Further consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee
Referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union
Amendment proposed: 35, page 1, leave out lines 8 and 9 and insert
‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?’.—(Mike Gapes.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The House proceeded to a Division.
Amendment proposed: 71, page 1, line 12, leave out subsection (6) and insert—
‘(6) An order under this section shall be made by statutory instrument.
(7) An order under subsection (3) may not be made unless each House of Parliament has passed a resolution that the referendum shall take place on a day specified in the resolution and the day specified in the resolution is the same as in the order.
(8) An order under subsection (5) may not be made unless a draft of the order has been laid before, and approved by, a resolution of each House of Parliament.’.—(Chris Williamson.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The House proceeded to a Division.
Entitlement to vote in the referendum
Amendment made: 42, page 1, line 18, leave out ‘and’.—(James Wharton.)
Amendment proposed: 44, page 1, line 20, at end insert—
‘(2) Persons aged 16 or 17 on the date of the referendum shall be entitled to vote if they would, save for their age, be otherwise entitled to vote under any of the categories set out in subsection (1) above.’.—(Mike Gapes.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The House proceeded to a Division.
Before I call the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) to move formally amendment 51, may I say that I hope he will be successful in persuading his colleagues to vote and come out of the Lobby in a timely manner? If his efforts are unsuccessful, that might prejudice the judgment of the Chair in relation to future votes.
Amendment proposed: 51, page 1, line 20, at end insert—
‘(c) residents of all British Overseas Territories.’.—(Mike Gapes.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Amendment made: 80, page 1, line 20, at end insert
‘( ) Commonwealth citizens who, on the date of the referendum, would be entitled to vote in Gibraltar as electors at a European Parliamentary election in the combined electoral region in which Gibraltar is comprised.’.—(James Wharton.)
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You may be aware that there was extensive media coverage last night and this morning of the fact that the Government, after claiming for several weeks that an energy price freeze was not possible, are asking companies to freeze their prices. [Interruption.]
Have you, Madam Deputy Speaker, been given any indication of whether an Energy Minister—I note that the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), has just taken part in Divisions—intends to make a statement to the House this morning to confirm, deny, clarify, or muddle this latest shambles of an energy policy?
The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a point of order. He has made his point. If he had wished to put an urgent question before the House, that could have been considered. Perhaps he will think of that next time he wishes to raise a matter in the Chamber.
Conduct of the referendum and further provisions
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 53, page 2, line 2, after ‘report’, insert ‘by 1 March 2016’.
Amendment 54, page 2, line 2, after ‘report’, insert ‘by 1 March 2017’.
Amendment 55, page 2, line 2, after ‘report’, insert
‘six months before the date or dates appointed for the referendum’.
Amendment 17, page 2, line 5, at end insert—
‘(1A) The rules recommended by the Electoral Commission shall provide that if—
(a) fewer than 60 per cent of registered voters take part in the referendum, or
(b) the majority in favour of not remaining in the European Union comprises fewer than 40 per cent of registered voters, or
(c) the result is not the same in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or
(d) the result is not the same in each of the European Parliament constituencies in the United Kingdom,
the Chief Counting Officer shall declare that the referendum has not produced a valid outcome.’.
Amendment 5, page 2, line 11, at end insert—
‘(3A) The Secretary of State shall make available a sum of not more than £10 million to organisations campaigning—
(a) for a Yes vote in the referendum, and
(b) for a No vote in the referendum, for provision of public information and literature, to be divided equally between those campaigning for each answer to the referendum question.’.
Amendment 6, page 2, line 11, at end insert—
‘(3A) The Secretary of State shall ensure that the proponents and opponents of the question in the referendum shall be allotted no fewer than six nor more than 10 broadcasts of a total time of at least 60 minutes on all television channels broadcasting to the United Kingdom, at such times as are determined by the Electoral Commission so as to ensure that so far as possible they are broadcast simultaneously, and with Welsh language and Gaelic versions as directed by the Secretary of State in relation to particular channels.’.
Amendment 7, page 2, line 11, at end insert—
‘(3A) The Secretary of State shall ensure that the proponents and opponents of the question in the referendum are able to publish a two full page advertisement spread immediately after the front page in all national editions of newspapers published in any part of the United Kingdom, as specified by the Electoral Commission, on four dates to be specified by the Commission, with Welsh language and Gaelic versions where specified by the Commission.’.
Amendment 16, page 2, line 11, at end insert—
‘(3A) Polling stations are to be open from 6 am to midnight on each designated day or days for the referendum.’.
Amendment 61, page 2, line 11, at end insert—
‘(3A) The Secretary of State shall consult with and seek to secure agreement from the devolved administrations on the conduct of the referendum within the relevant part of the United Kingdom.’.
Amendment 64, page 2, line 11, at end add—
‘(3A) Results for the referendum will be published for European parliamentary constituencies, except that Gibraltar’s shall be published separately from the rest of the South West return.’.
Amendment 65, page 2, line 11, at end insert—
‘(3A) Persons who are resident in part of the United Kingdom that has voted to leave the United Kingdom or that has formed an independent country, or that is in the process of negotiating such independence or holding a referendum on independence will have their votes counted separately and be subject to a separate declaration.’.
Amendment 85, page 2, line 11, at end insert—
‘(3A) Those entitled to vote in the referendum who do not without reasonable excuse cast their vote shall pay a penalty of £50.’.
Amendment 84, page 2, line 14, at end insert—
‘(5) The Electoral Commission shall undertake a review of the conduct of the referendum and shall publish a report setting out the conclusions of the review no more than 12 months after the day or days on which the referendum is held.’.
Let me begin by wishing all my Jewish constituents, and Jewish people all over the world, a happy Chanukah.
It is a great pleasure to introduce this series of amendments. A number of them are in my name, but some have been tabled by other Members. The amendments in my name are 52, 53, 54, 55, 17, 5, 6, 7, 16 and 61. In the first part of my speech I shall concentrate on amendments 52, 53, 54 and 55, which relate to the provision in clause 3(1) that
“The Electoral Commission shall publish a report setting out its recommendations for the rules in accordance with which the referendum is to be conducted “.
I will in a moment. I should like to make a little progress first.
If the referendum is to be conducted properly, we cannot allow the Electoral Commission’s report to be published so close to the date on which it takes place that the commission’s proposals cannot be properly considered by the Government and then implemented. We must specify a date in order to provide a clear deadline for the commission, which does not always act in a timely manner. The amendments propose various alternative dates because at the time when they were tabled there was another group of amendments to be considered and I did not know when they would be debated, but all those dates precede the proposed date of the referendum, namely before the end of 2017.
I am glad that my hon. Friend cautioned me against intervening too early, because he has now started to explain. What I wanted to know was why he had specified three different dates. Was it because he was not sure which would be the best of the three, was it because of the pace at which the Electoral Commission could move, was it because we were not sure when the referendum would take place, or was it because he was not sure whether any or all the amendments would be selected?
The answer to those questions is yes, yes, yes and yes. The proposed date of the referendum was not made clear to us initially, and there was a possibility of amendments allowing it to be held, for example, before the general election, one year after the election, or later. It was therefore important for there to be amendments in this group which were related to, but not dependent on, those in the other group.
I have an open mind about which date we should opt for, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital for the Electoral Commission to be encouraged to focus its mind? One of the key issues that it will have to consider is how we can best avoid a repetition of what happened at the time of the Welsh referendum campaign in March 2011. There was not a no campaign because no organisation had registered, and thus there could not be a proper yes campaign. The whole campaign was hamstrung from the start.
I accept my hon. Friend’s wise words. I agree that we need to learn from experience. We need to learn the lessons of not just the Welsh referendum, but the 1975 referendum on British membership of the European Community. I shall say more about that in the next part of my speech.
May I correct what was said by the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David)? There was absolutely nothing wrong with the Welsh referendum campaign. It was executed beautifully, and allowed the people of Wales to make up their own minds and decide.
As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I always take your advice, having listened to it very carefully.
Amendment 52 is probably the most important amendment in the group. We have now voted for the referendum, if there is one, to take place by the end of 2017. Other proposed amendments to clause 3 have not been agreed to. Specifying the date of 1 March 2015 would oblige the Electoral Commission to present its proposals and recommendations about the conduct of the referendum not just well before the general election—which might be pertinent, because any incoming Government could bear in mind any difficulties that the Electoral Commission had highlighted—but at a time that would allow proper consideration and preparation, including legislation or any other measures that the Government might wish to take, to begin up to two and a half years before the referendum, given that, although we do not know the exact date of the referendum, we have been told that it must take place by the end of 2017.
I tabled these amendments for many reasons, but the most important reason is that the Bill is inadequate. It has many flaws, and if it leaves the House of Commons unamended, the other place will have to give it proper consideration and try to remedy the failure of this place to improve it.
I saw the promoter of the Bill, the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), shaking his head during my hon. Friend’s comments. This morning the hon. Gentleman moved an amendment to his own Bill, so it is clear that it has already been improved. Has my hon. Friend had a chance to discuss these amendments with the hon. Gentleman, and can he tell us whether the hon. Gentleman is inclined to accept them?
I have had no direct discussions with the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), but he is present, and is perfectly at liberty to speak about the amendments or even to intervene now. I should welcome an intervention from him if he wishes to explain why he does not like certain of my amendments. However, as we have observed on previous Fridays, although he is the Bill’s promoter, he makes hardly any contributions to our debates.
Many people might think that the reason the Government are being so unclear is that they do not have any of the answers, and it is simply a political manoeuvre. If Government Members have genuine concerns, is it not surprising that so few of them are here to discuss my hon. Friend’s amendments?
Apart from the Minister, only two Conservative Members are present, namely the promoter of the Bill and his hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby), along with one Liberal Democrat. Oh, I am sorry: I forgot the Whip. Whips are almost anonymous, so I never notice them.
Says my former Whip! But she is no longer my Whip, so I think—I hope—that I am okay.
Amendment 52 states that the Electoral Commission’s report must be published by 1 March 2015. Amendment 53 would give the commission another year, but that would allow the Government less time in which to consider its recommendations and make any changes to take account of them.
Amendment 54 would do the same thing, but with 1 March 2017 as the date. I am not so keen on that amendment. It was put forward, as I have explained to colleagues, in case a referendum is held after the end of 2017. I think that 1 March 2017 would be far too late for that obligation, because it would not give enough time for the House to make the appropriate changes or for the Government to put forward properly considered proposals.
Amendment 55 would ensure that the Electoral Commission published its report at least six months before the date or dates appointed for the referendum. Let us imagine that the Government, having listened to our deliberations, decided not to hold the referendum during Britain’s presidency of the European Union’s Council of Ministers—from 1 July to 31 December 2017—and, given their commitment to hold it before the end of December and the fact that they would not wish it to clash with religious festivals at the end of 2017, particularly Christmas and Chanukah, opted instead to hold it in early 2017. The Electoral Commission would therefore have to produce its report by the end of 2016.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that the Electoral Commission considers not only the arguments for and against, but the fact that the electorate need much more basic information? I refer him to the commission’s report on the issue, which makes the salient point that in order to have a reasonable debate the electorate need more basic information. The report must address that fact.
Absolutely. We are talking about a monumental decision on the future of our country, our international relations and the status of the 1.4 million British people living in other European Union counties, who, as things stand, will be excluded from making a democratic decision in the referendum. It is therefore important that the Electoral Commission does the job that the Government and the Bill’s promoter have not done, because those issues are not addressed in the Bill, even though they should be. We have to find a way for the Electoral Commission to put right what was not done by the Government, or at least the part of the Government who support the Bill—this is so complicated, because I have to keep remembering that it is a private Member’s Bill, even though the Minister is here to support it.
