them with regard to judicial reviews.
We have not skipped over the issue at all. While we recognise that some people might have a different view on what is significant and important, we suggest that rather than subjectively expressing a view on what is significant, it should be for a purposeful and deliberative forum representing both sides of the House to come to an objective decision on what is of significance, according to the priorities of its members, because they are accountable directly to the people.
The important point to stress is that it would not be our committee, but Parliament’s committee. We are not saying that it should be a partisan body; its membership should be drawn from all parties in this House and from the other House. To allow the Executive simply to make their own decisions on what is or is not important and on what should or should not have a referendum is to undermine the sovereignty of Parliament.
There is a slight contradiction. The hon. Gentleman is worried on the one hand about judicial activism and Parliament giving away its sovereignty, and on the other that the judicial review will not be operative anyway. It cannot really be both ways around. He also says that the committee will come to its decision, which will be voted on. Is he promising that when the vote takes place neither House will be whipped, so it will be genuinely independent, or is it just going to be part of the great party machine?
On judicial activism, I read the explanatory notes, and they gave me the impression that I should not worry if the Government decide not to have a referendum, because there will be the ultimate safeguard of judicial reviews. The notes made that point not once or twice, but four times, and many Members said, “Fair enough; we will have an opportunity to challenge a decision in the courts because we believe that right is on our side and the strength of our argument is self-evident.” That opportunity does not really exist, however, because all the evidence suggests that all the Government are proposing, as the European Scrutiny Committee concludes in its report, is an illusory safeguard. At the end of the day, the Executive will decide in many, many areas whether there will be a referendum.
The hon. Gentleman cannot get away with that. Some of my hon. Friends are concerned, as he appeared to be, about the threat of judicial activism, but as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) says, if the judges are not going to engage in the issue, it will be a matter for the House of Commons, not for the Executive. The Executive make a recommendation; it is the House of Commons that decides.
No, because other Members want to contribute to the debate.
In conclusion, this tortuous Bill is problematic in the extreme. This part of the Bill in particular undermines the centrality of Parliament in Britain’s democracy. The convoluted clauses setting out when a referendum will be held are not only complex but contradictory; the significance and exemption clauses place a question mark over the Government’s true intentions; and the false impression given in the explanatory notes about judicial reviews is truly reprehensible.
We have tabled amendments that would significantly alter and, we believe, improve this ham-fisted Bill. Central to our main amendment is a belief that Parliament should be at the very heart of our democracy, and such an approach would ensure that the long-standing principles of representative parliamentary democracy were truly upheld. Without the amendment, this part of the Bill is at best a ragbag of half-baked inconsistencies and at worst a recipe for constitutional chaos.
Before I make the couple of points that I want to make, I suggest to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David), as a Welsh Member, that referendums are quite important to people, that people understand simple and basic details and that they can understand, within the questions set, technical and important points. Democracy evolves, it always has done and it always will do, and through the Bill we suggest that referendums are a solid and sensible way forward. We trust the people who elected us in the first place to take a view, if asked, on the issues that the legislation raises.
Does my hon. Friend know that the most recent referendum in Switzerland, a country renowned for holding referendums on technical and specific issues, had a turnout of 58%—a very high turnout, and probably somewhat higher than the vote many Labour MPs representing Welsh seats received—demonstrating that people will vote when they have to?
I thank my hon. Friend, because every time he stands up, he educates me with a fact that I do not know.
The Labour proposals, in particular amendment 92, seek to redefine the referendum condition for UK ratification of amending treaties. As I will spell out in a couple of minutes, the proposed referendum committee would have to ask both Houses for agreement. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) said, there must be agreement by both Houses before there is a referendum. The amendments are anti-referendum, anti-people and anti-common sense.
Currently, the referendum condition is that an Act approving an amending treaty must provide that its approval will not be effective until the ratification of the treaty has been supported in a referendum. Under amendment 92, the referendum condition would require an Act approving a treaty to provide that its approval will not come into force until the whole procedure has been completed. If the hon. Member for Caerphilly is to be believed, that procedure would involve the European Union referendum committee delivering a recommendation on whether a referendum should be held, both Houses of Parliament opposing or agreeing to the holding of a referendum, and a majority being in favour of ratification in a referendum on the treaty. The Bill’s main alternative, which is the exemption condition for UK ratification of amending treaties, would remain intact. That means that an Act approving an amending treaty could state simply that the treaty did not fall within clause 4—the definition of a transfer of competence or power—and a referendum would not be held.
Essentially, the hon. Member for Caerphilly is selling us a sop. There would be a whole procedure to go through, but a clause that says that there might not be a referendum would not be amended. Amendment 92 is not clear. It is probable that the redefined referendum condition would be met if an approving Act required a referendum to be held on the amending treaty, and if that produced a supportive result, without the EU referendum committee having made a recommendation on whether a referendum should be held. By seeking to amend some parts of the Bill and to leave other parts standing, the hon. Gentleman is confusing the point. I suspect that that is a deliberate ploy, because I am not convinced that the Labour party is willing to trust the people with decisions about significant moves in Europe. I am not convinced that many hon. Members understand the significance of the amendments.
Amendment 88 suggests that the intention behind amendment 92—both were tabled by Labour Front Benchers—is that no referendum should be held unless the European Union referendum committee has delivered an opinion on whether there should be a free public vote. Amendment 88 makes it clear that all amending treaties or article 48(6) decisions, which simplify provisions, that fall under clause 4 must be referred to the procedure involving the EU referendum committee and both Houses to determine whether a referendum is required. In other words, even treaties or article 48(6) decisions that are deemed to fall under clause 4, which require a referendum under the Bill, would be exempted from a referendum under the Opposition proposals. Again, that would take away the British people’s chance to have a say in these important areas.
New clause 9 would establish the referendum committee and the procedure for deciding on referendums on treaties and certain decisions, including article 48(6) decisions. It would report to Parliament in all cases on whether an amending treaty or relevant EU decision
“involves a significant transfer of power or competence, and if so…whether it requires a referendum to be held.”
In other words, only if the Committee judged there to be a significant transfer of competence or power would it provide an opinion to Parliament on whether the referendum should be held. For all other decisions, it would not have to report to Parliament. That is a recipe for keeping decisions on which the British people might want a say behind closed doors in this place, rather than for adding more transparency.
That is not what is contained in the hon. Gentleman’s amendment. Perhaps we can have this conversation elsewhere at a later date, because I do not wish to take up the Committee’s time, but the Labour amendments would confuse the situation. Rather than open up the chance of our having referendums, they would close it down. I would like to think that we will not have to vote on amendment 85, but I fear that we probably will.
I wish to talk about the significance condition in the Bill, and about amendment 11, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison)—an important amendment on which we should divide. The British people have given up on politicians and political parties a bit when it comes to Europe. They elect representatives to this place on party platforms that do not necessarily reflect their views on Europe, because matters European do not stack up in their priorities at a general election. People make decisions based on reforms to the health service, education, defence and a bunch of other matters, and when we ask them how significant Europe is in deciding how to vote, we find that it falls way down the list. They are therefore trusting us, in a way, to do a job for them when we discuss the matter in the House. We, the political classes of this country, and I as a former MEP, have let the people of this country down.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly might say that the Lisbon treaty was not the constitution, but the fact is that the British people do not trust anybody on these matters now. They think that we are all the same, and that whatever we say will simply not happen. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) put it, we are all in favour of referendums when we are in opposition, but we are certainly not when we are in government. I welcome the Bill, because we can say to the British people that that has stopped.
There are matters in the Bill on which a Minister must judge whether something is “significant”. I understand the fact that it sets out 44 vetoes, 12 decisions and eight ways of increasing EU competences on which a referendum will be mandatory and there will be no significance test. I hope that the Minister will say in what situations the significance test will be used, because I should like clarification of that point.
I believe that the significance test will apply when there is a possibility of conferring on an EU body or agency new powers or the ability to raise sanctions against the UK. There is a whole list of exciting and interesting EU agencies, and I understand that the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders having an extra competence might not seem a huge issue for the Committee. However, I should like the decision to be taken by the House, not by a Minister. Such decisions are best taken by the Members of this place and those of somewhere else a bit further away. I should like the Minister to state why he believes such minor matters, as it were, do not warrant debate in the House.
