House of Commons
Friday 17 October 2014
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
The Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker (Standing Order No. 3)
European Union (Referendum) Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This Bill is about choice. It is about giving the British people a choice on something that is fundamental to our constitutional arrangements and fundamental to our future. It is a straightforward and simple Bill, because the proposition of choice and democratic fairness for our people is a simple one that everyone here should be able to grasp. It is not a Bill about the future of our relationship with the European Union, and it is not a Bill about whether we should, in the long term, stay or leave the European Union. As I say, it is about giving the people of this country a choice, which is no laughing matter. That choice is important because the future of our arrangements with our neighbours require legitimacy and consent. It is some 40 years since that consent was last sought. Much has changed since, and it is fair and reasonable for people to be given that choice again.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important Bill to the House. Does he agree that for my Harlow constituents and people across the country, this referendum Bill is all about trust? If we get this Bill through, the country will know that we mean business on the European Union and on an in/out referendum, just as people knew we meant business when we cut the EU budget, got out of the EU bail-out mechanism and vetoed an EU treaty?
It is about trust—trust in this House and trust in our democratic institutions. It is also, I suggest, a time to put up or shut up. If there are people here who do not believe that the British people should be given that choice, now is the time for them to say so and to vote against the Bill.
I commend my hon. Friend’s excellent Bill and look forward to its smooth passage through the House. Does he agree that it is not just about the trust we should show in the British people by letting them decide, but about restoring trust in this place? For too long, politicians of whatever colour have come here and talked about Europe, and refused to let Britain decide. This party and my hon. Friend’s Bill will do that: it is the right thing. I wish him every success. I hope we can make progress and get it through this time, having not been able to do so last time.
I am immensely grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments and for the kindness and generosity he has shown to me. It is no accident that my Bill exactly replicates the Bill he took through this House in the last Session, which was frustrated elsewhere. I am doing that deliberately so that we can return to the issue and make sure that others here and elsewhere put up or shut up, which is how trust comes about.
Trust is critical. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) and I have a further link to the EU. Both our constituencies were, at different times, represented by Harold Macmillan, the late Earl of Stockton, the person who, of course, initiated our negotiation with the European Union’s predecessor body. He described that negotiation as a
“purely economic and trading negotiation and not a political and foreign policy negotiation”.
The change to that provides yet another important reason why the British people need a fresh say.
I am puzzled by the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that this debate is not about our future relationship with the European Union. It seems to me that it certainly is. Does he accept what John Cridland said recently—that it is the settled view of British businesses that the EU
“remains fundamental to our economic future. Our membership supports jobs, drives growth and boosts our international competitiveness.”
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that that is the settled view of British businesses on this point?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have no doubt that if there were those—either present today, or not present today—who were tempted, having not put up or shut up at today’s Second Reading, to use various Westminster village procedural games and devices to frustrate the giving of a say to the British people—[Interruption]—they would incur the opprobrium of their voters, and would do great damage—[Interruption.]
May I support my hon. Friend’s excellent point by asking whether he has noticed that there is only one Liberal Democrat in the Chamber? I presume that the Liberal Democrats are ashamed of trying to stop the British people having a vote on this issue, and ashamed of the U-turn they have performed. They once believed in an in/out referendum, but now that there is a chance of our having one, they will not support it.
I did, I must confess, find a leaflet that was issued by the leader of the Liberal Democrats before the last election. It is headed “It’s time for a real referendum on Europe”, and it begins:
“It's been over thirty years since the British people last had a vote on Britain's membership of the European Union.”
It is a bit out of date, but it is a Liberal Democrat leaflet, so we should make all due allowance for that. It ends:
“But whether you agree with Europe or not, it is vital that you and the British people have a say in a real EU referendum.”
I will give way in a moment, but let me make this point first. I actually agree with that last proposition. It is time that the British people had a say, and—I say this in response to the point made by the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms)—my Bill is about giving the British people the mechanism that will enable them to have that say. It is not about the detail of what should or should not be in a negotiation; it is about providing a mechanism whereby the British people are guaranteed, in primary legislation, an opportunity to have their say.
Although, as my hon. Friend will recognise, I did back the earlier Bill—[Interruption]—I must admit that I have not been present on every single occasion, and my hon. Friend should not necessarily read into my colleagues’ absence the nature of their views.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, given that the 1688 Bill of Rights, our fundamental constitutional law, was established by popular consent and not by being imposed on people, a substantial change to that, which is implied by the use of regulation rather than directive, is something that also requires popular consent?
I will give way shortly, but I want to develop my point a little first, at least to the extent of being able to finish a sentence.
At the end of the day, government requires the consent of the people. That is the fundamental point that the hon. Gentleman has made. When there has been a step change in our relationship with the European Union, as there has been since those days of Harold Macmillan, it is right and proper to give the British people the chance to reflect and think again.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his Bill, and am proud to be a sponsor of it. He has mentioned Harold Macmillan. Harold Macmillan, of course, negotiated our membership of something called the European Economic Community, and that is what people voted on at the time. They thought that it was a trading arrangement, but it has morphed into the European Union, which has become a vehicle to create a United States of Europe, and that is what the people of Britain do not want.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I voted in that 1975 referendum. I would like to say that I lied about my age in order to vote, but I did not. I had just started out as a young lawyer, and had just been elected a young councillor in Havering. I was at the beginning of my working life. Virtually the whole of some people’s working lives—virtually a whole generation—has gone by without anyone’s having had a say. The nature of the EU has indeed changed from that economic community—that
“purely economic and trading negotiation and not a political and foreign policy negotiation”,
as the late Lord Stockton described it—into an entirely different animal, altogether more complex and demanding in its relations with both this country and the rest of the world. That is why it is right for us to have the chance to engage in a sensible renegotiation and put the new offer that is available to the British people, so that they can decide.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman does not accept the point made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), but does he not accept that the last thing business needs at this time is a prolonged period of uncertainty? Will he explain how his proposal will help to support and create jobs in the areas such as the north-east, and, indeed, throughout the United Kingdom?
The greatest threat to British business would be the return to government of the hon. Lady’s party. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] My constituency contains many business people and many people who work in the City. I would not always take the voices of the big battalions as being representative of the people who are running the firms out there in the country and the people who are on the trading floors of the City of London—the people who are bringing the wealth into this country. That is what really matters.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his Bill. His entire argument is predicated on putting trust in the great British people, and this party is willing to do that. Is it not telling that the Labour party could probably have turned up in a taxi this morning, given that so few of its members are present? Is it not obvious that they do not trust the British people to decide?
It has been observed by wiser people than I that it is sometimes best not to try to fathom the unfathomable workings of providence, and the same applies to the mind of the Labour party.
It is precisely because of that step change that has taken place in our relationship with the European Union, which affects all aspects of our economic and social life, that the renewal of consent is required. My Bill has exactly the same format as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South: it proposes that the British people should be given a simple and straightforward choice in the form of an entirely comprehensible question. The one exception, which was accepted by my hon. Friend, is that my Bill includes the people of Gibraltar, because of Gibraltar’s particular status as an overseas territory which, effectively, is physically within the current European Union.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I look forward to both of us celebrating victory over Burnley tomorrow.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the question that would be put to the people. Will he explain why both this and last year’s Bill rejected the wording that was originally proposed by the Conservative party, and the wording that was agreed to and supported by the Electoral Commission, in favour of a different wording?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right on all matters concerning football, and—with respect—absolutely wrong about pretty much everything else. [Laughter.]
This is a straightforward and comprehensible question: should Britain be a member of the European Union? I noted what was said by the Electoral Commission. I had great respect for the commission when I was the local government Minister—it was kind enough then to give me some very useful advice, which I do not think I took, on the exact working of the council tax referendum—and it has a legitimate point of view, but the House passed the wording of my hon. Friend’s Bill overwhelmingly during the last Session. The wording is very clear, and, indeed, is remarkably similar to the wording of the Scottish referendum, which was very successful in terms of being clear and comprehensible and attracting a record turnout. I would suggest that the argument for that type of wording, and for a straight yes/no decision, has been strengthened rather than weakened by the events that have taken place since the last Session.
I strongly support my hon. Friend’s Bill. It is a straightforward, simple measure which involves a simple question. Is it not the demand of the people that there should be a referendum on this issue? If this place denies people their say, we shall be seen as remote and isolated. We shall be a class apart, and that is not what this place should be. We must listen to the people.
Like my hon. and learned Friend, I was first elected to Parliament after a career at the bar—the legal bar—and a career in local government, at the coalface of dealing with people’s everyday problems, and one of the things that struck me was that the risk we all have to avoid is precisely becoming part of that village mentality. It is never something we seek to do when we arrive, but, almost institutionally, that can happen. If we believe in representative democracy—as I trust everybody in this Chamber does—then one of the great challenges is to make sure there is a reality in the discussions we have here and the way we approach our decisions and a trust in the people who send us here. We do not sit here possessed of some greater wisdom—to use the French, some trahison des clercs—that enables us to ignore the views of our voters, who make the wealth that pays for us and for all Government spending. My hon. and learned Friend is entirely right in that. Legitimacy requires connection, and sometimes a bit of humility on the part of elected representatives to say, “This is an issue so fundamental that it is a matter for the British people.”
We have given referendums in a number of cases, and they are now an established fact of our constitutional scene. My constituents have had a vote on whether they should have a Mayor of London and whether there should be a different form of voting system for electing this House—I am glad to say they came to the right decision on that—and it would be pretty bizarre if they were not able to have a vote on what powers should reside in this House as opposed to residing elsewhere. I suggest this is the most obvious case for a referendum one could imagine.
The hon. Lady, whom I have known for many years as a fellow London MP, is infinitely better in touch with her voters than the leadership of her party. I have to say—and I do not mean any discourtesy here—that I am rather glad she is not part of the leadership of her party, because she would be a much greater threat to us than the current leadership is. She is absolutely right. What I find, representing a London constituency, is that people often forget that Londoners, who are part of a cosmopolitan, diverse and open city, none the less believe it is time for us to look again at our relationship with our European neighbours. The hon. Lady is absolutely right; her analysis is spot-on.
