Having had that ample demonstration of the sovereignty of the United Kingdom—the Prime Minister deserves our congratulations on that statement, given the opposition from within the European Union, for example—I can now resume the previous debate.
As I said, I want to cover a number of practical examples. It would be fair to say that 60% or 70% of all our legislation now comes from the European Union. When Members are debating Bills, there is frequently—almost invariably—no way for them to know whether the legislation emanates from EU law. When I was a member of the Statutory Instruments Committee many years ago, I managed to instigate a system to ensure that legislation emanating from the European Union was denoted by an asterisk to show where it came from. It would be extremely helpful for MPs to have that included in all Bills—for convenience, perhaps it could be in the explanatory notes—because if we are not entitled to legislate inconsistently with European law, MPs should know that. As for the proposals in this Bill and the clause that I suggested might be added to it—we come back to the “notwithstanding” formula, which has been brought up about half a dozen times in the last hour and a half—it is important that people should know the extent to which we are trammelled in our legislation. Indeed, many Acts of Parliament would be better understood by the public at large if they knew where the obligations came from.
That is one practical point. The other practical questions relate to the diversity, magnitude and volume of such legislation. We hear a great deal about better deregulation and attempts within the European Union to regulate better, but the statistics are incredibly bad. There is virtually no deregulation going on in the European Union, despite the fact that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has placed a great deal of faith in renegotiating legislation, some of which has a very damaging effect on our potential for growth. In fact, I have recently quoted Lord Mandelson, who said when he was Trade Commissioner that over-regulation from the European Union amounts to 4% of GDP, and Mr Verheugen has demonstrated that over-regulation costs many billions of pounds. The most recent calculation I have seen is that since 1999 European over-regulation has cost the British economy and British business alone £124 billion. This is absolute madness. We are talking about over-regulation and unnecessary regulation, the manner in which it is passed and whether, on the basis of what the Government say—I would be fascinated to know how the Minister will respond to this—there is any intention whatever of following the precept that the Prime Minister—[Interruption.] If I can detach the Minister from his colleague, I would like to draw his attention to a point to which I would like him to respond. [Interruption.]
I am referring directly to the Minister to ask whether he will respond to a specific point made by the Prime Minister when he was Leader of the Opposition, in a speech to the Centre for Policy Studies in 2005 on the repatriation of powers. He stated that it was imperative to ensure British competitiveness by repatriating social and employment legislation. That has now apparently been directly contradicted by his boss, the Deputy Prime Minister, who has said that we will not take any so-called backward steps by repatriating powers. The measures involved include the working time directive and other matters that are absolutely essential to the growth that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be addressing next week in the Budget.
I know that the Minister has a job to do, and I have no doubt that there are moments when that is somewhat unpalatable, but the bottom line is that we are far more interested in the jobs of the British people than in whether a few lines in the coalition agreement override the commitment that was made not only in our manifesto but in statements by the then Leader of the Opposition that we would repatriate social and employment legislation. There is no getting round this, and I want an answer to my question. I am sure that the House does, too.
I can give my hon. Friend that answer now. We did indeed put a number of proposals before the British people, and we did seek a mandate for them. It will not have escaped his notice, however, that we did not win the general election outright, and that we therefore formed a coalition—[Interruption.] He raises his eyebrows, but that is a fact. Earlier, he specifically said that we had sought a mandate for certain things. We did indeed seek such a mandate, but I must draw his attention to the fact that we did not get that mandate. The coalition then set out its policies very clearly in its programme for government.
I hear what the Minister says, but I am afraid I remain unconvinced, not least because the first priority must be to ensure that we achieve growth. Reducing the deficit is supposed to be the fulcrum of the coalition Government’s proposals, but we cannot do that without increasing growth, and we cannot increase growth without reducing the burden of over-regulation, much of which comes from the European Union and has the effect of strangulating British business.
This is not exactly rocket science; it is completely obvious. I understand the Government’s dilemma, but I am certain that, in the national interest, we need to tackle the problem. That is why the formula to which I have referred remains embedded in the Bill. I stress the necessity for Government policy to shift the burden on British business to give it the oxygen it needs. We cannot trade with the European Union when most of its member states, apart from Germany, are in a parlous state of low growth. Many of the countries are virtually bankrupt. It would be completely self-defeating to continue to make all these treaties and pacts on European economic governance and competitiveness in defiance of the fact that Europe is suffering from very low growth.