My hon. Friend is making a compelling case. He is talking about minor matters, but does he agree that the Government concede that they could be significant enough to warrant a referendum? The question is not whether they are significant enough, but who decides whether they are significant enough. Would a Minister alone or the House make that decision?
As a former Member of the European Parliament, the hon. Gentleman knows that the decision-making process on those minor amendments is infinitely longer in the European Parliament than in the House. I cannot remember how many Ministers for Europe there were in the 13 years of Labour government, but although I hate to say it, collective memory in this place is vested not in the Minister for Europe, but in the civil service. It is not even a Minister who makes the decision, but the civil service.
I concur with the hon. Lady. Several manoeuvres have taken place under previous Governments to determine who is Minister for Europe. The incumbents do not often stay in the role for long. Either they are, like the current incumbent, sufficiently ambitious to move up the ministerial pay scale, or they could easily be a journeyman on the way out. There is a historical context to some decisions about conferring a competence on an EU agency, and one needs to know what the agency was formed to do in the first place. I perceive such conferral as part of the mission creep in Europe. The European Commission, in establishing so many new agencies on such a regular basis, creates its own quangocracy.
When I was a Member of the European Parliament, it was difficult to police the spending and powers of an agency that the European Commission set up. Indeed, it was more difficult than policing some of the agencies and quangos that Governments of different complexions established in this country. If those agencies grab power and take more competences—even for a valid reason at the time—it is important that the Minister of the day understands the historical reasons for setting up the agencies and the intended limits on the powers. I was present when Eurojust and Euro-magistrate were set up—all part of the European public prosecutor, which I look forward to debating tomorrow, and all part of a significant salami-slicing approach of taking powers away from individual member states, and building something that nobody particularly wanted.
I understand that any ministerial decision on the significance test has a kind of double lock. It has been drawn as narrowly as possible, and I would therefore like the Minister to answer a couple of questions. First, I want to check whether any treaty change will require an Act of Parliament. I should like to think that Parliament will have every opportunity to vote for a referendum on such a change. That is why I support amendment 11. Secondly, the decision on significance is subject to judicial review to ensure that decisions not to hold a referendum only on genuinely insignificant matters are backed.
Those matters are important because, as I said, they are about getting the British people to trust the decisions that we make on Europe again. No member of the public wants decisions to be made behind closed doors, without reasonable explanation. I emphasise strongly to the Minister that the amendments are not about trust in him, his ability to undertake the role or his decisions. I would like clarification that Parliament will have a say because that is what we were sent here to do.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) has tabled some tempting amendments to which the Minister and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston alluded. In amendment 1, my hon. Friend manages to do a fantastic decapitation job on the Bill that would basically put all changes up for referendum. Although there is validity in my hon. Friend’s reasoning—he has seen through the years a lot more of what goes on in this place than I have—I do not want everything to be decided by a referendum. The British people will not take that. They want Parliament to say, “These are important decisions and there will be a referendum, a debate in both Houses, or an Act and a vote,” and the Bill makes such provisions. We can then choose whether to amend a measure so that it is subject to a referendum because we believe it to be so important. If we think that a subject is insufficiently important, we can decide not to have one. I am tempted by amendment 1, but I am simply unable to support it for those reasons.
I was tempted by amendment 1 because of the accession exemption, which the hon. Member for Caerphilly and a number of hon. Members mentioned. I tabled an amendment on accession to the EU that we will not decide on today, just as we will not decide on many amendments that have been tabled. Amendment 21 is exactly as the hon. Gentleman described it. It would mean that a 3.5% dilution of our voting powers on the European Council triggered a referendum. That is a catch-all—it is completely designed as such—so that we would have a referendum on the accession of big countries.
Given that, amendment 1 all of a sudden comes back into play and I am once again tempted. I would much rather have had a comprehensive and sensible debate on clauses 4 and 5 today or tomorrow or in extra time.
I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from, but there is a difference between significance and the opinion of the Minister on the one hand, and the question of exemption on the other. Clause 4(3) says that certain matters are forbidden territory. I am tempting my hon. Friend by saying that that whole category of exemption should clearly be removed, even if there will be a debate on what is or is not significant.
I understand my hon. Friend’s reasoning, but the specific exemptions are set out in clause 4(4)(a), (b) and (c). I understand that he would not want my proposal to go too far. The British people expect these things, which after all include matters such as Turkey and treaties of the type proposed by the French only the other day, not to be exempted. The British people would be left out and not taken into account on such decisions and treaties, yet they would have the most incredible impact on them. I shall explain that later.
I always appreciate the lessons that my hon. Friend can teach a humble new Back Bencher and member of the European Scrutiny Committee, and I very much look forward to receiving them, but he makes a salient point. This is about what the people who put us here expect. That is why I ask the Minister please to listen to what hon. Members say about the significance clause and amendment 11. The proposal is not against him; it is about enhancing Parliament and its transparency.
I stood in two European elections, in 1999 and 2004, and I think that when I got elected in 1999, more people voted to evict Bubble from the “Big Brother” house than voted in the European elections that year. There is a massive disconnect in relation to what people want to see, do and say about Europe and how they express their views, and the Bill will give them a reason to be more engaged and interested. I know that it is not perfect; as I have said before, I would very much like an in/out referendum, but that is not provided for in the Bill. However, I would say to those who are keen for us to maintain our relationship with the European Union that maybe, just maybe, a general education of the British people through giving them the power to say yes or no on various European matters would benefit all sides of the argument and could give us proper informed debate inside and outside the Chamber.
Amendments 1 and 3 stand in my name. My comments boil down to what I said in my interventions on my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and were somewhat anticipated by the Minister earlier. In a nutshell, I see no reason why clause 2 should refer to an exemption condition or subsection (3) should state:
“The exemption condition is that the Act providing for the approval of the treaty states that the treaty does not fall within section 4.”
Without any further let or hindrance, clause 4(4) would exclude from those arrangements that would result in a proposal for a referendum
“the codification of practice under”
the treaties already established
“in relation to the previous exercise of an existing competence”,
“the making of any provision that applies only to member States other than the United Kingdom”.
That is, I think, an incredibly important point. Also, as we have debated already, it would remove
“in the case of a treaty, the accession of a new member State”,
which in this case would include Turkey. In the context of what the Government clearly want to exclude—in other words, their positive policy decision not to allow the British people a referendum on certain treaties of immense importance—they are disavowing the very intentions and principles that underpin the Bill.
I have made that point before over the question of sovereignty, where there is a massive contradiction between what is on the tin and what is in the Bill. I say again that those of us who spoke in favour of the sovereignty of Parliament won the argument, but that was not on the tin and it was not what the Whips—or, indeed, the Prime Minister—wanted, so it was voted down. That does not reflect particularly well—if I may say so—on our democratic system. We are faced with exactly the same point here. We are told on the tin that we will have a referendum on important matters—that is the general idea as explained in the Foreign Secretary’s article in The Sunday Telegraph only a week ago—but on examination in Committee, it becomes perfectly obvious that certain kinds of treaty will be excluded. I have mentioned the example of Turkey, but I want to give another specific example of the kind of treaty that would be excluded.
I think that my hon. Friend can wait, if he does not mind.
I want to give an example that deals explicitly with a matter of immense importance that is coming up in the lift. In fact, it is not merely in the lift; the lift has come up and the doors are opening. Monsieur Fillon, the French Prime Minister, came over to see the Prime Minister specifically about this issue, and I have here the exclusive interview in The Times with Monsieur Fillon. I also had the opportunity to meet the French Minister for Europe and discuss the matter with him personally and privately.
There is no doubt about what they want or what they intend, which is effectively a twin-track treaty, which is a treaty entered into by us and the rest of the European Union—that is, with all 27 member states, in order to legitimise it within the framework of the treaty arrangements—so that they get their treaty and, within that treaty, an arrangement specifically designed to exclude the United Kingdom, even though we would be gravely affected by it. It would apply only to those other member states.
Clause 4(4) refers to
“the making of any provision that applies only to member States other than the United Kingdom”.