Does my hon. Friend agree—he said this earlier—that many people say, “I might have voted for the EC, but I would not vote for this”? I think that people are entitled to say that they would like to have a vote again, because they may well have changed their opinions. They may not, but we should at least offer them the choice because what is now on the table is a very different animal.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I voted previously, I had campaigned to stay in what was then the European Community. I think that many people who voted for membership then would say that the world is very different now, the consequences are very different, and the pressures that have been placed on British business and a raft of our institutions are entirely different, and it is fair and legitimate to ask again. The greatest danger to our long-term relationship with the EU and to long-term business investment would be if we were in a construct that did not preserve our fundamental interests—the fundamental interests of our businesses and, for example, of London as the great world financial pole—and that did not preserve our right to develop our trade links with developing markets in China, India and Brazil, areas where, interestingly, the EU has singularly failed, as yet, to establish proper free-trading agreements. If we did not have a situation recognising the particular circumstances of the UK—rather than pretending all is happy and well in the garden—that would damage long-term legitimacy and would damage business investment and confidence over the long term.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the way he voted in the previous referendum. Judging from what he has just said to the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), is he now saying he would vote against the UK being a member of the EU were this referendum to happen?
The hon. Gentleman was not listening to what I said. This is not about the outcome of the negotiations. The point I am making has been well echoed on the Conservative Benches: because the nature of the organisation and our relationship with it has changed, it is right that we look afresh and the British people have the opportunity to vote on that. That is why the Prime Minister is absolutely right to say—
I am not going to take a vast number of further interventions, because if I do we will have a long, disjointed conversation, and other Members may wish to get in and make their own speeches.
I just wanted to make this point. If we do not recognise the reality of change on the ground, we lose credibility and we do not do any good. I am prepared to trust the Prime Minister to do his level best for the United Kingdom in the renegotiation. That is the place at which we address the details of what may have changed and what we need to take our relationship forward, but ultimately it is not, and should not be, the Prime Minister’s decision, my decision, or the House’s decision; it should ultimately be the decision of the British people.
My hon. Friend has spoken about how people may have changed their minds since the last referendum, but does he agree that there are literally tens of millions of Britons like myself who were too young to vote in 1975 and who have never been able to cast their vote on this issue?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of my advanced age; he has worn much better than I have in any event. He is entirely right: there is a whole raft of people out there, who may have raised families and who have to live with the consequences of where we currently are, and who have never had a say. That is ludicrous. I was talking to some of my step-nieces and nephews. They have got kids of their own now. They never had a chance to have a say. That is not sustainable. There are businesses and firms that are up and running now and are major components of the UK economy, yet their founders and the people who lead those companies never had a say. It is time to look afresh.
My hon. Friend is correctly reminding everyone that only the Conservatives are willing and able to deliver a referendum. May I bring him back to the central issue of choice? What does it say about the leadership of the Labour and Liberal parties that they are unwilling to trust the British electorate on this point of seminal importance?
A lesson I have learned, not just from my time in this House but also from my professional and earlier political life, is that if we treat people with contempt, they will treat us with contempt, and that is the risk that the Opposition run with their attitude. That is why the playing of Westminster games brings this House into disrepute.
As this is a straightforward Bill which has been rehearsed before and debated by this House before, let me just say that I believe we need to restate that we do have faith in the British people and that we should give them, entrenched in law, a piece of primary legislation that says, “In 2017 there will be a referendum.”
I am sorry, but I am not going to take any more interventions.
That is also why we should say to those who do not have the courage to stand up and say no today, “Don’t seek to frustrate this by devious procedural means, and instead see if you have the courage to go to the British electorate and say, ‘If by mishap or some fluke of mathematical calculation we come into government, we will take away from you this choice that this House has given you,’” because that is the logical position the Labour party has put itself in.
That is why it is important that this House passes this Bill today and sets in law the opportunity for the British people to have that choice, and that is why I commend the Bill to the House.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. That was unexpected. I do not usually get called first, but of course not many of my party colleagues are present today, which is unfortunate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) on bringing this Bill forward. It is a pity that we have had to introduce it again, because it went through this House very clearly before and I am afraid that the public do not understand the intricacies of parliamentary procedure that allowed it not to complete its passage. I hope that this time, whatever the views in all parts of the House on the issue, we will allow the Bill to reach its final stages, because this is a question of trust and of the public, who are already alienated from politics and politicians, seeing how we behave in this House today.
I looked back over what I said in the previous referendum debate and I do not have a huge amount to add. I do not understand how anyone can make a reasoned case for not supporting the Bill, including on Second Reading today.
Interestingly, the Deputy Speaker gave the hon. Lady the honour of making the second speech today, which just shows the high esteem in which she is held in this Chamber and outside. Does she agree that the fundamental issue is that we should trust the people? It is beyond me why certain political parties just do not grasp that fact.
I, too, think it is a question of trust. We know how all the parties have let the public down on promises made in the past about referendums on Europe. I always feel confident that when I am in a minority among my Labour colleagues on this referendum Bill, although some are here supporting it, I am not in a minority among Labour voters in the country. I am very confident that my party will have a change of mind on this issue, even between now and the general election. I think that the Liberal Democrats, who usually change back and forward—[Interruption.] I have the greatest respect for the Liberal Democrat Member who is here, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), although I do not think he is formally representing them. If he is, I am sure he will have a different view on this. It is important that the public feel we are really listening to them.
I was about to say that I do not want my party to be the only one going into a general election not supporting a referendum, and I feel that the Liberal Democrats will definitely have this measure in their manifesto, too. I am not a friend of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) as such, but I imagine that it will be in their manifesto. The Labour party could be the only party going into the election not supporting it, and that would be very wrong indeed.
I wish briefly to discuss some of the issues that will arise if the negotiation happens. I am a bit of a cynic about these negotiations, because I do not feel we will be able to negotiate very much, as the establishment within the European Union does not want the changes that we wish to see. If we end up still part of the agricultural policy and the fisheries policy, and if we still pay billions of pounds into the European Union and get a small amount back, I cannot see that the negotiations will have succeeded in doing anything other than tinker around in a few places, so that somebody can come back from Europe and say that this has been a success.
My hon. Friend is far too young to remember the 1975 referendum, but I recall it well. We did have a negotiation then, but can anyone in this Chamber remind me of what the difference was after the referendum, following those negotiations?
Yes, indeed. I was going to mention that, because I feel strongly that if we go in to negotiate, we have to be clear what the ultimate end is. By that, I mean what we will do if we do not get what we want. We cannot go into negotiations without it being very clear that if we do not get what we want, we will be prepared to leave the European Union; that is the right approach to take.
As the hon. Gentleman mentioned it, I should like to discuss Scotland a little further. Some people say that it is not the right time for a referendum, that a referendum is a diversion, it is not going to be good for business, and it will create anxiety and too much hassle, but I say let us just look at what happened in Scotland. Whatever someone thought about the final decision and whether they supported it—I was delighted that Scotland voted to stay part of the United Kingdom, but this applies even to those people who were on the other side—everyone accepts that there was a huge uprising in public interest in an issue. Real debate and discussion took place, and there was a feeling that, at last, ordinary men and women were able to come out and talk at public meetings and discuss things, even out in markets and on the streets. That had a hugely galvanising effect, and I think it will have a galvanising effect in the general election in May in Scotland and there will be an even bigger turnout than usual.
Is not one of the differences that in Scotland the issue was absolutely clear-cut and people had a lot of time to work out what they were voting on, whereas here the issue is not clear-cut? Some of the Labour voters to whom my hon. Friend referred may want a simple in/out referendum, others may want a referendum depending on the outcome of the negotiations, and some may not know what the negotiations are for. Surely this is much more complicated.
I thank my hon. Friend for that, but I think the people of this country have had 40 years to think about how they see the European Union. Let us remember that this Bill is not about whether we are for or against the EU; it is about giving the people the choice. This is the point that the Labour Front-Bench team needs to answer. If this Bill goes through Parliament, the referendum would not happen until 2017; I think it should come a lot earlier. I am concerned that Labour Front-Benchers are not able to say that we will support a referendum.
I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks, and I think Conservative Members agree with everything she is saying. We are pleased that Gibraltar is going to be given the right to vote, but does she agree that those in the armed services, who are scattered around the world, should be given the right to vote in a special way? They cannot vote if they are not in the United Kingdom, so it is important that they get a direct way of voting. Does she also agree that EU citizens who are not British should not be voting?
A lot of technicalities have to be worked out, which is why it would be important to start planning as soon as possible for a referendum and why it is important that the Bill goes through. I would probably agree on both of the points the hon. Gentleman raised, but they can be further discussed.
I had better get on, because I know that a lot of people wish to speak. I might give way once or twice more, but I have not got a lot more to say.
I have just received a letter, dated 13 October, from the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) about the proposed ports services regulation. This measure has emerged since the last vote we had on the referendum and it is a classic example of how the European Union creeps further and further into all parts of our life; when people voted 40 years ago nobody thought they were going to be voting for this to happen. I am sure that he and our officials have done their best in negotiating to try to get the regulation changed as much as possible. Indeed, the letter says:
“The Government has therefore worked hard to ensure that the text of the draft Regulation was crafted to protect UK interests.”
That follows on from saying that we were against it. I believe there was unanimity on that; among a lot of trade unions and across all parties it was seen that this was not in our interest. The letter states that we did not see any merit in regulation but we knew that
“legislation was sure to proceed in some form with majority support.”
So here we are, sitting in the British Parliament, supposedly making our own laws, yet time after time we find that things come through that we have no say in changing. We might alter one or two words, and we might be able to come back saying, “This is a little better than it was,” but fundamentally if we want to regulate our ports, we should be deciding it, not the European Union and the Commission.
As a Member of Parliament who represents a port, I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. This is an example of how the single market is used as an all-enveloping pretext for Community action at Community level, whatever is the case, even though it is very difficult to argue that there is a single market between the ports of Harwich and Felixstowe and those of Marseilles or Piraeus, which is the basic premise of the argument behind the directive.
I am sure that all hon. Members could come up with different scenarios, but the fundamental principle is that we are losing control of our own country and of what we want to do in our own country. It is very simple and I genuinely cannot understand why people cannot see that we are losing control of what we want to do here. Of course, we want to co-operate with other European countries. I want to co-operate with all sorts of countries. I would like to see our Commonwealth countries much more involved in what we are doing, as we have treated them scandalously over the years. That is why, if there were a referendum and if we chose to leave the European Union, I would feel quite confident about this country. I want to get our confidence back. I do not want this doom-ridden approach that suggests we have to be part of the European Union because we are only a country and we need it desperately. It needs us, too, and I have confidence that if we were to leave the European Union we would be quite capable of having a prosperous future.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The European Union needs us much more than we need it. Our trade balance shows a gigantic trade deficit with the European Union. We effectively export 1 million jobs because of the £1 billion a week deficit we have with the rest of the European Union. That is the reality.