My hon. Friend referred to British nationals living on the continent. Clearly the referendum could have profound implications for them. In view of his interest in the matter, which is evident in the amendments he has laid before the House, I would be keen to know whether he has heard from British people living on the continent and, if so, what their take is on the implications of what is happening and on their inability to participate in the referendum.
I have received several e-mails and letters from British people living in other European Union countries—indeed, there are websites for them—and they are outraged by the idea that they will have no say. Some have been living in France or Italy for more than 15 years but will be unable to register as overseas voters. As I pointed out on a previous Friday, of the millions of British citizens living abroad, only 20,000 are registered as overseas voters. It is a serious flaw in the Bill that British citizens in other parts of the European Union will not be able to participate, but we will consider that under another set of amendments.
I will make some progress. Amendment 17 is fundamentally important. As Members will recall, this House introduced a threshold for the Scottish referendum in the 1970s, which was defeated. As a result, the support for separatism did not secure the necessary figure. The Scottish people did not vote for separatism, but in any case the threshold was there as a safeguard to ensure that a small, vocal and impassioned minority was not able to drive through a fundamental change without the wholehearted consent of the Scottish people at the time.
I believe that a similar threshold should be included for this referendum to ensure that if there is a low turnout the result will not be binding. Amendment 17 proposes that the Electoral Commission should set down rules specifying that if
“fewer than 60 per cent of registered voters take part in the referendum, or the majority in favour of not remaining in the European Union comprises fewer than 40% of registered voters”,
the referendum would not be binding.
I am delighted that we are considering amendment 17, as the last time we had a politically generated referendum in this country—when we had the elections for police and crime commissioners—only 15% of the electorate voted. Has my hon. Friend heard any noises from the Government Benches on whether they accept his amendment?
The only noises I have heard from the Government Benches have not been complimentary about any of my amendments—and some of them were not made in the Chamber.
There is also a major danger that different nations or regions will vote in markedly different ways in a low-turnout referendum, with divisive consequences for our United Kingdom. Let us imagine, for the sake of argument, that next September the Scottish people vote against separatism and in favour of staying in the UK but in a referendum in 2017 a majority of the electorate votes to leave the European Union, based on votes in parts of England and with the vast majority of Scots voting to remain in the European Union. We would think that the referendum next September will settle the question of Scottish independence and separatism, but in fact the same issue could be reopened only two or so years later, even though the Scottish people voted to stay in the UK. They might say, “Hold on. We didn’t want to leave the European Union, which is part of our association with the two Unions we are part of: the United Kingdom and the European Union.” We could then have a real problem. The same argument could apply in Wales, Northern Ireland and significant parts of England.
Therefore, if we want to keep the unity and cohesion of our country, we need safeguards to avoid an extreme minority in certain parts of the country driving through, on a low turnout, a referendum result that would lead to the withdrawal of parts of the country that did not wish to leave the European Union and were not inspired by fanatics to take part in a referendum that they did not feel was particularly important.
I believe that those issues would then need to come back to be considered by Parliament. I do not wish to have a binding referendum. A binding referendum is dangerous if we cannot allow for sophisticated consideration of the implications of the result—for example, if there is a low turnout or there are very diverse results in different parts of our country. The final decision would therefore have to rest with this House in legislation that we would pass afterwards. I tabled amendment 17 for that reason, and I believe that the Electoral Commission would need to take account of those factors in its report. If the Electoral Commission did not accept such points, it would say so in its recommendations to Parliament, and Parliament and the Government would then consider those recommendations in making arrangements before the referendum that might be held by the end of 2017.
I am sorry to say that I am somewhat disappointed by amendment 17. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who said that it will give a veto to the devolved Assemblies, which is not in the ethos of a United Kingdom. More importantly, paragraph (d) states that there is a veto in relation to European Parliament constituencies. Notwithstanding the explanation of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) about the referendum result not being binding, the amendment refers to a decision that
“the referendum has not produced a valid outcome.”
To me, that means that the referendum would be discarded. Does the amendment mean that the Electoral Commission will raise such a matter, because the amendment does not indicate what will happen if vetoes for different geographical areas are allowed and one actually takes place?
I agree that amendment 17 is not perfect. I originally put forward a series of amendments, but they were tabled together as one amendment. I would have preferred to have a vote on each paragraph separately, but that is not how the process worked, so they are all together in one. I interpret the amendment as giving advice to the Electoral Commission, which would then make recommendations to the Government, at least six months and probably two years in advance of any referendum. At that point, provisions could be considered to take account of the needs of the whole of the United Kingdom, as well as the requirement for a threshold to ensure that the result of any referendum cannot be based on a small minority, as has happened in police and crime commissioner or other elections, when the decision will have profound long-term implications for the future of the whole United Kingdom.
Amendments 5 to 7, which are linked, make proposals relating to the conduct of the referendum to make sure that there is a level playing field in the provision of public information and campaigning on both the yes and the no sides. From our experience of other referendums, not least the one on the alternative vote, we know that the different sides can put in different levels of resources. We know that well-funded American citizens of Australian origin who have daily newspapers and people from other countries who have connections with lobbying companies and organisations, whether tobacco lobbyists or others, will be able to generate large amounts of publicity for one side in any referendum campaign.
It is important to have balance. We already have rules with regard to party political broadcasts on television. Amendment 6 would make provision for television referendum broadcasts for both sides, so that there are
“no fewer than six nor more than 10 broadcasts of a total time of at least 60 minutes on all television channels…at such times as are determined by the Electoral Commission”.
Given that this country has minority languages that are recognised by the devolved institutions, we need provision for broadcasts in Welsh or Gaelic in certain parts of the United Kingdom.
Is the thinking behind my hon. Friend’s amendment on the funding of campaigns that there should be a ceiling, with no additional funding available? Back in 1975, there was a very unequal contest between the two sides of the then referendum debate. Is he seeking to ensure fairness, with the £10 million figure specified in amendment 5 being the absolute maximum that can be spent on the campaign by either side?
The amendment is about state funding to ensure that both sides have a minimum level of resources for campaigning, but it does not cap the total that can be spent. It is entirely up to the Electoral Commission to propose rules of that kind. None of my amendments would introduce a cap, but I take my hon. Friend’s point. There will undoubtedly be a disparity, with well-funded—perhaps foreign—interests that want the UK to leave the European Union, because they see that as a way to help their companies have lower standards of social protection, parental rights or whatever, so there are dangers.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly and I will agree about amendment 5, as we did on the wording of amendment 17. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South intend to introduce a private Member’s Bill to make voting compulsory in this country? My impression is that what he wants broadcasters and print media to produce would completely turn off the British people by forcing politics down their throats. If anything is guaranteed to ensure that people do not vote in the referendum, it is this amendment.
I am about to introduce amendment 7, but I thank my hon. Friend for pre-empting me. It deals with what we could call the Rupert Murdoch question: making sure that when 70% or more, by circulation, of this country’s print media is in the hands of people who do not want Britain to remain in the European Union—they will no doubt campaign vigorously, as many of them have for many months or years, with a relentless daily drip, drip, drip—their readers should have some information from both sides of the campaign.
Amendment 7 states that
“proponents and opponents of the question in the referendum are able to publish a two full page advertisement spread immediately after the front page in all national editions of newspapers published in any part of the United Kingdom, as specified by the Electoral Commission, on four dates to be specified by the Commission”.
That would ensure that the debate is conducted with some degree of fairness, and it would also save costs. There could be a higher figure for both sides of the campaign to enable them to put out more material, but we require balance in our broadcast media—the BBC and other broadcasters are supposed to show balance during election campaigns—and the amendment is about having such balance in our print media.
I took notice of your previous admonishment, Madam Deputy Speaker, when I mentioned alternative legislation. However, I want to do so again on the basis that we considered recently the complex issue of press freedom and the royal charter. Surely what is missing from amendment 7 is the word “paid”. It states that the Secretary of State will make publishers
“publish a two full page advertisement”
on these issues. Surely the word “paid” should be in there, because we would not be taking editorial control of the newspapers. The adverts would surely have to be paid for by the taxpayer.
It would be for the Electoral Commission to consider how best the adverts could be paid for. The payment could come out of the £10 million that is mentioned in amendment 5 or a special fund could be established for the purpose. Perhaps, out of the goodness of their hearts and acting patriotically in the national interest, the newspapers might allow both sides in the debate to be heard, rather than putting only one side of the argument, as is often the case with some publications in this country.
I am listening to my hon. Friend’s argument with great interest, but I am little concerned that the newspapers to which he is referring might take the taxpayer’s money with great enthusiasm and publish the pages, but use the money to publish another couple of pages that counter the arguments that are put forward in the advertisement. Does he agree that a lot more work needs to be done on that?
Absolutely; that is why amendment 7 says that the Electoral Commission should consider the matter in detail. We cannot go through all the minutiae of the Bill. The Electoral Commission would be responsible for looking at all the arguments, including those made by my hon. Friends the Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey).
I thank my hon. Friend for his generosity. I would like clarification. Amendment 7 uses the term “national”. Is he talking about the Welsh nation, the Scottish nation or the United Kingdom? What does he mean by “national”? My understanding is that, in the amendment, “national” refers to the United Kingdom. Many English voters would therefore have the Welsh language in their newspapers. Does he think that that might be slightly strange for them?
As I have said, the Electoral Commission needs to consider all of these aspects carefully. Publications such as the Western Mail would be regarded as national in Wales, but not in England. We have to consider such difficulties and nuances. That would be done by the Electoral Commission.
I will move on to the final two amendments that appear in my name. Amendment 16 would provide for polling stations to be open for longer. In parliamentary elections, polling stations are open from 7 in the morning until 10 at night. There were difficulties during the last general election. Some people queued outside polling stations and could not get in. The doors of some polling stations were locked and there were arguments about people not being allowed to vote. Other people were inside polling stations and were allowed to put their votes into the ballot boxes after 10 o’clock.
We must avoid such difficulties. I tabled a series of amendments on holding the referendum on more than one day. Polling stations must be open for cleaners who come back home in the early hours of the morning. They could vote at 6 am. People who work late could vote just before midnight. If, contrary to what I expect, there will be great enthusiasm for the referendum and a massive turnout, we must extend the voting period to ensure that as many people as possible can cast their votes.
I hear what my hon. Friend is saying, but the Government did eventually, under pressure, accept an amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill to solve the problem of long queues at polling stations before 10 o’clock. I think that that will be effective. That puts a question mark over the importance of amendment 16.
I do not expect the House to vote on all my amendments. There are some amendments that I will not press to a vote and amendment 16 is one of them. I will therefore conclude my remarks on that amendment.
Finally, amendment 61 is important. It touches on the issues of publicity, newspapers, media and different languages that we have already debated. We live in a United Kingdom that has devolved Administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. It is important that there is consultation with all parts of the UK and agreement over the conduct of the referendum. I therefore hope that amendment 61 is not controversial and will not be opposed by the Government.
My hon. Friend has not commented on the amendments that have been tabled by those on his Front Bench, which recommend an audit of the arrangements for the referendum by the Electoral Commission once it has taken place and, crucially, that the people of Gibraltar should have their votes declared separately and, as a result, clearly so that we can see how Gibraltarians have voted. I would welcome his assurance that he is sympathetic to the merit of those two amendments.
Of course I am sympathetic to those amendments. I have not commented on them because they have not been introduced by the Member who tabled them. I thought that it would be better to listen and to intervene at a later stage, if necessary.
I am happy to conclude by commending all my amendments to the House. I look forward to the consideration of the amendments that have been tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) and by other hon. Members.
This group of amendments deals with various matters pertaining to the detailed conduct of the proposed referendum.
Amendments 52 to 55 would impose deadlines on the Electoral Commission. Existing legislation gives the commission appropriate powers and responsibilities. Particularly as we do not yet know the exact date on which the referendum will take place, it would be wrong to impose undue inflexibility on the commission, as these amendments would.