They look like innocuous words, but what do they actually mean? That exemption condition—in other words, no referendum, to put it bluntly and simply—means that there would be no opportunity for a referendum if the other member states agreed to go down that route. They may well do that, despite all the protestations to the contrary, some of which were rather subtly indicated by the Prime Minister in his press conference, albeit without excluding the idea of any such treaty; rather, it was merely on the supposition that that might not affect us as much as we believe, or as I believe the British people would believe if they saw it in black and white. What do those provisions include? In particular, they include arrangements of that kind relating to fiscal, political, social and employment measures, not to mention other matters that would affect the relationship between us and the rest of the European Union. A massive juggernaut would be created, through a form of extremely enhanced co-operation between those member states, that would have an enormous impact on the United Kingdom.
I have been looking at the balance of payments between us and the other member states. The figures, which I got from the Library, only bring us up to 2009, before the catastrophe that hit Europe occurred, and they are alarming. The imbalance in the balance of payments between us and the other member states has been moving critically in the wrong direction. I could give the precise figures—I may do so later—but we only have to consider the following example, which was on the “Today” programme this morning. If one had listened to the programme, one would have heard about Belgium, which is in massive crisis, with protests and people on the streets, and no Government for 22 months. Greece is in absolute chaos, with protests and implosion, while Ireland, with its political crisis, is totally imploding. Spain has 4 million unemployed, with 40% youth unemployment and people on the streets on a massive scale today. Similar problems are also occurring in Italy, and there have been riots and serious unrest in France, too.
The bottom line is that Europe is not working according to the economic governance that has been prescribed. Yet under what is proposed, the opportunity to address the very kind of treaty that would enhance the ability to confront us with a massive juggernaut of policies that have been going wrong—policies that would undermine the opportunity to grow from our 45% to 50% investment in Europe—would be severely depleted. That would be the most damaging kind of treaty that could be entered into. Indeed, as I said in The Times on the day that the French Prime Minister came over, it would be the kind of treaty that I would expect our Prime Minister to veto on behalf of the British people. However, we cannot have confidence that that would happen, because of the argument being presented. This Bill was introduced on 11 November, when we know that treaties of the kind that I have just described were already being anticipated, however damaging and disastrous they would be for the very people of this country who, if they knew the facts, would say, “I insist on a referendum on any treaty relating to arrangements of this kind.”
It would be an abomination for us to be confronted with the kind of arrangements that are being put into place—arrangements that would be so damaging to our growth and our relations with the European Union. That is why I say that this exemption provision has to be taken out of the Bill, for precisely the reasons that I have given. I do not need to enlarge on that point, but I absolutely insist that these provisions should be taken out. I look to the Minister, if he thinks that I am wrong, to give me a reasoned answer as to why.
I rise to speak to amendment 11, on which I hope the Committee will have time to vote. The amendment goes to the heart of what is wrong with the Bill. There are plenty of other things wrong with it: it is inconsistent, and all kinds of other things, but let us leave that aside for the moment. The hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) made an important point when he said that there was not a particularly clear party political divide on Europe, and that there were pros and cons on both sides. Very few people vote for their Member of Parliament because of the candidate’s view on Europe. They do, however, have a sense that, in a parliamentary democracy involving the Crown in Parliament, the House will ultimately have to decide on these matters.
What worries me about the whole construct of the Bill, which purports to strengthen Parliament, is that it will actually do no such thing. There is a sense of “Oh God, make me virtuous, but not in this Parliament”, and, because one Parliament cannot bind another, God knows what will happen in the next one. However, the default position will introduce the judiciary into the proceedings. It was bad enough that, when we were discussing parliamentary sovereignty, we were seriously asking whether it was a common law concept that would be open to judicial interpretation. It is not. The default position is that there must be a substantive vote in the Commons, and that that must be the ultimate decider if there is any doubt. There are manifold reasons why people have lost trust in the political process, but it is true to say that all parties have a tendency to behave differently once they are in government. They are much less inclined to ask the people than they were when they were out of government.
I am fundamentally in favour of the accession of Turkey to the European Union, but I would not like to go out and campaign in a referendum on that question. The Bill calls for referendums on significant changes. At the time when Turkey might accede to the European Union, its population will be larger than that of Germany. It will be the largest country in the EU by population, and its voting weight would therefore be larger than that of any other country. Anyone who argued that Turkey’s accession did not represent a significant change would be living in cloud cuckoo land.
My issue with a referendum on Turkish accession is that it would not really be within the jurisdiction of the House. Yes, we can hold a referendum on any transfer of powers from this country to the EU, and potentially veto that transfer. However, if the rest of Europe wanted Turkey to join the EU, we would have very little recourse to any action such as holding a referendum. That is my objection to the point about a referendum on Turkish accession.
I genuinely do not want to be patronising, but I might be about to sound patronising. An accession treaty would still have to be decided on by this House. We would have a say on whether Turkey would join. We might also go further and ask the people whether it should happen. Also, on the question of the transfer of new powers, there are very few areas—apart from the questions of a European standing army and joining the euro—in which the European Union does not already have powers in some shape or form. So this is not just a question of new powers; it is also a question of the strength of powers. If there were a question on the accession of Macedonia, I could argue that that was so insignificant that it would not affect our powers. However, the accession of a country such as Turkey is massive. So, to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s question: this House—or perhaps the people—will decide whether Turkey joins the European Union, because the accession of a member state that would be larger than any of the others represents a significant change.
I shall return to amendment 11. There is so much wrong with this place, and my lungs are still full of dust, so my voice will go at any moment. I am sure that that will be a great relief to quite a number of people, not least those on my own Front Bench.
Amendment 11 states:
“If the Minister’s opinion is that the effect of that provision in relation to the United Kingdom is not significant the Minister must seek Parliamentary approval for his opinion”,
and the approval must be on the basis of a substantive vote. If we make this open to judicial review—I am fully aware that some argue that judicial review is never on the substance, but only on whether the Government misled themselves in the process or incorrectly applied the law—we need to be aware that if this House allows decisions to be taken outside, it will weaken itself.
Let me finish with this observation. If this House has failed—and failed miserably—on one issue, it is on the scrutiny of matters European, although this is no reflection on the European Scrutiny Committee, which does its best. Things move at a very different pace with respect to Europe and they always come in small bits and pieces, making it difficult to judge whether they are significant. We can see what happens with Governments of all parties whenever anyone raises any doubts—over European arrest warrants, for example. On that issue, the previous Government said, “Oh, stop all this paranoia. This is never going to happen. Dream on”. Then, from the moment they are in opposition they start saying, “Oh, do you know, I never realised this was going to happen. With hindsight, I wouldn’t have done this”. That has been the story for the last 30 years. We have a Bill before us now and we have an opportunity to improve it, so let us not start saying that the default position lies with some authority outside this House. The issues must keep coming back to this place and we should vote on them.
Is not the logic of the hon. Lady’s position that the significance condition in clause 3, talking about the simplified original procedure, should have been in clause 2 and then applied to all issues relating to referendums? Why, then, was that not a Labour amendment instead of the rather strange committee-based structure that Labour Front-Bench Members have proposed?
There are plenty of inherent inconsistencies both in the original Bill and in the amendments. I was involved in the tabling of amendment 11, which makes it clear that if there is any doubt, it should be resolved by this House.
As a final observation, in our Parliament, the Executive always has a permanent majority. We can rely on the strength of this House only if there are sufficient Back-Bench Members who defy their Front-Bench Members. I see the Conservative Benches full of Members, so let me point out frankly that tonight provides them with a chance to show whether they have the guts and the courage of their convictions. They said all sorts of things in the process of their election and now they have an opportunity to defy their Front-Bench team, support an amendment tabled by a majority of Members of their own side and restore faith to this place.
What a great pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart). As to the generality of her comments, I found nothing in what she expressed to the Committee to contradict my experience over five years of the European Scrutiny Committee. I intend to be as brief as possible, because I know that other Members wish to speak and that important amendments on other issues are due for debate later. I am sure that my hon. Friends share my wish to debate those important issues, particularly accession.