Yes, that is the reality and that is what we need to get across. The media must be much more unbiased in their reaction to the European Union. Some of us have spent some time meeting up with the BBC to try to get it to have a much better attitude towards the European Union, because it seems to take the attitude that anyone who speaks out in any way that is critical of the European Union is somehow swivel-eyed—I think that is the word that is usually used. If we have this referendum, the BBC must be clear that it is completely unbiased and will give fair representation to both sides.
I find it very strange that Labour has a policy that if anything extra goes to Europe we would have a referendum. That seems to me to be a bit like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Of course, I supported the policy when it went through and it is good that we got it. At least something changed about our relationship with the European Union, but there are still things happening at this minute. It comes in little bits—drip, drip, drip—and there is no one big thing that can lead us to say, “Ah, we need a referendum on that.” It is a slippery slope, and the process is getting faster every week.
That is the million dollar question. We all admire the hon. Lady for her courage and her clear exposition of why we need a referendum, but the question that I think many people will be asking is why, in her opinion, her leadership is not doing the obvious, logical, clear and democratic thing and offering a referendum to the British people by a set date. Is it because they fear the result? What is the reason?
I generally do not know the answer. Perhaps we will hear it from those on the Front Bench today, but the reality is that if we had that referendum I would not fear the result. I have confidence in the British people and would accept the result, whichever way it went. What is not acceptable to me is that we have had so many changes to what people originally voted for in which none of us have had a say—we can go through the list. The people of this country did not vote to have unlimited access for those from every European Union country to come to our country. They did not vote for many of the things that are happening, and that is why it is such a basic point that we need a referendum.
On the subject of the European Court of Justice, I was once a Home Office Minister and I went to Europe many times for work in that area. We had a say then and were able to stop things. Now we cannot, because of how it works and the majority position that has to be taken. I would be very concerned, given that we had the chance to opt out of the 35 EU police and criminal justice measures, if the current Government opted back in. That would be a retrograde step. I do not accept the argument about the arrest warrant. In one or two cases, it has been very helpful, but I see no reason why, living as we do with our neighbours, we could not have agreements with individual countries to get people back when we need to. Some of the terrible cases that have happened show the power of the European arrest warrant and once the process has started, no one can really stop it. We saw that recently in the terrible case involving the young baby. It would be shocking, given that this is a Government who are meant to be Eurosceptic or Euro-realist, if they were to opt back in in a few weeks. Our criminal justice system would then for ever be part of this European way of doing things, which is not the British way of doing things.
I want to end by appealing to my own party, though there are not many of them in the Chamber to appeal to—[Interruption.] It is about quality, of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) says from the Front Bench. I have great respect for him. I assume that the position today will be that my party will abstain. Abstaining is not to me a good way of dealing with controversial issues and I am disappointed that the official line will be to abstain. Of course, a few of us will vote for the Bill, as we have before, but I want to put out a warning that although when we talk to people this issue might not immediately rear its head, when we talk to them about the European Union the one thing they will say is that they have not been listened to and that they have never been listened to. They want to be listened to and that is why this referendum Bill is crucial if we are serious about bringing about a bit more trust between the public and politicians. I hope that it will get the support of the House.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I want to raise that rare thing, a genuine point of order. In his opening remarks, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) suggested that there might be attempts to frustrate the progress of the Bill through the House. One of those ways would be to prolong the debate on the Bill that is currently at the front of the queue in Committee. Will you confirm to me, as a member of the Speaker’s Panel of Chairs—I suspect that a nod from the Clerks will help—that it is in fact perfectly possible, should we choose to do so, for this House to set up a second Committee to consider the Bill?
It is a genuine pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who gave a rare but most welcome dose of common sense from the Opposition Benches on the subject. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) on his speech, on the powerful argument he has made for the Bill and, in particular, on his principled defence of the British people’s right to decide on their future in Europe. We are all grateful to him for taking up the noble cause of getting a referendum on Europe in the next Parliament on to the statute book before the general election.
The hon. Lady speculated in the closing moments of her speech on the Labour party’s tactics on this Bill. Perhaps the Opposition do not know, or perhaps she is just not on the mailing list for such sensitive information. I hope that later the shadow Foreign Secretary will enlighten the House on the Opposition’s precise position. I should make it clear that in making the case for this Bill I am doing so not on behalf of the coalition but as a Conservative. I shall say something about the position of my Liberal Democrat colleagues—although not of the one Liberal Democrat who is in the chamber.
I am grateful that the Foreign Secretary is speaking as a Conservative today, as he always does, but is not the problem that all hon. Members know that this is a very good Bill but that it has no chance of getting on to the statute book because of the parliamentary timetable? Surely the Government should introduce this as a Government Bill, and if the Liberal Democrats want to walk out of the Government, let them do so.
I do not accept my hon. Friend’s premise. We have to give the Bill everything we have to get it through Parliament and on to the statute book, using all the devices and wisdom available to us to make sure that we do so, and as the British people would expect us to do. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) has already suggested a technique to us this morning.
The case for the Bill is simple. It is right that the British people should make the decision on whether the United Kingdom stays in the European Union or leaves altogether, just as it was right that the Scottish people made the decision about their future in the UK. Every poll shows that whatever their view on the answer to that question, the overwhelming majority want the right to decide. In the 41 years since the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community, and in the 39 years since we last had a referendum on Europe, the EU has changed profoundly. It has grown enormously in its power and its reach. It has grown in its competences, its legislation has spread, and the role of the European Parliament has increased almost beyond recognition at the expense of the other European institutions. It has morphed from a common market into a putative superstate. Put plainly, Europe today is very different from the Europe that people voted for in 1975, yet the British people have never been asked whether they agreed with any of these changes. So it should be no surprise to us that democratic support for the EU is fragile, to put it diplomatically. Ever-closer union has led to ever-greater disillusion.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Scottish referendum. The difference there of course was that the Scottish Government, the majority party, came to power on a manifesto promise of a referendum. I have just checked the Conservative party manifesto for the last general election and the Conservative party policy was not for an in/out referendum; it was for a referendum if further powers were transferred. So apart from some of his colleagues who may have made individual promises, he has no mandate for this policy. He should put it to the public at the next election, but he has no mandate to bring this forward based on his manifesto.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is ironic that already under this Government we have had a referendum in Wales about further powers, as well as the referendum in Scotland, but when it comes to these international matters that affect the whole of the United Kingdom and British citizens beyond our shores, we have yet to give the people the choice? Is it not absolutely right that we should press on with this? If the House had a sense of fairness it would pass the Bill in short order.
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. The future of our relationship with the European Union is surely the most important strategic question facing this country today, and it is a question on which we should trust the instincts of the British people.
We should never forget, nor allow the public to forget, the particular responsibilities of the Labour party in all this. The treaties of Amsterdam and Nice had at least appeared in its manifestos before they were ratified without a referendum, but the Lisbon treaty appeared in no manifesto and was pushed through without the British public ever being allowed to have any say on it at all. Under the Labour Government’s 13 years of misgovernment, as well as letting spending, borrowing and immigration rip, their incompetent mishandling of Britain’s relationship with Europe decisively alienated the British people from the European project that they so cherish. Who, uniquely, among the large countries of Europe, failed to apply any kind of control over migration from the accession countries? Labour. Who signed Britain up for eurozone bail-outs? Labour. Who gave away £7 billion of our rebate with nothing in return? Labour. And who was the Europe Minister responsible at the time? The shadow Foreign Secretary.
The Prime Minister has set out clearly our agenda for EU reform. I am now touring the capitals of Europe, talking to colleagues across the European Union, explaining Britain’s position, hearing their positions, understanding how the ground lies ahead of what will be a great negotiation, starting next summer.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for reminding the House of that occasion. Does he accept, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) in moving the Bill did not, that the director-general of the CBI is speaking for British business as a whole when he says that membership of the European Union is fundamental to our economic future?
What business needs more than anything is certainty. So long as we do not allow the British people to have their say, we face continued uncertainty around this question. We need to settle this once and for all for the sake of Britain. Once it is settled, we can get on with our business.
Businesses in Rossendale and Darwen say to me that the Scottish referendum showed us that having a decisive choice, where the people are able to speak, will put the question of our membership of the European Union to bed for a generation. Because of the result of that referendum, no business in Scotland is now concerned about leaving that country.
The right hon. Gentleman’s Government, not just the Conservative party, but also the Liberal Democrats, agreed to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum in Scotland. Why does the Bill not give the same democratic right to 16 and 17-year-olds in an EU referendum?
It is very clear what the Bill provides. It will be the general election franchise that applies. That is the right franchise to use for a referendum of the whole of the United Kingdom.
There are some, on both sides of the House, who may want Britain to leave the European Union come what may. They are entitled to that view, but it is not one that I share. There are others, mainly on the Opposition Benches and the Liberal Democrat party, who want to stay in the EU come what may. They are entitled to their view, but it is also not one that I share. No change is not an option. The status quo in Europe is not in Britain’s interests, or in the interests of anyone in Europe. So what most of us want to see is a radically reformed Europe; a Europe where powers flow from Brussels back to the nations, not the other way round; a Europe of co-operating nations, not a European superstate; a Europe of open markets and free trade arrangements with the world beyond; a Europe that can out-compete the best in the world, without red tape and regulation weighing it down. But most of all we want to see a Europe on which the British people have had their say. Whether we think that the European Union is perfection beyond improvement, like Labour, or irredeemably flawed, like a few of my hon. Friends, or, indeed, capable of the substantive reform that most of us on the Conservative Benches seek, we should all be able to agree that, after all the reform and renegotiation, after everyone has had their say, the ultimate decision on whether to go or whether to stay should rest with the British people.
I agree with everything that the Foreign Secretary is saying on this point of renegotiation. Surely in Europe, particularly in Germany, they are so desperate that we stay in—quite rightly—that we can have a substantial renegotiation, and in particular we can reclaim control of our borders.
That is exactly the message I get as I travel around Europe. Germans, Dutch, Swedes and others understand Britain’s critical role as a balancing weight in the complex structure that is the European Union. They understand that, without Britain, the European Union would change fundamentally, and in a way that would be fundamentally inimical to their national interests. So we can have this negotiation. I am confident that we will be able to have a serious and proper discussion with our European colleagues.
