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United Kingdom Membership of the European Union (Referendum)

Volume 558: debated on Wednesday 6 February 2013

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a referendum in the next Parliament on the question of whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union; and for connected purposes.

We, the promoter and sponsors of the Bill, and all those who have expressed support very much welcome David Cameron’s commitment to hold a referendum in the next Parliament and his initiative. I have been overwhelmed by support for the Bill—indeed, there were so many potential sponsors that we had to draw the names out of a hat—and I thank the many people who have contacted their MPs. It is much appreciated.

David Cameron is now in step with the British public—

I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The Prime Minister is in step with the British public. A referendum is only right. The EU has fundamentally changed since we first joined in the early ’70s and it continues to change because of the eurozone crisis. The answer to the crisis from the eurozone capitals is more Europe—more political and economic integration. They have realised somewhat belatedly that they cannot have monetary union and save the euro without fiscal union, but that is not why we joined the EU. We joined for trade, not for politics.

No one can deny that the EU’s role in our daily lives, which some would describe as meddling, has grown over the decades and continues to grow, and yet we have not stopped to ask the fundamental question of whether that is in our best interests. The timing of the referendum is sensible in that it allows for a renegotiation so we can know what the “in” part of the referendum question is. I wish the Prime Minister well—it will be a hard road because the direction of travel is in the other direction—but I hope he can renegotiate a looser agreement or arrangement with the EU that focuses on trade and not on politics. He might well be able to do so, which would appeal to a great number of people in this country. I hope he does more than Prime Minister Harold Wilson did in 1975. He claimed he had renegotiated and repatriated a lot of powers, but under close scrutiny, it appeared to be a thin claim—it did not amount to a tin of beans.

Delaying the referendum a touch allows the eurozone crisis to play out and for a proper debate on the merit of membership. All in all, it is a sensible policy. It is right for the country. The British people will finally have their say, having been barred from having a genuine choice by the political establishment for probably more than 30 years, because all the main parties have looked in one direction.

That is good news, and we welcome it, and yet the policy is dependent on a Conservative victory in the 2015 general election. The Prime Minister made his promise as leader of the Conservative party. Legislation will be introduced immediately after a Conservative victory, so this has become a party political issue. As such, many are concerned that there is deep public mistrust of politicians who make promises about EU referendums, because too many have been broken in the past. We question whether the promise will be believed.

Many people remember Tony Blair’s promise on the EU constitution on the Lisbon treaty. We were promised a referendum and he failed to deliver. Instead, the EU constitution was copied and pasted into the Lisbon treaty and rammed through the House using the Labour Government’s majority. Even Gordon Brown knew—

Even the then Labour Prime Minister knew the sham of the situation. He refused to join the photo call and signed the treaty in the privacy of a darkened room—[Interruption.] An hon. Friend suggests a darkened room was the right place for it, and I do not disagree.

The Liberal Democrats have consistently offered a referendum, but have failed to deliver, even in coalition. [Interruption.] I see the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), nodding in agreement from the Front Bench. [Interruption.] He turned around then. Scepticism about promises made on EU referendums is such that many are critical of the Prime Minister for not delivering on his promise of a referendum in relation to the Lisbon treaty, despite the fact that the ink on the treaty had dried before he came to power. Legislation in this Parliament would therefore address the deficit of trust. A Bill is far more believable than an election manifesto promise, and a referendum would not be dependent on any one party. Any incoming Prime Minister would find it difficult—not impossible, but certainly difficult—to repeal popular legislation.

Perhaps there is another reason to bring the Bill forward. Legislation now would oblige all parliamentarians to declare their hand and the electorate would then know where they stood. In the past, there has been far too much obfuscation on this issue—no wonder the public have become cynical.

I am delighted that the Conservative party has adopted this policy, and I suggest that it is now more united on Europe than it has been for a very long time. Apart from a number of principled hon. Members across the House, the Labour and Liberal Democrat Front Benches seem confused. The Labour leader says one thing and the shadow Foreign Secretary says another. The Liberal Democrat election manifesto says one thing, and in coalition the party does another. I suggest to both parties that their positions are untenable. Let us bring forward this Bill and force them to declare their hand.

To my own Front Bench, I say that the argument that we cannot bring forward legislation—I am delighted to see the Minister on the Front Bench and I thank him for that—in this Parliament because it would contravene the coalition agreement does not hold water. Same-sex marriage was not in the coalition agreement, yet we voted on it yesterday. I am afraid that that is a very thin argument indeed.

Let us not forget that I and my colleagues can see no downside to this. It would be a simple piece of legislation. There is no need even to detail the question, as the 2014 Scottish referendum has proved and which is being drafted in this Parliament. There is, therefore, no downside to introducing the legislation in this Parliament.

In short, a referendum will give the British public an opportunity to have their say, something they have been denied for too long. It is about time we had a more positive relationship with our European neighbours. For too long, it has been a strained relationship. In part, I think that is because the British people have not been happy with the EU’s direction of travel, and in part because they have been frustrated that they have not been able to express their view through the political system, because the three main political parties have all faced in one direction on this issue. That must now come to an end.

A referendum would lance the boil and, whatever the result, I hope would allow a more positive relationship with the EU based on either trade and co-operation or political and economic union, yet this matter of singular importance to the UK is dependent on one party winning the general election. This issue is far too important for party politics. As such, I urge the House to support the Bill and bring in legislation in this Parliament.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr John Baron, Mr James Clappison, Mr Nigel Dodds, Richard Drax, Mr Frank Field, Mrs Cheryl Gillan, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, Dr Julian Lewis, Jim Shannon, Bob Stewart and Mr John Whittingdale present the Bill.

Mr John Baron accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 March, and to be printed (Bill 133).