Let me say a few words in support of amendment 11, on which I shall seek a separate vote and hope I am lucky enough to achieve it. By way of introduction I should say that, in seeking to establish that a referendum is required before certain steps are taken, the Bill is a great improvement on the existing position. The Bill is also a significant improvement in requiring other steps, such as an Act of Parliament or a vote of this House where a referendum is not required.
I am genuinely concerned, however, that there remain some very significant gaps in the scheme of the Bill, and I believe that it is at this point in our detailed scrutiny that we should try to fill those gaps. It will be very disillusioning for all those whom we have promised and have led to expect that there will be a referendum on great transfers of power or great decisions in the European Union if that referendum does not take place. We want to do all that we can to avoid that sense of disillusionment. It is against that background that I seek to deal with the problem of the significance condition, to which hon. Members have referred.
Simply, amendment 11 would give Parliament a vote on whether certain transfers of power to the European Union are significant enough to warrant a referendum. As the Bill stands, the decision on whether matters are significant enough is in the hands of the Minister alone, subject to a challenge in the courts. Parliament does not get a say, however, at least on the question of whether there should be referendum.
I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend, not least because I put my name to his amendment. If the significance condition was not met, and therefore the Government were not proposing a referendum, do I understand correctly that legislation would still have to be brought to the House? If so, would the House not get an opportunity to give an opinion on whether the significance condition was met in any case? Will he clarify that?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting his name to my amendment, and it is indeed the case that, whether or not the significance condition is met, there will have to be an Act of Parliament to give approval to what is proposed. However, there would be no requirement for a vote in the House on whether to hold a referendum, and there should be such a requirement in the Bill. I will endeavour to explain how relying on an Act of Parliament would be very inferior. If hon. Members want an illustration, they will see none better than all the vicissitudes of parliamentary process that we are experiencing this afternoon in trying to amend the Bill. For example, if this evening we do not reach the question of whether to hold a referendum on an accession treaty, the matter will fall, and unless it is chosen for debate on Report, again subject to all the vicissitudes of the parliamentary process, it will simply not get considered, even though it is very important. That might also happen in future, and that is why relying simply on amending parliamentary legislation is very inferior to putting a requirement on the face of the Bill.
Is there not an important difference, however, between the circumstances today and those that would prevail in the context of future legislation that the Government concluded was not sufficiently significant? Putting such a killer amendment to the Bill would mean that no Member who would have supported that amendment if it had been called should have any reasonable basis to support the Bill on Third Reading.
The point could also be made that we have a very friendly Government who have given us five days—we would have liked a bit more time—for debate in a proper way. Those of us who can remember the treaty of Lisbon being taken through the House will remember how guillotines can be applied and how very important issues can go without being debated at all. I seem to remember that we debated the entire foreign and security policy and the question of common defence in about 45 minutes.
There is that point, but I think that my right hon. Friend would find that it is all subject to the vicissitudes of parliamentary process, and such a reliance is inferior to placing a requirement in the Bill. In future, if the argument were advanced for a referendum, he and I might see a Minister stepping forward to the Dispatch Box and saying, “It is all very well hon. Gentlemen arguing for a referendum. When we had the European Union Bill, it was decided not to make it a requirement for Parliament to have a vote, and to leave it to the Minister alone to decide whether the matter was significant.” To coin a phrase, that would be a killer argument.
May I put it to my hon. Friend that if we accept the premise of my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr Dorrell) that there is no point putting the amendment in the Bill because the Act will have to come before Parliament in any case, we might as well ask, “Why are we bothering with the Bill at all?” The whole basis of the Bill is to ensure that the Government’s feet are held to the fire over the definition of the treaty. The whole business of significance is totally malleable. If my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood does not understand that we need to treat such matters differently from how we treated them in the past, I honestly expect to see him in the Opposition Lobby on Third Reading.
My hon. Friend makes a very fair point. Why are we making all the other requirements for a referendum clear on the face of the Bill if we can simply tack something on to Report or Third Reading? Why are we bothering to go through the whole process? To leave out this question, when we are making all those other requirements, would leave a significant gap, and in times to come we might contemplate with some regret our failure to fill in that gap. I cannot see the great problem with requiring a vote of the House to approve a Minister’s opinion. On these Benches, and probably in other parts of the House, Members stood on a manifesto that promised greater parliamentary scrutiny, and this is an opportunity to fulfil that promise. I can see no great obstacle to doing that.
In supporting amendment 11, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he is aware, as I became recently when the Finnish delegation came over, that Ministers in Finland—and certain other member states—have established a very good practice whereby they must appear before the Finnish Parliament’s equivalent of the European Scrutiny Committee to ensure that there is compatibility between what goes on in Parliament and what the Minister decides on such important matters?
With his great experience, my hon. Friend makes an important point, and there are similar arrangements in the Danish Parliament. The House should seek to have the best arrangements possible. I welcome right hon. and hon. Friends’ movement in the right direction, but if they do not move on this point, they leave a significant gap in future. Briefly, I will try to explain how big a gap that could be.
There are only two clauses that cover a statement of significance by a Minister and to which the significance test applies. The others all concern competences or changes in the voting procedure. However, these two clauses are very important, as they cover the transfers of power that are apt to be made under the simplified revision procedure of article 48(6) referred to in clause 4. I will give way to the Minister for Europe, who is looking very interested in these points, if he disagrees with me. The powers that Ministers decide are significant enough to warrant a referendum, if they are transferred to the European Union, are those that will come to the House as a result of the simplified revision treaty. That important procedure was introduced specially by the treaty of Lisbon. I will give way to any Member, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr Dorrell), who wants to disagree. That procedure made it easier and quicker to make constitutional change, and to bring about a transfer of power from nation states to the European Union.
We have spent some time debating whether we should have had a referendum on the treaty of Lisbon, the treaty of Maastricht, the treaty of Amsterdam or the treaty of Nice. However, under the simplified revision treaty, a treaty in those forms is not required. There is no requirement for a convention and all the other lengthy procedural steps that preceded the treaty of Lisbon. It is simply a matter that can be agreed between the member states at a Council meeting, and then approved by the individual Parliaments. The whole point of the simplified revision treaty was to make it quicker and easier to integrate powers in the European Union. It is a sort of “speeding up of European integration” provision. The provisions that are subject to a ministerial test of significance are the ones that will ensure that these matters are brought before the House. They embody the procedure of simplified treaty revision. There are only two of them, but they are very important. All the other provisions—or at least the preceding ones, which deal with competence—would require a full constitutional process under the ordinary treaty revision procedure with which we are all so familiar.
Surely the whole point of the simplified revision procedure is that it relates to changes that are relatively uncontentious and therefore insignificant. That is quite an important factor. Moreover, as even those changes will require an Act of Parliament, they will be subject to a vote in the House of Commons.
We have just been debating the hon. Gentleman’s second point, but I shall say more about it shortly. However, I think that if he studies the Bill he will find that if he votes in favour of the clause, he will be voting in favour of the possibility of a referendum if the Government consider the effect of the provision concerned to be significant enough. It is not a question of whether it might be significant enough, otherwise the clause would not be in the Bill. If a Minister says that it is significant enough there will be a referendum, and I welcome that. It is a question of how we decide whether it is significant enough for a referendum. Should we leave that decision to a Minister, or should it be made by means of a vote in the House of Commons and the other place?
I find amendment 11 very attractive, because it would ensure that the Minister was subjected to a vote in both Houses. But what would happen if sweeping powers were passed to the European Union which anyone would describe, objectively, as significant, if both Houses were whipped to ram the legislation through, and if they did so? Where is the backstop to ensure that the British people are not cheated out of a referendum in such a case?
It would be a matter for this House and the other place to express their opinion and to vote for a referendum. That is in addition to all the other procedural steps contained in the Bill. It is not a case of either/or. We propose a further process: indeed, a further safeguard against the granting of significant powers to the European Union, as well as the powers for which the Bill already provides. I know that my hon. Friend is concerned about that issue.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous with his time.
Surely even provisions that the Minister considers to be insignificant must be subject to a vote in the House of Commons, as an Act of Parliament will still be involved, and surely the backstop referred to by the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) is the ability of Members to vote against the Bill concerned and defeat it if they disagree with it so strongly.