Amendment 17 would impose thresholds. The Government believe that the referendum result should be determined, as in other referendums, by a simple majority of those who vote. Thresholds should not be required in respect of turnout or anything else.
No, I am going to make progress.
Amendments 5 to 7 and 84 propose arrangements for the referendum that would either duplicate or complicate arrangements that are set out clearly in existing primary legislation, namely the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
Amendments 16, 64 and 65—
The hon. Gentleman has made his point. He knows that it is not a point on which I should rule from the Chair. The Minister has been speaking for only a minute or two. He is in the opening stages of his speech and I am sure that he will take interventions when it becomes appropriate.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Amendments 16, 64 and 65 propose detailed rules for the conduct of the referendum, but these kinds of detailed arrangements will be dealt with in secondary legislation, provision for which is already included in the Bill. Amendment 61 would require the Government to consult the devolved Administrations. Clearly, any Government would take careful account of the situation in the three devolved areas, but we are talking about the electorate of the entire United Kingdom on a subject that is explicitly and unquestionably a reserved, non-devolved matter, so I believe it would be inappropriate to put such a requirement in the Bill. Amendment 85 would make voting compulsory. I disagree with the amendment. Voting should be a matter of civic responsibility and pride, not something enforced under threat of penalty.
If I dig deep into my reserves of good will, I might just, even now, be persuaded that these amendments were tabled with good intentions, but I think they are, for the most part, otiose. I disagree with them and hope that their proposers will, on reflection, not press them.
I start by congratulating you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your elevation to the Chair. This is the first opportunity I have had to say that. I was delighted when you were successfully installed in your place.
I want to speak in support of amendments 5, 6, 7, 16, 17, 52, 53 and 55, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), amendment 84, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), who sits on the Front Bench, and obviously my own amendment 85.
Before my hon. Friend starts to develop his arguments, I must say that the significance of what the Minister has just said is beginning to sink in. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is quite outrageous for a Minister to question the integrity of another hon. Member in asking legitimate questions, many of which are probing questions in the interests of our having a good debate? Was it not thoroughly shameful?
I could not have put it better myself. Indeed, I was going to use the word “shameful” to describe what can only be called the Minister’s calumnies against the honourable motives of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South. I absolutely agree that they were shameful. I hope that when the Minister has had time to reflect, he might, from the Dispatch Box, withdraw his comments and apologise to my hon. Friend, who has entirely honourable motives for asking reasonable questions and tabling legitimate amendments. On a previous occasion, I think another Minister was chided by Mr Speaker for questioning my hon. Friend’s amendments, as if in some way they were disorderly. I could not see how that could possibly have been the case, because the Chair had ruled them in order and they were before the House to be debated. I have not long been in this place, but in my time I think it is unprecedented for such a challenge to be made.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) for their kind remarks. I want to place it on the record that my amendments, which were selected, were ruled by Mr Speaker to be perfectly in order and specifically not “frivolous”, but I must correct my hon. Friend: it was not a Minister who said they were frivolous, but a Liberal Democrat.
Yes, I recall; I was in the Chamber at the time. I withdraw any inadvertent slight against those on the Government Front Bench on that particular point, but obviously my remarks just now about the Minister’s shameful comments still stand.
Despite my youthful appearance, I actually participated in the referendum in 1975. I know it is probably difficult for people to believe, but I was eligible to vote. Indeed, it was my second opportunity to vote in a national poll.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who I think is also a vegetarian. I was just about to say that my youthful appearance was down to my vegan diet, but I digress.
As we know, in the 1975 referendum the country voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EEC. I have to say I voted no, but I have since recognised that I was wrong to do so. Were I to have my time again, I would certainly vote differently, because the EU has developed in a very positive way. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South referred to some of the benefits of our membership. Certain powerful media moguls in this country want us to withdraw from the EU because it would make it easier to take away workers’ rights and consumer protections and to adopt exploitative working practices, which would become much more commonplace. It is only thanks to the EU that many of those rights are enshrined in law and workers receive the rights they now do, through things such as the working time directive and so on. Obviously, the single market is an extremely important benefit to the UK and the British work force, millions of whose livelihoods rely on companies whose main market is the EU, but that would be jeopardised if the referendum was held and the country voted to withdraw from the EU.
Given the importance of the referendum to the UK’s future, my amendment 85 is essential. It would make a significant turnout at a referendum much more likely. It proposes that unless people have good reason, they should be subject to a penalty if they do not participate in the referendum. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South, I favour compulsory voting, but I am not necessarily suggesting that we introduce it for general and local elections. I think this referendum is different, however, because the consequences of a vote, whatever the outcome, would be profound and potentially irreversible. As I have mentioned, people’s livelihoods, consumers’ rights and the single market would all be affected by a decision to withdraw from the EU. It would be appropriate, therefore, on this occasion, if not on any other, to impose a penalty in order to maximise turnout. We want to ensure that the British people’s voice is heard and that the overwhelming majority of the British people express their view.
Many hon. Members might think this a significant departure from current practice, and in many ways it is, but is my hon. Friend aware that, as things stand now, if a householder does not return their electoral registration form or co-operate with their electoral registration officer, a fine can be imposed for non-co-operation and therefore non-registration? Also, under the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, which introduced individual electoral registration, individuals can be fined for non-co-operation and therefore non-registration. We do not know how much it will be, but nevertheless that important principle has been established, and his amendment merely takes it a stage further. Does he agree?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who sets out the case very effectively. This is not such a huge leap, although I accept that, on the face of it, people might baulk at the notion that a penalty should be imposed on those who fail to cast a vote without good reason. As my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly has pointed out, however, this is not necessarily such a big leap as people might first think it to be.
To return to my previous point, this is such a fundamentally important issue for the future of the United Kingdom that I would hope even those who are opposed to compulsory voting would understand the reasons behind the amendment—and, indeed, hopefully, support it and acknowledge how important it is, if a referendum takes place, to have an overwhelming turnout. I hope that Government Members who want to see the UK withdraw from the EU would not want to do so on the basis of a tiny minority of the vote. I do not think they would want to do that on the basis of the abysmal turnout for the elections of police and crime commissioners, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South mentioned. Given how much is at stake here, surely it is important to all who believe in democracy that citizens of these islands actually participate in this great democratic opportunity to determine the fate of Britain in or out of the EU.
If we look around the world, we find that a number of countries have compulsory voting on their statute books. Before coming to the debate this morning, I had a look and found some examples of the nations that have a compulsory voting requirement. Australia is probably the one with which most of us will be familiar, but there are others: for example, Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador. I think there are 10 countries around the globe that have enforced compulsory voting with a penalty.
There are others for which compulsory voting is on the statute book, but without any penalties in place for people who do not participate. According to my research, around 20 countries fall into that category—including places such as Belgium and Greece. Perhaps we need to learn a lesson from these other nations, where it seems to have worked reasonably well and to have resulted in a bigger turnout in their elections.
In the countries that my hon. Friend has cited, does he agree that there is no obligation for individuals to cast their vote for any particular candidate? They are able to go to a ballot box and spoil their ballot paper. Does my hon. Friend assume that the same thing would happen here if his amendment were passed?
Absolutely. It would clearly be completely wrong—and, indeed, anti-democratic—to impose any obligation restriction on how individuals cast their votes or for whom they cast them. That would be a matter for each individual to come to a view on. People would no doubt listen to the various campaigns for and against and come to a view. I would personally prefer it if, when elections come about, people actually took the opportunity to vote rather than stopping at home. If they do not support any particular candidate, they should go along and spoil their ballot paper. Our democracy confers a very precious right. We know that our forefathers and mothers fought and gave their lives for democracy, and we see this around the world when people continue to this day to strive, struggle and fight to get the right to exercise their vote. Democracy is a very precious thing, and that is why it is essential to maximise participation in it. I think my amendment would have the effect of achieving precisely that.
My hon. Friend is making a very important point about the importance of people voting in elections, but is he as concerned as I am that there appears to be a decline in voter turnout across large parts of the prosperous world, certainly in other European countries? Interestingly, this relates not just to the elections for the European Parliament, because turnout has declined even more in many countries in their national elections.
Yes, that is a very regrettable fact of life. My hon. Friend’s intervention reinforces the notion behind my amendment that imposing a penalty would almost certainly increase the turnout. We have seen that this is what happens in Australia, for example. Because of the importance of this particular issue, any incentive we can provide to encourage people to participate would, I think, be all to the good. I hope that, as I have said, Government Members will consider the intentions behind my amendment and support it.
I find myself in the unique position of disagreeing with my hon. Friend on his amendment. I jib at the idea of forcing people to vote. Has he thought of any other mechanisms that might increase the vote, without being so prescriptive—electronic voting, for instance? Would that not achieve what he intends, which is to increase the number of people participating in this election?
That is certainly a valid point. As I was saying in my opening remarks, I understand that some people may feel a little uncomfortable about the notion of compelling people to vote. I think electronic voting is a worthy innovation that should be considered, and other options need to be considered in order to increase awareness and participation. It is really a matter for political parties to look at how their message is being communicated and how they can engage effectively with the electorate to encourage people to participate.
Let me come back to my central point. The proposition for a referendum could have fundamental implications for the United Kingdom. In these circumstances, even people such as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who is a little uneasy about the notion of compulsory voting, need to consider it carefully, along with some of the other issues that she has identified.
Let us look at the Australian example, where I believe compulsory voting was introduced in 1924. Turnout in federal elections is never less than 90%. In the 2013 election, turnout was 93%. I would certainly hope that, if this referendum went ahead, we got a turnout of that order. If we were to achieve a turnout of 90%, or even 80%, we would certainly know that the British people had spoken. Whatever the British people decided, we would know that it had the confidence of the majority of the electorate in our country.
I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I have some sympathy with it. Does he not believe, however, that in the PCC elections the British people spoke volubly when they did not turn out to vote? The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), which specified a turnout threshold to be reached, would suffice to reach the position sought by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) in his amendment.
I hear what my hon. Friend says. I shall come on in a few moments to comment briefly on the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South, particularly the one identified by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham. What she suggests would certainly be a safeguard, but I am not sure that it would be a strong enough safeguard. I generally support the amendments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South, and I am going to speak about them in a few moments.
The difference between the PCC election, in which as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham pointed out the British people spoke volubly by their lack of participation, and the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU is that the latter is absolutely fundamental and potentially irreversible. If on a turnout of, say, 15%, it was decided that the UK withdraw from the EU, the impact on the remaining 85%—actually, it would be more than 85% because I would assume that the 15% who participated would not have all voted the same way, making it potentially 90%—could be devastating. All those people could have their lives literally turned upside down by a tiny rump, a tiny proportion, of the British people—10%, say, if the turnout were that low. That is why I come back to the point that making it compulsory for people to vote would overcome the scenario that I have just outlined.
Forgive me if I missed this in my hon. Friend’s opening remarks, but did he explain how he arrived at £50? That is a significant amount. It is about the same amount as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) and I will pay to see West Ham beat Fulham tomorrow—[Interruption.] Sorry, I mean West Ham United and not the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown).
Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is well aware that he must stick specifically to the question in hand. The question proposed by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) was one that requires only a short answer, and the hon. Gentleman may then resume his consideration of the amendments.
My hon. Friend has said that he will reference the amendments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), but may I ask him to comment briefly on the two amendments that I have tabled from the Front Bench? One stipulates that the results of any referendum in Gibraltar should be declared separately so that we can see how Gibraltarians voted and the second talks of the crucial need for an audit of the arrangements for the referendum, which the Electoral Commission might set out.
Indeed I was going to refer to those amendments. Suffice it to say that they are sensible. We need to learn lessons from a referendum, and it would be helpful to have that report.