We need to relieve the burden on small and medium-sized businesses in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe to ensure that we can achieve the growth that we need. That is a perfectly reasonable proposition, and it should not get in the way of the overall objectives of the coalition. Unfortunately, however, it appears that it does, because the Government keep on saying that they will not repatriate these powers. I find it astonishing that we are working against the national interest in this way, rather than working for it. Statements by the Deputy Prime Minister in this context have been extremely unhelpful, but I gather that the Minister is going to associate himself with those remarks and not attempt to give any sustenance to those of us who want the repatriation of powers through this Bill.
My arguments apply not only on the business front—[Interruption.] I see some hon. Members shaking their heads, but this country is in a parlous condition at the moment, and common sense ought to prevail. It is not asking a huge amount to ensure that we have a thriving business community. The situation would be emphatically improved if we were to adopt the policy that I am proposing, and have been proposing for many years. As I said before the interruption for the Prime Minister’s statement, that policy was formally agreed by us in the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill in 2006 when we were in opposition.
I would like to ask my hon. Friend a question. He drew attention to the repatriation of powers and spoke of using the mechanisms of the Bill to achieve that. Although I do not agree with it, I could understand the argument that the Bill would stop us giving away more powers to the European Union, but what mechanism in it would enable us to get back powers that have already been given away?
The use of the sovereignty of Parliament to pass an Act notwithstanding the European Communities Act 1972, which is inherent in the Bill. The Minister might recall that in opening my remarks, I specifically stated that I had a clause in mind that would put it beyond any doubt that the courts would be obliged to give effect to, for example, what the then Opposition properly did when they voted for my amendment to the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill.
We should not be arguing about this. I find it astonishing that I should have to raise the matter in a debate. For a Minister to question whether my remarks are valid in one respect or another is again astonishing. I cannot believe it: I know the Minister’s business background; I know he understands the issues; I know perfectly well that he is caught on the horns of a dilemma. I believe that he would personally love to see the repatriation of powers—and I am sure his constituents would, as well. I am afraid, however, that it will do no good if he offers resistance to my simple, straightforward and common-sense proposals. This involves making adjustments to European Community law and requiring the judiciary to give effect to the latest inconsistent Act. I should not have to repeat myself; it is terribly obvious. It is all so simple that I cannot believe that the Minister would want to offer any kind of resistance to the proposition.
Let me provide a few examples—some from the business environment, some from elsewhere—from the massive tsunami of European law. I have already mentioned the working time directive, which is coming up for consideration by the European Scrutiny Committee. We recommended that proposals relating to it should be debated in the House, so we do not need to debate it immediately. I will say unequivocally, however, that the working time directive is causing a great deal of damage to small businesses. There are also questions in the pipeline relating to waste electrical and electronic equipment, which is a matter of concern to a number of manufacturers and to people in the waste disposal business.
My hon. Friend is generous in giving way. Does he agree that one problem now is that we have lost so much time for debate as a result of the important statement on Libya? I, for one, will withdraw from speaking so that we can reach a conclusion and vote on the Bill. I know that other hon. Members want to speak, so I wonder whether my hon. Friend would reflect on that?
Very much so. I am delighted to say that I have come to the end of my remarks, which were to include a reference to the European arrest warrant and powers of entry, as both those matters are causing problems for the citizens and people of this country. Fair Trials International has written an excellent brief on the necessary amendments, but as it knows all too well, only by using the sort of mechanism I have proposed—the “notwithstanding” formula—would we be able to deal with the problem. Further difficulties relate to rulings on pensions, the insurance question for women and so forth.
In a nutshell, this is a problem crying out for a solution. This Bill will provide it. Other measures are necessary to ensure that we retain the sovereignty of this House while at the same time dealing with the difficulties arising for the people of this country in a wide area of business and other legislation.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in such a fundamental debate. My comments will be brief, partly because although the matter is so fundamental it is also relatively straightforward.
As I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), this country has an evolving constitution, as even a cursory look at the history books will show. Over the best part of the last millennium, the most significant action was perhaps the 1215 Magna Carta, the seed of many of our liberties and freedoms, as mentioned in other great documents such as the US constitution. We have also had two Acts of Union, the 1689 Bill of Rights referred to by my hon. Friend, and the Parliament Act of exactly a century ago, as amended in the late 1940s. Of course, we have also had the European Communities Act 1972, which was confirmed by a referendum in 1975. Most people who did not study the treaty of Rome to any great degree thought that that was a referendum on free markets and, as it was referred to at the time, a common market. Those who did study the treaty of Rome would have realised the inexorable trend in greater political union that was about to start.