I do not wish to be unkind to the hon. Gentleman, but I believe that I dealt with that point in my reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover. As I have said, this is not an either/or situation; the amendment provides an additional safeguard. I repeat that the powers that are transferred may or may not be significant, and this House and the other place may or may not vote in favour of the transfer. It is a question of whether the decision is made by Parliament or by an individual Minister—a Minister of the Crown, as the Bill puts it.
As my hon. Friend knows, I have considerable sympathy with his amendment, but I wonder whether he may be looking a gift horse in the mouth. Given that an Act of Parliament is superior to a resolution of the House, if a resolution of the House were rushed through with remarkably little time and heavily whipped, it would be a great deal harder to insist on a referendum when the stage of the Act of Parliament was reached. Although, on first reading, I rather like my hon. Friend’s amendment, I am increasingly concerned that if it were passed, those of us who wish to insist on a referendum would have a harder task to fulfil.
My hon. Friend has clearly given the matter great consideration, but I think that he is wrong, and that if others agree with him, they are wrong as well. The procedure for which my amendment provides is exactly the same as that which the Government propose in other parts of the Bill relating to other transfers of power, including those relating to the title V provisions on justice and home affairs. If my proposed procedure is defective, so is the Government’s proposed procedure, because the terms of the amendment are the same as the Government’s. If the Minister’s opinion was that the effect was not significant enough to warrant a referendum and Parliament did not agree with that opinion, there would have to be a referendum, because the significance test would not have been met. That provision is in the Bill, so I do not think that it could be any stronger.
The opinion of the Minister will in fact be the opinion of the Whips, who will wish to ensure consistency in the Act of Parliament to which reference has been made. For practical purposes, my hon. Friend is right. If Parliament has said that it does not approve of the opinion of the Minister, it will be an awful lot more difficult for the Bill to be whipped; and if the Whips did that, they would be in defiance of the very sovereignty to which I have referred repeatedly during our debates on the Bill.
My hon. Friend is right. The amendment follows the scheme of the Bill. Unless a Minister says that the transfer of power is insignificant, there will have to be a referendum, because the significance condition will not have been met. The amendment provides that if the significance condition is met because the Minister says that the transfer is sufficiently significant, there must be a vote in the House to prove that what the Minister has said is correct, and if the significance condition is not met, there must be a referendum.
Broadly, the question is this: does Parliament decide, or does a single Minister decide? The Government propose that a single Minister should decide, but, as my hon. Friend knows, there is a fall-back position, namely that the Minister should be challenged not in the House but by means of judicial review. I find that somewhat strange, as did some of the distinguished academic witnesses who gave evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee.
Under the Bill, if one of our constituents is aggrieved by what the Government propose, his recourse will be not to his Member of Parliament but to the courts, through judicial review. I think that that in itself sends a very odd signal. What should I tell a constituent who comes to my surgery and complains about the European Union, as some of my constituents do when it introduces a regulation that has an adverse effect on their jobs or companies, or when they disagree with some transfer of power? Should I say, “I am sorry. You may want a referendum, but you have come to the wrong place: you need to visit the solicitor’s office down the road”? I do not think that that is a very satisfactory state of affairs. We are told that clause 18 entrenches parliamentary sovereignty, but I think that if we adopt the proposal in this clause, we will bypass that.
A Minister’s decision can be subject to a judicial review, and, under the Bill, the House would have an opportunity to insist on a referendum. If, on the other hand, the House voted against a referendum in a resolution, that would not be subject to judicial review, because procedures in the House cannot be reviewed by any court. I am beginning to think that the Government’s proposal for an Act is a stronger safeguard, because the Minister’s decision could be challenged and then voted on as part of the legislative process, whereas if the House were whipped to oppose a referendum, that would not be subject to any judicial review.
I fear that I must part company with my hon. Friend if he is suggesting that our democratic safeguard should lie in recourse to the courts rather than to Parliament. I am afraid that I must put Parliament first. In any event, as was demonstrated by evidence given to the European Scrutiny Committee by esteemed legal experts, it is very unlikely that a challenge to a decision by either a Minister or the House of Commons would succeed in a judicial review. I think that we are being led down a blind alley. In my opinion, even if the possibility of a judicial review of a ministerial decision had been contemplated in the explanatory notes or in ministerial statements, judges would be extremely reluctant to challenge a political decision on the significance of a particular transfer of power. I also believe that the fact that we are contemplating such a step as the main challenge to a Minister’s decision risks undermining the House of Commons while not providing any further safeguard.
Although the Committee has rightly said that a judicial review might be considered unlikely in certain circumstances, the key question is what Parliament has said about the circumstances in which a referendum should be required. We should bear in mind above all else the fact that we in Parliament should decide what is in the interests of our own constituents. We are here to give them the opportunity on these matters—that is part of the Government’s overall case which, regrettably, fails on a number of tests as we go through these proceedings. The object of the exercise is to ensure that the people of this country have the right to decide on matters relevant to their daily lives. Regrettably, the fancy franchises being thrown up by these exemption conditions and significance arrangements are invading the central question, which is whether the people of this country should be allowed to decide after we have made our judgment on their behalf.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. The long and short of it is that the Bill provides that unless the significance condition is met and it is decided that a transfer of power is not significant enough to warrant a referendum—some transfers of power will not be significant enough, whereas others will be—there will not be a referendum. As the Bill stands, the Minister alone will decide whether that condition has been met and this House of Commons will not have the chance for a separate vote, before an Act of Parliament, on whether a referendum should be held. Even if someone were lucky enough to find the time and all the rest of it to table an amendment on this during the consideration of a Bill, it is unlikely such an amendment will succeed if this is not contemplated in this Bill. The Minister would simply say, “The Government of the day decided that there were certain occasions when a referendum would be required and this was the procedure for dealing with a referendum in these cases. It was decided that a Minister’s opinion was the test of significance or not, so this does not apply.” I do not see such an amendment being a successful avenue or a good defence to which to turn.
My amendment would provide an important safeguard, which is in addition to there being an Act. I welcome the provision for an Act, because that is a good thing. To be fair, an Act of Parliament is not required in these circumstances at the moment, because the transfers of power under the simplified revision procedure are simply subject to the resolution of both Houses. The Bill’s proposals are therefore a step forward, but we could do so much better. If we do not make the change that I am proposing, we will be leaving a big gap.
I am very attracted to amendment 11, but I am struggling to understand one thing. It has been debated, but perhaps my hon. Friend can give me some clarity on it. He rightly says that an Act of Parliament will be required, but a Bill that is whipped will surely get through. Why does he believe that his amendment will be any more successful here?
For the same reason that placing something in a Bill is a stronger defence—it has stronger legislative authority—than leaving it to chance in the future. My amendment is a safeguard in addition to the Act of Parliament that will be required, and including in the Bill requirements on a referendum would make things legislatively stronger.
We come back to the question outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), “Why put any of these requirements in the Bill and why provide these 44 situations where a referendum is required, given that each time we have an Act of Parliament for a treaty change, as we would have to have, we could simply do the same thing then?” That argument is being run in certain quarters, but it makes a mockery of the whole Bill. I do not want to be too unkind to those who promote that argument, but I merely say that it was fully ventilated during the European Scrutiny Committee’s deliberations and it was dismissed, and not only in one report. We produced a majority and a minority report, which disagreed on almost everything but agreed that a change needed to be made on the significance test. When one understands the two spectrums of opinion in the European Scrutiny Committee, one can see the measure of achievement in uniting the two.
It seems inconceivable that if parliamentary approval for the Minister’s opinion were denied precisely because of the arguments that have been heard in the House of Commons, the Government would then say, “We are going to enact this anyway. Parliament has said that it disagrees with the Minister’s opinion that such and such applies, but we are going to pass this by way of an Act of Parliament.” That is just not real. The real decision would be taken on the assessment of the opinion of the Minister and that would be properly gone into if my hon. Friend’s excellent amendment were accepted.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Hon. Members will just have to face the fact that although the Bill is a step forward and contains very good provisions, we must not leave gaps. If we leave this gap, we leave a get-out clause to be used in the future. Given the volume of change that could come through the simplified revision procedure, that could prove very important indeed and we may regret our decision in time to come. I cannot see what the enormous problem is with having this requirement in the Bill. I am used to hearing the argument that something could be done in a better way and to hearing technical arguments, but my experience is that when such arguments are put before the House, they usually have little real basis. If we want to have something, we should vote for it. I see no reason of policy or substance that is an obstacle to my proposal. Perhaps the Minister will tell us why. He has been very reasonable and persuasive on many other points in the Bill.