On the earlier point, briefly, £50 is sufficiently high enough to create an incentive and to concentrate people’s minds. If it were any less than that, they might not bother to vote. If it were higher than that, it would be unreasonable. I must say I did pluck the figure out of the sky, but I thought that £50 was reasonable.
The figure is very important. There was a not dissimilar debate a little while ago about the level of a fine for an individual who fails to co-operate with the individual electoral registration system. The Government took as their yardstick the average level of a parking fine—I think that phrase was used. Has my hon. Friend considered whether there should be a parking fine figure, because it would be considerably more than £50 on average?
I am not too familiar with the levels of parking fines. I never transgress parking restrictions when I park my vehicle, so I have never been subject to such a fine. Anecdotally, I understand that the average figure is about £50, so the fine I propose is in the order of a £50 parking fine. Without stretching Madam Deputy Speaker’s patience too far, I think we have probably dealt with the point about the £50 and perhaps need to move on, but I give way to my hon. Friend.
I was going to take my hon. Friend back to the original premise of his amendment and ask whether he thought that, given how difficult it is for some of our press to deal with this issue in an even-handed way, if we did introduce compulsory voting, those of us who are on the vote no side might get blamed for that. The whole thing might backfire against those of us who wish to keep Britain firmly in the European Union.
I hope it does not. I believe that the force of our argument is so strong that it will convince a majority of the British people. I want to ensure that we get a strong turnout at the referendum and a very clear mandate from the British people. I am absolutely convinced that that mandate will be overwhelmingly to remain inside the European Union, because it is in the United Kingdom’s best interests to do so. We do not want a situation in which workers have their rights thrown on the bonfire. We do not want to see consumers losing their protection or millions of workers losing their jobs as a result of not having access to the single market.
I was thinking, “Hold on, did I put another zero in my amendment?” I clearly did not. There is a danger of the figure being inflated, so I accept what my hon. Friend says, but none the less I feel that it is important to give this incentive to the British people. Having heard all the arguments, I think that most people would want to participate in any event. The penalty would not be imposed on people who have a valid reason not to participate.
Order. While I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman would like to consider this penalty issue at some length, I must point out to him that he is covering a large range of amendments in his speech. He has addressed most of them. He has now had the floor for 26 minutes, and I am sure that he, being an hon. Gentleman, will appreciate that there are others who wish to participate in today’s debate. Twenty six minutes is quite sufficient time to cover all of the amendments, and I am quite sure that he will conclude his speech in the very near future.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I will certainly do that. There was a lot more that I wanted to say, but I will try to draw my remarks to a close as quickly as I can. There were many other amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South that I support and on which I wanted to comment, but I will comment only on amendment 17, which related to the threshold that would need to be reached to declare any referendum outcome valid.
Validity is essential, and I have touched on that. We have referred to the PCC elections. We do not want a situation in which a small percentage of the population participating in the referendum determine the future of our country. It is sensible to have a threshold figure that would make the referendum valid, properly democratic and orderly. Another important issue is the different outcomes in the different nations of the United Kingdom. If we are to take such a fundamental decision to leave the European Union, it is important that the decision is reflected in each of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom to ensure the democratic validity of it. If we were not to do that, there would be significant ramifications for the validity of the outcome, and that would not be helpful to the future of the United Kingdom. With that, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will conclude my remarks and thank you for giving me the time to contribute.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate at last. I thought for a minute that it was never going to happen. Like you, Madam Deputy Speaker, I hope that we can now make rapid progress. Having failed sensibly to amend the Bill so far, it will now fall to our noble friends up the corridor to try to improve it. The sooner we press on to Third Reading the better.
I would quite like to attend the European congress of Liberals and Democrats, which I am proud to say is happening in London this week, where 1,000 Liberals are gathering from 30 or 40 countries, 12 of them countries in which we are in government, to plot a positive, constructive and collaborative future for Europe. I realise that might sound like a vision from hell to some Conservative Back Benchers, but I find it rather inspiring and would quite like to drop in. I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the House for not being present for the whole of today’s debate as a result.
Moving swiftly on to the amendments, I will not address all of those tabled by the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). He is right that they are not frivolous, and they would not have been in order if they had been, but some are a little superfluous, if that is not an unkind remark. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) would impose compulsory voting on us, which is not a principle that Liberals generally support. Voters reveal a lot when they abstain from a democratic election or a referendum and it is important that we understand what they are telling us when they abstain or do not turn out to vote.
Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the scenario I touched on, in which the percentage turnout is very low—say, at the police and crime commissioner level? Would he be content if we withdrew from the EU on that basis, because we had not accepted my amendment?
The principle of turnout in British elections has always been that whatever the quantum of votes, we accept the result one way or the other. I would not be happy in that situation, but it would be down to those of us who are putting the pro-European case to ensure that people turned out in sufficient numbers to defend British jobs, to defend our ability to fight cross-border crime and to defend the protection of the environment across European borders. That would be our responsibility and we will not solve it by forcing people who do not want to vote to turn out. We do not have to share Russell Brand’s variety of celebrity nihilism to believe that voters reveal important information about the health of our democracy and the levels of detachment and disenchantment when they do not turn out to vote.
That brings me neatly on to amendment 17, which seeks to impose a threshold of 60%. The suggestion that a turnout of less than 60% means that the result is not legitimate is intriguing, because if we applied that to Westminster constituencies we would have some interesting results. Let me pick one at random: Ilford South had a turnout of 58% at the last general election, and I would find it surprising if the hon. Gentleman was arguing that that meant that the result was invalid in some way. We have not applied that principle, certainly not at such a level, to previous referendums and we certainly do not apply it to Westminster votes. When the referendum comes, I hope that those in favour of remaining in the European Union for the benefit of jobs, fighting cross-border crime and protecting the environment will win it on a simple majority.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and understand his appetite to move on. I hope that when he reaches the other amendments he might be willing to comment on the two that I have tabled. The first suggests that there should be a separate but linked declaration of the result in Gibraltar, and I hope he might be tempted to support that. I would also welcome his views on amendment 84, which suggests a post-referendum audit.
I am certainly more sympathetic to those amendments. The idea of an audit is, I think, a little superfluous. I am not sure that it is a bad idea, but I am also not sure that we need it in the Bill. We could leave it to the Electoral Commission’s good judgment.
Amendment 64 is more serious. We debated the subject at some length when we discussed the Conservative amendments on our first day on Report. There is a question about Gibraltar that has not been resolved by enabling Gibraltarians to vote in the referendum, which has now been incorporated into the Bill, because we still have the problem that Gibraltar is only a member of the European Union by virtue of its status as a British territory. If the UK and Gibraltar vote yes, we will have no problem. If the UK and Gibraltar vote no, it would be a catastrophe for jobs, the fighting of crime, the environment and so on, but it would not be a problem for Gibraltar’s constitutional position.
We have problems, however—I have not yet heard Ministers respond to them satisfactorily to defend the Bill—with what will happen if Gibraltar and the UK vote in different ways. If the UK votes to remain in the EU but Gibraltar votes no, I would assume that that would be taken as an indication of Gibraltar’s desire to leave the EU. Would we then accommodate that desire? Would we, for instance, pursue the Greenland option, where one territory from within a realm leaves the European Union? It would be interesting to hear what Ministers have to say in reply to that. If the reverse happens, and Gibraltar votes yes and the UK votes no, would we really proceed in effect to expel Gibraltar from the European Union against the clearly expressed wishes of the Gibraltarian people? What message would that send to Spain about our desire to respect the will of the people of Gibraltar in determining their own future? It would be good to hear the Minister’s replies on those two scenarios.
Let me conclude by talking about my amendment 65, which suggests the separate declaration that I think would be appropriate for any country that has voted to leave the UK, has formed an independent country or is in the process of negotiating such independence or holding a referendum on it. It is pretty clear which country I am talking about and I have obtained from the Library a copy of a document called “Scotland’s Future”, which was published in the past few days and contains some interesting aspirations, including for Scotland to remain a member of the European Union and to achieve independence, if it is voted for in autumn 2014, by 24 March 2016.
I am no expert on the Scottish independence debate and I do not know whether either of those aspirations is guaranteed—I suspect that neither of them is—but it raises the important question of what will happen if the Scottish people vote yes to independence and no to Europe. Will the Scottish Government pursue membership of the European Union even though their people have voted the other way? It will be equally bizarre if England votes no or yes by a narrow margin but Scotland tips the balance the other way despite having already voted to leave the United Kingdom. What would be the constitutional situation for England, Wales and Northern Ireland then? If Scotland votes yes to independence and to EU membership but the UK as a whole votes to leave the European Union, we will then have the bizarre situation of Scotland negotiating entry while the Government of the UK simultaneously negotiates exit. That is one of those timetabling issues that shows what an arbitrary and ill thought out notion it is to have a fixed deadline that cannot take account of changing political and constitutional realities, whether on the European scale, in relation to Scotland or in the United Kingdom.
I will not give way, because I have given way to the hon. Gentleman already and I think the Bill needs to make progress.
I will not press the amendment to a vote and I will not move it, but it raises important issues and I would like to hear the Minister’s response to them.
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to contribute briefly to the debate. I should say at the outset that I support the Bill but I also support the European project and the European Union. I do not think that we have anything to fear from a referendum, whenever it happens.
Let me run through the amendments. I have already told my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) that I do not support everything that he has proposed. I support amendment 52, oppose amendments 53, 55 and 17, support amendment 5, and say no to amendments 6, 7 and 16, and yes to amendment 61. I would be interested to hear the explanation from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), who is on the Front Bench, for amendments 64 and 84, which we have not heard yet. I am not entirely convinced by the proposed wording. I oppose amendment 85. As for amendment 65, tabled by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), which he has said that he will not press to a vote, I think its tone was defeatist about Scottish independence and the referendum so I was going to vote against it in principle, as I think we will win the referendum for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom.
As I have said, I will not detain the House in speaking to this group of amendments. I oppose amendments 53 and 54 because they would apply after the general election. I support amendment 52 on the basis that it commits the Electoral Commission to a specific date before the general election and creates an opportunity for an informed debate as part of the general election. Parties will therefore approach the matter and stimulate interest in participation, which my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) is keen to see—he wants a financial penalty for people who do not vote. In addition, amendment 52 gives clarity to the Lords in advance of its opportunity to examine the Bill—it would say clearly that this House would like the report to be published before the general election, and that would help deliberations in the Lords.
We have discussed amendment 17. My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and I probably straightforwardly agree that proposed new paragraphs 3(1A)(c) and (d) give a veto to each European parliamentary constituency rather than a majority of constituencies. There might be an anomaly in the voting pattern between people within European constituencies—they might vote one way by a majority of constituencies and vote another way by a majority vote. Giving each European constituency a veto over the outcome of the referendum, let alone giving the devolved territories an opportunity, is wholly inappropriate.
I covered my views on amendment 5 in an intervention—Madam Deputy Speaker admonished me for straying into that territory. The position looks straightforward and a limit would be sensible.
I have commented on amendment 6. People would be bored to death if we forced them to watch adverts on TV, or if they had to change channels too often to avoid them, or if they had to avoid adverts in their newspapers. It would turn people off politics and discussion, not stimulate greater participation in politics, which all hon. Members want. On amendment 7, I have said that we need to ensure that, if we are to require adverts in the written media, the publishers should be paid, just as TV, radio and cable broadcasters would have to be paid to carry adverts.
Supporting amendment 61 is straightforward. It states that we should
“consult and seek agreement from the devolved administrations”,
which is a sensible way to proceed. It does not say that they have a veto that means that the referendum will not go ahead if they fail to agree with us. Instead, it says that we should enlist their support and ensure they are in touch with us.
As I mentioned when I outlined my perspective on the amendments in the group, I do not have a view on the amendments tabled by the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West, because I have not heard the argument on the Gibraltarians or the audits. I look forward to him making those arguments.