The European Communities Act was passed when I was just three years old, and of course I was still very young when the referendum took place. In the intervening four decades, the British people have not had a chance to express their views on the development of the European Union, which has grown hugely both in terms of member countries and competences. During the same period, this Parliament has on many occasions also failed to reassert its authority as an independent sovereign Parliament. I am sure in my view as a Member that this Parliament is sovereign in this country, but I fear that the elapsing of time and seeping of power and authority from this place to supranational organisations such as the European Union, the European Parliament, the European Commission, the European Court of Justice and other European institutions formed prior to 1972, such as the European Court of Human Rights, has led to serious questions about whether Parliament, and in particular the House of Commons, is sovereign in the governance of the United Kingdom.
Although I, my hon. Friend and many other hon. Members, if not all, are sure of that sovereignty, increasingly there are attempts to challenge and qualify it by courts within the United Kingdom, as judges seek to legislate from the bench, and by courts outside this country. A reaffirmation of this place’s sovereignty is therefore timely, because we do not have a written constitution, or at least not one that is written down in any one place.
Let us contrast that with other member nations of the European Union. The Federal Republic of Germany has its constitutional court, which is quite sure in its constitutional position that it is supreme when it comes to matters that affect that country. The debate about whether we write our constitution in one place is for another day, but nevertheless the time has now come, because of uncertainty and of challenges within and without this country, to reaffirm that sovereignty.
I know that the arguments against such a position are that, if we start to enshrine “sovereignty” in law, we will just open up the debate to lawyers and judges to define exactly what we mean by it. I also understand the argument that “sovereignty”, on the few occasions it is mentioned in legislation, often refers to territorial limits rather than to any legal definition, but the Bill’s wording is quite clear that sovereignty refers to the competence of this Parliament—of the legislation that we enact. That defines the sovereignty that we should reassert, and it therefore closes down the argument that the Bill would somehow do the opposite and open up the debate about the future of sovereignty.
Ideally, I would like to see a referendum on our future membership of the European Union, but, given the remarks that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), made a few moments ago, I suspect that, because of the realities of the coalition Government, we will not see such a referendum in the lifetime of this Parliament.
My hon. Friend could be more sanguine on the matter, because our coalition partners are desperate to have that vote. It was in their manifesto, so we just have to persuade our hon. Friend the Minister that it is necessary; we do not have to persuade our coalition partners.
I am grateful for that clarification of the Liberal Democrat manifesto. Clearly, 12 months ago I should have read it with a little more care, but I was busy trying to promote my candidacy in what is now my constituency. I still suspect that, although the proposal might have appeared in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto, they are less willing for it to be part of any coalition agreement.
I therefore maintain that we are unlikely—if my political antennae are correct—to have a referendum, and that is even more reason why we in this Parliament now need to reaffirm and reassert, through an Act, that this Parliament is sovereign. The electorate will not have a chance to have their say, certainly during this Parliament.
Ultimately, this is one of the most important debates that we can have in this place, because I am sent here to represent the interests of not only my constituents but my country, and I seek and am very proud to do those two things. I am deeply conscious, however, of the fact that my ability and that of right hon. and hon. Members to do so is frustrated by the constraints and—I will put it as strongly as this—the checks that are placed on this Parliament in enacting the legislation that we want to see.
We have heard a number of examples, whether they be the European Court of Human Rights on prisoner voting or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) said earlier, our insurance industry’s inability to provide the products that the vast majority of people would consider perfectly rational. Those are just two recent examples, so I am very pleased to support the Bill and, as a new Member, very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for introducing it today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on securing this important debate on issues about which many of us who are present today feel strongly. I agree with the powerful arguments that he advanced. The Bill is, of course, very similar to one of the same name that was presented some time ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash).
I share the concerns that have been expressed this morning, because, like others who are in the Chamber today, I believe in the sovereignty and primacy of this Parliament. I believe that it is the mother of all Parliaments, and should be the ultimate institution of power and authority in our country. Throughout history, the laws passed by this Parliament have seen the country enjoy success and prosperity beyond that which could have been envisaged. It is testimony to the respect that people have for our Parliament that our democracy, institutions and laws have been exported across the world, not just to our former empire and colonies but, I believe, far beyond.
