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European Union (Referendum) Bill (Money)

Volume 566: debated on Tuesday 16 July 2013

Queen’s recommendation signified.

I beg to move,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the European Union (Referendum) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of:

(1) any expenditure of the Secretary of State in consequence of the Act, and

(2) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided.

It is standard Government procedure to introduce a money resolution for any private Member’s Bill to which the House has given a Second Reading to enable the Bill to be fully debated in Committee. It is inevitable that costs would be incurred in holding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, and a money resolution is required to enable those costs to be paid.

Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the chair of the Electoral Commission is the chief counting officer, responsible for the conduct of referendums. So far, no detailed estimate has been made of the cost of this national referendum. We do, however, have the precedent of the referendum on the parliamentary voting system in May 2011. We would expect the cost of running a UK-wide referendum to be similar to the cost of that referendum on the alternative vote system, which was just over £75.3 million. Of course, that would depend in part on whether a referendum on EU membership were held alongside local or other elections, as the alternative vote referendum was. I commend the motion to the House.

As my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary said on Second Reading, any decisions about the European Union and about an in/out referendum should be taken in the national interest, and the Opposition do not believe that such a referendum in 2017, as proposed in the Bill, is in the national interest. The Prime Minister, in January, chose an arbitrary date in order to keep his Back Benchers on side. The Bill also sets out the 2017 date, which does not reflect any realistic timetable of treaty change, given that the French and Dutch Governments, and many others, including even the German Government, have now gone cool on the idea. The Bill sets an arbitrary date that does not represent a clear negotiating strategy, and I fear it has been motivated by a desire to paper over the deep divisions in the Conservative party on whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union. It seems that the Bill has been introduced because Conservative Back Benchers, such as the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), simply do not trust their own party leader and Prime Minister to deliver on his January speech.

Although the Opposition will not oppose the money resolution attached to the Bill, the Government still need to answer serious and significant questions about the expenditure implications of the Bill. The shadow Europe Minister—[Interruption.] Sorry, the Minister for Europe—

Soon to be shadow, I hope.

The Minister for Europe said that he could not give a number for, or approximate cost of, the expenditure needed for a referendum. He has, however, some questions to answer on whether particular groups will be included in this specific referendum. Will the good people of Gibraltar, who have a right to vote in European parliamentary elections, be included in this franchise? Will British people living abroad have the right to vote? Will 16 and 17-year-olds have the right to vote in this referendum, as they will have in next year’s Scottish referendum? Finally, and importantly, will British service personnel serving abroad have the right to vote in the referendum foreseen by this Bill? I fear that the Government have not answered any of those questions today.

I shall be brief, Mr Speaker. First, I wish to put on the record my thanks to the Committee of Selection, which has pulled together the Committee that will now consider this Bill as it goes forward, following this evening’s resolution. I also wish to put on record my thanks to the House and the Government for following the convention that a private Member’s Bill that secures its Second Reading will secure its money resolution and be able to be taken forward.

I very much look forward to going through many of these issues in detail with the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds). I hope that we can do that in the spirit of finding mutual ground, co-operation and agreement on an extremely important issue, rather than trying to make it a difficult and arduous process for all involved. I am sure that that will be the case. I am grateful to all hon. Members for the support I believe they will give this resolution, and I look forward, in due course, to bringing the Bill back on Report.

I wish to speak on the money resolution. This is not the speech that I was not called to give in the debate on 5 July, nor is it the single transferable speech I would have given, had I been chosen to be a member of the Committee, on various amendments that I have tabled. I cannot understand why I was not chosen, given that I am so keen to debate these issues. Perhaps it is because there is a view out there—I had an e-mail this afternoon claiming this—that I am trying to wreck the Bill. I am not trying to do that, and I wish to focus these remarks on some of its expenditure implications.

The Minister talked about the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. However, the Bill makes no reference to that Act, so we must consider the nature of the question that would be put in a referendum. The original draft Bill, which was published by the Conservative party on 14 May, proposed the question:

“Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?”

However, the European Union (Referendum) Bill sets out a different question:

“Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”

The Daily Mail suggested that Eurosceptic Conservative Members were unhappy about the original wording and that it had been changed because

“anti-Brussels MPs privately protested that the word ‘remain’ would prompt voters to stay in”.

As the Bill proceeds through Committee, I hope that that change will be explored further.

My hon. Friend the shadow Minister referred to the timing of the proposed referendum. The date that is chosen will have implications for the referendum. As the Minister said, if a referendum were held on the same day as local or European Parliament elections, the costs could be minimised and turnout would probably be significantly higher. Perhaps we should consider whether we should have a threshold for turnout, as was the case for the Scottish referendum in the 1970s, but that is not a matter for today.