I agree with the Minister on amendment 85 and compulsory voting. Voting should be a matter of civic responsibility, notwithstanding giving up £50, the equivalent of a West Ham game—at the moment, giving up a West Ham game would not be too difficult given how badly they are playing. I am not totally convinced about introducing financial penalties and making voting compulsory in that regard.
As I said, I support the Bill. I should say by the way that I was the private Member’s Bill Whip on Fridays from 2001 to 2005 during the Labour Government. The Minister’s comments on the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South were quite strong. I sat in the Chamber on many Fridays over a number of years listening to the right hon. Eric Forth challenge private Members’ Bills time and again. He irritated the life out of me, but he had the constitutional right to ensure that the bar for private Members’ Bills was set as high as possible. Passing laws for our country should not be an easy measure. I wholly respect the right of the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) to introduce his Bill and I support the principle of a referendum, but it is such a constitutional amendment that it should have been a Government Bill rather than a private Member’s Bill.
It is not for me to respond on behalf of right hon. or hon. Members. When I was a private Member’s Bill Whip, I used to advise colleagues on a Friday. I would say, “Stay in your seat and don’t be provoked by anything Opposition Members say.” The hon. Member for Stockton South is showing admirable restraint. Some of the things that have been said during the debates on these Fridays will have irritated the life out of him, but he is keen to get to the conclusion of the debate. He has made a tactical and strategic decision, but I understand Opposition Members who would rather have engaged in a fuller debate with Government Members.
In conclusion, I support the EU. We have nothing to fear from a referendum. I support the Bill in principle and will vote for it on Third Reading. I look forward to my hon. Friend the shadow Minister explaining why I should support the two amendments he has tabled, which I suspect he will do shortly.
I shall keep my comments brief, because hon. Members want to make progress and I want the process to be expedited as much as possible.
I begin by picking up one of the last points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who referred to the comments made a little while ago by the Minister. I take exception to the Minister’s comments. He said that a number of the amendments in the group are otiose. That might be his opinion, but we should put on record our thanks to hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), for tabling amendments, which have allowed for a proper discussion and debate on this enormously important Bill. Regardless of whether we agree with the amendments he has tabled, had he not done so we would not have got into a detailed debate today and on other days about the Bill’s ramifications and implications. Rather than saying simply that the amendments are otiose, we should be thanking my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend spoke eloquently to amendments 52 to 55. In essence, they are about insisting that the Electoral Commission comes forward with a proper series of recommendations for the conduct of the referendum. That is important, because all of us recognise, no matter which side of the argument we are on, that there needs to be a proper and fair discussion and debate in the country. I echo a point made by the Electoral Commission when I say that it is simply not enough to have stipulations about how the debate is conducted; information must be provided by the Government that objectively sets out the parameters of the debate to be held. The Electoral Commission says that all the research it has conducted shows clearly that the majority of the population feel that they do not have sufficient information to reach an objective decision, either for or against. It is therefore important that the Government set out objective information about the European Union. Of course, the last thing we want is the Government subjectively setting out information, in a biased and partisan way. That is why it is very important that the Electoral Commission not only sets out rules—
My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government—at least the Conservative party—have already behaved in a biased and partisan way with regard to the wording of the question, which is contrary to what the Electoral Commission recommended. What guarantees do we have that the Electoral Commission’s recommendations will be implemented by this Government’s Ministers?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We touched on that issue in our debate last Friday, and the point holds firm. We would hope that if the Bill proceeds from this House to the other place, the Government might well table an amendment, as they have done with previous legislation, to modify the question that is set, in line with the Electoral Commission’s recommendation. It is also important to stress, however, that the Electoral Commission is a neutral, impartial body respected by all sections of the political spectrum. Those in the Electoral Commission are the custodians of electoral processes, objectively and clearly defined. To go back to the point I was making about its report on the conduct of the campaign, that is why it is important that the Government take on board the Electoral Commission’s recommendations, and that it is given plenty of time to do the work and is told precisely when its reports are expected. We have had an important debate on that matter, and I am minded to favour the idea of a stipulated time for such a report from the Electoral Commission.
Amendment 7, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South, refers to the need for advertisements in national newspapers, across the United Kingdom and in the nations that make up the United Kingdom. As a Welshman, I think that that is particularly important. Although I do not speak the language of heaven—I have tried but failed—I recognise its importance, and the Welsh language must be respected. In addition, a distinct population in Wales speak the Welsh language as their first language. It is important that we do not place Welsh language advertisements in newspapers just in what is known as “BBC Welsh”, as the Welsh language varies in different parts of Wales. The Electoral Commission has done quite a bit of work on how the debate should be conducted through the medium of the Welsh language. Interestingly, GfK, the organisation contracted by the Electoral Commission to conduct the research, has said that we must be careful with the Welsh language in what we put on the ballot paper and, by implication, in the advertisements. For example, it makes the point that the phrase “Undeb Ewropeaidd”, which of course means the European Union, is not widely understood by Welsh speakers. GfK’s survey found that many Welsh speakers thought it referred to the United Nations.
I have listened to my hon. Friend’s argument and I think that there is a lot in it. What he perhaps has not brought out so far, although he seems to be touching on it now, is that this is not only an issue about BBC English or BBC Welsh; Euro-speak is likely to become embedded in this debate. That underlines the need to involve organisations dealing with plain English and the Welsh equivalent to ensure that the terminology current in Europe and in those organisations in this country connected to Europe—
Order. I have allowed a great many interventions during this debate. Everyone who has indicated that they wish to speak on this group of amendments has made many interventions, and everyone has now had the opportunity to hold the Floor. I am sure that the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who has already rehearsed many of his arguments in interventions on the speeches of other hon. Members, will soon be drawing his remarks to a conclusion.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would simply say that I agree with my hon. Friend’s intervention absolutely.
Amendment 67, tabled by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), refers to the Scottish situation. That is an important point, because yesterday the Prime Minister of Spain made comments to the effect that if Scotland left the United Kingdom it would leave the European Union as well, and that has profound implications for the timing of this referendum and whether it appears before or after the general election. I would simply say that we need to be mindful of the Scottish situation in this debate; there could well be unforeseen implications of anything we decide to do.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), for Derby North (Chris Williamson), for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Caerphilly (Wayne David). It was a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). It was somewhat surprising that the Minister was short in his comments; he certainly was not sweet in his comments. One noticeable feature of his contributions on Report has been the increasing fear he seems to be displaying of taking interventions, particularly from those on the Front Bench but also from Back Benchers.
My hon. Friend has made his point, and he is accurate.
I wish to speak to amendments 84 and 64 in my name. I may want to press amendment 64 to a Division.
First, let me address speedily the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South. Although referendums are—in this country, at least—unusual, there have been several in recent years, and a noticeably higher number under Labour Governments. Not for us the dismissive attitude to some of the British people of Conservatives such as Boris Johnson—we instinctively trust the British people. Under Labour we had the 1975 European Communities membership referendum. We have had the various Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolution referendums, and the referendum that proposed a devolution of powers to London—the Greater London authority referendum in 2000. We have also seen a number of referendums on directly elected mayors. There is a considerable amount of experience to draw on in getting any future referendums right.
Referendums are substantial undertakings. Their administration is a sizeable cost to the state. There is also substantial inconvenience to the public; schools get closed for the day. Rightly, therefore, great emphasis is placed on getting the conduct of the referendum right. We do not want to waste precious resources or the time of those involved. We need to ensure that the result is legitimate, valid and fair. With that in mind, a proper plan for the arrangement of the referendum is sensible. Clause 3(1) is helpful in that regard, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South pointed out, the absence of a timetable or deadline for the publication of the Electoral Commission’s report is problematic.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the single piece of legislation on Europe that centred powers in Brussels and led to the open market and the flood of immigrants that we have today was the Single European Act, which Mrs Thatcher signed and did not put to a referendum in this country?
My hon. Friend is right. The Conservative party has taken through this House and the other place a number of major pieces of legislation on Europe on which it has not wanted a referendum. One can only conclude that Conservative leaders in the past were more willing to stand up to their Back Benchers than the current Prime Minister is.
Let me discuss the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South. Amendments 52 to 55 relate to the report that the Electoral Commission would publish under clause 3. As other hon. Members have said, the Electoral Commission’s recent report on the Bill, published last month, provided us with invaluable advice on the potential wording of a referendum question, and the consequential difficulties that the poorly worded question that the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) is proposing could cause. I do not want to dwell on that particular Electoral Commission report, but it is clear that further advice in the form of a report from the commission would be invaluable should a referendum go ahead.
The important reference back to the previous Electoral Commission report is that it had only almost four months to complete its work on what the question should be. It made it clear then that it was not long enough for it to offer the House of Commons a definitive view on the wording of the question, so the clear lesson that we need to draw in the context of this grouping of amendments is that it must be given longer to do its work. Amendment 55, implying a minimum six months being needed for the Electoral Commission to do its work, is clearly sensible. It would have been useful to hear a little more of the Minister’s thoughts on that particular amendment.
There is also the obvious point that such a report needs to be delivered in time for the advice in it to be given due consideration by the Secretary of State, and crucially by Members on both sides of the House. Therefore, I can see the case that my hon. Friend makes, in particular for amendment 55. We know that the Conservative party is divided on the timetable for this legislation. We had the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie). Some want the referendum next year, others want—[Interruption.]
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Fridays are for private Members’ business, and that is what we are dealing with today. Is it in order for the Government deputy Chief Whip to be orchestrating the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) in what he should be doing?
As I was saying, following the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Windsor, we know that the Conservative party is deeply divided on the timetable for any referendum. Some want it next year, others want 2017, and Foreign Office Ministers are not sure when they want it. Therefore, I understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South suggests different dates by which the Electoral Commission should report on the rules.
Amendment 6, tabled by my hon. Friend, refers to the broadcasting rights of the proponents and opponents during the election campaign. There is a clear British tradition of party political and referendum campaign broadcasts, and I understand that that is relatively unusual in comparative terms. This is in part because political advertising in broadcast media is prohibited in the UK. Indeed, the ban was the subject of a recent European Court of Human Rights case, which upheld the UK position. I understand that Ofcom is tasked with drawing up the rules regarding the allocation, length and frequency of referendum campaign broadcasts for commercial broadcasters with public service obligations. I acknowledge that the amendment takes particular care to highlight the importance of Welsh language broadcasts.
The amendment seeks to place on the face of the Bill clear provisions for a minimum of six broadcasts, with the possibility of 10 broadcasts, of 60 minutes in length. I am not sure why my hon. Friend has settled on 10. If he gets the chance to wind up the debate, perhaps he will say why. Is it, perhaps, because of who he thinks might want to appear in the 10 broadcasts? After all, no one is quite sure where the Foreign Secretary stands on Europe. This is the man who famously, while wearing a baseball cap, said that there were only 12 days to save the pound. He was wrong, but notwithstanding that flurry of Euroscepticism, some Conservative Members believe that he is part of the problem on Europe. Clearly, if the Foreign Secretary appeared in one of the broadcasts for either side, a less divisive figure would be needed to appear in the next broadcast. Perhaps the difficulties that the anti-EU campaign might face if there were not enough broadcasts are a further reason why my hon. Friend has suggested 10 of them. Imagine if it put up one of UKIP’s MEPs—it might provoke scrutiny of their low work-rate in Brussels.
I think that at least one broadcast during the campaign ought to focus on how the ordinary, hard-working people of this country would be affected. We know from CBI research that every UK household stands to take a £3,000 hit to their living standards if the Prime Minister’s reckless gamble to keep his party together results in a British exit from the European Union.