This Parliament has an enviable record of delivering positive change and success, which is why I believe that we should never allow it to become irrelevant or allow its authority and power to fall into decline. However, even as a new Member of Parliament, I have already seen that happening. Unfortunately, in recent decades we have seen a continual undermining of the authority of this Parliament by the body that is called Europe, without the consent of the British people.
My views on this matter are, I think, well known. The Bill returns us to many of the debates that we have had previously on, for instance, the European Union Bill and the Sovereignty of Parliament Bill. The issue is that our powers are being eroded, and that all too often decisions are made in secret and without the consultation or the consent of the British people whom those decisions ultimately affect. That causes tremendous concern to my constituents and to me. I believe that, in an era of openness, transparency and fairness, they should know what is going on and should be entitled to a say on it.
There is a strong contrast between the approach that I have described and the domestic approach to constitutional matters when Parliament’s powers have been devolved. Across the United Kingdom, Parliament has devolved powers to other domestic institutions with the consent of the people, and has established a new constitutional settlement in an open, transparent and democratic way. Devolution from Westminster to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has taken place by means of carefully considered legislation and referendums. We have seen that process in action with the Scotland Bill and the referendum that was conducted in Wales earlier this month.
Whether or not we agree with those decisions on devolution, they have been made in a transparent and open way and they carry democratic legitimacy, which is important. Unfortunately, very little of the transfer of powers from the United Kingdom to Europe and the pillaging of those powers has ever been carried out in such a transparent, accountable and democratic fashion, and the Bill rightly seeks to redress that.
I welcome this initiative because, like all Conservative Members of Parliament, I stood for election on a solid manifesto pledge to
“introduce a United Kingdom Sovereignty Bill to make it clear that ultimate authority stays in this country, in our Parliament.”
I welcomed the safeguards in the European Union Bill, which would, through a referendum, give Parliament and the British public greater control over transfers of power to Europe. The EU Bill is a step in the right direction, but, as has been said before in the House, the true test will come when it is challenged. As we heard earlier this morning, it has been reported that a Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament has proposed changes to bypass the referendum lock and what he has apparently referred to as “the British problem”. In a letter to the President of the European Parliament, he shamelessly neglected the British interest by suggesting that future treaty changes be ratified with a four-fifths majority of member states, and observed that the effect of this Bill
“will be to severely delay and complicate all future treaty revision”.
I know the British people will be as astonished as I am that any parliamentarian would stoop so low as to describe any democratic process involving a sovereign Parliament and referendum as a problem, and seek to circumvent the layer of democratic accountability for laws that affect our country. Standing up for British interests and the sovereignty of this Parliament must come first, and those who think that that causes delay and complication have no respect for democracy.
Clause 1 adds additional safeguards to protect against those in Europe, such as Mr Duff, wishing to undermine our country. It makes it clear and unambiguous that Parliament is sovereign, and it provides a defence of the sovereignty of Parliament, complementing that in the European Union Bill. That is important because what irritates my constituents—and, it seems, the majority of the British public—is when laws from Europe are foisted on us and we as a country can do very little about it.
That brings me on to the whole area of the repatriation of powers. While we cannot reverse Labour’s betrayal over the referendum on the Lisbon treaty, we can enforce more vigorous safeguards for parliamentary sovereignty. There are two areas in particular where I think the Bill offers an opportunity to strengthen our democracy and restore power and authority to Parliament. First, by reaffirming the sovereignty of Parliament, the Bill gives rise to the possibility that Britain might be able to repatriate powers from Europe. Secondly, the Bill gives us an opportunity to deal with problems from Europe in respect of the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and their associated Strasbourg-based institutions. I have no doubt that those Members who are present could speak for hours about the powers we would like to have repatriated, and about those institutions and their detrimental impact on our laws, our legislation and our country.
On the repatriation of powers, I believe it is absolutely essential that Parliament can clearly and decisively legislate to disapply EU laws imposed on this country where they are not in the national interest. Over the next few years, British taxpayers will be handing over to the EU £50 billion more than they get back, and we face additional costs of over £20 billion stemming from the more than 80 EU directives currently pending transposition into UK law. Therefore, from a financial perspective alone, we simply cannot afford to go on like this, let alone in the areas where the EU is now exercising far too many controls over our lives, such as financial institutions and immigration policies.