The key point is that, on the basis of my hon. Friend’s Bill, when we have completed the negotiations and brought back the result, the question will not be whether Parliament thinks that the outcome is good enough, but whether the British people do. That will be good not only for our democracy, but for our negotiating position, because our partners in Europe will know that they cannot do deals with politicians in smoke-filled rooms; they will have to come up with something meaty and substantial that will work for the British people.
My right hon. Friend is being generous with his time. Does he agree that my generation has never had a say on whether we should be in the EU? My constituents would wholeheartedly endorse what the Government are trying to do.
I absolutely agree. I am only just old enough to have voted in the last referendum on the European Union—my first ever vote. There is a whole generation of people who have never been consulted on this question and who are entitled to have their say.
We should all be able to agree on this question, not least because that is the agreed position of this House in this Parliament, because the Bill we are debating today is, of course, the same as the one introduced in the previous Session by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) and passed unopposed on Third Reading. We are left wondering why it enjoyed such apparent acquiescence from Labour and the Liberal Democrats in this House, only for them to block it in the other place by denying it time for debate. The question is why Labour and the Lib Dems do not trust the British people to have their say on Europe. If Labour and the Lib Dems do not trust the voters, the voters should not trust them.
I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is saying about listening to the British people, but does he understand that if the British people are to speak with clarity of voice, they need the clarity of choice of the Prime Minister’s red lines, and those have not been revealed? Until they are, how can that possibly be the case?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way. Unlike some of the younger Members of the House, I am old enough to have voted in the last European referendum—[Interruption.] Unbelievable, I know. For me, the European Union has changed fundamentally since I voted for us to join that institution. However, my constituents in Chesham and Amersham often ask me whether I am confident that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Government will have completed those renegotiations by 2017. Would he like to confirm that now so that we know that when we go into the referendum we will definitely have a full agenda for reform on which to vote?
My right hon. Friend is exactly right to ask that question. Of course, the fact of the referendum—the fact of this Bill—will drive the timetable of that agenda in Europe. We are lighting a fire under the European Union by this piece of legislation. We are setting off a process that politicians and Governments do not have the power to stop, and that will give us a very powerful weapon in our armoury.
I will make a little progress before giving way again.
Every time we have this debate, Labour and Lib Dem Front Benchers simply prove our point, as they are doing today: the one party that can and will deliver a referendum on Europe is the Conservative party. I have to tell them that, as a Conservative, I am very happy to go to the country next year with that message, but I would still prefer, in the national interest and in the interests of our democracy, to move to a referendum as a matter of national consensus.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this morning we have heard a series of obfuscatory remarks from Opposition Members that have nothing to do with the Bill under discussion? That poses the very simple question of whether we should have a referendum and let the people of this country decide. Why does he think Labour Members are so frightened of letting the British people decide?
I have to say, in all candour, that I do not know why Labour Members are so frightened, but I think that my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The reason they are talking about everything else they can think of is that it is deeply embarrassing for the people’s party to have to acknowledge publicly that it does not trust the people. That is the essence of what we are hearing today.
Further to that last intervention, the Labour party claims to represent the workers, yet the EU has had a hugely negative impact on the jobs and wages of British workers. Why will the Labour party not give workers a say in an in/out referendum on the EU?
The Foreign Secretary said that he has been going around Europe, talking with other partners and setting out his objectives for reform, but he has not yet told the House what criteria he would use to judge whether the resulting package of reforms will be enough for him to recommend yes or no. Will he please now clarify that point?
The hon. Gentleman is wilfully missing the point. I do not have to make that judgment, and neither does this House; it is the British people who will decide once they have looked at what is on offer on the table.
I would rather move forward to a referendum as a matter of national consensus, because I think that would be good for our democracy, so I have to say to my absent Liberal Democrat colleagues—I exclude my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), who is present—that they need to be consistent in their policy on Europe. They wanted an in/out referendum on the transfer of powers in the Lisbon treaty, and that is what we are offering, so they should vote for it. For the sake of our democracy and their own reputation with the British public, they should support the Bill, give it coalition backing and get it on to the statute book before the general election.
To the Labour party, I say that if ever we wanted a perfect illustration of the Leader of the Opposition’s utter inability to make up his mind one way or another, his European policy is it. It has not been easy for him, because he has been advised that he should hold a referendum, that he should not hold one, that he should make up his mind, and then that it would be better if he did not make up his mind, so he dithered. Now, 14 months after he responded to the Prime Minister’s Bloomberg speech by telling the House emphatically that
“we do not want an in/out referendum”—[Official Report, 23 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 305.],
he unveils Labour’s new position—perhaps he got a phone call from someone—which is, as I understand it, that they would have an in/out referendum only if new powers were transferred from Britain to Brussels, a situation that the shadow Foreign Secretary has described as “frankly unlikely”, and one that could arise only if the Government agreed to a transfer of powers. In short, he is saying that he would be willing to agree to an in/out referendum in principle, so long as it would never happen in practice.
Just to make sure that people heard what the Leader of the Opposition wanted them to hear, his team spun the message, so readers of the Daily Mirror read that Labour was going to have a referendum, and on the same day readers of The Independent read that it was not. No amount of spin can conceal the reality of his position: no say on Europe under Labour.
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly legitimate point. Many countries in the European Union are concerned about treaty change because of the implications for their domestic politics, but the EU may have to embrace treaty change anyway. The EU has to deal with the ongoing crisis in the eurozone, which will require structural change to resolve it. He wants to believe that there cannot be treaty change, but given the structural flaws in the eurozone and what will be needed to resolve them, the European Union may get treaty change sooner than it thinks and whether it likes it or not.
My right hon. Friend is being very generous to Her Majesty’s official Opposition in saying that they do not believe that treaty change is obtainable. I think he is misinterpreting their motives. I think they like the European Union the way it is and the way it is going. Funnily enough, that is creating high unemployment and global financial instability, but they have no intention of changing it because they do not want to change it.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. They think there is nothing wrong with the status quo. Three years ago, the Leader of the Opposition told the BBC’s “Politics Show”:
“no, I don’t think Brussels has got too much power”.
That is his position. By contrast, the Conservative party has a simple plan for Europe: reform, renegotiation, referendum. It is a plan that we are pursuing with the same single-minded determination as our long-term economic plan. After Labour’s 13 years of failure, it is a plan that is already delivering results. Where Labour signed us up to eurozone bail-outs, we got Britain out. Where Labour gave away £7 billion of the rebate, we cut the EU budget for the first time ever. We have agreed new free trade deals and made a start on cutting EU red tape. We have won fundamental reform of the common fisheries policy, for which I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice). We have even got every country in the EU to accept not only that we are no longer in a one-speed Europe but that we are no longer all committed to going to the same destination. The June 2014 European Council conclusions were the beginning of the end of ever-closer union for the United Kingdom. Those are important achievements, but there is much more to do. The world is changing around the EU, and the status quo is no longer an option. Maintaining competitiveness demands reform. Fixing the eurozone demands reform. Restoring accountability to a disillusioned electorate demands reform. The penny is finally beginning to drop across Europe. Reform and change there will be.
The Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst says that when that process is completed, it will be the British people who judge whether the reforms represent the substantial and irreversible change that I judge they will need to see if they are to decide that Britain’s future lies inside the European Union. The Bill will ensure that that decision is made not by eurocrats in expense account Brussels restaurants, not by Ministers in late-night Council sessions, and not even by parliamentarians in this Chamber, but by the common sense of the British people. That is how it should be, that is what the Bill will ensure, that is what this House agreed to when it passed the same Bill last year undivided, and that is why this Bill merits the support of the whole House today.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) on achieving third place in the ballot and on introducing this Bill to the Chamber again.
Labour believes that any judgment about a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union has to be based on what is in the national interest. We do not believe that a Bill calling for an in/out referendum in 2017 on an arbitrary date unrelated to the likely timetable of major treaty change, putting jobs and investment in Britain at risk, is in our national interest. That is why Labour does not support this Bill. Instead, Labour will legislate in government for a lock that guarantees that there cannot be any transfer of powers from Britain to the European Union without an in/out referendum.
The promoter of the Bill answered the question from the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) by saying that the Bill is about trust. Let us deal with that issue directly. This Bill has not been brought before the House because the Prime Minister suddenly woke up with a democratic impulse or because Conservative Back Benchers trust the public; it is being debated because Conservative Back Benchers do not trust the Prime Minister.
If the right hon. Gentleman does not support the Bill, and given that with some Liberal Democrat colleagues Labour Members could defeat it, why are they abstaining and allowing their cronies in the House of Lords to do their dirty work? Why do they not put their vote where their mouth is on this question?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, she has never been my lodestar of political judgment, and I therefore think that Labour Members shall make the judgments in relation to the legislative passage of any Bill.
This Bill is being presented for a second time.
Whatever the right hon. Gentleman says are the reasons for bringing this Bill to the House, surely, as a party of principle, Labour should support workers’ rights, given, as I said, the negative impact that the EU has had on workers’ wages and its impact on jobs. Labour should take a position of principle and say, “We trust the people and we support an in/out referendum on the EU.”
The hon. Gentleman speaks with great eloquence about workers’ rights. I am sure that he is familiar with the Beecroft report, commissioned by this Government, which really let the cat out of the bag. The rationale for repatriation being supported by so many of his colleagues is that it would bring powers home in order to take away workers’ rights. We know that, and Conservative Back Benchers know that, yet it is significant that the Prime Minister chose not to—[Interruption.]
It is significant in terms of the credibility of the Prime Minister’s word on these matters that, if I recollect correctly, the word “repatriation” did not appear in the Bloomberg speech of which the Foreign Secretary spoke so eloquently a few moments ago.
I will make a little progress and then I will be happy to give way again.
As I stand here again, a year on, after yet another Friday morning meeting in Downing street to rally the beleaguered troops—I venture to suggest that never have so many bacon rolls died in vain—looking at Conservative Members, or at least what is left of them, gathered to talk about their favourite subject of Europe, I have to say that I feel a certain sense of déjà vu. The only thing that seems different this morning is the absence of the Chief Whip and the Prime Minister.