Why else might we need 10 broadcasts? Is it possible that the Prime Minister might want to feature in one? Perhaps he might want to dwell on the powers and competences he has repatriated back to the UK due to the treaty change he thinks is coming. As we do not know what powers and competences he wants to repatriate, it is hard to judge how successful he might be and therefore whether such a broadcast, and resulting opposition broadcast, would be necessary. We have tried at length, as has the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), to elicit from the Minister for Europe what powers and competences the Prime Minister wants to repatriate as a result of the treaty change he thinks is coming, but there has been absolutely no clarity from the Minister at all.
Perhaps a further reason for my hon. Friend’s advocating 10 broadcasts is to give the last Conservative Prime Minister to win a majority, John Major, the chance to speak in a referendum campaign broadcast. Yesterday he said that Britain will pay a “severe price” if it votes to leave the European Union, and that an exit could cost billions and leave the UK isolated internationally yet still required to implement EU regulations it had no part in framing. I could see him being an excellent choice for one of the 10 broadcasts that my hon. Friend suggests. One wonders why the current Prime Minister wants to take such a risk for Britain if this is anything other than a desperate effort to keep his party united.
One could imagine that a further reason a limit of 10 broadcasts is needed is that UKIP would want one of the no campaign broadcasts to dwell on the unnecessary expense—some £100 million to £150 million a year—of the Strasbourg Parliament, that expensive and unnecessary extra European parliamentary body that the French like so much and that they bullied John Major’s Conservative Government into accepting as the price for staying out of the social chapter.
Perhaps we need so many broadcasts in order to focus on the issues, such as the economic case for staying in Europe and the folly of the idea that we should try to be like Switzerland or Norway. We would certainly need a broadcast to focus on the benefits that EU membership delivers for co-operation on crime and justice matters across Europe. If we want to tackle the mafia-like gangs that control illegal immigration, we need cross-border co-operation.
I can see the case, then, for some broadcasts, but I am not sure, if I am honest, that we need to be quite as specific as my hon. Friend proposes. I think we can trust the broadcasters and the Electoral Commission to get this right. However, he has raised an important issue, which, along with many other important elements of this Bill, has so far been ignored by the Conservatives as the red mist of Euroscepticism has descended.
Let me raise a few points about my amendment 64, which I may want to press to a Division. We have already discussed on Report and in Committee many of the unique aspects of Gibraltar’s position with regard to EU matters and the proposed referendum—thankfully so, as Conservative Members had singularly failed to consider the Gibraltarian people in this matter before the Bill emerged from Lynton Crosby’s office. In fact, Labour Members are becoming increasingly concerned that the Minister for Europe is being insufficiently robust with his Spanish counterparts over Gibraltar, but that debate is rightly for another time.
As the House will know, in ordinary European parliamentary elections the results of voting in Gibraltar are included in the south-west region of the UK. My amendment suggests a provision to allow a change from this norm whereby for referendums only the results are published separately, allowing it to be clear and beyond doubt how the Gibraltarian people have voted should such a referendum go ahead. I cannot, in all honesty, foresee a great added expense in such an arrangement. I gently suggest to Conservative Members that adding such a provision to the Bill might go some way towards making up to the Gibraltarian people for the rather—dare I say?—rude way in which they were treated in this proposed legislation at the outset. I would have welcomed the Minister’s comments on the amendment, but I do not think he touched on it at all.
Amendment 84 suggests a proper audit of the arrangements and conduct of any in/out referendum. The hon. Member for Cheltenham has said that we can always learn from what has gone before, and he is right. I gently suggest that the amendment is a sensible provision for the Minister to reflect on.
On amendment 17, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South makes a number of interesting suggestions, which appear to be designed to ensure that the proposed ballot produces a definitive answer. I understand that minimum thresholds are frequently put in place in referendums elsewhere in the world, particularly with regard to constitutional change.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point about minimum thresholds. Conservative Members may recall with some unease the mess the Home Secretary made in organising last year’s elections for police and crime commissioners, the turnout for which was a very disappointing and very low 15%. Put another way, 85% of eligible voters decided to abstain from voting on that cold day last November. Had the elections for PCCs—a new set of elections, without precedent, and a constitutional change—been subject to a minimum turnout similar to that suggested by my hon. Friend, hon. Members can work out for themselves just how many commissioners we would now have.
On a matter as important as changing the UK’s relationship with the European Union, I understand why my hon. Friend wants to prevent a repeat of the Home Secretary’s PCC election shambles. Nevertheless, I am not sure we need this particular threshold amendment. In these closing moments, it is probably worth drawing the House’s attention to the work of the independent commission on the conduct of referendums back in 1996. It was chaired by Sir Patrick Nairne, who said:
“Requiring a proportion of the total registered population to vote ‘Yes’ creates further problems because the register can be so inaccurate.”
Moreover, while the ill-fated referendum on the alternative vote two and a half years ago delivered a disappointing turnout of 42%, I am not sure whether anyone would argue that it failed to deliver a decisive result. I cannot, therefore, support my hon. Friend’s amendment.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am afraid that I must report an error in the number reported as having voted in the Aye Lobby in the Division on amendment 71, which took place at 9.52 this morning. The Ayes were seven, not eight as reported. (Laughter.)
Order. I can tell by the reaction that we are all eternally grateful for the correction of the record. I will ensure that the Journal and Hansard record the correct number of votes in that Division.
Amendment proposed: 64, page 2, line 11, at end add—
‘(3A) Results for the referendum will be published for European parliamentary constituencies, except that Gibraltar’s shall be published separately from the rest of the South West return.’.—(Mr Thomas.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Amendment made: 81, page 2, line 21, at beginning insert—
‘( ) This Act extends to—
(a) England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; and
Amendment made: 82, in line 1, after ‘Kingdom’, insert ‘and Gibraltar’.—(James Wharton.)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
We have had extensive debate, discussion and scrutiny of what is a short Bill with but a handful of clauses. However, its significance should not be underestimated. It is a commitment from the Conservative Benches to give the British people a say on that most important of matters: our membership of the European Union.
I do not intend to detain the House for long, because we have discussed in great detail each clause and each possible amendment. The House has gone through each change that could be made and has made its views clear. We have considered the franchise and extended it to give the people of Gibraltar a say. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on his work to bring that proposal forward. We have considered the wording of the question. It is clear that it is fair, that it is clear and that it is the right question to put to the British people. We have considered the timing. It is clear that the House believes that it is right to go back to Europe to get the best possible deal and, whatever that deal looks like, to put it to the British people in an in/out vote. This morning, we have discussed the conduct of the referendum.
I am grateful to all colleagues who have provided support and to my Conservative colleagues who have shown discipline and resolution to get this important Bill through. I am also grateful to Opposition Members and colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches who have contributed, albeit sometimes in a rather long-winded way.
We have had a good and thorough debate. It is time that we let Britain decide. I commend the Bill to the House.
It is a pleasure to be here today discussing the weaknesses and divisions within the Conservative party. Instead of dealing with the record-breaking cost of living crisis from which our constituents are suffering, we are here, on private Members’ business, discussing how best to create four years of uncertainty for British jobs and investment. For families in Newcastle and across the country, the daily worry is how to make ends meet after 40 months of prices rising faster than wages. That is what should be occupying the Conservative party and the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton). It is to be hoped that after the next election the constituents of Stockton South will have a Member who represents their economic interests and understands the crises they are facing.
Madam Deputy Speaker, it will not have escaped your attention that the House has not been especially overwhelmed with business lately. This Government Bill, masquerading as a private Member’s Bill, is being pushed through like this to try to support a weak Prime Minister. It is therefore not surprising that the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), is not in his place to do that.
Democracy is about more than just voting and a referendum every 30 years or so; it is about debate and engagement too. Members will recall the most recent referendum we had—Liberal Democrats might wish to forget it—which was on the electoral system of the UK. I suspect that many people used that referendum to give the Liberal Democrats a good kicking—a noble enough reason perhaps, but it certainly did not create much of a debate around our complex constitutional arrangements, especially among those who had taken no previous interest. My fear, therefore, is that any debate preceding a referendum, at a time when European economies are in so much trouble, will not be based on a sober reading and reporting of the facts.
The north-east, in particular, cannot afford to put yet another obstacle in the way of this spluttering recovery. The north-east benefits hugely from our membership of the EU. It is the only net exporting region in the UK, so it needs to know for certain that we will have access to this market, but the Bill jeopardises that certainty. The North East chamber of commerce recently forecast that in our region 1,800 firms would close and 40,000 jobs be destroyed as a result of an EU exit. We cannot afford that.
The Chancellor has given up on his supposed export-led, manufacturing-driven recovery, and instead has gone for a housing bubble. We cannot afford to lose any more markets for our exports. Nissan has made it clear that its significant investment and presence in the north-east was built upon the assumption that it would serve as a platform for entry into European markets. Great manufacturing companies such as Nissan are working to long-term time scales. It takes time to build a manufacturing line, and even more time to recoup the investments. These companies will be making decisions now about 2017 and 2020, and if they see a huge policy uncertainty on the horizon, that will put off investment and put jobs at risk. The CBI reported last week:
“No alternative to EU membership offers a better balance of advantages and disadvantages or greater influence for the UK”.
I do not say that the EU is perfect; far from it. It needs to be more democratic and accountable, and like many hon. Members, I would like to see a reformed EU that works in the interests of all its citizens, but the UK needs to be at its heart, leading those reforms: a strong voice at the heart of a strong union. The Bill does nothing to bring that about, however, and I will be voting against it.
It is a pleasure to speak briefly on the Third Reading of this important Bill. I particularly commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) for introducing the Bill and steering it so skilfully through this House. I am doubly pleased as he is my constituency neighbour, and I can tell the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) that my hon. Friend should yield to no one as a champion of his constituency, including its economic interests. I have seen that he does that very well. He has shown great ability in handling this Bill, which is appreciated across the House. We now know that our youngest colleague is one of our brightest stars.
This Bill is about democracy and Britain’s future in Europe. It will set down in law the British people’s right to decide at the right time on the right question. Under the lamentable record of the Labour party, the EU was for 13 years taken in a direction that the British people did not agree with, but Labour never had the courage to consult the British people in a referendum and never once gave the British people their say.
We have shown in three and a half years—[Interruption.] Labour Members do not like being reminded of this, but the shadow Foreign Secretary was the Minister for Europe when he gave up £7 billion of the British rebate. Labour cut the rebate, so perhaps the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) would like to apologise for that.
The right hon. Gentleman has to go right back to the 1970s, so he cannot accuse me of going back into history. Going back to 2005, when Labour gave up the rebate, is not going back very far. If he is so proud of Labour’s record on a referendum, he should be in favour of one now and in favour of establishing it in law. Labour Members do not have the courage to do so. Where they cut the rebate, we have cut the EU budget; and where they got us into eurozone bail-outs, we have got Britain out of them. We have achieved real reform of Europe’s most disastrous policy—the common fisheries policy.
I will not give way to the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), whose views have been delivered at great length over many hours. He has dragged himself reluctantly and slowly through the Division Lobbies, so I do not think we need to hear from him during my speech.
We have pushed forward free trade.
No, I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman falls into the same category as the hon. Member for Ilford South.
We have every reason to be confident that we can negotiate a new deal in Europe. Above all, the final decision to stay or leave must lie with the British people. This Bill enacts precisely that democratic choice. It requires a referendum by the end of 2017, allowing time for the British Government to negotiate a new settlement.
I am grateful.
We repeatedly tried, as did Conservative Back Benchers, to ask the Minister for Europe what powers and competences the Prime Minister wants to bring back as a result of the treaty change that he says is coming. We got no clarity from the Minister for Europe; will the Foreign Secretary provide it now?