My hon. Friend is, as always, making a powerful speech. Is it not strange that under the last five years of the Labour Administration, £19.8 billion net was given to the EU, but under this coalition Government the amount for the next five years will go up to £41 billion? Who would have believed that?
I find that alarming, and I do not think it is financially sustainable. It returns us to the point about accountability and transparency. Hard-pressed taxpayers in our country want to know where this money is going, and how it is going to be spent.
While I would like a proactive strategy to be adopted to secure, with European agreement, the return of powers to Britain and money to British taxpayers, it is important that we have a clear legislative framework in place to ensure that we can act in this way and put Britain’s interests first. I am eager that, as result of this Bill, we should have the chance to repatriate powers, because my constituents are fed up with the unelected, unaccountable and undemocratic bureaucrats in Brussels thinking they know best and imposing laws on our country. That is simply wrong. Frankly, the way Europe acts, and the increasingly integrationist and federalist agenda it pursues, only serves to give the impression that the EU does not trust us to make our own laws and has complete contempt and disregard for the British public.
Whatever the motives in Europe are for taking powers from Britain, we have been making laws in this country from this Parliament for many centuries. We can take great pride in the laws that this Parliament has passed and we must ensure that it can continue to make laws, without restriction, diktat or command from Europe. Reaffirming the sovereignty of Parliament gives me hope that, if needed, Parliament can legislate to repatriate powers without the courts ruling such measures incompatible with European law—of course we hear far too much of the term “European law” in this House. I look to this Bill, either in its current form or in an amended form, to facilitate that.
Time is short, but I wish to touch on a couple of other areas where the Bill can play an important role in securing British interests, the first is which is in respect of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. We have seen how those bodies have sought to undermine and block the will of Parliament over prisoner votes. I look to clause 2(a), on Ministers of the Crown being unable to implement any legal instrument inconsistent with the Bill without approval from a referendum, as a starting point to safeguarding the will of Parliament. After all, with this Bill reaffirming the sovereignty of Parliament, Ministers would not be able to claim that they have to change our laws because Europe told us to do so.
This is not just about prisoner votes; it is about many areas, including finance, insurance policies—we know how they are going to change—and immigration policy. Intervention, diktats and changes in language are ever increasing and this is an alarming trend. The Council of Europe and the Human Rights Commissioner are critical of countries that wish to take a tough stand on immigration. It is of course in our national interest to secure our borders and make sure that we do not have illegal immigration, but we hear endless proclaimers attacking member states about the language used on immigration. We are attacked for the steps we take to patrol our borders and deter the entry of migrants who should not be coming into our country and are trying to do so for all the wrong reasons. I could go on about many of these points, but I will draw my remarks to a conclusion.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to this debate but, more importantly and fundamentally, I seek assurances that the Government will act to ensure the protection of parliamentary sovereignty. I want to hear that the future British laws are going to be made by people in Britain and in the interests of British people.
Briefly, this Bill is a melancholic throat-clearing exercise inspired by a choleric attitude towards Europe. I am sanguine that the Government will be phlegmatic, so for all the reasons I have adumbrated in every other debate on the European Union since I was first elected in 2001, I oppose.
I do not think I will quite match the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for brevity. He will be pleased to learn that I am not going to go through all the reasons why the Government oppose the Bill and will oppose it if it is pressed to a vote, but I will touch on a number of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) got to the heart of the argument at the beginning of the debate when he discussed clause 1 and its reaffirmation of sovereignty. As he said, if this is indeed a sovereign Parliament, as we all believe it is, it does not need to reaffirm its sovereignty, but if it is not a sovereign Parliament, reaffirming its sovereignty is of no consequence.
My hon. Friend also made the point—I have been surprised that other Members have not discussed this—that this is not a Bill about the European Union. As clause 3(b) makes clear, it touches on not only our European commitments, but all the commitments we have made in all the treaties we have signed. I shall go on to discuss what the Prime Minister said earlier about our membership of the United Nations, which would be affected if the Bill became law.
My hon. Friend is of course right that this country is a member of a number of international bodies, including the European Union, the United Nations and NATO, but so are other independent sovereign nations. I do not think there would be any suggestion that the United States compromises its sovereignty by its membership of the United Nations.
I will not dwell on that now, if my hon. Friend will forgive me. I will come to it later in my remarks, and he will be free to intervene on me then.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and several others touched on issues such as the European Union Bill, particularly the debate that we had on clause 18; the issue of prisoner voting, which my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) mentioned; and our relationship with the European convention on human rights, including the role of the Court. Those are all important.