Even if the Bill has not changed, some things have changed since we last gathered a year ago. Back in January 2013, when the Prime Minister gave at Bloomberg what his aides rather optimistically, as it turns out, briefed would be
“his last speech on Europe in the parliament”,
I was, on balance, prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, even if some of his own Back Benchers, even at that time, were undoubtedly not willing to do so. I believe that when he committed to holding a referendum in 2017, he assumed sincerely that, given the push at the time towards closer eurozone integration, there would be a major EU treaty change within the time frame that he set out. Since that speech at Bloomberg last year, however, the prospect of extensive treaty changes by 2017 has receded rather than grown. He knows that, we know that, Conservative Members know that, and, most worryingly for the Prime Minister, the Back Benchers who are concerned about whether he can deliver on his promise know that.
Only this month, the French Prime Minister—perhaps one of the individuals that the Foreign Secretary has had those obscure and rather elliptical conversations with—said that EU treaty change would be “perilous” and ruled out a “shake-up of its treaties” any time soon. In January, the French President said during a visit to London that treaty change was “not urgent” and “not a priority”. After the signing of the German coalition agreement in November last year—without, I point out, a single reference to treaty change—Chancellor Merkel said in February this year that the Conservatives’ hopes would end in “disappointment”. For full measure, her Foreign Minister then said that it would be “an exaggeration” to assert that Germany and the United Kingdom were on the same page when it came to treaty reform in the EU. We have heard a little more exaggeration from the Foreign Secretary this morning.
Nearly two years on from the Prime Minister’s announcement of a 2017 referendum, the ground beneath his feet has shifted. It has left him asserting, ever less convincingly, that he can initiate, negotiate and secure the unanimous support of 27 European Heads of Government for a fundamental redesign of the European Union within 19 months of May 2015.
How likely a prospect is that for our Prime Minister, given his recent track record of negotiations in Europe? This boast is made by a Prime Minister who just this year managed to turn a Europe divided over Jean-Claude Juncker into a Europe virtually united against the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister was certainly not the first British Prime Minister to take a tough negotiating stance in Brussels, but he will go down in history as the first British Prime Minister ever to lose a vote in the European Council. He went to Brussels with, incidentally, a cross-party mandate—the Liberals and, indeed, the Labour party were behind him—to secure consensus on the best candidate for Commission President, but he failed to build alliances.
I do not want to intrude on private grief, but the Prime Minister lost, and lost badly. If the hon. Gentleman would like to have it on his leaflets that 27-0—actually, to be fair, it was 26-2—in the European Council is a sign of success and effectiveness and of statesmanship by a British Prime Minister, good luck to him.
The right hon. Gentleman has expressed the utter supineness of the socialists, who give in to everything Europe wants when our Prime Minister is willing to put the British case, even when sometimes that does not succeed. It was courageous and it was the right, firm approach for dealing with renegotiation.
There speaks the authentic voice of the 18th century! Our dispute seems to be about the efficacy of principle and the effectiveness of statesmanship. The hon. Gentleman argues that the Prime Minister was efficacious in upholding a principle, but I maintain that he was hopelessly ineffective at securing statesmanship on the international stage. Let us remember that the Prime Minister failed to use the weeks following the European elections to work to build a coalition that could have been built with countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Hungary and Italy.
Let us treat that as a textbook example of what the Foreign Secretary has just asserted can be achieved in the months after 2015. If the Prime Minister failed to prevent a not universally popular candidate from becoming Commission President, what hope is there that he could secure unanimous support for a fundamental redesign of Europe on an arbitrary timetable that other European Governments simply do not accept?
I am not sure that was worth taking as an intervention. First, it is a matter of record that the A10 accession—the significant enlargement of the European Union—that preceded those discussions was a matter of cross-party consensus. I am sure the hon. and learned Gentleman would not dispute that.
Well, any reasonable judgment of the budgetary settlement recognised that the budget was going to change as a consequence of 10 new members coming into the European Union. I hope there is common ground on that.
Secondly, if I recollect accurately, as a consequence of those budgetary negotiations undertaken by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, there is now, for the first time, parity between the contributions of France and the United Kingdom. I would have thought that the hon. and learned Gentleman supported that.
Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify whether he is one of those who believe that the crisis in the eurozone has passed, or does he recognise that there will need to be fundamental structural reform in Europe in order to ensure the success of the euro currency?
Of course there needs to be continuing fundamental and serious change in the eurozone, not least given the challenges that the peripheral countries face in relation to productivity and the frankly worrying current levels of growth across the eurozone. [Interruption.] The Foreign Secretary says it is a fundamental point in relation to treaty change, so I offer him the opportunity to step back up to the Dispatch Box and name one member of the eurozone that is publicly advocating treaty change between now and 2017. [Interruption.] The Foreign Secretary says, “Not publicly.” If it is accepted that there is a need for fundamental reform of the eurozone, what, at this point in the discussions, would be to the disadvantage of any one member of the eurozone—just one, not even two or three—to say that there is going to have to be fundamental treaty change in order to make the eurozone work effectively by 2017? I would be very happy to give way if the Foreign Secretary would like to intervene and name a country. His silence speaks volumes and that explains why, with every passing month, the credibility of Conservative Front Benchers diminishes with that of its Back Benchers.
I want to make some progress and then I will be happy to give way.
On the eurozone and the economy, the Foreign Secretary complacently dismissed powerful interventions by my hon. Friends on the very real concerns of British business. One aspect of the debate that has not changed since the Bill was last debated is the view of British business. It continues to speak out and speak up, warning against the risks of stumbling or sleepwalking out of Europe, which is a real prospect, given the abject failure both of the Prime Minister to set out a reform agenda and of the Foreign Secretary to offer a credible negotiating strategy to deliver that fundamental redesign with unanimity by 2017.
I want to make some progress.
Earlier this year, Sir Richard Branson said, in no uncertain terms, that
“the last thing the UK should do is leave”
“as it would then have no say on how to improve it and make it more productive for all countries involved.”
I hope so, too: I will take your guidance on that, Mr Deputy Speaker. We are talking about whether we should have a choice, not about the nuances of what businesses think would happen if we were to leave the EU. Nobody is proposing to leave today. Is it in order for the shadow Foreign Secretary to major on the debate in that way?
Conservative Members do not seem to want to listen to my right hon. Friend’s arguments, but he is making a powerful speech. Perhaps they will listen to their own Lord Heseltine, who has said:
“To commit to a referendum about a negotiation that hasn’t begun, on a timescale you cannot predict, on an outcome that’s unknown, where Britain’s appeal as an inward investment market would be the centre of the debate, seems to me like an unnecessary gamble”.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which points to two truths. The first is the importance of economic stability and certainty in relation to investment and the opportunities that British business needs not just to invest and employ, but to export in the future. The second is that it shows just how far the Conservative party has travelled.
I congratulate the shadow Foreign Secretary on his excellent and powerful speech, and I look forward to his putting his name forward in the next few weeks to become the next leader of the Labour party. I think we agree on the major point that the Labour party is clearly against an in/out referendum, and I am grateful to him for clarifying that. We also agree that it is very unlikely that the European Union will give the reforms that the Prime Minister wants. The difference is that, finally, at the end of the journey, it will be the British people who decide. That is the right way forward. Why will the Labour party not agree to that?
Flattering though the hon. Gentleman’s introduction to his question was, I fear that we diverge on at least two substantive points. First, Labour takes a conditions-based approach to an EU referendum. We think that the right point to have a referendum would be that which the Conservative party used to favour—indeed, it was in the Conservative manifesto. The party that has shifted its position is not the Labour party, but the Conservative party. The second point on which we take a different position is that we continue to believe that it is in Britain’s strategic, long-term interest to remain part of a changed and reformed European Union. It is not that the character of Europe is incapable of reform; it is that the competence of this Prime Minister means that he has failed abjectly to deliver reform. He has spent four years burning bridges rather than building alliances. That is why we have ended up with the paltry list of so-called reforms that were suggested by the Foreign Secretary today, against a backdrop in which he is literally incapable of articulating what the reform agenda would be.
The common ground between the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and I is that both of us would like more clarity from Conservative Front Benchers on what the reform proposals are, what the red lines are and even how the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary would vote in a referendum. Indeed, if the Foreign Secretary would like to step up to the Dispatch Box and tell us something that he omitted to mention during his speech, he might answer this question: is he prepared, if he does not get the changes that he is hoping for in the reform discussions, to recommend a no vote? Once again, the silence speaks volumes. That might be a judgment based on loyalty to the Prime Minister that costs him many votes in a future leadership contest.
I am grateful to the shadow Foreign Secretary, who is showing his customary generosity. Does he agree that his comment that there is no support among our partner countries in Europe for treaty change is simply wrong? The German coalition agreement includes that provision. Does he have it there? Has he read it?
With the greatest of respect to the hon. and learned Gentleman, if I had a choice between the words of the German Chancellor and his view on what the German coalition is likely to do, I would, on balance, put more weight on the views of Chancellor Merkel. When she came to this place during an important state visit last year, I expected her to offer perhaps just a single line in her remarks that would give a ledge on which the Prime Minister could stand and say to his Back Benchers, “See, we have made some progress. The Germans are going to be with us and we will get what we need.” It was hugely significant that she did not feel the obligation to give even a carapace of cover to the Prime Minister. She left having given absolutely no credence to the rather desperate assertion, which we have heard again today, that the Germans will somehow rescue the Prime Minister from his negotiating inadequacies. There is simply no foundation for that.
This is all terribly interesting, but it is slightly irrelevant to what we are talking about today. Even if the Prime Minister fails to get anything substantial, the British people will make their choice. What I cannot understand about the actions of the Labour party—I am scratching my head about this—is that surely it wants to win the general election. Is it not quite a popular thing to do to offer a referendum by a certain date? Would it not be a good idea to shoot the Government’s foxes if it is trying to win the next general election?
I am happy, if it is what the hon. Gentleman wants, to move on to advice on electoral politics. It is the Conservative party, not this party, that has just lost two Members of Parliament to UKIP. It is the Conservative party that has not won a majority in a UK general election for 20 years. When the Prime Minister gave his speech at the Tory party conference nine years ago, it was back in the days when people believed that the Conservatives could win a majority. That was a long time ago. The Conservative strategy of first insulting UKIP, then ignoring UKIP and then imitating UKIP has proved to be an abject electoral failure. That is why there is rising panic among so many Conservative Back Benchers that, far from being able to secure a minority Government after the general election, they will be faced with an existential threat posed by their colleagues in UKIP.
There is surely some reward for persistence in this House. I am grateful to the shadow Foreign Secretary. He has talked about the effectiveness of statesmanship. Earlier, he said that the referendum would not be in the national interest. Will he therefore confirm two things for the record, for all those who might be thinking of voting Labour: first, that his party does not think that the Bill is in the national interest and that it does not want a referendum, and secondly, that his party will not vote against the Bill?