The Prime Minister’s programme was set out clearly in his speech of 23 January, and his agenda is getting increasing support across Europe. It is time that the Opposition adjusted to the reality of the future and started to support it, instead of saying that uncertainty is being created in the British economy. They have neglected to notice that UN figures show that in the first half of this year, the UK attracted more inward investment not only than any other European country but than any other country in the world. That is the situation over which we are presiding. Labour’s is the policy of uncertainty. Labour Members are not even certain when they can resolve the uncertainty about their own policy! They have been unable to tell us about their own position on a referendum. After the shadow Foreign Secretary spoke on Second Reading, no one was any the wiser about whether Labour was in favour of the Bill, against it or indifferent to it. We hope that the Opposition will catch up in the future, as they did with the European Union Act 2011, which they treated with the utmost apathy, but have since come to support as part of our constitutional framework.
It is right for the people to be given their say. It is right for a British Government to seek a new settlement in Europe. It is right for us to put that on the statute book now. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South has been outstanding in putting the Bill before us. It deserves our support on its Third Reading today.
I thank the former shadow Europe Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), and the current shadow Europe Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), for providing the Bill with what we judge to be an appropriate and necessary level of scrutiny both in Committee stage and on Report. I thank the other Committee members and the contributors to those debates. Indeed, the Bill’s promoter, the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), who spoke today—that was a particular pleasure—has at least been present when the Bill has been debated and discussed over recent weeks.
Let me briefly address the points raised in Committee and on Report. Alas, the Bill comes to Third Reading with all the fundamental issues and concerns that were raised still unresolved, with the exception of the issue of Gibraltar, where, I am glad to say, we were able to make some progress from the Labour side.
In truth this is a Bill not about the Conservatives trusting the public but about Conservative Back Benchers not trusting a Conservative Prime Minister.
I will make a little progress, and then I will be happy to take some interventions. Let us be clear about what has happened over the course of recent weeks. The Bill started with a breakfast at Downing street for Conservative Back Benchers. Last week the Prime Minister again offered Conservative Back Benchers breakfast at Downing street. It is not clear whether it was a continental breakfast, but it was certainly breakfast at Downing street. The Prime Minister seems to be seeking unity through a strategy of obesity. He is clearly worried that if he is not doing the cooking, then all too shortly he will be on the menu. Any judgment about an in/out referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union has to be based on what is in the UK’s national interest. We do not believe that the Bill’s proposal for an in/out referendum in 2017 is in the national interest, which is why we are not supporting it.
The Bill anticipates an arbitrary timetable for an in/out referendum in 2017 in the United Kingdom divorced from any serious assessment of the likely timetable for treaty change across Europe. When the Prime Minister first announced his new policy back in January, he argued that treaty change was inevitable, necessary and indeed desirable. He said in April:
“I am sure there will be treaty change.”
He went on to say:
“I’m absolutely convinced that there will be the need to reopen at some stage these treaties”.
Yet the prospect of treaty change seems less likely today than it was when the Prime Minister made those remarks about which the Foreign Secretary spoke only a moment ago. Indeed it is significant that the German Government now seem less inclined to push for immediate treaty change, instead favouring intergovernmental agreements under article 114 of the EU treaty. Indeed in May this year, the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, said explicitly:
“Banking union is a central project, we need institutional changes but we cannot wait for a treaty change.”
Only this week, the grand coalition document, which will form the basis of the German Adminstration’s governing agenda, was agreed, and it made not a single reference to the prospect of treaty change. The truth is that the date of 2017 had more to do with Tory party management than EU-wide treaty change.
Given the fact that the former Prime Minister Tony Blair promised a referendum on the constitution, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us, in the context of this incredibly important Bill, whether or not the Labour party has ruled out having a referendum on the European Union?
I could not have asked for a kinder intervention given that I am keen to talk about the views of former Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom. Why do we not start with the former Member for Huntingdon? The truth is that this Bill, although presented as a Bill about Britain’s relationship with Europe, is more to do with the Prime Minister’s relationship with his party. Only last night, the former Member for Huntingdon—a man who knows a bit about dealing with querulous Back Benchers—talked about Britain voting to leave the EU. He said:
“In a world of seven billion people, our island would be moving further apart from our closest and largest trading partners, at the very time when they, themselves, are drawing closer together. This makes no sense at all.”
Those are not my words but the words of the last Conservative Prime Minister who actually secured a majority.
The former Prime Minister is not simply opposed to exit; he is also opposed to the Bill. He said:
“I’m not in favour of Mr Wharton’s Bill.”
He went on to say that
“I think the Wharton Bill is a negative, not a positive”.
Why does he believe that it is a bad Bill? He thinks that the Conservatives should be spending their time focusing—again, let me quote him directly—on issues such as
“taxes, jobs, education, health and”—
wait for it—
He is not wrong, of course, but when we hear those words coming from a Conservative we have a sense that irony has left the building.
Although the private rationale for the Bill is to bind the Prime Minister’s hands by committing him to a referendum, the public rationale is to strengthen his hand in negotiations. The only problem is that as of today, even after the Foreign Secretary’s speech, we are no clearer about what exactly that negotiating position is. The Prime Minister has chosen to try to achieve the veneer of unity through the device of obscurity. That is why when he delivered his speech last January, in which the Foreign Secretary sought to seek refuge only a few moments ago—I am sure that Conservative Members do not need to be reminded of this fact—the word “repatriation” did not appear five times, or 10 times. It did not appear once. The Prime Minister did not utter the term “opt-out” and the words “employment law” were never even mentioned.
Indeed, on Second Reading the Minister for Europe, whom I am glad to see back in his place, was asked by the shadow Minister for Europe whether he would enlighten the House about which powers and competences the Prime Minister wants to repatriate to the UK. Alas, he missed that opportunity and if he would like to intervene and explain now which powers he is seeking to repatriate, I will more than happily give way. Suddenly, he seems to have found his briefing papers incredibly interesting.
The shadow Minister for Europe and the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) asked the same question last week—these are not questions that are just being asked by Labour Members—but alas, no answer was forthcoming. All we were greeted with was the sound of silence. The reason for this is that despite the Prime Minister’s speech, despite agreeing a date, and despite the Bill, this truth still endures: the gap between what the Conservative Back Benchers demand and what the Conservative Prime Minister can deliver remains achingly unbridgeable.
On the day the Bill reached its Report stage, the chief executive of Nissan issued a stark warning to the Government about the prospects of the UK leaving the EU, highlighting that jobs, investment and growth would be put at risk. As we have just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), there are real and deep concerns in a number of regions of this country about the consequences of exit. The chief executive of Nissan said:
“Obviously it’s going to be a major factor happening and we are going to need to consider what does it mean for us for the future. I’m not worried about Sunderland. Sunderland is a very competitive plant, it’s a very productive plant and it’s a European plant based in the UK. If anything has to change, we need to reconsider our strategy and our investments for the future.”
Those remarks echoed those made by the Government of Japan. The Japanese embassy has even contributed to the Foreign Secretary’s balance of competences review. Let me share with the House the paragraph the embassy contributed on inward investment:
“More than 1,300 Japanese companies have invested in the UK, as part of the Single Market of the EU, and have created 130,000 jobs, more than anywhere else in Europe. This fact demonstrates that the advantage of the UK as a gateway to the European market has attracted Japanese investment. The Government of Japan expects the UK to maintain this favourable role.”
The EU gives us influence collectively that when we act alone we lack, and it does so at a time in our history when that has arguably never been more important, not least because today we are living in the early years of what many regard as an Asian century. As Asia rises, Europe must find new ways to amplify its voice and extend its influence.
Defending the UK’s place in the EU is not a matter of outdated sentiment but a matter of simple arithmetic. In an age of countries the size of continents, our membership of the EU gives us access to and influence in the world’s biggest global trading bloc and the prize of opening up new markets.
My right hon. Friend will know that the CBI estimates that up to 5% of the UK’s total economic output could be lost if Britain withdraws from the EU. Will he share his thoughts on why he believes the Conservative party and the Government are so willing to put those jobs and that investment at risk?
The answer, I fear, is that the dynamic and driver of the Bill, as evidenced by the conduct of the debates, is the management of the Conservative party, not the interests of the country. Sir Roger Carr’s remarks and the CBI’s report are a devastating critique. Hon. Members need not take my word for it; they can look at the remarks I have quoted from the former Member for Huntingdon, the former Conservative Prime Minister, who recognises that this time of economic challenge is far too serious for the risks that the Conservative party seems willing to run to protect Conservative Members’ jobs—at the same time, they are putting the jobs of tens or hundreds of thousands of British workers at risk.
The tragedy is that, because the Prime Minister is unable to address properly the need for reform in Europe in a sensible and effective way, he has been driven to the position he is in. The Bill is being taken forward by a party divided in all reality between those who are seeking consent and those who are seeking exit. They are united only in their mistrust of the Prime Minister. The Bill is not about trusting the people; it is about Tory Back Benchers not trusting a Tory Prime Minister.
In these tough economic times, Britain deserves better. Reform in Europe, not exit from Europe, is the right course for our country.
I cannot support the Bill because, first and foremost, it is a politically driven Bill, adopted by the Government not in the national interest, but to try to reconcile the mutually hostile and intractable positions of members of the major Conservative part of the coalition.
My hon. Friend mentions the Government. There are no Liberal Democrats in the Chamber—that is not unusual—and he would be right to say that of the Government Members present, only the Conservatives are here. However, the Bill is not a Government Bill. It is important to emphasis again that the Bill is a private Member’s Bill that is not supported by the Government.
I was coming to that point. In all my years in the House, I have never known a private Member’s Bill to be adopted so enthusiastically, which it has been by at least one section of the Government—the Conservative party and the Prime Minister. I have never known the devices that have been used to rally support for the Bill to be used before. We are told that Back Benchers have had breakfast in Downing street. The Prime Minister is trying to convince his Back Benchers either to stay in or to come out of the EU using the device of stuffing them with French croissants or, I have heard, bacon baps. Was it Danish or British bacon? I hope that those Conservative Back Benchers who are so hostile to the EU ensured that the Prime Minister stuffed their baps with British bacon to get their vote for the Bill.
On a more serious note, I want to concentrate my few remarks on a vital issue not only for the country, but for the west midlands and my constituency in particular. A lot has been said—my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) emphasised this—about the potential impact on foreign direct investment in this country arising from the uncertainty that will be created by a decision to hold a referendum in 2017. If we ask investors what the most crucial thing to ensure that they invest in a place is, they will answer, “Certainty.” If people are to invest money, they want to know on what basis that money will be used and what returns can reasonably be generated. If there is uncertainty about the scale of the market for British manufacturers, the prospect of encouraging foreign direct investment will be very much more limited.
Outside investors are not daft. When they see the Government—or the Conservative party—backing a Back-Bench Bill such as this one, they can see the way the wind is blowing and they are bound to question whether they should be investing in this country again. As my hon. Friend said, major manufacturers in this country are already questioning their long-term commitment to it as a result of the uncertainty being created by this Bill.
The Bill conflicts with the Government’s asserted priorities, too. We are told that they are reducing corporation tax to encourage foreign direct investment, but what is the point of doing that if they are at the same time reducing the potential market for the products that would be generated by that investment from 500 million people to 60 million? The two policies are totally contradictory, as outsiders with money to invest in Britain will notice.
The situation has particular importance for my west midlands constituency. It is fair to say that the recession has not had nearly as bad an overall impact as it might have had, largely because of the rejuvenation and renaissance of the motor industry, which has been centred in particular on the expansion of Jaguar Land Rover. My constituency has more foundries than any other, and they are often third, fourth or fifth-tier suppliers to the motor industry. The prospect of a reduction in investment in the key manufacturers in the motor industry is bound to have an impact on the economic prospects of my constituents.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. One thing that is evident from the debate is that there is not an appreciation of the importance of the single market to the European Union. Does he agree that if anything is central to the whole European project, it is the single market?