There is no doubt that the sovereignty of Parliament lies at the heart of our constitution as one of our fundamental underpinnings. Since the time of the Bill of Rights in 1689, no one has seriously challenged the notion that Parliament is the ultimate arbiter of the powers of the Executive. Indeed, Parliament determined who the Executive should be: it intervened in the line of succession to the Crown and altered it. I will not go into the various changes to the line of succession, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) dwelled on that. I was disappointed that he did not feel the urge to set out his views on those historical events in more detail, and probably on a much better informed basis, than I would be able to.
It may be surprising to some that the adoption of parliamentary sovereignty is nowhere set out in authoritative form. The Bill sets out sovereignty without attempting to define it in any way in a piece of primary legislation. That would mean, in effect, that the courts would then be invited to define what we meant by sovereignty, to define what “reaffirming” meant, and to do a number of other things. The Bill would therefore take us down a dangerous road that would undermine the proposition of parliamentary sovereignty instead of defending it.
I merely add that the most distinguished authority on the question of parliamentary sovereignty, Professor Jeffrey Goldsworthy, has indicated that clause 1 is the best way to deal with the situation with which we are faced. I have no idea where the legal advice that the Minister is getting comes from. If his advice comes from the same source as that of those who wrote the explanatory notes for the European Union Bill, the fact they have had to go into a steep reverse on this issue as a result of our Committee’s report indicates that the quality of the advice is appalling, and, I am glad to say, that the Minister’s comments are unnecessary and wrong.
My remarks are clearly not unnecessary, because it is necessary to set out the Government’s view. I suspect that my hon. Friend and I will not see eye to eye on everything; indeed, on quite a lot, particularly regarding these issues. Of course, he is entitled to his view, but I happen to disagree with him.
It is worth saying that in the debate in Committee of the whole House on clause 18 of the European Union Bill—my hon. Friend has referred to the evidence given in the European Scrutiny Committee, which he chairs—it was specifically made clear that it was not intended to be a general clause setting out the origin of parliamentary sovereignty; rather, it sets out how EU law gets its place in the UK legal order, which is by Acts of this Parliament. That was the purpose of the clause, and it did it very well. The EU Bill makes it very clear that directly applicable or directly effective EU law had status in the UK only because it was granted that status by an Act of the UK Parliament. I think that that was a helpful thing to do. As the hon. Member for Rhondda pointed out, that was agreed to by this House. Those arguments will be had at the other end of the building, and I hope that in due course that Bill will be passed by this sovereign Parliament.
I believe that my hon. Friend is correct in saying that the explanatory notes have changed, so I am of course happy to agree on that fact. There are still matters of debate, but you will be pleased to know that I will not repeat those, Mr Deputy Speaker, because this is not a debate on the European Union Bill. I want to touch on issues other than the European Union because the Bill before us goes much wider, and there are other reasons why it should be opposed by Members.
I dealt with that point when I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash). Conservative Members stood on a manifesto that made a number of commitments. Indeed, he put it quite well in saying that we sought from the British people a mandate to do certain things. As I pointed out to my hon. Friends, much to our disappointment we did not get that mandate from the British people to the extent that we had hoped. We fell short, and that is why we formed a coalition Government. The coalition Government have set out our agreed programme. It contains quite a lot of what we wanted to do in our manifesto, and some of what the Liberal Democrats wanted to do in theirs, but we were not able to agree on all of it. The British people failed to give us that mandate so we are not able to do everything that we set out in our manifesto. That is disappointing—I find it disappointing and my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) finds it disappointing. However, we are democrats and we have to live with the decisions of the British people.
Look, there are not very many people here. People have gone home and nobody is really listening. Why does the Minister not give his own personal view rather than the coalition view on whether the United Kingdom Parliamentary Sovereignty Bill would be a good thing?
As my hon. Friend knows, I am here to set out clearly what the Government’s view is. I would never say, just because there may not be many Members present in the Chamber, that words spoken in this House are not heard far and wide. We should be very careful about what we say and should weigh our words carefully, particularly when speaking in a Chamber of a sovereign Parliament.