The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that is what it said in the manifesto on which he was elected. Indeed, he walked through the Division Lobby in favour of that exact policy, with the caveat that the referendum would take place at that point. We have said that that should be strengthened, because we recognise that there would be a question over Britain’s relationship with Europe at the point at which the sovereignty lock was initiated. We would therefore strengthen the position by saying that there would be a clear legal lock, so that when there was a transfer of sovereignty from Britain to Brussels, a referendum would take place. It is therefore wholly wrong to suggest that the Opposition are opposed to a referendum on Europe.
If I recollect correctly—I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) will confirm this—the only party ever to give a referendum on European membership was Labour. We will go into the coming general election committed to providing an in/out referendum if there is a transfer of sovereignty from Britain to Brussels. That used to be the policy of the Conservative party. The party that has shifted under the weight of both internal political pressure and external electoral pressure is the Conservative party.
I have been generous in giving way, so let me make a little progress.
Since we debated the last version of this Bill, the European context has altered. First, the prospect that the Prime Minister hoped for rather forlornly at the time of his speech to Bloomberg—that major treaty change by 2017 would be inevitable—has receded. That is an uncomfortable truth. Secondly, the economic concerns that have been expressed by John Cridland, Sir Richard Branson and many others across the British business community have endured. Thirdly, we have to have the humility to recognise, as was pointed out in an earlier intervention, that there is politics at work in the Bill, and the politics has moved on since the Bill was last debated as well.
Since we last debated the Bill, the Prime Minister has lost a Foreign Secretary who was apparently deemed by his Back Benchers to have gone native in the Foreign Office, to be replaced by a Foreign Secretary—I welcome him to his position on the Front Bench—who, on hearing the news that the then Secretary of State for Education, the current Chief Whip, had suggested that he would vote to leave the EU today, rushed to the television studios to match that Eurosceptic pledge. One would almost think that they were worrying about an election beyond the general election in May 2015. The truth is that one of the reasons why we are once again debating the Bill is that the centre of gravity of the Conservative party has shifted and continues to shift. The Bill is all about internal leadership challenges and external electoral challenges.
I do not want to intrude too much on private grief, although I could probably be tempted, but what has also changed is that the Conservative party has lost two Members of Parliament to UKIP in just the last two months. Who knows how many more will follow? Who knows how many more are now saying, “Never say never.”? That is the real reason for the Bill.
I am still very confused. I thought that we were debating giving people the chance to have their say. I still do not understand what I should say to voters in Brighton, Kemptown about what the Labour party’s policy is. Why should their voices not be heard?
The confusion of the hon. Gentleman is a much longer topic of conversation, which extends beyond the parameters of this debate. Let us take a step back and recollect how far the Conservative party, of which he is a member, has journeyed. However, I note that he did not confirm that he will take the Conservative Whip, so he might be somebody else the Chief Whip needs to speak to in the coming days, along with so many others.
Back in the days when the Conservative party still believed that it could win a majority, the Prime Minister said that, “for too long”,
“Instead of talking about the things that most people care about, we talked about what we cared about most. While parents worried about childcare, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life, we were banging on about Europe.”
Let us take this week as an example. On Wednesday at Prime Minister’s questions, Conservative Back Benchers asked more questions about Europe than any other subject, and here we are on Friday morning, once again witnessing the Conservative party banging on about Europe. It is talking to itself and not to the country all over again. It did not have to be like this. The tragedy for the country—this brings me back to my substantive point about statesmanship—is that the Prime Minister is trying to use a referendum Bill to cover over the cracks in the Conservative party, when he should be seizing the moment for reform in Europe.
In his speech in January last year the Prime Minister set out principles for EU reform, but 22 months later what more have we heard? There was a valiant attempt by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) to elicit more information from the Foreign Secretary on that issue, but we heard only the sound of silence. Yesterday, what started as a screaming headline about free movement, became the squeak of “speculation” by the mid-morning Downing street briefing. Old spin techniques in place of new policy—exactly the kind of approach that leads to distrust in politics today.
Two years ago—let us be honest—the Prime Minister set out five principles of reform of such staggering blandness and generality that there was not really anything for any of us to oppose. Since then, however, we have heard absolutely nothing specific. That silence on the specifics—which we have heard again this morning—is not coincidental but utterly calculated, because the Prime Minister understands that the gap between what Europe will deliver and what his Back Benchers will demand remains unbridgeable 22 months on. He is hoping to sustain party unity through the device of obscurity. We are now in a position where, with months to go until the general election, the Opposition have a far more detailed agenda for reform on Europe than the Government.
It is always revealing when those on the Government Front Benches give up an argument and simply go for abuse. If that is the best the Foreign Secretary can do—[Interruption.] I am happy to give way again to hear a single specific example of powers that he will repatriate. Is he prepared to take to the Dispatch Box and tell the House which social, economic or employment rights he is seeking to repatriate? It is unconvincing for Labour Members, but—this is much more worrying for the Foreign Secretary—it is deeply unconvincing for Conservative Members when he pretends that he is having conversations in Europe that he is not willing to tell any of us about. That will not convince the British public, and I do not believe it will convince the House.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the obscurity that we have just seen displayed is deeply concerning given the time scale set out in the Bill? If within 19 months after May next year the British public are to have an in/out vote on this issue, there are not 19 months to negotiate but a much shorter time, if the matter is to be debated realistically among the British people.
What honestly worries me about the Government’s approach to Europe is not that it is clever, wily and strategic, but that they are making it up as they go along. Many months after the Bloomberg speech we have absolutely no detail. I see the Europe Minister is in his place, so perhaps he would like to advise the incoming Foreign Secretary about those detailed proposals for reform. Would he like to set out repatriation proposals for us today? I would happily give way.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that in 2017 there is supposed to be a six-month British presidency of the European Union, which begins on 1 July until 31 December. Does he think it wise for the middle of that British presidency to be disrupted by a referendum, or will the referendum have to be held in the first six months of 2017, before July?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, but—let us be honest—this policy has been framed not in reference to European or foreign policy, but in terms of domestic politics. It is not because the Conservative party trusts the British public, but because the Back Benchers do not trust the Prime Minister. That is why they have given up any pretence of a credible reform agenda. We have had five principles and then many months of silence, and the Conservative party has given up any pretence that there is widespread support for the reform agenda it describes. The Foreign Secretary—his Back Benchers will have noted this—today failed to name a single country with which he has had discussions in recent months and which accepts that there will be a fundamental redesign of the European Union, by unanimity, by 2017.
We have a track record—we do not need to look in a crystal ball because we can look in the history books. This is the only British Prime Minister in history who lost in the European Council on a vote that he did not need to lose. Not only did he have support from the Liberal party and the Labour party, but there was significant support among other European countries. However, if someone spends their time driving and looking through the rear view mirror, they tend to crash the car. That is exactly what the Prime Minister is doing when he spends more time negotiating with his Back Benchers than with other European parties. That is disastrous for the Conservative party but bad for Britain as well, and it is about time we had a reform agenda that spoke to the country’s needs on immigration, institutional reform and UK scrutiny.
Let me pursue the point about what the Foreign Secretary or Prime Minister will be negotiating on. I think there have been something like 14 reports from the balance of competences review. Is it time that Back Benchers knew exactly what that was leading to?
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. Let us take the specific example—again, if the Foreign Secretary wishes to come to the Dispatch Box he can add some clarity—of what has happened to the balance of competences review on free movement? Where has it gone? Is it still locked in the Home Office? Why has it been locked there? Why have Conservative Back Benchers not been entitled to see that report? It is because it is judged too politically dangerous to publish. That is the state that the modern Conservative party has fallen into despite the best interests of the country—the Government are frightened to implement even the policies that they advocate because of their own Back Benchers. The balance of competences report on free movement is an example not of leadership but of followership. That is what we are seeing on Europe month after month from the Conservatives. The Opposition are clear that membership of the EU is both a strategic and an economic asset to Britain.
It appears that not only did the right hon. Gentleman not read the German coalition agreement, but that he has not read Hansard either. Had he done so, he would have seen that the balance of competences report on the free movement of persons was published a couple of months ago.
As with all balance of competences reports, it sets out in detail a number of arguments for specific reforms to how the EU currently does business. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to do justice to the report and the many people who contributed to it, he might at least have the grace to read it before he comments on it.
If the report contains a whole number of substantive and serious reforms, perhaps the Minister will explain why yesterday we had headlines promising change on the free movement of labour, but by the briefing from the No. 10 spokesman in the afternoon that had been dismissed as “speculation”. Will the right hon. Gentleman share some of the specific proposals he is advocating? Will he suggest some of the proposals that his Conservative Back Benchers are keen to hear before the Rochester by-election? I assure him that Labour Members are all ears.
Labour does not support this Bill because its real aim is not to empower the public, as we have heard, but to pacify the party, and it is not focused on the interests of hard-working families, British business, or the needs of our country. That is why when today’s spectacle—once again—of the Conservative party talking to itself about Europe is long forgotten, it will fall to Labour to continue making the case for Britain’s place in Europe, and for reform and change within Europe.
I will seek to be brief, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a privilege to follow the shadow Foreign Secretary, and I am grateful to him for confirming that the Labour party does not trust the British people to express a view on this important matter. I say in all friendship to him that the Labour party’s commitment to referendums on every major treaty would be slightly more convincing if in the 13 years it was in power it had ever held a referendum on any of the various treaties that were agreed.
I support very strongly the Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), as I supported the Bill last year when it was presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton). I should say at the outset that I do so from an explicitly pro-European perspective. I believe this country has benefited from EU membership, benefits from it today and will continue to benefit from it in the future. It will do so even more with the various reforms that not just this Prime Minister but many enlightened leaders across Europe already agree are necessary for the future and better working of the European Union. There is a genuine consensus around Europe that a reformed European Union is necessary. I look forward to a re-elected Conservative Government leading that reform not just, although principally, in the interests of the British people, but in the interests of people in other member states. The programme set out, of renegotiation followed by a referendum, will be good for Britain and good for Europe as well.
It is time to take this decision. The point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that he, shockingly, was old enough to vote in the 1975 referendum—as was I, just about. Like many of us—I think for the Foreign Secretary as well—it was the first political act I took. I joined the Conservative party in 1975, and then campaigned for a yes vote as an idealistic young student in the middle of 1975 under the new Conservative leadership of Margaret Thatcher. Sadly, I am not quite as young as I was then, but I am still as idealistic. I still think that great things can be achieved within Europe by European countries acting together.