I totally agree. British car manufacturing is a success story; 80% of what we make is exported, with 50% of it going to Europe—Jaguar Land Rover’s major market is the United States. If the Bill goes ahead and there were to be a referendum whereby Britain came out of the EU, we would lose out not only on our major car market, but on the investment, marketing and manufacturing that would go to other countries.
I wish to discuss one other aspect that has perhaps not had the consideration it deserves. We are engaged in an EU-US free trade negotiating process, which, again, will have profound consequences for the British car industry and, in particular, Jaguar Land Rover. The uncertainty created by a decision to pass this Bill and the prospect of our coming out of the EU is bound to affect the final settlement of those negotiations. It is not possible to believe that the US would be prepared to have one settlement with the EU and another with this country. Only by our membership of the EU are we able to have a united position that will give a potential market for cars for both the US and the EU, with enormous benefit. The potential of such an agreement has been estimated at £4 billion to £10 billion in this country.
I could go on, but I recognise that many other hon. Members wish to speak. The crucial point is that the Bill injects an element of uncertainty into much needed foreign direct investment in key strategic industries in this country, particularly affecting the west midlands and my constituency. That is why I am not prepared to back the Bill, and I urge others hon. Members to take the same approach.
I think it is fair to say that we have had an interesting few days. One reason is that the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) has not been present very often. It is a good parliamentary skill to have a light touch, but it is possible to take things too far.
The hon. Gentleman has obviously been a very discreet presence; I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
It has also been an interesting few days because the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) tabled an important amendment—a very brave one, given the criticism from his colleagues. Unfortunately, he is not present either; I have not caught sight of him since his amendment was unsuccessful.
We should give collective thanks and praise to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) for the large number of amendments he has tabled. Many were probing amendments, which allowed us to have an effective debate and probe the central themes underlying the Bill. Above all, his amendments showed that the Bill has many profound weaknesses; I shall focus on three of those.
First, a fundamental weakness is that the Bill as it stands is an essentially unconstitutional attempt to bind a future Parliament to a decision made in this Parliament. We are well aware of the erudite comments of the constitutional expert Dicey, who said that such a thing was fundamentally contrary to the principle of parliamentary democracy. Attempts have been made to bind subsequent Parliaments to decisions, and they have all come unstuck; all have been unfortunate experiences. I very much regret that although the Government, or the Conservative element of the Government, might declare that that is not the case, there is a profound constitutional question mark over the Bill.
Secondly, as several hon. Members said, the Bill intrinsically creates uncertainty—uncertainty about our membership of the European Union. As Britain is above all else a trading nation, clarity is required about our future trading relations, and our most important trading partner is the European Union. That is a fact. It is not a subjective statement; it is an entirely objective one. Therefore, the question mark that the Bill places over our future membership is extremely damaging and debilitating to Britain’s national interests.
There is another profound weakness in the Bill: the nature of the question that would appear on the ballot paper. It is:
“Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”
There are many serious weaknesses in that question. Weaknesses have been pointed out by Members of this House, but perhaps more important weaknesses in that question have been pointed out by the Electoral Commission.
The Electoral Commission, as others have said, and which I will repeat because it is so important, is the impartial body that is charged with ensuring that elections of all sorts in this country are conducted fairly. It is profoundly concerned about the wording in the Bill. It has said that the opening phrase, “Do you think that” should be replaced with “Should”. That is a very fair comment. It also says that it would be far better that the question was more open-ended. The question currently says,
“should be a member of the European Union”.
It would be far better if it were less ambiguous and did not imply that Britain at present was not a member of the European Union. The Electoral Commission has gone a stage further and said that perhaps there is scope for Parliament to consider whether, rather than a yes or no question, two alternative statements should be put forward and Members should be able to select which statement they prefer. Sadly, there has not been an opportunity in this House to have that kind of important debate, which the Electoral Commission has suggested.
It is important to recognise that this issue exercises the minds of many in the country, but what has come through clearly from the debate during the last few days above all else is that, yes, people are interested in whether we should continue to be a member of the European Union, but they are also concerned about the lack of information in the public domain to enable them reasonably to come to a conclusion. I hope that the Government will say that there is a need to end the partisan point-scoring on this fundamentally important issue to Britain’s future, and embark upon a bipartisan, cross-party public information campaign, so that people are aware of the important issues at stake. That point is clearly made by the Electoral Commission, and I hope to goodness that in the interests of democracy the Government recognise the need for that to take place.
I very much hope that the Bill will go from this House today to the other place, where I have every confidence that there will be a sensible and rational debate and that amendments will be tabled and agreed to, and that the Government will be positive in their engagement with the other place and will respect the enormous knowledge and expertise there, particularly on European issues. If that is the case, there will be a productive period of consideration in the other place, and when the Bill finally returns to this House, it will be a better Bill as a consequence.
I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) for giving us the opportunity to have this extensive three days of discussion of the European Union and issues relating to it. I hope that we will have opportunities later this year and next year to continue such discussions so that we can at last begin to get through the fog of distortion that unfortunately is too prevalent in our newspapers.
I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary is in his place, and I will be quite happy to take interventions from him, even though he was too frit to take one from me. I want to remind the Foreign Secretary about referendums and the Conservative party. He was a Minister in John Major’s Government, who did not give a referendum on the Maastricht treaty. Just a few days ago, John Major was quoted as saying that the Bill was not worthy of his support, and that leaving the European Union would be “folly beyond belief”. Will the Foreign Secretary now intervene and tell me whether he agrees that leaving the European Union would be “folly beyond belief”? If he does not want to respond on that issue, he might wish to comment on Lord Heseltine’s statement that the whole process, which has been instigated by the Conservative party, is “an unnecessary gamble” with Britain’s future. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) wishes to intervene rather than shouting at me, I will be happy to take an intervention. If anyone on the Government Benches wishes to intervene rather than muttering and shouting, I will happily give way. If not, I will carry on.
The hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), who unfortunately seems to have been in some kind of retreat since he lost the vote on his amendment, will be aware, as will other Members, that I voted for that amendment. I was the only Labour Member to do so. That has caused some confusion on the UKIP website, where messages are going out praising those brave souls who voted for a referendum in 2014. Of course, that includes me, and that is a bit contradictory given some of the other messages about me on the UKIP website; but they will get their line right eventually.
The hon. Gentleman did something very important in highlighting the fact that if we are to have an in/out referendum we should not create a situation of three or four years of unnecessary uncertainty. It has been said of Nissan, but it could apply to many other companies wishing to invest in the European market, whether from South Korea, China or the United States, that potential investment could be put at risk. Such companies could choose to go to another English-speaking country in the European single market, such as the Irish Republic or other countries where they could create investment with certainty beyond 2017 and into the future.
I do not wish to delay the House for too long, but I want to make some important points about this very bad Bill. The Bill has been amended only very specifically with regard to allowing people who are residents of the British overseas territory of Gibraltar to vote in the referendum. The original proposal presumably resulted from an oversight by the Government, who forgot about Gibraltar being part of the European Union in terms of voting in the European Parliament elections. However, British citizens in other British overseas territories will not be allowed to vote in the referendum, although their relationship with the European Union is central to many aspects of their life and their future, and UK membership has big implications for them as well. A few weeks ago, a Committee considered the relationship of the overseas territories of the UK, France and others to the European Union. Our overseas territories people have been rejected by a Conservative whipped vote against one of my amendments. As a result, this message should go out very clearly to British overseas citizens: “The Conservative party does not have your interests at heart—it doesn’t support you.”
Similarly, 1.4 million British people live elsewhere in the European Union. Many of those people—I have received e-mails from some of them—have been living in other European countries for more than 15 years and are therefore unable to register to vote in a European election or any other election in this country. They are excluded from the terms of this referendum, and their future could be put in jeopardy. If someone is living in Spain and suddenly their home country is no longer part of the European Union, and their citizenship is then of a non-EU state as opposed to an EU state, there could be huge implications for their future in Spain or in any other EU country. We are denying those people democracy.
Some people are claiming that I am being undemocratic because I am trying to subject—[Interruption.] Yes, some of them are over there on the Conservative Benches. These are the same people who voted against the right of British people living elsewhere in the European Union to have a vote in the referendum. That is what is undemocratic. Conservative Members do not believe that British people living elsewhere in Europe should have a say in this referendum. Only 20,000 people are currently registered as overseas voters, and therefore more than 1 million British people would not be able to take part in this process. Frankly, that is a disgrace.
There are other anomalies such as the situation of people who are married to citizens of other EU countries and living in Britain, with their children in schools or universities here. Those people have an intense interest in the relationship between the United Kingdom and the rest of the European Union. Yet, although we allow them to vote in European Parliament elections, we are to take away the right of those new Europeans to vote in a referendum on the relationship between the EU country from which they originally came and that in which they now live. That is another democratic disgrace. It is typical of the Conservative party. Instead of caring, it has decided to follow the little UKIP tail, which is now wagging the dog that is the Conservative party.
My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) has highlighted how the question has been drawn up for party political reasons. The Daily Mail revealed a few months ago that the original wording had been changed in order to make it more friendly for the Eurosceptics. Frankly, that is typical of this whole exercise. This Bill is not about democracy or giving the British people a choice; it is about the internal mechanics of the Conservative party and managing its internal divisions.
As has been said, this Parliament cannot commit a Parliament that will be elected in 2015 to doing something. The people behind this Bill and the Ministers involved know perfectly well that it is the decision at the 2015 general election that will make the difference. This is a political ploy to try to assuage the Europhobic wing of the Tory party and to keep them on board. The Foreign Secretary and other Ministers are playing a game with their colleagues.
I will not vote against this Bill today, because I believe that the House of Lords now has to subject it to the scrutiny that we have only been able to touch the surface of. The House of Lords needs to take up the issues in greater detail than we have been able to, look at the inadequacies of this woeful Bill and expose its contradictions. I do not know how long it will take the House of Lords to do that—this House might get the Bill back at some point—but it needs to do its job properly and not be bounced or have closure motions pushed on it to prevent it from properly scrutinising the provisions.
I am pleased to have played a small part in trying to ensure that this Bill has received proper scrutiny in this House, which is what parliamentary democracy is about. The day we move to plebiscitary democracy will be the day we undermine the rights of Members of Parliament, and that would be terrible.
My hon. Friend is making a very important point. Does he agree that it is disgraceful that the Europe Minister dismissed out of hand the excellent points my hon. Friend has made and the excellent amendments he has tabled in order to facilitate this and previous debates?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s remarks.
In conclusion, I want to get to the heart of the issue and consider what the terms would be of any renegotiated settlement relevant to a 2017 referendum. We do not know when that will happen; it might happen during the British presidency, but the situation, like many other things in the Bill, is ambiguous. A few months ago, the Foreign Affairs Committee, which is a cross-party Committee with a wide spectrum of views on the issue of Europe, produced a report on which we agreed unanimously, in which we said that
“we are clear that UK proposals for pan-EU reforms are likely to find a more favourable reception than requests for further ‘special treatment’ for the UK. We are sceptical that other Member States would renegotiate existing EU law so as to allow the UK alone to reduce its degree of integration, particularly where this could be seen as undermining the integrity of the Single Market. The Government must reckon with the fact that the body of existing EU law is a collective product in which 27 countries have invested. Our sense is that other Member States want the UK to remain an EU Member. However, we do not think that a UK Government could successfully demand ‘any price’ from other Member States for promising to try to keep the UK in the Union.”
That is the essence of the point. The Government—at least the Conservative party—are trying to sell us a pig in a poke; they are trying to sell us a blank sheet of paper and they have not defined their terms for renegotiation. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary told the Foreign Affairs Committee that that process would not even start until after the general election.
The Bill is a disgrace; it should not be supported, and I hope that the House of Lords will do justice to it and amend it significantly.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.