I hesitate to say this because I am sure that it will provoke my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, but I think it is worth saying that the Minister for Europe dealt with the issue of sovereignty in detail in relation to clause 18 of the European Union Bill in this House and in the European Scrutiny Committee. He said that the Government’s view was that an amendment that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone tabled, which was similar to what is in this Bill, would have invited exactly the sort of speculative consideration by judges that my hon. Friend feared. It is the Government’s view that the approach in this Bill would make things worse rather than better.
The problem for this Minister and the Minister for Europe is that the Bill is not in law and we are already being affected by the assertions of certain members of the Supreme Court that the sovereignty of Parliament is not absolute. If it were not for that, there would not be a problem. This is a recent development. It is precisely because of the Court’s assertions of judicial supremacy that we are required to retaliate and to make our position clear through a simple declaration such as that in clause 1, just to make it absolutely certain.
The flaw in that argument is that to put into an Act of Parliament the language in clause 1 would invite exactly the problem that my hon. Friend is concerned about. Because it would be in a statute that judges would have to interpret, it would invite them to start defining “sovereignty” and interpreting what Parliament meant by the words in the Bill. I do not think that is very helpful.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because this point is tremendously important and may, if he is correct, point to a fatal flaw in the Bill. I hope that he will deal with it carefully and precisely. I do not understand the idea that things that are in statute are justiciable but things that are not in statute are not. It seems to me that the judges can interpret the law of the land in the round, not just statutes. Will he focus on that point?
The reason that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone gave for having the Bill and for reaffirming the sovereignty of Parliament was the risk that judges might erode the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty by setting out some new, autonomous legal order in which EU law had authority in the UK regardless of whether Parliament continued to give it that authority. We had that debate on the European Union Bill, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe made it quite clear that so far our judges have done nothing of the sort. In fact, they have had arguments put before them inviting them to take that stance and have specifically rejected them. That was why, in that Bill, which my hon. Friend and a number of other Members have talked about, we specifically set out that EU law had effect in this country only because it was given that effect by Acts passed by this Parliament. We did not think it was helpful—quite the reverse—to have a general sovereignty clause, which is what this Bill would introduce.
It is worth discussing one or two wider issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West was right when he drew attention to the fact that under clause 3(b), the Bill covers not just the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights but any rule of international law at all. It provides that no Minister of the Crown is to
“make or implement any legal instrument which…is inconsistent with this Act”,
in other words which affects the sovereignty of this Parliament. That seems a very wide term, including both domestic legal instruments and instruments that are binding in international law.
The Bill also appears to extend to any instrument, including any treaty, that the UK will make or implement, or has ever made or implemented. It appears that it would act with retrospective effect. It seems to me that that is quite deliberate given the words in clause 3 stating that it
“shall have effect and shall be construed as having effect and deemed at all times to have had effect”.
I shall come back to that in a moment.
I do not believe the Bill takes any notice of the changes that were made to the rules for ratifying treaties that were introduced in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which provides a number of tests and procedures for ratification that improve parliamentary involvement in the process. For example, when a Minister signs a treaty that does not come into force upon signature and to which domestic procedures concerning EU law do not apply, it may not be ratified unless it is laid before Parliament for a period of 21 days and neither House of Parliament passes a resolution objecting to it. If the House passes such a resolution, a Minister must lay a further explanation before the House, which may vote again within a further 21 days.
Only in exceptional circumstances may a treaty be ratified without the agreement of this House, and a Minister cannot override a decision of the House that it should not be ratified. If the Bill became law, what would happen if Parliament did not object to the ratification of a treaty but it was subsequently concluded that it was inconsistent with the Bill? What effect would that have on the sovereignty of Parliament?
I argue that the Bill is rather dangerous because of the effect that it would have on how we conduct international relations. It would make it impossible for us to participate in a number of organisations—for example, we belong to the United Nations and have signed a range of treaties connected with it. I listened closely to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said this morning about the Security Council resolution. He pointed out the wide authorisation that it gives us and other members of the international community to act but he also explained that it places clear limits on what we can do. If the Bill were in force, it would not allow us to enter into agreements that limit what Parliament can do unless we held a referendum. We could not sign up to any international treaty with which we had engaged that somehow constrained our behaviour, as most do, unless we held a referendum.
My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West highlighted the Bill that we discussed earlier, which encountered no opposition, on the wreck removal convention. If we accepted the measure that we are discussing, we would pass primary legislation to hold a referendum on whether the British people should support the wreck removal convention. That would not be welcome.