He has been friendly. He has been a model of charm and ministerial competence, but he has not yet produced any credible reason why we cannot have a vote in Parliament to decide whether something is significant enough to trigger a referendum, as opposed to leaving it simply to a Minister. What is wrong with trusting Parliament?
I rise to speak to the amendments standing in the names of my Labour Front-Bench colleagues. People elect their MP to speak up for them in Parliament and that is what they expect us to do. They expect us to speak up, to do business for them and to do certain work for them because they have put us here and they cannot spend every minute of every day looking at every detail that they want us to look at. They expect the party in government to tackle the problems of the day. When I say that the general public do not want numerous referendums on technical matters it is not because I doubt their ability to study the issues and make up their own minds—they could of course spend their time doing that. What people tend to say to me is, “Nia, it is your job. You’ve been elected to do this. We want you to look at these things and tell us the best ways forward.” That is not because they cannot do this themselves. They expect us to do the nitty-gritty work on the legislation.
Indeed. I shall be dealing with that point shortly, because it is very important. There is a huge difference between the attitude now in Wales and the one prior to 1999, when people were very excited and enthused about the setting up of a new institution, there was a lot of media coverage and a lot of people were talking about it. With five weeks to go before the vote on 3 March, people are not particularly interested. They are saying, “This is a technical difference. If it is a matter of making the process better and simpler, so that things can be done in the Assembly rather than in Parliament, could you not just get on with that and do it?” That is not because people are not interested, because they do not appreciate what the Assembly is doing or because they do not accept that we have different ideas about how to run the health service and education and about how to protect the education maintenance allowance; it is because referendum fatigue is setting in. People are saying that on the big issue they want to have a vote—they want to say that there is going to be an Assembly—but on the technical issue they are saying, “You are telling us that there are better ways of doing things. We would like you to look at the detail, rather than for us to have to do that all the time.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that an important issue is involved in the case of the Welsh referendum? It concerns whether the Welsh Assembly will have primary or secondary powers, which is an important constitutional issue. Despite that, it is very difficult to get people engaged and to encourage them to make a decision according to the arguments on that constitutional point.
Absolutely. That is the important point and that is why we are calling for a committee to be set up. That would provide the opportunity for the issues to be discussed. If the subject were important and interesting, there would be media interest and lots of lobbying and, as with any work that is done in Committee, the issue would become one that people considered. The whole point of having any committee is that it can make that difference. Committees can do the work on the detail. An innocuous little detail can turn out to have a major impact and that point can be uncovered in Committee. Likewise, something that seems quite big to start with will, when it is considered in detail, be shown to do not much more than maintain the status quo.
As I understand the Opposition’s proposals, there will be one committee comprising Members from both Houses, who will then separate and go back to their relevant Chambers to carry the argument in favour of or against a referendum. Perhaps the hon. Lady can enlighten me given that her Front-Bench spokesman was unable to do so. What will happen in the event of a clash between the Houses?
It is very clear. The idea is that if one Chamber does not think there is a need for a referendum, there will be no referendum. If both Chambers think there is such a need, there will be a referendum. Clearly, the committee’s recommendations will be considered and we will ask whether the matter is of major significance. One would expect any matter of major significance to create excitement in both Houses.
So whereas the coalition proposes to legislate to ensure that the people have a referendum, the Opposition are proposing a committee of Members of the two Houses, both of which have a veto, which will mean that we might not have a referendum at all. Is that the position?
The hon. Gentleman has to understand that the committee will make recommendations and it is not about what the committee will say. When the committee comes back, we will not all automatically do what it says; it will make recommendations. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) talked about collective memory, what it is and how important it is. The people on the committee might well have an enormous amount of experience and the people who are likely to want to be involved or to consider the detail will have done so previously. As she pointed out, ministerial teams often change and have to pick up a brief very quickly, so they will not necessarily have that knowledge.
The idea is that the committee should consider the detail, sift out what really matters and make a recommendation, but the Houses will not have to take that recommendation at face value. If the issue is of major significance, surely by that time some interest will have arisen, people will be doing their own research and people will be coming to the Chamber with plenty to say.
My constituents are saying to me, “You do the nitty-gritty and sort out the bits and pieces. When you have done that, you can tell us whether you think that this is a matter of major significance.” That is the idea—the committee would bring that information to the House, and this House and the other place would make the decision.
I am saying that my constituents say that there is often detail to be considered before we can decide whether a change will have a major impact. In the Bill, there seems to be great confusion about what a power actually means. We do not seem to have clarity in the Bill. My constituents are saying, “This is the sort of work that you need to do. When you, in Parliament, can tell us whether you think an issue is significant the door is open for a referendum if that is what you think best.”
On the point about when the decision is made, will the hon. Lady enlighten me on the time scale over which the joint committee would report? It is part of a ratification procedure and there needs to be some defined time scale that I do not see in the amendment.
The hon. Gentleman raises a significant point. One difficulty about European legislation is that dealing with these issues often takes an enormous amount of time. Often, developments take place over a considerable amount of time whereas a referendum gives a snapshot of the mood of the country at one time. That might mean that people vote on different issues. It is important that the committee would have the opportunity to go through the issues and decide what is and what is not important. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do the situation in respect of Europe, what has to be decided and how it has to be ratified.
Given that we are all agreed that any change would be subject to an Act of Parliament, what is to stop Parliament as a whole subjecting the change to such scrutiny and even possibly suggesting an amendment on a referendum as the Act went through? I am sure there would be many volunteers on the Government Benches to draft the amendment.
Perhaps it would be better to have a cross-party committee and to take the matter away from the partisan approach. There are many areas on which there is cross-party agreement on Europe and many issues on which feelings are not particularly partisan. I suspect that there are more differences between Members on the Government Benches than there are between Members on the Opposition Benches and others on the Government Benches.
Is not the constitutional position normally that this House is superior to the other place on manifesto commitments, on finance and on secondary legislation where the law is already decided? Is it not a flaw of new clause 9 that we are giving a veto to the other place on whether we consult the electorate? That is an extraordinary position.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will enlighten us a little more on his position later. The important thing is that we are talking about the sovereignty of Parliament and the opportunity for us to have that debate and to have a say. Frankly, I think we all agree that there is a role for a committee to sort out the detail.
In many areas, there is general consensus that we do not want to see swathes of power wafted away to Europe. My right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor has always made a very forceful case for keeping out of the euro and I dare say that many Government Members agree that that is a good position to take. We are trying to provide the opportunity for greater safeguards and for a committee to consider matters that would sift out the unnecessary and trivial, focus on the issues that matter and ensure that we have the discussions that we need.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for being so generous in taking interventions. As I understand it, she is saying that she was sent here by her constituents to do the detail, work out the complicated stuff and then tell them whether they need a referendum. Were she selected by Mr Speaker—by an entirely independent process, and not by the Whips, as would seem to be the case—to be on that committee, what sort of detail would there need to be to make her say, “Yes, I vote for a referendum on this issue”? What kinds of subjects does she think would merit referendums?
We have spent a considerable time in the European Scrutiny Committee listening to experts on particular issues. We would need to ask what powers are being given away, what would not be the same as it is now and where the qualified majority vote would become a simple majority. We would need to ask, “Is that acceptable? Is there an issue of sovereignty? Would we be giving away something that we have always had in this Parliament to a European super-structure?” Those are the things that we would want to consider in detail. The whole point is that the committee makes a recommendation; the committee does not simply live by its own views. I have had few letters or e-mails from anybody about a referendum, even during the last Parliament when there was quite a fuss about it in the media. I must have had three or four letters or e-mails throughout the five years of the previous Parliament, when the matter was quite an issue in the press, so I do not think it is such a huge and exciting topic out there as the hon. Gentleman might think.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again; it is very kind of her. Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), the hon. Lady said that the shadow Chancellor had kept us out of the euro. He has ensured that we will never be able to go in, because of our massive level of debt. Would a debate on entering the euro go before the committee before anybody could decide on it in either House?