This is an historic decision—one that we perhaps ought to take as a country every generation or two, and it is 40 years since we last did so—and we need to put it in the historical perspective. If somebody had told any of us, particularly any of the young people voting for the first time in 1975, that within 20 years countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic would be democracies co-operating with us in an international organisation, with their people becoming more prosperous and having the freedom to express political views, we would have thought that that was the most enormous historic achievement—and it was the most enormous historic achievement. I think even those who are most hostile, on either side of the House, to the European Union, and particularly to European idealism, should recognise that the existence of the European Union as a beacon of prosperity and peace was one of the things that drove on those reforms in the former Soviet states that had been dominated by Soviet communism. We should not forget that, because that is the single most beneficial historic change that has happened in our continent in any of our lifetimes. A lot of that is due to the European Union. Absolutely, 1975 was a long time ago. There will be many people contributing to this debate who did not have the chance to vote, and it is time that we have another vote when we have renegotiated the terms.
This debate has been debilitating and sometimes poisonous, and it has gone on for too long. As I say, I not only approach this debate from an explicitly pro-European perspective, I go into it confident that, just as the public did in Scotland, the verdict will go the right and sensible way: to stay in a reformed Europe. If I may speak not entirely across the Chamber, it is important that the very many Conservatives who think as I do, that it is in Britain’s interests to stay in a reformed European Union, make the Conservative case for our membership. We heard from the shadow Foreign Secretary the distorted view that there is a view inside the Conservative party that is anti-European, and presumably, by implication, a view inside the Labour party that is pro-European. Neither half of those propositions are true, as I suspect the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) is about to illustrate.
It is true that it covers part of Europe, but I would gently make the point that at the time of the previous referendum there were six members and there are now 28. A considerably larger proportion of the European continent is covered by the European Union now. That is hugely to the benefit of the people living in those countries that were not in the European Union in 1975, and who will be living in the European Union when the referendum happens, as I hope it does, in 2017. The slightly crude characterisation of the Conservative party by the shadow Foreign Secretary was wrong. It is clearly, from his point of view, designed to damage the party, and I think it would damage the Conservative party if that canard was allowed to go unchallenged.
One of the interests that my party has represented very strongly is the business interest in this country. It has been one of the observable facts of the current leadership of the Labour party that, after years of Tony Blair attempting to make Labour a more business-friendly party, all of that has been thrown away. It seems perverse of it to do that, but in partisan terms I am quite happy for it to do it. It is very important that the Conservative party maintains close relations with business interests, both for its own sake and for the wider prosperity of the country. I agree with the point made by the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) that the serious voices in British business want us to stay in a reformed Europe. It is not just the CBI, as he quoted, but the Engineering Employers Federation and many big companies. Ford, BAE Systems, Unilever, Citibank and Siemens have all warned of the damage that will be caused to their businesses if we pull out. Of course, that would affect not just their businesses but tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of their workers. We all need to listen to that voice, because it is a very important one.
I absolutely agree. As I said at the outset, I am strongly in favour of the Bill and will be voting for it for the second time in two years. Given my general stance on European issues, one reason I am in favour of it is because I am in favour of democracy and this is an important historic decision that ought to be put to the British people. At the same time, I am confident that the view that we should stay in a reformed Europe will appeal to the British people, and that those who think as I do will win the referendum vote. So from that point of view, bring it on! There are a number of economic reasons for that: the capacity to negotiate on trade benefits that millions of people in this country get from the single market, and the seriousness with which we are taken in other parts of the world. This debate is not the time to rehearse those arguments—the referendum campaign may well be the time to do that—but there are other arguments as well, arguments of idealism.
The other point I would put, in particular to my own right hon. and hon. Friends who may well believe that Britain would be “better off out”, to coin a phrase, relates to Britain’s voice in the world. It seems to me unarguable that if we pulled out, the rest of the world would, first of all, be completely bemused that here was an advanced prosperous democracy telling 27 friendly democratic neighbour countries that we no longer want to act or be in an organisation with them. Not only would that have a damaging effect on our relationship with those 27 other friendly democracies, it would have a seriously damaging effect on our relationship with the other great powers of the world. It is not credible that an American President, a Chinese leader or an Indian business person would take Britain as seriously if we pulled out of the European Union as they would if we stayed in and played a leading and constructive role in it. Britain’s ability to have a strong voice and, in the words of our former Foreign Secretary, Lord Hurd, to punch above our weight in the world depends partly on our playing a leading role in the European Union and in Europe more widely. That is one more reason why our staying in the EU should appeal to Conservatives.
Many people have mentioned the lessons that we should learn from the Scottish referendum. One lesson I learned is that, although it is vital to win the economic argument, as the Better Together campaign did, it is also important to win the emotional arguments. In a referendum campaign, we will need to engage heads and hearts. For all the current travails of the eurozone, which desperately need sorting out, I believe that an idealistic vision remains.
We live in a continent that has spent centuries tearing itself apart with wars that destroyed communities and whole countries, leading up to the terrible slaughter in the first half of the 20th century. In the past 70 years, that continent has become a haven of peace and prosperity in an increasingly dangerous world, and it has built that peace and prosperity in countries that had previously known nothing but occupation and oppression. Go to Cracow, to Bucharest and to Vilnius and see what people there think. They are proud to be members of a democratic European Union, and we in Britain should be proud of our part in building this peaceful and prosperous continent.
I am very much in favour of letting the British people hear these arguments and of putting them to them in a referendum. I am also proud to be a member of the only party in this House that is wholeheartedly in favour of that—[Interruption.] I am being heckled from a sedentary position by the hon. Member for Clacton (Douglas Carswell), whom I sort of welcome to his new place. Shockingly, I have had private conversations with senior people in UKIP over the past few days. Before the Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), falls off her chair, I should explain that those conversations were held entirely on the basis of policy. I was assured that UKIP’s position was that it would prefer the House of Commons to vote to pull Britain out of Europe without consulting the British people in a referendum. To be fair, that conversation took place last Monday and today is Friday, so UKIP could well have held several positions since then. I very much look forward to the hon. Gentleman catching your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker, so that he can clarify exactly what UKIP’s position on a referendum is this morning.
I want to end by quoting some wise words from the 1975 referendum campaign:
“The choice is clear. We can play a role in developing Europe or we can turn our backs on the Community. By turning our backs we forfeit our right to influence what happens in the Community. But what happens in the Community will inevitably affect us.”
That was right when Margaret Thatcher first said it in 1975, and it is still right today. For Britain’s sake, we need to make that argument and to trust the people to listen to it. Most of all, we need to pass this Bill with all speed.
It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate and to support the Bill that has been introduced by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). I am pleased that he has done this. I also had the pleasure of supporting the previous Bill, introduced by the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), and of serving on that Bill’s Committee. The right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) talked about prosperity in the European Union. I hope that he will go and tell that to all the unemployed Greeks and Spaniards, and ask them if they think the EU is prosperous. The economy of the European Union, and particularly of the eurozone, is diving into a black hole at the moment.
I rise to support the Bill because I believe that people want a choice. I was an active member of a multi-party organisation called People’s Choice. Interestingly, its chair and president were both members of my party, although members of other parties were also active in it. A big majority of the British people want a referendum. In my constituency, we held a mini-referendum just before the last election on whether to have a referendum, and there was a 2:1 majority in favour of doing so. I therefore feel that I can legitimately express my view here today, as it is also the view of the majority of my constituents.
I have some experience of referendums. In the 1975 referendum, I was the chair of the Vote No campaign in Luton. Subsequently, I was the agent for the no vote in Bedfordshire. Interestingly, the agent for the yes vote was Sir Trevor Skeet, the then Conservative Member of Parliament for Bedford. Some years ago, when I met him again and reminded him of our previous encounter, he was horribly embarrassed because he had changed his view. That was an interesting conversation.
The Labour party held a special conference at that time. It was my first ever Labour party conference, and a massive majority—myself included—voted in favour of supporting a no vote in the referendum. At that conference, I saw one of the greatest pieces of oratory of my political career. It was a speech by Michael Foot, calling for a no vote. In it, he referred to Joseph Conrad’s novel “Typhoon”, saying that if someone was in a storm, they should always face into the storm to save themselves and not run away from it. Sometimes we have to do that in politics as well. I have always remembered that speech. I am often in the minority, but I remember what Michael Foot said: if you believe you are making the right point, stick with it. I have certainly taken that on board.
At that time, a great majority of Labour MPs wanted to come out of the then Common Market, but the majority of Conservative MPs wanted to stay in. There has been much reference to Labour’s support for the European Union, but even fairly recently it was the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), who kept us out of the eurozone. Had we gone into it, it would have been a complete disaster.
It has also been suggested that there have been great changes since 1975. We have certainly moved much further towards an integrated Europe, but there were early signs of where we were going. In 1979, there was a proposal to form an embryonic single currency called the European monetary system—the “snake”—but Denis Healey wisely kept us out of it. At the time, I wrote a brief for the general secretary of the union I then worked for, who then banged the drum at the TUC saying that we should not go into the snake. I like to think that I had some small influence on the Labour leadership at that time.
Now, my devout wish is to convince my Labour colleagues to support a referendum. They might not necessarily listen to my voice, but there are significant voices in and around our leadership that privately support a referendum. However, they have not won the argument inside the leadership yet. Their views are private, but I hope that my party will have acquiesced and decided to support a referendum by the time of the general election, even if it does not agree with my view on the European Union.
I understand that my hon. Friend is a passionate and insistent voice on these matters. Does he believe that the timing that has been set out in the Bill is sensible? Will it allow the people of this country to have the necessary debate with full information about what any renegotiation might involve?
Personally, I would like a referendum sooner rather than later. Most people in Britain have a pretty good idea of what the European Union is about.
We will renegotiate terms, and no doubt there will be some loose improvements in minor areas that will make no difference to our membership. A sticking point for me is that we should withdraw from the common fisheries policy. We need to restore Britain’s historic fishing waters so that we can start to restock our seas to ensure that we have fish for the long-term future. I put that case in private to a former UK representative in the European Union who immediately said that, in that case, we would have to get out of the EU because we could not possibly withdraw from the common fisheries policy. So there we are: we have a problem. If we are going to renegotiate, it should be about real things that matter.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the work that Commissioner Damanaki has done for the renegotiation of the EU fisheries policy, and of the benefit that that is bringing to small fishermen in the UK? The UK quota can now be divided up, bringing greater advantage to the under-10 metre fleets.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, although I am not yet a Privy Counsellor, and am unlikely ever to be so—but there we are.