My hon. Friend may have found a fatal flaw in the Bill, and I therefore ask him to consider it further. However, an EU rule has effect in this country above UK legislation, subject to the 1972 Act. That is not the case with agreements made in the United Nations or under other treaty conventions, which Her Majesty’s Government can abrogate at their own will.
My point, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe made when we debated the European Union Bill, is that EU law has primacy in this country only because Parliament has passed legislation to say so. The Government will not do it, but it is open to Parliament to change or repeal the Act so that EU law does not have primacy. It is possible, although we are not going to do it. That is the flaw in the argument.
Clause 4 is another good reason for objecting to the Bill because it purports to bind future Parliaments. It states that a Bill passed in this Parliament cannot be amended without the consent of the people in a referendum. An important aspect of parliamentary sovereignty is that Parliament may enact or repeal any legislation it pleases, and it cannot bind its successors. Clause 4 undermines that. It also states:
“No Bill shall be presented to Her Majesty the Queen for her Royal Assent which contravenes this Act”,
but is not clear who would determine whether a Bill contravenes “this Act”. It would clearly have to be the courts, which would then be engaged in assessing whether Parliament had properly passed Bills and whether Bills should have received Royal Assent before a referendum had taken place. That invites courts to have much more power.
I disagree. A disappointing aspect of the debate—I was disappointed even if no one else was—is that, in their comprehensive speeches, my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch and for Stone spent much time on some issues, but little time on the actual Bill. I thought it was important to draw the House’s attention to the consequences of passing the measure and why the Government will oppose it if it is pressed to a Division.
The debate was helpful but the Government have concluded that, rather than strengthening and upholding parliamentary sovereignty, the Bill would undermine it for the reasons that I and others have set out. I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch to withdraw it. If he does not and he tests the House’s opinion, I urge hon. Members to oppose it.
I do not intend to withdraw the Bill—it is important to put it to the test. Constituents up and down the country will want to see whether their Conservative representatives are doing their best to try to implement the manifesto commitments on which we were elected at the general election, or whether we are prepared to allow those commitments to fall to one side because we are in a coalition. I understood that the Government were trying their hardest to implement the commitments, but from what the Minister has said, I remain to be convinced.
I am grateful to all those who have participated in the debate and those who have supported the Bill. I am particularly indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) for his great knowledge on the matter; much of the Bill’s drafting is owed to his work in the past. He mentioned Jeffrey Goldsworthy, who has written a document on parliamentary sovereignty—I say document, but it was published as part of the “Cambridge Studies in Constitutional Law”.
He has written more than one document. I find it odd that the Minister asserts that everything that Jeffrey Goldsworthy says on the important subject of parliamentary sovereignty is wrong, and that the Minister is right—he has many attributes, but I am not sure that he is a constitutional law expert. I would prefer to go along with Jeffrey Goldsworthy’s expertise in the absence of any other compelling legal arguments.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) for raising some interesting points, not least when he intervened when the Minister objected to clause 1. The Minister seems to be under the illusion that the courts in this country can only interpret legislation, rather than apply common law principles. My hon. Friend bowled the Minister middle stump on that.
I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) for her support. She has done the House and the people a great service in tabling a host of probing and effective written questions that have exposed the Government’s policy for what it is—the Government are far too relaxed about the further erosion of our sovereignty.
I commend the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on the brevity of his speech. There is a lot to be said for Opposition Front Benchers making similarly short speeches when they do not have any support on their own side of the House at all, as is the situation today.
The idea that the UN resolution passed last night is inconsistent with the Bill is far fetched. May I suggest a better analogy? When this country went to a war in Iraq that, arguably, was illegal under international law, we were not prosecuted by some international criminal court. However, if we went into something that was at odds with the decisions of the European Court of Justice, we would be prosecuted and taken before that Court on the continent. That is the difference.
The Minister suggests that various details of the Bill could be made clearer. One way to do so would be to ensure that clause 2 refers to clause 1. However, the essence of the Bill is in clause 1, which stands on its own, reaffirming the sovereignty of this Parliament.
My hon. Friend made a good point on that, to which the Minister did not really respond.
I tried earlier in the debate to give examples of where our sovereignty is under continued threat of erosion, not least of which was how we are left powerless when international courts make rulings against us. We are told that we cannot, as a sovereign Parliament, correct those rulings and redress the balance in a way that our constituents wish us to do. I am disappointed that my hon. Friend the Minister did not respond to any of those issues, so the best thing to do would be to press the Bill to a Division.
Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.