I will address my remarks to the question before us. The issue that the hon. Gentleman raises is much wider and would merit full debate in the House before any decisions were made. It may well be outside the remit of the Bill. It is a matter that any Government would want to discuss thoroughly. I can hardly see it being a popular move without proper discussion and consensus.
We need to remain in Europe. We do not want the label that Giscard d’Estaing threw upon us in the Lisbon treaty discussions, when he said that the UK would opt out of this and opt out of that, and that we were for ever opting out. We got a reputation as the country that cried wolf all the time and did not engage with the serious issues. It is important that we do not become the spoilt child of Europe. We must take our part; we must stand up and be counted; and we want a mature and sensible approach to what merits a referendum and what does not.
In conclusion, I fully support the idea of a special referendum committee being set up, which would have as its remit to look into the necessary factors and then make a recommendation to both Houses about whether a referendum were needed.
I see the Bill as a ground-breaking and essential force for good. It is important to understand that the context of the Bill is the reaction of many people throughout the land against the denial of a referendum on an EU constitution renamed and rebadged as the Lisbon treaty, but not changed.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), and a privilege to hear from a Member of Parliament who has not had the ire of constituents come down upon her head for not standing up for a referendum on Europe. I congratulate her on having a constituency which is clearly full of people who are delighted with the European Union and delighted never to be consulted by means of a referendum. It is a fine constituency that she has. No doubt she has the odd housing claim—
Surely the hon. Gentleman recognises that people are not concerned about constitutional abstractions. They are concerned about their jobs, their children’s education and their health. Those are the issues that matter to people. If he does not realise that, he is not in this world.
The shadow Minister for Europe makes a fair point. In my constituency, yes, people’s prime concern is that Labour all but closed the hospital down and that we will be getting a new hospital. They are concerned that they lost jobs and money. They worry about how they will get by, and about the massive amount of borrowing and taxation. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. My right hon. and hon. Friends in the Government are trying hard to sort out that difficult problem. That will take time.
I take issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr David). Constitutional matters underlie everything else that happens. For example, constitutionally we chose not to join the euro. Had we joined, our economy would now be utterly wrecked, but in fact it will survive.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is highly knowledgeable and skilled in European matters, for making the point far better than I could. I was about to make it myself. Yes, of course schools, hospitals and the economy matter, but what also matters is our sense of nation and our independence as a member state in the European Union, not as a state in a federation. That is essential, and it is essential that we were not in the euro, for the exact reasons that he set out.
Had we been in the euro, we may well have found ourselves in the predicament that we see across the Irish sea or in southern Europe, given the reckless borrowing that took place over the previous decade, which brought our country to the brink of bankruptcy. I, for one, am glad that we did not join the euro. It is the one thing on which I congratulate the new shadow Chancellor and the former Prime Minister—preventing Tony Blair, when he was Prime Minister, from going into the euro. It was the only spark of light and quality in that Government. I am hard pushed to think of any other.
I return to the Bill, having been led astray by those gentle and generous interventions. I shall begin by focusing on clause 11. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) made a series of powerful points about the primacy of Parliament. His argument was that we cannot trust the Ministers of the day because they have their own agenda. If they do not consider a matter significant, they will certify it as not significant. Some check and balance is needed. There must be a resolution of both Houses of Parliament.
When I first thought about that, I found it attractive, but on reflection my concern is that if the Minister considers a matter not to be significant, he will toddle down to the Whips Office and have a chat to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury. He will say, “Look, chief, this isn’t significant. Let’s just whip this vote through the Commons, whip it through the Lords and push it through.” That is what would happen.
I defer to my hon. Friend. His independence of mind and spirit is well known, and his championship of the cause of our nation in the matter of Maastricht is well recognised and on the record of the House. I would be proud if I were half as strong, resolute and bold as he is. I hope the day will come. It is, as everyone knows, a feature of the working of our political process that there will be heavy pressure in both Houses for a Government to get their agenda through.
There is history here, is there not? Were we not told as a nation by a former Minister for Europe, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), that the charter of fundamental rights had no more significance than The Beano? The charter is now incorporated in the Lisbon treaty and we are all suffering from it. A judgment call by a Minister about what is significant could turn out to be very important indeed.
I entirely agree. I remember in times past the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, saying that the Scottish Parliament was a parish council, but it has far more sweeping powers than that. He was making a point about sovereignty and saying that it would not change anything, but a considerable amount of devolution has been given to Scotland. In the same way, the movement towards ever-closer union, which we have seen latterly in the Lisbon treaty, has highlighted the fact that although we are told, “It’s okay, it’s a small step, it won’t make any real difference,” it makes a massive difference.
I will be corrected if am wrong, but I think that about seven of every 10 of our laws are now effectively made in Europe. I have costed that and found that the European Union costs each and every household in this country an average of about £2,000 a year in taxes, which is a substantial sum. The hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) rightly said that our constitution and how we interrelate with Europe are important matters. If he wants to intervene on that point, I will give way.
The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) made light of the matter in saying that we would not obey the Whips, but surely the important point is that when the House makes a decision, we as individual MPs with individual votes that will go on the record must account to our electorates for that. It is possible that the Whips will bully, cajole, press and threaten—I have no experience of these things, of course—but our responsibility is to our electorates. In my constituency, a mini-referendum was won by those calling for a national referendum on the Lisbon treaty, and it was publicised on television and elsewhere. On something as fundamental as constitutional change relating to the European Union, the electorate do care. We are accountable to our electorates first, even though we pay lip service and tip our caps to the Whips from time to time.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. My central concern with clause 11 is that a Minister could say, “This isn’t significant,” and sign over some massive power. The Act of Parliament will then be whipped and rammed through both Houses. An individual, perhaps a constituent of mine in Dover, might then take issue with that because they think that it is significant. How will that constituent have a say? The Bill’s current protection is judicial review, but if we had a whipped vote of both Houses and a resolution that the matter was not significant, that would weigh in the minds of the courts.
I will go further: on this matter I am a renegade among many of my hon. Friends who say that the courts have no place interfering in the business of this House. I am an old-fashioned lawyer, and I take the view that the courts are an important check and balance in our democracy. Perhaps it is just me, but in respect of our political system wishing to ram something through and take away our rights, I always thought that the purpose of the rule of law was to hold back the Executive and act as a check and balance. The purpose of the rule of law—I think this started with Magna Carta, and it has continued in legal documents written since—and the purpose of the courts is to hold back that express, overweening Executive power and ensure that the subject has their say and stands up for their rights. I do not seek to oust the jurisdiction of the courts in determining whether a significant condition has or has not been met, which I think is an important part of the Bill and an important check and balance.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case, but surely the ultimate sanction should not be with the courts, but with Parliament. Having an Act of Parliament as part of the process must be the check. He is not really describing a legal check on the Executive; he is implying that it is a legal check on Parliament, which surely rather threatens the constitutional arguments that some of his hon. Friends made last week in relation to the Bill.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point, so let me to clarify my position. We will hopefully have an Act of Parliament that will state that there will be referendums in the case of matters that are of significance. A Minister might then come along and say that he does not think that a matter is significant. An individual will be able to go to the courts to seek a judicial review, saying that they think that the matter is significant on objective criteria. The court will then rule on that ministerial decision. That has to be right.
What exactly will the courts do on a judicial review? Will they say that the Minister has not followed the correct process in coming to his decision, or will they try to overturn his decision? My hon. Friend is a lawyer, so I would be grateful for his explanation.
I believe that they would refer the decision back to the Minister to take into account relevant considerations, which would prevent a perversity. For example, if a Minister were to say that joining the euro was not significant, and if there were no other checks and balances in the Bill, an individual might decide that the matter was very significant and seek a judicial review. The courts would then tell the Minister that that was a perverse and an unreasonable decision.