If we were to hold the referendum on the same day as next year’s European Parliament elections—22 May 2014—expenditure on the referendum and its associated literature would be greatly reduced. Those arguing for leaving the European Union could then presumably vote for the UK Independence party, or perhaps the Conservatives, while voting to leave in the referendum. The cost of the literature put out by the respective parties would then be considerably smaller, although I am not entirely sure what the Conservative party’s literature would say about such a referendum.

The referendum could be held on the same day as the next general election, which will take place on the first Thursday in May 2015. Such an approach would similarly minimise the cost, as well as giving at least one of the coalition parties, or perhaps both, more time to clarify their attitude to the in-or-out question on the European Union.

There are implications of holding the referendum after the 2015 general election, given the rule that a Parliament cannot bind its successor. We are presumably being asked to vote for the money resolution on the basis that a commitment is being made for the future, but it might not be carried through if a different Government are elected at the next general election and they want to take a different approach.

If we are to hold the referendum by 31 December 2017, as is proposed, there might be implications for the British presidency of the European Union, which is due to begin on 1 July 2017. We could hold the referendum on the same day that the United Kingdom takes over the presidency, which might minimise costs because the literature published about the programme for the British presidency could refer to the referendum. If we held the referendum later that year—during the British presidency —it would help to publicise the various events that would be held to celebrate Britain’s contribution to the European Union, so I would look forward to that. The Bill does not deal with those options, but I hope that they will be explored in Committee.

We could minimise costs, and give the Conservative part of the Government more time to renegotiate the special arrangements that they wish to put in place, by holding a referendum on the same day as the 2020 general election. Based on the same arguments as I used before about the 2015 election, that too would be a way to minimise the cost that would be incurred.

The Prime Minister has said that he wants to reduce the cost of politics. It seems a strange way to go about reducing the cost of politics to bring in a referendum which, as the Minister said, will cost millions of pounds, and at the same time try to reduce the number of Members of the House of Commons, but increase the number of Members in the other place.

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No.9(3)).

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 41A(3)),

That, at this day’s sitting, Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply to the Motion in the name of Greg Clark relating to the European Union (Referendum) Bill: Money Resolution.—(Anne Milton.)

Question agreed to.

Debate resumed.

Main Question again proposed.

I do not wish to detain the House too long because I wish to celebrate later the passing of the equal marriage Bill. I hope that along with all my colleagues on the Opposition Benches and many on the Government Benches—or most of those on the Opposition Benches and some on the Government Benches—we will be able to celebrate the equal marriage Bill. Therefore it is not my intention to divide the House this evening.

May I correct the hon. Gentleman? It is not an equal marriage Bill because it does not provide for non-consummation or adultery. Therefore it cannot be described as equal marriage.

I suspect, Mr Speaker, that you would not wish me to get into the next debate so I shall not be tempted to go down that route. [Interruption.] But we could, of course, discuss wider issues—the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is shouting at me from a sedentary position, but I will not be tempted. I remember our exchanges over the Maastricht treaty in the early 1990s and I would much rather debate the referendum with him now.

These are important issues. The Bill needs proper scrutiny. It therefore needs to be considered carefully in Committee, and when it comes out of Committee—whenever that is—in several months, it will need to be properly considered in the House on Report and before it gets, or if it gets, a Third Reading. There are too many important questions to be considered for it to be assumed that the Bill should be pushed through without proper scrutiny and debate. The future of our country in Europe is at stake. Therefore the House and the country expect nothing less than the proper parliamentary scrutiny appropriate for a parliamentary democracy, not a democracy that is undermined by what a former Labour Prime Minister called a device of demagogues and dictators, which was quoted favourably by Margaret Thatcher when she was Leader of the Opposition in the debate in 1975. In that debate she said, and I conclude on this—[Interruption.] I know that Conservative Members were frustrated when they were unable to get their Margaret Thatcher day. At least I will quote Margaret Thatcher—

I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. He might like to take the opportunity, before he ends, to mention the money resolution which is supposed to be the subject of this debate. So far he has not done so.

It is not necessary to repeat the refrain “money resolution” so long as the content of the remarks of an hon. Member relates clearly to the purpose of the resolution. I have been attending closely to the hon. Gentleman’s expatiations and so far he has met the criterion. I do not want him to depart from the path of virtue as he nears his end.

I would never intend to depart from the path of virtue, Mr Speaker.