Not just Labour voters, but leading figures in the party have historically taken the Eurosceptic view. Hugh Gaitskell, the former leader of the Labour party, opposed Britain’s membership of the Common Market, and I was pleased he did so. Subsequently, we had magnificent leaders who took the same view. My great friend the late Baroness Barbara Castle remained a strong Eurosceptic to the end of her life, as did the late Tony Benn, a great personal friend as well as a great politician. So there have been many Eurosceptic socialists—including, even, Lord Healey, the Labour Chancellor until 1979. I attended a Eurosceptic dinner in the City with figures from various parties, and that was the only time I ever met Lord Healey. So significant figures of great intellect, political judgment and commitment to democratic socialism have taken a similar view to mine.
I have not changed my view since 1975, because our relationship with the EU has become worse, rather than better. We only have to look at the economic catastrophe that is the eurozone to realise how bad it is now. We have to shake up the EU; there is nothing to be gained economically from our remaining members, but then that is a matter for the British people, as and when they have their referendum—hon. Members will guess which way I shall be voting. In previous referendums, political leaders across Europe have sought to persuade their people to vote in a particular way, and they have refused to do so—for example, the French people on the proposed constitution. The Socialist party in France supported the constitution, and it had a referendum among the party membership, which also supported the constitution; but the socialist voters voted the other way, and they lost the referendum. The same happened in Holland, and of course the EU had to withdraw the constitution and replace it with the Lisbon treaty, which was similar, but called a treaty, rather than a constitution.
We have seen others referendums—for example, in Norway and Sweden—on various aspects of the EU, and each time the political leaders have tried to drive their voters in a particular way, but they have refused to be so driven. Now, about 11% of the population in Sweden want to join the euro, and the same proportion in Norway want to join the EU. When the people are asked, they often take a view that upsets the political classes, but in the end, we are democrats and have to accept that view. Regrettably, I had to accept the 1975 view, even though the resources put into a yes vote were massive. The common market threw bucket-loads of money into a massive advertising campaign; every corner shop had a picture of Harold Wilson with his pipe and Gannex mac saying, “Vote yes”. I was part of the no campaign, and we had pathetic resources—a few bob from the trade union movement and not much else.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that already the EU, in the form of its establishment Commission, is putting huge amounts of money into supposedly educational publicity that actually promotes the EU, and that if we have a referendum, it is important that the EU not be allowed to use our money to campaign in that referendum?
Of course, the EU propaganda machine knows no bounds. We see little blue-and-yellow stickers on almost everything, saying we have had lots of money from the EU and glossing over the fact that we are massive net contributors.
More worryingly, the European Scrutiny Committee, of which I am pleased to be a member, has looked at the BBC and is seriously concerned about its bias. I am a passionate believer in the BBC and public service broadcasting, but the Committee has produced two eminent reports demonstrating the BBC’s pro-EU bias. It must be neutral in the referendum campaign. It must give an equal voice to all sides and ensure the debate is fair. We cannot just have a tiny minority of sceptics, with the enthusiast view put very strongly.
I have said it many times, but I am a lover of Europe. I go there for my holidays every year, I try to speak one or two European foreign languages, I love European culture, European literature and, above all, European people—I am a Eurocentric person in every sense—but the EU is a political organisation with a particular political view. I have spent my life campaigning for democratic socialism, and I think that the EU is not just anti-democratic, but anti-socialist, which might encourage some Conservative Members to vote for it, rather than against it. Nevertheless, I think it is actively anti-socialist, and has been so for a long time, which is why I oppose it. I want to see countries in Europe free to develop their own economies as they see fit, and if that happens to be a socialist view, or a neo-liberal free market view, so be it; the peoples of those countries should be able to choose how to govern themselves.
My view on the EU has got stronger over the years, as we have seen the disaster of the eurozone. Thank goodness my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath kept us out of the euro. Had we pinioned ourselves inside the euro, with the parity operating at the time—€1.60 to the pound—by now we would have seen a catastrophe in our economy of the likes of that in Greece or Spain, although I think we would have got out by now, perhaps because we are more sensible, and possibly other countries would have done the same. I think that the euro will eventually unravel, and when countries can adjust their currencies to appropriate parities and run their economies properly, we will see some recovery, but not before.
We have evidence of a triple-dip recession and that the eurozone is dragging down the rest of the world economy, including our own. However, we have done better than others because our currency has been able to depreciate substantially since the creation of the euro, and particularly since 2008, which has protected us from the ravages affecting the EU. If our unemployment figures were equivalent to those in Spain, we would have 7.5 million unemployed. Imagine that! I do not understand why Spain has not seen a bigger revolt. Nearly 500,000 people have left Spain to go and work in south America and elsewhere because their own country cannot sustain them. It is even worse in Ireland. It has allegedly recovered—I am pleased about that, for the Irish—but it has overcome its unemployment problem by exporting 300,000 people. The equivalent number in Britain would be 4.5 million. Imagine if our economy had failed so badly that 4.5 million Britons had to go and live abroad to get work. That would be a travesty and utterly shameful. I look forward to the time when we establish sensible economics across Europe and that sort of thing does not happen any more.
Most seriously, Germany is now in real trouble. It has long benefited from an open market for its motor cars and other manufactures and from the consequent substantial trade surplus with us and other EU member states. It has squeezed the life out of the economies of other parts of the EU, and now it cannot sell its cars any more, so it is affecting the German economy too. We need a completely different approach to organising the economies of Europe—not the EU, but Europe.
We once had a model that worked. Between 1945 and the 1970s, we had a world, designed at Bretton Woods, that actually worked. Working-class living standards rose at a rate unprecedented in modern history. We saw the creation of welfare states and growing equality. The world I grew up in was wonderful, although it could have been more socialist and more left wing, but we have gone backwards since then across the whole of Europe. It is only because of the vestiges of what was created in the immediate post-war world, sustaining people through welfare states, that the Governments of Europe are getting away with what they are getting away with. We need to see a world in which we start to recreate those things that we have lost. We need to re-establish a more sensible world in which we all have jobs, we create growing equality across Europe and indeed across the world and we have good international relations on bilateral and multilateral arrangements, without being governed by an anti-democratic, non-democratic and bureaucratic organisation called the European Commission, which runs our lives. I support the referendum, and as and when it comes, it is likely that I shall vote no. I will, however, accept the decision of the British people because I am a democrat.
Article 9 of the Bill of Rights states:
“That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.”
Believe it or not, Brussels is a place. If we have a regulation rather than a directive, the regulation automatically overrides domestic law. Because the Bill of Rights was established as part of the Glorious Revolution, which was a popular revolution, certain changes to our constitution should inherently warrant a referendum. Hence I was pleased to support the previous version of this Bill, which is the same as this version, and having a referendum on our continued membership of the EU.
A particular strength is that the Bill puts a timetable on changes. Some changes need to happen. For instance, when this was all initially brought together, nobody would have thought that we would be encouraging people to come here to sell The Big Issue, yet by selling that paper or running a nonsensical or otherwise unprofitable scrap metal deal, people qualify for tax credits and get a lot more money from them than they do from The Big Issue or whatever it may be. People migrate here to be officially poor. Nobody would ever have thought that was sensible, and that sort of thing needs to change.
Having seen the difficulties caused by the previous Labour Government’s not maintaining interim rules on migration from eastern Europe, I doubt whether anyone here would accept that if we added Turkey and Ukraine to the EU, we should add them with the same rules on freedom of movement that apply elsewhere. I do not think anyone argues for that, so changes are obviously needed in the operation of the EU.
My personal view is that if we are going to have a Common Market that is really a common market, we need systems for determining the rules. When Margaret Thatcher introduced a federal Europe by introducing qualified majority voting as a result of the Single European Act, it was in many ways a rational process because we needed a system for working out the rules. I personally support having a more democratic process through the European Parliament, but I do not support an ever-closer union, because I do not believe that is what we want. We do not want to homogenise the European area.
There are debates and problems that arise from the way in which structures have been set up. One relates to human rights, for instance. I am a supporter of civil liberties and human rights, but I think the judicial activism in the Council of Europe—a different body, of course, from the EU—has been quite problematic. The solution, however, is democracy: using the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to control the interpretation of the European Court of Human Rights. It is not just to try to find some way out of a system that, apart from in some limited circumstances—prisoner votes, for instance—worked reasonably well. There are cases where it clearly does not work, but there are ways of dealing with them.
A referendum is definitely a very good way forward because it will enable us to have that debate. UKIP has recommended being in the European economic area, but the difficulty with that is that control on membership of the EU is completely lost because members of the EU have the right to veto additional members, but members of the EEA have to live with whatever comes out of the EU. At the end of the day, if we were not in the EU, we would be part of some other structure. It is unlikely to be invented as a new exercise; it is more likely that it would be based on the EEA. I do not necessarily believe that we always have to remain within the EU, but I am inclined to support the EU and its structures, while wanting definite changes to their operation.
It is a question of buyers and sellers. Normally, selling something is a bit harder than buying it. People will sell things quite happily, but it is one thing to sell to Germans in German and another to buy them in English. There is some difficulty with the idea that our exports would simply be taken as read. I do not accept that people so want to purchase our exports that they would do exactly what we wanted. If we look at the EEA, we find that Norway contributes a lot of money to the EU through its EEA membership. The argument that not being in the EU would save us money is not necessarily a valid one. I do not take the view that suddenly everybody would bend over backwards to do exactly what we want, but that does not necessarily mean that we should go into the negotiations saying that we will swallow whatever comes out of this. The Opposition’s view that we should never stand up for anything because we might lose is not mine.
I was very pleased when the Government pulled us out of supporting the eurozone financial arrangements beyond supporting the International Monetary Fund. That was a sensible decision. In the dying days of the last Government, when Labour lost the election, they underwrote things, but doing so is actually taking on a big risk.
The hon. Gentleman mentions Norway. People make a lot of the fact that Norway collaborates substantially with the EU, but is it not more that its political classes are trying to get round the fact that they are not members of the EU by going along as far as they can with it? They have three very good reasons for not being in the EU: fishing, because they have their own fishing rights; oil, which they understandably want to keep and sell themselves; and agriculture, which they still protect for their own benefit.