In a judicial review, the courts would be concerned about any abuses of power and about whether a public body might have taken decisions that were ultra vires, meaning that they were beyond the powers of that body. The courts have recently been involved in reviewing decisions relating to the royal prerogative. As far as judicial review is concerned, the courts will not interfere with primary legislation or the decisions of this House. It seems perfectly reasonable, therefore, that the administrative courts could act as a safeguard in relation to secondary decisions, such as those taken by a Minister of the Crown on whether a matter is significant.
I completely agree with my hon.—and learned—Friend, who makes the central point. He will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that until recently the courts shied away from reviewing the exercise of prerogative powers. These days, they are far more gung-ho in acting as a check on the decisions of the Executive. We should be in no doubt that the significance condition set out in the Bill is the decision of a Minister, meaning a decision of the Executive. As such, it is amenable to judicial review. In that way, we have the check and balance, which gets us out of the problem that concerns me: the issue of whipped votes being used to ram legislation through Parliament under some future Government. That does not apply to the current Minister, because he is a fine Minister who will use the powers correctly, but what if a future Minister has a more Euro-enthusiastic approach?
The shadow Minister knows from our discussions on clause 18 that it is not possible to do that. Nevertheless, were he to become Minister in future and find the Act tiresome in holding back the floodgates of his Euro-enthusiasm and desire to embrace the greater Europe, he could dispense with the Bill by repealing it. However, he would take a political hit in doing so, because he would be taking away from the British people their right to have a say on the treaties that would follow. Therefore, he would have to be pretty forthright with the electorate in an election manifesto. If he was not, he would be open to the questions and ire of a large section of the British public who would regard that as an issue of concern.
Without further ado, it is right that I discuss new clause 9, which was tabled by the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Foreign Secretary and the shadow Europe Minister. As far as I can see, it proposes a total watering down of everything in the Bill. I have been told by the Clerks that I am not allowed to describe it as a wrecking amendment, but I believe that I am allowed to say that it would, in my humble opinion, wreck the Bill, as far as its purpose and intent are concerned.
Does my hon. Friend agree that new clause 9 demonstrates that the Opposition have not learned the lessons from when they duped the electorate about the proposal for a referendum? In the new clause, they seek to hide the decision-making authority in a committee, but we do not know who the members would be, in what proportion they would be drawn from either House, whether all of them would be elected or whether they would be whipped. In short, it would lack the clarity that the British people want on such a decision about their future in relation to the European Union.
My hon. Friend makes exactly the point that concerns me most. New clause 9(5) states:
“The Committee shall consist of no more than 19 Members”—
19 great and good—
“drawn from both Houses”.
But would it include my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who is so learned and knowledgeable about European matters? Some future Government, operating that selection mechanism, might find that his services were not required, that he was more trouble than he was worth, and that he would talk for too long—perhaps for longer than an hour in Committee—and tie up everyone. In such a manner, they might not include him. I, however, can think of no Member who knows more about the matter than he, except perhaps the hon. Member for Luton North.
Shortly after my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, the hon. Gentleman is a true expert, and whenever he rises to speak I listen with interest and learn.
Would the proposed committee include, for example, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who is highly knowledgeable but does not always take quite the on-message view that her pager instructs? Would it include my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), or his constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell)? I can think of no more expert people to sit on such a committee, but, if the new clause were passed and the Bill changed as advertised, those people—who are so expert and know so much about matters européenne—would not find themselves on it. I have a sense that the Front-Bench teams of whoever was in power, might not include such people. For that reason, new clause 9 is a Trojan horse. Its purpose, in my humble opinion, is to take power away from the people and to stuff it upstairs in a committee; and that, in essence, is the wrong thing to do.
Is there not another problem? Today, we have teased out of the Opposition the fact that the new clause would effectively give the other place a veto. If the House of Lords decided that it did not want a referendum but the House of Commons decided that it did, we would have stalemate and no referendum.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The House of Lords was once a thoughtful, revising Chamber that would have orderly debates and not detain business excessively, but some of the new arrivals seem to have changed the way in which it operates. I am told that the Standing Orders and courtesies of this House prevent me going any further into all that happened in the House of Lords, but we have all read the news and seen the number of marathon sessions, and it is incumbent on some of its newer Members to think of the health of some of its older Members and to be a little more considerate than they have been of late. My hon. Friend is right about the House of Lords: whether we go further into or come out of Europe is a matter that should start in the House of Commons, because this is the House of the people.
Is my hon. Friend struck by the fact that the Opposition appear to wish to increase the power of the unelected Chamber, as it is currently constituted, in a way that one has not seen since at least the Parliament Act 1949 and potentially the Parliament Act 1911? Through their proposed change, they seek to give the House of Lords the power, in effect, to overrule the wishes of the House of Commons.
I entirely agree. My hon. Friend makes a strong and forceful point.
I have another concern about new clause 9. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex, as I have said, fought valiantly for the people to have a say on the Maastricht treaty. If Maastricht were refought and the matter reconsidered, is it likely that out of the Opposition’s proposed committee a referendum would come forth? Many of us have some doubts about that. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in former times made the case that the Amsterdam and Nice treaties should also have been subject to a referendum. If we had had such a committee system, would there have been a referendum? Can the shadow Europe Minister, the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David), tell us whether there would have been a referendum if his committee system had been operational?
We come to the vexed question of Lisbon, when the push for a referendum reached its apogee and the people felt that they were outrageously cheated. If there were a Lisbon question once again, and if the facts were the same or similar, could the new clause 9 committee be relied upon to sit and, in making a determination, to ensure that we had a referendum? If a Government had said in their election manifesto, “We will have a referendum on this matter, the committee will sit, and we will make sure that it recommends a referendum,” would the committee then do so? Some people have grave doubts, because of the Whips’ system, and that is why the new clause should not be the preferred way.
The Bill’s measures on a referendum lock are the way forward. The amendments are all about breaking up that lock, and they would take us back to where we were with the Lisbon treaty, which was rammed through both Houses. The new clause is a concern for that reason. It would water down the referendum lock and leave us with significance tests writ large. Do we want that, or do we want to ensure that the British people have a referendum guarantee? That is very important.
Does my hon. Friend agree—I tried to make this point earlier to the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith)—that in the new clause there is an absence of any time scale for a report by the committee to the House? In itself, that significant omission would lead to more delay and obfuscation and not deal properly with the matter at hand.
I agree strongly. That is the risk: the whole thing could be buried in committee. The new clause is also slightly defective, given that it would allow the committee to
“determine its own procedure…broadly in line with…the Joint Committees of the two Houses.”
That is not sufficiently precise. I defer to those more expert in how such committees are set up, but I am concerned about the defects in the drafting of the new clause.
The Government’s Bill, which the new clause seeks to amend, sets out strict and exact tests on what a referendum would be and details how it would bind Ministers in terms of the law of the land. Those provisions would not be in place if the new clause were passed. We would end up with the classic old Whips’ fix, and we would not have the people’s guarantee.
I believe—because I am a bit old fashioned—in government for the people, by the people and of the people, that that should not perish from this earth, and that my constituents should have a say on the great matters of our times. Given that, the Bill is important and the right step towards more public power. The people and their sovereignty should be recognised, and they should be given that say, which time and again they have been cheated of—to my mind, unacceptably.
New clause 9 would give Parliament more power; I believe in giving the people more power in our modern age. I do not agree with both Houses of Parliament having a veto on a referendum. I do not think that the House of Lords should have a veto on a referendum, particularly given the substantial concern that recent events have given us about what goes on there.
Yes, I agree. The Opposition are in a fix, and new clause 9 is designed to deal with that. On the one hand, they dare not oppose the idea in principle of a referendum and of allowing the British people to be consulted. They are slightly embarrassed by the Lisbon matter. On the other hand, they do not want to come out and say it. We have what can only be described as a devious amendment to stick it all up in committee. They claim that they are all in favour of referendums, while trying to squash the rights of the British people to have a say in a referendum. That is wrong in principle, but it indicates the Opposition’s lack of confidence in their position. It indicates that they do not feel that they are winning the debate on giving the British people a say.