Mrs Thatcher said that the 1975 referendum had been introduced as

“a tactical device to get over a split in their own party.”—[Official Report, 11 March 1975; Vol. 888, c. 306.]

Those are the words she used to describe the policy put forward by the then Labour Government, and I believe that they are completely appropriate to describe the policy now being put forward by the split part of this split Government—the Conservative part of the coalition.

I am in broad sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, but since he is now repeating things I said on Second Reading, I wonder, given the historic vote on equal marriage that we are waiting to cast, whether it would not be better to stop banging on about Europe just for a bit.

Yes, of course. Had I not taken the previous two interventions, I would have finished by now. I was just about the give the House the benefits of Margaret Thatcher’s words of wisdom in 1975, but I was faced with two interventions, and now I have taken three. I am happy to conclude my remarks and hope to return to these issues later in the year if the Bill reaches consideration on Report.

I do not intend to detain the House for long, because I accept that there is an important piece of legislation to consider after this, but it is important to highlight the fact that the British taxpayer will be faced with a bill of £75 million, as the Minister said, for what is basically an internal debate within the Conservative party. I wanted to intervene on the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) earlier, because I would like to know what he would do if he were given £75 million to spend in his constituency. I am sure that there are many projects there that have been cut by the Government and that could more justifiably be argued for than the proposed referendum.

The Minister said that the referendum would cost £75 million, provided that the Bill was used in relation to the voting system, but it could cost a lot more, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) has already demonstrated. If we include Gibraltar, and I can see no reason why we should not—I do not know what the hon. Member for Stockton South has against it—because it votes in European referendums, that would add to the cost. We also should not forget the overseas territories, which have the access rights that others have in the EU. Why should they not be consulted on their future status? I argue that they should, but again that would add to the costs.

Another debate, which I know is taking place in Scotland, is whether 16 and 17-year-olds should be able to vote. If they are, that would add more costs. Another issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South referred to is the fact that in 1975 the Government provided money to the yes and no campaigns. Is it proposed that Government money will be given to the yes and no campaigns for this referendum? If it is, that will mean the cost will be more than £75 million. We can clearly see that, in addition to his point about whether the referendum will be on the same day as other elections, that will lead to a great deal more than £75 million.

The important point for the hon. Member for Stockton South is this: can he really say to his constituents—I know Stockton South very well, as he knows—that in excess of £100 million of Government money should be spent on this referendum, and all to solve an internal debate in the Tory party, rather than our relationship with Europe? Can he or any other Member who supports the referendum really justify spending more than £100 million on it? I know what I would do with the money in my constituency: I would replace the money that has been taken out of the Building Schools for the Future programme. Once we explain to people that the Bill will use well in excess of £100 million, I am sure that most of them would agree that it could be spent a hell of a lot better.

Does my hon. Friend find it surprising, given that the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) said the day before his name was drawn at the top of the ballot that there were issues much more pressing than an EU referendum, such as the economy and jobs, that he suddenly changed his mind 24 hours later?

The hon. Member for Stockton South has a small majority, so he might be promoting this Bill to endear himself to the selection panels of future safe Tory seats, rather than to the electors of Stockton South who, as my hon. Friend is right to say, would have many more priorities for spending in excess of £100 million.

Will a referendum solve the problem? No, it will not and some hon. Members try to paper over the real issues that will face the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister, quite rightly, has argued in favour of membership of the EU, but the big question for him is which way he will vote—yes or no. Will he support state funding for this referendum? We will then see cracks opening up in the Conservative party between those who are pragmatists in Europe and those who represent the more extreme section of his party. That is the question that will face the Prime Minister, and it will not change between now and 2017.

A lot of questions will obviously—and rightly—be explored in Committee, but as the Minister for Europe said, the Bill has passed Second Reading and private Member’s Bill money resolutions are usually supported. There is nothing wrong with agreeing to such a process, but I conclude with a question. The cost will be in excess of £100 million. I know that many of my constituents, and those of other hon. Members, will ask how we could spend £100 million in a better way. There are many ways better than wasting it on this Bill which, as I have said, is about the internal politics of the Conservative party, rather than what is in Britain’s best interest.

Question put and agreed to.

Marriage (Same sex couples) bill: programme (no. 3)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 5 February 2013 (Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill (Programme)) and 20 May 2013 (Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill (Programme) (No. 2)):

Consideration of Lords Amendments

1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after their commencement at today’s sitting.

Subsequent stages

2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

3. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Mr Robert Syms.)

Question agreed to.